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The Opportunity Project Fosters Equity in Innovation by Mentoring Minority College Students

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Last fall, 20 students of color from four minority-serving institutions gathered across the country to create digital products that can help communities become more resilient to climate change and support children’s mental health in Puerto Rico.

The Opportunity Project (TOP) University Program, part of Census Open Innovation Labs (COIL), is working to cultivate a new generation of innovators from minority communities.

Over the course of 12 weeks, students built products using U.S. Census Bureau data and other federal datasets that are open and readily available to anyone, with the help of community advocates and mentors in the private sector. 

Expanding Census Opportunities at Minority-Serving Institutions

TOP, housed at COIL, brings together technologists, government and community groups to rapidly prototype digital products using Census Bureau data and other federal open data.

In 2020, the program began including graduate and undergraduate students from across the country in its sprint cycles. Sprints are rapid work sessions to complete specific tasks, including finding solutions to problems from poverty and digital inequity to climate change.

“As the farmers of today, we have the power to sow or pull up whatever we see as fit for the harvest to feed the generation to come.” 

— Dr. John Porter, team lead for Morehouse College

COIL, the team that runs TOP, began working in 2021 to strengthen engagement and partnership with minority-serving institutions (MSIs) in its university sprints.

With the introduction of the White House’s Executive Order 13985, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” TOP joins other federal agencies in “a comprehensive approach to advancing equity.” 

TOP University Program builds more inclusive access to Census Bureau data as well as a more inclusive talent pipeline by providing students of color with hands-on experience for career opportunities in multiple sectors. 

Building a More Inclusive Talent Pipeline

For the fall 2022 university program cycle, half of the eight participating colleges and universities were MSIs.

They include three historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland; Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia; and Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas — as well as the University of Arizona, a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI).

“As the farmers of today, we have the power to sow or pull up whatever we see as fit for the harvest to feed the generation to come,” said Dr. John Porter, the team lead for Morehouse College. “The difference now is technology mass produces that sentiment 1000-fold in minutes. That is why work like this is such an important step that I hope the federal government will continue to pursue as leaders of this changing world.”

Private sector partners, such as Google, whose team members have offered pro bono mentorship to the students, see the benefit in helping support a more diverse and inclusive tech pipeline for tomorrow’s innovators.

“The TOP University sprint allows the students to practice their skills in real-life, problem-solving projects,” said Diane Wei, a UX manager at Google, who has mentored several university teams during the 2022 sprints. “The sprint also provides professionals in tech companies with a way to connect with young talents and foster a culture of inclusion, equality and belonging.”

The products designed by the teams will be showcased at the annual TOP Summit, which will be hosted virtually in late February. 

The full agenda and registration information will be available on the TOP Summit page later this month.

TOP University sprints run every fall and COIL is working to expand the program to reach more MSIs every year. Learn more about TOP at opportunity.census.gov and contact the team about potential university partnerships at census.opportunityproject@census.gov.

Victoria Elizabeth Fine is a senior advisor for COIL.

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