The Times-Tribune

Students hacking in effort to solve world’s problems


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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