Hacking for Diplomacy – The State Department takes notice

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with State Department Representative to Silicon Valley Zvika Krieger and a group of Stanford University engineering and computer science students - who work with the State Department to develop technology solutions for foreign policy problems. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with State Department Representative to Silicon Valley Zvika Krieger and a group of Stanford University engineering and computer science students – who work with the State Department to develop technology solutions for foreign policy problems. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

We’ve just held our seventh and eighth weeks of Hacking for Diplomacy at Stanford, and the attention our course is getting from Washington – and around the world – has been interesting. Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with the students early in the quarter, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken paid a visit to the class in Week 7 and four foreign ministers in week 8

If there was any doubt among the teams about the value of what they’re learning, Blinken put it to rest with a compelling overview of how so many of today’s complex global problems – from stopping Ebola to monitoring cease-fires and improving food security – demand innovative, tech-based solutions.

Students got the chance to ask Blinken directly for his take on their challenges, such as  countering violent extremism and improving data on refugees who perish on their journeys. Their presentations hit the mark with the deputy secretary:

blnkken-tweet

In Week 8, we were joined by a powerhouse panel of four veteran diplomats: Alexander Downer, Australia’s current high commissioner to the United Kingdom and former foreign minister of Australia; Borys Tarasiuk, former foreign minister of Ukraine; Jaime Gama, former foreign minister of Portugal; and Don McKinnon, former foreign minister of New Zealand. They shared their experiences of how technology has enhanced – and threatens to undermine – diplomatic work.

Hacking for Diplomacy takes the Lean Startup methodology and applies it to problems sourced from the State Department. Teams are continuing their relentless interviewing of customers, or beneficiaries as we call them in this class. For our students, that can mean anyone from a Syrian refugee trying to make contact with his family back home, to a supply chain manager for a major apparel brand who wants to make sure his contract factory in Bangladesh doesn’t use forced labor.

The students “get out of the building” and test their hypotheses in front of potential beneficiaries using the Customer Development methodology, all while building and updating their Minimal Viable Products. By the time the quarter is over, we expect our seven teams will have interviewed close to 700 potential beneficiaries around the globe. What we’re driving at is evidence-based, entrepreneurial solutions to big diplomatic challenges.

Each team continues to capture its work on a Mission Model Canvas – a modified version of the Business Model Canvas that’s at the heart of the Lean Startup methodology.  The nine boxes of the canvas help students visualize all the components needed to turn beneficiaries’ needs and problems into a solution.

mission-model-canvas

Over these last two weeks, teams began to transition from the right side of the Mission Model Canvas to the left. They’ve been puzzling out what they would need to do to deploy their value proposition (a product, service or both). And they’ve been figuring out the feasibility of how they deliver the value proposition on the right side of the canvas. Feasibility requires the teams to figure out what are the key activities, resources and partners they would need to deliver their product or service to their beneficiaries and their State Department sponsors.

desire-feasible

  • Activities are the strategies of what the team needs to do to deliver the value proposition on the right side of the canvas to the beneficiaries. Activities might include hardware or software development, mastering a 10,000 mile supply chain, low-cost manufacturing, or to provide services in a foreign country.
  • Resources are what the team needs to hire or own inside their company — the team’s physical, financial, human and intellectual property.
  • Partners are the third parties also necessary to execute the activities, which in the case of our students’ challenges might include nongovernmental organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross working with refugees, amateur astronomers tracking space junk, and even former Islamic extremists who have left terrorist groups and now want to help dissuade others from going down that path.  In the context of the State Department, partners are particularly important because State rarely has the financial resources to push forward an innovation, though the U.S. government does have some unique convening power and the ability to tap external talent and resources.

Teams have been working their hearts out, and some have had to pivot hard when their hypotheses were invalidated and their minimum viable products (MVPs0 were met with shrugs of apathy. In these final weeks, they have to dig deep.

At this point in the class, it can be tempting for those who have momentum to get a little complacent, believing they’ve got a good handle on their problem. Others have had their enthusiasm curbed by frustration, and are still casting about for a fresh value proposition after striking out with their MVPs thus far.

Each team stands up in front of the class each week and reports on its progress and setbacks. The teaching team delivers comments, pulling no punches. It’s tough. But it ensures that students really see, warts and all, the complex process it takes to conceive and deliver a successful product or service.

L.A. Times China bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, and is part of our mentorship team, has been taking notes on Weeks 7 and 8. She shares her observations below.

As America’s No. 2 diplomat, Tony Blinken isn’t the kind of guy who has lots of spare time to help students with their homework. But there he was on a Thursday evening in early November, sitting down for several hours with undergrads and graduate students in Stanford’s Hacking for Diplomacy class, answering their questions about the tough challenges the State Department is grappling with: the largest wave of human displacement worldwide since World War II.

Terrorists harnessing the internet to radicalize and recruit new members. The rising international competition in space and escalating potential for collisions that could knock out critical military and commercial satellites.

For the deputy secretary, such a dialogue in Silicon Valley is not a matter of charity, but necessity. After a quarter-century in government – serving with the National Security Council, the Senate Armed Services Committee and now State – Blinken says Washington can no longer afford to pretend it can solve such complex problems alone.

“We have stakeholders two or three times a day in the White House situation room, grappling with everything from the crisis in Syria to Ebola to the refugee crisis around the world,” he said. “The thing that struck me so powerfully then was that virtually everything we were doing was at the intersection of foreign policy, and technology and innovation…. And yet, most of us responsible for trying to develop foreign policy don’t come from that background” of technology and innovation.

“We don’t have that mindset or that expertise,” he admitted to the class. “We need technologists and innovators in the room just to tell us if we need technologists and innovators in the room.”

Hacking for Diplomacy is an attempt to get some of those technologists and innovators into the room, at least figuratively, for a 10-week academic quarter — and maybe longer, if the class piques their interest in public service. At the same time, it’s a chance to expose some career State Department employees to Silicon Valley thinking.

Since late September, seven small teams of students from diverse academic backgrounds – computer science, law, engineering, business and more – have been working closely with mentors from the State Department to tackle difficult problems vexing Foggy Bottom.

Eight weeks in, the students and their State Department mentors are now deeply steeped in the Lean framework, which Steve Blank and his four fellow teachers have modified slightly to the peculiarities of solving problems in the realm of diplomacy. (Customers, for example, are recast as “beneficiaries,” and instead of identifying revenue streams, these diplo-preneurs are interested in defining “mission achievement.”)

The student teams have learned tons about how the State Department is organized and how it works (or doesn’t). And they’ve absorbed and analyzed incredible amounts of information about their topic of concern.

But students are learning how hard it is, even once you have amassed a fair bit of knowledge about your target market and prospective customers, to come up with a product or solution that anyone wants to “snatch out of your hand,” as Blank would say.

A giant fork in the road

Team Space Evaders, for example, which is working on preventing collisions in space, arrived in class on Week 8 with a funny slide that featured a picture of a giant fork planted in a roadway.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

The message: They’re facing a crucial decision of whether to continue with their previous minimal viable product – crowdsourcing data on the size and shape of objects in orbit to create a basic data platform – or pivot hard to a new idea. The previous MVP, they admitted, was “looking shaky” for a variety of reasons, particularly how to source the data, and had generated mixed reactions when they showed it to potential customers/beneficiaries.

So the team is looking to pivot hard to a new idea – creating a “debris footprint index” that would rate or rank items already in orbit (and those being launched) on their potential for becoming a hazard to other objects. Think of it as sort of a carbon footprint-type schema that would be based on metrics such as time the object is to remain in orbit, its specific orbital location, and its mass.

The team drew its inspiration from the environmental realm after noting some similarities between the problems of space junk and greenhouse gas emissions. Both are “global commons” problems. When the world was just waking up to the issue of global warming, for example, many countries claimed that they were acting responsibly, but emissions data was shaky. Bad actors/big emitters were not punished, and good actors were not rewarded.

Today, the problem is much the same in space – and the orbits above the earth are getting more crowded by the day as more countries and private countries launch satellites. Could a “debris footprint index” serve to raise awareness of the space debris issue – and give regulators or treaty negotiators some kind of common ground from which to start discussions, the same way carbon footprints did? That’s the team new hypothesis.

Blinken in Week 7 had encouraged the Space Evaders team to consider coming up with a product that would illustrate the growing severity of the problem and encourage other countries to more proactively share data and agree on norms.

“Ironically for the U.S.,  given the dependence of our economy and military on space and satellites, we face greatest risk of all,” he said.

“Drawing that picture, of  what space looks like without [action] would be a good way to start. …. We need to show the benefits to different countries, and show them that this is not going to undermine their interests, including their security interests,” he said. “I’ve got to admit it’s one of the things we’ve been struggling with.”

Space Evaders will be testing their new MVP with potential beneficiaries over the next two weeks.

Hacking Counter Terrorism

Another team that has pivoted hard and employed analogous modeling to come up with a new MVP is the one working on countering violent extremism. Back in Week 6, the teaching team had unceremoniously “fired their idea” because their MVP was deemed to be too far afield from the original problem sourced by the State Department.

If you can’t see the presentation click here
In Weeks 7 and 8, this team has gone back to the drawing board and taken inspiration from suicide prevention hotlines. Could a similar type of hotline system serve as a means to intervene with people who are expressing interest in joining radical groups? Could such a hotline also be a resource for the friends or family members of people who are expressing an inclination toward joining organizations like ISIS?

From Sharpies and T-shirts to ID bracelets

Other teams are moving ahead and iterating on MVPs generated in Weeks 4 and 5. Team 621, for example, which is tacking the problem of how to identify refugees who die en route to their destinations, several weeks ago proposed an elegantly simple solution: What if we could just convince migrants to write the phone number of a friend or relative on their clothing with a Sharpie permanent marker? Not their own name, or any other identifying information.


If you can’t see the presentation click here

That way, if tragedy were to strike the migrants en route to their destinations and their bodies were found, those authorities handling the corpses could use this contact information to inform the deceased’s loved ones.  Last year alone, more than 3,700 people died at sea in the Mediterranean and only about a third of the bodies were identified.

The initial MVP generated a significant amount of intrigue both in the classroom and outside. But Blank and the teaching team encouraged the students to keep “getting outside the building” and iterating their MVP – particularly with refugees themselves and the first responders tasked with handling corpses in front-line countries like Greece and Italy.

In Weeks 7 and 8, Team 621 expanded on the T-shirt idea by proposing ID bracelets that could be encoded with more complete information registered via a smartphone – and possibly be of benefit not only in the case of migrants who perish but those who survive the journey.

The team created an elaborate map showing the transit and smuggling routes from dozens of African countries to the Mediterranean, and possible distribution points for such bracelets in hubs served by groups like Red Cross/Red Crescent.

team-621-week-8

They tested this updated MVP with refugees and made some surprising discoveries. Contrary to their expectation that migrants might be reluctant to provide birthdates and other more detailed identifying information on a bracelet, refugees they interviewed expressed a willingness to do so if it would mean their family could be notified in the event of their death.

But their hypothesis that migrants could or would use smartphones was invalidated – their Customer Discovery interviews revealed that many migrants use only basic mobile phones because they fear that more expensive models may be stolen by smugglers.

In the final weeks of class, Team 621 is focusing on the critical activities they would need to do deploy their product — including how to get the bracelets to migrants and get them to wear them, and how to incentivize first responders to use the data on them. They’re also focusing on developing relationships with and getting buy-in from key partners like the Red Cross and other NGOs. Over the next two weeks, they’ll be drilling down on potential costs to deploy the solution – initial research indicates that the bracelets would cost $0.19 each while Sharpie markers run $0.375 apiece.

Looking ahead

With just two weeks left in the class, students know that not all teams will come up with a product/solution that will be deployed to the field. Nevertheless, many say they can see themselves applying the Lean LaunchPad techniques they’ve learned to their future endeavors.

Christos Makridis, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Economics and Department of Management Science & Engineering who is on the team tackling how to better evaluate peacekeeping forces funded by the United States, said he signed up for Hacking for Diplomacy to “push the envelope” on his learning.

He’s hoping to take some of the Lean methods back to his work in economics.

“I think my catalyst for taking the class was: How would some of these business ideas be useful to generate new ideas in the academic economics community? How do we bring some of these best practices over to academia?” he said.

“For example, I love the idea of prototyping. Why can’t academics prototype their papers more often instead of passing them by people once a year after they’re almost entirely written?” he asked.

Makridis said while the class has been a much greater time commitment than he ever anticipated, he’s been energized by the potential to make a dent in a real-world problem.

“Sometimes you think, oh, the U.S. government, they must have state-of-the-art data scientists on this problem or that problem. But no, they don’t and in some cases, they don’t know certain meetings are going on” that could help them solve their issue, he said.

His team, for example, found out through their customer discovery interviews that some critical data that bureaucrats in Washington needed was actually available at the United Nations but wasn’t being transmitted to D.C.

“There is so much room for improvement,” he said. “It’s cool to be able to spot these kinds of opportunities and possibly make a real contribution.”

About Steve Blank

Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur-turned-educator who is changing how startups are built and how entrepreneurship is being taught. He created the Customer Development methodology that launched the lean startup movement, and wrote about the process in his first book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany. His second book, The Startup Owner’s Manual, is a step-by-step guide to building a successful company. Blank teaches the Customer Development methodology in his Lean LaunchPad classes at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University and the National Science Foundation. He writes regularly about entrepreneurship at www.steveblank.com.

Comment