I attended a wonderful day-long meeting Monday. It was a gathering of presidents and provosts, faculty, and potential funders. The purpose of the meeting, led by the Ford Foundation and New America, was to discuss a new field of expertise, which they labeled “Public Interest Technology.”
The field is probably best illustrated by recent stories of the application to public sector work of knowledge and skills common to computer science and computer engineering.
Some of the stories involve combining data sources within a foster care service agency, to accelerate the vetting of applicants for foster parents, as well as the matching of eligible children to approved foster parents. Some of the stories involve analyzing the performance of predictive analytics to discover unintended inequitable treatment of groups. Others concern personal stories of technologists who left private sector internet firms, to serve stints on Capitol Hill. Those stories underscored the added value of technical knowledge in drafting legislation affecting digital data uses.
Georgetown’s joint seminar between the Law Center and MIT was highlighted. This innovative course has MIT engineering students in the same class as Georgetown Law students. Class projects sometimes focus on the draft of policy/legislation/regulations that affect use of new technology. For example, what is the appropriate level of consent required from someone whose digital image is used in facial recognition software platforms? How could one practically implement a consent process?
One theme of the meeting’s discussion was how the curriculum in computer science could communicate the opportunities to apply such knowledge and skills for common good purposes, regardless of what sector of work is chosen by the student. A special focus was the need to communicate the ethical implications of algorithmic design and implementation. Another focus was providing real experience-based learning applying design and development skills with public sector agencies’ problems.
Georgetown is already fortunate to be a recipient of the NSF CyberCorps™ Scholarship for Service Program to provide scholarships to students to earn degrees critical for cybersecurity in exchange for service in the form of employment in a governmental cybersecurity position. This program is a great manifestation of the spirit underlying the notion of public interest technology.
But there are many other activities ongoing at Georgetown that resonate with the spirit of public interest technology. The joint work of the Beeck Center and the McCourt School examining data use for social good is one. Another is the Beeck Center’s convening the Federal chief data officers together to discuss the practical issues of applying technology to the mission of Federal agencies. There is the new McCourt Masters Program in Data Science for Public Policy. Another is the faculty network forming around an initiative on Digital Ethics and Governance. This also acts to pull together other existing structures that are relevant to the space – the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Law Center on Privacy and Technology, Institute for Technology Law and Policy.
In the coming days, I will assemble a meeting of those faculty and research staff interested in asking how Georgetown might contribute to building the next generation of policy-literate, technology-literate professionals devoted to using their knowledge for the common good. This is a perfect opportunity for Georgetown to contribute in its own way to development of the field of public interest technology.