Department of State

How government can enable peace through entrepreneurship

Photo: USAID Afghanistan

Photo: USAID Afghanistan

In “Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development,” former State Department staffer Steven Koltai makes the case that world peace can best be achieved through nonmilitary means, especially entrepreneurship that leads to global job creation.

Koltai, now managing director of Koltai & Co., previously served as senior advisor for entrepreneurship under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where he ran the nascent Global Entrepreneurship program. GEP’s mission, and the core of Koltai’s message in “Peace Through Entrepreneurship,” is aimed at creating entrepreneurship ecosystems based on a six pillar framework.

Koltai’s Six+Six Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Model includes identifying entrepreneurs, help get them the training they need to succeed, connect them to all appropriate resources and networks, fund them, enable public policy that supports new ventures, and celebrate their efforts and progress. This model depends of the collective support of governments, investors, academia, foundations, non-governmental organizations and corporations.

Writes Koltai:

“It is only government that has the wherewithal, mandate, and obligation to do entrepreneurship at the large, highly coordinated scale required. It is government that stimulates investment in failing and fragile states, and it is government that can turn sectors safe as a first-in investor. And, most important, it is government that is responsible for the security of its citizens. A government that allows the source of its threats to fester and spread unchecked is negligent, and especially so when a solution to those threats presents itself in the expertise of that government’s citizens. The U.S. government must elevate entrepreneurship as a foreign policy tool.”

Learn more: “Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development

Federal agency blockchain group to convene July 18

BitcoinThe General Services Administration will host an in-person U.S. Federal Blockchain Forum meeting on July 18 in Washington, D.C., as part of an effort to facilitate virtual currency adoption within the federal government.

About the initiative and event from DigitalGov:

About the Event

An inter-agency forum for executives across the federal government to learn about advances in Blockchain technology, discuss use cases and set an agenda for working together to evaluate and implement it among our diverse missions.

What You’ll Do

  • Develop, share and discuss practical use cases for Blockchain technology among federal government missions.
  • Identify resource, policy and compliance needs for the effective and efficient evaluation and implementation of Blockchain technology in the federal government.
  • Develop a U.S. Federal Blockchain Atlas and roadmap for the next 6 months on how agencies can collaborate to achieve our goals and support the creation of shared services for Blockchain technology.

The U.S. Federal Blockchain Forum is a program led by the GSA Emerging Citizen Technology program in partnership with the Secretary of State Office of Global Partnerships and GSA Office of Information Technology Category.

Learn more and register.

Hacking for Diplomacy: What we learned with the State Department

Photo: U.S. Department of State

Photo: U.S. Department of State

We just held our final week of the Hacking for Diplomacy class, teaching students entrepreneurship and “Lean Startup” principles while they engaged in national public service applying advanced technologies to solve global challenges. Seven student teams delivered their final Lessons Learned presentations documenting their intellectual journey over just 10 short weeks in front of several hundred people in person and online. And what a journey it’s been.

In this class, we partnered with sponsors in the State Department including:

  • Office of Space and Advanced Technology
  • Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
  • Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
  • Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism
  • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
    • Office of Assistance to Europe, Central Asia, & the Americas
    • Office of Assistance to the Near East
  • Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

Our sponsors treated our students like serious problem solvers who could contribute unique technical skills and unfettered customer access. In exchange the sponsors got access to fresh ideas, new technology and a new perspective on serious problems.

By the end of the class our sponsors inside State had experienced a practical example of a new and powerful methodology which could help them better understand and deal with complicated international problems and apply technology where appropriate.

And finally, our students learned that they could serve their country without having to put on a uniform. Today, if college students want to give back to their country, most think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps if you wanted to offer your technical skills, the U.S. Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the State Department, Department of Defense, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.

Lessons learned – Not a demo day

Silicon Valley folks are familiar with demo days – presentations where the message is: “Here’s how smart we are right now.” That’s nice, but it doesn’t let the audience know, “Is that how smart you were three months ago, did you get smarter or dumber? What did you learn?”

Hacking for Diplomacy Lessons Learned presentations are different. Each team presents a two-minute video to provide context about their problem and then presents for eight minutes about the Lessons Learned over their ten weeks in the class.

As an example, Team Trace worked with the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The team was challenged to help companies push policies of responsible business lower down the supply chain. The key thing to note in this presentation is not only that the team came up with a solution, but also how in talking to 85 people, their understanding of the problem evolved, and as it did, so did their solution. (see Slides 12 and 25).

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Team Hacking CT was sponsored by Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism with the goal of deterring individuals from joining violent extremist groups. After 100 interviews, the team realized that a bottom-up approach, focusing on support for friends and family of those at risk for radicalization, might be effective.

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Getting Lean

Each of the teams used the Lean Startup methodology. For those new to Lean, the process has three key components.

First, students took the problems they got from their State Department sponsors and transformed those into what we call hypotheses.

For instance, one problem was: “We need to improve coordination among all the organizations trying to help Syrian refugees.”

That’s a big, unwieldy problem. Students had to break it down into a series of hypotheses. They had to identify who were the beneficiaries and stakeholders, and think about what specific service they were going to provide them, how they were going to get it to them and who was going to pay for it.

To help them do that, we have them map their nine critical hypotheses onto a single sheet of paper called the Mission Model Canvas.

aggregatedb-mission-model-canvas

Then, in step two, the teams got out of the classroom to test these hypotheses through interviews with people in the real world. Every team spoke to close to 100 potential “beneficiaries,” partners and stakeholders including NGOs, tech company executives, supply chain managers, foreign service officers in embassies around the world, and even refugees.

While the students were interviewing, they also employed the third piece of the Lean methodology: building the solution incrementally and iteratively. These solutions, called Minimal Viable Products, are what allow the teams to become extremely agile and responsive.

As teams talk to stakeholders they gather evidence to either validate, invalidate or modify their hypotheses. If they find out that their assumptions are wrong (and almost all do,) they Pivot, that is, they make fundamental changes to their hypotheses, instead of blindly proceeding forward simply executing a plan. This ability to gather data, build and test MVPs, and then change course is what gives Lean it’s tremendous speed and agility to deliver rapid solutions that are needed and wanted.

As an example, Team Aggregate DB was working with the State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). CSO helps embassies and diplomats to visualize, understand, and stabilize conflict. The team’s challenge was to get helps embassies and diplomats get more information about informal leader networks. Getting out of the building and talking to 87 people gave the team got a firsthand view of the downside when an embassy does not have access to the right local contacts. (Slides 3-9)

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

As they developed MVPs, our students took these solutions out into the real world for feedback. At first the solutions were nothing more than drawings, wireframes or PowerPoint slides. As they came to understand their problems more deeply, they refined their solutions into the final products we saw.

h4dip-mvp

For example, Team 621 – Fatal Journeys worked with the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The team’s challenge: how to get more data on missing or perished refugees. In this presentation, note how the team’s understanding of the problem evolved over the course of talking to 88 people. They realized there was a missing link between key stakeholders that limited identification of perished refugees and prevented emotional and legal closure for their families. The team pivoted three times as they gained deeper and deeper insight into their problem. With each pivot, their solution radically changed. (Their first pass of problem/solution understanding is on Slides 1-29, but then they get additional insight in slides 36-50. Finally, slides 51-64 is their third and final iteration).

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Hacking for Diplomacy was profiled this week in the L.A. Times. We’ve also had L.A. Times> Beijing bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, helping coach students this quarter on interviewing and research techniques. Julie has been sharing her impressions of the class on this blog. Here’s her last installment:


In the Netflix age, suspense is an increasingly rare commodity. If we’re intrigued by an hour of “House of Cards,” we need not delay gratification – we can just queue up the next episode and push play. But following Stanford’s Hacking for Diplomacy class over the last 10 weeks has been like watching a TV drama the old-fashioned way. There were cliffhangers every time, and you had to wait seven days to find out what would happen next.

The class, which meets just once a week but requires massive outside work, is run not as a traditional lecture where professors drone on in front of passive students — just the opposite. It’s the students standing up in front, discussing what they’ve found out in the past seven days, what progress they’ve made, what obstacles they’ve run smack into. The teachers sit in the back row and lob questions and critiques forth — sometimes very direct critiques. That format keeps students and teachers alike on the edge of their seats.

Conflicts and misunderstandings within student teams — and between students and sponsors — cropped up as the students tried to learn about the State Department, their sponsors problem, and Lean Startup methodology all at once. Students, teachers, and interviewees said surprising, intriguing, even stunning things. Some days, you could see teams going off the rails, but instead of just shouting at your screen, “No, don’t go down that alley!” a professor would actually speak up from the back with something blunt like, “You’re way off track, and we’re firing your idea.”

And just when you thought a team had struck upon a brilliant notion for a product, they’d report back during the next session that everyone they put it in front of hated it. I started looking forward to each Thursday at 4:30 p.m. like my parents looked forward to watching “Dragnet” as kids, because the suspense was killing me.

Thursday’s season finale did not disappoint. Teams that just two or three weeks ago seemed to be foundering pulled off some amazing comebacks.

Take Team Exodus, which had spent a substantial part of the quarter focused on how to match private companies seeking to assist Syrian refugees with NGOs working in the field. Late in the term, the students scrapped that idea after finding competitors who were already deeply engaged in that space. They did a major pivot and decided to concentrate directly on refugees as customers — building on all they had learned during their first eight weeks of interviewing and research.

In week 9, they decided to build an AI chatbot on Facebook’s Messenger platform to allow refugees to ask questions like, “Where can I get clothing?” The bot will tap into a network of NGOs to source answers. A very basic prototype, built primarily by team member Kian Katanforoosh, a master’s student in computer science and management science & engineering, is already up and running.

On the eve of Thursday’s class, team members Katie Joseff and Berk Coker had a call with the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, and learned that the organization was very interested in working with the students to bring an Arabic chatbot to the field, most likely starting in Jordan.

“At the end, our team kind of came out of the weeds,” said Joseff, an undergrad majoring in human biology. “We finally got to the thing that Steve Blank talks about – where you can see the whites of a customer’s eyes and they just really want the product you’re talking about.”

Team Exodus: Coordinating information to better serve refugees

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Watching the students’ process and progress was an eye-opener even for many State Department sponsors and private-sector mentors. Team Space Evaders, who in week 7 seemed to be vying for the title of Team Whose Proposed Products Generated the Most Yawns from Potential Customers, had an “ah-ha” moment and decided instead of focusing on tracking objects already in space, they’d pivot and concentrate on objects that will be launched in the future.

They’re proposing a “debris footprint” that would rate satellites before they’re sent into orbit on how much space junk they could generate. The team hopes that this could lead to international design standards to reduce space debris.

“They had a fundamental insight – don’t track ’em, solve it before they even get into space,” said Jonathan Margolis, deputy assistant secretary of State for science, space and health who came all the way from Washington to meet with the team and sit in on the class in Week 9. “It’s a reconceptualization of a problem we’ve really been struggling with.”

Team members Dave Gabler, a master’s student in business and public policy with an Air Force background, and Matthew Kaseman, an Army vet and freshman in aerospace engineering, said the next step is to produce a white paper that fleshes out the mathematical formulas that could underpin a ratings system, then take that to academic and industry conferences. “That would help start a public discussion and push the debate,” said Gabler.

“The math is probably the easy part,” said Pablo Quintanilla, a former Foreign Service Officer and current head of public policy for Asia for Salesforce, who served as mentor for the Space Evaders team. “There’s so much more to the behavioral side – who in the international space community will adopt this?”

Quintanilla said that working with Space Evaders drove home for him the merits of forming diverse teams to tackle problems. Besides Gabler and Kaseman, the student team included Kate Boudreau, a junior majoring in biomedical computation, and Tyler Dammann, a junior in computer science.

“This cross-functionality and working across disciplines is really effective,” Quintanilla said. “I feel like this is living proof that you should work everywhere like this.”

Team Space Evaders: Reducing space junk

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Professor Jeremy Weinstein, a co-instructor for the class who recently served as deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledged that 10 weeks is a really short time frame for the students to make any meaningful impact. But unlike an internship, where a lone student “plugs into an existing bureaucratic hierarchy and rules,” the Hacking for Diplomacy students had the advantage of being able to work in teams — and approach the problem more as outsiders.

“The students don’t have to play by the same rules [as insiders]. They can ask the non-PC questions,” said Weinstein. “To be ignorant of the rules is a blessing at times — if you can do it respectfully.”

Getting students to have a healthy appreciation for how government policy is made — sometimes painfully slowly — is part of the educational process. And so perhaps is getting bureaucrats to be more open to fresh ideas. “There’s not going to be a flip of the switch” in State as a result of this class, Weinstein said. “There is some skepticism. But I think more broadly, we’ve won some people over.”

Thursday’s wrap-up session attracted a diverse audience, including representatives from leading Silicon Valley tech companies as well as diplomats from France, Britain and Denmark. Susan Alzner, head of the U.N. Non-Governmental Liaison Service’sNew York office, said after watching the student presentations, she wants to take the customer discovery and interview methodology back to her agency.

“The U.N. has lots of small teams of people who often believe they already know the solution to a problem. … And the U.N. does way too much consultation digitally. Interviews are critical. It’s so elaborate to see these students doing 100 interviews to understand a problem, but it’s so important to orient yourself before making a plan to do something.”

Team Hacking 4 Peacekeeping: Better data on, and decision-making about, peacekeeping forces

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Weinstein noted that scaling up Hacking for Diplomacy may not be as easy as expanding Hacking for Defense, simply because “there are millions of people who work in the Department of Defense… while the size of the State Department foreign service corps is smaller than the total number of people who play in military bands.” That means there are fewer people who can serve as sponsors.

At the same time, the class could tap a wider array of sponsor organizations. “Scale maybe has to look different — we can look to the [State Department], but also UNHCR, the foreign ministry of the U.K., other international organizations,” Weinstein said. “You have to think of a different array of partners.”

Most of the State Department sponsors for this year’s class, Weinstein noted, were not political appointees but career foreign service officers or career civil servants.

“They are the glue that holds the agency together and they are key to getting anything implemented in government. And so the buy-in is there,” he said. “But they also need permission; they need a blessing to experiment with radically different ideas. And you need political cover in these bureaucracies to do this kind of work.”

“I hope,” he added, “we’ll have that cover in a subsequent administration. More than cover. Endorsement. Enthusiasm. Excitement.”


Our teaching team

Like the students’ efforts, the teaching of this class was also a team project. I was joined by Jeremy Weinstein, former deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Stanford professor of political science; Zvika Krieger, the State Department’s representative to Silicon Valley and senior advisor for technology and innovation; retired U.S. Army Col. Joe Felter, who co-created Hacking for Defense and is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford; and Steve Weinstein, chief executive of MovieLabs who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford and UC Berkeley.

h4dip-instructors

Our teaching assistants were Shazad Mohamed, Sam Gussman and Roland Gillah. We were fortunate to get a team of seven mentors currently or formerly served in the State Department and selflessly volunteered their time to help coach the teams. Each team also got a mentor from the tech industry who helped guide them through creating their final products. Of course, huge thanks to the Stanford students who gave their all through this class.

Going forward

While our previous Hacking for Defense class gave us a hint that doing the same for Diplomacy would work, we’re a little stunned about how well this class with the State Department went. A surprising number of students have decided to continue working on foreign policy projects after this class with the State Department or with NGO’s. Other colleges and universities have raised their hands, and said they want to offer Hacking for Diplomacy or potentially a USAID Hacking for Development class at their school.

Meanwhile our Hacking for Defense class continues to scale through H4Di.org the non profit we set up to curate the problems from our sponsors (JIDO, ARCYBER, AWG, USMC, NSA, AFNWC, SOCOM, 75th Ranger Regiment, USTRANSCOM, Cyber Force Protection Brigade, National Defense University, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy). And H4Di.org supports the universities teaching the class this year: Stanford, UC San Diego, Georgetown, Air Force, University of Pittsburgh, James Madison University, Boise State, and RIT.

If you’re interested in offering Hacking for Diplomacy (or Defense) in your school, or if you’re a sponsor in a federal agency interested in solving problems with speed and urgency, join us at our next H4D educators class January 17-19th at Georgetown.

Lessons learned

  • Our sponsors inside State saw examples of a new and powerful methodology – Lean which could help them better understand and deal with complicated international problems
  • Lean offers State speed and agility to deliver rapid solutions that are needed and wanted
  • Our students learned that they could serve their country without having to put on a uniform
  • Other universities are willing to have their students work on diplomacy and development problems
  • The class was a success

(This post is a continuation of a series. See all the posts about Hacking for Diplomacy here.)

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.”

Hacking for Diplomacy – Solving foreign policy challenges with the Lean LaunchPad

Photo: State Department

Photo: State Department

Hacking for Diplomacy is a new course from the Management Science and Engineering department in Stanford’s Engineering school and Stanford’s International Policy Studies program that will be first offered in the Fall of 2016.

Join a select cross-disciplinary class that takes real problems from the U.S. State Department and asks students to use Lean Methods to test their understanding of the problem and deliver rapid-fire innovative solutions to pressing diplomacy, development and foreign policy challenges.

H4Dip home page

Syrian Refugees, Human Trafficking, Zika Virus, Illegal Fishing, Weapons of Mass Destruction Detection, ISIS on-line propaganda, Anti-Corruption…

What do all these problems have in common? The U.S. Department of State is working on all of them.

The U.S. Department of State manages America’s relationships with 180 foreign governments, international organizations, and the people of other countries with 270 embassies, consulates, and other posts. The management of all these relationships is called diplomacy. 70,000 State Department employees (46,000 Foreign Service Nationals, 14,000 Foreign Service Employees and 11,000 in the Civil Service) carry out the President’s foreign policy and help build a freer, more prosperous, and secure world.

The State Department has four main foreign policy goals:

  • Protect the United States and Americans
  • Advance democracy, human rights, and other global interests
  • Promote international understanding of American values and policies
  • Support U.S. diplomats, government officials, and all other personnel at home and abroad.

At a time of significant global uncertainty, diplomats are grappling with a set of transnational and cross-cutting challenges that defy easy solution. These include the continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by states and non-state groups, the outbreak of internal conflict across the Middle East and in parts of Africa, the most significant flow of refugees since World War II, and a changing climate that is beginning to affect both developed and developing countries.

And that’s just on Monday. The rest of the week is equally busy.

State dept org chart

Hacking for Diplomacy

In a world of complex threats, dynamic opportunities, and diffuse power, effective diplomacy and development require institutions that adapt, embrace technology, and allow for experimentation to ensure continuous learning. This means developing new and innovative ways to think about, organize and build diplomatic strategies and solutions. Stanford’s new Hacking for Diplomacy class is a part of this effort.

Hacking for Diplomacy is designed to provide students the opportunity to learn how to work with the Department of State to address urgent foreign policy challenges. While the traditional tools of statecraft remain relevant, policymakers are looking to harness the power of new technologies to rethink how the U.S. government approaches and responds to  the problems outlined above and other long-standing challenges. In this class, student teams will take actual foreign policy challenges and a hands-on approach that will require close engagement with officials in the U.S. State Department and other civilian agencies. They’ll learn how to apply “lean startup” principles, (“mission model canvas,” “customer development,” and “agile engineering”) to discover and validate agency and user needs and to continually build iterative prototypes to test whether they understood the problem and solution.

Each week, teams will use the Mission Model Canvas (a variant of the Business Model Canvas used for government agencies and non-profits) to develop a set of initial hypotheses about a solution to the problem and will get out of the building and talk to relevant stakeholders and users. As they learn, they’ll iterate and pivot on these hypotheses through customer discovery and build minimal viable prototypes (MVPs). Each team will be guided by a sponsor from the State Department bureau that proposed the problem and a second mentor from the local community.

Real Problems

In this class, student teams select from an existing set of problems provided by the Department of State. Hacking for Diplomacy is not a product incubator for a specific technology solution. Instead, as teams follow the Mission Model Canvas, they’ll discover a deeper understanding of the selected problem, the challenges of deploying the solutions, and the host of potential technological solutions that might be arrayed to solve them. Using the Lean LaunchPad Methodology the class focuses teams to:

  • Deeply understand the problems/needs of State Department beneficiaries and stakeholders
  • Rapidly iterate technology solutions while searching for product-market fit
  • Understand all the stakeholders, deployment issues, costs, resources, and ultimate mission value
  • Produce a repeatable model that can be used to launch other potential technology solutions

National Service

Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps.

Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the State Department and other government agencies. Hacking for Diplomacy will promote engagement between students and the Department of State and provide a hands-on opportunity to solve real diplomacy, foreign policy and national security problems.

Like its sister class, Hacking for Defense, our goal is to open-source this class to other universities. By creating a national network of colleges and universities, Hacking for Diplomacy can scale to provide hundreds of solutions to critical diplomacy, policy, and national security problems every year.

We’re going to create a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the diplomatic, policy, and national security problems facing the country and get them engaged in partnership with islands of innovation in the Department of State. This is a first step to a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to diplomacy and national security in the 21st century.

Lessons Learned

  • Hacking for Diplomacy is a new class that teaches students how to:
    • Use the Lean LaunchPad methodology to deeply understand the problems/needs of State Department customers
    • Deliver minimum viable products that match State Department needs in an extremely short time
  • The class will also teach the islands of innovation in the Department of State:
    • how the innovation culture and mindset operate at speed
    • how to identify potential dual-use technologies that exist outside their agencies and contractors (and are in university labs, or are commercial off-the-shelf solutions)
    • how to use an entrepreneurial mindset and Lean Methodologies to solve foreign policy problems

Register for the inaugural class at Stanford starting September 29

Insights from federal digital design leaders

U.S. Digital Service

Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane have been on a roll lately featuring federal government design leaders on their Responsive Web Design Podcast.

The first episode, with U.S. Digital Service Designer Mollie Ruskin and Lead Front End Designer Julia Elman sharing insights into their design process and prototyping tools (OmniGraffle, Sketch, GitHub) and building the U.S. Web Design Standards, has excellent insights for those focused on this aspect of the civic experience.

Favorite quote from Mollie:

“I think that one thing that you have to just come to terms with in doing a project like this is that there are so many moving pieces and it’s a lot to keep track of all at the same time, and just to sort of like take a meditative, reasoned approach to that because it can be a daunting amount. I had been given that advice before I started, and it was about halfway through that I felt the zen of all of the pieces moving and realized that that was part of the beauty of doing this work, is that by us taking on this complex important problem, we were going to be making it easier for others moving forward. So, I would just encourage a can-do attitude and plow through those times where you feel like you’re building seventeen things all at once, because you will be.”

RWD has also featured designers from Vets.gov, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Department of State.

The State Department’s mobile site is now responsive

m.state.gov

m.state.gov

In a peculiar approach to web design strategy, the U.S. State Department has upgraded its mobile website, m.state.gov, to a responsive design.

Typically, responsive web design is leveraged to allow organizations to develop one site that fits all devices, whether it’s viewed on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop. This approach significantly lessens development resources.

A cursory look appears to show that both sites have the same content, so it’s not quite clear what the strategy is.

Perhaps m.state.gov is the beta site for state.gov? Or should be?

Regardless, now that the State Department has a responsive website, my recommendation would be to replace the current state.gov with the m.state.gov and redirect all traffic going to the mobile to the main site.

This lets State significantly reduce its website development and content management costs and allows it to repurpose those resources into building a stronger, unified web presence.

Cabinet members brief Amercan citizens in Year One videos

President Obama’s Cabinet taped Year One videos to highlight their respective department or agency’s 2009 accomplishments and or goals for the next year.

What do you think? Which are most informative? Authentic? Is this an effective way to familiarize citizens to public servants and put a face on government?

Secretary Robert Gates, Department of Defense:

Secretary Steven Chu, Department of Energy:

Secretary Ray LaHood, Department of Transportation:

Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, Department of Agriculture:

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Department of State:

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency:

Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Department of Treasury:

Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security:

Secretary Gary F. Locke, Department of Commerce:

Secretary Hilda L. Solis, Department of Labor:

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services:

Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar, Department of the Interior:

Ambassador Ronald Kirk, United States Trade Representative:

Ambassador Susan Rice, United States Ambassador to the United Nations:

Director Peter R. Orszag, Office of Management & Budget:

Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Justice:

Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Department of Veterans Affairs:

Chair Christina Romer, Council of Economic Advisers:

Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education: