A burgeoning field that brings twenty-first century innovation to bear on major public problems is gaining momentum in study and in practice. We refer to this field as “public interest technology,” but it involves far more than engineers and programmers. Today, public interest technology offers those who build and design technical tools the opportunity to serve social good, but it also seeks to integrate technical awareness into the processes of organizations that already work to do so. As one scholar posited, public interest technology should address both policy formation and the essential implementation of policy outcomes by government and civil society. The public policy space desperately needs technical talent to support informed approaches to tackling complex technology-related issues, like net neutrality, the use of encryption, or artificial intelligence. At the same time, organizations and governments working to serve the public good need to better integrate technical expertise to provide key services and conduct advocacy in the twenty-first century.
This collaborative approach to social innovation is generating enthusiasm among leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. But without a robust influx of talent, there will be few in positions to act upon it. Our educational system has a major role to play in developing a talent pool with the ability to integrate technology and public service, and it will require an effort that crosses traditionally siloed disciplines. This report aims to understand the current state of public interest technology education at colleges and universities and explore major challenges to its implementation. It also highlights opportunities to expand and improve these programs through interventions targeted at colleges and universities, departments, scholars, and students themselves. Findings from this report draw on 17 in-depth interviews and a day-long convening with academic leaders from a variety of colleges and universities nationwide, working primarily at engineering, public policy, information, and law schools. This report synthesizes their thinking into a concrete set of challenges and opportunities for building a more cohesive, widely-recognized field of study for those who seek to use technology in public service.
Supported by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation, the research process informing this document surfaced promising stories of success, but also deep needs for improvements in collaboration and resourcing in order to expand the field’s potential. The findings presented here seek to inform and empower college and university leaders to facilitate that collaboration and build resources where necessary