PKG Social Impact Internships: Katherine He (’24)
Building accessible technology
My name is Katherine He – I’m a first year at MIT double majoring in computer science and management (Courses 6 and 15). This January during IAP, I interned at AccesSOS in software engineering.
I think about social impact a lot. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to study at MIT and I want to share the impact of my learned knowledge and skills with the communities around me. Also, I’ve always been excited to work at a startup as I’m passionate about entrepreneurship, especially in the tech sector. Thus, the internship at AccesSOS through the PKG Center was the perfect intersection of all of these interests.
The mission of AccesSOS is simple – provide an app that would help the millions of Americans who can’t hear, speak out loud, or understand English to call 911. I personally loved this idea as someone with relatives who don’t speak English and, as a result, had to work through many awkward situations in the past. However, I didn’t quite grasp the vastness of this issue beforehand – over 37 million Americans have trouble hearing, yet in the United States it’s rare to have text support for 911 call centers, so there’s virtually no way to contact emergency help if you can’t hear the dispatcher on the phone. AccesSOS changes that by locating the user, giving them the ability to specify their emergency through our app interface, and then calling 911 on their behalf.
Coming into this internship, I thought I was prepared because of my technical experience in mobile app development and natural language processing. However, I didn’t realize that my biggest challenge wouldn’t be in the technical details, but rather in the design. This was my first time taking on a project where the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) played a big role in how effective the project would be, and after several days of staring at the same code, I struggled to understand which UI/UX decisions would be the right calls.
My supervisor, the founder and CEO of AccesSOS, Gabriella Wong, helped me address this challenge by teaching me to place my mind into the mindset of a new user. We used questions like “If I saw this button with this icon, would I instinctively click it?” and “When I drag here, what do I expect to happen?” to inform ourselves on how AccesSOS users might interact with the app. From this experience, I learned not only new skills in UI/UX, but also how to create technologies that are focused on user-centered design – i.e., the idea of designing with the target users’ specific behavior and psychology in mind.
Overall, I’ve had an amazing experience interning at AccesSOS. Despite the remote environment, I definitely got the feeling of working at a scrappy startup. The other team members were super supportive, which made it comfortable to collaborate with each other, and I loved the fast-paced nature of the job, so this experience only reaffirmed my desires to work in the startup world someday. Most importantly, though, I’ve gained a better understanding of how my work – especially in structuring and designing new software – can impact others. In the future I hope to continue developing the skills I learned to make my projects (technical or nontechnical) more inclusive and accessible to all.
Want to learn more about the PKG Social Impact Internships Program? Visit our webpage to learn about ELO opportunities for Spring 2021, and stay tuned for information for summer 2021 postings!