Seeking sustainable solutions to make Washington, D.C. accessible and welcoming
With more than 250,000 housing units, nearly 1,500 miles of sidewalks, 1,600 traffic signals, and the third busiest rapid transit system in the U.S., Washington, D.C. is a complex system.
Ensuring that system effectively serves the 6 million people who call the D.C. metro area home has become a mission for alumnus David Alpert, A.B. ’00, a computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). He founded the nonprofit Greater Greater Washington 10 years ago to raise awareness of metropolitan quality-of-life issues and advocate for change.
Alpert, who grew up in a quiet Boston suburb, was interested in computers long before he became fascinated by cities. He fell in love with technology while learning to use his family’s Apple II E. Alpert taught himself to program in BASIC and became an outspoken advocate for his high school to gain internet access and launch a website.
At Harvard, Alpert debated between a computer science or government concentration.
“I was always interested in the intersection of those two disciplines, especially how technology can solve social problems, and how society affects the way we use technology,” he said. “I felt there was a lot of potential for computer technology to improve the way our society works.”
He graduated during the dot-com boom, and was recruited by Tellme, a Silicon Valley startup co-founded by fellow computer science concentrator Hadi Partovi, A.B./S.M. ’94. Alpert helped develop internet-powered voice portals that enabled users to call an 800 number and, using voice commands, receive directory assistance-like recorded information, such as restaurant information. The startup ultimately faltered because the technology wasn’t good enough to effectively process speech through the phone, he said.
“We could give you the Zagat review, but we had to have it recorded by a human and then read to you over the phone, which is more time consuming than something like Siri,” he said. “It was before its time in a lot of ways.”
From there, Alpert joined Google, where he built tracking systems for advertising sales managers and refined Google search results pages. Alpert’s team piloted the feature, now familiar to Google users, to include links to other pages from the same website underneath the search result. He also worked on technology which now powers the search tool's ability to answer factual queries; for instance, if one “Googles” the capital of Nebraska, the word “Lincoln” appears at the top of the page.
“There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm in Silicon Valley then. All these companies were growing rapidly and there was this real optimism that there are so many things we can do and it will really affect people’s lives,” he said. “It was very exciting to be a part of that.”
Alpert relocated to New York City to be closer to the Google ad sales teams he worked with on a daily basis. He had harbored a lifelong interest in cities and infrastructure, and soon found himself drawn to blogs advocating for better transportation solutions in the Big Apple.
He saw the impact that kind of advocacy could have on alleviating burdens for city dwellers, and took that mindset to the nation’s capital, where he moved when his wife began working at a Washington, D.C. law firm.
After learning about the capital region, Alpert started his own blog to speak up about sustainable transportation issues that impact daily life.
“I began looking at Washington, D.C. from an engineering mindset,” he said. “The systems of cities, including the way people interact with cities, how cities serve people’s needs, and how we design cities to be inclusive of more people, you can think about them as an engineering challenge.”
His blog quickly grew into Greater Greater Washington, a news website where volunteers write articles about problems and issues plaguing their communities, and greater Washington as a whole. The nonprofit also has an advocacy arm, where employees work in two main areas: housing advocacy, including affordable housing and communities facing displacement; and transportation advocacy, including more efficient public transit and safer, better sidewalks and bicycle lanes.
One of the team’s recent areas of focus is evaluating what autonomous vehicles will mean for the city, and what policies can be put into place to ensure their widespread use has positive results. also recently began studying how bike share programs could help alleviate gridlock.
For Alpert, the work is particularly captivating because it combines his fascination with cities, his love of technology, and his interest in public policy.
“To solve a problem in a city, you need to know how to build a piece of technology, like a bike that can unlock itself using an app,” he said. “But building that technology doesn’t get you all the way to your solution because you have to convince people to implement it. In a city, things just don’t pop into being. It takes money, it takes public support, and it has tradeoffs.”
Alpert said it can be difficult to overcome resistance to change, whether from politicians, neighborhoods, or individuals, many of whom have their own, often competing agendas. Running a small nonprofit also presents a number of organizational challenges, from fundraising to time management to scalability.
Over the past decade, Greater Greater Washington has enjoyed a large measure of success. Not only have they have built a community of people interested in improving the quality of life throughout the region, but also successfully advocated for open data on the performance of the Metro, the region’s mass transit system, and made many community-minded contributions to the region’s comprehensive plan.
“Seeing things that I’ve worked on actually happen, and seeing the energy of this community that we’ve created, is very rewarding,” he said. “We need to make the world better for people now, and these issues are key.”