Tech + Technique

December 5, 2019  • Institute Staff

Ora Tanner, an educational technology researcher and a parent in Florida, believes that a new database in her state that collects information on students in order to prevent school shootings goes too far. Tanner testified this summer before the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that “technical, ethical, safety, privacy, data governance, and bias issues must first be addressed” if the new Florida Schools Safety Portal is to succeed. But she didn’t just press government officials to do better: she brought them an operational plan to show them exactly how they could.

Tanner is one of 15 fellows in the inaugural Aspen Tech Policy Hub cohort, a new initiative of the Aspen Institute and the first to be based full-time in the San Francisco Bay Area. The hub is a policy incubator that takes technology experts—engineers, start-up founders, academics—and during a paid in-residence fellowship teaches them the process of making and passing policy. The hub’s impressive first class, which wrapped in September, included the founding director of a innovation policy lab at the University of California, Berkeley; the co-founder and chief technology officer of PrivateCore, a security start-up; and the author of Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work.

Members first participated in an intense three-week boot camp in which they took a practical dive into the hows and whys of policymaking. The boot camp featured lectures on the policy process—defining policy problems and building advocacy plans—accompanied by real-world exercises. The fellows honed their skills by writing policy memos on how to prevent deep fakes for the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. They explored how to improve security for road races through a 48-hour exercise with the city of San Francisco. Over the course of the fellowship, they met with over 80 speakers on policy, including former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and former White House executive Tom Kalil.

After the boot camp, hub leaders gave fellows free rein to develop their own policy projects in a four- to six-week design sprint. The fellows followed two guidelines: make it legal, and make it practical.

Some of the fellows created tools to help improve the policymaking process. Sean Ahrens, a start-up founder who created Crohnology, a patient-to-patient information-sharing network for people with Crohn’s disease, spent the fellowship prototyping DemDoc, a Google Docs–like platform for the democratic development of policy documents. Intended for use by collaborative bodies like cooperatives and local government councils, DemDoc allows participants to collectively craft documents by not just suggesting changes but voting on improvements. Only the winning sentences appear in the final document.

Others are taking their work local. Steven Buccini is seeking to reduce vulnerabilities in the election systems in his home state of North Carolina. Buccini, a software engineer who ran for the state House of Representatives in 2018, wrote that at the hub he was “surprised to learn just how easy it was to interact with government institutions on issues I am passionate about.” He was “even more surprised when my ideas led to concrete policy change, like when my hometown switched from 15-year-old electronic voting machines to hand-marked paper ballots.”

For Ginny Fahs, a software engineer and the executive director of #MovingForward, an open-source directory to address harassment and discrimination in the field of venture capital, helping vulnerable populations online was a top priority. Fahs and a team of fellows developed tools to assist senior citizens in reporting online scams to which they fall victim, and she tested a prototype of a new reporting form with local seniors groups.

As the hub prepares to welcome the next group of fellows in January, director Betsy Cooper, who founded and brought the hub to the Institute, sees tremendous potential for innovating the future of policy. “It’s clear that we need new ideas that can drive improvements in our society in the wake of immense technological change,” she says. “We’re training a new generation of engaged technologists and giving them the practical skills they need to make a difference.”

For fellows like Ora Tanner, the hub’s training program is already having an impact—on her career plans going forward. “As a result of the skills I developed during the hub fellowship,” she says, “I have been able to effectively advocate for change related to bias in technological schoolsafety systems. Because I experienced firsthand how I can make a difference in people’s lives—particularly students’ lives, I have now decided to pursue a career path in technology policy.”