Public Interest Technology gets a boost with challenge grant for the Ford School and computer science

November 13, 2020

The Science, Technology, and Public Policy (STPP) program has received a challenge grant from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), which will contribute to its “Rethinking Computer Science Education: Bringing Public Interest Technology into Undergraduate and Postdoctoral Training” project.  

Public interest technology (PIT) pulls knowledge from multiple fields – including engineering, data science, public policy, the social sciences and the humanities – to help find solutions to society’s most pressing issues in an equitable, inclusive way.

“Computer science is relevant across every academic field and every industry, and adding this layer of PIT training will create better technologists, and better results for society,” says STPP director Shobita Parthasarathy

The University of Michigan was one of 24 colleges and universities across the country who received funding to continue their pathfinding work in the creation of this new field. 

The funded project focuses on both undergraduate and postdoctoral training in public interest technology. STPP will hire a postdoctoral fellow, who will receive training in the equity, justice, and policy dimensions of data and technology, and then, alongside Parthasarathy and co-investigator H.V. Jagadish, professor of computer science and director of the Michigan Institute of Data Science, help rework University of Michigan’s undergraduate computer science curriculum to include sustained attention to social, moral, equity, and policy dimensions of data and technology. This project is unique because it will bring community concerns explicitly into curriculum development, through engagement with the Detroit Community Technology Project. University of Michigan’s undergraduate computer science department is the largest in the country, which will ensure that the project has broad impact.

Parthasarathy says U-M has a strong record of training PIT leaders. “Since 2006, STPP has trained graduate students from across the University to understand the ethical, social, racial and gender equity, and policy dimensions of science and technology. Seventy-nine percent of our students come from engineering, information, and the natural or physical sciences. Our graduates now have PIT careers across multiple sectors, from using robotics to provide humanitarian aid at Direct Relief International to legislative aides advising U.S. senators on technology privacy laws,” she says. 

PIT-UN is a partnership of colleges and universities convened by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation. The network is dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology through curriculum development, faculty research opportunities, and experiential learning programs, in order to inspire a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy leaders.

“Our work points to how important it is to make public interest technology a permanent and vital pathway in higher education,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of New America. “Public interest technologists are at the forefront of societal change and progress, and our students are leading us toward a more prosperous, more just, and more collaborative future. “

“When we announced the creation of the University Network, I was thrilled to work with these wonderful institutions of higher education to advance and expand the field of public interest technology towards a more just technological future,” said Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. “The projects supported through this most recent round of awards demonstrate just how innovative and driven the faculty, staff, and students within the University Network are in their commitment to ensuring technology is a force for public good.”