TAURAI CHINYAMAKOBVU MC/MPA 2019 enjoyed classroom discussions during his time at Harvard Kennedy School, but he was sometimes frustrated that conversations with classmates could not continue seamlessly after class. “When the class is done, the conversation often stops,” he says.

He saw potential for a digital solution that would allow students to connect, discuss, and share information outside the classroom. With a background in blockchain technology and fintech (the financial technology industry), Chinyamakobvu knows the digital landscape well. He even founded a cryptocurrency exchange in his home country, Zimbabwe.

Although the benefits of digital platforms are undeniable, he knows that real risks exist. Social media platforms often expose people to data mining and security and privacy vulnerabilities. Chinyamakobvu repeats a common saying about social media platforms: “If you’re not paying for a service, you are the product.” He focused on developing a social media model with an emphasis on user security, inspired by a course on digital transformation in government taught by David Eaves, a lecturer in public policy and the director of the digital HKS initiative.

Portrait of Harvard Kennedy School alum Taurai Chinyamakobvu MC/MPA 2019 teaching in a classroom.Chinyamakobvu fleshed out his thinking at the Harvard Innovation Lab and then joined forces with a team at the University of California, Berkeley, that was focused on the same concept: building a social networking tool that protects its users’ data and privacy. The bicoastal partnership led to the creation of LoopChat in 2019. “The mission is to have a platform where you can have secure interaction,” Chinyamakobvu says, “creating a private space where people can socially network without the fear that their data is manipulated or exploited.” He explains that LoopChat does this in a few different ways: “Unlike other apps that enable you to discover and communicate with whoever is on the platform as long you have their phone number or other contact details, LoopChat allows you to communicate with only the people you want to engage with by sharing your account QR code.” Chinyamakobvu also points out that some encrypted apps notify users when people in their contacts join the app. “This doesn’t happen on LoopChat, as we see it as an invasion of privacy,” he says.

The tool was tested in a few courses at UC Berkeley and proved useful when in-person teaching for the spring 2020 academic term was replaced by remote learning because of the pandemic. It has grown rapidly since, with more than 50,000 users registered by the end of June from Harvard, UC Berkeley, Yale, UCLA, the University of Washington, Boston University, and other institutions.

Chinyamakobvu hopes that LoopChat will allow students to continue their conversations with classmates seamlessly in the way they might, say, in the cafeteria over lunch. “What we discovered is, for example, that a class can run on Zoom, but once the Zoom session ends, the conversation stops,” Chinyamakobvu says. “So people can create group chats and the entire class can join.”

“The mission is to have a platform where you can have secure interaction, creating a private space where people can socially network without the fear that their data is manipulated or exploited.”

Taurai Chinyamakobvu MC/MPA 2019

In March, the LoopChat team developed a quick spin-off project in response to the pandemic. Concerned about the lack of information—and the prevalence of misinformation—regarding COVID-19, they put their heads together. Could they use their technical know-how to help provide the public with accurate, clear information about the coronavirus? Chinyamakobvu and his team thought so. In short order, the 10-person group developed an informational website, www.livecoronaupdates.org. It features regularly updated information on COVID-19 cases in the United States, advice to prevent the spread of disease, media updates, and opportunities for community members to connect with one another.

“We started on a Sunday and then worked through the night,” Chinyamakobvu explains. “We deployed it after four days.” The idea, he says, was to deliver an immediately useful and easily accessible service. “We were really motivated by a desire to serve the public and provide a single place where people can find reliable information that will help keep them healthy and safe.”

Chinyamakobvu believes that online resources like his team’s COVID-19 website and social platforms like LoopChat were especially valuable when employers had to rapidly figure out how to move online while people were quarantined. He is particularly interested in what work will look like in the immediate future. “There’s been a lot of talk about the future of work,” Chinyamakobvu says, “but the entire infrastructure of the global economy is not designed for remote workers.” He notes that people are social by nature and that “for us to be productive, we have to congregate,” but that it’s often more difficult online. He is interested in finding a technological solution that would allow people to gather and work together seamlessly while ensuring that their privacy and data are safeguarded. “What we found out is that when suddenly people had to break apart and social distance and work from different spaces, it forced a change,” he says.

The future of work—and of school—is happening now, Chinyamakobvu believes, whether we like it or not.

Banner image by John Hersey; photo courtesy of The Politic

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