Digital Dust Bowl

A few brief thoughts on the current state of affairs.



85 years go, America experienced a series of severe dust storms that would become known as the dust bowl. Once it started, unfortunately, there were no immediate fixes or short-term solutions. All you could do was try to fight against the symptoms and guard against the worst of it or flee.

Perhaps most tragically,

the worst of it could have been prevented. The knowledge for how to farm in ways that would have prevented the Dust Bowl existed at the time of the Dust Bowl. This knowledge was just not sufficiently distributed from the agricultural research institutions to the front-line homesteaders trying to survive.


At its essence the Dust Bowl was caused by a naturally occurring drought cycle which was exacerbated by human activity from a prolonged period of significant growth in homesteading and farming, which had led to vast amounts of prairie grass being plowed under. 

Today we have a similar situation where naturally occurring cycles (political pendulum, economic shifts, etc.) have been exacerbated by human activities (technology advancement) that have created an incredibly toxic environment with real extreme consequences (i.g. fake news, email hacking, identity theft, structural unemployment and lost jobs, echo chambers, etc).

These realities are having dramatic economic costs both for individuals and communities across the country. And as a result, we are witnessing record levels of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, frustration, and distrust for our country's systems and institutions.


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Over the past few years (and often at the urging and with the support of Megan Smith while I was serving in the White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy), I have been digging into and exploring how the Agricultural Extension programs works, which is perhaps why I kept thinking about the Dust Bowl after the election. Due to this groundwork, I have continued to learn more about how the Ag Extension program became a significant solution to the underlying problems that led to the Dust Bowl, and has helped to make sure we haven't had another one since. 

These programs (which exist in every single county throughout the whole country, run through the Land Grant Universities) are a critical way that knowledge and best practices are shared, and contain a whole array of initiatives including demonstration farms, master gardening courses, and others offerings including the support structure for the youth-serving 4-H program. This distributed system of non-credit bearing course (farmers aren't looking to get a degree in the field, but rather for ongoing support and new training, etc.) have become a critical piece of our agricultural infrastructure and culture. 

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I highlight all of this to make the point that I am convinced that today we need a Tech Extension -- a distributed system of non-credit-bearing informal and continual education opportunities that can address the underlying issues we are facing as a country in this digital age. So many of the tech problems today have human solutions but yet we (as a country) are still terribly under-equipped to provide ongoing life-long technology education to upskill our population and increase capabilities, all of which has been feeding a dramatic downward spiral in our public discourse and direction. 

There are countless number of ways parts of these issues are being addressed (like boot camps, meetups, etc.) but there is not yet as fully-distributed a system as we need that addresses how opportunities like these (think TechHire, just to name one) could continue to grow and expand to meet the overwhelming needs we have and do so in a deliberately diverse and intentionally inclusive manner.

What we need is to establish a Tech Extension!




Tech Center Prototyping

From the former South Baltimore Rec Center to the White House, the idea of transforming and enhancing Rec Center into Tech Centers is spreading across the country. The lessons-learned and promising practices are ready to be applied as the idea scales in scope and impact.


In 2013 the Digital Harbor Foundation transformed a closed-down rec center in Baltimore City into a vibrant Tech Center for youth. In 2016 they directly served more than 1,400 youth through afterschool and summer programs, hackathons, field trips, and mentored tech challenges -- youth as young as eight years old gained new knowledge, skills, and confidence and pitched their ideas to engineers, investors, CEOs, and even the President of the United States. Middle and high school DHF youth launched new programs for youth to learn professional-grade programming languages, strategize a product from market research to prototype, display their work for potential employers and college admissions, and receive college credit for their afterschool work at the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center.

The Digital Harbor Foundation prototyped the first Tech Center and continues to iterate on the model, sharing its work at


Starting with a meeting at the White House in May 2016, the work of enhancing Rec Centers by transforming them into Tech Centers has spread. In addition to the pioneering work of the Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore, projects are underway led by the Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh, the 1881 Institute in New Orleans, and actively being championed across the entire country by the National Recreation and Parks Association.

This work is just the beginning but these efforts are critical in exploring the contours of what and how to build out a series of Tech Centers. While these prototypes are youth-focused, the infrastructure and potential is not limited to just this. Such spaces with tech infrastructure could be used throughout the day by various age demographics and programs.

These efforts are proving this work is possible -- now it needs to scale.

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