Growing civic-minded technologists

May 19, 2020

“This was a game-changer for us,” said Kwaku Osei, the CEO of Farmacy, a food app startup focused on user’s dietary needs. Osei was one of five social entrepreneurs of color in the Detroit metro area matched with Masters students from the Ford School and the School of Information in a project focused on Public Interest Technology (PIT). The aim of the project is for the students to learn how technology and technology policy is used to solve public problems in an inclusive, iterative manner and deliver better outcomes to the public.

“We now have new and actionable insights,” said Osei. “It was unique to have this tie to an academic institution, which gave guidance but was also flexible and sympathetic to the entrepreneur’s journey.”

The inaugural PIT seminar was launched in conjunction with Generation Titans (an online support network for entrepreneurs of color) and Techtown Detroit (Wayne State University’s incubator for startups). The program is part of the Public Interest Technology University Network (PITUN) a partnership of 36 colleges and universities dedicated to building the PIT field convened by the Ford Foundation, New America, and the Hewlett Foundation.The University of Michigan is a charter member, with the Ford School’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program serving as a central hub for connecting the many activities and initiatives across campus that are building the field.

The Ford Foundation says PIT is about teaching technology practitioners to focus on “social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest,” while New America defines it as adopting “best practices in human-centered design, product development, process re-engineering, and data science.”

“We want to grow a new generation of civic-minded technologists and digitally fluent policy leaders,” according to Robert Hampshire, Ford School associate professor and instructor for the PIT course. “Through the program, we are looking to uncover a better understanding of the career trajectories and journeys entrepreneurs have taken to fulfill their passion in the public interest.”

U-M’s PIT students worked in consulting teams where they engaged in research and developed consulting and project management skills. The Detroit-area companies were found through outreach to community partners and on a Slack channel focused on tech entrepreneurs of color. At the end of their projects, student teams presented their innovative solutions to the participating entrepreneurs as well as Ford School faculty. (The presentations can be seen here.)

“It’s technology for good, in the same way you have public interest law. Specifically, we are looking at pathways for people of color within PIT,” says PIT program manager Jessica Taketa. “It’s a nascent field and we are excited to be a part of it.”

The first part of the program was the independent study with entrepreneurs, which also included curriculum and reading about implicit bias. The second phase, which has just begun, involves the students doing research about people of color in PIT, looking at data sets to create a baseline understanding of participation and structural barriers.

Selene Ceja (MPP ‘20) and Sarah Gruen (MPP ‘21) worked with Dwayne Barnes of Social Tech, a think tank that studies the creation, consumption, and impact of technology in urban communities. They began by looking at technology “boot camps” in the area. Ceja says it gave her new perspective: Are they helpful in working to close the skills gap or are they predatory and not worth the money being spent? Ceja and Gruen refocused their research when the pandemic prevented them from meeting with local leaders and looked instead into the $5 trillion global education technology industry. Ceja saw, “A tension between democratization and pluralization, hyper-local versus global. What is working to close the skills gap?”

Julie Singh (MPP ‘20) worked with David Merritt of Merit Goodness, which designs and sells products that help kids get to college, with 20% of their profits funding college scholarships for students in Detroit. Singh analyzed data across several years to measure the impact of the program. “It’s at the intersection of the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, and requires a different way of looking at the data,” she says.

For Jaklyn Nunga (MSI ‘20), who worked with Paul Capp (MPP ‘21) at Motor City S.T.E.A.M, “The goals of PIT resonate with me. I find there is a deep need to diversify the current and future architects of technology and create more consciousness about their potential impact for the public interest. My hope is that there are more opportunities for technologists to work in spaces that affect public policy in meaningful ways and that work towards social justice.”

Another project included Darrell Williams (MSI ‘21) working with SolAir Water Inc., to promote drinking water technology to harvest water from sunlight and air. SolAir strives to provide all communities with clean drinking water, while preserving the environment. His connection of the coursework to the project was illuminating. “Information is power. But I saw that machine learning and data sets can have implicit bias. That’s why storytelling is important for contextualization,” he says. “This work is exactly what I want to do with my life. I didn't even know it existed before this project.”

Osei at Farmacy, who worked with Kaushal Solanki (MSI ‘20), looks forward to seeing what happens with PIT research and its application. “The concept of PIT will only grow more relevant -- how technology can help everybody. Tech can be used for evil, or can be an overwhelming intrusion for individuals, or can be harnessed for enormous good. Going forward, PIT will become more important.”


Robert C. Hampshire is an associate professor of public policy at the Ford School, a research associate professor in both the U-M Transportation Research Institute's (UMTRI) Human Factors group and Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS), and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE). He develops and applies operations research, data science, and systems approaches to public and private service industries. His research focuses on the management and policy analysis of emerging networked industries and innovative mobility services such as smart parking, connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, ride-hailing, bike sharing, and car sharing. He has worked extensively with both public and private sector partners worldwide. He is a queueing theorist that uses statistics, stochastic modeling, simulation and dynamic optimization. Hampshire received a PhD in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton University.