TechCongress program grows as Capitol Hill plays catch-up on tech issues

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Interest is rising in a program that stations technology experts with Congress, giving lawmakers a sorely needed way to understand the litany of society-shifting tech issues that come to their attention.

TechCongress opened up its application process for its 2019 Congressional Innovation Fellowship class last week. Started in 2016 with two fellows, the number of fellows has been rising every year since. The 2018 class saw seven fellows, with a record-high five receiving job offers.

The 2019 class will have up to ten fellows.

Although cybersecurity and data privacy experts are in the highest demand, health and transportation experts like former Economist editor Sunmin Kim and biotechnologist Robbie Narang have gone through the program.

The 2018 class of fellows, which is still active, includes Washington D.C.-based researcher Collin Anderson, former Mandiant consultant James Gimbi and former U.S. Army special operations veteran James Price.

The most publicly well-known fellow may be Chris Soghoian, a former ACLU technologist. After the 2017 program concluded, Soghoian became a full-time staffer with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Soghoian has been a driving force behind Wyden’s accelerated push to reform government and private sector cybersecurity.

After the 2019 class, TechCongress founder Travis Moore says the organization aims to pilot a similar program for state and local governments beginning in 2020. The program’s broader goal is to create a pipeline for engineers, computers scientists and technologists of all stripes to get involved in all levels of government.

“Demand is growing across a range of issues,” Moore said. “Cybersecurity and data privacy are the issues congress is feeling most acutely. Two and a half years ago, this was the OPM breach and Sony. We’ve had two fellows [work with] the House Committee on Oversight, which by the numbers has had by a large margin the most tech-related hearings in Congress because they do oversight of the breaches. Now the demand comes from issues like election security.”

The fellowship has an exceptionally diverse track record, with 46 percent of the fellows being people of color, according to TechCongress.

The program, which is funded by public interest foundations, is modeled like other congressional fellowships, like the 40-year-old American Association for the Advancement of Science’s program aimed at bringing doctors to Congress.

The program’s growth in demand and size is just one sign of a long road in front of Congress.

“The issues coming down the pike, compared to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica hearings, are an order of magnitude more complex,” Moore said.

Even simply knowing what you don’t know and asking the correct questions during congressional hearings on technology is a highly valued skill on Capitol Hill.

“We are just at the very beginning stages of Congress and governments reckoning with their inability to understand the ability how technology is changing our society,” Moore said.

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