Stu­dents hack­ing in ef­fort to solve world’s prob­lems

The Times-Tribune - - Obituaries / Nation - BY TRACEY LIEN

SAN FRAN­CISCO — They’re some of the bright­est stu­dents in the countr — 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 Ms. Jos­eff ’s case, de­sign­ing a plat­form for a co­or­di­nated re­sponse to the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis.

Like many stu­dents, Ms. 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, Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 tech­savvy and in­no­va­tive streak will rub off on gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

“Peo­ple are ob­sessed with hacks and hackathons, and they think they can solve these is­sues with tech­nol­ogy. But we learned that the hu­man el­e­ment is still needed.” Katie Jos­eff Hack­ing 4 Diplo­macy stu­dent

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