A robust public interest technology field can help build a society where technological expertise is seen as an important contributor to advancing equity, expanding opportunity and protecting basic rights and liberties. Academia, civil society, government, and the private sector can all benefit from this expertise, and talent pipelines that connect these sectors will allow public interest technologists to migrate between fields, bringing their ethics and experience with them. For society to fully benefit from technology while limiting its downsides, we need to cultivate public interest technology expertise across these four sectors.
Public interest technologists and the sectors they transform
Public interest technologists recognize that technology is never neutral. They believe it’s not enough to say “tech for good” and instead ask, “good for whom?” They include a broad diversity of experts typically underrepresented in the tech space—including women and communities of color who pair their deep knowledge of the way technology works with an understanding of ethics, legal, policy and societal concerns to bring values like justice, accountability and equity to the fore.
Supporting public interest technologists across academia, civil society, government and the private sector will help ensure that technology is developed, maintained, and governed in a way that protects individual rights and improves people’s lives.
Learn more about the different types of public interest technologists.
Universities and colleges are crucial to creating talent for this burgeoning field, and have already made significant strides. They increasingly educate public interest technologists who create and implement technology that improves people’s lives. An education in public interest technology that cuts across established fields like law, sociology, journalism, public policy and more allows students to better understand the challenges technology can either worsen or address — providing young people with pathways to pursue careers in technology for purpose across many established fields.
The Public Interest Technology University Network
Hosted at New America, PIT-UN is a partnership that fosters collaboration between universities and colleges committed to building the nascent field of public interest technology and a new generation of civic-minded technologists. Through the development of curricula, research, and experiential learning programs, these schools are producing graduates with multiple fluencies at the intersection of technology and policy. The network currently includes 43 member organizations.
The Public Interest Technology Lab at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
The lab is helping to shape the future of technology to advance equity, expand opportunity, and protect basic rights and liberties. Students and faculty work together to develop and provide technologies in the public interest, enable research and development, and identify ways to share knowledge across institutions and disciplines.
Community engagement and equity are at the heart of public interest technology, and civil society organizations across the globe are seeing how PIT can help unlock their full potential and fulfill their missions. Through public interest technology, civil society organizations can hold the private sector and government accountable—whether urging them to properly regulate technology or advance equitable service delivery programs—while also leveraging technologies and services to the communities that need them most.
The fellowship brings together those who want to ensure the internet is a force for good. From web activists and open-source researchers to engineers and policy experts, the fellows develop new ways of thinking about emerging threats to a healthy internet.
The Just Tech Fellowship
The fellowship empowers a diverse network of “social researchers,” including scholars, artists, journalists, and others in civil society, to create a more equitable and representative technological future. By creating a pipeline that fosters research and social engagement, the program works to enrich public discourse, inform policy, and imagine just futures where public interest drives technological change.
The Civil Rights, Privacy and Technology Table
A collaboration across civil rights, digital rights, media and public interest, the initiative advances the digital civil rights movement. By working toward a world where technology brings greater safety and economic opportunity for everyone, the table designs and uses new technologies that reflect the values of equality and justice.
Code for America’s Community Fellowship
The fellowship pairs community members with local government to address inequities in service delivery. With the aim to train and support the community, those closest to the problem acquire the skills to make crucial changes in government.
Public interest technologists are critical to ensuring that governments at every level can effectively offer important and, in many cases, life-saving services to everyone. Their understanding of both technology and ethics makes service provision more efficient and accessible for those historically excluded by the government. Government officials that utilize and regulate technology can become better equipped at their jobs with a public interest technology lens. For over two decades, Ford Foundation and other philanthropies have supported embedding strategic talent inside public agencies to promote the public interest.
The hub helps tech experts understand the policy process through fellowship and executive education programs, and encourages them to develop outside-the-box solutions to society’s problems.
The Tech Talent Project is dedicated to increasing the U.S. government’s ability to recruit modern tech leaders to achieve critical social, economic, and policy outcomes. It was founded by former technology leaders from the administrations of Presidents Obama and Trump in 2017.
This initiative puts experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to moments of crisis to quickly deliver critical services and infrastructure to support the public’s needs.
This group envisions a future where the people who build technology mirror societies for whom it is designed. They connect, inspire, and guide women in computing and organizations that view technology innovation as a strategic imperative.
New America’s Public Interest Technology Team
This initiative is committed to strengthening nonprofits and governments by providing the support and tools they need to deliver outcomes that better serve the public.
By understanding the fundamental principles underlying public interest technology and the challenges and opportunities technology creates, leaders in the private sector can gain a competitive edge, preventing unintended consequences and building brand loyalty. Moreover, as the American workforce increasingly looks for employers that align with their values, companies with a reputation for doing good will attract and retain top talent.
Corporate Civic Responsibility: A New Paradigm for Companies to Advance Public Interest Technology
Upon completion of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellowship, Clarice Chan, a Microsoft alum, partnered with the Tech Talent Project and Ford Foundation to produce this paper about the urgent need to bring technical talent into government. The paper also demonstrates what Ford learned from its investments in developing public interest law and applying those lessons to public interest tech. The big takeaway is that public-private partnerships benefit the private sector because technologists return to their permanent positions with a greater understanding about government and its functions.
Opportunities for learning, connection and innovation are the driving values behind Mozilla’s work. Through programming and strategic initiatives, such as accessibility campaigns like Common Voice and its fellowships, Mozilla is committed to advancing the public interest through technology.
The partnership brings diverse voices together across global sectors, disciplines, and demographics so developments in AI advance positive outcomes for society. As a nonprofit partnership of industry, academic, civil society, and media organizations creating solutions, it seeks to pool collective wisdom to make change.
The initiative works with civil society focused on protecting communities vulnerable to cyber attacks. It analyzes cyberattacks and grounds that analysis in evidence on the impact on society, exposing violations in international law and norms. This nonpartisan and independent organization prioritizes the security and privacy needed to create worldwide cyber peace.