Introducing our Chief Technology Officer and Civic Innovation Lab Manager!

This summer marked a shift in our organization’s operations. We hired a Chief Technology Officer and a Civic Innovation Lab Manager to lead our Civic Innovation Lab.

These moves are part of an effort to revamp our community-based service, Research and Data Assistance Requests (RADAR), and continue cultivating the next generation of public interest technology talent. 

We’re excited to introduce you to our new Chief Technology Officer, Ashley Louie, and our Civic Innovation Lab Manager, Erik Brown. We recently sat down with Ashley and Erik to learn more about their journeys, civic passions and touched upon projects they want to tackle in their new roles.        

Welcome to the BetaNYC family, Ashley, and Erik — we’re thrilled to have you! 

Ashley Louie (she/her) — Chief Technology Officer

What’s your favorite part about your current neighborhood?

I currently live in the Lower East Side and love it there! There are many restaurants to try and so many things to do. I love how places are accessible and within walking distance. I had a fantastic walking radius during the pandemic, accessing areas such as the East Village, Chinatown, SOHO, and Nolita. I also take regular walks over the Williamsburg Bridge to Domino Park. Having relied on a car for my main transit in California, I enjoy being car-free in New York. I enjoy being able to take public transit, and I love walking everywhere — it’s a very urbanistic quality about cities I’m fond of.

How did you begin working with civic data and technology? 

I have a background in architecture and was training to become an architect. I was interested in cities and how different things in the City can impact people’s lives from a more community standpoint. In architecture, we would do community outreach or conduct focus groups with people to design spaces to improve people’s lives. That interest led me to pursue urban design, which translates more to urban planning, or the intersection between architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. From there, I was exposed to more data visualization and mapping, specifically with census data and New York City’s Open Data. I fell in love with the field and the way of visualizing data using technology. I thought that it helped make this information much more accessible when it was communicated more graphically.

When I was in grad school, I was looking into a project that analyzed open space. At the time, people did not document open spaces qualitatively. I think the work the Fellowship is doing to map more qualitative aspects of accessibility, benches, or street furniture adds more richness to the parks and open space dataset. For instance, there are differences between active and passive spaces and hard and soft surfaces. We use big grassy areas very differently from paved plaza areas. Adding more qualitative aspects to a dataset is essential when you dig into how people use spaces. And frankly, that’s something I was interested in architecture as well — thinking about quantifying qualitative aspects of spaces or design. And data gives us the tools or the ways to measure those things. Still, we must be cautious about how we go about it and what information is documented.

What is one of your most memorable data visualization projects, and why do you find it interesting?

While working at the Civic Data Design Lab, I got to work on a project that partnered with the United Nations World Food Programme on migration. We worked with some migrants to create a physical data visualization tapestry featured at the UN World Food Programme headquarters in Rome. And it was during the timing of the World Food Programme’s annual executive board meeting. So there were a lot of UN Ambassadors and Prime Ministers at the national level, who were seeing this project and engaging with the data stories of the burden migrants bear, how much migration costs, and why they are migrating. This process created empathy and started conversations around the issue. Amazingly, some of the findings were shared with the US Congress — and eventually, US Senators wrote a letter to advocate for expanding the temporary protected status of Central American migrants. Ultimately, it was signed into action by the Biden administration last year.

Being able to do the research, visualize the data, communicate these messages outward, and see some of the research play a factor in real policy change at a national level was impactful. Data visualization can change how people think about a topic and discuss issues. Appropriate data visualizations can highlight people’s needs, raise awareness, and elevate discussions. These factors apply to a more local level as well. I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned from these projects into our work through the Lab. And I look forward to making impactful change here too.

Erik Brown (he/him) — Civic Innovation Lab Manager

What’s your favorite part about your current neighborhood?

I attended Fordham University’s school at their Rose Hill Campus, so I lived in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx. This past May, I graduated but decided to pursue my Master’s in Data Science and continue running on Fordham’s track team. Fordham’s Data Science Master’s program is at its Lincoln Center campus, track practice is still in the Bronx, and BetaNYC’s office is in the municipal building near the Brooklyn Bridge. I wanted to find a place centrally located to everywhere I needed to be, so I moved into Central Harlem in early September. One feature I like about the neighborhood is the historical aspects of it. I especially appreciate the architecture of the multi-generational brownstones. They are pretty and nice to look at. I enjoy the sense of community, especially on my block, and spending time in the community gardens. These little things are something I have started to appreciate, having only been here for a little under a month.

How did you begin working with civic data and technology? 

I started my undergrad at Fordham University and majored in Computer Science and American Studies. But I wanted to focus more on things happening locally rather than on a larger, federal level. In February of 2021, I started to intern with Mark Levine’s Borough President campaign, which exposed me to how many agencies and different groups work in New York City. Around that time, I also took Fordham’s New York City politics class, which provided me further exposure to how things run in the City and what roles the government and other non-profit agencies fulfill.

That summer, I interned with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo to do research with a few high school students. Our research project examined coastal resiliency and used some New York City Open Data sources. That was my first taste of the New York City Open Data portal. And I found it cool and wanted to work more with it going forward. The following summer, I worked as a strategy consultant intern with IBM. That next year, I started to work as a Civic Innovation Lab Associate, which exposed me even more to Open Data and what can be done with many of these incredible open data sources and tech. And then, a huge opportunity opened up, and I was promoted to the new Civic Innovation Lab Manager position.

What are you excited to do in the Lab?

What I’m most excited to do is an application and an extension of what I’ve been learning in school. In my Master’s program, there is a lot of emphasis on cutting-edge technology, such as machine learning and natural language processing. I am excited to use many of those techniques in new research in the Lab, to democratize data further and make it easily digestible for a more comprehensive audience range. I especially want to focus on natural language processing and the explosion of large language models.

One project I assisted with as an Associate and am excited to continue participating in is the OCA and Housing Data Collective. Representation of the tenant population has been overlooked from a data perspective for a while. And representing those people is something that I am interested in. Also, a project that I have started to work on is looking at asylum seeker data, where there is a lack of data transparency from local and federal agencies on asylum seekers. Gathering what data sources exist and analyzing them has also become a passion project of mine. Addressing the issues many of these people face requires a deep understanding of precisely what’s going on. And that can only come through a combination of talking to the people experiencing many of these issues and a more extensive macro-level understanding, which comes from looking at trends over time. The Lab has a unique ability and is uniquely positioned to offer more macro-level understanding through a data lens. And that’s something that I’m passionate about doing even more.