Sprinting Toward Civic Technology
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Sprinting Toward Civic Technology

Civic technology is critical to addressing some of the nation’s toughest challenges, from the opioid crisis to disaster relief and more. Today’s “Profiles in Public Service” guest, Drew Zachary from U.S. Census Bureau, describes how the federal initiative she co-founded, The Opportunity Project, uses cross-sector collaboration and open federal data to design technology that supports communities across the country. Susanna Pho is a startup founder and a former participant in The Opportunity Project’s Design Sprint Challenge competitions, during which she partnered with federal agencies to use her company’s software that helps local governments and communities better adapt to the effects of climate change. Quentin Cummings is a climate analyst at the Federal Emergency Management Agency whose earlier work in government informed Pho’s 2022 Design Sprint Challenge project to strengthen collaboration between federal and local governments to aid in their preparedness for flood risk and response to natural disasters in their communities. Zachary, Pho and Cummings discuss how using federal data and partnering across sectors allows them to support local economies, expand opportunity and rebuild trust in government in communities across the country.  

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Rachel Klein-Kircher: From the Partnership for Public Service, this is Profiles in Public Service—a podcast that shares the stories of the public servants who work on our behalf every day to make our country safer, healthier and more prosperous. 

We talk to career public servants, emerging leaders, and others to better understand what it means to be a public servant… the incredible variety of careers possible in government… and how public service impacts all our lives.  

I’m your host, Rachel Klein-Kircher. 

Sarah Philbrick:  And I am Sarah Philbrick, Rachel’s guest host for today’s episode and a manager on our Research team. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: This season, we are bringing listeners on a journey filled with stories of both federal service and community impact. Our current series of episodes include both public servants and those who have directly benefitted from their leadership and innovation to demonstrate what it takes for our federal government and its wide network of regional partners to effectively serve the people. 

Sarah Philbrick: Today’s episode is all about civic technology and a federal initiative that leverages design, tech, and cross-sector collaboration to address some of the nation’s toughest challenges, including the opioid crisis and disaster relief. 

Drew Zachary joins us as a leader at the Census Bureau, where she co-founded The Opportunity Project. The Opportunity Project invites community advocates, technologists and businesses from across the country to leverage government data to build digital tools by, and for members of the public. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Susanna Pho is a startup founder and a former participant of The Opportunity Project’s Design Sprint Challenge competitions. Susanna has partnered with federal agencies to use her company’s software, which helps local governments and communities better adapt to the effects of climate change.  

Sarah Philbrick: Finally, Quentin Cummings will provide insight from his experience as a user of Susanna’s 2022 Opportunity Project design sprint. Quentin is a climate analyst at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he has twice been awarded the FEMA Administrator’s Award, one for Exemplary Emergency Manager and most recently for Innovation. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Let’s turn now to our conversation with Drew, Susanna, and Quentin! 

Transition Music 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Drew, Susanna, and Quentin, thank you so much for being with us today. 

Drew Zachary: Thank you.  

Susanna Pho: Thank you! 

Quentin Cummings: Happy to be here.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Alright. So Drew, I’m going to start with you because we actually met in 2016 when you were a policy advisor for the White House Domestic Policy Council, and the Partnership then was collaborating with the Obama administration on delivering outcomes for communities training. And then I worked with you on putting together a session for the HUD Promise Zone staff. 

So we’re going to fast forward seven years, and we’re here to learn from you about another big impact initiative to help communities across the country solve real world problems. So tell us what inspired you to pursue public service and work for the federal government and about your journey to get to the work you’re doing now. 

Drew Zachary: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for hosting us on this topic. I am Drew. I currently am at the Department of Commerce, but to answer your question, I’ll kind of give you the short backstory. I feel like I find myself now among all of these, you know, presidential innovation fellows and tech fellows who like never meant to come into government and are sort of in government in spite of themselves. 

And I am the opposite. I always wanted to come into government service. I’m just a government nerd and I think it’s really cool. So I had a pretty traditional public policy journey, but I never thought that I would end up, nor when I was studying public policy, did I even know that this job would exist or was a thing. 

So, I was really interested, you know, in politics. I studied public policy and political science in undergrad. I got a master’s in public policy. And I think what really set it all in motion for me was a very, just like serendipitous opportunity to take a huge deep dive course in my master’s program on qualitative research. And that kind of set me off on this journey to, before it was cool to call it user experience, basically studying user experience design and community-based policy interventions, community-based participatory research, and spent a lot of time doing that kind of work in Baltimore communities.

I think it was that sort of passion for data and evidence-based work, but equal passion for working with communities and community partnerships that’s sort of what I fell in love with and then ended up having the opportunity to come into federal government as a Presidential Management Fellow, which huge shout out to the PMF program I loved and was an incredible opportunity, you know, that’s where I just put it all together in the Promise Zones Initiative. At the time, President Obama inspired a lot of people with his background as a community organizer that he really never forgot in the way that, you know, he led government. And emphasized that the federal government should always be working to be a better partner to communities and to do more people-centered, people-driven work and letting you know people and local communities tell us what they needed. 

So, that really resonated. And then again, very serendipitously, I had the opportunity to do a detailer rotation at the White House Domestic Policy Council, and that was where The Opportunity Project was born. Nobody knew that it was going to take off like this and certainly not the, you know, go down the way that it did over the last seven years. But that kind of became what I worked on for the next five years or so and I think the thread that goes through all of it a hundred percent is community partnership and being like true partners with communities and businesses and people across the country, right alongside the value of data and the value of evidence-based work, and putting that all together, that’s basically what The Opportunity Project is. So now I have two hats. My broader team, we kind of spun out The Opportunity Project into a broader open innovation team at The Census Bureau called Census Open Innovation Lab. 

So with one hat, I manage that team, and with another hat, I work on innovation priorities for the whole Department of Commerce. And that’s probably the too long version of it. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: No, not at all. And thank you for opening by saying that you always thought it was cool to work in government because this is our space, like the Partnership for Public Service. If we didn’t think it was cool, we wouldn’t be doing what we do. So, totally hear you. And I’d love now to turn it to Sarah to dig more into what you’re, the projects that you’re working on today. 

Sarah Philbrick: Yeah. I loved hearing about how you got here and we know you’re the director and co-founder of The Opportunity Project at the US Census Bureau, which you started in 2016. At the time that was described as a new effort to facilitate collaboration between technologists, community advocates, and federal data in order to design digital solutions for the public good. So can you tell us a little bit more about what that actually looks like in practice? What prompted you to start the project and then what are some of the big accomplishments you’re really proud of? 

Drew Zachary: Great question. So, I am one of the co-founders and I always want to shout out my co-founders, Luke Tate, Aden Van Noppen, and Denice Ross. Denice is now the US Chief Data Scientist, which is really exciting. So the quick backstory is, and I also will give credit to the great Cecilia Muñoz, who’s really was her idea. This was all very new at the time, the whole idea of civic tech as something that the federal government worked on and coordinating with technologists, was super new. There was not a lot of structure to it. Nobody in government knew what tech sprints were probably including us, like people had been to a hackathon and that was kind of the tech literacy of government as outside of, you know, big IT projects. 

So, there had just been this really revolutionary play done at the Department of Education called the College Scorecard, and the idea was pretty much what The Opportunity Project is. It was make open data available to technologists outside of government and let them do interesting projects. It was like kind of the, the first notion of an idea that, I mean, if you also think back to 2012 era prior to that, that was really the first time in a sense that with, with, you know, healthcare.gov, the whole situation, was the first time that at least the White House or the federal government was saying, we’re not going to award a billion dollar contract to anyone, but can we get some partnership with great technologists outside of government to help us fix this situation? And so that idea kind of, I think spun into, well maybe there are lightweight partnerships and ways that we can just look to industry to do what they do and do great things with data and help us come up with new technology products or new just data visualizations even because I don’t think we were even thinking as big as products at the time. So riffing on that, what had been done with education data for the college scorecard. The idea was how do we do that for housing data? Super, super narrow scope. At first it was just about, some, you know, new neighborhood level indicators that HUD had created in 2015 or 2016. And if we could put that together with some census data and just like put it in a spreadsheet and let alongside maybe some city data and let a bunch of companies play around with it, what could they create? And this was originally not meant to be a process at all. It was meant to be a single just event, just like a long hackathon that we were doing. We reached out with just like a basic two pager to, you know, a dozen companies and signed them up for, I’m not sure we even knew what we were signing them up for but, I know the first cohort of 12 included Esri, Zillow, Redfin, and some really awesome startups and, and local organizations, PolicyMaps, some nonprofits as well. We took them through a couple of milestones. We would say, jump on this video conference, which, oh my goodness, 2016 video conferencing was so terrible We actually, I think in one of the first two, We booked the same video conference as another team and GSA or something like that. And we had, we were like, oh, we have too many people who aren’t even supposed to be in this call talking over each other. So it was a total fiasco, and I’m just painting this picture because we’ve come so far in terms of just government agency’s literacy on all of this in general. So that’s what it looked like. 

It was very scrappy. We had people joining video conferences and just presenting kind of iterative demos of cool stuff. They were cooking up with the data. About halfway through we realized that we wanted this to be lasting and not just do an event and call it a day. 

So, that was where the idea of the name, The Opportunity Project, I think was named the day before our first White House demo day, when we realized we wanted it to continue, it didn’t even have a name this whole time. And the idea was we would continue to do it. We weren’t really sure what it was, but we would continue to do these sprints, you know, these long processes where people built cool stuff with data and over the next year, the rest of 2016, we did another much bigger round that engaged federal agencies, and had probably 25 different tech teams involved. Six or seven different sprint topics. And when that worked again, we sort of realized that maybe this is something that was going to continue to work. We made the transition, which is a whole thing in and of itself, to this program being based at the Department of Commerce rather than at the White House. 

And so it was able to make the transition into the subsequent presidential administration. I will say the rest is history, but there’s probably more to it than that. But we continue to iterate and iterate and iterate. I think we’ve been really, serious about experimentation and very concretely testing and iterating on the way that it works. And The Opportunity Project, you know, that Susanna’s participated in over the last couple of years is probably super different from the one that we ran in 2016. And all of that has been based on user feedback from tech teams and others who have participated, federal agency leaders, to get it to the maturity that it’s at today, where it kind of runs like a well-oiled machine. 

and That’s why we’re at the point now that we’re scaling it out to, to all agencies. So it’s come a long way and I think if you look around the civic tech ecosystem and the ecosystem and government, there are tech sprint programs all over CFPB has one, the VA has one. You know, HHS has them. 

And so I think that’s something that’s really spun out as The Opportunity Project has grown over the, you know, since 2016. 

Sarah Philbrick: I started adjacent to the civic tech space around 2015 as well and the amount of change we’ve seen in the past eight to 10 years is really shocking. You’ve talked about some changes in tech literacy, video conferencing, data availability. Were there other major challenges you felt like you had to overcome to achieve the results that we see today? 

Drew Zachary: Yeah, I mean, I think the transition across administrations has always been really significant because you know, just to be very general about it, there are great things that happen in each administration and when there’s a transition to, you know, of parties or just a transition of administrations, there is always a sense of some stuff is going to get cut just because it’s associated with the last administration and they don’t want to look at it anymore. And so, The Opportunity Project, having transitioned from a White House office in a political administration to a career-led permanent kind of office or program. 

I think that was a huge hurdle. And getting buy-in without it being seen as something that was politicized was really important. And I think we were able to achieve that. And now we are a, you know, it’s a career led, apolitical, nonpartisan, just tool that every public servant should have at their disposal to get their work done. 

 And I’m like really looking forward to hearing from Quentin about that too, because I think what’s so cool, just to skip ahead a little is like seeing how other agencies are just able to pick up The Opportunity Project model and just use it to solve a problem. I think that is huge. and yeah, I think there’s, over the years there were little really detailed operational things. 

How do we bring like the creation of the user advocate, which is sort of the, the role and the process that we give to what, what we call sort of the end user of the products that are being created, the target stakeholder of the problem that each sprint is trying to solve. It, it’s been tricky to figure out the best way to, to engage that role in the process. 

So there are little process things like that. And then I think big picture, just continuing to, maintain buy-in it’s The Opportunity Project process at this point, I view as a general tool that everyone should have at their disposal to get their work done, and a way to catalyze solutions for the public. Our team really believes that everybody should be using this, that we want to do everything that we can to equip federal public servants to be able to run sprints using the TOP model and use what we’ve learned. And so, we are always kind of signing up to take on the fight to produce resources and, you know, partner with other agencies and kind of continue to maintain the buy-in that this is a process that’s worthwhile. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So we’d love to dig into now one of these examples of what it looks like when, when one of these sprints is in action. So Susanna, we would love to dig in a little bit more now to see what is it like for Drew’s vision in action. So your company, Forerunner, has participated in these design sprints and you led this in collaboration with The Opportunity Project. 

So we would love to hear what has that been like? What is the process? Tell us what it is your company was hoping to achieve and the impact that this has on your ability to serve communities.  

Susanna Pho: Thank you so much Rachel. So, hi, I’m Susanna. I’m one of the co-founders and the C.O.O. of a company called Forerunner. And to explain what we do: we’re a software company that builds resilience and climate adaptation tools for governments. We really do, on a day-to-day basis occupy, the intersection between technology and government. 

And so it was really wonderful to be able to participate in The Opportunity Project, across actually two years because it was really great to be able to meet like-minded individuals, to be able to collaborate with individuals like Quentin and Drew, and to be able to get their insight. So as background, we participated in 2021 in a TOP sprint in partnership with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

 Then again in 2022 we participated in another TOP Sprint in partnership with FEMA and Quentin so we focused that sprint on building a couple of features with an eye to post-disaster response. 

So the first one was a preliminary damage assessment tool to help our government partners, that might drive their rebuilding efforts. Something we found quite delightful about working with FEMA and Quentin in particular was that when we came to some of the initial post user research conversations with some insights into how our users seem to be asking for a way to communicate things like, you know, after a storm, what are my mitigation opportunities as a resident or as a homeowner? Or, you know, after a storm, like what resources are available to me? A lot of our users were sort of asking for some of those resources and when we came, to one of the TOP meetings, to talk about sort of that insight. 

Quentin, I think jumped at it and he was like, I’ve actually done research on this topic and so I have a ton of resources for you to use there and that was really amazing just because, we were able to benefit from the multiple years of wisdom that Quentin had in this space. And to be able to be in direct dialogue with him about his perspective on what types of products were needed. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So for me, this FEMA experience, an example, is very specific and tangible as to how this directly supports the public. And Quentin, from your perspective, what does it look like to be a user advocate? What does that mean? How do you work with Susanna? How do you work with the public? And how are you navigating within your own agency? 

Quentin Cummings: Sure. Hi everyone, my name’s Quentin Cummings. I’m FEMA’s climate analytics lead. Happy to be here and thank you for the opportunity to be part of this. So the user advocates are those who are actually impacted by disaster but from my perspective, from the government, it’s really great to be able to be there as a resource for private sector that wants to come in, has a lot of really great questions about our data sets. What it is that we’ve tried or haven’t tried, and as Susanna had mentioned, I had already started some research in the area that she was taking her project. It was a few years ago after Hurricane Harvey. Unfortunately the government is very path dependent, right? And this creates some limitations when you want to try to start a new project. There’s lot of convincing that that needs to happen, and government doesn’t always have the necessary resources. This is where the private sector, particularly their ability to see the opportunity can move in that direction a lot more agile, than the federal government can. And so I love the concept of The Opportunity Project and love that we are able to take some of the things in this case, one of the one that Susanna was mentioning and say, yeah, actually I have a lot of resources that I’ve already started in this process with just the federal government didn’t continue it because we had other priorities that we had to focus on. And, you know, here, take all this, take what we have so far. Let me also connect you with, one of our engineers who was working with me on this project, that didn’t end up, you know, going to completion and see if you want to drive with it. And I’m really, really happy that Susanna and her team found that.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Is there one particular story for the two of you that you experienced where you saw the impact on an individual person or a community group because of your collaboration? 

Susanna Pho: I have a story about, sort of coming out of the conversations that Quentin and I had and also that we had with the rest of our team and the rest of his team. We were able to build a prototype that we could then circulate to a lot of our users sort of locally and also to residents. Showing them that prototype, getting his feedback on it, and then having something that felt like it was fairly well calibrated to what was ultimately sort of necessary in the space led to us having conversations with people where they were like, this is exactly what I need. And as a founder, you can’t really have a more delightful experience than showing someone something that you’ve built and having them say like,  

‘great, you read my mind.’ I think the reason that we were able to do that was because, Quentin and his team were able to provide us with sort of wonderful and also varied insight into what the use case is for a feature like our submissions portal might be.  

Sarah Philbrick: I’d love to follow up on that, Susanna, and hear from you as the guest on this call who doesn’t work in the federal government. Is there something that surprised you as you worked with federal leaders through your involvement with The Opportunity Project or the leading of Forerunner? What’s something you learned about federal government through that experience?  

Susanna Pho: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I personally was really impressed with how enthusiastic federal leaders like Quentin and Drew are about sort of encouraging the work of startups like ours. Through our conversations it was just so clear that they see us as having a place in the ecosystem of tools that governments utilize. And that partnership has felt really meaningful. And then also just generally our ability to gain a lot of insight about the work that they do and sort of how they see the work of local governments in turn, through TOP. I think that was really surprising for us because I think we gained a lot more insight than we were sort of expecting going into the sprints.  

Sarah Philbrick: That is great to hear. It’s like the, the ultimate success story. Do you have anything you think is important for people to know about the federal government’s experience or ability to make an impact for individuals or communities across the country? 

Susanna Pho: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s a couple of things. Maybe speaking to a true story about growing and, and founding The Opportunity Project something I think that’s important to know is that federal data can really be very impactful in informing the work of local governments or work locally overall? 

I think sometimes we think about federal data sets as sort of so huge or so general that they might not be able to be deployed locally. But I think our work and the work of the other participants in the sprint sort of speak to the fact that that’s not necessarily true. And I think the other thing would just be you know, that you have people like Drew and Quentin who really want to help make that data accessible at a local level, because I think sometimes people can sort of think about the construct of the federal government and say like, well I’m not exactly sure where to go to find resources like that. But then you have Drew saying, you know, like, we really want to make this a resource for all agencies. 

We want to make this possible for everyone. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So Drew, you had described your earlier efforts when you were just getting into things and you said, I’m not sure what we were even signing them up for, which I love that there’s just that ability to play around and try things. So from that all the way to now, what we’re hearing Susanna and Quentin describe, how do you feel about the impact and where things are today? 

Drew Zachary: It’s pretty amazing to see it all, and I think the first thing is I am really happy that people continue to have a great experience in TOP because I think if you’re a responsible public servant, you’re always asking, is this really working? Like, should we really continue to do this, based on whether it’s working. I think I’m kind of a skeptical person by nature and so I’ll continue to ask that year after year about The Opportunity Project especially in those early kind of transition years, 2017/2018. And we really religiously went back to user research. And I think that what Quentin and Susanna have really highlighted so beautifully is that with The Opportunity Project, and I keep calling it TOP, that’s how we abbreviate it, we take a product approach. And I think people are being encouraged to do that more and more so as public servants and federal agencies. So, if The Opportunity Project is a product, we have two levels of users. For my team at Commerce, Quentin is one of our users. He is a user of the process itself. And then for Quentin, it includes Susanna. It’s people who are building products. And then of course, forerunner has end users. And so I think that mindset helps us always be thinking about what is our user getting out of this? How can we be more responsive to what their needs are and how the process is going for them. What’s their mission? 

What are their goals? Are we helping them achieve it? At every step of the process, everyone has a role in one of those kind of chess boards. So, as we went through our user research year after year, talking to federal agency leaders, talking to the tech teams and the others who have participated to get their user feedback and improve the process, it was amazing to hear that people liked it because that was not a foregone conclusion. If tech teams didn’t like the process, we weren’t going to keep doing it or we were going to significantly change it. And so we just completed our 2022 showcase event which is now all on the Census Bureau’s YouTube channel called The Opportunity Project Summit. 

And last year I mentioned in particular, this was a significant one for me to hear all the tech team presentations, because I did not really participate in the TOP sprint process at all last year. Maternity leave, moving, there was a lot going on and so when I totally missed the process and it just played out the way that it was kind of designed to. 

And we had great sprint leaders like Quentin who were following the process and bringing their own leadership and kind of personal take on it. We had the amazing Opportunity Project Team at Census Open Innovation Labs who was kind of quarterbacking the whole thing. And then the teams, like the tech teams just did their thing. 

They did what great tech teams do. They built awesome products. And I had nothing to do with it. And it like, I think that is so exciting because we’re at a point now where it’s not about any one individual, it’s just a process that works. And again, like being a skeptical person, I’ll always continue to question that. 

But then you see people at TOP Summit who we couldn’t have asked them to say it better. They were like, TOP was great, you know, we had a great experience and we were able to do X, Y, and Z because of this process. That is so exciting again, to hear and rewarding and just, you know, is very reassuring that this process is something that delivers a lot of value to many different kinds of stakeholders. 

And I also wanted to mention just hearing Susanna, I think about the value of federal data. I think that was something, you know, I mentioned the Obama administration because that’s when we were founded. But through each of the administrations since then, I think we have evolved with the times and taken something from all of the different leaders that have been at Commerce and the White House and you know, our office. And one of those was the idea of data as a strategic asset, which was a really core part of the federal data strategy in the last administration. And I think that was a bit of a pivot for TOP because we, in the beginning, were all about serving communities, community level data. This is about, you know, delivering value to families and neighborhood leaders. And it still is. But something that really unlocked an opportunity, no pun intended, for us with the idea of data as a strategic asset, as a priority for federal agencies was it’s a good thing to help businesses. 

Like that’s great. You know, that drives our economy. And the idea that data, especially at Commerce, America’s data agency, is a strategic asset that we can use to advance small businesses and startups and help businesses and communities to thrive. That was a bit of a game changer for us because it allowed us to prioritize that and say that, of course, we’re here to solve problems for community members and people facing challenges that we’re trying to solve in TOP sprints, but we’re also here to help businesses advance. 

Using federal data as an asset that belongs to the public. So, I think that is something that is exciting to see continue to, to benefit the companies and, and the nonprofits and the students and academics involved as well. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I’m also hearing how this really impacts trust in government, which everyone here knows has been forefront of what’s happening in this environment. And you started off by saying, you know, I’m happy they like it, and then there’s all of these benefits that come from it. And I appreciate that you said, you know, my responsibility as a public servant is to check, is this working? 

And I think that really feeds into you the difference of what does it mean to be a public servant and what is our charge? And it helps to strengthen this piece about trust in government. So to continue on this theme of how this initiative may build trust in government for the public, for our partners, Quentin, I’d love to hear your take on what you’re seeing from your perspective.  

Quentin Cummings: Sure. Thank you. You know, my background is science and I’m a big believer in open science. You cannot have open science without open data and you can’t have trust in the science without that data being opened. And so it’s all connected in my viewpoint when it comes to science, the data, the government, that it’s best if this is open. Now it’s interesting because in the last 15 years I would say there’s been a pendulum that goes back and forth on whether or not the data should be open, whether or not the government should charge for it. And I’ll take Landsat for example. So the, the Landsat program out of NASA and USGS is an example of that. It was just opened up in 2008 or 2009, and then the last administration was debating on whether or not to make people pay for it again. 

And thankfully they chose not to, and it’s still open. but it seems like it’s, winning. Government is winning here in terms of the understanding, the benefits of having data be open. So we have data.gov but all the different agencies now have an open data process. 

FEMA, for example, has open FEMA and all these datasets are there. You know, I think most people’s viewpoint now is that the taxpayers paid for the collection of that data in the first place. So if we were to charge for it, it’s, it’s really double charging. And we really want for people and companies in the private sector and academia to have access to this because open data also invites transparency in government and it, it, it also invites some critical thinking about whether or not the government is doing the best that they can in a certain area. 

So, it’s a good thing for people to be able to open up these data sets, find out what’s working, what’s not. You know, sometimes you need to shine a spotlight on some, some areas in order to improve those areas, and, we welcome that. At least I do. So, I would love the idea of, of opening this up, allowing the private sector to monetize it, allow the academia to be able to study it, allow your individual citizens to be able to access it and to use it to make better decisions. 

 When it comes to my background in climate change, I want people to be able to decide where to buy and build in smarter ways. And you don’t do that, and you can’t get trust in that if the data isn’t open and readily accessible for people to be able to read it and have it in a, in a readable format, that is easily accessible and easy to be able to look at.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Right, because we are not all data scientists. 

Quentin Cummings: Absolutely.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: As my friend Sarah, who I think is ready with the next question. 

Sarah Philbrick: I love, Quentin, you talking about this as an invitation for the public to both get involved with the government in some way and also have this dialogue with the government in another way between what this evidence says about what we’re doing as a government and what open data can bring to communities. 

When we think about government holding a place in people’s lives, can you tell us why you might suggest someone pursue a career in public service and what that can bring to someone?  

Quentin Cummings: So I grew up in a pretty rural area of North Central Pennsylvania and I had no intent to ever work for the federal government. It wasn’t at least in my, dreams growing up. That just wasn’t something that I knew anyone in my area ever did. 

The only people I knew with a college degree growing up where I lived were teachers. And so my undergrad is actually an education and I thought about being a teacher and then one thing led to another. I kept learning, kept going further down the path, but I always just wanted to make a difference. 

I always wanted to make something. And before I knew it, I was accepting a job to move to Washington, D.C., to work on a variety of issues that I felt were making the country better. So if someone has an altruistic background and, and they truly, actually want to make, this country or the world a better place, I think public service is a really, really great option. 

It is not any stretch, the only option. And there’s a lot of great good that is coming in the private sector. In fact, most of the problems that we face, take climate change, for example, the severity of the problem will not be solved solely by the federal government it is just too vast. And so these public-private partnerships are really fantastic because the, the power and the, the enormous strength that the private sector has to bring those resources, to the fight, I think are, are critical. 

But as a federal government employee, I love that I now get to be part of that process. And in many ways, kind of guide it, I think in the direction of making sure that what we do is for the public good and that, it’s not just given to those who are able to pay for the solutions, right? 

But also that there’s an equity issue at stake here and in the federal government. I think when it comes to a lot of these issues and the problems that we’re facing is making sure that we have solutions. You have that altruistic intent and that the outcomes are equitable. 

Sarah Philbrick: Yeah. Drew you, you talked about your path to working in government service a little bit differently as a government nerd. Do you have any advice that you might give to listeners who are early in their careers or considering switching sectors to public service? 

Drew Zachary: Yeah, absolutely. What you said very much resonates, Quentin, I am a bit of a government nerd, but not because of the federal government itself, per se. I’ve had an optimistic outlook on the United States of America and the opportunity that we have to be Americans. In ways that has nothing to do with federal agencies, because I think that’s really not what being an American means to most people across a very vast nation. It’s really not about the federal agencies. But I think that is what brought me into service was the idea of serving the nation. And so, yeah, sure, the fine print of it is you’re going to come and work at a federal agency or you’re going to come and work, you know, in Congress. 

But the point of it all is really that you’re serving the people, and I think that is what I would emphasize to people who are considering this. I love that the idea of a tour of duty in government has become common, and people maybe have heard of that idea. Because I do think that everyone should do a tour of duty because what the federal government is, is it’s just us. 

It’s just Americans, you know, taking turns, sharing the responsibility of how we govern our country. So, I love on my teams, having people come in from other sectors and have different perspectives. I love having people who come from the private sector and have ideas about the way that things work and the businesses that they’ve been a part of and how we can improve. 

And I think that kind of cycling in and out of people with different perspectives is what makes our teams work really well, and it means that we serve the people better. So, definitely would put in a plug for anybody regardless of what sector you’re in to do your tour of duty. And there are, there are great opportunities now, I think. 

In the bureaucracy, people are thinking much more creatively about ways to, it doesn’t have to be a 30 year career that you do. It’s okay and great to come in and just do a two or three year opportunity, and maybe it’s something that you like and, and want to do longer term. But I think that diversity of thought and diversity of experiences, brings a lot to our teams and the way that we serve each other. 

I think especially, so I just moved to Western Pennsylvania here, and it’s very different from the beltway, the DC Beltway, and I think even people who are skeptical of the value of federal agencies should especially come in for a tour of duty, you know, and like, see, see the challenges firsthand or take your stab at making things better. 

I think that’s a really great responsibility for everyone to have part of. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: I love it. Thank you so much. All three of you Drew, Susanna, Quentin, for all the work you’re doing, all the service that you’re providing to communities and how much you care, and really this great model of collaboration. So, Sarah and I really appreciate having this time with you today. Thank you.  

Susanna Pho: Thank you. 

Quentin Cummings: you. all very much.  

Drew Zachary: Thanks for having us.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So Sarah, I’m really glad that you were able to join me for this conversation today with Drew, Susana and Quentin because you know, from a perspective of somebody who’s not a data scientist, you know, it sounds pretty incredible what they’re doing, but I would love to get your reactions on this. 

Sarah Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, it is pretty incredible what they’re doing. I think having folks at each level as Drew talked about all of the different end users in the room was really nice to hear what they bring to the process and what they hope to get out of the process. I really, thought Quentin’s points about how open data is not only required for trust in government, but is ultimately a a product created by and for the people of the U.S. We paid our tax dollars to, to gather this data, to collect this data, and it’s really ours to use to make our government better and to make our country better. And whether that’s by federal users or local users or academic users or private practice that data can help us achieve the goals we have as a country. And that point really resonated with me. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I know for some people, you know, just this idea of data and the study of data is a little bit overwhelming, and so I, Susanna gave us such a good concrete example with FEMA, right? Like, I am the person impacted by a disaster. Here are some resources that might help me, whether it’s grant money or something else, or, you know, even when Quentin followed up with information to decide like, do I want to live in something that might be a flood zone or like, that for me, helps make it more concrete. Like when we say data, it can mean infinite things. And so here are some practical applications for the public, for people to, to take advantage of. 

Sarah Philbrick: Yeah, and I think that I’m not familiar with Susanna’s product intimately, but she really talks about sort of two-way data communication. That there’s data provided by the government that she’s using to create this product, but then there’s also folks on the ground being impacted by a disaster who can then report their lived experience, their data to the federal government to say, this is what’s happening to me. 

These are the resources or the help we need, and that creates better data in the future. If we have flood maps that are used that are created using data from 25 years ago with climate change, those maps will become out of date. And so this collective user experience of where flooding actually happened in each storm helps make that data better going forward. 

And so I really think that that products that allow for that two-way communication of data are so impactful for the way that the government provides services going forward. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And on a different thread, it stood out for me. Just, you know, when we talk about public service twice, Drew used the word serendipitous about her opportunities, and that’s been a theme throughout every season of Profiles in Public Service where we have these incredible public servants who say, I may not have known where my career was headed, but I stayed open to things. 

Sometimes it was the biggest challenges that led to the most rewarding outcomes, but just having that mindset of wanting to do good, showing up and being open, and I think that’s really important for especially, you know, folks who are either just entering the workforce or they’re still in school and they’re thinking they need to already know their path. 

And to me the answer is you actually don’t. And just remaining open. 

Sarah Philbrick: Yeah, I think both Quentin and Drew mentioned, I didn’t know this job existed. You know, there’s so many things that you can do in public service and. And outside of public service that that touch public service that are jobs you don’t know exist when you’re a student or starting your career. And so having that open mind allows you to, to accept those opportunities as they come to you. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’m so glad we were able to have this conversation today, and thank you for joining me on this ride, Sarah. 

Sarah Philbrick: Me too. Thanks for having me.