Public Interest Technology
Public Interest Tech is an emerging scholarly and professional field that is broad in scope and intention. It is defined by the deployment of technological expertise in service of the common good, often with a focus on under-resourced communities and needs.
Since Cornell Tech’s founding in 2011, the societal and economic impacts of digital technology have only become more powerful, and with it, the growing desire among our most ambitious technical students, researchers, and working professionals to shape technology to serve public needs. From healthcare and education to human rights and sustainability, these leaders ask how we might use digital technology to:
- Assist communities in adapting and deploying digital tools to meet local public health priorities, such as food insecurity, social isolation, and healthcare access.
- Support public school systems in addressing pedagogical, equity, and privacy gaps of the software platforms they increasingly depend upon.
- Enable community participation in data collection and decision making to help cities address environmental challenges, from hazardous housing conditions to climate change.
- Advise local policy makers on the positive and negative externalities of emerging safety and surveillance technologies.
Public Interest Technology (PiTech) convenes a community of technologists, researchers, social scientists, and practitioners dedicated to societal challenges that too frequently “fall between the cracks” of federal research funding and commercial investment.
PiTech will deliver:
- New technologies: digital tools, systems, methods, and data science artifacts.
- New frameworks: policies, legal theories, educational structures, and socio-technical system design.
- An enhanced workforce: better trained innovators, leaders, and thinkers who will guide technology toward positive societal outcomes.
We are currently supported by a seed investment from The Atlantic Philanthropies, which recognized that Cornell Tech has the right mix to affect population-scale progress — our technical depth and builder mentality, our New York City home, and the breadth of the entire Cornell University research endeavor.
Many Cornell Tech faculty frame research projects within the context of public interest goals. This calls for engagement of subject matter experts in order to generate effective and impactful outcomes. To this end, PiTech germinates high-quality public interest tech research by engaging and embedding subject matter and community experts in the research lifecycle early on, while ideas, concepts, and even research agendas are still malleable.
Training public interest-minded technologists demands special attention, including opportunities to engage policymakers and community leaders. We are doing this through a Public Interest Tech Studio track – launching 2021 — in our unique Studio program for training masters students. Through Studio’s intensely immersive courses, students develop real-world tech solutions for leading startups, companies, and organizations in NYC. The Public Interest Tech Studio track is designed to focus on product development and business models to affect positive change in the public sector, such as issues relating to social justice and community recovery from COVID-19. Once refined, we will expand this offering to the larger technical and policy communities through executive and professional education.
Dynamic integration of legal, ethical, and policy frameworks is necessary for sustainable movement towards more socially responsible technology outcomes. For this, PiTech is leveraging the strengths of Cornell Tech’s influential Digital Life Initiative (DLI). The DLI community of scholars and policy portfolio is growing rapidly, as more leaders from industry and government look to DLI for guidance on issues of privacy, cybersecurity, blockchain, and AI ethics. PiTech and DLI ‘s partnership enables foundations in law and ethics to be put into practice and creates virtuous feedback across research, policy, and community impact.
Our flagship Tech Clinic program integrates research, education, and impact. Tech Clinics actively engage with communities around a particular public concern that is enabled or complicated by technology, and which is not being addressed by established commercial, governmental and NGO activities.
Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA)
Our first Tech Clinic, launched fall 2019, addresses Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in partnership with the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. By pairing Cornell Tech’s expertise in human-computer interaction and security with engagement on the part of IPV victims and policymakers, Professors Nicki Dell and Tom Ristenpart developed the Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA), a first of its kind computer security clinic that helps IPV survivors navigate technology abuse. They are now scaling the clinic to serve the larger New York City metropolitan region and create a model that is replicable across the country.