Soren Spicknall, a coterminal student who is earning a B.S. in computer science and M.A.S. in data science, has been selected as a Microsoft Civic Tech fellow. For the next 18 months, Spicknall will work with government agencies, community organizations, and civic tech leaders to drive sociopolitical change with high-tech solutions.
Spicknall is one of about 20 Microsoft Civic Tech fellows nationwide and the first from Illinois Tech. He is based out of Microsoft’s Chicago office and working with Adam Hecktman, Microsoft’s director of technology and civic engagement for Chicago, and Shelly Stern Grach, director of civic engagement for Microsoft.
Spicknall met Hecktman while doing an IPRO, or Interprofessional Projects program, at Illinois Tech. It was an unstructured course with the prompt “data and public safety,” broadly interpreted. Spicknall worked on a project called “Hacking for Computer Literacy.”
The fellowship is a good step for Spicknall, who hopes to develop a career in civic technology leveraging his data science skills.
“I want my work to have an impact, to benefit people in a way that can be seen,” he said. “Ultimately, I want to apply data science in the social good sector, using my passion for tech and working with interdisciplinary teams who make a real-world difference.”
As a Microsoft Civic Tech fellow, Spicknall will work on several projects:
- With a Microsoft Civic Tech fellow in New York City, he will compile a directory of networks of people working in civic tech.
- With Matt Gee, co-founder and principal of the Impact Lab, he will use data science to analyze outcome data from afterschool, job training, and other programs, to help re-evaluate metrics used in grants to measure program success. (It’s usually numbers of people served, but could be based on quality of outcomes.)
- With City Digital, a unit of UI Labs on Goose Island, he will examine open data plus information from a recent Internet of things (IOT) project to better understand things like flood risk, for informing flood-prevention infrastructure.
- With fellow Illinois Tech undergrad Dev Bharel (CE 3rd year), he will develop Microsoft Chicago’s blockchain strategy. Blockchain technology is a shared database scheme and shows promise for fintech and identification and access tech.
Spicknall will join the City Open Workshop, a biweekly event to connect city design and public policy, which Illinois Tech students occasionally participate in. In general, he also has been given the freedom to follow his other interests as he sees fit and as they benefit the public.
Civic technology enables the public to participate in government mainly through information technology. In Chicago’s case, the city makes data about itself available through an open portal, so that people may use the data to offer suggestions and potentially improve city life. Many local organizations, individuals, and events like Chi Hack Night use this data to take on different projects to improve the city. Spicknall chose to study at Illinois Tech in part because of Chicago’s active civic technology community, and he learned about the Microsoft Civic Tech fellow program at a Chi Hack Night.