Women Design the Future at NJIT

Students who attended the conference experienced virtual reality.

For all those who’ve been flummoxed by federal government services -- think of the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov or the labyrinthine forms of the IRS -- Mollie Ruskin asks forgiveness.

Ruskin, a community-activist-turned-techie, has spent the past three years improving how the federal government delivers its digital services.

“When you get sucky service from the government,” said Ruskin, a founding member of the U.S. Digital Service at the White House, "it's dehumanizing. But civic technology -- combining government service with good technology -- is what will define good government in the 21st century.”

Ruskin was the keynote speaker for an April 1 conference held at NJIT whose theme was “Women Designing the Future: Digital Realities, Today and Tomorrow.” The conference, sponsored by The Murray Center for Women in Technology, featured talks and sessions with some of the nation’s leading digital-technology experts. The topics discussed included cybersecurity, government surveillance, big data, social media, gender equity as well as virtual reality (VR) and new forms of journalism.

A large group of invited guests, students, professors and staff sat transfixed as Ruskin recounted examples of how her digital team conjoined technology, creativity and empathy to streamline the federal government’s digital services. Her first task was to improve the delivery of the Veteran Administration’s (VA) services, a massive undertaking given that the VA was mired in electronic bureaucracy; it had, for instance, 1,000 different websites that veterans had to navigate. She made it so that all the pertinent information for veteran services was congregated in one user-friendly website. Her team also enhanced the digital services for social-security benefits, immigration reform and public voting information.

“Bad UX [user experience] equals disrespect,” she said, "but good design can help people get the services they need.”

After her talk, Ruskin joined a distinguished panel that included Soon Ae Chun, president of the Digital Government Society; Lauren Anderson, a retired FBI executive who is founder and CEO of LC Anderson International Consulting; and Nydia Guimaraes, chief performance officer, City of Newark Office of Information Technology.

Earlier in the day, in his welcoming remarks, NJIT President Joel Bloom said that diversity in all its manifold manifestations is “critically important” to the university. He detailed various initiatives that help make the university diverse. Those initiatives include pre-college classes for girls in STEM; a Girls Who Code Camp; and a strategic plan that calls for gender and racial equity.

“We work hard at NJIT to foster diversity,” said Bloom, “and this conference is a perfect example of how critically important it is to promote gender equity.”

The featured luncheon speakers were Jamie Pallot and Julie Young of the Emblematic Group, a VR company whose work has been showcased at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, TEDWomen and other venues. Pallot and Young demonstrated how they use VR technologies to create so-called immersive journalism. They also showed clips from their VR demos “Kiya” and “Project Syria,” and audience members had the chance to don Oculus Rift headsets and watch a scene from “Kiya.”

“Kiya” was shown at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and “Project Syria” was short-listed for the top prize in interactive innovation at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival.

The day’s final session focused on digital careers as well as talks on digital data and entrepreneurship. The guests included Avis Yates Rivers, president and CEO of Technology Concepts Group International; Emily Reid, director of education at Girls Who Code; NJIT Assistant Professor Yvette Wohn; Karen Moon, co-founder and CEO of Trendalytics; Madison Maxey, co-founder of The Crated; and Denise Spell, CEO and chief innovator of Currant, Inc.

The conference was co-sponsored by the New Jersey Innovation Institute, The New Jersey Tech Council, Covance, The College of Computing Sciences, NJIT’s CyberCorps® Scholarship for Service grant, the Albert Dorman Honors College, the Technology & Society Forum, Sigma Xi and the Princeton chapter of IEEE Women in Engineering.

The NJIT student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers also invited 35 middle school girls from the Orange Middle School to attend the afternoon session of the conference.  When asked if they would like to one day study STEM and digital technology at NJIT, the girls gave a collective thumbs up and smilingly said: "YES."

By Robert Florida