Towards a Deliberate Practice of Public Interest Tech

Blog Post
Dec. 17, 2018

Denice Ross reflects on her Public Interest Technology fellowship and her recently published report, Networks and American Renewal: An Interactive Map and Collection of Articles on Connectivity Across American Communities.

After nearly twenty years in the field, I’ve learned that if public interest tech doesn’t start out personal, it eventually becomes so. After Hurricane Katrina, as I negotiated with Louisiana state government for access to their childcare database, I was also patching together itinerant care for my own children, since 80% of childcare centers in New Orleans were shuttered. As we compiled data to support the various community planning processes, an illegally placed fast food restaurant popped up across the street from our home. And, while my organization was trying to figure out the storm’s final death tally, I read in the New York Times that our pediatrician had died by his own hand; I had to wonder, should suicide three months later count in that tally?

At the time, I was co-director for The Data Center, a local New Orleans nonprofit data intermediary, with a mission to democratize data for use by nonprofits and community-based organizations (and one of 27 members of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, NNIP). Five years after Katrina, we were still publishing data about the region’s recovery from the storm. My husband, however, was deploying to Afghanistan and I needed a challenge so big it could keep me from worrying about him. So, I took a role inside City Hall.

On a good day, their IT systems were best described as “pathologically complex.”

Mayor Landrieu had just taken office, and the city was still reeling from post-Katrina staff turnover and scandals. On a good day, their IT systems were best described as “pathologically complex.” My challenge as Director of Enterprise Information was certainly big enough. Whenever my team felt as if we were in over our heads, we’d connect with something larger than ourselves. The Code for America Fellowship (a network of cities hosting fellows to bring a lean startup approach to local government) helped us build BlightStatus, a tool that proved vital to reducing the city’s crushing number of dilapidated properties. The Rockefeller Foundation used New Orleans to kick off their 100 Resilient Cities network. And the White House turned to us as leaders in communities using data to prepare for climate change.

I caught the bug for scale and impact, and moved to D.C. to join the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, where Clarence Wardell and I co-founded the Police Data Initiative in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and the resulting protests in Ferguson.

During my tenure at the White House, we recruited more than 100 police chiefs to take the uncharted step of commiting to data transparency. Clarence and I felt personally responsible for making sure they had the skills and resources to deliver for their communities. The urgency of our work was underscored by the steady cadence of police violence against black Americans like Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. During these times of crisis and opportunity, I was grateful to have a way to use my tech skills to serve the public interest.

But, I was also left with so many unanswered questions about how to be more effective and equity-focused.

My work often felt more like a combination of brute force, intuition, and luck than any sort of deliberate practice.

When I left the administration, I proposed a project for New America’s Public Interest Technology Fellowship where I’d dive more deeply into the phenomenon of networked places tackling big challenges–networks like NNIP, Code for America, 100 Resilient Cities, and the Police Data Initiative, all of whom I had already seen make big impacts on both a national and local scale. With these in mind, I wanted to answer the central question: How do we best design effective networks of places to take on problems that each place would otherwise face alone?

In service of this question, my colleague Tara McGuinness and I interviewed 25 place-based network leaders to understand what practices they’ve found to be effective, and the problems they’ve encountered building and maintaining their networks. We created an interactive map of these networks, comprising nearly 2,000 connections to more than 270 metro/micropolitan areas to see the patterns of connectedness and the places left behind.

We gathered many tactical lessons on designing effective networks, from how to keep places connected (spoiler: nearly everyone tried a Slack channel and it failed), to how to design commitments for maximum follow-through. I am grateful to all the project partners that helped along the way, such as the Big Jump Project, who taught me the power of timeboxing a network from the beginning, and Built for Zero, who highlighted the progress that can be made when a network shares an audacious real-world outcome (in their case, eliminating homelessness). Urban Sustainability Directors Network taught me about the payoff to local communities when the network is staffed with community managers, Alliance for Innovation about the ingenuity that surfaces when you look beyond the big cities, and C40 about the effectiveness of dividing a large network into smaller pods based on city characteristics and priorities.

Partnering with New America’s CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, a network theoretician who literally wrote the book on the subject, we were able to tie our more practical experience and new data to a body of research, and build a strategic framework for all of the design choices that go into building a network.

The most important thing about designing a network is to be intentional about that design.

Our findings made sense. The most important thing about designing a network is to be intentional about that design. How large is the network? How do members interact with each other and the network hub? How can participating in a network inspire and embolden local innovators? What kind of cohort will lead to the best outcomes?

I applied my new understanding of network design to advising Jeremiah Lindemann’s Opioid Mapping Initiative, the Police Data Initiative’s new Hate Crime Challenge, and other nascent networks like the Lead (Pb) Data Initiative, as well as engaging more deeply with philanthropies investing in networks.

Thanks to my time as a Public Interest Tech Fellow, I’m now much better prepared for the next challenge, even when--or rather, especially when--the stakes are high, the urgency pressing, and the issue personal. At those times, being purposeful and systematic is more necessary than ever.