Alumni profile: Eric Hysen, A.B. ’11

Monday, August 29, 2016 - 11:45am

On a mission to make the Department of Homeland Security more user-friendly

Each year, nearly seven million people apply to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for an immigration benefit. Most are required to navigate a sea of complicated, time-consuming paper forms.

As the new Digital Service lead at DHS, Eric Hysen, A.B. ’11, aims to use technology to simplify that system. He directs a team working to modernize immigration and other core homeland security missions.

Hysen, a computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, joined DHS a year ago after serving as a founding member of the White House U.S. Digital Service, an initiative President Obama launched to improve the execution of policy objectives using technology. Hysen decided to leave his job at Google and join the public sector after seeing how technical problems during the rollout of the healthcare.gov website nearly torpedoed a major government initiative.

“A lot of what is considered cutting-edge in the tech sector is aimed at making the lives of 20-somethings a little bit easier,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between making it easier to hail a cab and making it easier for someone to get their green card and stay in this country. The opportunity to use my skills to make a difference on these incredibly important challenges was too much for me to pass up.”

Modernizing the immigration process is the largest project Hysen and his 25-person team are currently tackling. Renewing a green card—a task that should be as simple as renewing a driver’s license—can take up to several months and cost hundreds of dollars, Hysen said. They are working closely with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reboot the system, incorporating agile software development techniques to digitize the process in a way that is easy for users to understand.

Over the past two years, DHS has converted about one-third of the immigration process into a digital system.

The team is also working to streamline the U.S. import system. Currently, hard-copy paperwork must be filed and reviewed when shipping containers dock at port, sometimes trapping cargo onboard for days or weeks, Hysen said.

“The end result is that our economy loses out on hundreds of millions of dollars in value every year because we can’t approve these forms fast enough,” he said.

His team is supporting the effort to replace the hard-copy system with a digital database that sorts out which agency needs to receive each piece of information, hastening the approval process.

The DHS Digital Service team is also working with the Department of State to augment the process by which refugees enter the U.S. The current procedure spans a dozen different government agencies and can take up to three years to complete. President Obama has pledged to take in more refugees due to the growing global humanitarian crisis, which will put more pressure on an already overloaded system.

The challenge Hysen and his team face is to make that system more efficient and improve the way information flows between government agencies, while also making security checks more robust.

Even as they work through these complicated technical challenges, Hysen is excited for how a digitally-focused mindset could be used to rethink entire bureaucratic processes.

Someday, rather than filling out any forms, users might receive a push notification on a smart phone reminding them of an impending green card expiration. Touch a button and wait for the new card to arrive in the mail.

That kind of system is still a very long way off, but Hysen draws motivation and inspiration from the human-centered core of his mission.  

“I have a picture on my desk of a woman who, a few weeks ago, became the first person to naturalize and become an American citizen electronically,” he said. “Every time I look at that photo I break out into a grin. These are real people, doing some of the most important things they are going to do in their entire lives. Being able to improve that experience for them is the greatest honor.”