Lawyers, writers, data analysts: Digital internship program had it all
Summer interns share advice and reflect on what they learned
The mission for this summer’s 21-strong squad of Digital Services interns: Make Mass.gov more useful by helping organizations across the Commonwealth improve content.
To do this, we embedded pairs of interns in secretariats, departments, and other organizations in the state. We also kept a few interns for ourselves in the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security (EOTSS). They worked on open data policy, analytics dashboards, and more.
These responsibilities gave interns a chance to work side-by-side with government employees to understand how they operate and interact with constituents. During the summer, the interns helped improve hundreds of pages and redirected thousands more from our old website to our new one. They also helped organizations learn about new feedback and data tools to ensure content continually improves on Mass.gov, even after the interns go back to school or to new jobs (maybe even with the state).
A handful wrapped up their tenures with the state by reflecting on what they accomplished. Here’s what they had to say.
Keeping data open and protecting your privacy
Siri Nelson, a Rappaport Fellow and rising 3L law student at Northeastern University who focuses on privacy law, worked on open-data policy and legal infrastructure around data sharing at EOTSS. “I wrote about how to safeguard privacy and on solutions to safely share administrative data with the public,” she says.
“Technologists and legal professionals need to work together with lawmakers to establish clear norms that are regularly updated.” — Siri Nelson
Her main takeaway is that law and technology have to collaborate for innovation for flourish.
“Technologists and legal professionals need to work together with lawmakers to establish clear norms that are regularly updated. A lack of clear norms, laws, and rules holds innovation back,” Siri says. “When there are rules, people know exactly where the limits are and can even challenge a little. Without clear rules, people are afraid to try anything new and this fear holds interesting projects back.”
For example, it would be easier to build out a data sharing program if technologists did not have to be anxious about the legal repercussions, and lawyers did not have to be nervous about norms. One way this could be improved is by publishing legal documents related to technology resources in a place related to those resources.
Seeing these issues up close reinforced Siri’s desire to work in privacy and help establish standards for tech development and innovation in the United States at every level.
Summer intern energy
“The work was especially intriguing because it could include helping constituents find farmers’ markets to updating energy regulations within the span of a day.” — Dan Beckley
Dan Beckley, who is working toward a master’s degrees in regional planning and public policy and administration at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, spent the summer with the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). This involved interacting with the departments of Environmental Protection, Conservation and Recreation, Energy Resources, and Agricultural Resources.
“I most enjoyed the opportunity to work at the intersection of multiple topics in governance in which I’m interested,” Dan says. “The work was especially intriguing because it could include helping constituents find farmers’ markets to updating energy regulations within the span of a day.”
Not only was he able to work with people in various fields, but he was able to learn a great deal in those fields.
Dan was relieved to find out he wasn’t destined for a summer of repetitive work. The amount of behind-the-scenes effort that goes into developing web content surprised him.
“The new Mass.gov website is still young, and developing content for it is a learning process for everyone. There is room for collaboration and thinking outside of the box,” he says.
Behind the dashboards
Natasha Mathur is working toward her master’s degree in computational analysis and public policy at the University of Chicago. She played a vital role in building dashboards that organizations can use to gauge the effectiveness of their content on Mass.gov. These dashboards help determine how easy it is to find content, whether people are taking expected actions on pages, if the quality meets house standards, and how satisfied visitors are with content on a page.
Natasha worked hand-in-hand with the EOTSS data and content teams to launch the dashboards and then to improve them on-the-fly. But she didn’t get lost in the weeds of building these analytics instruments.
“I loved that I had opportunities to work with multiple people and sit in on different discussions, so that I could really get an understanding of the overall goals and bigger picture,” she says. “I always felt comfortable asking questions.”
It quickly became apparent to her how technology needs to work to support government efficiently.
The amount of data gathered by the state is huge and invaluable, Natasha notes, but she says it requires a collection, storage, and distribution process robust enough to accommodate this.
“It needs to be adaptable and scalable, and also completely reliable,” she adds. “In comparison to private sector places I’ve worked in before, I realized the different difficulties EOTSS faces [resource-wise], and also how hard everyone works to get around them!”
Power of partners
Savanah Cuevas, who is heading into her senior year at Emmanuel College as a sociology major with a concentration in criminology, split time this summer between working with EOTSS and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (HED).
She was happy to join forces with another intern, Allison Green, for the summer, and found that working so closely with someone else forced her to improve her listening and collaboration skills.
“At first I expected that I would be thrown into an agency by myself, but being able to have my intern partner Allison [Green] with me to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with to create a better course of action and webpage was amazing,” she says. “It also helps to have someone working on similar stuff so I can vent any frustrations or roadblocks with in a more candid way, compared to talking to one of my supervisors.”
“I think that’s exactly what internships are for: You come for several weeks and learn more about a particular area, and learn even more about yourself and how you work with others.” — Savanah Cuevas
In school, Savanah often found herself doing most of the work on group projects, but at EOTSS and HED, she discovered that collaboration was crucial to her success. “I found that I needed to have more of a conversation. I needed to ask more questions and understand our differences on a course of action and then take the final course of action,” she says. “When I started to listen more and ask more questions it made the course of action that much more efficient and thorough. I know this sounds like something simple, but it is such a huge lesson to me and such an important professional skill to have.”
“I think that’s exactly what internships are for: You come for several weeks and learn more about a particular area, and learn even more about yourself and how you work with others,” she says.
The EOTSS team’s motivation and drive proved contagious for Savanah, who along with Allison is staying on for a couple more months beyond the initial internship.
“I would have never thought before working here that writing a web page would give me a sense of fulfillment, but now when I edit a page or draft a new one it’s so exciting to me,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work. But when I go back and see how many redirects and drafts of pages I’ve made that have been published, it’s rewarding.”
Importance of feedback
Rohit Sinha, a senior at the University of Connecticut studying political science and journalism, worked with a host of organizations within the Executive Office of Administration and Finance (ANF). This included the Department of Revenue (DOR), the Operational Services Division (OSD), the Human Resources Division (HRD), and the Group Insurance Commission (GIC).
“I was taken aback by how much information needs to be published to satisfy every user.” — Rohit Sinha
“I really enjoyed meeting the different agency heads and making so many connections in the process,” he says. “I also liked the fact that we were able to rotate agencies during the summer: That way we became familiar with different techniques that the different agencies use to provide their users with crucial information.”
The importance of presenting information transparently and clearly was a huge takeaway for him, especially since the organizations he worked with handle such complex and important resources.
“I was surprised by how often users [leave feedback on Mass.gov],” he says. “I was taken aback by how much information needs to be published to satisfy every user.”
Real workplace experience
Beyond delving into the specifics of working for government, the interns learned about more general workplace practices.
Siri, for example, says that the best part of her internship was interacting with openly LGBT professionals. “It was wicked awesome to have the chance to learn from LGBT folks who were able to be out and proud at work. It made me feel like it is OK to expect work to be a safe place for LGBT people like myself — because that is what I experienced at EOTSS.”
Read about our 2017 summer internship program: How Digital Services interns reshaped Mass.gov’s content.
She also advises reaching out to people who you think are interesting, even if they are not on your team or in your department. That includes connecting with other interns, since you never know what their life and professional experiences have been or what they have to offer.
Echoing those sentiments, Dan says: “If I did this internship again, I would be sure to reach out to more departments and get to know the people at the organization sooner. Sitting down and brainstorming with other people working on the website was the most enlightening (and fun) part.”