Coding it Forward: Civic Digital Fellowship and Civic Innovation Corps

Civic Digital Fellowship and Civic Innovation Corps

Founded in 2017, Coding it Forward is a nonprofit for early-career technologists creating new pathways into public interest technology. Through its paid, summer fellowship programs, the Civic Digital Fellowship and Civic Innovation Corps, Coding it Forward empowers early-career technologists to innovate at the intersections of technology and public service in federal, state, and local government. 

Fellows spend the summer working in software engineering, data, design, or product management to deliver policy, improve systems, and strengthen products on behalf of the American people.

  • The Civic Digital Fellowship places Fellows in federal government agencies.
  • The Civic Innovation Corps places Fellows in state, local, and county government offices.
  • Both programs are 10 weeks long, starting in mid-June.

Hear firsthand from former Fellows how they benefited from the work

Christina Andrade | Civic Innovation Corps,
Arapahoe County - Department of Information Technology (Digital Services Team)

San José State University, Master of Science in Human Factors and Ergonomics, Class ’23

As a user research fellow, I supported the digital services team of Arapahoe County in Colorado. My role was twofold: to enable and advance the department’s future user research initiatives and to examine current customer engagement with the county’s Motor Vehicles department. As part of my future-looking work, I helped to develop a reusable user research framework and laid the groundwork for a volunteer recruitment database to ease recruitment challenges. To examine customer engagement and experiences with the Motor Vehicles department, we conducted user interviews and on-site observations. We combined those findings with insights from survey responses and Google Analytics to answer our core research questions and develop a set of user personas to guide future research and design. 

First and foremost, my fellowship was my first time serving as an expert in my field on real-world challenges. It gave me the opportunity to both grow and apply the skills and knowledge I have learned in my graduate program at San Jose State University. The fellowship’s mentorship program was also instrumental to my own personal growth and in navigating the culture and nuances unique to government spaces. Lastly, having access to a community of like-minded peers and alumni of the fellowship interested in PIT both provided and continues to provide a powerful network of knowledge- and perspective-sharing. At the end of the fellowship, getting to see the variety of different projects that my peers were working on in government agencies around the country was great exposure to the variety of ongoing PIT projects out there and a powerful reminder of the impact that technologists’ skills can have in these spaces. 

The Civic Innovation Corps gave me my first work experience tackling impactful real-life challenges in the PIT space, which is essential. As many students are painfully aware, we are often caught in a “chicken and egg” dilemma of needing to build our experience but also needing experience to access the opportunities to build said experience. Coding it Forward’s fellowship provided me with my first work experience in user research that I can leverage to gain access to future roles in PIT. Through my work this past summer, I also gained an understanding of the different constraints and limitations present in government and PIT problem spaces and was able to practice navigating those challenges through strategic relationships and resourceful planning. 

Beyond my fellowship placement and working in PIT at a county level, being a Fellow gave me exposure to a variety of perspectives and influential voices within the civic tech and PIT spheres. Through speaker events, books, and other professional development resources Coding it Forward provided, I was able to learn more about the grander landscape and trajectory of the PIT movement. 

Most importantly, resources like the network of alumni and the relationship I built with my mentor are enduring and will continue to be sources of support, knowledge-sharing, and inspiration for years to come.

If you are eligible, take advantage of amazing programs like Coding it Forward and the U.S. Digital Corps, which offer an entry point to working in public interest technology in government and provide invaluable support like mentorship, career development resources, and powerful communities/networks. Volunteer projects are also a great way to get experience with and exposure to PIT projects. Organizations like the U.S. Digital Response or Code for America Brigades offer opportunities to contribute your skills and knowledge on impactful projects, sometimes within your own community. 

 

Lastly, know that a career in public interest technology can be chapters of a larger story. I feel that sometimes students who want to make a positive impact in their society and communities may feel it is a bit daunting to choose between public interest technology and private industry, but in reality, we do not have to dedicate our entire working lives to one or the other. There is room for and value in doing both. Though there may be cultural differences between the two, the skills and lessons learned can make for a beneficial and powerful cross-pollination of experience, knowledge, and emerging ideas/techniques.

Christina_headshot
Jaxon_headshot

Jaxon Silva | Civic Digital Fellowship
Department of Health and Human Services

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Bachelor of Science, Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies, Design Studies Concentration, Class ’22

I had the immense pleasure to work on two projects as a human-centered design fellow with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) InnovationX office, alongside a ton of amazing Fellows from various other fellowships. One of these projects was a dashboard that collated the various opportunity areas, frameworks, and work being done on infection-associated chronic illnesses into a neat framework. The idea was to help federal workers get a sense of what work they can do in this space and inspire them to make progress through a rating scale. I also helped develop a crowdsourcing design challenge aimed at grades K-12 students to give them the opportunity to come up with solutions or ideas to address the needs of fellow students with kidney disease or family members who had kidney disease. I also worked with the HHS Office of the Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer to conduct a study of how AI was utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was immensely cool to work on projects that were aimed to directly make the lives of people better. And to be able to do that with some of the most talented and amazing people–both staff and Fellows– I’ve ever met. I could get up every morning and smile, knowing that the work I was doing would lead to someone else out there having a better quality of life. That’s a slam dunk in my eyes.

Cal Poly has a small but mighty army of faculty, staff, and students who are working to bring a technical education that is much more grounded in social impact (leading to things like public interest technology), but it is still a burgeoning movement. However, as someone whose major lies at the intersection of engineering and liberal arts, I have been lucky to be part of various projects that have worked to help people, whether that has been efforts to redesign engineering curriculum to include social impact, conducting special effects for a music performance that was raising money for displaced and homeless people, or investigating the “ethical tech” industry. In any case, I do believe that the spirit of utilizing technology to help others is alive and well at Cal Poly, just very decentralized. Outside of that, my experiences this summer as a Civic Digital Fellow were the first time I interacted with other PIT students from other institutions that are part of the PIT-UN.

While I had vaguely known about public interest technology work, I think this fellowship gave me the opportunity to operate in a space where I could directly do PIT work with guidance from both Coding it Forward staff and my supervisors at HHS. Also, the Civic Digital Fellowship has made me aware of and brought me into the network of firms and groups that do PIT work to continue doing this work and continue working to help others, something that I am immensely interested in continuing to do.

I will say that I think fellowships like the Civic Digital Fellowship are a great way to test the waters and learn a lot about how you feel about a career in PIT. Beyond that, I think the best career advice I’ve received is to ask myself, “What is the one thing that interests me most right now?” And pursue that interest wherever it may take me. It’s advice that led me to the Civic Digital Fellowship and a pathway that has led me to discover topics like CoDesign and Design Justice.

Shanna Kurbonshoeva | Civic Innovation Corps
Des Moines - City Manager's Office

CUNY – Baruch College, Master of Public Administration, Class ’22

Last summer, as a Civic Innovations Corps Fellow, I worked in the city manager’s office in Des Moines. In my role as a data analyst and product manager, I worked on a performance measurement initiative project. Measures like these are important for institutions to be able to make the best use of their resources. By the end of the fellowship program, together with another Fellow from Coding it Forward, we were able to organize data on performance measurement for 12 city departments, visualize the measures for some departments, and design webpages for city departments’ performance measures.

As a CIF Fellow, you get the opportunity to work for a government agency. For me, this became an exceptionally valuable experience. It can also be for future fellows who wish to pursue a career in public interest technologies. I was able to attend events about civic tech and meet leaders in the industry. The opportunity to apply what I’ve learned and hone my craft in real-time situations has been beneficial to my professional and academic development. Exposure to the industry by working directly with civic institutions is extremely valuable. Overall, being a Fellow is a treasured experience that I would not have been able to find anywhere else.

The fellowship allowed me to gain a deeper sense of where and how technology is currently being used in government agencies. I was also able to experience firsthand what challenges government agencies face while trying to implement tech solutions to civic issues. This was a very valuable experience in preparing me to pursue a career in civic tech.

Constantly developing your tech skills would be a big advantage in your career path to public interest technology. In my own academic experience in pursuing a master of public administration at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs [at Baruch College in the City University of New York], I emphasized selecting courses that would expand my technical skills. For example, I strategically chose classes such as GIS and Python for analytics, big data technologies, and others that would greatly help me to improve my technical skills. In addition to expanding your technical skills, building a strong network of people with the same passion and interest in civic tech is crucial. Another big aspect is to find a social issue that you are passionate about and think about how technology could help you to solve or improve it. I believe finding a social issue you deeply care about could motivate you to continue pursuing a career in public interest technology despite all the challenges you might face.

Shanna_headshot
Soma_headshot

Soma Badri | Civic Innovation Corps
State of New Jersey - Office of Innovation

Northeastern University Master’s, Computer Science, Class ’23

As part of the 2022 Civic Innovation Corps, I was a full stack software engineering fellow at the New Jersey Office of Innovation, where I was a member of the Business First Stop team. I worked on the Navigator, a one-stop application that allows entrepreneurs to create and maintain a business in New Jersey. I developed several features for the application while working within a scrum-based team. As a member of the team, I actively participated in scrum meetings such as story writing, design reviews, story grooming, and sprint retro meetings. The most exciting aspect of my time at the office was that my work directly provided value to the citizens of New Jersey.

Being a Fellow helped me gain confidence in my existing skill set and knowledge. It was an excellent opportunity to showcase what I learned within the classroom and in my previous experiences. Additionally, I was able to learn skills that aren’t taught in the classroom and bridge the gap between theory and practice.

My fellowship resulted in the most concrete path that can be provided. I was given the offer to continue full time as a software engineer for the New Jersey Office of Innovation. Additionally, during the summer, I had one-on-ones with several members of the office, where I learned about the various roles within civic tech and the impact their work has on the public. This led to a deeper insight into the world of civic tech and the role it plays in our society.

In my opinion, maintaining an open mind is extremely important while attempting to embark on a PIT career. There is a wide spectrum of jobs available within PIT. I believe it is vital to research the available options and find your own area of interest as you begin your career. Additionally, programs such as Coding it Forward are a great environment in which one can learn whether a career is PIT is for them or not.

Q&A with Sylvester Johnson, Faculty Fellow, Public Interest Technology University Network

Q&A with Sylvester Johnson, Faculty Fellow, Public Interest Technology University Network

Photo credit: Ray Meese

Sylvester A. Johnson is  Associate Vice Provost for Public Interest Technology and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative advancing human-centered approaches to technology at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities, which is supporting human-centered research across multiple disciplines. Sylvester’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race. He is a Professor in the Department of Religion and Culture. In addition to having co-facilitated a national working group on religion and US empire, he co-leads a project with Bill Ingram (Assistant Dean of Libraries at VT), supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to develop ethically designed, public-interest Artificial Intelligence that can benefit public knowledge institutions in an innovation-driven society.

Sylvester is the author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000 (Cambridge 2015), an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (University of California 2017) and Religion and US Empire (NYU Press 2022). He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. Sylvester is writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis. 

He currently leads “Future Humans, Human Futures” at Virginia Tech, a series of research institutes and symposia funded by the Henry Luce foundation that focus on technology, ethics, and religion. He is also directing the creation of a university-wide “Tech for Humanity” undergraduate minor, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to prepare future talent at the intersection of humanities, social justice, and technology.

Q. How has PIT-UN helped support your work in the field thus far?

I’m especially excited that the consortium provided funding for Virginia Tech to host a public interest technology summer speaker series in 2022 that successfully engaged hundreds of attendees on a digital platform and introduced them to foundational concepts and practices of PIT. This collaborative effort emerged because several PIT-UN institutions participated in creating content for the speaker series. Their topics ranged from smart cities to AI ethics to human-centered design. [LIST PARTICIPATING INSTITUTIONS]

The PIT consortium constitutes a major intervention in the effort to advance human-centered approaches and outcomes for technology and innovation. It has taken what felt disparate and ethereal in earlier stages and made it more concrete. At Virginia Tech, we launched a “Tech for Humanity” initiative in 2019 to elevate and further human-centered approaches to teaching, research, and public engagement related to technology. The following year we were accepted into PIT-UN, which immediately created a host of relationships and opportunities for collaboration with other academic institutions.

Q. How will this faculty fellow role allow the Network to achieve its immediate and future goals?

One objective of this faculty fellow role is to deepen and enhance opportunities for collaboration across the Network at a time the Network has enjoyed robust growth. Equally important is the opportunity horizon for translating PIT beyond academic domains. The consortium has achieved great success by cultivating a robust network of academic institutions that are creating new curricula (including one graduate certificate program in PIT) and new research, and are nurturing new talent at both the undergrad and graduate levels. We have invested in priming the talent pipeline pump. We now have the opportunity to build on that success to engage more directly beyond academic institutions. Governmental and civic organizations, as well as private industry, are essential to the larger ecosystem for making technology truly accountable to public interest and democratic outcomes. 

Q. What are your first priorities?

Shaping a more robust context for communicating PIT objectives and aims is a key priority. For instance, most of us have learned a lot about the power of digital platforms for communication within our own institutions during the early stages of the pandemic. So one priority will be exploring new digital media to enrich our ability for communicating and engaging across the PIT consortium. 

A second priority is supporting New America’s leadership as they activate capacity across the Network for engagement with private industry, governmental, and civic institutions.

Q. Where do you see the broader field of PIT in three years?

This is a great question. The public legibility of public interest as an urgent technology issue continues to grow from year to year. The reasons for this growing legibility are disturbing: Progress from innovations in technology has brought challenging and, at times, harmful consequences that affect our entire society. The next few years will create new opportunities for public interest technology to be implemented at a growing scale. This will add to our analysis of technology problems a greater capacity to harness and lead technology through human-centered approaches that are accountable to social justice and equity.

If we do our work well, we will see the PIT field maturing to the point of structuring new and different instruments and institutions for technology outcomes that advance justice and democracy through inclusive approaches that value diversity. I also think PIT will play a chief role in turning some critics of technology into agents for transforming and leading technology. We need more critical practitioners in multiple facets of society, and PIT will be central to this new trajectory.