Putting their signatures to a document outlining future digital, data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning advances and innovation, officials from Microsoft, the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County, and the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) have agreed to a future of collaborative efforts towards a technology-led economy through a new Syracuse Digital Innovation Alliance.

Microsoft corporate officials, including MSUS Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Byrne, and Jack Ryder, retired Chief Financial Officer, Americas, who is a member of the iSchool’s Board of Advisors, as well as a number of Microsoft staff members were present at the  iSchool-hosted signing event. They also have been meeting with community organizations and stakeholders in the Syracuse area regarding possible projects to address under the scope of the new alliance.

The collaboration is significant to the Syracuse community because Microsoft plans to work with the additional partners across the region on devising a broad curriculum of technology and digital literacy programs that can be accessed by local non-profits, community centers, educational institutions, employment and workforce development organizations and businesses. The goal is to more rapidly advance the Syracuse Surge, the community’s strategy of inclusive growth in the new tech economy. The Surge encompasses efforts to transition the region’s workforce, businesses, and innovation centers to address the realities of a tech-based economy. Its goal is to ready workers, businesses, governments, and community organizations for technical change, and to position the region as a leading-edge player in attracting businesses in the new technology space of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Smart Cities Initiative

The collaboration came about after Syracuse University and iSchool representatives coordinated a meeting at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters last summer, led by Ryder and attended by City of Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. Walsh discussed his Smart Cities Initiative and plans for the Syracuse Surge there.

Plans for the initiatives were greenlighted when the Syracuse City Common Council  recently approved a memorandum of understanding outlining goals and activities the collaborators plan to explore and undertake. The City and the iSchool previously have collaborated on several smart data educational events and “Smart Cities” technology initiatives.

History-Making Collaboration

iSchool Interim Dean David Seaman told the gathering of city, county, business, and university officials:

“The scope of this collaboration is truly history-making. The huge commitment of Microsoft to this collaboration means many things to Syracuse and to Syracuse University, including helping to create an ecosystem of technology and innovation partners on campus and downtown, businesses interested in modernizing their IT and data systems, and organizations ready to take part in exciting new community projects, with the partners ready to be part of where technology is taking the world – into big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and so much more.”

Arthur Thomas, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the iSchool, and director of the iConsult Collaborative, said:

“This collaboration provides the iSchool a signature opportunity to engage students and faculty across the University in one of the most unique regional digital transformation projects in the nation. We are fortunate to have access to advanced software capabilities, infrastructure, training and research opportunities sparked by Microsoft’s involvement, and it will allow all of us to apply our learned skills to individual projects targeted at real progressive change for the region through leading-edge projects and research. 

The iSchool has the rare privilege of being in a pivotal role to leverage information resources for the greater good. It’s an opportunity to put into practice all that we know under the experienced guidance of Microsoft. Both students and faculty will be able to take part in leading-edge projects and research, and they will be able to see the actual impacts of these efforts in our own community.”

Jennifer Byrne, MSUS Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft, said:

“For this new era of digital transformation to benefit us all, we need to create strong ties across government, academic institutions, and industry in support of a common vision of a digital future. The Syracuse Digital Alliance represents an opportunity for us to formalize a multi-stakeholder collaboration that will use Artificial Intelligence in responsible and trustworthy ways in order to create a smarter city and a more accessible environment for the acquisition of digital skills. Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. That is why we are so excited to be a part of this alliance, to be a part of the community here in Syracuse, and to work with all of you to create a better future for everyone.” 

Jack Ryder, Microsoft retired CFO/Americas, and an iSchool Board of Advisors member, said:

“I’m excited to see the shared commitment from Syracuse University, the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County and its schools to accelerate digital transformation across the region. The alignment of vision and strategic objectives is unique, and we’re grateful they’ve chosen Microsoft technologies to partner with them on this inspirational journey. Establishing Syracuse University and the region as a technology hub supports the [Syracuse University] Chancellor’s focus on research, development, and entrepreneurship This collaboration enables a living lab for Syracuse students to gain 21st-century skills to be leaders in the fourth industrial revolution.”

City of Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said:

“A critical part of the Surge plan is making sure we execute that plan together as a community that is working in alignment. We have our City, County, Syracuse University and many partners aligned around a common goal. Microsoft is listening to us. They’re using an inclusive approach. They’re asking what our priorities are and what people in our City need to prosper…and because Microsoft is listening to us, the world is now watching Syracuse. This is a great time to be in Syracuse. It’s a big day for us, but our most exciting times, our best days, are still ahead of us.”

City of Syracuse Common Council President Helen Hudson said:

“I want to thank Microsoft for recognizing the talent that we have in the City of Syracuse. Syracuse is a growing city, and we have wonderful, wonderful young people here. They are the future for our city, and now they have opportunity to be able to be technically connected because of Microsoft and the leadership that brought this team here. I’m looking forward to see how far we excel in being a Smart City for Microsoft.”

Onondaga County Executive J. Ryan McMahon II said:

“What we’re seeing right now in in Central New York, Onondaga County, and the City of Syracuse, is that when your leaders get along, and they have common cause and common purpose, you bring in new and innovative partners. Microsoft is one of the world’s most valued and respected companies. The fact that Microsoft is here in Syracuse and Onondaga County sends an undeniable message that this community is a great place to invest in and grow a business. We look forward to this partnership.” 

Alliance Agreement

iSchool Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Arthur Thomas said the Alliance memorandum of understanding shapes the partners’ goals and permits Microsoft to dedicate significant resources, at  no charge to the collaborators, to start looking at initiatives designed to positively impact the region.

It includes exploration of a tech hub, partnering with education providers and community organizations on digital literacy and workforce training, the idea of an innovation summit and support for research in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to grow long-term opportunities for residents and a leading-edge role for Syracuse in that arena. It also looks at how to support continued development of an entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem to help establish/grow new start-ups and innovation jobs, as well as support for digital transformation efforts for local businesses. Another aspect is examination of a digital ethics policy and an AI strategy for the City to ensure responsible deployment of new technologies. 

The City, County and Syracuse University will provide local leadership to the collaboration and will actively recruit other institutions and organizations to partner in the programs.

iSchool Relationships at Center

The collaboration of the business, education, and government interests has already explored a series of high-impact, community-focused projects in education and training; public safety and security; accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities; and economic development and job creation.

Many of these projects have taken place through the iConsult Collaborative, an iSchool-based experiential learning program that pairs Syracuse University students with technology needs of local communities and organizations. The projects, which Thomas oversees, provide students real-world experience and the ability to apply their tech skills with community and non-profit groups that might otherwise have to forego the services and upgrades which iConsult students provide free of charge.

The iSchool and Microsoft have had a relationship and interactions for several years, including the company’s recruitment of iSchool graduates and attendance at iSchool career fairs, as well as the involvement of Syracuse University alumnus Ryder’s role as a member of the iSchool’s Board of Advisors.

In addition, the iSchool has worked with Syracuse city projects and community organizations for many years through its faculty-led and student-worker based iConsult Collaborative. Several iSchool faculty members have specialized in research on Smart Energy and Smart Cities, and the iSchool has a Smart Grid Research Center. It also has faculty and researchers whose research interests are focused on smart energy use, data science, artificial intelligence, and the IoT. In addition, the iSchool offers a data science minor which is open to all students at Syracuse University, and a master’s degree in applied data science.

Feature photo, from left to right: Art Thomas, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs of the iSchool; David Seaman, Interim Dean of the iSchool; J. Ryan McMahon II, County Executive for Onondaga County; Ben Walsh, Mayor, City of Syracuse; Helen Hudson, President, Syracuse Common Council; Jennifer Byrne, MSUS Chief Technology Officer; and Jack Ryder, Retired CFO/Americas, Microsoft and Member of the iSchool Board of Advisors. Photo by Charles Wainwright.