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By Christina Sewell MPA ’21 with contributions from Aastha Uprety MPA ’21

Despite the incredibly challenging circumstances wrought upon the global community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, several groups of SIPA students, rather than remain dispirited, came together to engineer innovative and entrepreneurial ways to solve some of the world’s biggest policy issues.

For 2020–21’s SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant, COVID-19 Response Challenge, and Global Public Policy Network (GPPN) competition, students were encouraged to develop digital technology ventures using information and communications technology solutions (ICTs) and data analytics to improve society practically, with a special focus on addressing COVID-19’s impact.

Student groups submitted impressive ideas spanning solutions for gaps in health-care access, educational opportunities, women’s empowerment, gender-based violence, and more. They included a mix of market-based and publicly and philanthropically supported projects. Ultimately, eight semifinalist teams were chosen to compete in the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge, five top concepts were picked for the COVID-19 Response Challenge, and three teams were selected to present their policy proposals at the GPPN Annual Conference.

While all of these student groups demonstrated a deep understanding of policy issues and potential solutions, the competitions’ winning ideas best exemplified innovative entrepreneurship’s ability to empower communities around the world.

SIPA DEAN’S PUBLIC POLICY CHALLENGE GRANT

In fall 2020 Dean Merit E. Janow announced the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant’s eighth annual competition, inviting student teams to consider aspects of COVID-19 in their venture ideas. The entrepreneurship competition was launched in 2014 to support innovative student projects that leverage digital technologies and data to develop practical solutions to problems.

The winning project, EZ Health, was born from concern regarding the 50 percent decline in in-person doctor visits by Americans for whom English is not their primary language. During the same period, telemedicine solutions increased by 8,336 percent nationally, taking over the medicine landscape, yet the vast majority of health-care platforms were only providing services in English.

EZ Health proposed addressing this emerging communications and health-access gap through the development of technology that directly connects patients with health-care providers (such as doctors and psychologists) who speak the same language or share a similar ethnic background.

“During my visit to Palestine in January 2020, I visited Dheisheh, a one-square-kilometer refugee camp with a population of 17,000,” says Etizaz Shah MIA ’21, founder and CEO of EZ Health. “The entire camp had only one clinic with two doctors, one of whom died.”

Shah’s experience made him realize the potential of digital technology to help patients living anywhere in the world, especially during the pandemic. “I wanted to build a telemedicine platform,” he says, “where American doctors from different ethnicities and languages could help the immigrant communities within the United States as well as volunteer to serve in conflict-affected areas like Dheisheh Refugee Camp.”

Together with SIPA students from around the world—Amanda Papir MPA ’21, Nami Patel MPA ’21, Sebastian Rositano MIA ’21, and Lifeng Zhang MPA ’21—Shah worked with his team to develop a platform directly connecting patients with doctors who spoke their language. EZ Health’s pilot proved successful, and after months of concept and financial-startup-plan development, the group was named the winner of the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge in April. The idea has also won the Columbia Engineering campus-wide annual elevator pitch competition and several other non-SIPA-related grant competitions since then.

EZ Health’s telemedicine system is now on its way to serving those in need around the world.

COVID-19 RESPONSE CHALLENGE

Sparked by a desire to help communities, governments, nonprofits, multilaterals, and other entities address the enormous consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City and around the world, SIPA students were also invited to enter the School’s COVID-19 Response Challenge. The competition aimed at generating bold and innovative policies and programs urgently needed to address short- and longterm responses to the pandemic.

A semifinalist group in both the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge and the COVID-19 Response Challenge, Ekatra Life was one such student group working to redesign and rebuild capacity in response to the crisis.

The group, composed of Aparna Arora MPA ’21, Raghuram Guda MPA ’21, Shruti Kedia MPA ’21, and Lavanya Lal MPA ’21, grew concerned as women’s unemployment in India significantly worsened due to COVID-19, particularly for artisans residing in the most vulnerable communities.

“We realized that women artisans in India lost their jobs overnight [due to the pandemic],” says Kedia, cofounder of Ekatra Life. “We saw there was a need to connect nonprofits working with women artisans to corporate buyers in order to establish a platform for these artisans where their craft and skill could be fully recognized.”

The digital marketplace platform developed by Kedia and her teammates now provides alternative income mechanisms for these artisans and connects nonprofits with governments and large corporations, enabling a critical sales channel. Through Ekatra Life, artisans’ products ranging from PPE to fashion items can be purchased, host organizations are updated about changing policies and market trends, and women artisans residing in vulnerable areas of India are continually trained in new skills and technologies specific to a changing world.

GLOBAL PUBLIC POLICY NETWORK COMPETITION

In March the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo hosted this year’s GPPN conference, convening students and deans from member schools around the world to discuss and address today’s most pressing policy challenges. Institutions participating in the GPPN since its founding in 2005 are SIPA, the London School of Economics, the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po, the Hertie School of Governance, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo, and the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) at the Escola de Administração de Empresas .

In this year’s virtual conference, three SIPA student teams competed to develop the most effective policy solutions around the conference theme of “The Crisis of Globalization as We Know It.” All projects proposed solutions to enhance regional and international cooperation in the wake of COVID-19 that could mitigate growing sources of economic, social, and political friction around the world. Of SIPA’s three teams, two were awarded first- and second-place prizes.

“The GPPN conference provides a wonderful opportunity for SIPA and other policy students to come up with creative solutions to problems they care about,” says Dean Merit E. Janow, who served on the judging panel. “It is also a chance for deans from all of these leading schools to exchange ideas about our changing world.”

The first-place team, Tech2Protect—whose project also earned runner-up honors in the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge—proposed a learning platform to address sexual and gender-based violence.

“Child abuse is a hidden pandemic happening alongside COVID-19,” says Marjorie Tolsdorf MPA-DP ’21. As the pandemic has forced children to attend school from home, away from the watchful eyes of teachers, “there has been a decrease in reporting despite a spike in rates of abuse.”

Tolsdorf, Madeleine Dejean MPA-DP ’21, Minji Ko MPA-DP ’21, Saiful Salihudin MIA ’21, and Julia Vieira de Andrade Dias MPA ’21 plan to develop a technological tool, Athena, that would empower educators to monitor and respond to child sexual abuse. The platform would provide learning tools for children, intervention resources for teachers, and data for policy advocates to share best practices on abuse prevention.

Tech2Protect won the conference prize for Best Presentation. “Representing SIPA was the highlight of the experience,” Tolsdorf says, “particularly because SIPA has so graciously provided us with the resources and support needed to launch such a tremendous and complex endeavor.” The team is currently testing a prototype.

A second SIPA team focused on the human rights concerns surrounding privacy and data protection in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inherent tension between contact tracing methods deployed to keep communities safe from disease and the need for data protection inspired this team to propose a digital tool and set of assessment principles to guide global policymakers. A Guidance on Privacy Protection and Digital Contact Tracing allows the team to evaluate different countries’ contact tracing methods and provides governments with a framework to ensure data privacy and human rights in the process.

The group—Haejo Kang MIA ’22, Jianing Joanne Li MIA ’22, Danielle Murad Waiss MIA ’21, Andrea Rojas Perez Palma MPA ’22, and Hanako Sasaki MIA ’22—won runner-up for Best Presentation.

“It was an absolute pleasure to work with this group of amazing women,” Murad Waiss says. “We all came to this project with different backgrounds and nationalities, and we had all been living through the pandemic in different countries. It was an honor to represent SIPA and participate alongside students from around the world.”

Congratulations to all the 2020–21 academic year’s competition winners, and thank you to SIPA’s students and faculty who participated. Particularly in the face of a rapidly changing world, our community’s unwavering ingenuity and dedication personify the spirit and mission of the School and are what make SIPA a global leader in solving the world’s most critical challenges.

This story appears in the most recent issue of SIPA Magazinepublished in October 2021.