Defining Public Interest Technology

Blog Post
Jan. 22, 2020

Created by David Eaves, Kennedy School, Harvard University; Ed Felten, Computer Science and Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; Tara McGuinness, New America; Deirdre K. Mulligan, School of Information, U.C. Berkeley; and Jeremy Weinstein, Political Science, Stanford University

Public interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest/generate public benefits/promote the public good.

This definition underscores three very important points. For our purposes, we propose to define technology expertise more broadly than engineering. Technology expertise refers to a set of capabilities to create, apply, study, and use new technologies and an understanding of the core ethical, legal, policy, and societal dimensions of technological change. As technology becomes more of a governing force through its own design and uptake and its literal use by governments to govern, we need to cultivate a set of experts who can both wield the tools of the relevant technical domains and assess their social and political implications. We think of this mix as a body of knowledge that enables the development, application, and study of technologies with attention to the social and political possibilities of their design and use, but that also can be applied analytically in the policymaking process.

Second, the definition is specific about the purpose which is sought by the application of technology expertise. The emphasis is on a notion of public interest or common good, as distinguished from the design of technology or technology policy to advance commercial or individual goals and interests. The public interest – while difficult to define – is understood to reflect the welfare of society in general, rather than the welfare of a particular individual, group, or company. Government and civil society are seen as playing primary roles in advancing societal objectives, though other sectors often play a role as well. While this definition clearly includes the deployment of new technologies on behalf of public policy priorities, it also creates space for a shared recognition (by the private and public sectors) of the responsibility to critically assess the benefits and risks of the new technologies that are created and used, and to incorporate technical knowledge into the formulation of laws, regulations, and policies. This means that efforts to constrain the “bad” use of technology or to mitigate the harmful impacts of technology are also a part of the field.

Third, the definition specifically calls out a systematic way of studying technology in the world – including unforeseen and adverse consequences and ways to harmonize technology and society. It is a study of the societal experiences imposed by technology design as well as ways to use technology design to harmonize and impact governance and society.