Launa Greer
Launa Greer, MSCAPP Class of 2021

Last summer, amid a global pandemic and from their own homes, two students in the University of Chicago’s MS in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) program rolled up their sleeves and got to work helping federal agencies better leverage data and technology. 

Eric Son and Launa Greer (both MSCAPP class of 2021) participated in the 10-week Civic Digital Fellowship, which promotes itself as a “first-of-its-kind internship for mission-driven, student software engineers, data scientists, product managers, and designers to innovate at the intersection of technology and public service.” Although neither had previous experience working in government, each recognized this as a unique opportunity to put their hard-earned computer science and data science skills gained through their first year in the MSCAPP program to the test.

Eric was matched with the Office of Research Facilities within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He was tasked with helping them make better use of the 45 million data points collected per day from the NIH Central Utility Plant, which is one of the largest utility plants (and lowest emission cogeneration plants) in the country. Helping NIH streamline data entry, processing, and reporting could have a significant impact on the plant’s $65 million of annual energy usage.

Eric Son
Eric Son, MSCAPP Class of 2021

Throughout the summer, Eric worked to build a web application for mechanical engineers and NIH leadership to visualize utility data and simplify the analytics pipeline. By conducting interviews with, and soliciting feedback from, potential users, he was able to build a solution that made data more accessible, transparent, and easier to use.

Launa was matched with the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She was tasked with helping them streamline the platform used by asylum officers to process applications for those seeking asylum in the United States. This critical, life-altering service has historically been facilitated through an inefficient paper-driven process. 

Throughout the summer, Launa worked with a team of experienced engineers to update the platform and make it more accessible to different types of users. She also had the opportunity to build out new forms and functionality within the application to ensure an efficient and secure application process.  “The Civic Digital Fellowship was a truly unique and valuable network to learn what civic tech is from people who are leading the way,” she said.

For both students, there also were multiple weekly opportunities to hear from people who had served in federal, state, and local technology leadership roles—as well as people in the nonprofit and private sector who are approaching civic tech from different angles. 

Being part of the fellowship allowed these students to put the strong technical foundation from their first year in MSCAPP to use and helped them shape their plans and curriculum choices in their second year. Even though the 2020 fellows were not physically co-located, they created and maintained a network and community of like-minded people working together towards a common goal that will carry on past the summer.