What Is Public Interest Technology?

As public trust in the tech industry wanes, support for the field of public interest technology has grown.

Written by Michael Hines
Published on Mar. 10, 2020
What Is Public Interest Technology?

In the last month, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo have settled more than $1 billion worth of class action lawsuits. 

Apple will pay up to $500 million for releasing iOS updates that slowed down older iPhones. Facebook settled a $550 million lawsuit for violating an Illinois biometric privacy law with its facial recognition technology. Comparatively, the $117.5 million lawsuit Yahoo settled over multiple breaches from 2012 to 2016 doesn’t seem all that bad.

Class action lawsuits like these have contributed to “techlash,” or the growing public distrust of the technology industry. As public trust in the tech industry wanes, support for the field of public interest technology, or PIT, has grown. In 2016, the MacArthur, Ford, Knight, Open Society and Mozilla foundations announced $18 million worth of grants in support of PIT initiatives, and three years later 21 universities from across the country formed the Public Interest Technology University Network to collaborate and grow the field.

While the field is hard to define, the basic idea behind the movement is that technology and technology expertise should advance the public interest. That’s according to Mona Sloane, a sociologist at New York University who works in the field. 

“There’s a clear need for policymakers and governments to understand the different dimensions of technology, not just their threats but also their potential.”

At NYU — which recently joined the PIT University Network — these ideals increasingly permeate everything from computer science to sociology and law classes.

“This is not just about technologists,” said Sloane. “It's also about getting students in the social sciences, humanities and other non-technological disciplines to understand the workings of technology. It’s about creating an interdisciplinary form of education, dialogue and literacy of public interest technology. It’s much bigger than getting data science grad students to take an ethics class.”


Barack Obama gives a speech

From College Campuses To The White House

Although public interest technology has recently become a hot topic, the field actually dates back over two decades. 

In 2000 Stanford opened the Center for Internet and Society, which examines the connections between law, technology and policy. Five years later the Chicago-Kent School of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology founded the Center for Access to Justice & Technology, or CAJT. In addition to its academic work, the CAJT helped develop software that enables law students and lawyers to build user-friendly legal forms for self-represented litigants. 

PIT hit a high point in 2009 when then-President Barack Obama created the Open Government Initiative, also known as the OGI, on his first day in office and appointed Beth Noveck, a law professor and PIT advocate, as its director. Over the course of Obama’s eight years in office, government datasets became publicly available, a searchable database for State Department documents was created and a portal for public comments on government regulations was launched. 

“There’s a clear need for policymakers and governments to understand the different dimensions of technology, not just their threats but also their potential,” said Sloane. “It’s about leveling the playing field a bit.”


The Microsoft office in Washington

Do Tech Companies Have A Place In PIT?

For years, lawmakers have struggled to rein in tech companies, which typically argue that regulation stifles innovation. But in the last two years, lawmakers in Europe and California enacted legislation that changed how tech companies gather consumer data, and recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support the breakup of the country’s biggest tech companies.

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That doesn’t mean big tech companies exist outside of the conversations surrounding PIT. Microsoft, for instance, provides funding, expertise and resources to organizations working on humanitarian and environmental issues through its AI for Good initiative. The company also teamed up with Miami Dade College and Code Miami on the “Miami Budget app,” a bilingual platform that enables citizens to analyze the city’s spending. 

The Miami Budget app is being built by a team of students, and Sloane is bullish that the field of PIT will inspire more projects like it in the future.

“The next generation is ready for this,” said Sloane. “They are really ready to put their skills and knowledge to work in a way that is beneficial for society, democracy and the planet.”

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