Scholar Spotlight | Using Technology for Social Development

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Visakh Madathil ’21 spent his summer in Washington, D.C. as a data-science/ software engineering intern with the Chief of Technology Officer and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. We asked him about his experience.

Tell us about your internship.

Visakh Madathil answering a question on a technology panel in Washington, D.C.

I worked primarily on the data portfolio with the Chief Data Officer. Using Natural Language Processing, we worked on understanding data needs across the department and how data stewards, analysts and other users access the data so we could ultimately make data sharing more efficient, responsible and secure. I worked on building an internal data-sharing system, and was involved in web proto-typing, technical data architecture, researching ways innovative technologies, such as machine learning and blockchain, could be used in this platform to facilitate data-sharing.

I worked to increase the use of data across different data silos, not just in the Department of Health and Human Services, but also in the healthcare sector in general.

What was your biggest takeaway from the experience?

One thing that I really realized is that in government especially, but also in any type of issue that we have – most of these things are people-problems. Technology isn’t going to solve all of our issues. Technology is inherently neutral—it’s not good nor is it bad, but it’s very important to understand the human side and the technology side so you can build innovative technologies that can help people and minimize the harm.

So my biggest takeaway is that the human-side is just as important. To understand people, understand their issues, understand the problems people face, is more important than understanding the underlying technologies that you’re using to solve those issues.

So the rapid advancement of technology itself shouldn’t be a concern, but how that technology effects people should be?

We don’t need to be worried about AI in terms of taking over the world and stuff like that, but what we need to be worried about are the unintended consequences of technology, to quote Dr. Victoria Farrar-Myers, who teaches in the Tower Scholars Program.

When you think about automation particularly, automation creates a lot more opportunity for economic growth, but the growth comes with a  trade-off. We don’t distribute the gains of growth evenly. A bunch of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are billionaires now because of automation and stuff like this but factory workers out in the Midwest are suffering. The country is wealthier, but only a certain part. What we need to be cognizant of is how we approach the gains that we receive from technology to mitigate the consequences. I don’t think policymakers, technologists, people in industry, all three of these groups of people don’t consider that enough.

I think we need to be more well rounded in understanding the economic effects, social effects, technological effects, and the policy effects that these technological shifts bring.

Sounds like you took a lot of your experience from the Tower Scholars minor to your internship. Did having that background help you?

Yeah, I had to write a lot of policy memos. I had to write a lot because even though I did work with the Chief Technology Officer, a lot of the people there are not technologists, they come from public health backgrounds or they come from policy backgrounds. They are not computer scientists. So I took a lot of the skills I learned to explain complex machine learning to a policy professional.

A lot of what I learned throughout these last two years on how to effectively communicate, how to concisely convey my thoughts, was something I had to rely on a lot. And also understanding the policy-making process definitely made it easier for me to advise and say, “Oh, we should do this thing in this stage of the process versus another stage in the process.”

What’s your next step? Is this experience something you want to build a career off of?

Long term, I want to be on the interface of using technology for social and economic good and development. In the more immediate future, I want to focus on learning more about technology and individual uses of technology. Once I get that experience, I can then transition and figure out how I can use my knowledge in the public sector, and how can I use it to really impact policy and governance and impact the well-being of people around me.