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Sectors ­nite in Push to Develop Public Interest Technology Network


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statue holding scales of justice

Launching a first-of-its-kind initiative, twenty-one of the country's most innovative colleges and universities, with the support of the Ford Foundation, New America, and the Hewlett Foundation, announced the creation of the Public Interest Technology University Network. Bringing together a critical mass of the leading U.S. institutions of higher education, the Network is a new partnership dedicated to defining and building the nascent field of public interest technology, as well as growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists and digitally fluent policy leaders.

Public interest technology is a broadly defined and emerging area of study that combines digital innovation and public policy. Already, universities across the United States have created joint degrees, exchange programs, and cross-disciplinary initiatives to begin to develop a robust pipeline of future technologists and leaders seeking to pursue careers in the growing field. For example, law students at Georgetown University have partnered with engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to write privacy laws that reflect the unique powers and perils of Internet access, while Harvard University has created an embedded ethics program through which ethicists are incorporated into computer science classes, inspiring students to consider core questions of ethics and social impact from the outset of their work and research. Similarly, Arizona State University is leading a comprehensive assessment examining the technical needs of not-for-profit organizations and developed a multi-week workshop bringing together students with congressional staffers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

"The Public Interest Technology University Network aims to build the field of public interest technology, much in the same way that the country created the field of public interest law a generation ago," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America. "Technology has incredible potential to solve some of our society's most pressing challenges, as well as to create big new problems to address. In either case, we need as many technologists as lawyers and economists working in the public interest, and this network of colleges and universities will help build a new generation of technologists trained to advance the public good."

"We believe an essential element of advancing social justice is ensuring technology is a force for public good," says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. "We're thrilled to partner with these colleges and universities to build a new field of public interest technology and cultivate a generation of tech leaders equipped to use technology to challenge inequality in all its forms and expand inclusion and opportunity. These colleges and universities are breaking new ground and admirably setting the agenda for the higher education sector."

"The Public Interest Technology University Network unites twenty-one of the country's most innovative colleges and universities around a critical mission: building the field of public interest technology," says Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation. "Their vision and partnership is laying the foundation for an exciting new field that will play a critical role in addressing the world's most pressing problems, from coping with climate change to abating democratic dysfunction."

Higher education is uniquely positioned to cultivate this new field of public interest technology and to shape the next generation of computer scientists, information architects, engineers, data scientists, designers, lawyers, policy experts, and social scientists to develop new technologies and new approaches to designing and implementing public policy that better serves the public. At a time when technology is shaping every facet of modern lives, the creation of the network reflects the special obligation of colleges, universities, and institutions of higher learning—where many tech and policy leaders are trained—to ensure that future leaders and innovators are prepared to consider, evaluate, and consciously address the way that new technologies impact the world from a social, political, and economic perspective. Of particular concern is understanding how to best utilize technology in the implementation of public services and policies to meet and respond to the public's needs.

Charter members of the Public Interest Technology University Network include Arizona State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Florida International University, Georgetown University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Howard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Miami Dade College, Olin College of Engineering, Pardee RAND Graduate School, Pepperdine University, Princeton University, Stanford University, The City University of New York, The University of Texas at Austin, University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia.

As charter members of the network, these colleges and universities are committing to launching initiatives on their respective campuses to build the field of public interest technology, including:

  • Supporting curriculum development and faculty hiring needed to provide students with interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary education, so they can critically assess the implications of new technologies and develop technologies in service of the public good.
  • Developing experiential learning opportunities, such as clinics, internships, fellowships at the intersection of technology and public interest.
  • Finding new ways to encourage and support graduates who pursue careers in public interest technology, recognizing that financial considerations and debt pose barriers to entering the field.
  • Providing faculty with the infrastructure, support and resources to build this nascent area of inquiry and training.
  • Sharing institutional data that allows the network to assess the effectiveness of efforts to develop the field of public interest technology.

In addition, many universities have already begun building the frameworks to support instructors, bring in students, create new research opportunities, and explore public interest technology career paths. For example, the University of California at Berkeley expanded its course offerings to build out a division of data science that includes training in ethics and philosophy; the college also provided approximately 100 fellowships to connect graduate students and post doctorate scholars with local organizations and city partners, and created the world's first public cyber security clinic, working with nonprofits to conduct threat assessments and risk analysis.

Collaboration between members of the Public Interest Technology University Network is made possible by its partners in the philanthropic and public policy sectors, including the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, and New America, a think and action tank dedicated to renewing America in an age of rapid technological and social change. New America will manage the network, providing technical support and assistance and advising on how to enhance the exchange of information and resources between network members.


 

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