Dec. 8, 2020
The 2020 PIT-UN Convening offered a chance for 2019 Network Challenge grantees to share updates and lessons learned after a year of work on their projects. In three panels, 2019 grantees from across the country discussed Creating a Responsive Government, Teaching PIT Through a Multidisciplinary Lens, and The Building Blocks of a PIT Career. Our 2019 grantees are engaged in a wide range of work—including hands-on tech development, creating PIT coursework, and building a career pipelines for PIT students. Yet many expressed shared experiences and perspectives around the purpose of public interest technology, and what students need to learn to be successful not only as technical experts, but also as leaders and policymakers.
“Most of my students are not technically savvy,” David Eaves, lecturer of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School says, raising a point common among many PIT-focused faculty in public policy, law, and business. “They are going to be consumers of public interest technology information. They’re going to be managers and leaders… they need to have much stronger BS-detecting skills in order to identify: What are the risks, what are the opportunities, and when is someone leading them on?”
Eaves and several other grantees noted the importance of PIT education in bridging the gap between technical experts and decision makers when it comes to designing and implementing tech solutions.
“Our law students need to understand the technology that they will be engaging with,” Prof. Stacey Dogan of Boston University School of Law says, adding that increasing fluency across disciplines should be a key focus of PIT faculty. Lawyers and leaders need to be able to, “engage with, talk to, and understand developers,” while technologists need to be taught a greater understanding of the ethical, legal, and regulatory environment in which they’re innovating.
Grantees discussed the importance of PIT education in starting these ethical and moral conversations—which often don’t happen in policymaking circles, nor at tech companies. This leads to the creation and implementation of disruptive new technologies without consideration of the unforeseen consequences they may create.
Margaret Little, director of Ethics Lab at Georgetown University, identified the gap in understanding among government leaders that leads to poor decision making. “These folks are being asked to make decisions about whether to deploy certain technologies when there is a lack of norms and consensus about when it’s okay to do that,” she explains.
Latanya Sweeney, director of Harvard University’s Data Privacy Lab says that in her experience, about a third of the vulnerabilities students detect in government technology projects stem from this lack of foresight. Government is not good at discerning when “a very successful technology, a very successful use of data, is inappropriate for use in government,” she says. “Part of public interest technology is actually filling that gap.”
Harvard’s Eaves posed this question for educators working to fill that gap: What does someone need to be successful at minimum to be effective in leadership, even if they are not a technologist? “Schools of public policy have been good at thinking about that problem in other areas,” he says, pointing out that public policy students learn basic economics and statistics so that they know enough to challenge assumptions and make good decisions when dealing with experts. PIT programs can ensure the next generation of leaders has the same fluency in technology.
“You don’t want to get after them when it’s all over,” Mihir Kshirsagar, Technology Policy Clinic director at Princeton says of confronting companies and governments after they’ve made big mistakes with technology. “You want people when they’re making these decisions to have the ability to think about the impact their decisions are having on our communities.”
Grantees also discussed how to get faculty on board with a public interest technology mindset, and how to get students (and their parents) interested in careers in PIT.
“There’s tremendous student interest in this field, just tremendous,” Prof. Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago says, “but many of them don’t know where to go. They need a little bit of calling it out to their attention.” He adds that job prospects have been the least of our issues given wide and growing recognition among many employers that PIT skills are needed.
Georgia Tech’s Prof. Ellen Zegura acknowledged the allure of jobs at tech companies for many students, particularly those whose college debt drives them toward a high-paying career. Students know that path will get them a good job, she said, but PIT education can open their minds “not just to do no harm, but to actually see if they could do some good,” no matter where they end up employed.
Zegura also raises a point echoed by several other grantees: increasing the emphasis on public interest and social good in technology education can make the field as a whole more appealing to traditionally underrepresented communities.
Prof. Benjamin Boudreaux of Pardee RAND Graduate School offers several ideas for increasing faculty buy-in to PIT principles and bringing a greater focus not just on ethics, but “responsibility, accountability, humanity, equity,” to technology classes. Faculty can expand what they’re already doing in class with new discussions and ideas, for instance, bringing in conversations about bias and inequity in artificial intelligence into data science classes. Boudreaux also shared an example from his work at RAND, where the school applied the “hackathon” framework popular in tech circles to an ethics project, grouping students together in a challenge to identify the ethical risks inherent in a COVID-19 tracking technology.
Prof. Lydia Chilton of Columbia University also notes the importance of teaching students developing technology to consider equity in how they approach problems. Chilton and her students develop applications primarily for low-income U.S. users, many of whom do not have broadband access or a desktop computer. Many students opt to build SMS-based texting apps that will work on any cell phone, ensuring that people can access these tools without a smartphone or internet service.
Whether students go on to pursue careers in tech, academia, government, or a more traditional public interest role, 2019 grantees agreed that public interest technology education should provide them a foundation for seriously thinking through ethical, moral, and equity considerations when designing and implementing technology. As Virginia Tech’s Sylvester A. Johnson puts it, PIT is about “changing the way students are learning about what counts as knowledge, how to understand and participate in a technological society in a way that’s civic-minded, and that produces positive outcomes.”
View more videos from the 2020 Convening here.