December 10, 2019 | By Ben Lang
For someone interested in working at the intersection of cities and data, I didn’t find a clear pathway for either classwork or experiential learning here at Georgetown, at first. There simply is no guide for students to work in cities and data unlike the vast amount of resources on social impact at a national level.
To fill this gap, I researched these types of opportunities and interviewed expert practitioners in this field to create the basis of a resource guide for students like myself seeking to formulate a career path through data and impact in cities.
“Lead your search with causes you’re passionate about, rather than working within data itself.”
– Natalie Evans Harris
As a starting point, I visited Georgetown’s Cawley Career Center last year to better understand what to prioritize when choosing a career. They gave me good input and a helpful framework. That led to a summer internship in my hometown of Atlanta working at a nonprofit devoted to community investment, social impact, and the leadership of Downtown Atlanta.
This semester, I came to the Beeck Center, where I’m working with fellows and partners who have built their careers working in this exact area. Current fellow and former director of Enterprise Information for the City of New Orleans Denice Ross shared with me the importance of finding local leadership that values the same type of innovation as you do.
I’m also supporting fellow Natalie Evans Harris, a former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and data expert for the National Security Agency, as we finalize a guidebook on responsible data practices. Through the process, I’ve learned the importance of engaging the community and data stakeholders every step of the way to help drive impact. On a more specific level, she’s shared with me the importance of leading your search with causes you’re passionate about, rather than work within data itself.
As expected, despite my hours of research and interviewing, I did not come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Luckily, I was able to formulate a few best practices along with a basic framework of where students can enter the field at a local level.
First, because at the local level you are directly engaging with a community, it is imperative to be aware of your own internal biases. Resources like “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and “Building Technology With, Not for Communities” are just the tip of the iceberg on the necessary perspectives to keep in mind when working inside any community. To effectively provide equitable solutions, we need to fully understand why and how data work will drive impact.
Second, we should try to find opportunities in impact that fulfill our own personal values before leading with data as a whole. Drawing on the framework I learned from Cawley to formulate my career path (prioritizing your values, interests, personality, and skills), if you do not recognize and pursue opportunities that engage all four categories, what you might gain in external recognition you will likely lack in personal drive. Additionally, the Beeck Center’s own Social Impact Navigator is a great tool for self-assessment before starting a career in social impact.
With that in mind, here are three attainable ways for students and young professionals to get involved at the local level:
- Getting involved with your local Code for America Brigade
- In cities all across America, the brigades meet regularly to educate, discuss and create tools for local government and impact. Involving yourself with these opportunities allows you to network and grow on a professional and local level.
- Opportunities in city governments through data, technology, and innovation offices such as offices of CIOs, CTOs and CDOs
- These offices of government provide the foremost opportunity to manage and use data for public impact from entry-level positions all they to the top. Moreover, outside of data offices, one can take advantage of data in many departments of local government like sustainability, transportation, and education.
- Careers at nonprofits and foundations like Downtown Improvement Districts (DID) and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP)
- Every city has different types of nonprofits, but most cities have organizations committed to data-driven approaches for government efficiency, community investment or simply data for the greater good. DID’s are tax-funded organizations that provide economic development and other services to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. The International Downtown Association(linked above) is a national organization that helps organize these DIDs. The NNIP is another example of local nonprofits working to use data for the common good.
Working with local data gives people the opportunity to think creatively about new solutions without suffering from as many bureaucratic issues at the national or even state level. One can look to examples from Broward County and New Orleans to see the fantastic innovation done at the local level. This research provides a brief introduction to the important and extensive opportunities for students and professionals to engage with data at a local level and drive impact.
In the future, I look forward to pursuing opportunities in my hometown to help Atlanta run as effectively, equitably, and efficiently as possible. For me, this means actively searching for roles that balance data and service. While I cannot say specifically what this will lead to, I can already see a more defined framework of paths to follow as I go into my final three semesters at Georgetown and begin the job hunt.