Moving from concepts to systems designs: A look inside the Virtual Accelerator

Our five finalists have just wrapped up the Virtual Accelerator phase of the Challenge. Through four learning modules and one-on-one mentorship opportunities, the finalists developed their concepts further. Each module consisted of a virtual speaker series, field exercises, and reading materials to inform the finalists’ Stage 2 submissions, which include written responses, illustrative system designs, and white papers detailing data analysis methodologies.

Today we take a peek inside the Virtual Accelerator to highlight what the finalists learned and to meet the experts who helped make it all possible.


Module 1: Biothreats and Federal Systems

In this module, finalists learned how biothreats are investigated and addressed today and received an in-depth look at the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) vision for the future of biodefense and biosurveillance.

The virtual speaker, “Biodefense in Practice,” was led by Aaron Firoved, Director, DHS National Biosurveillance Integration Center(NBIC), and Tom McGinn, Senior Health Advisor, DHS NBIC. Aaron and Tom discussed relevant biothreat case studies and goals for future technology in the space.

After learning more about biosurveillance in practice, finalists were encouraged to practice storyboarding using sample scenarios and to explore cost-benefit analyses of integrating their technology with various existing systems.


Module 2: Data Science for Decision-Making

In the second module, finalists explored how to make the case for the analytical theories at the foundation of their system designs. They were challenged to think critically about the components and architecture of their systems while taking the end-user’s perspective into account.

The first virtual speaker, “Data-Driven Decision-Making and White Paper Fundamentals,” was led by Isaac Slavitt, Co-Founder of DrivenData. The conversation examined how finalists can illustrate underlying theories and processes of their systems in order to make the most compelling case for their analytical models. Finalists asked questions about drafting persuasive white papers, demonstrating verification techniques, and employing mock data.

“Before we have the data, how do we convince ourselves that this is a path worth taking?”

– Isaac Slavitt, DrivenData

During the second virtual speaker, “Real-Time Alerts, Semantic Analysis, and Predictive Modeling,” Graham Dodge, CEO of Sickweather, led a Q&A about best practices for social listening, semantic analysis, and data modeling for predictive analytics.

Graham shared his personal experiences using semantic analysis across different regions and cultures — including how Sickweather brought in a sociologist to help them understand differences in information sharing around the world.

The exercise for this module asked finalists to identify potential false positive signals and explore strategies for testing and mitigating them. Finalists were encouraged to explore these questions in their first white paper drafts, which they could review one-on-one with mentors.


Module 3: Designing With Users In Mind

During the third module, finalists examined their evolving system designs with an eye towards creating effective user experiences. They discussed design thinking tips to build empathy for the various people interacting with their system.

The virtual speaker, “The Key to Civic Innovation? Know Your Users,” featured a panel discussion with Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director, Public Policy Lab, and Kimberly Lucas, Director of Civic Research, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston.

“The sooner you get something in the hands of a user, the sooner you’ll figure out how broken it is.”

 – Chelsea Mauldin, Public Policy Lab

Chelsea and Kimberly shared their experiences piloting civic innovations, working with cities, and engaging citizens, with a focus on meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders. They also discussed responsible approaches to user research and design thinking that are critical to consider when designing systems that will affect a diverse group of stakeholders.

“There is probably no such thing as too early for testing, but there is definitely such a thing as too late.”

 – Kimberly Lucas, City of Boston

The field exercise asked finalists to conduct interviews with local emergency managers or other key stakeholders for their system. After conducting these interviews, finalists were encouraged to create user personas that could serve as a credible foundation for user journey maps detailing both a typical “day in the life,” as well as an intervention in the event of a biothreat.


Module 4: Cities and Public Safety

In the fourth and final module, finalists got closer to their end users, hearing from experts with federal and city-level data and emergency management experience. Finalists had an opportunity to explore how their system could provide the greatest operational value to cities and front-line decision-makers.

In the first virtual speaker, “Making Data More Operationally Useful at the City Level,” Carter Hewgley, Professor of Applied Analytics, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Advisor for Family & Homeless Services, D.C. Department of Human Services, helped finalists consider how to make their systems more useful to cities by discussing some of his experiences helping state, local and federal governments use data to solve problems big and small.

“Don’t make it harder for users to rely on data. Focus on understanding how the information will be useful to them, and don’t over-design a decision-support tool by adding too many features.”

– Carter Hewgley, Johns Hopkins University

In the final virtual speaker, “Leveraging Technology for Emergency Management in Diverse Communities,Sara Estes White, Deputy CIO, City of New Orleans, led an informal Q&A. She answered questions about her work leading the First Responders Social Media Working Group with DHS S&T, as well as her experience leveraging technology to build resilient communities.

It’s been quite a journey thus far for the finalists who just finalized their Stage 2 submissions. Next up: the judges will select the winner(s), who will receive up to $200,000 in cash prizes. Stay tuned for the winner announcement this spring.