Daniel Zhao

Hi, I'm Daniel đź‘‹

I'm passionate about tech policy, politics, civic tech, data visualization, public transit, and the future of cities. I believe that public institutions need to play a key role in addressing many of society's most pressing challenges. And, despite being a statistics major, I believe that numbers seldom capture the entire story.

One of my ongoing personal goals is to more deeply understand the factors that have influenced my worldview, to construct a narrative of the hundreds of people, events, moments, and experiences that have shaped my beliefs. You'll find below a short version of that story — at least as it pertains to my professional interests — below.

Share anything in common? Let's chat→.

My backstory

For as long as I can remember, I've always been a logical, numbers-driven person. I would make spreadsheets for things that didn't need spreadsheets, including my wishlist to Santa one year. But the more I dabbled into debate and politics, the more I saw that there's a lot more to our society than just numbers and equations. The 2016 election, and the subsequent debates on healthcare and immigration, fascinated me as much as it instilled in me a belief that public policy remains one of the most direct, impactful ways to improve people's everyday livelihoods.

So for a long time, I held independent interests in both technology and government. In 2018, however, my internship in Louisville’s Office of Civic Innovation exposed me to the rapidly expanding field of civic technology. I saw first-hand how data and technology could unlock efficiencies in government by using crowdsourced Waze data to analyze traffic patterns, installing Wi-Fi sensors to predict vacant property fires that could ravage already-impoverished communities, and promoting awareness of low-cost internet plans offered by broadband providers. I believed that the way our government works was about to be revolutionized by technology — that technology would become the most effective way to fix service delivery, improve public policy, and impact lives.

That perspective guided my next few pursuits. It led me to the Civic Digital Fellowship, an internship program for technical students to help modernize federal agencies, and, when the real-world harms of social media became apparent, it led me to believe that I could help solve problems of misinformation and content moderation as a data scientist at Facebook.

My internship at Facebook started on May 26, 2020, just one day following the death of George Floyd. That summer, and events since then, have reshaped how I view technology’s role in society. Simply put, I realized that there are certain problems that tech just can’t solve. Despite executives continually touting the success of AI-based systems to detect hate speech, I realized that Facebook was ultimately playing a reactionary game of whack-a-mole against endless QAnon extremist groups — the recent violent insurrection against the U.S. Capitol is just one more piece of evidence. And in the shadow of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust hearing last summer, I realized that nothing could eradicate the deeply entrenched power of today’s social media companies over every aspect of Americans’ lives — short of a complete reimagining of our economic system itself.

I’m a technologist at heart, and I don’t deny that technology can help alleviate some of our problems. However, I now believe that policy, rather than technology, is the most effective tool to solve structural problems in a way that leaves a lasting impact. Wi-Fi sensors can help reduce vacant property fires in low-income neighborhoods, and this technology is important, but structural change requires us to reverse our country’s legacy of redlining and segregation in housing and transit policy. Facebook’s burgeoning civic integrity teams can help reduce misinformation, but they don’t tackle the root cause of the problem, which instead lies in the fracturing of the information environment in our democracy — something that technology can’t solve. More tech will create more problems, and thoughtful tech can present solutions to isolated problems, but only policy change — when done with technologists at the table, of course — can meaningfully address structural injustice.

Along the way, I've also tried to maintain my interest in the arts. I always carry my camera around, because I never know when a good moment will strike. I'm a passionate transportation geek, and my go-to fun fact is that I can draw the New York City subway from heart.

A few of my favorite things

News

  • New York Times
  • Protocol
  • FiveThirtyEight
  • The Verge
  • CityLab

Movies & TV

  • Inception
  • Boyhood
  • Ex Machina
  • Black Mirror
  • The Blacklist

Apps

  • Notion
  • iA Writer
  • Transit
  • Weather Line
  • Dashlane

Food

  • Sparkling water
  • Starbucks
  • Pineapple on pizza
  • Beijing duck
  • Stroopwafels

Books

  • Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell
  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Colophon

Website

This site is coded by hand with HTML, CSS, Jekyll, and lots of love. It's hosted for free on GitHub Pages, which means you can fork the GitHub repo to make your own personal site!

Check out Ronak Shah's guide to setting up your own website on GitHub Pages.

Design

I fell in love with the IBM Plex family ever since I first came across it. I now use Plex Sans across my website and resume, and Plex Serif and Plex Mono variants where appropriate. On my website, the fonts are served via Google Web Fonts.

Primary accent colors are #0083ff and #ff5470.

Photos

I recently upgraded to the Canon EOS R, a full-frame mirrorless camera, after using my trusty Canon Rebel T5i for over seven years. I shoot with the RF 24-105mm f/4L, an RF 35mm f/1.8 prime, and on occasion, the EF 50mm f/1.8.

I edit my photos with Adobe Lightroom Classic CC. I'll switch to the cloud version when it reaches feature parity and once storage gets cheaper.

Tech

My primary workhorse is the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1. I recently picked up a cheap Lenovo Chromebook Duet to work on-the-go.

I organize nearly my entire digital life in Notion. I describe it as a mix of Simplenote, Evernote, and Trello, and I'm a huge fan. Use my referral link for two free months of Notion Premium!