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Mapping the Public Interest Technology Landscape

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What do we talk about when we talk about “public interest technology”? Ask 14 people at, say, a think tank (hey, New America), and you’ll get 14 different definitions. Oh, plus an invitation to attend recurring conclaves to ponder this very question. (We are, after all, an organization that values research.)

Ask 14 people outside of a think tank, and you’ll get, perhaps, two definitions, nine rejections of that phrase for insert preferred pet terminology, eight people who say, “I don’t know what to call it but here is what I do,” and 14 people who say, “Umm… well, I do stuff with technology, but I wouldn’t call myself a technologist.”

(More or less. My math might be a bit off.)

So how, exactly, do we define “public interest technology”? In Facebook terms: Baby, it’s complicated. Depending on context and conversation, the phrase can refer to a field, a profession, a methodology, a solution, or an aspiration. In turn, each of those has its own definition.

Public interest technology, the field, is a space funders and foundations want to bring into being, but one still in the process of making itself. Think a ghost gliding around Hogwarts. There’s a corpse there. But it’s fuzzy around the edges.

Instead, they frequently explain the field with an analogy to something that does already exist. That analogy goes something like this. In the 1970s, civil rights and anti-poverty movements led to the creation of the field of “public interest law.” Imagine you are a civic-minded young thing and you attend law school. Badda bing, badda boom, you now can have a lifetime career serving the public good. Not as a side hustle. Not only pro bono. Not relegated to volunteer work or the weekend. As your full-time, paying job.

Fast-forward to the 2010s. Run that play again—but this time, swap “technology” for “law.” Build a field where people can build lifelong careers deploying technical skills and solutions for social good.

Welcome to the world, public interest technology, the field.

The natural next definition, then, is public interest technology, the profession. This includes people working in and around government, nonprofit, NGO, university, public sector, and social services spaces. Fun fact: The profession has exploded in the last decade. Second fun fact: almost none of the people in it use the term “public interest technologist” to describe what they do.

Most people find their way to the profession one of two ways. Many train for jobs in public interest spaces—but once they get there, realize that 21st-century social problems require solutions and skills that incorporate 21st-century tools. They start learning, adopting, and advocating for technical and technology approaches and practices across public interest sectors.

Others train to work in technology spaces—but then realize the potential for 21st-century tools to solve 21st-century social problems. Increasingly, people who trained for jobs like engineers, designers, programmers, and product managers have responded by entering public interest sector spaces. They help bring best practices from private industry to serve public good.

It’s worth noting that people who fall into the profession of public interest technology travel under many aliases. Community technologist. Civil servant. Designer. Entrepreneur. Digital expert. Hustler. Community advocate. Data-lover. Policy nerd. Problem solver. Superhero. User of technology but not a technologist. Plus dozens of others, including but not limited to project manager, librarian, “the guy/gal you call when you need to fix something,” web manager, hacker, engineer, developer, social worker, community outreach coordinator, comms person, university researcher, chief innovation officer, policy expert, and founder.

You won’t, however, find them listed as “the person who will fix the printer.” Tech support, skilled repair, and help desks are invaluable to public interest spaces. But that isn’t public interest technology, the profession. Think strategic problem solving, not printer repair solution.

That takes us to public interest technology, the methodology. You’ll be unsurprised to hear this one also has a few definitions. Sometimes, it means the integration of technology and technologists at the primordial moment policy folk and practitioners sit down to solve a problem. Sometimes, it means the deployment of technology, technical business practices, and technologists across public interest spaces to solve problems at scale, with lower costs, in more nimble fashion than manual, traditional, or waterfall processes. Almost all of the time, it incorporates private sector tools and technologies to reduce time, money, labor, and equity required while increasing service(s) to public good and people.

This leads to public interest technology, the solution. Far too often, antiquated tools and business practices cause inefficiencies, inequities, and injustices in nonprofit, social good, government, and nongovernment organizations. Public interest technology the methodology uses modern and private industry practices and tools to address these kinds of problems. These include user research, human-centered design, agile work processes, open data, clean data, transparent data, use of data at all, constant beta, artificial intelligence, upgrade from manual/written processes to automated/digital processes, and A/B testing.

Before concluding, I’d be remiss not to pause here and note that if you capitalize the P-I-T and add “program,” you get New America’s Public Interest Technology program. It launched this year with three simple goals: do good, build partnerships, and forge career paths. Oh, plus, improve services to vulnerable communities and strengthen local organizations that serve them. Oh, and also maybe square away this whole definitions thing?

Okay. Maybe not so simple after all?

Maybe not. But we need the work of places like New America and so many other organizations and individuals across the country working in this space. Because, in its final definition and at its heart, public interest technology is an aspiration. It’s the hope that one day, the norm, not the exception, will be 21st-century technology and tools integrated horizontally, vertically, and daily into solving 21st-century problems faced by the public. It’s the move toward measurable, sustainable, long-lasting impact and equal access to modern solutions to improve modern daily life. It’s a small phrase for big dreams.

It’s a world where an eight-year-old girl can say, “When I grow up, I’m going to be an engineer because that means I can make my neighborhood a better place.” It’s a revolution in how we address social problems. And it’s a commitment to ensuring that everyone, everywhere, gets to benefit from the latest and greatest tools and solutions humans make and have to offer humanity.

Author:

Sara Hudson is a fellow in New America's Public Interest Technology program. She comes to New America from the Department of Justice, where she partnered with Native American tribes to ensure access to federal information systems to protect tribal members.