Future Investments

The Public Interest Technology University Network goes to work; Democracy and more.


  • This is civic tech: The promise and precarity of public interest technology was on vivid display this past Sunday and Monday at Georgetown University, as the fledgling Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN, for short), had its first annual gathering. Twenty-seven grants totaling $3.1 million were made to 21 participating universities, and the resulting projects are likely to kickstart a flowering of civic tech ecosystems centered on each enterprise.

    For example, at the Olin College of Engineering in Boston, students working under the supervision of longtime civic-techie-now-professor Erhardt Graeff will launch a partnership and summer fellowship program with outside stakeholders doing public interest tech work, and they will also develop a toolkit for other schools to create their own student-run public interest technology toolkits. Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy will run a summer bootcamp for 12 students who will learn the basics of consumer protection law and then be placed working with federal consumer protection agencies dealing with regulating tech companies. The City University of New York will develop public interest technology materials for use in CUNY courses that will be shared as open educational resources, and it will also recruit a cohort of 24 graduating high school students who are planning to major in computer science into a pre-college summer program focusing on the impact of new tech on local communities and social justice issues. The list goes on and is worth a close reading for the diversity of approaches represented. Seeds are being planted here that will bear lots of fruit, assuming the colleges and funders involved continue to provide ongoing support.

  • And that’s the rub. There’s no denying that students are hungry for these kinds of programs. The chance to combine expertise in computer science—one of today’s undeniable pathways to a good-paying job—with work that benefits the public is clearly of strong interest. That was apparent yesterday when the audience that had filled Georgetown’s Lohrfink Auditorium, undoubtedly drawn by the presence of noted Black filmmaker Ava Duvernay on a keynote panel, gave a long and raucous round of applause to Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney for being the first Black woman to graduate from MIT’s computer science program. That panel, moderated by Georgetown professor Alvaro Bedoya, a powerhouse tech critic himself, and joined by Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who has been a driving force for PIT-UN, made clear that the network is hoping to grow a generation of technologists with a strong focus on social justice. They discussed many of the ways that today’s technologies are reproducing older systems of oppression, with Sweeney, in particular, explaining the multitude of ways data has been used to discriminate against minority groups. “Many of us came into technology believing it would bring a better tomorrow,” she noted wistfully. “If your first name is more often given to black babies than white ones, when you search for it you are more likely to see ads related to arrest records,” she noted, summarizing her pioneering work on the structural racism baked into search engines. The same kinds of problems were rife across many commercial products, including credit card offerings.

  • But who will pay for these public interest programs in an age of Winners Take All? I know I wasn’t the only person in the room wincing at the problem of generating public support for private universities (some that have gigantic endowments that could easily pay for these programs themselves), or pondering the tensions that arise when corporate foundations say they want to do good. Sunday night, at a dinner, kicking off the PIT-UN launch, we listened as Ford’s Walker explained the origins of PIT-UN in the realization that we need more public technologists like Sweeney, or her colleague Susan Crawford (who has been a valuable and vociferous critic of the telecommunications monopolies). I thought about the fact that Susan, who is a dear friend, has never taken any corporate money for her work (and if you are a critic of the telcos, believe me, there’s plenty of tech money available) in order to stay clear of the entanglements that can arise. And then I listened to a panel that included Ambassador Mike Froman, a former top Obama official, describing the efforts of MasterCard, where he is president of strategic growth, to support public interest tech. (Mastercard’s Impact Fund is one of the backers of the PIT-UN network, along with the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Siegel Family Endowment, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the Raikes Foundation.) “We have to define the public interest in the broadest possible way,” Froman declared, showcasing a major grant its Center for Inclusive Growth gave to DataKind to expand its operations. Indeed, we do, but with the average credit card interest rate at a record high of 17.73%, maybe the way to start is by making some changes in the business model of hyper-capitalism first?

  • Where public interest technology, and for that matter, civic tech more broadly, will continue to run into challenges is at this juncture. Technology itself is not the system causing platforms or search engines or algorithms to treat some humans as other or lesser. Unbridled capital is the problem. It’s only where the government has installed strong guardrails—such as in how we treat personal medical information, or how we target children—that tech steers in more humane ways. If PIT-UN is successful, within a few years there will be a much larger corps of public technologists like Sweeney and Crawford capable of agitating for meaningful change and informing the next wave of meaningful legislation and regulation. But we need to be watchful that well-meaning private interests don’t corrupt this process, for there are landmines and pitfalls everywhere. That was vividly if briefly illustrated by yesterday’s keynote panel, as Duvernay listened wide-eyed to Sweeney as she detailed the biases baked into all kinds of digital systems. “Is Netflix biased?” she suddenly asked Sweeney, half-joking about the company that has been one of her major partners for projects like When They See Us. The audience laughed with her. But what if it was?

  • In other civic tech news: As we first reported back in August, the web domain Democracy.com, which had been in use as a low-cost online organizing platform for politicians and civic groups, is for sale. “I’m bummed that we’re selling it,” Talmage Cooley, the site’s owner, tells Niraj Chokshi of The New York Times. The URL is up for auction, with the bidding starting at $300,000.

  • Apply: The Sierra Club is looking to hire a director of digital strategies.

  • Privacy wars continued: Hong Kong’s government has banned the use of masks at public demonstrations, and while protesters and police are both so far ignoring the new rule, the popularity of this video suggests that the public will find other ingenious ways of getting around the rule and protecting their privacy.

  • Tech and politics: Jeremy Singer-Vine and Kevin Collier report for BuzzFeed News how “two little-known firms, Media Bridge and LCX Digital, working on behalf of industry group Broadband for America, misappropriated names and personal information as part of a bid to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause” in the spring of 2017 as the FCC was soliciting public comments on the future of net neutrality.

  • Plutocracy watch: Asked by an employee at last week’s all-hands meeting if billionaires should exist, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is worth about $70 billion, said “on some level, no one deserves to have that much money.”

  • An Amazon warehouse worker in Sacramento was fired after overdrawing her off-time balance for an hour so she could stay by the bedside of her dying mother-in-law, Josh Dzieza reports for The Verge. Her firing has galvanized plant workers to form a group called Amazonians United Sacramento.

  • You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.