Some of the nation’s most intelligent students, who are known for hacking their way through any blockade in their way have met their match in the form of government bureaucracy.
In Stanford’s Environment and Energy building, some engineering, science, and arts students were put to the test this year while they partook in Hacking 4 Defense and Hacking 4 Diplomacy, which are courses that are taken for credit and taught for instructors. The courses allow teams of students to choose from a list of real problems that are plaguing the government and gives the the task of finding a solution, while also coming up with a product model that the government could and would use. Additionally, teams are paired with sponsors from the Defense or State Department.
Human biology major Katie Joseff, 21, shared about the experience in taking Hacking 4 Diplomacy, as the Los Angeles Times notes.
“It was really humbling. 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.”
As the publication shares, tasks include determining ways to track objects that are in orbit, for the purpose of preventing collisions in space, also creating tools to analyze the effects peacekeeping forces have and in the case of Joseff, creating a platform meant to appropriately respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Joseff began the course with the belief and thinking that there was an easy fix technologically speaking. The prevalent thought was that an app which could enable nongovernmental organizations to interact with refugees or a separate platform on which NGO could share details and information, and one which would allow refugees to send their feedback to the organization, were possible solutions that could be of use.
However, after conducting interviews with over 100 people in the sector, Joseff became aware of the fact that apps are not always the best solution. She discovered that there are already 200 or so apps already developed for the refugee crisis, of which only two are in use.
A big issue with such apps is the privacy factor, as refugees giving feedback would not likely want their words to be compromised by a party they did not intend it for.
“People are obsessed with hacks and hackathons, and they think they can solve these issues with technology,” Joseff said. “But we learned that the human element is still needed.”
Such courses have cropped up and been included at a time that the government is attempting to create better connections with tech-savvy regions such as Silicon Valley in hopes that innovation will have an effect on government agencies and thereby develop better and more secure ways when communicating.
It is evident that this is the case as The Department of Defense has opened a Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View, which is Google’s main territory. The State Department also created a role of ambassador to Silicon Valley this past year and made the director of its Strategy Zvika Krieger, who teaches Hacking 4 Diplomacy along with Stanford professors.
Homeland Security also recently had a meeting with local tech startups offering funding to companies that are developing technologies and can be of use to the department. The Obama administration also invited representatives from Silicon Valley to Washington to generate ideas for fighting Islamic State militant group on the web.
“So much of what we’re doing is at the intersection of policy and technology,” said Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who visited the Hacking 4 Diplomacy class in November.
“At the same time, many of us don’t have the background and expertise when it comes to tech. We need technologists and innovators in the room just to tell us whether we need technologists and innovators in the room.”