Presidential Innovation Fellow Speaks on African-Americans and Technology

Presidential Innovation Fellow Derek Frempong, who works at the Department of Energy to develop new technology for disaster response and recovery, speaks on his background and the need for more Blacks in STEM fields.

(Photo: Derek Frempong)

Since June, Derek Frempong has been one of the top innovators chosen for the second round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which pairs distinguished individuals from the private sector, non-profits and academic world to develop solutions that can "save lives, save taxpayer money and fuel job creation." The program was launched by President Obama in August 2012.
As a software engineer, Frempong, 39, is on a "tour of duty" with the Department of Energy working on technology solutions in disaster response and recovery. Before accepting the fellowship, he had developed a patent for a facial-recognition technology, Connections Education, a virtual education solution for students in grades K-12. This is to ensure that students do not have other people sit in their place when they are taking tests.
Frempong first latched on to the idea of a career in software technology while working a chemical engineering internship that had a software development aspect. He said as a young student who was always good at science and math, he naturally gravitated toward engineering as it allowed him to solve problems by creating things.

Born in Washington, D.C., to Ghanaian parents, Frempong is one of a small pool of Blacks present in the STEM fields today. Black men and women made up 5 percent of scientists and engineers working in their field in 2010, according to a recent study by the National Science Foundation.
Frempong spoke to about his reasons for taking on the opportunity to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow, how he thinks the government can improve their disaster relief response technology, and why more African-Americans should be encouraged to go into technology and related fields. Tell me more about your role and what you’re bringing to the table at the Department of Energy?

Derek Frempong: I’m working on disaster response and recovery. So basically, if you think about unfortunate circumstances, like last year Hurricane Sandy, basically we try to figure out ways to apply innovation and technology to halt those types of situations. How can you save lives? How can you save dollars? How can you get things back up and running, the electrical infrastructure? How do you get supplies to people? How can you apply technology to those things so that those things occur in a much better and more efficient way?

Could you speak on specific projects you're working on that will be rolling out in the future? 

I’m working on some internal tools that are situational awareness tools so the government has a good idea of what’s happening on the ground level during disaster situations. I’m also looking at some client facing mobile applications and things. I’m doing that in collaboration with some folks over in FEMA as well. Then also there are some other things that we’re kicking around but it’s kind of early to talk about those because I don’t know where those things are going to end up.

Also, I was reading in your biography that you have a patent pending. Could you tell me more about the patent?

Well, the most recent job that I was doing before this was more focused on education. The company I worked for [Connections Education], they have a K-12 virtual school. So basically, they’re the same as a public school except they don’t have the brick and mortar. I was in charge for developing and maintaining the software that was used to run the virtual school.
One of the big issues with virtual schools, one of the things that people will point out is that it’s difficult to determine if someone’s taking a test if they are who they say they are. Say you attended a virtual school and you gave somebody else your log-in they could potentially sit in front of the computer and take your test for you. The patent that I came up with has to do with using facial recognition to determine if the person who’s in front of the machine is the person who’s supposed to be taking the test. At a high level and kind of simplifying it, that’s basically what it does.

To go back on the issue of disaster relief, could you speak on what you would like to see done in that area in the future?

Well, with the advent of mobile devices and the power of the Internet, I mean, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be, in disaster situations, a two-way communication between the citizens and the government. So, it shouldn’t be the government just pushing information down. So, being able to pick up a mobile device and know where should I go to get supplies that I need. Or if there’s something on the government level the government needs to know, me being able to snap a picture and say power lines are down or look at what’s happening here and have that go into a system. That should be something that we should have now, in my opinion.

Great. As a Black person in technology, do you have any viewpoints on African-Americans in the field?

From a technologist standpoint, obviously I’m very interested in seeing more African-Americans involved in technology because the barrier to entry is so low. You can essentially…everybody has access to or owns a computer these days. Computers are just part of the everyday household. Just with a computer and some free software or open source software frameworks, you can come up with an idea and build something that can turn into the next Facebook or the next Google, because that’s how all those people started out.

It’s more a thing of exposure of things to the African-American community and some understanding that these are things…while of course you have to have some kind of aptitude for it, it’s something that we can do. Again, it’s such a low barrier of entry. To an extent, you can be anonymous. So, while a lot of times we have to deal with issues where seeing a Black face may be a deterrent to somebody because we have to be honest that racism and things like that still exist. With technology you can build something and be anonymous to it and by the time that it blows up or whatever it’s almost too late to stop the momentum of whatever it is that you created.

I’d like to see a lot more African-Americans involved but technology helps level the playing field. Then from a consumer standpoint, I’d like to see us, African-Americans…again, we consume so much all the time. We tend to be consumers of things and I’d like to see us more empowered and kind of evolve to get as much out of being a consumer as we put in.

Lastly, what is your view on President Obama pushing this initiative to bring innovation and entrepreneurship to the government to advance society?

As far as President Obama and what he’s doing, I think it’s just wonderful. Not only to be an African-American president but to pioneer something that I think hasn’t really been pioneered or championed before in the way that he’s doing it. I’m very happy to be tied in, in some small way and contributing. I’m very happy with the job he’s doing as far as bringing technology into the federal government.

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