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iZone NYC

The Innovation Zone or iZone is a dedicated “office of innovation” within the New York City Department of Education. Since 2010 it has worked to provide professional development to teachers in blended learning and support innovative school models. Perhaps the most intriguing side of their activities is Innovate NYC Schools, which enlists New York City’s active tech community in contributing their expertise to specific school system challenges. Previous attempts along these lines include the Gap App Challenge, which solicited companies to build apps for middle school math, and a music education hackathon held in partnership with music subscription service Spotify.

For the School Choice Design Charette, which takes place tonight in Manhattan, Innovate NYC Schools decided to take a different approach. Every year, 75,000 eighth graders apply for 700 New York City high schools. The process, which involves a printed guide the size of a phone book, fairs and outreach programs, and hour upon hour of research and applications by guidance counselors, students and parents, already works pretty well; 75% of students get one of their top three choices. But Steven Hodas, Executive Director of Innovate NYC Schools, and his team wanted to see what an online resource could do to make this nervewracking process a little easier on students and families. Rather than hold an open design competition, they solicited a small group of organizations to intensively define the problem over the past few months by talking to 8th and 9th graders, their parents, and guidance counselors. The startups held user feedback sessions and panels with experts to further improve their products.

Each group will present their own online solution to the school choice challenge in tonight’s charette, a word borrowed from the world of architecture that has come to mean any intensive design process on a deadline. Students from Black Girls Code and other organizations will vote for their favorite app. The ideas of enlisting private-sector expertise and listening to what the public needs are emerging ones in urban innovation. “This was the confluence of a bunch of important things going on in NYC in general,” says Hodas, “like user centered design and crowdsourcing as a way to solve municipal problems.” The organizations competing to design the school choice app have access to the Department of Education’s first-ever open data API, a technical method of making departmental data about school location, population, graduation rates and the like freely available to an application over the web. This API can link to other open public data sets like those around transportation, safety, and health, to further complete the picture of what students can expect from Bronx Science or LaGuardia Arts. Hodas stresses that this data release has nothing to do with individuals or privacy concerns; it’s all institution-level, and already published, albeit in less usable form. “It enables future things we don’t have to sponsor: data visualization, policy analysis, and ideas we haven’t even come up with yet.”

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