Coding the New 'Schoolhouse Rock'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the two coasts have to meet in the middle, somewhere.
By Sanjena Sathian
On a hot summer day in Meridian Hill Park, looking out over Washington, D.C., Harlan Yu is dressed in a green cotton T-shirt, blue shorts and oxford-style sneakers. Sporting a scruffy goatee, Yu, who has biked to meet me, looks nothing like the suited men and women traipsing around doing the business of governing, policymaking, lobbying and otherwise plotting the affairs of our nation.
If he looks more like a Silicon Valley coder that’s because he is — or at least, a Valley-bred guy, a computer science Ph.D. turned technologist who’s trying to get the government to upgrade itself. Yu and co-founder David Robinson (who calls his partner a dose of “West Coast chill” in swampy-stressed D.C.) act as consultants, via their firm Upturn, to Beltway Luddites. The category includes government agencies still publishing data in PDF form and legislators who’d like to change laws without “literally taking a red pen” to a stack of hard copies of a law, as Yu puts it, as well as civil rights groups and collaborating with the NAACP among others. In short, he’s the translator, teaching the stodgy about more than just how to use Twitter. At a time when privacy is the word of the day and Silicon Valley seems blissfully divorced from Washington politics, 33-year-old Yu is well-positioned to corner an open market (see: healthcare.gov).
One example of such a problem is a labor question that Robinson says Upturn has “started to look at” — shift workers often can’t change their schedules easily because, as Robinson puts it, “people will just say, the computer doesn’t work that way.” Workers can then be on call for unreasonable amounts of time instead of cleanly marking shifts in advance. “Harlan can come in and kind of say, ‘Well, we can make it work that way,’” Robinson says. “Computer scientists just think about computers differently from the rest of the world.” As with any technical or black box field, being a successful translator — whether as a consultant, thought leader or otherwise — can be a huge opportunity. Roles for techies in and around government are slowly on the rise and need even more boosting. “It’s kind of up to us to change that,” says Robinson. Which might explain why a CS Ph.D. is hanging out in slow (and certainly far from Google-lucrative) D.C.: It’s a small market, and though it might not pay big cash dividends, power and influence are their own sort of return.
It’s starting with data, in many cases; this is the stuff the public hungers most for, especially given the increasingly urgent skepticism many citizens have about the government. See: Edward Snowden; a desire for cop cameras; a desperate need for data to fix problems like transit as the country urbanizes. (The latter relates to one Upturn project, digitizing data for a number of civil rights groups.) This is a “continuation of a trend we’ve been seeing for a while,” says Michael Chui, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, who focuses on technology. And it’s officially an industry — “We’re seeing competition” in the field, Chui says; extrapolating from that, you might see Yu’s work as more Silicon Valley entrepreneurial than on first blush. Citizens are hungry for this stuff, but so are companies who want to “create economic value,” Chui reminds us, meaning we could imagine that any company touching data has a real market opportunity, should they want to sell, collaborate on or otherwise play with the data later on.
Shy, intense and not thrilled about gabbing about himself, Yu was born in San Jose, California, to immigrant parents from China and Taiwan. His parents worked in tech — his father in the semiconductor industry — and coding seemed a natural habit. And no, he tells me, he wasn’t named after the Patty Loveless country song about Harlan, Kentucky — someone in one of his parent’s offices was named Harlan and they liked the name (he takes a second to recall his name’s origin). After undergrad studies at Berkeley, Yu headed straight to a Ph.D. program in computer science at Princeton, in part, he says, because of the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While at Princeton, he kept in touch with the tech world as it changed, working part time for Internet civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation and interning — twice — at Google. Those two gigs mean Yu has logged time in mostly opposing sides of the Great Internet Privacy Battle.
You get the sense that Yu is heads-down enough to log long hours, particularly on what amounts to unsexy problems in many cases. “Modernizing legislative drafting,” for instance, is how one Upturn project is described on the firm’s website. He’s soft-spoken and patient, which we’d imagine plays well in a roomful of Luddite legislators. That’s a big question, though: Can these two worlds of sleek technology and musty, old D.C. buildings really meet successfully? Yu may be a rare bird when it comes to his willingness to touch Washington at all. Silicon Valley is famously almost secessionist when it comes to politics, with its biggest brains more interested in cryogenics and the technological singularity coming to save us all than in such mundane problems as governance.
“It’s the government’s responsibility,” in the end, reflects McKinsey’s Chui. “Some of the most grateful users of that data are users working within government agencies.” And if they feel the fire? Maybe that’s when we’ll get electronic driver’s licenses.