Member Spotlight: University of California, Santa Cruz

Blog Post
Michael Vi /
Feb. 9, 2021

One of the main goals of the PIT University Network—and the wider field of public interest technology—is to unify efforts at universities across a number of academic disciplines under one banner. PIT programs can come from many corners of the university, not just tech, but humanities, social impact, law, and more.

The University of California, Santa Cruz is one PIT-UN member institution working to build connection and a sense of common mission across an array of more than 20 PIT-related initiatives. UCSC’s PIT programs range from the Center of Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), a multi-campus interdisciplinary collaboration among UC schools focused on emerging technology, to the Science & Justice Research Center, which brings a social justice research lens to issues in contemporary science, like biomedicine and ecology.

New projects are emerging as well, including an AgTech collaborative concerned with maximizing benefit and minimizing harm from new agro-food technologies and practices.

“Public service, environmental stewardship and community engagement have been key values for the UCSC community since the university's founding, and strongly inform the work we do,” said UCSC’s PIT-UN co-designees Chris Benner, director of the Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation and the Everett Program, and Michael Matkin, assistant director of CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, in a statement. “Membership in the PIT-UN has helped us find new common ground for work being done across campus divisions and established a basis for exciting new collaborations in areas like agricultural technology, that we believe will increase the social good impact of our work.”

UCSC is also the home of two 2020 Network Challenge grantees, the Human Rights Investigations Lab and the Everett Program.

The Human Rights Investigations Lab, led by Professor Sylvanna Falcón, teaches students open-source online investigation techniques to document international conflicts. For example, in 2020 the Lab investigated anti-government protests in Chile and the resulting government crackdown.

"My students tell me they'll never look at the internet the same way again,” said Falcón, who noted that students learn valuable digital literacy skills through the program that help them to engage with the internet more responsibly.

Professor Juhee Kang is principal investigator on UCSC’s other Network Challenge grant, which falls under the university’s Everett Program for Technology and Social Change—a major hub for service learning that works with underrepresented populations in STEM to apply digital technology to serve local and global nonprofit organizations.

"Rather than just producing the workforce that Silicon Valley needs, we hope to cultivate next-generation leaders with the right mindsets and skills who can inspire the industry and even change the industry's behavior,” said Kang.

Everett Program’s Network Challenge grant, led by Kang, will focus on developing an online publication and resources, including curriculum and teaching techniques, “for any faculty or institutions who want to teach digital creative skills for public interest technology in non STEM disciplines,” she said.

“My students are mostly social sciences or humanities majors who are active social media users but never thought of themselves as the producers of technologies,” Kang noted. “Students in the Everett Program build their tech knowledge and soft skills in order to support community partners with creative digital storytelling and activism via video content, website or app development, social media campaigns, and data visualizations.”

Benner and Matkin say that membership in PIT-UN has helped UCSC connect with institutions across the network, and they look forward to strengthening those relationships in the future.

For years, terms like “tech for social good,” “responsible innovation,” “ethical technology,” and more have spread projects that we would now call public interest technology across many different fields. UCSC and other Network members with a wide variety of existing PIT programs offer a model for how to bring these interdisciplinary efforts under the umbrella of a common mission—using tech to serve the public interest.