Mjumbe Poe is the newest member of the OpenPlans Civic Works team. He’ll work on projects that make our civic world a little smaller, a little more connected and a little bit more engaged. Mjumbe sat down to tell us where he came from, how he got here and where he plans to go:
What were you doing before joining OpenPlans?
Right before OpenPlans I was a Code for America Fellow on the team working with the municipal governments of Philadelphia and Seattle
What projects were you working on?
We were asked to look into making it easier for the city to be able to connect with and support people doing community improvement projects. We tried a few things and ended up contributing to implementations of Change by Us for the cities.
What lead you to work on community involvement and civic engagement projects?
Before Code for America I was working at UPenn in a Systems Engineering laboratory on human behavior modeling and simulation tools. It was really cool, but most of the projects that we were working on were for the military, or funded by the military. I felt that was a shame, as there was so much non-military potential for the things we were working on. This drove me to seek out and get involved with people in Philadelphia.
What was the goal of these projects at UPenn?
One was a training simulator for soldiers interacting with local townspeople. The player is tasked with basically ensuring that the locals have a positive opinion of the American military. A “hearts and minds” mission simulator. The people in the towns would each have goals, beliefs, preferences, and perceptions about the world. Various actions taken by the soldiers would change those perceptions and beliefs.
The other bigger one that I worked on was a prediction application for national crises (part of a DARPA challenge for an “Integrated Crisis Early Warning System”). We had to come up with state and leader models and, based on those models, determine likelihood of things like economic instability, insurgency, and so on.
Its really interesting stuff you were working on, but a big difference from what we do here. What drove you to cutover to the type of work that Code for America and OpenPlans does? Did you turn your back at what you were doing in school, was it natural progression or something else?
Ha! Not sure if it’s anything so dramatic. I think I’ve always been looking for ways to solve problems, which I think is necessary, while doing technology engineering, which I love. In high school, my senior project was a proposal for a discussion forum/ideation platform for reaching consensus on issues facing poorer parts of the world. A major reason I chose the college I did, Harvey Mudd, was because it was in a consortium with other highly ranked humanities and social science colleges. During college, I did an internship around educational gaming and another around urban segregation simulation. I think I’ve just been looking for a long time for the best way to do what I’m doing.
Where did you hail from?
I was born in San Jose, CA, lived in Riverside CA until I was 11 , and then moved to Philadelphia.
What will you be working on here at OpenPlans?
I’ll be working with the Civic Works team. I hope that the things that we make push the boundaries just a little more. I’ve been realizing just how new all this civic tech stuff is, and that right now people just need to keep inspiring others. I hope that we make great things that inspire other people to make great things.
Right now we’re working on an application for people to explore information about a street. Things like what the benefit of having a speed bumps installed is, how one might go about getting bike lanes put in, and who is responsible for street trees. We’re starting with a static, scripted street scene explaining these concepts, but will incorporate localized information later on. So, if you visit the site from Philadelphia, you’ll get information relevant to street features in Philadelphia. We also want to make it so that others can contribute to the info as well. It’s Wiki-ish, but with a more engaging interface. We’re going to be pulling local information from a number of places. We’re looking to do it for New York City first.
How do you keep yourself busy away from the computer screen.
I like making things. I sew. I cook. I make furniture when I can (mostly out of wood). I got have a wonderful partner who’s doing her PhD in African America studies at Temple. I have an amazing bunch of siblings who never cease to impress me.
Whats your nickname, and whats your favorite color?
Nickname, I have none. Favorite color this is hokey, but it’s not a color — it’s the way the sky looks just before sunset on a clear night, where there’s just a little pink peeking above the horizon and it fades into a deep dark blue.