MIT Policy Hackathon Produces New Solutions to Technology Policy Challenges | MIT News

Almost three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world. Many are still looking to discover a “new normal.”

“Instead of going back to normal, [there’s a new generation that] he wants to rebuild something different, something better,” says Jorge Sandoval, a second-year graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “How do we communicate this mindset to others, that the world can’t be the same as before?”

This was the inspiration behind “A New (Re)Generation,” the theme of this year’s IDSS student-led MIT Policy Hackathon, which Sandoval helped organize as event chair. Policy Hackathon is a weekend-long, interdisciplinary competition that brings together participants from around the world to explore possible solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges.

Unlike other competitions of this type, Sandoval says the MIT event emphasizes a humanistic approach. “The idea of ​​our hackathon is to promote technology applications that are humanistic or human-centered,” he says. “We took the opportunity to examine aspects of technology in spaces where they tend to interact with society and people, an opportunity that most technical competitions don’t offer because their primary focus is technology.”

The competition began with 50 teams spread across four challenge categories. This year’s categories included Internet and Cybersecurity, Environmental Justice, Logistics, and Housing and Urbanism. While some people take on the challenge with friends, Sandoval said most teams form organically during an online networking meeting hosted by MIT.

“We encourage people to unite with other people outside of their country and form teams of different backgrounds and ages,” Sandoval says. “We try to give people who are not often invited to the decision-making table the opportunity to be policymakers, bringing in people with experience not only in law, politics or politics, but also in medicine, and people with engineering careers. or experience working in nonprofit organizations.”

Once an in-person event, Policy Hackathon has gone through its own regeneration process over the past three years, according to Sandoval. After going completely online during the height of the pandemic, last year they successfully hosted the first hybrid version of the event, which served as a model again this year.

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“The hybrid version of the event gives us the opportunity to allow people to connect in a way that is lost if it is online only, while maintaining the wide range of accessibility, allowing people to join from anywhere in the world, regardless of your nationality. or income, to provide their contribution”, says Sandoval.

For Swetha Tadisina, an undergraduate student in computer science at Lafayette College and a participant in the Internet and Cybersecurity category, the hackathon was a unique opportunity to meet and work with people much further along in their careers. “I was amazed at how such a diverse team that had never met before was able to work so efficiently and creatively,” says Tadisina.

Erika Spangler, a Massachusetts public high school teacher and member of the environmental justice category-winning team, says that while each member of the “Slime Mold Team” came to the table with a different set of skills, they managed to be in sync from the beginning. start, even working with the nine and a half hour time difference the four-person team faced when working with policy advocate Shruti Nandy from Kolkata, India.

“We split the project into data, policy, and research and rely on each other’s expertise,” says Spangler, “despite having separate focus areas, we make sure we have regular check-ins to resolve issues and pollinate ideas.”

During the 48-hour period, his team proposed creating an algorithm to identify high-quality vacant land that could be cleaned up and used as sites to generate renewable energy. His corresponding policy sought to place additional requirements on renewable energy companies seeking Inflation Reduction Act tax credits.

“His policy memo had the most in-depth technical assessment, including deep dives into a few key cities to show the impact of his proposed approach to site selection at a very granular level,” says Amanda Levin, Natural’s director of policy analysis. . Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Levin served as a judge and challenge provider for the environmental justice category.

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“They also presented their policy recommendations in the memo in a well-thought-out way, clearly pointing out the relevant actor,” he adds. This clarity about what can be done and who would be responsible for those actions is invaluable to those in politics.”

Levin says that the NRDC, one of the largest environmental nonprofit organizations in the United States, provided five “challenge questions,” making it clear that teams didn’t need to address them all. She notes that this gave the teams significant leeway, bringing a wide variety of recommendations to the table.

“As a challenge partner, the work done by all the teams is already being used to help inform discussions around the implementation of the Reducing Inflation Act,” says Levin. “Being able to tap into the collective intelligence of the hackathon helped uncover new perspectives and policy solutions that can help make an impact in addressing the important policy challenges we face today.”

While having partners with backgrounds in data science and policy definitely helped, Sara Sheffels, a member of the Slime Mold team and a PhD candidate in MIT’s biomaterials program, says she was struck by the relevance of her experiences outside of science and policies for the challenge: “My experience organizing the MIT Graduate Student Union shaped my ideas about more meaningful community involvement in brownfield renewable energy projects. There is no point in simply educating people on the importance of renewable energy or asking them to sign on to a pre-planned project without addressing their other needs.”

“I wanted to test my limits, gain exposure and expand my world,” adds Tadisina. “The exposure, the friendships and the experiences you get in such a short amount of time are incredible.”

For Willy R. Vasquez, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, the hackathon is not to be missed. “If he’s interested in the intersection of technology, society and politics, then this is an experience he must do.”

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