Tag Archives: Washington D.C.

“So, How Do You Like DC?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question this summer, I’d be one rich intern.  Coworkers, friends, parents, and everyone in between have all asked.  Many have gone further to ask the more daunting question, “Are you going move to DC after graduation?”

Well the short answer to that question is, I really don’t know.  Yes, I have enjoyed my time living and working in DC, but just like any city, there are upsides and downsides to living here. So as a mental exercise for myself and as entertainment for you, I’m going to go through the pro and cons, in my opinion, of living in our nation’s capital.

Pros

1. Public Transit: The Metro system in DC is one of the best in the country. During rush hour, trains are running every 2 to 3 minutes, whisking you off to work while you sip coffee and read The Washington Post. There’s no sitting on I-10 waiting for an accident to be cleared up or fighting for a parking space at the office.

2. Policy Wonks: It’s sort of like being at the LBJ School, but scaled-up to city size. Everywhere you turn, you can find someone who wants to discuss politics, policy, or government. It is exciting to know there are so many people as passionate and interested in the same issues that you are. It also makes networking opportunities limitless.

3. Extracurriculars: DC has some fantastic restaurants, bars, professional sports teams, music venues, museums, and theaters and most of them are targeted towards the 20 to 30-something crowd.

Cons
So if you’re trying to get home after a late night out or going to meet a friend on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes you can’t help but wish you could hop in your car and drive yourself.

1. Public Transit:  Although the DC Metro will definitely get you to work and back on time (most days), the late evenings and weekends are rife with track work that severely limit and delay the frequency of tra

2. Policy Wonks: Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking about your or someone else’s work. DC never turns off the policy switch and everywhere you go;, from the gym, to happy hour, to a National’s game, people are talking about what they do and how important it is.

3. Tourists: Tourists arrive on massive tour buses and travel in packs wearing the same neon color shirt.  On weekends and holidays, they crowd the Metro, the sidewalk, and the museums. This seriously detracts from Pros #1 and #3 listed above.

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Sure I’ve oversimplified a bit here, but you get the idea. Also, although this has been fun, it certainly hasn’t helped me gain any clarity on where I want to live after grad school.  I guess it’s a good thing I still have a year to figure it out.


New Federal SNAP-Ed Model: Easier Said Than Done

In my first blog post, I mentioned that I am working on the USDA SNAP nutrition education program known as SNAP-Ed. I also mentioned that recent federal legislation significantly expanded the scope of the SNAP-Ed program mission and activities. I’m going to tell you a little more about those changes and the challenges associated with making sure they happen on the ground.

Traditionally, states have used their federal SNAP-Ed funds to provide low-income children and families with lessons on how to shop for, prepare, and eat healthier meals.  The new federal regulations expand the list of “allowable uses” of SNAP-Ed funds to include policy and environmental level changes that create healthier schools, workplaces, and communities for low-income Americans. States can still use the funding for nutrition education lessons, but are encouraged to take a more holistic approach and affect change at all levels of the Social Ecological Model. So what does that really mean?

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Well, it could mean a range of different things and really opens the doors for innovation by state agencies and their community-based partners.  It might mean working with public or private groups to establish a new farmers market or mobile fruit and vegetable stand in a neighborhood without a grocery store. It could mean consulting with convenience and corner store owners to increase the number of healthy options that they stock. It may mean collaborating with other organizations to establish a farm-to-school program that increases the amount of fresh, local produce served to children in public schools.  To determine the best use of funds, states agencies must assess the health needs or gaps that exist in an individual state or community.

That all sounds great, right? Well it is, except that it’s easier said than done. Many state governments and agencies have experienced cuts in their budgets and reduction in staff. This may hinder their ability to recruit and collaborate with new community-based organizations in their state. It may limit the amount of assessment a state agency can do to determine what the needs of their low-income populations truly are.  States agency staff may not be aware of the various non-profits and local entities that have the resources to implement policy and environmental level interventions.

Our job at the federal level is to provide adequate guidance and resources to improve the ability of states to successfully implement the new regulations. The federal SNAP-Ed team here at FNS has published tool kits, provided professional development tools, and released policy memos and guidance which clarify and exemplify possible new uses of the SNAP-Ed funding. This information is passed down through a network of regional and state-level administrators, who then pass information down to community-based organizations which receive grant money to implement programs.  As you can see, this is a long chain of communication and it’s likely that it will take some time for the true intent of the regulatory changes to be realized in every community where SNAP-Ed operates.

In my view, this is an illustration of the challenge of working within a federalist structure of government. Federal changes must be communicated to states that then must interpret those changes and implement in the way that makes sense for their population. Although this requires a great deal of time, effort, and error along the way, it makes sense. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for changing the health behaviors of Americans. The nutrition interventions needed in rural Arkansas are vastly different than those needed in downtown Los Angeles. It’s up to each state and locality to determine what’s best for them…within federal guidelines of course.

The Many Faces of DC

"See no evil . . . " (credit to Dr Weaver!)

July already – the past few weeks have flown by.  As a group we’ve coded thousands of projects, and I must say my Malawian geography is as sharp as you like.  As a break from coding, we also have the chance to do a bit of digging in to some topics that interest us.  So Tiffany Tripson and I are looking at energy sector aid to Africa – for differences between donor groups, regions, countries, and projects – all using AidData’s great database. I’ll certainly link to anything we come up with later on.

Over the past year at LBJ we heard a lot about the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and generally more three letter acronyms than I care to remember.  But this summer, through work and Dr Weaver’s class, I’ve had a chance to see some of the real ‘faces’ of these institutions – shiny buildings full of busy people (who, I must say, eat at the most glamorous cafeteria I’ve ever seen!).  And these organizations are trying to find solutions to real problems, both within themselves and out in a fast-changing world.  So it’s been great to meet some of the people that make these big bureaucracies tick.  For example, the World Bank is trying to get very serious about innovating to keep up with changes in technology, so serious that it hired on Aleem Walji of Google.org to help.  We had the chance to hear about many of these new ideas from a panel that Mr Walji moderated.  That same day I got to meet Daniel Kammen, Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the Bank, and another new acquisition.  He comes from UC Berkeley, where he was founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (among many other positions).  I just hope that these institutions can keep these kinds of people (and get more!) – making real use of their energy and experience.

But I’ve seen some more recognizable faces too.  Walking to work the other day I happened to see Christine Lagarde rushing in to interview at the IMF.  A few days later, on a stroll through Georgetown, my wife and I saw what looked like a police car convention – lights flashing everywhere.  Then SWAT-type trucks and fleets of SUVs and motorcycles.  As it turns out, it was just President Obama having ice cream with his girls for Father’s Day.  I suppose even the busiest faces in DC need a break sometimes. . .

Innovation Days and Nights

Geocoders 2011

Geocoders 2011

My first couple of weeks working at Development Gateway has been great. Our geocoding team has students from LBJ, BYU and William and Mary. We all sit together cozily in a big conference room. But as much as I enjoy my workdays, it is my evenings and weekends in DC that I really love. There is so much to do in this city. The past two Fridays we walked down to the National Gallery of Art for Jazz in the Garden.  On our way there the first time we stopped to watch President Obama’s helicopter land on the White House front lawn. I am pretty sure we saw his feet on the other side of the helicopter. After our picnic and some free jazz we headed to Chinatown to eat a variety of delicious Asian foods, including $1 sushi and Peking duck.

Last week the World Bank held their Innovation Days event at their headquarters. The event focused on innovations and technologies that are being applied to international development. Their lobby was filled with booths touting innovative projects that use technology to improve the lives of millions of people in developing countries. We listened to panels discussing the latest innovations in East Asia and we saw a film screening on sustainable green energy development around the world. We also had a treat Sunday night when LBJ School Dean Robert Hutchings invited us to a reception hosted by the Ben Barnes Group at the Roosevelt House for the Health Privacy Summit which took place in D.C. this week. I feel like I have done so much and I have only been here two weeks. I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the summer has in store.

Hello to Washington (and geo-coding!)

This summer, five other LBJ interns and I will be working at Development Gateway (DG) in Washington, DC.  This work is under a partnership between the Strauss Center at UT and AidData, and involves geo-coding into one database African development projects from various international donors.  The work during this leg will involve coding for projects in Malawi.

Aid has traditionally been given out piecemeal, with each donor funding separate projects where and how they see fit.  Now, this partnership is mapping out that aid, locating each project by its geographic coordinates.  By geo-referencing each development project and putting the results together in a single source, this work will promote coordination, cooperation, and just simple information sharing between donors.  But more than that, it could allow aid to be targeted at the places that need it the most – whether the poorest or the most vulnerable to climate change.  I certainly hope that it will lead to more targeted aid giving, as well as more effective aid spending.

I’m particularly interested in the large energy and water infrastructure projects that have been put into place in Malawi and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.  Over the course of the summer, I hope to learn more about how these types of projects can bring even larger-scale change for some of the people that need it most.

As for Washington – I’ve never been to the capitol before now, but from my few days here it looks like there won’t be much problem filling any spare time.  In fact, it seems that DC is as full of sights to see as it is of Starbucks – apparently no small feat!

Kicking Off the Summer in DC

My internship with Development Gateway (DG) in Washington D.C. is off to a great start. First of all, I love this city. As an international development professional and a news/politics junkie it feels great to be at the heart of the action. I am living in an apartment in Georgetown with three other LBJ students. Savin and Anustubh work with me at DG and Jessica Tibbets works at the State Department. Our apartment is one block off M Street and 100 meters from the Potomac River. Morning runs along the riverside trails and evening picnics in the riverside park have already begun. My first day at work was 31 May and that evening the Washington Area LBJ Alumni Chapter coordinated a happy hour that was a big hit and a great way to kick off my summer here.

Development Gateway is in the middle of the downtown D.C. scene. We are across the street from the IMF and the World Bank, so we go over to their cafeteria to eat lunch. If I ever see Robert Zoellick there I will pull up a seat next to him and then I will really have something to blog about. The work I am doing for DG is geocoding all of the donor aid that is being given to the country of Malawi, Africa. It is one of the first projects of its kind and when it is successful, other countries will hopefully want to do the same. Basically, the government of Malawi provided documentation related to every project that uses donor funding. There are 33 donors and hundreds of projects across all sectors – health, education, economic development, infrastructure, agriculture and governance. I read through the project documents, identify where the money is being spent (cities, villages, districts, etc.) and capture that information so that the project can be mapped using GIS (Geographic Information System).

A similar effort was made last year and resulted in the World Bank’s “Mapping for Results” platform –  For this effort, the team mapped every project in the world that the World Bank funded. Our current work will produce similar output, but for every donor and every project in Malawi. Many groups benefit from the work we are doing. Donors are better able to assess the needs of Malawi and guide funds to areas that are underserved. The government of Malawi will be able to identify gaps in donor-funded services and respond accordingly. But most importantly, the people of Malawi will benefit by getting the right services where they are needed the most. I am very much looking forward to all of the work and play I will doing in D.C. this summer!