As technology—especially computer, information, and Internet technology—permeates all aspects of our society, people who understand that technology need to be part of public-policy discussions. We need technologists who work in the public interest. We need public-interest technologists.
Defining this term is difficult. One Ford Foundation blog post described public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics in this field wrote that “public-interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest/generate public benefits/promote the public good.”
I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus, either by working on tech policy, working on a tech project with a public benefit, or working as a more traditional technologist for an organization with a public-interest focus. Public-interest technology isn’t one thing; it’s many things. And not everyone likes the term. Maybe it’s not the most accurate term for what different people do, but it’s the best umbrella term that covers everyone.
Public-interest technologists are a diverse and interdisciplinary group of people. Their backgrounds are in technology, policy, or law. (This is important, you do not need a computer-science degree to be a public-interest technologist.) They work inside governments, at nongovernmental agencies, for independent research institutions, within for-profit corporations, and for the press. Some of them do this full time as a career. Others take short leaves of absence from their careers to pursue public-interest technology. Still others do this in their spare time, as an avocation.
This is a resources page for public-interest technologists with a public policy focus. As such, it excludes the many tech organizations that are building public-interest tools. (Yes, they’re important, but they’re not my focus here.) The lists on this page are not exhaustive, and I am not endorsing or recommending any particular program. This is meant to be a curated sample of the richness of this space, one which I intend to further develop over time. Please e-mail me with corrections, additions, and suggestions — especially if you are from one of the organizations I list and I mischaracterize you in some important way.
Freedman Consulting Documents
Working under contracts for the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and others, Freedman Consulting produced a series of documents broadly discussing the area of public-interest technology. These are good starting points for anyone interested in the subject:
- Freedman Consulting (2016), “A Pivotal Moment: Developing a New Generation of Technologists for the Public Interest.” This comprehensive report surveys the current state of the field of public interest technology, and recommends specific interventions needed for it to flourish. It includes a long list of specific interventions.
- Freedman Consulting (2018), “Building the Future: Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders in an Era of Rapid Technological Change.” This report summarizes the major academic programs in the US that can broadly classified as public-interest technology. These are generally cross-disciplinary programs, spanning both tech and policy. This report should become public soon.
- Freedman Consulting (2018), “Here to There: Lessons Learned From Public Interest Law.” This report looks at the development of public-interest law in the 1970s, and draws parallels to public-interest technology today.
- Freedman Consulting (2013), “A Future of Failure? The Flow of Technology Talent into Government and Civil Society.” This report investigates the talent pipeline that connects technology experts to careers in government and civil society, and provides an unvarnished assessment of the current state of the pipeline, key challenges and barriers to the development of technology-oriented human capital in government and civil society, models of successful interventions, and recommendations for a more robust pipeline.
Other General Documents
- Technology for Social Justice Project (2018), “#More Than Code: Practitioners Reimagine the Landscape of Technology for Justice and Equity.”
- Philip Rogaway (2015), “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work,” Cryptology ePrint Archive, Report 2015/1162.
My writing is about the need for both general and cybersecurity public-interest technologists.
- Bruce Schneier (2018), Pp. 220-225, Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World, 2018. The final chapter of my latest book discusses the need for public-interest technologists.
I am currently writing several other pieces on this topic. They’ll appear here when they’re published.
- Editorial Board (Sep 2018), “Legislators struggle with tech. That’s why we need the Office of Technology Assessment,” Washington Post. Response by Travis Moore, head of TechCongress.
- Susan Crawford (Aug 2018), “Why Universities Need ‘Public Interest Technology’ Courses,” Wired.
- Michael Brennan (Apr 2018), “Public Interest Tech: A Growing Field you Should Know,” Equals Change Blog, Ford Foundation.
- Laurenellen McCann (Mar 2015), “Building Technology With, Not For Communities: An Engagement Guide for Civic Tech,” Organizer Sandbox, Medium.
These organizations work at the intersection of technology and public policy.
- Access Now. This organization “defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world” through both policy and technical interventions. Note that I am a board member of this organization.
- AI Now Institute. This organization researches the social implications of artificial intelligence.
- American Civil Liberties Union. The “Speech. Privacy, and Technology Project” uses policy advocacy, legal challenges, and alliances with tech companies, this group works “to ensure that civil liberties are protected as technology advances.”
- Aspen Tech Policy Hub, Aspen Institute. This “is a West Coast policy incubator, training a new generation of tech policy entrepreneurs.”
- Center for Democracy and Technology. This organization “work[s] to preserve the user-controlled nature of the internet and champion freedom of expression.”
- Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bangalore, India. This is a research group in the area of science and public policy.
- Citizen Lab, University of Toronto. This group uses technological techniques to investigate nation-state surveillance and control techniques, and expose the governments responsible and the corporations that facilitate them. It also engages in policy and legal advocacy against these techniques.
- Data & Society. This research institute “is focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric and automated technologies.”
- Data Foundation. This is a convener of public and private interests, and pushes for “better data standards, broader data publication, and improved data reporting” at the federal level.
- Democracy Club, UK. This organization uses “open data, design and technology to give every citizen the information and participation opportunities they need, in a way that suits them.”
- Democracy Works. This organization creates software and datasets to improve voter participation.
- Doteveryone, UK. This think tank “explores how technology is changing society, shows what responsible technology can look like, and builds communities to improve the way technology shapes our world.”
- Electronic Frontier Foundation. This is the leading organization that defends online civil liberties around the world, through legal challenges, policy advocacy, grassroots activism, and technology development. Note that I am a board member of this organization.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center. This organization serves “to focus public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values in the information age,” through policy research, public education, litigation, and advocacy. Note that I am an advisory board member, and former board member, of this organization.
- Future Congress. This organization advocates for more technical expertise in Congress.
- GovLab. This research organization publishes reports, and shares info about, projects related to government and technology.
- Public Knowledge. This organization “promotes freedom of expression, an open internet, and access to affordable communications tools and creative works.”
- Tactical Technology Collective. This organization works “at the intersection of technology, human rights and civil liberties.”
- Verified Voting. This organization advocates for secure voting machines and systems. Note that I am on the advisory board of this organization.
I have omitted organizations that develop technology used in the public interest, like Tor, and that develop technology for government use, like the US Digital Service. They are primarily developers, and only secondarily advise on policy matters. This doesn’t mean that they’re not public-interest technologists, only that this document isn’t listing them.
- The Markup. This is a technology-focused news site.
- Freedom of the Press Foundation. This group “protects and defends adversarial journalism in the 21st century.” It is specifically involved in Internet security and privacy.
There are a lot of academic programs that blend policy and technology in some way. In general, this list is more focused on programs where technologists work on policy issues. I admit that my line is fuzzy and ill defined, and that I am making mistakes in both inclusion and exclusion. This is hard.
- Center for Information Technology Policy, Princeton University. This is an interdisciplinary center, “a nexus of expertise in technology, engineering, public policy, and the social sciences.”
- Technology and Policy Program, MIT. This program teaches, and conducts research, on technology and public policy.
- Internet Policy Research Initiative, MIT. This group “work[s] with policy makers and technologists to increase the trustworthiness and effectiveness of interconnected digital systems,” through both engineering and public-policy research.
- Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University. This interdisciplinary center aims “explore and understand cyberspace; to study its development, dynamics, norms, and standards; and to assess the need or lack thereof for laws and sanctions.”
- Digital HKS, Harvard Kennedy School. This project lives within Harvard’s graduate school of public policy, and tries to teach the relationship between technology, policy, and the public interest. Note that I teach cybersecurity policy at HKS within this program.
- Data Privacy Lab, Harvard University. This program weaves together technology and policy solutions in the area of data privacy.
- Center for Research on Computation and Society, Harvard University. This center “brings together computer scientists and scholars from a broad range of fields to make advances in computational research that serve public interest.”
- Technology and Policy Research Initiative, Boston University School of Law. This group looks at “how technology affects the well-being of society as a whole.”
- Center on Privacy & Technology, Georgetown Law Center. This is “a think tank focused on privacy and surveillance law and policy and the communities they affect.” This is part of the broader Institute for Technology Law & Policy at Georgetown Law, which brings policymakers and technologists together to train Congressional staff, discuss policy proposals, convene conferences, and the like.
- Societal Computing, Carnegie Mellon University. This program “provides the techniques, theories, and research methods to address societal issues and create technologies that impact society.”
- AI, Policy, and Practice Initiative at Cornell University. This program “combine[s] technical, sociological, philosophical and legal expertise and methods, in order to more fully understand and more wisely develop the future path and impact of AI.”
- Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Law School. This center studies “law and policy” around the Internet and other emerging technologies.
- Center for Law and Technology, University of California Berkeley. This center studies technology law and policy issues.
- Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, University of Southern California. This center studies “how AI can be used to tackle the most difficult societal problems.”
- Tech Policy Lab, University of Washington. This is an interdisciplinary collaboration on technology policy.
- Centre for Law, Technology and Society, University of Ottawa. This group researches the intersection of technology, law, and society.
- Autonomy, Agency and Assurance Institute, Australian National University. This group is establishing “a new applied science around the management of AI, data and technology and their impact on humanity.”
- Centre for Technology and Policy, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India.
Programs to Put Technologists in Policy Positions
- AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. This multifaceted program tries to bring science, engineering, and technology into public policy discussions.
- TechCongress. This program funds one-year fellowships for technologists to be on congressional or congressional-committee staffs. As far as I know, there is no other country with a program like this.
- Open Web Fellows program at the Mozilla Foundation. This fellowship “brings together technology talent and civil society organizations from around the world to advance and protect the open internet.”
- Public Interest Technology Program, New America Foundation. This program “connects technologists to public interest organizations.”
- Technology Fellows Program at the Ford Foundation. This program hires technologists to assist in Ford’s grantmaking programs.
- Media Democracy Fund. This organization puts technologists inside social justice programs and organizations.
- Community Fellowship Program at Code for America. This program puts technologists in local government positions to help make digital government work.
- New America Public Interest Tech Team.
Several major foundations are funding programs in public-interest technology. I include a list of them here, and web pages for their PIT programs where available.
- Ford Foundation Public Interest Tech Campaign. This is a good site in general for news, commentary, videos, etc. on public-interest technology. This is the foundation I have been working most closely with.
- Knight Foundation Technology Innovation Program.
- MacArthur Foundation gives grants as part of its “Technology in the Public Interest” program. Here’s a list of grantees in the area of technology and public policy.
- Mozilla Foundation.
- Open Society Foundations.
- Prototype Fund. This is a program of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
- The Netgain Partnership. This is “a philanthropic collaboration seeking to advance the public interest in the digital age,” comprising the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation.
- The Open Technology Fund maintains a list of “internet freedom” funding opportunities.
Organizations inside Corporations
- Jigsaw, part of Alphabet/Google. This group “builds technology to tackle some of the toughest global security challenges facing the world today.”
- The Internet Law & Policy Foundry maintains a job board in public-interest technology.
- Code for America also maintains a job board.
- The Internet Freedom Festival has a job board.
- Digital Security Exchange links security technologists who want to help NGOs with NGOs that need security help. It’s not a job board, but I’m not sure where else to put it.
There are many more organizations that are working in and around this space, but for a variety of reasons don’t make the cut for this particular resources page.
I want to close with a quote from Michael Brennan, also of the Ford Foundation: “The field of public interest tech brings people with specific technical expertise into the fight for social change: whether that means ensuring that biased algorithms don’t further prejudice the criminal justice system, understanding how marginalized communities are negatively impacted by “smart” technology, or examining the future of work as artificial intelligence and the gig economy upend the traditional rules of the economy. Since technology affects nearly every aspect of our lives and the world around us, the opportunities for technologists to put their skills to work for the public interest are endless.”
About that hyphen: Pretty much no one else hyphenates “public-interest technologist,” but since “public interest” doesn’t stand alone as a noun it should be there.