Marshall scholar to explore technology’s civic potential

Erin Simpson, AB’15, has won a Marshall Scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Oxford next fall. The highly competitive scholarships, which were announced Nov. 28, annually enable up to 40 American students to study at the graduate level in any field of their choosing.

Simpson will pursue a pair of one-year master’s degrees in science at Oxford: one in the social science of the Internet, at the Oxford Internet Institute; followed by a master’s in comparative social policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. The programs will allow her to explore technology’s civic potential from both a theoretical and practical approach.

“The British are leaders in digital government,” Simpson said. “The Oxford Internet Institute is the only major academic department in the world devoted to understanding the Internet through social science.”

Simpson, who also won a Truman Scholarship in 2014, is director of programs for Civic Hall Labs in New York, a research and development nonprofit she helped start that builds technology for civic organizations and advocates for the development of more equitable technologies.

“Erin’s vision to improve digital government services shows remarkable creativity, energy and independence,” said Dean of the College John W. Boyer. “Her focus on civic technology demonstrates the integration of academic excellence and practice that we see in the College today at its very best. We congratulate her warmly on this achievement."

Simpson said antiquated technology in both the nonprofit and government sectors “compounds the inequities already faced by low-income communities at a number of levels.” As a public policy major at UChicago, she documented that reality in her organizing work in housing foreclosure prevention and in her case studies of Chicago welfare offices and libraries.

At UChicago, she got involved in “the civic side of tech.” Through her involvement at the Institute of Politics, she cofounded the University of Chicago TechTeam, an interdisciplinary volunteer group that remade websites and digital strategy for local government and nonprofits. She served as a fellow at Microsoft in Chicago, where she worked on civic strategy, teaching open data programs and running community-sourced innovation competitions, and spent time as a research fellow at the Georgetown Law Center on Deep Poverty studying best practices in social service delivery methods.

“Now, more than ever, we need to take a more critical approach to the ways that technology is influencing our civic life,” said Simpson, who plans to pursue a career in public service. “Social inequities are being replicated and amplified through our consumer technology, and our civic institutions need greater capacity to combat that trend.”

Originally from Menomonie, Wis., Simpson grew up in a rural community where the farm established by her family four generations ago is still in operation. She is the 23rd person affiliated with the University of Chicago to win a Marshall Scholarship in the past 30 years.

Simpson received guidance and assistance in applying for the award from the College Center for Scholarly Advancement, which supports undergraduates and College alumni through the highly competitive application processes for national scholarships and fellowships.