Member Spotlight: George Washington University

George Washington University's brings a wealth of PIT experience to the Network, along with three 2020 Network Challenge grantees.
Blog Post / EQRoy
Nov. 10, 2020

This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.

The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. joined PIT-UN in 2020, bringing a wealth of public interest technology experience and expertise to the network. The school has a long history of dedication to the public interest, and in recent years has made public interest technology a particular focus for students and faculty in coding, data analytics research, engineering, and technology development.

Current PIT programs include the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, a multidisciplinary research institution studying the influence of digital media on democracy, including bias and fairness in machine learning and the spread of misinformation on social media; the Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights Project, a research initiative focused on the intersection of technology, internet freedom, and human rights; and the Human Technology Collaboration, a research initiative focused on how collaboration between people and machines will shape the future.

GWU is one of three PIT-UN institutions in the nation’s capital, joining founding members Howard University and Georgetown University. Several initiatives leverage GWU’s location to support public interest technology work, including the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub, which provides free training to U.S. government officials on data-driven change and data governance. The school’s Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service works with local communities in the DC-VA-MD region bringing the school’s resources to bear to address community needs.

In 2020, GWU faculty received three PIT-UN Network Challenge grants to launch and expand several programs focused on PIT career exploration, ethical technology research, and student coding skills.

PIT Foundry of D.C. | Principal Investigators Profs. Dawn Nunziato and Robert Brauneis

The PIT Foundry of DC is a regional, multidisciplinary collaborative that will offer public interest technology career exploration and preparation to all graduate and professional students in Washington, D.C.

“Institutions of higher education often compete with one another to connect their students with the most desirable job opportunities,” said GW Law’s Dawn Nunziato, who serves as co-principal investigator on the project along with GW Law’s Bob Brauneis. “The PIT Foundry of DC flips this script, emphasizing an open, collaborative approach in which DC institutions and community partners collaborate to coordinate their resources for the benefit of students interested in exploring careers in public interest technology, regardless of their home institution.”

She adds that the Foundry aims to address a lack of diversity in tech law by engaging students who are underrepresented in the field.

The Foundry brings together several D.C. institutions, including the Tech, Law and Security program at American University’s Washington College of Law and Howard University School of Law, as well as the Internet Law and Policy Foundry and TechCongress.

“Law schools often encourage students to position themselves for careers in Big Law, while discounting the value of public service,” Nunziato added. “Given the need for a more robust and diverse workforce supporting public interest technology, it is my hope that other schools will take a similar approach to engage their students in and provide meaningful opportunities and resources for their students to launch their careers in public interest technology.”

Ethical Tech Initiative | Principal Investigator Prof. Robert Brauneis

The Ethical Tech Initiative seeks to promote privacy, fairness, inclusivity, and free speech values in digital technology, according to principal investigator Bob Brauneis, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Intellectual Property Program at GW Law. Launching next year, the Initiative will bring together technologists, academics, activists, policymakers, and others to examine the values digital technologies reflect, and what values they should be redesigned to support.

The program grows out of a recognition of the profound ways digital technologies and online platforms have reordered our lives. Brauneis points to research into mis/disinformation on online platforms by Prof. Dawn Nunziato (above) and his own work with Rutgers University Prof. Ellen Goodman exploring how predictive algorithms can exhibit bias as instructive of the kinds of problems the Ethical Tech Initiative is trying to solve.

In its first year, the Initiative will bring technologists to campus to lecture and consult with faculty on issues such as disinformation and algorithmic bias. It will also engage multiple schools at GWU in a research project on combating disinformation and launch an Ethical Tech Portal to provide resources on ethical technology and collect the Initiative’s work. “Through student involvement with these projects,” said Brauneis, “we hope to nurture a new generation of ethical tech natives who are equipped with the tools necessary to understand the values that are embodied within digital technologies.”

Brauneis added that one of the Initiative's goals is to "model diverse participation—in terms of academic disciplines, organizations/institutions, and individual contributors—in our research and roundtables."

GW Coders Scholarship & Internship Program | Principal Investigator Prof. John Helveston

GW Coders is an existing study group at GWU started by Profs. John Helveston and Ryan Watkins that brings together students and faculty to apply computational and data analytics skills in research. Helveston, who serves as principal investigator on the Network Challenge grant, says he and Watkins started the group as an informal way to connect people across GW who code, with the hope that such an organization could help create new ties between people with complementary skills and create research opportunities for coding students.

GW Coders’ PIT-UN grant will create a scholarship and internship program to complement the study group. The scholarship will pay tuition for a STEM student from an underrepresented background or a non-STEM student to take an intro coding course. The internship will allow students who are learning to code to gain experience with a GW researcher.

Helveston, who teaches undergraduate and graduate programming courses for data analytics, says that helping students gain coding experience outside the classroom is key to making the skills "really stick."

"Students who have worked on research projects with me or others outside of the classroom really excel with the skills from class, and they learn how to teach themselves new skills, like mastering a specific external library," he said. "We saw a need to create more opportunities like this across GW, and we think groups like GW Coders can foster these opportunities at other institutions as well."

Helveston added: “Formal coding classes teach students a lot, but coding is like learning a language—using it ‘in the wild’ is what takes you from an introductory level to fluency. We are hoping internship experiences will fill this gap.”