When I was working on my undergraduate degree in computer science, I also ran my university’s chapter of Amnesty International. I was passionate about both technology and human rights, but I didn’t see a way for these two paths to cross once I got out of school. I imagined a future where I spent my days coding, and my evenings organizing.
Early in my career, though, I realized that this kind of separation between my passion and my profession wasn’t going to work for me. I needed to find a way to marry the two—and after a few years’ experience working as a computer scientist, I saw that it should be possible.
When I told my computer science peers and teachers that I was interested in using my skills toward positive social change, I was met with confused looks and blank stares. It was dispiriting, but I wasn’t the only one who saw a problem. From nonprofit organizations to foundations to government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, other people had started to realize that in the 21st century, effective advocacy for the public interest requires ready access to people with tech expertise. In other words, these institutions need to employ tech experts in house and on staff.
We call this idea Public Interest Tech, but it goes by many other names as well: Technology for Social Justice, Civic Tech, ICT4D, Crisis Mappers—and the list goes on. And there are many ways to use technology skills to fight for the greater public good. For a great overview of this field and the opportunities and challenges associated with it, check out this scan from More Than Code.
In recent years, increased attention to computational propaganda, election interference, data leakages, surveillance programs, and cybercrime has demonstrated the need for people with technological skills and expertise to work for the causes of equity, justice, privacy, and fairness. But robust pipelines are still being built, between people eager to apply their skills, and organizations ready to incorporate, compensate, and apply those perspectives. We need people working at the intersection of technology and the public interest in every sector, industry, and field.
The Ford Foundation has a legacy of helping different professions recognize how they can contribute to the public interest, and building fields to help them do it, as with the field of public interest law. 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.
When I think of people who drive Public Interest Tech, I think of Matt Mitchell, who understands how digital security and racial justice are deeply intertwined. I think of Sarah Aoun, working at the intersection of operational security, data privacy, and human rights. I think of Cindy Cohn, who leads the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s efforts to ensure digital privacy and free speech around the globe. And I think of Bruce Schneier, who understands how much is at stake in cybersecurity efforts. So, this year, Ford Foundation is supporting Bruce in curating a special track on Bridging the Gap: Cybersecurity + Public Interest Tech at RSA Conference, featuring these speakers and many more.
Across six sessions on March 7, 2019, we’ll look at how public interest tech is already changing the way power is distributed and decisions are made across public policy, philanthropic organizations, and Silicon Valley board rooms. Join us to explore this emerging field and the many opportunities for cybersecurity professionals to get involved.