In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the great tragedy and uncertainly of a global pandemic, I applied to participate in TechCongress. I was one of six technologists honored with the opportunity to serve in the US Congress for the 2021 year as a Congressional Innovation Fellow. Experiencing up-close-and-personal the many challenges and opportunities of developing tech policy in the US Senate has been an extraordinary experience, and the (still growing) TechCongress community continues to inspire me. Read more about what inspired me to work in Congress.
Technology touches virtually all areas of life and every issue before Congress. TechCongress gives talented technologists the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in federal policymaking and shape the future of tech policy through our fellowships with Members of Congress and Congressional Committees.
Since I started the fellowship in January 2021, I’ve had people reach out to me interested in applying to the program. While I am only one person from a diverse cohort of Fellows, I thought it might be helpful to share what I wrote in my application for future aspiring Congressional Innovation Fellows and more. If you’re interested in applying to TechCongress, I highly recommend checking out the fantastic resources and information sessions hosted by the fellowship selection team.
What follows are the unfiltered answers from my application to the 2021 Congressional Innovation Fellowship. Looking back, there are some things I would probably do differently (I’d never written a memo before in my life)! Many of these answers may be out-of-date regarding both my current skills and goals as well as the TechCongress Fellowship’s application questions, but I hope they might be useful as a reference.
Application to the 2021 TechCongress Congressional Innovation Fellowship
Show off your skills! You can add up to three website links including LinkedIn, GitHub, a portfolio website, or anything else that showcases your abilities.
Please list or describe your technical skills and any relevant training
IBM Certified Watson Application Developer, Certified Design Thinking Facilitator, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) subject matter expert, Public Education, Community Building, Cybersecurity, Public Speaking, Leadership, Project Management.
I am a dabbler in a variety of programming languages, but find myself doing more high level project management and strategy work.
Name three Members of Congress you think you might like to work for
Lloyd Doggett, Joaquin Castro, Elizabeth Warren
Rapid changes in technology have created a number of challenges for Congress. You are working in a Senator’s office and have been asked to write a memo about a technology policy issue. Remarkably, the issue you’ve been asked to write about is an issue that you have experience with, but in which the Senator and his or her staff have very little expertise. (You can also pick an issue that you may have less experience with but that you find interesting and think is important for Congress.) Describe 1) the nature of the problem, and its significance (while taking care to explain any complex technical concepts) and 2) your solution and recommended course of action to advance your solution
Facial Recognition research threatens US foreign policy interests in China and elsewhere
Facial Recognition software is a technology that enables automated identification and categorization of people based on visually apparent features like phenotype or individual unique digital “face prints.” Facial recognition is a rapidly advancing technology despite requiring large amounts of facial image data to produce and poor performance on some populations (such as women and people with darker skin). It is a field that has drawn a lot of attention and research investment including by our military.
The most common application of facial recognition software is for surveillance. In China, this technology has been deployed to commit human rights abuses against Uyghur muslim ethnic minority in the western Xinjiang region where hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to be held in detention camps and many more are tracked with intrusive surveillance.
US research funding—including from military branches such as the Air Force and Navy—has been connected to research collaborations with Chinese state-sponsored companies implicated in human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. The links to abuse in China are increasingly well-documented, so in the last two years, restrictive actions have been taken including additions to the US Dept of Commerce Entity List for known specific actors, but facial recognition research investments continue to pose a foreign policy threat.
Additionally, connections between US-funded facial recognition research and oppressive regimes elsewhere remain poorly understood and present both a foreign policy risk and strategic misallocation of resources.
1) INVESTIGATE the connections between foreign (state and non-state) research partnerships and US government funding in surveillance technologies such as facial recognition to identify additional sources of conflict.
2) MANDATE risk assessment statement in all government-funded research that acknowledges both misuse and failure modes as potential dangers.
3) RECOMMEND a halt to government-funded facial recognition research due to the strategic risks it presents.
Explain your reasons for wanting to be a Congressional Innovation Fellow. How will the fellowship 1) improve your capacity to effect change and 2) fit with your career plans?
So far in my career, I’ve worked in literal garage startups and massive multinational corporations, in academic environments and in nonprofits. All of this experience has reaffirmed to me that it is essential to the well-being of our country and our planet that our government have both the expertise and the capacity for tech-informed leadership. I don’t want to sit by the sidelines and wish that our government was better equipped to address the fast-moving issues that technology sparks. I want to be part of the solution.
I want to better understand the realities that congresspeople face and the opportunities to affect change on issues that are important to me: health & disability justice, security & privacy, shared prosperity, and our environment. I know that firsthand experience working in government will help me drive positive change and inform my decision on where my abilities can do the most good.
Tell us about your qualifications for the Congressional Innovation Fellowship. Think about highlighting how your strengths and experience — including technical knowledge and skills — will help you to succeed in the program and in Congress.
I work as a program lead in a multistakeholder nonprofit with many of the biggest names in tech, academia, and civil society. My specialty is translating between contexts and facilitating important conversations across philosophical and professional divides. My research specifically centers on the impacts of technology on society including issues like automation & employment and how artificial intelligence (AI) may present risks including making it easy to create and spread misinformation.
I bring to this work my experience working at IBM in the AI implementations division, where I advised international corporate and government leaders on the impacts of technology. There, I also founded and led an educational group, upskilling >40 colleagues (designers to data scientists) on deep learning technology.
A community-builder at heart, I’m eager to contribute my skills to the civic leadership of this country and look forward to facilitating new connections between government and the communities we serve.