#Developer: Reimagine Communities 2018 – The Full Retrospective

#Developer: Reimagine Communities 2018 – The Full Retrospective

I recently visited Capital One’s Conference Center in Plano to attend the Reimagine Communities symposium on the topic of Harnessing Technology to Increase Access to Opportunity.

If you missed my last post with an overview of the symposium, you can check it out here. In this post, I’ll go into a bit more detail about the sessions I attended and some of the conversations that came out of them.

The Opening Session

Sanjiv Yajnik (Capital One)

Even before the symposium started, my mother had been sending me tweets from Sanjiv Yajnik, President of Capital One’s Financial Services Division. He was the opening speaker for the event and based on his social media presence, he seems like a great person to grab coffee with and talk about leadership style.

He opened the symposium by talking about different technological revolutions, starting with the Industrial Revolution. Yajnik pointedly (but gently) talked about those who were afraid that machines would take their jobs, who tried to destroy the machines, who refused to adapt to the changing landscape. Rather than fear machines, he addressed the importance of people bringing their unique skills to the table to make machines better and ultimately help the community development.

And when it comes to community, Yajnik believes the whole community needs to be involved in economic development.

“Vibrant communities don’t just happen, they need everyone to be in the game… We have the privilege to be in a position where we can step forward and take action”

In listening to Yajnik talk, it occurred to me that as a tech community we are seeing the development and articulation of the “business reasons” for investing in community access to technology and encouragement of innovation. This could be an incredible turning point for nonprofits and people hoping for companies to be more engaged in the public sector because it changes the conversation that CxOs are having to “We need to invest in the community so that we can help our region succeed which will also have a positive impact on our business.” Everyone wins.

Finally, in his closing, Yajnik said something that struck a chord both with me personally and something that I heard mentioned again and again at the SxSW talks this year:

“The coding I used to do as an engineer… and what we do today is completely different. Today it doesn’t require an engineering degree, or quite frankly any degree… there are plenty of opportunities to go down that path… the real thing that will make the difference is the creativity… People will discover that they need to learn the coding piece, but it’s not insurmountable, anyone can do it… the creativity part is what will separate them from the rest

While our tools are technical tools are becoming simpler to use, creativity holds an elusive property that can’t be programmed (at least not yet). Though platforms are continually being developed and marketed as tools to “replace coding” we will still need people who understand the mechanisms behind programming to make sure those platforms are secure and innovative.

Panel Discussion

Laura Bailey (Capital One), Sonal Shah (Georgetown University), Erika Poethig (Urban Institute)

Yajnik’s talk was followed by a panel discussion with Bailey, Shah, and Poeithig. They addressed three key questions:

  1. How is technology changing the way we work?
  2. What are the implications technological innovations in these areas for income inequalities in the U.S.
  3. How can new technologies be harnessed to reduce inequalities, expand opportunity, and promote more broadly shared prosperity?

The focus on the panel was, in part, our duty to understand what’s going on with technology, and in part to understand how we can use that data for good.

“What has come out of technology is access to information and data… All of us should be thinking about how that data is being used” – Sonal Shah

“Use it [technology] every day even if you don’t think you understand it because it’ll help you participate in the discussion“ – Erika Poethig

In light of recent events in the United States regarding social media and public elections, as well as the realization that some websites have public transactions by default (with private settings), understanding how our data being used is certainly worth thinking about. Allowing companies to collect data on you isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you should know who you’re giving it to and what they’re doing with it.

“Technology is only as good as the problem you’re solving for, so it’s important to first find the problem in the community before trying to solve it “ – Sonal Shah

This was an idea that was repeated multiple times throughout the day by many people in different sessions. The concept of problem-solving intentionally and not just “because you can” or “for fun” is an important distinction from the flashy disruptiveness and buzzwords that technological innovations have come to be associated with.

In the Q&A session after this panel, someone mentioned the website Opportunity Atlas as an example of technology that aggregates data at a neighborhood-level in the United States and allows users to filter it in a multitude of ways that makes a visual impact (e.g. you can view the percentage of teenage mothers in a community, look at the median income for families, and filter on both race and gender). After the symposium I spent about an hour on this website, checking out the data on both my hometown and the DFW metroplex. If you like data visualizations, you should definitely check it out.

Disclosure: I attended the Reimagining Communities Symposium as a Capital One Partner. Nothing in this post, including the links to outside sites, is meant to be seen as an endorsement from or affiliation with Capital One.
Opportunity Atlas: Percentage of People Raised in the Community Who Live There as Adults

Session 1: Education & Learning

J. Puckett (Boston Consulting Group), Kurt Schaal (Capital One), Shayne Spaulding (Urban Institute)
Education and Learning: Art by Emily Jane Steinberg of emilyjaneyes.com, photo by Grant Miller

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this panel. There would definitely be a discussion about online education and probably a discussion of what technologies could be used to help people learn, but beyond that I didn’t have any expectations.

The session started in just the way Sonal Shah would have wanted: before talking about technology, the group talked about students.

In 1980, 60% of students pursuing post-secondary education were under the age of 25, however, in 2018 60% of students pursuing post-secondary education are over the age of 25

What this means, and was discussed in length by Spaulding, is that what many of us see as the “traditional” student – the bright-eyed kid graduating from high school and having college be the first step into adulthood – is no longer the typical student. The typical student in 2018 likely has a part-time or full-time job, they’re more likely to have a family, and they’re likely to change careers more than once. The panelists suggested the educational programs that are recognized by companies need to become more flexible to fit the needs of people who can’t spend four years and a hundred-thousand dollars on a college campus and formal degree.

This isn’t to say that in-person classrooms aren’t valuable, it was actually highlighted that if students feel a sense of belonging in the classroom they do better with the academic material, but it does mean that the idea of digital accreditation is becoming more relevant as people of all ages learn new skills.

Digital Badging

Open Badges are for everyone to recognize skills gained through a variety of experiences, regardless of your age or background. They allow you to follow your interests and passions and unlock opportunities in life and work by standing out from the crowd.

I’ve heard of certifications (when a company has an exam you pass to get “certified”), bootcamps (where you’ll often go to a specific location over a series of weeks to build specific projects), and guided tutorials (that can be found on a multitude of different platforms and are mostly found online in text or video formats), but I’d never heard of a “digital badge” before. When Spaulding asked the room if they’d heard of them, most of the people around me nodded but I was very much in the dark.

After doing a little research I’ve found that digital badges are provided by hundreds of organizations and are intended to be credible symbols of learning. There’s metadata within each badge that acts as a security measure for employers to prove that the person displaying the badge is the one who actually earned it. Far from being just development oriented (though coding skills are prominently featured) there are badges involving art, language, physics and more.

Now that all of us are on the same page about what digital badges are, one of the most difficult aspects of online badging is curation. With so many options for learners, it’s difficult for employers to key-in on the badges that are relevant for their employees. College degrees have been time-tested throughout the past century and are therefore pretty reliable, but as J. Puckett brought up, “An undergraduate degree is a proxy…It’s a proxy that isn’t always inclusive economically.”

As institutions are putting forward more online resources, the educational challenge is becoming less about access and more about the trust and relevancy with companies that are looking to hire. The panel talked about how it’s important that employers work with educators to make sure that people are equipped with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace. This kind of cooperation has a few benefits:

  • Educational institutions and their graduates become more credible in the eyes of employers
  • More students will want to participate in those educational programs because they know they have a good chance of being employed after finishing it
  • Employers get to hire employees that are trained with skills they’re looking for

In the Q&A portion of the panel discussion, someone brought up that while using technology for education is admirable, there are certain parts of the population who don’t have access to the basic technology required to get that education in the first place. Another person questioned whether access to the internet would be considered a basic utility like water and electricity.

Though none of the panelists had concrete answers to these questions, these questions did start a discussion about the importance of investment in the community – like the initiative Capital One has with local non-profits, including the Boys & Girls Clubs, Uplift and Young Women’s Prep, to sponsor computer labs in community centers.

Other resource and programs that were mentioned: Europe’s apprenticeship model,  Bridge International Academies – education in Africa that uses technology intended for the developing world, Dallas County Promise – an organization with the goal of free post-secondary education, Area 9 Learning – a platform that uses artificial intelligence to learn how you learn, Neom – the city of the future

Session 2: Big Data & Analytics

Payal Dalal (Mastercard), Solomon Greene (Urban Institute), Christopher Kingsley (Casey Foundation), Regina Nippert (Southern Methodist University)
Big Data and Analytics: Art by Emily Jane Steinberg of emilyjaneyes.com

Even though Big Data has been in the public sphere for a few years now, it’s still a topic that never fails to pique interest. From where we get it to how we use it (and what we’re using it for) there are a lot of questions that need to be answered as an increasing percentage of our lives are being lived online in easily parsable data-points. The conversation started with a discussion of “Data Philanthropy” (another phrase I wasn’t altogether familiar with) led by Dalal who works at Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth.

Data Philanthropy

When private sector companies give academic and civil groups access to their datasets (usually anonymized or aggregated)

Some real examples involved looking at how commerce was affected when a community had implemented a bike-sharing program or if the community had free Wi-Fi (spoilers: in both cases local retailers made more money).

In contrast, Kingsley (who described himself as the “bad guy” of the panel) briefly discussed our responsibility to consider how data is being used and who is using it. He poignantly noted that the data we feed into our algorithms is based on historical context (and institutionalized racism) so our “objective” tools can make us “better” (inadvertently) at discrimination if we don’t take a careful look at how we’re interpreting our data.

Nippert added to this throughout the discussion, speaking to how important it is to get rapid feedback on the data and to get to know the community that’s involved with the data set in order to get a clearer picture of how it can be used. As someone who distributes data to organizations, she had a couple of suggestions for success in helping people who are just getting started:

  • Ask people what they want to change, that’s the only data that’s important
  • Data that isn’t usable or given within a larger context is just noise
  • It’s useful to have consistent data, this gives organizations and their findings credibility (her example was sending out their data reports early on, so everyone started with the same numbers)
  • Give groups data, not individuals (her organization has set up professional learning communities with monthly meetings – participants have to attend the meetings if they want the data which gives them more incentive to actually use the data)

Most of the session was spent talking not about algorithms, but about people. The importance of qualitative measurements in addition to quantitative measurements.

“It’s hard to make sense of the spreadsheet if you haven’t talked to the people the data is about” – Chris Kingsley

When an audience member asked how to prevent the perpetuation of stereotyping specific demographics as “victims” through the use of data, this was re-emphasized:

“Rather than thinking of a community as ‘in need’, find what is working for that community and build on that” – Regina Nippert

Nippert illustrated this beautifully: she talked about a low-income community that (according to the data) had large quantities of young single women, the elderly and tires. The community developed caregiver training programs (providing the women with jobs and the elderly with a higher quality of life) and set up a recycling center in the community for the tires (which brought money into the community). I haven’t been able to find any articles about this particular neighborhood, but the message is clear: find the problems in the communities, and tailor the solution to fit the people.

Other resources and programs that were mentioned: Commit! – a program in Dallas that uses data to identify what makes kids successful in school, Catalyte – a program that utilizes artificial intelligence to look at aptitude rather than resumes (this is programming-skill oriented), US Census Data – this was cited as a way to get reliable, government-collected data for different communities

Closing Remarks

Catherine Foca (Capital One), Tiffany Manuel (Enterprise), Regina Nippert (Southern Methodist University), Shayne Spaulding (Urban Institute), Jenny Yang (Urban Institute)

The closing remarks of the day highlighted what had been said at all of the sessions (including the ones I hadn’t gone to). I was still processing everything from the day, but one speaker that well encapsulated the tone of the conference was Tiffany Manuel.

“We’re at an interesting moment in our country’s history. There are so many issues causing us to retreat to our individual corners… When I think about tech and data, I hope we’re thinking about using that data to get people out of their corners to have cross-racial, cross-ethnic conversations… When you find big disparities, what will you do about that? We often measure, and we talk about it, and then we go home… After every single data point we should be saying ‘What are we going to do about it?'” – Tiffany Manuel


Creating Places of Opportunity: Art by Emily Jane Steinberg of emilyjaneyes.com, photo by Grant Miller


Creating Places of Opportunity: Art by Emily Jane Steinberg of emilyjaneyes.com, photo by Grant Miller


Capital One put on an amazing event. This was the second year they’ve held the Reimagine Communities symposium and though I attended as an official Capital One Partner this year, both I and my fellow developers will be looking out for registration next year. I went to panel discussions on education and big data, both of which focused on curating the technology (or the data-based interventions) to fit people rather than the other way around. This has already started to catch on in the business world and I’m excited to see how the conversation evolves over the next few years.

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