Almost three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world. Many are still looking to find a “new normal”.
“Instead of going back to normal, [there’s a new generation that] it wants to rebuild something different, something better,” says Jorge Sandoval, a second-year student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS). “How do we convey this thinking to others that the world cannot be the same as before?”
That was the inspiration behind “New (Re)Generation,” this year’s theme for the IDSS-run student MIT Policy Hackathon, which Sandoval helped organize as the event’s chair. The Policy Hackathon is an interdisciplinary weekend-long competition that brings together participants from around the world to explore potential solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges.
Unlike other competitions of its kind, Sandoval says the MIT event emphasizes a humanistic approach. “The idea of our hackathon is to promote applications of technology that are humanistic or human-centered,” he says. “We take the opportunity to explore aspects of technology in the spaces where it tends to interact with society and people, an opportunity that most tech competitions don’t offer because their main focus is on the technology.”
The competition started with 50 teams divided into four challenging categories. This year’s categories included internet and cyber security, environmental justice, logistics and housing, and urban planning. While some people enter the challenge with friends, Sandoval said most teams form organically during an online networking meeting hosted by MIT.
“We encourage people to team up with other people outside of their country and form teams of different backgrounds and ages,” says Sandoval. “We’re trying to empower people who are often not invited to the decision-making table to be policymakers by bringing in those with backgrounds not only in law, politics or policy, but also in medicine, as well as people , who have a career in engineering or experience working in non-profit organizations.’
Once an in-person event, the Policy Hackathon has gone through its own regeneration process over the past three years, according to Sandoval. After going fully online during the height of the pandemic, last year they successfully organized the first hybrid version of the event, which served as their model this year as well.
“The hybrid version of the event gives us the opportunity to allow people to connect in a way that is lost if it’s only online, while maintaining the wide range of accessibility, allowing people to join from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or income to contribute,” Sandoval says.
For Swetha Tadisina, a Computer Science student at Lafayette College and a participant in the Internet and Cybersecurity category, the hackathon was a unique opportunity to meet and work with people much further along in their careers. “I was surprised how such a diverse team, who had never met before, managed to work so efficiently and creatively,” says Tadisina.
Erica Spangler, a Massachusetts public high school teacher and member of the winning team in the environmental justice category, says that while each member of Team Slime Mold came to the table with a different skill set, they were able to be in sync from the start—even to work through the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference the four-person team faced when working with political advocate Shruti Nandy from Calcutta, India.
“We split the project into data, policy and research and relied on each other’s expertise,” says Spangler, “Even though we have separate areas of focus, we made sure to have regular check-ins to resolve issues and cross-pollinate ideas.”
During the 48-hour period, her team proposed the creation of an algorithm to identify high-quality brownfield sites that could be cleaned up and used as sites for building renewable energy. Their respective policies seek to impose additional requirements on renewable energy businesses seeking Inflation Reduction Act tax credits.
“Their policy note had the most in-depth technical assessment, including deep dives into several key cities to show the impact of their proposed site selection approach at a very granular level,” says Amanda Levin, director of policy analysis for Natural Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Levine acted as both a judge and challenge provider for the environmental justice category.
“They also presented their policy recommendations in the memo in a well-thought-out way, clearly noting the relevant actor,” she adds. This clarity about what can be done and who will be held accountable for those actions is very valuable to those in politics.
Levin says NRDC, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the United States, provided five “challenge questions,” making it clear that teams don’t have to answer all of them. She notes that this gave the teams considerable leeway, bringing a wide variety of recommendations to the table.
“As a challenger partner, the work brought together by all the teams is already being used to help inform discussions around the implementation of the Deflation Act,” says Levin. “Being able to tap into the collective intelligence of the hackathon has helped uncover new perspectives and policy solutions that can help make an impact in addressing the important policy challenges we face today.”
While having partners with experience in data science and policy certainly helped, Slime Mold teammate Sarah Scheffels, a PhD student in MIT’s Biomaterials Program, says she was surprised by how much her experience outside of science and policy was up to the challenge: “My experience organizing the MIT Graduate Student Union shaped my ideas for more meaningful community involvement in brownfield renewable energy projects. There is no point in simply educating people about the importance of renewable energy sources or asking them to sign off on a pre-planned project without addressing their other needs.
“I wanted to test my limits, gain exposure and expand my world,” adds Tadisina. “The exposure, friendships and experience you gain in such a short period of time is incredible.”
For Willie R. Vazquez, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, the hackathon is not to be missed. “If you’re interested in the intersection of technology, society and politics, then this is a must experience.”