What is Public Interest Technology? Revisiting the Term that Defines Our Work

Blog Post
Dec. 8, 2020

The 2020 PIT-UN Convening opened with a question and spawned a conversation that everyone who uses the term public interest technology is familiar with: What is PIT? The Public Interest Technology University Network has an official answer:

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

By way of introduction to the 2020 convening, several members of the team that developed this definition of PIT revisited their work, describing why they define PIT this way and going over the challenges that remain as the Network expands understanding of public interest technology throughout academia and beyond.

David Eaves, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, says that this concise definition was focused on growing the scope of what is considered “public interest technology” beyond tech development.

“This isn’t just about creating more expertise,” Eaves says, “but also creating people on the other end of the spectrum who are going to be effective consumers of that expertise.” Technology decision makers often won’t be technical experts, Eaves notes. Rather, the people responsible for adopting and implementing disruptive new technologies, particularly in the public sphere, will be politicians, administrators, public officials, and even CEOs and nonprofit leaders. PIT, Eaves says, must ensure that these leaders, “have enough knowledge to actually engage with the experts and be able to know if they’re getting good advice.

Prof. Deirdre K. Mulligan of University of California at Berkeley also stressed the importance of social sciences and the humanities to public interest technology, saying these fields are often viewed as, “in service to innovation, or in service to more technical expertise.” The PIT definition, Mulligan says, “was really an effort to say, ‘these are complementary expertise.’ To be a really strong practitioner in this space, you need all of those things.”

This focus on interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the things Sylvester A. Johnson, who directs Virginia Tech’s Tech for Humanity initiative, finds most inspiring about the PIT definition the team created. “There is no single discipline, or set of disciplines that we can point to exclusively and say ‘These alone are the disciplines people are going to come from in order to address the leadership challenges with technology,’” he says.

Mulligan similarly raises the need to cultivate a broad skillset in order to build a transformative field like PIT. “Cultivating people with the skills of modesty, humility, empathy, engagement, and bridge-building is really essential,” she said. “Because none of us advance towards social justice alone.”

Johnson went even further: “There is no area of knowledge or expertise that is irrelevant to guiding and governing technology, and addressing these challenges.”

The panel also discussed challenges with communicating the PIT frame to other researchers and international partners. David Guston, PIT designee at Arizona State University (and Tae Kwon Do black belt) raised the issue of reconciling this definition of public interest technology with the term “responsible innovation,” which has gained a great deal of currency in academic circles, particularly abroad.

Sujatha Raman, associate professor at the Australian National University, joined the panel to discuss this international context. “Some of the ways in which responsible innovation has been understood is in a somewhat narrow way.” The term, she says has struggled to break free of certain limitations as a framework for exploring technology issues in the public interest. The term is often misunderstood to mean “research integrity,” which is something many institutions believe they already have adequate policies and practices to address.

Thus, says Raman, there’s still plenty of opportunities for the kinds of questions PIT-UN poses.

Johnson noted one particular area of both progress and opportunity: Widespread recognition of the profound ways technology has come to change our lives and influence society, and growing agreement that we need people with expertise in different disciplines and areas to contribute.

View more videos from the convening here.