Tech Innovation, Presidentially Speaking

By Ashley N. Kolaya

INVITATIONS BEARING the White House Seal found their way to several NYU Wagner in-boxes last week. The illustrious occasion? At this time of year, you might be tempted to think: campaign event, fund-raising gala, or perhaps more likely since graduate students made the invite list, a grassroots small donor initiative. In fact, the White House partnered with 92Y Tribeca to host an open house discussion on several of President Obama’s key technology and innovation initiatives.

The Sept. 28 event began with Todd Park, US Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President energetically taking the stage to introduce the newly launched Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. “I’m gonna give you a quick run-down of why you’re here; then, I’m going to put you to work.” And, Todd Park is a man of his word.

The aim of the Presidential Fellows program is to give government a bit more of an edge in the realm of science and technology policy. Think: an image that revolves around fewer dull, difficult-to-manage Kafkaesque documents, phone numbers, and websites that drag you from one wrong government office to the next. Instead, imagine a more innovative, user-friendly, well-branded enterprise (no, not Google) that answers today’s toughest policy questions with creative design and implementation strategies.

As Park puts it, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program aims to connect top technology innovators from outside the government sector with top policy shapers inside the US government to “create real and substantial changes that will in a very short time frame benefit the American people, save taxpayers money, and help create new jobs.” Fellows embark on a six-month “tour of duty,” during which they work to develop a “game-changing” response to policy concerns set forth by the administration. “That’s why you’re here,” said Park, “to help us change the game.”

Participants were introduced to the five “game-changing projects” currently under consideration by the Presidential Fellows and asked to weigh in, both with questions and with their own ideas. Issues ranged from open government data sharing to the implementation of electronic medical records technology to mobile money transferring for the developing world. On each topic, a White House representative presented the project goal, then turned the floor over to an audience full of idea-hungry and inquisitive listeners. Some were tech start-up owners; others represented the health care, international development, and academic fields; still others were graduate students interested in the new path to innovation being laid before them.

An appreciative White House team rabidly took down notes, offered contact information, and thanked participants for their great ideas. “This is why we’re here,” said Todd Park, “because we want to turn the best ideas into policy that affects positive change. And, you are the ones that have the best ideas.”

Wagner Students Take the Fels Public Policy Challenge

The Wagner Town Hall on March 29 marked the beginning of a new tradition for NYU Wagner: the Public Policy Challenge. The Challenge, conceived and hosted by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, is a real-world competition to create the most exciting and promising civic campaign.  Teams of students compete over the course of the spring semester to develop a policy proposal to address an issue of public importance.  Teams are required to determine not only what ought to be done to improve a situation, but how to make it happen.

This year, for the first time, Fels invited select public service graduate schools to join them in the National Public Policy Challenge Competition, which will be held on April 22.

Three teams of Wagner students are involved: The New York Community Colleges Student Success Initiative have come up with a way to improve student outcomes at CUNY’s seven community colleges by increasing institutional transparency and fostering accountability; Reinventing the SRO  has proposed a policy change to expand the supply of affordable housing in New York City by legalizing the development of new Single Room Occupancy buildings; and Kinvolved has formulated a plan to increase student attendance and achievement in school by facilitating communication and information-sharing with families.

At the Wagner Town Hall, all three teams gave outstanding presentations and fielded questions from a panel of judges including Annette Diefenthaler, Senior Design Researcher and Project Lead at IDEO; Gara LaMarche, Senior Fellow at NYU Wagner; and Joanne Witty, Director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation. The broader Wagner community also provided feedback through score sheets distributed to the audience.

On April 2, Wagner Dean Ellen Schall proudly announced via email to students that that the Kinvolved team—Miriam Altman, Barrie Charney Golden and Alexandra Meis—will represent NYU Wagner at the National Public Policy Challenge Competition. The team will compete against those from Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, the Harris School at the University of Chicago, the Evans School at the University of Washington, and Fels for a $15,000 grand prize, to be awarded as early as the April 22   at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

To learn more about the annual Fels Public Policy Challenge, please visit