Policymakers at all levels of government are struggling to thoughtfully harness data in the service of public values. Many public servants grew up in an era of firmly separate disciplines: You were either an engineer or an economist, either a programmer or a social worker, but never both. In an era in which data is everything, the risks to core democratic principles—equity, fairness, support for the most vulnerable, delivery of effective government services—caused by technological illiteracy in policymakers, and policy illiteracy in computer scientists, are staggering.
This has happened because traditional academic disciplines, as they currently operate, often aren’t designed to help students study and apply technical expertise to advance the public interest (as distinct from advancing commercial interests). Students doggedly find their own public interest paths; in fact, the digital generation now in college and graduate school craves meaningful work that will change the world. As long as they can make ends meet, they’ll happily work for less money in public interest jobs in government and nonprofits. But most universities haven’t provided pathways for these digital natives to cross-train in policy and computer science by working on real problems, or to combine expertise in data science with the capacity to think deeply about the ethical and social implications of the use of digital technology.
In traditional academic settings, every public-policy-minded technologist feels a little lonely, fruitlessly attempting to cross-register into courses that might provide a few snippets of legal and policy skills or allow them to apply their coding abilities to a real, live public problem. Landing internships and fellowships can feel like guerrilla warfare to these scrappy students. This has to change—and now a consortium of foundations and academics is looking for solutions.
Last month, a hand-picked group of university presidents and provosts from across the country, plus a few university faculty members, met for two days at an estate-turned-conference center on Long Island to catalyze the intentional creation of a new academic field aimed at addressing precisely this gap in interdisciplinary opportunities. This new area, “public interest technology,” is still being defined; it encompasses designing public policy and laws with an awareness of how technology actually works, as well as ensuring that technology is being used to serve public values of fairness and equity. It means consciously thinking about the welfare of society in general, rather than the incentives of a single company.
The group was convened by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America, all of whom are deeply interested in solving the high-stakes problems of siloed training for students who want to serve, plus underequipped policymakers. The presidents and provosts, a high-minded yet deeply practical bunch, took their seats in a converted indoor equestrian training ring—think enormous elliptical conference table surrounding carpeted acreage, with a giant glass skylight overhead—listened attentively, and spoke thoughtfully. I was there, at one point walking around the inside of the ring to moderate part of the conversation. It felt like an important meeting.
Ford and Hewlett are nudging universities to commit themselves to this new field, drawing an analogy to public interest law. Not too many decades ago, there weren’t clear professional pathways for law students who wanted to serve the public rather than private clients, although the need for services was overwhelming. The Ford Foundation, in particular, seeded the development of clinics that gave opportunities to law students to learn to act like lawyers while still in school; a world of fellowships, internships, published research, and loan forgiveness programs funded by a host of actors followed. The foundations believe that solving the problem of inadequate public interest technology services and pathways in America similarly requires intentional cross-disciplinary curriculum development and student support. And they don’t intend to fund all of this themselves; they are cajoling universities to concentrate their fund-raising efforts on supporting this new field.
Traditional universities are particularly well-suited to making this digital-age flavor of training happen. Their buildings can be meeting places for public officials, supervisors, and students to work together on crucial policy problems. The University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University are ahead of the game, already intentionally pulling together resources and faculty and offering new programs at the nexus of ethical technology and policy, but many others are committed to promoting similar collaborative work across departments.
MIT and Georgetown Law School, for example, run a joint experiential course that brings law students and MIT technologists together to work on privacy-related problems; Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy takes students to Washington, DC, for a three-day Tech Policy Boot Camp. Much is happening; much more could be done, and far more systematically.
This is a powerful field-development trick: Attendees had to write down answers to questions like “How will you develop new resources and mobilize existing funding mechanisms to expand the field?” If the writer didn’t want to commit, they could say, “We [the group of attendees] should” do X or Y. And a final option was “someone should” do tasks that seemed beyond the remit of the group in the room.
The written commitments that emerged from the presidents and provosts were striking: “I will raise this topic with at least two funders before the end of the year.” “I will integrate public interest technology into our programs in entrepreneurship and innovation.” “We should support public interest project-based learning for undergraduates.” “We should create a set of materials for career counseling that highlight jobs in public interest technology.” “We should create a fellowship program at the scale of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.” And loan forgiveness, a crucial driver for the success of this new field, was a topic for every attendee
Yes, this was just a meeting. But many great movements start with small gatherings, single images, and a great deal of patience. University presidents and provosts know that faculty need to cede some of their That’s Not My Field sovereignty in order to serve real student and community needs. The pioneering professors at the conference, my colleagues from across the country, are already doing cross-tech/policy work because they know it’s needed. Students are clamoring for just this kind of training and just these kinds of opportunities; the public sector, for its part, needs them to hurry up and graduate. The hope coming from that former horse-ring in Long Island last month is that the time has come for Public Interest Technology to be a “thing” nationwide.