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How Faculty Work Together

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There are few organizations that provide such freedom of activity as universities, permitting faculty great autonomy in choosing their focus of research and scholarship. While the teaching activities are specified by the curriculum and the service obligations by unit, school, and university structures, individual faculty members can pursue their interests solely constrained by the peer review processes of their field.

It is fascinating to be part of a community where curiosity and a passion to pursue unanswered questions are driving forces. All fields continually challenge themselves in endless attempts to expand and deepen their insights. At the individual faculty level, many times these attributes prompt one to explore area outside of their PhD training (indeed, this seems to be a growing theme in the Provost Podcast series, “Faculty in Research”).  While sometimes venturing into a new domain can be accomplished by oneself, when exploring whole new knowledge terrains, the investment is daunting. In such circumstances, collaboration with those outside one’s field is the only efficient way to proceed.

Hence, it’s interesting to explore what attributes of an academic environment appear to be helpful in fostering collaboration. I’ve posted earlier about the galvanizing effect of collaboration that occurs when scholars from different fields find one another attempting to solve the same problem. In this case, the shared focus on the problem diminishes the differences between them.

In contrast, when one scholar is attempting only to use another’s knowledge, without the two sharing a passion to solve the same problem, true collaboration is impeded. In those cases, one potential collaborator can easily feel they are being used solely to advance the personal agenda of the other. This occurs often when one scholar merely wants to use knowledge of specific tools developed in the other’s field. So, mutual respect is key to collaboration. Academic environments that have both intellectual and physical spaces that support multiple fields working on the same problem helps overcome these issues.

Even when two collaborators find themselves on equal footing in terms of a focus on unanswered questions, problems abound in building collaborations across fields. Fields create technical languages to make within-field communication efficient. This within-field efficiency diminishes between-field understanding. Great patience and time are often required to create effective transmission of ideas between fields. The larger the sharing of language (either mathematical, graphical, or verbal) between the fields, the faster the collaboration can become effective. Unfortunately, many collaborations die before this point of maturation. Hence, academic environments supporting collaboration must simultaneously support long-term relationships. (In this regard, it is heartwarming to see more and more external research funding recognizing the need for collaboration in multi-year efforts.)

When research collaboration can be integrated within the educational activity, some of the burden of conceptual translation can be eased. This is most obvious when scholars from different fields co-teach a course. Co-teaching permits the two to converse at the level needed for student understanding. It forces clarification of differences between two approaches; it unites the two in serving student understanding and, as a consequence, enriches their own understanding of the other field.

Another environmental catalyst for faculty members to collaborate is the sharing of mentorship of a research assistant. Often the student becomes an intellectual hybrid of the two, blending and synthesizing the two fields. Their joint devotion to the student, and the student’s lessons to the faculty about the synthesis of fields, make the collaboration effective and pleasurable.

Finally, nothing prompts and secures collaboration than shared responsibilities to successfully complete a project. Externally funded time-delimited grants and contracts are catalysts to real interdisciplinary practice. Hence, building an academic environment that nurtures team-application to grant and contract opportunities is important.

As Georgetown faculty continually reach to increase their impact on solving important world problems, we need to build an environment that makes collaboration across fields easier.

First-Year Research Seminars

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As I mentioned in a post awhile back, the most recent intellectual life report from the faculty of the main campus recommended that all first-year students have the opportunity to experience an intensive seminar. The recommendation was “We recommend the creation and support of first year seminar courses for all undergraduates in all schools, designed to initiate immersion into research culture first by teaching the fundamental skills of research as appropriate for knowledge creation or for solving practical problems.”

The rationale for this recommendation involved the following logic:

“One way to increase student engagement with original research would be through the learning of research skills over the course of an undergraduate career beginning in a first year seminar. Faculty anecdotally report that students enter senior seminars or capstone courses without the skills to undertake original research or the knowledge of how a research paper is constructed. This omission could be remedied by careful vertical curricular planning. Skills could be divided over first- and second-year seminars before students entered research oriented courses, senior seminars, and capstone courses in their junior and senior years. In particular students should be weaned away from using Google as a search engine for a research paper and instead introduced to the proper way to use databases and how to choose the ones most appropriate for their topic. They should also be taught how to review current literature to date so as to form a meaningful research question or topic.”

Traditional lecture courses, supplemented with outside readings, can be effective in communicating content to students. Such pedagogical strategies are rarely successful, however, in communicating the role of research in knowledge creation.

The skills required for good research in most fields are transferable to other environments over the life course. The transferable skills include critical reading skills. Instead of merely taking notes on the key content in a course’s readings, students can learn how to evaluate and question the reading. Critical reading of others’ work is a key ingredient of all scholarship. Instead of just exercising the mental muscle of absorbing new facts, they exercise the opposing muscle, conceiving of new ways of creating, new questions not yet answered, and new ways of solving a problem. Instead of reading just the research and scholarship that has passed critical peer reviews, they try to create their own new findings or creations. By doing research, they quickly encounter the common mistakes of the endeavor – the low rate of complete success, the need to morph approaches in mid-stream, the iterative nature of research progress.

The Intellectual Life Report reminded us how important these sets of skills are to the ability to learn new material. The effort proposed is an attempt to provide a deeper experience to those exiting high school into the life of the mind so important in intellectual development. Further, it reminded us how preparing a student for a life of constant learning is one of Georgetown’s important missions.

The deans received this recommendation with great interest. Over the summer the provost office prepared some analysis of the distribution of class sizes across levels of courses and schools. The deans worked to review the current status of their school’s first year offerings.

I am happy to report to all that each dean believed that fulfilling the recommendation was both important for academic excellence and achievable over a relatively short period of time.

There remains much work to do, however, to ensure that each first-year student has a meaningful research-relevant seminar experience. This work, however, will be great fun.

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Listen to the Provost Podcast, “Faculty in Research,” at https://provost.georgetown.edu/podcast

When Does a Academic Field Become a Field?

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One of the key functions of universities historically was to validate the existence of academic fields. The validation often manifested itself as degree concentrations or majors, departments, and schools.

There seems to be a natural progression in the evolution of this validation process. The establishment of an interest group often is often a first step. This might be a set of colleagues from different institutions who meet in sessions at conferences of traditional professional associations. They may begin to share their works in progress, collaborate on joint work, and keep in touch via email. They share ideas for developing content for courses in the emerging area. This is sometimes followed by a series of courses or, in fields eligible for external funding, the creation of programs of research funding. At a later stage, there are new degree programs.

On the research side, new subfields face resistance for space in flagship journals and traditional presses. A common reaction is for leaders to sponsor small conferences and created edited monographs that collectively create a body of cohesive content. Later, new journals specific to the area, are created. More and more the subfield asserts itself and is recognized as a coherent body of useful knowledge.

One can see this progression historically in many of the fields that undergird commonly present programs on US campuses (e.g., data science, biophysics). New fields split out from existing fields, sometimes from multiple fields simultaneously.

Over the years, students have been a strong force for the growth of new fields. They tend to examine the existing departments, units, schools, etc. and question why there are such legislated boundaries among them. They are more quickly attracted to new combinations of knowledge that new programs entail. So, the student pressures for increasing the number of subfields and degree programs are large on US universities.

These challenges require real wisdom. Human knowledge is expanding at unprecedented rates, largely based on the cumulative effects of research in universities. With this increase comes to ability to combine new findings with prior knowledge in new ways. Specialization abounds.

To some extent, this has been true for centuries of higher education. In recent years, however, the articulation of bits of knowledge seems itself to be moving faster. Why is this so? Three hypotheses seem logical. First, the more knowledge is produced, the more combinations of domains of knowledge are possible. Indeed, they increase multiplicatively. Second, the digital revolution and the internet make it easier to search for new pieces of information across fields. The same infrastructure makes it possible for scholars throughout the world to interact almost seamlessly and instantly. Very small groups of scholars can form organically, support one another, and build global interest groups. It seems that more small group meetings of scholars are occurring, outside the traditional professional organizations. Third, there seems a growing consensus that the remaining key problems facing the world are not going to be solved by the traditional fields. This has driven much of the external research funding institutions to reorganize into programs that require interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or convergent approaches.

Several key organizational issues facing universities stem from these developments. How can universities support the new combinations of knowledge? How can students be given the freedom to combine knowledge sets in new ways? How can curiosity driven research be nurtured as well as research focused on pre-defined pressing problems? Does peer review succeed in vetting what new combinations of knowledge have merit? Can research and education in these new domains be nurtured without creating permanent structures prematurely?

A Campus Coming Alive

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One of the great myths about universities is that they close up shop in the summer months. From a provost’s vantage point, the summer months do have a distinct character but not much of a slowdown. There are many summer professional workshops providing research exchanges among scholars, high school college preparatory institutes, faculty in laboratories and offices doing their research, and many traditional summer classes. So, there is a large amount of activity, but it is different than that of the academic year.

In the summer, many traditional degree students are away from campus, in internships or jobs. Many faculty are not on campus but working away, in archives or in the home institutions of collaborators. Study abroad opportunities exist for degree students.

In essence, the summer campus is busy, but the bodies on campus are disproportionately visitors.

With each passing day over the last week, as we approach the start of the fall semester, the atmosphere on campus is changing.

Construction workers, painters, and repair technicians are working overtime to finish updating classrooms, offices, and dormitories in preparation for the new semester that starts next week. Grounds crews are cleaning and weeding (between what seems to be constant thunderstorms).

Those who organize the move-in process for students have been in constant preparation for weeks. Emails have gone out to staff to either telecommute or take public transportation to campus on move-in days. A campus with multiple construction projects ongoing makes the move-in process more complicated than usual.

This week, the orientation leaders for New Student Orientation (NSO) arrived, and the level of noise and laughter is rapidly increasing. The NSO leaders are upper level students who come early to welcome the first-year students and help them move in. It’s a great tradition and is a great example of the spirit of Georgetown intent on building community. Friday, they will be spread throughout campus, singing, dancing and extending welcoming hands at the move-in.

The average age of people walking across campus is plummeting, seemingly hour by hour. There are some early family groups walking the campus, with apparent first year students, probably combining a short DC vacation with move-in. The heat has been oppressive the last few days and the groups are uniformly wilted. (I wonder whether we should put out the public water stations earlier than move-in day itself.) Each day, there seem to be more students pulling rollerboards across campus, loaded down with more than they will carry the rest of the year in their comings and goings. Empty boxes from summer storage companies are starting to appear near dumpsters.

Walking into Healy Hall, there was a line of young folks taking turns standing in front of or sitting on the statue of John Carroll. He’ll get more attention in the next few days than the last few months. I like to think he’s missed the students, too.

The changes bring back the not-too-distant memories of the buzz that exists on all residential university campuses when the academic year is in full throttle. The gang is back. They animate the space in a way quite distinctive of the research and service activities of the university. Part of this is the optimism of youth. Part of it is the excitement that comes with building one’s future and exploring life in new ways.

Each fall the coming of new students reminds us of the deep honor we have to hold the positions we have.

Eating our Seed Corn

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The expression “eating our seed corn” comes from times of severe drought or other weather induced tragedies when farm families’ near-term survival threatened their long-term survival. With each harvest of corn, ideally some of the seed is not consumed, but retained for planting the next year’s crop. Without this “seed corn,” no next year’s crop can be produced. Eating the seed corn provides short-run survival, but portends disaster for the family in the following year. This phenomenon may offer a metaphor for the impact of social trends on support for scholarly inquiry.

We are a world fascinated by the newest device or platform invented through new technology. These new technologies have offered transformative and positive changes to billions of people. The innovation culture spawning these benefits has several key ingredients – disruption of key features of the status quo, quick iterative improvements through a “fail fast” feature, and equally quick abandonment of ideas that fail to ramp. The culture is weakened by another feature, the so-called Gartner phases of innovation, which includes a “hype phase” that generally greatly overstates the likely benefits of a new technology.

These features have proven themselves amazingly efficient when a) the basic components of a new solution have been developed and proven useable in another domain, b) the assembly of new components offers a set of capabilities that were never before packaged in one service/entity, and c) a market for the new assembled entity is demonstrable. For example, Uber’s success builds on the messaging features of an internet platform, real-time GPS locational information for matching cars to requestors, credit-card electronic payment systems, the ubiquity of smart phones, and the untapped capacity of owners of autos seeking income supplementation. In short, the success of the idea rested on an effective assembly of existing components.

The genius of new technology can easily overshadow one important feature of societal innovation – the basic inquiry that led to the various components being available for assembly. For example, the current hype is focused on artificial intelligence, with boasts that it will replace most human thought and activity within a few years. It’s fair to argue that many AI applications find one of their roots in a 1948 paper by Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a paper that proffers the key framework underlying most of the key components of artificial intelligence (but also cryptography and data compression). In what could have been criticized as idle play by others, Shannon built a mechanical mouse that could “learn” its way through a maze in 1950; an act that might be easily criticized as child’s play. Theoretical breakthroughs often start with trivial implementations (if any implementation occurs at all), decades before their impactful application.

Would we be seriously planning for autonomous cars and trucks without the 1948 paper? What forces created the environment for Shannon to write the paper? What investments in talent are we making now that gives us assurance that the basic inquiry that is necessary for the innovation of the year 2060 is now occurring?

At one time scientists studying how a computer could play chess were ridiculed as frivolous. What basic questions are being addressed now that are easy candidates for ridicule (e.g., a study of the immune system of shrimp compromised in farmed waters using a treadmill)?

In a way, much of wonderful technological innovation we are experiencing now is based on a harvest of knowledge components that whose “planting” occurred years ago. Are we supporting the young minds who will discover the basic breakthroughs that will permit the innovation of 2060? Or, are they being drawn to other environments that support the next big innovation possible based on merely recombining existing knowledge? These minds and the basic discoveries they can make are our seed corn.

Mine the Gap

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I’m having a great time these days working on episodes of a podcast with Georgetown faculty about their research lives. (see SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-267910017 and on Spotify:  https://open.spotify.com/show/5C7tgv1fz9cBs6nnOXbV2w?si=BoS2Ku9uSyCMBdvQHPk9Ig).

It’s really fun for me to see how different faculty choose the projects they work on. I learn about their passion for a set of questions that is so fundamental that they devote their entire lives becoming more and more sophisticated in their knowledge about them.

Many episodes also discuss how their teaching and research lives intersect and reinforce one another. However, as I reflect on the various discussions, I am impressed how stark are the differences between many traditional classes and the research lives of the faculty who teach those classes.

The typical course at a university is a highly curated collection of content. Typically, the content consists of the very best scholarship in the field. The latest consensus of the field is presented through readings and lectures using the best research products that produced that consensus. Syllabi typically arrange the content in a manner that emphasizes a cumulative set of themes. The order of the course promotes a synthesis of the content of various weeks to achieve the given learning goals. When controversies in a field exist, the course carefully presents the alternative conceptual underpinnings or alternative interpretations, each of them undergirded with the best evidence behind the alternative viewpoints. Clarity of content and purposeful organization predominate.

Missing from a typical class, is content that is of lower quality, content that offers intermediate findings, content of studies that did not replicate, content of work that was presented at professional conferences and never published. The product of failed or mediocre scholarship rarely appears in syllabi. The chaos that typically exists at the edges of knowledge in a field is often absent.

The research lives of faculty members, on the other hand, are rarely as settled and as perfectly organized as the courses they teach. The beautifully designed syllabus, delivered in highly polished class activities, bears little resemblance to the day-to-day, step-by-step process of extending one’s understanding of a field.

First, faculty read much literature that could never pass the standards of a class syllabus. They puzzle over contradictory findings and interpretations not yet resolved within a field. They listen to substandard presentations at professional meetings. They read outside their field, looking for new angles of attacking their favorite problem inside their field. There is typically a lot of chaff hiding the wheat.

Second, research lives focus on the absence of existing content. Scholars are searching for the unanswered questions. They are seeking to fill the gaps in the literature of the field. They “mine” the gap (sorry for the pun). If human knowledge is like Swiss cheese, students are given the cheese, and researchers are fascinated with the holes.

Third, the research life of the faculty is filled with failures. The “hit rate” is very low for doing an experiment with notable results, for finding a document of key importance in an archive, for creating an interpretation that sustains criticism, or for inventing a book project that merits completion and publication. The most successful scholars are masters of failing fast and often, all in a quest to disrupt the current accepted knowledge. Each of them has files filled with ideas that didn’t pan out.

It occurs to me that much of life’s challenges are more like the research lives of faculty than the experiences of students in a traditional class. Life presents the absence of content — a poorly described problem, an inarticulate question, a puzzle without an obvious solution. The successful learn how to fill the gap with newly acquired knowledge.

In this context, those class experiences that incorporate problems, devoid of obvious content regarding their solutions, can perhaps offer students a useful lasting lesson. Georgetown faculty who are working so inventively to create experience-based  and research-based learning environments are doing this. They are teaching our students how to mine the gap.

Trust in Others and Trust in Government

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I have written before on the diminishing level of trust reported by the US public in key institutions.

A new Pew Research Center report on trust  updates some existing measures and adds some new ones.

The overall level of trust in institutions seems quite similar to prior measured levels. Things don’t look like they’re getting dramatically better.  Interestingly, however, only a minority of respondents report that lack of confidence is a “top-tier” problem facing the country. The issues garnering widespread views as top tier problems are things like drug addiction, health care coast, ethics in government, and affordability of education. On the other hand, a majority of people report that the greater lack of trust in government makes it difficult to solve a whole host of commonly mentioned problems faceting the nation (e.g., health care, immigration, climate issues). Over 2/3 report they believe the government intentionally withholds important information from the public, which could be safely released. Further, those who believe this trend to report less trust of the federal government. In speculating how could trust be rebuilt, calls for greater transparency commonly are mentioned.

What was interesting in the new report are measures of interpersonal trust. Do we have trust and confidence in one another? A majority believe that Americans have too little trust in other another, and that that makes it harder to address real problems facing the country. When asked why they believe we trust one another less than earlier, they speculate that how media treats negative news or list a set of societal problems that indirectly promote distrust. About 10% say that Americans have become more “lazy, greedy, and dishonest.”

Trust seems highly correlated to age, with older adults usually expressing more trust in institutions and groups (e.g., military, scientists, religious leaders). It’s also true that more of those with higher educational attainment report trust in others.

On the hopeful side, the findings show that people have faith in others doing the “right thing,” but the percentage is deeply dependent on what issue is being considered. For example, over ¾ believe others will report a serious problem to local authorities or will obey federal and state law, but less than half believe others cast well-informed votes in elections or have civil conversations with people with views different from their own.

There is good news in that a vast majority (over 90%) of people believe it’s important to raise the level of confidence Americans have in the Federal government. Similar results pertain to interpersonal trust. In speculating on what could be done to improve our level of confidence in one another, they often point to the role that local communities can play in trust-building.

Finally, it seems that perceived levels of interpersonal trust are related to trust in the federal government; the two tend to go hand in hand.

Although only a minor finding of the work, the notion that smaller communities may be the source of rebuilding trust is intriguing. The finding fits other work that trust requires long term reciprocated acts of benefit among actors. With the shared knowledge that is common in smaller groups, transparency is easier to attain. I could imagine followup studies to ask the question about whether those of us who enjoy trusting relationships in smaller groups, tend to more easily hold or regain trust in societal-level entities like the federal government. Greater insight into how trust in institutions can be rebuilt would benefit us all.

A Network Model for Research and Implementation

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In the long history of universities, a hierarchical organizational model predominates. Faculty are organized into departments or similar units; unit heads administratively report to a dean of a school; deans report to a provost; the provost reports to the president; the president reports to a board.

There exists, however, an alternative organization that arises among scholars throughout the world. As human knowledge becomes more and more sophisticated, it’s likely that an individual faculty has more ties with scholars working far away from his/her campus, but concentrating on topics very similar to their own. These scholars find each other in professional meetings or through followup communication about individual publications. They form networks. The network collaborates on defining the pressing issues of the field. When possible, they collaborate on research, sharing their expertise, learning from each other, and increasing the depth of knowledge in the field. They link together their own students to become new members. When possible, they nurture each other’s careers. In some sense, they form their own community.

There are attempts in research funding agencies to deliberately form networks. The MacArthur Foundation used a network model to help define needed research in aging and in transitions to adulthood, among others. It labels these as “research institutions without walls.” Sometimes, sustainable networks form around shared facilities. Some of the creation of research centers by the National Science Foundation bring with them a network model of scientists connected to each center. CERN forms a network of facilities but also teams of scientists throughout the world, sharing that infrastructure. Libraries and archives sometimes have formal programs of building networks of scholars.

One of the ongoing duties of university leadership is to build environments for faculty to be maximally productive in their research lives. To what extent can networks of units be a tool to increase this productivity?

Georgetown proudly has many different units addressing issues related to one another. One example is the set of units tackling the impacts of technology on social norms, regulations, and governance, which we’ve labeled the Georgetown Tech and Society Initiative (Center for Privacy and Technology, Institute for Technology Policy and Law, Massive Data Institute, Beeck Center, and hoped for new units, the PolicyLab, and the Center for Digital Ethics) form a natural network of synergistic activities. In what ways could a network model increase the impact of these individual units by offering infrastructure support for collaboration among them?

There are other Georgetown examples that could be added to that above.

The preference of a network model over a hierarchical model is that the individual units retain their identity and autonomy to fulfill their mission unimpeded by the need for adoption of a new mission of a higher-order entity.

So, the university issue is what makes for sustainable networks of autonomous but synergistic units? There seem to be multiple answers to this question. Some are shared infrastructure that may be expensive for each unit alone to support. This would include proposal development support to garner more financial resources for the units. It would include business and financial functions that are necessary to fulfill the obligations to external funders. It would include a communications function for larger networks, to publicize the work of the units and promote the network as enhancing the productivity of the centers. It would include postdoctoral fellows, graduate fellows, undergraduate fellows, who would work across the units and form an intellectual glue among the units. Perhaps, most importantly it would offer a common home, a space in which network nodes could interact and nurture their collaboration.

The goal of networks would be that collaborative activities among the constituent units would increase in volume. Through that collaboration, one would hope that the units would collectively be freed to achieve great impact.

Overdosing on Change?

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We all seem to be living through a time of rapid change.

Part of these feelings of experiencing rapid change comes, no doubt, from careful attention to news media, alerts we receive on our mobile phone, the ubiquitous “Breaking News” moniker on every screen. We now learn of a bus accident that killed three people in a remote rural area of a country far away from us, complete with pictures, within hours of the event. With such connectedness, there is a lot to cover, and we can literally see it all with a few clicks on a mobile phone. So, it seems that events are occurring faster and faster because we can follow so many events simultaneously.

Immediately after the 9/11 events, I mounted a repeated survey of a national sample of adults, containing a battery of self-report psychological health measures. We tracked such self-reported well-being over time as the days and weeks passed. A finding I will always remember is that those respondents who kept close attention to the media stories of the events after the attack, suffered from reduced well-being for a much longer period of time, relative to those who paid less attention to such media. Such attention seemed to keep the psychological wounds fresher for longer periods of time. Based on this finding, one wonders how much of a sense of living in a moment of rapid change is a function of how much attention is paid to very short cycled new media.

These thoughts may also apply to anyone in a work organization or some institution that also is undergoing change. For example, US universities are facing threats to Federal government financial support and increasing costs from demands for new academic programs, facilities, and student services. Just as economic inequality is a concern among US households, inequality in financial resources among elite private universities, state universities, and small liberal arts colleges is inducing change in the eco-system of US higher education. Further, the coming cohorts of students will come from life experiences very different from those of the last two decades. To optimally serve those students, changes in US universities must occur.

Similarly, in private sector organizations, externally influenced changes abound. Retail stores of a “brick and mortar” type and small businesses are being rapidly affected by internet-based consumption. Shopping malls, once thriving, are filled with empty storefronts. Some close completely. Department stores, offering large inventories of diverse products, are most vulnerable. Generational effects in consumer behavior seem large; younger shoppers claim never to visit stores except virtually. The manufacturers to the retail sector, once a stable industry, are undergoing real change.

With such rapid changes externally induced on organizations, one wonders how it affects the taste for voluntary change within the organizations. In this context, are proposals for change within organizations affected by the general feeling that the rate of change in the larger society is rapid, out of one’s control, and filled with fearful consequences? Do more and more people tend to seek stability in their social worlds (which they partially control) and in their work organizations, in reaction to the feeling of overwhelming rapid change in the larger world? Alternatively, do the feelings of unrelenting change in the external world spur a sense of need for innovation in other aspects of their lives?

Social Justice Technology

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Over the last few days, I was introduced to a very clever idea that serves clear social justice goals. It’s worth noting.

As we all know, there are large numbers of workers who clean houses and apartments, provide home care for children, provide services to elderly residents, deliver repeated lawn and garden services to homeowners. These workers share the attribute that they have many different clients or employers. They work for one client perhaps only a few hours every two or three weeks. Their clients change over time.

The demographics of the labor market that provides these services is disproportionately female. They are people of color in higher proportions than is true in the total population. Their education levels are lower than average. They tend to work without contracts with their clients. They are vulnerable to nonpayment for services and other abuses, as payment is often dependent on direct request from the worker.

There are between 2 and 3 million such workers at any given point. The vast majority have no provision for paid days off. When their family needs their time for care, they lose all income for their days away. Most have no insurance coverage.

So, the NDWA labs, partnering with Google.org, built out Alia (https://www.myalia.org/), a portable benefits platform for domestic workers. NDWA is the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization that seeks to support domestic workers and improve their conditions.

If you are a client of a domestic worker, you create an account on Alia, providing the mobile phone number of the worker, and enter an amount of benefits that you wish to provide to the worker. The benefit total is charged against the client’s credit card automatically at the amount and timing specified by the client. (Alia suggests $5 per cleaning event, for example.) Since most domestic workers have 5-10 clients, Alia estimates an average accumulation of $75 per month. This amounts to perhaps as many as 7 paid days off per year. In addition, Alia membership provides a $5,000 life insurance benefits to the worker.

In short, the platform is the accumulator of relatively small contributions from each client. When a client is dropped, they cease their Alia payments; when a new client is obtained, they are added as contributors to the worker’s account. Alia benefits are attached to the worker, not the job.

When the worker needs to draw on their Alia account, for example, for a sick day or for care for their own child, s/he requests a VISA gift card, which s/he can use to purchase anything needed from that day’s earnings.

The current outreach of the platform is to the clients of the domestic worker. It portrays the contribution as an expression of appreciation and care for the well-being of the worker by the client. It urges a set of clients of one domestic worker to offer these benefits jointly, by contacting one another and sharing the cost of the benefit accumulation. Rather that each client adding a small amount of money to each cash payment to the worker, Alia keeps track of the benefits for the worker and the client. The cumulated benefits stay with the worker until they are used.

The platform can obviously grow in many different directions – offering retirement benefit support, assisting clients in calibrating their contributions, etc.

I found it an interesting example of how technology can provide real benefits to an underserved set of workers. I wish Alia great good fortune.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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