Part 1 of a series on all things digital at HKS.THE IMPETUS CAME in part from Kennedy School students themselves. Students arriving in Cambridge for their graduate degree programs appealed to the School’s administrators: They wanted more courses and research projects on the digital technology revolution that is reshaping the world; they wanted more expert help as they grappled with digital policy and politics. At the same time, faculty and practitioners in the HKS community were recognizing the growing impact of digital tech on government and society.

The Kennedy School’s response to these challenges is evident, across the campus and beyond. New faculty, courses, seminars, fellowships, and academic papers are examining digital terrain, alongside ambitious initiatives in the research centers. From Cambridge to Washington to Silicon Valley to tech and government hubs around the world, the School’s faculty members, expert staff, and digital-native students are contributing to a combination of analysis and practical ideas at the intersection of innovation, policy, and political power.

Much of the School’s work in the field examines how to use data and digital technology to govern better: How should cities use technology to improve services? What can be done to ensure that governments don’t abuse the power of digital technology? How can the integrity of voting and the political process be ensured? How can big data help reduce economic inequality and create opportunities as the nature of work changes?

Researchers are also studying whether and how we should govern digital technology: How should we monitor social media, if at all? How can we encourage competition and privacy? How can we protect the rights of the individual while supporting the interests of the state? And, looking even further ahead, how should government and industry prepare for the next wave of innovation in artificial intelligence and the bioscience revolution it is enabling?

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A  School-Wide Push on Digital

In a crowded Capitol Hill conference room on the first day of spring, senior congressional staffers traded ideas with some of Harvard Kennedy School’s leading digital policy analysts during a half-day workshop on vexing public policy dilemmas: Should the huge online companies be regulated? Broken up? Left alone? How can online privacy be protected? How can disinformation be contained?

Amid rising pressure for legislative and regulatory action, that Capitol Hill gathering last March highlighted the hunger for ideas among political players as they scramble to respond to fast-changing digital policy problems. At the same time, the workshop showcased the Kennedy School’s growing group of digital-driven faculty members, staff, research fellows, and students—and their ability to engage the nation’s top-level decision makers in the search for solutions.

At the congressional staff session, organized by the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who now directs the Belfer Center, framed the problem in a historical context. Carter, Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs, recalled the nuclear weapons policy debate in which he took part during the 1980s and 1990s as a young physicist; now he is bringing a similar focus to the digital challenge through Belfer’s year-old Technology and Public Purpose Project.

That work forms part of a multifront campaign by the School to address technology challenges from digital service provision to citizen engagement; from human rights to cybersecurity threats; from online disinformation to privacy and transparency; and from regulating the huge internet platforms like Facebook to ensuring that disruption does not only mean dislocation.

To kickstart the charge, the School hired Lecturer in Public Policy David Eaves, who teaches courses on digital government and leads the digital HKS project, which draws on all three of the School’s core strengths: teaching, research, and engagement with decision makers.

“The big challenges in this space, the big problems, are of course strongly informed by the nature of the technology. But the deeper problems have to do with the relationship between technology and humans and society.”

David Eaves

Eaves, who previously advised the Canadian government on its open data strategy, sees the Kennedy School as a natural leader in shaping public policy on digital technology, even though its core focus is not on computer science or hardware design. “The big challenges in this space, the big problems, are of course strongly informed by the nature of the technology,” Eaves says. “But the deeper problems have to do with the relationship between technology and humans and society. It’s about governance and systems thinking, all of which are things we teach and focus on here.”

While digital HKS is a School-wide effort, many individual faculty members and research centers have generated digital-focused projects in their fields of expertise, often designed to spark collaboration on policy problems. In addition to supporting the teaching and research of affiliated faculty, the centers host seminars and workshops like the one Carter addressed in Washington that bring together policymakers, industry executives, technical experts, and academics to debate tough policy choices—the kind of critical-mass convening that gives the School its distinctive influence in shaping public policies and strategies.

Another example of this type of gathering is the Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence, convened last November by Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering Daniel Schrag and Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy John Holdren, who together direct the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program. The council gathered 30 leaders from government, business, academia, and civil society to discuss the risks and opportunities flowing from developments in digital technology, including data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Between faculty appointments at the Kennedy School, Holdren served as President Obama’s top science advisor. In that role, Holdren championed the creation of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, two innovative organizations that bring engineers and technologists into government to ramp up industry-quality digital services.

A Historic Opportunity

To bolster its digital expertise, the School has recruited several faculty members to teach more than 15 courses related to digital policy and technology and plans to hire more. Several professors take part in a faculty working group that draws from universities across the Boston area; it has met more than a dozen times to debate current digital questions. Beginning in the 2018–19 academic year, the School also recruited more students with significant digital skills and experience.

The Kennedy School has traditionally devoted substantial attention to quantitative skills and methods. But the relevant skills and methods have changed. People and, increasingly, things are constantly sharing information, flooding the world with data. In such a world, the skilled public leader is the one who can sift through data and find meaning in it, and who can think in a digitally oriented way. The School is evolving to help its students do that.

To provide students with a foundation for more advanced coursework in data science and data analytics, the School’s digital HKS initiative led a pilot program to teach the programming language Python to interested MPP and MPA students in the summer of 2018. Assistant Professor of Public Policy Soroush Saghafian’s “Machine Learning and Big Data Analytics” course helps students understand when and how to apply machine learning algorithms to policymaking and decision making.

“The Kennedy School has a historic opportunity to lead at a time when the world of technology and governance is evolving at an astonishing speed.”

Doug Elmendorf

The Kennedy School’s researchers are also increasingly using big data in addressing public problems. For example, at the Growth Lab in the Center for International Development, Rafik Hariri Professor of the Practice of International Political Economy Ricardo Hausmann uses global trade data to understand the dynamics of economic growth and helps developing countries assess their best path to growth. David Deming, professor of public policy and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, is studying data from millions of students and their parents to determine the role of higher education in improving social mobility by moving people up the income ladder. Deming’s other research interests include how automation and technological change affect the labor market and economic inequality—a topic of growing importance in an increasingly digitized world.

“The Kennedy School has a historic opportunity to lead at a time when the world of technology and governance is evolving at an astonishing speed,” says Dean Doug Elmendorf, the Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy. “As we train our students to become public leaders, we prepare them to engage with the most important public challenges. Many of the current challenges have a digital component. That’s why the Kennedy School is developing an ambitious slate of activities related to tech and governance.”

Photos by Raychel Casey, Jessica Scranton, Martha Stewart