Rohan Pavuluri


Empathy Meets Tech

As More Technologists Enter Government, the Humanities Should be a Part of their Education

In the last few years, local and federal government agencies have made incredible strides towards attracting technical talent. President Obama appointed the first U.S. Chief Technology Officer, established the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, and created the U.S. Digital Service, a program to embed technologists in 25 federal agencies.

At the city level, Chicago’s predictive model to help food inspectors locate high-risk restaurants and Boston’s new platform to streamline permits reveal that local government technologists can keep up with their White House counterparts. We’ve proven that once technical talent gets to government, it doesn’t acquire some defective condition unbeknownst to its private sector peer.

But most college students already believe technologists can solve social and economic problems in government. CS50 is the most popular course at Harvard and Yale, I believe, because students realize that Silicon Valley doesn’t own a monopoly over technological innovation. Unfortunately, the popularity of tech has prompted the decline of humanities in higher education. “Why read Aristotle when you can learn to build a website that will reach millions of users?” the logic goes.

While CS50’s total enrollment numbers totaled over 800 in 2015, less than 20 percent of Harvard students chose to major in the humanities. Nationally, humanities majors lie below 10 percent of college students. As more technologists try to solve problems in government, it is essential now more than ever that they have a strong background in the humanities.

The humanities are the study of what it means to be human. A deep training in the humanities is a deep training in empathy. And when building new technology in government, the only skill as important as the ability to create the technology is the ability to empathize with the people you’re trying to impact and the colleagues you’re working with to do it.

This December, I had the chance to sit in the back of the room as newly elected Mayors discussed “the Tech and Data-Driven City.” During the Q and A, a mayor declared, “In the minds of many government bureaucrats, technology means unemployment.” He then asked, “What can we do about that?” The answer is empathy. If you can understand someone else’s situation, you can help them understand how technology will help them do their jobs better — not replace them. Humanists have a role in helping agencies adopt technological innovation. They have the skills to assuage individuals afraid of what data and technology will do to their livelihoods.

Beyond easing the implementation of technology in government, the humanities have a role in complementing data-driven public policy. In a conversation I had with recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner and poverty scholar Matt Desmond, he explained how mining hundreds of thousands of eviction records and millions of 911 calls helped him discover that eviction is a cause rather than a symptom of poverty. Desmond, however, relied on his human relationships to understand that tenants are less likely to seek help from their neighbors when they know they’ll be judged. Neighbors who are asked for help, Desmond found, are more likely to criticize than empathize. How do you teach empathy? This is a problem for the humanities to solve, he told me.

From my time in the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), I saw first hand that it’s not as easy as you would think to collaborate between various city departments. While my team focused on using data science to serve Chicagoans, they relied on other city departments to implement the models they created. The Chicago Department of Public Health would not being using predictive analytics today had it not been for the ability of DoIT leaders to empathize with their counterparts. Chicago is technologically progressive because its technologists understand how to make other departments’ concerns a priority. Sometimes, these concerns can be frustrating, especially when others fail to understand basic concepts. Here, empathy among tech leaders in government is paramount.

Every year, freshmen at Harvard receive a physical brochure in their mailbox from the arts and humanities division, outlining the practical applications of its offerings. The humanities teach you to think and to write, the brochure recounts. But they also teach you a more important skill, likely omitted for fear of appearing too abstract and high-level.

Every time we pick up a Hemingway novel, read a Sufi poet, or work our way through one of Kant’s passages, we improve our ability to imagine, to empathize. When we’re asked to react to a historical event, we necessarily put ourselves in the shoes of historical actors and think about why they made their decisions. This is deeply practical — as practical as the ability to code in C++ or calculate correlations.

Fortunately, some schools have taken note. The most notable is Stanford, which offers a CS + X program for engineers who want to double major in the humanities and “imbue technical challenges with human significance.” More schools need to follow Stanford. The humanities should be a part of any engineer or data scientist’s education.

Driven by Silicon Valley, much of my generation believes that we can code our way out of most problems. If only our federal government could hire more software engineers and data scientists and actually pay them, we could solve several social and economic problems. I agree.

We must also make sure, however, that technologists can empathize with the people they impact and the colleagues with whom they collaborate. They must hold a deep understanding of human needs and concerns, whether they be unemployment, privacy, or otherwise. Only then, can technology meet its full potential in government.

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