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Heinz Alumna Chizobam Nwagwu Joins Inaugural Cohort of U.S. Digital Corps Fellows

By Jennifer Monahan

Chizobam Nwagwu (MSPPM ’21) is passionate about public interest technology. As a member of the inaugural cohort of U.S. Digital Corps Fellows, she is transforming her passion into action.

“Public interest technology” may be an unfamiliar term to those outside the public policy or tech worlds. It aims to integrate technology, public policy, ethics, and governance to serve the common good. Or, as Nwagwu succinctly describes it, to create “people-centered policy.”

In June 2022, Nwagwu joined 37 other fellows with skillsets ranging from software engineering, data science, design, cybersecurity, and other critical technology fields who have spread out across various agencies of the federal government. Nwagwu’s current placement is with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

“We work with dedicated civil servants to solve some really different types of complex problems in healthcare, specifically as they relate to Medicare and Medicaid,” Nwagwu explained.

Nwagwu, who was involved with a variety of public interest technology projects through the Policy Innovation Lab during graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, brings the lens of human-centered design to her work with CMS.

That unique lens means first trying to understand people’s needs.

“You're trying to serve or improve their experience in some way, and so that often involves user research,” Nwagwu explained. “We talk to people who have experience going through a process and try to understand what their needs are, and any pain points they might be experiencing.” That insight into the user experience provides the foundation for better solutions.

Nwagwu said her experience at Heinz College was pivotal in shaping how she thinks about policy.

Chris Goranson’s class was a really great introduction to public interest technology,” Nwagwu said. “It helped me understand what it means for a policy to put people at the center of implementation of different solutions.” Nwagwu credits Goranson with introducing her to using technology, design, and project management skills to create solutions that serve public institutions.

Through her work with Goranson in the Policy Innovation Lab, Nwagwu got hands-on experience collaborating on projects for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the New York City Office of Resiliency. Those experiences, Nwagwu said, cemented her interest in the intersection of policy and design, as well as reinforced her understanding of the importance of listening to people who are affected by policy.

Though she has been engaged with the U.S. Digital Corps for less than a year, Nwagwu is inspired by her colleagues and energized by her work.

“I’m excited to really learn how human-centered design can be helpful in reducing some of the administrative burdens experienced by CMS enrollees, providers, and program administrators,” Nwagwu said.

Working at the intersection of public service and technology is a theme woven throughout Nwagwu’s academic and professional journey. During college, she participated in the Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute, where she co-authored a policy-analysis report on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. As a Fulbright Scholar, she pursued an independent research project in Lagos, Nigeria, to study substance abuse among young people. After graduating from Heinz College in 2021, she served as a Coding It Forward Civic Digital Fellow at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I've always been interested in in work that's in service of others,” Nwagwu said. With her current role as a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow, Nwagwu believes her efforts will have significant impact. She hopes to continue those contributions for years to come.