Hacking the government to try to solve the world’s problems

[In this LA Times article students from Stanford try to combine technology and Human-Centered Design. The students are enrolled in courses that require them to “hack” national problems from the Defense or State Departments. I work with teams of high school students around real world problems that are part of the Energy Innovation Center or the Parkway West Career and Technology Center in Pittsburgh. Students are creative thinkers, but often their first ideas do not work or do not fit the situation. It’s vital to use a human-centered design approach to test an idea against an end-user’s needs.]

Steven Weinstein, center, an instructor of a class called Hacking 4 Diplomacy at Stanford University, helps students from a variety of fields come up with strategies to solve real-world problems. (David Butow / For The Times)

Steven Weinstein, center, an instructor of a class called Hacking 4 Diplomacy at Stanford University, helps students from a variety of fields come up with strategies to solve real-world problems. (David Butow / For The Times)

By Tracey Lien, December 9, 2016

They’re some of the brightest students in the country — a group of wunderkinds known for hacking their way through any problem thrown at them. So what could possibly stump a Stanford University student?

Government bureaucracy, it seems.

In a lecture hall nestled in Stanford’s Environment and Energy building, dozens of engineering, science and arts students were put through the bureaucratic wringer this year when they took Hacking 4 Defense and Hacking 4 Diplomacy.

The courses — taken for credit and taught by Stanford instructors — let teams of students choose from a list of real problems plaguing the government, paired them with sponsors from the Defense or State departments, and tasked them with not just finding a solution, but coming up with a viable product that the government would actually use.

“It was really humbling,” said Katie Joseff, 21, a human biology major who took Hacking 4 Diplomacy this fall. “My team had to make lots of pivots because over and over again our assumptions just weren’t correct. We had to first break through the bubble of Stanford, then Silicon Valley, then California, then the U.S.”

The problems included  finding ways to track objects in orbit to prevent space collisions, developing tools to assess the effectiveness of peacekeeping forces, and in Joseff’s case, designing a platform for a coordinated response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Like many students, Joseff went in thinking there would be an easy technological fix: Perhaps an app that would enable nongovernmental organizations to communicate with refugees, or a platform on which NGOs could share information with each other, or another app through which refugees could send feedback to NGOs.

But after interviewing more than 100 people in the sector, she realized that apps aren’t the answer to everything. In fact, some 200 apps had already been developed to help with the refugee crisis, and only two of them were in use.

With each interview, Joseff’s team learned that many NGOs already had ways of reaching refugees — they didn’t need another app. They also learned that NGOs are reluctant to share information on a platform because so much of their data is sensitive. And if refugees had a way of sending NGOs feedback, who exactly would that information go to? Was there even enough personnel to handle the information?

“People are obsessed with hacks and hackathons, and they think they can solve these issues with technology,” Joseff said. “But we learned that the human element is still needed.”

The classes come at a time when Washington is trying to forge deeper connections with Silicon Valley, with the hope that the region’s tech-savvy and innovative streak will rub off on government agencies.

The Department of Defense opened its Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View — Google’s stomping ground — last August. The State Department created the role of ambassador to Silicon Valley this year and appointed the director of its Strategy Lab, Zvika Krieger, to the post (Krieger teaches Hacking 4 Diplomacy alongside Stanford professors). The Department of Homeland Security last week held a meeting with local tech start-ups to offer funding to companies developing technologies that the department can use. And earlier this year the Obama administration invited representatives from Silicon Valley’s top firms to Washington to brainstorm ways to fight the militant group Islamic State online.

“So much of what we’re doing is at the intersection of policy and technology,” said Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who visited the Hacking 4 Diplomacy class in November. “At the same time, many of us don’t have the background and expertise when it comes to tech. We need technologists and innovators in the room just to tell us whether we need technologists and innovators in the room.”

Stanford University has a reputation for being a breeding ground for technological innovators, counting among its alumni founders and executives of Google, Yahoo, PayPal, Netflix, LinkedIn and Instagram. Long synonymous with Silicon Valley, the university is often the first stop for tech firms looking for engineering talent — and the place where hot companies such as Snapchat got their start.

Class instructors admit there was some trepidation over how Hacking 4 Defense and Hacking 4 Diplomacy might be received by students, given the school’s history as a hub for private-sector tech, and the general distrust between Silicon Valley and the federal government. Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and the high-stakes encryption fight between the FBI and Apple have heightened longstanding tensions between two vastly different cultures, which both believe they know what’s better for the world.

But they were surprised to learn that, far from being cynical, students were drawn to the opportunity to solve some of the toughest problems facing the country and the world.

Over 10 weeks, students in each class wrapped their heads around the bureaucratic workings of the Defense or State departments, interviewed at least 10 stakeholders a week, and learned the Lean LaunchPad method — an approach to start-ups and entrepreneurship that helps company founders identify markets for their products. For many, it was the first time they’d used the skills learned in school to tackle real-world problems. And nearly all butted up against challenges that technology alone couldn’t fix, and were forced to throw out their ideas again and again.

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