For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Afua Bruce, the Chief Program Officer of DataKind, an organization harnessing the power of data science for social good.
Tell us about the path through government and civic tech that led you to DataKind.
I started my career as a “real engineer,” which is to say my undergraduate degree is in computer engineering and I worked at IBM for several years as a software engineer. After business school, I joined the FBI as an internal consultant. Once I realized how I could use my engineering and management skills together to serve my country, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve worked at the White House, directing federal interagency coordination through the National Science and Technology Council, at New America, leading the Public Interest Technology program, and now at DataKind, matching pro-bono data science experts with social sector organizations around the world to apply data science, machine learning, and AI in the service of humanity.
How has the government and civic tech ecosystem changed since you entered the field? What would you like to see more of? In what ways have you been able to change it for those who come next?
The biggest change in the government and civic tech ecosystem over the past decade is that more people know about this work, more people are talking about this work, and more people recognize this work as a technically strong and challenging career path. Organizations such as DataKind and Code for America can give people an introduction to the world of government and civic tech, and a support network should they decide to continue their involvement in and support of the work. I would like to see more training in how to do gov tech and civic tech well, along with a common set of position titles and job descriptions for the field.
One of the things I’m most proud of is my work helping to launch the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) while I was at New America. The PIT-UN has grown quite a bit since I left New America, and I think it builds some key systems to train students and demonstrate what’s possible in public interest technology to those just beginning their careers. Overall, I would like to see racial and ethnic diversity increase in the space, and for new entrants and practitioners to appreciate the work and lessons from the wide range of people who have been doing public interest tech—perhaps under different names—for years.
You’ve made it a point to mentor young women in STEM. What’s your favorite piece of advice to offer those just starting out in the field of public interest technology?
My advice to those just starting out in the field of public interest technology is the same advice I give to K-12 students and—uh, more experienced—professionals as well: don’t give up. The truth is public interest tech work is rarely straightforward or simple. Working to center humans as you maintain and build systems that deliver services takes a lot of effort, and you’ll likely hear “no” a number of times or will struggle to design and deliver inclusive systems and processes. Despite the frustrations, I firmly believe that this work matters, so I encourage you to not give up.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
Do you. But seriously, bringing your full self to work in this field means bringing with you—and sharing and applying—your various perspectives informed by your life experiences. It means knowing how to advocate for yourself, and perhaps as importantly, knowing how to partner with and amplify the voices of others.
What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?
Designing equitable services and systems for the social sector means centering humans in design, accelerating existing good work, and minimizing harm. No system is perfect, but by bringing together experts from technology, NGOs, government agencies, and user communities, we can create tools and policies that deliver services to everyone who needs them.