From Coding To Compassion

How high-tech computer security students found low-tech inspiration to solve CISA problems

Alex Gallo

June 20, 2023

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles looking at the latest progress of the Hacking for X series of academic classes. Find earlier articles here. 

A team of five computer security students from the Rochester Institute of Technology will never look at a line of code in the same way again. These alums of Hacking for Homeland Security told the House and Senate Armed Services Committees last month that the class completely changed how they look to solve tough problems. Rather than seeing challenges as technical matters to solve with code, they view them through the eyes of the people most affected by them. 

During their briefings, as the students shared the solutions they devised to a problem sponsored by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), they described the course as a surprising endeavor that pushed them out of their comfort zones, opened their minds about solving real-world problems while putting people first, and gave them tools to innovate long beyond the semester. As highly technical students, Tanishq Borse, Ross Clarke, Justin Kennedy, Karan Tejwani, and Matt Uzelac found themselves for the first time in an unexpected place: engaging regularly with people to address their struggles and concerns. 

They expanded their process from a “solution-first” mentality to compassionately listening to those most affected by a problem from CISA: How to better equip emergency call centers to grow and change with technology, while addressing telecommunicators’ challenges to improve their quality of life and make the job more appealing to increase recruitment. The students began the semester believing the solutions existed in AI and simple software tools, but as the course would soon teach them, the human element would take center stage. 

Tanishq Borse said, “Trust me when I say this, this was one of the toughest and most non-traditional, out-of-the-box thinking courses any of us in the group ever took. It was really an eye-opener in the non-technical aspects that it taught us.”

From left: RIT Hacking for Homeland Security students Justin Kennedy, Ross Clarke, Karan Tejwani, and Tanishq Borse.

Interviewing large numbers of end-users and beneficiaries to gain insight into their specific needs is one of the most important factors in the Hacking 4 courses, foundational to the customer discovery stage of the program. The RIT team interviewed 83 people, listening to their concerns to best develop solutions that would meet their needs. 

“For technical students, it's so refreshing to enter a classroom and be told, ‘Alright, go explore!’ Learning to identify the pain points of the problem beneficiaries and trying to relieve them was a profound experience for us as a team,” said Matt Uzelac.

The team spent 13 weeks interviewing and pivoting towards multiple potential solutions based on their conversations. They learned that coming to a problem with a predetermined solution is not the right approach. 

“I come from a very heavy technical background, and I've written a lot of code. Often I think my code is the best in the world. After going through this course, I learned the importance of user acceptance. Ultimately, the end users are going to be the ones interacting with whatever software you write. You can write the best software in the world, but if the end user doesn't like it, they're not going to use it, making it pointless,” said Ross Clarke.

A three-part solution

To address CISA’s challenges, the team first proposed reclassifying telecommunicators as analysts instead of secretaries to elevate them to an improved level of retirement options, pay and healthcare coverage including mental health coverage – an area the team learned through its interviews was a key struggle for telecommunicators, who don’t always have a healthy way to cope with job stressors. 

Secondly, to address the disparity of technology applied across call centers, the team proposed creating unified standards for technology to be implemented in call centers using a uniform set of metadata, allowing data and its meaning to be shared across applications. The team recently learned that CISA has taken its suggestion and already put it into action. 

Lastly, the team developed an AI solution they feel is critical given the introduction of multimedia in emergency call centers. Seeing graphic images adds to the trauma and stress that call takers already experience, so the team suggested a pre-screening AI solution that will remove a person’s need to see violent images. CISA is now looking at integrating this solution across the board based upon the team’s interviews. 

A next generation of innovators

Beyond the benefit of gaining helpful solutions to broad governmental challenges, the Hacking 4 program brings new talent into the public sector who may have never considered government work before. With recruitment numbers for government positions flagging, carving new pathways for young people to reach critical public sector roles is pivotal.

“Hacking 4 Homeland Security impacted me a lot because it showed me the different spaces you can work within government, and where I can apply my specific skill set,” said Justin Kennedy, who hopes to put his talents to work for the Government when he graduates this summer. 

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