Why We Need Technologists Serving Public Interest
An Intro to the Public Interest Technology Mission
After 10 years of app design experience in a variety of spaces, you’re looking to get involved in work that serves the public. But you’re not sure you want to become a public servant. You have no clue how to raise money for projects without a direct B2C ROI. Is there space for this?
Or maybe you’re a local teacher. You recognize that you have a generation that is going to inherit some great problems and you want to help them, many digital natives and open-minded, to engage with these topics through technology. Where do you go to understand how you can make this a reality?
Both of these examples fall into the field of public interest technology (PIT). The type of technologists involved in these projects needs to have an appreciation and an understanding of what it means to apply their tech skills to help people like that local teacher create social impact.
The first official call for public interest technologists happened in a Freedman Consulting LLC 2016 report. The argument was that “there are not enough technologists working or interested in joining public interest fields to meet growing demand.” Anyone who has developed a career as a technologist understands that there’s often more money and more resources devoted to technology on the back of clever marketing and creating demand than there is in working within spaces dedicated to the public good. Public good becomes a goal that the greatest technologists do “if they can,” which reduces the ability to truly match the technology to the infrastructure that public good often requires.
This report led to the beginning of the public interest technologist field where technologists are intentional about understanding public interest needs and developing technology that creates solutions. Being a new and interdisciplinary field, people and organizations are still figuring out what the field is and who gets to give themselves the title of public interest technologist. The problems, however, are very real and will need technology to be an intentional force of good, rather than a set of neutral tools that hopefully get used for the benefit of the public.
One of the most prominent advocates of PIT, New America, define PIT as adopting “best practices in human-centered design, product development, process re-engineering, and data science to solve public problems in an inclusive, iterative manner—continuously learning, improving, and aiming to deliver better outcomes to the public.” They created the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) as a way of universities and colleges to commit to collaboration for the development of “civic-minded technologists.” PIT-UN basically focuses on training technologists through courses and projects that bring law and policy into their education.
The Ford Foundation views PIT quite simply as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” They house PIT as a subsection of their Technology and Society work in an ecosystem that involves:
Individuals: People using technology to change the world for the better.
Organizations: Nonprofits putting technology to work for the public good.
Funders: Support to help build a stronger digital society.
The Ford Foundation see their role as “working with a community of partners to develop a path for people to use their technology skills to change the world for the better.” Their strategy involves investing in the right spaces and people to allow the public good to be served.
PIT Policy Lab, as the name suggests, looks at PIT from a policy lens and how to “craft solutions to complex challenges through practical research, policy insights, and the drafting of proofs of concept in the field.” They add on to the previous definitions to describe public interest technologists as “part of a diverse community channeling their domain expertise into public interest activities, harnessing digital technologies as tools for change.”
The common thread in these definitions that PubinTech subscribes to is the idea that technology should be built with the public so that there is better trust, inclusion, and impact in the development and deployment of projects.
With all that in mind, at what point do you become a public interest technologist? Is there some sort of certificate? The truth is that nobody truly knows the answer at this point, despite the projects and initiatives out now. The biggest marker of your ability to call yourself a public interest technologist will be how you can talk about your impact to non-technologists where it’s clear that society benefitted from your work. And that’s honestly what matters the most.
The need for public interest technologists comes from a combination of factors in the way technology makes its way into systemic issues of society. People need to trust the technology that is becoming a fundamental part of their lives. They need to feel that technology is being made with them, not to them. Regardless of which definition you use to describe them, the rise of public interest technologists can help us ensure that we tackle each public interest challenge with the nuance and expertise it deserves.