PIT & the Mission of Higher Ed

Sylvester Johnson, Faculty Fellow, Public Interest Technology University Network

PIT & the Mission of Higher Ed in the Digital Age

Institutionalizing PIT

March, 2023

Sylvester Johnson, Faculty Fellow, Public Interest Technology University Network

Author: Sylvester Johnson is PIT-UN’s Faculty Fellow, and Associate Vice Provost for Public Interest Technology at Virginia Tech, where he leads the Tech for Humanity initiative. 

Serving as faculty fellow for PIT-UN while also fulfilling roles as an associate vice provost and the director of the Tech for Humanity initiative at Virginia Tech, I wear many hats. It’s something that comes naturally to me as a transdisciplinary scholar. 

I discovered a deep interest in technology while leading a research team at Northwestern University that built AI that could scan and analyze a centuries-old humanities text. I chose to join Virginia Tech a few years later because of its role as a leader in technology that was also invested in being a comprehensive university – this at a time when most American universities have tended to reduce their investment and support for disciplines and programs in humanities, social sciences, and creativity. 

Torgerson Bridge, Virginia Tech University
Torgerson Bridge / Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

I was hired to establish and direct a center for humanities and to interpret the mission of humanities in a manner that might enrich the research, teaching, and engagement operating across the entire university. The university’s provost at that time, Thanassis Rikakis, underscored the urgency for humanistic, human-centered scholarship to play a central role at Virginia Tech at the very moment technology innovation was driving unprecedented growth, transformation, and uncertainty across the globe. 

As a scholar and administrator whose background is more in the humanities than the sciences (though I did earn my B.S. in Chemistry!), one of my most important words of advice to anyone looking for ways to institutionalize public interest technology is to seek out partnerships across the university that transcend our traditional academic divides. 

It Can Be as Simple as a Cup of Coffee

A handful of relatively feasible strategies can add tremendous value to efforts that advance PIT on any number of campuses. Of special importance is elevating awareness and building intellectual community among people who work across different areas of the university. How might this happen? Simply meeting with campus stakeholders within and beyond one’s own unit can happen for the cost of a cup of coffee. One or two conversations per month can help leverage the interests and concerns of others on one’s campus in ways that intersect with a larger PIT strategy. 

Another low-cost strategy: creating a “PIT” listserv that shares information about PIT-related issues and events (such as special webinars hosted by New America and other institutions), and inviting potential stakeholders and collaborators to join and post to the listserv. 

Hosting public conversations, research talks, or small workshops with on-campus researchers is yet a third way to elevate public interest technology and build intellectual community in a transdisciplinary fashion. All of these methods allow PIT liaisons to demonstrate interest in their colleagues, inform curious potential collaborators, and build a network of stakeholders who can become allies and partners for later stages of shared work across a college or university to transcend disciplinary divides.

Leverage the Potential of Networks

Our institution’s exploration of intra-disciplinary and transdisciplinary research provided a fortuitous runway for connecting to the PIT-UN. In 2018, we launched “Tech for Humanity” as a university-wide initiative to elevate existing work at Virginia Tech that embodied human-centered approaches to technology and to inspire and advance new efforts toward humanistic governance of technology. In 2019, we learned of the public interest technology-University Network that New America was administering. It was immediately evident that the PIT-UN was timely and extraordinarily resonant with the aim of Tech for Humanity. We applied to join the consortium and became members in 2020.

Technology is a comprehensive issue – not merely a technical one.

Since that time, the PIT-UN has created tremendous value and has amplified the possibilities emerging from Virginia Tech’s strategic vision and planning. The network has enabled VT to build relationships with other universities, to collaborate for advancing the emerging field of public interest tech, to advance thought leadership on technology issues, and to raise our university’s profile as a leader in this area. This has paid dividends in structural and programmatic ways–e.g., through our ability to attract talent for research and teaching. Beyond this, the PIT-UN has sharpened our external legibility as a comprehensive university, and it has enriched and deepened our faculty’s culture of collaboration across disciplines. 

For instance, the lens of public interest technology has created a new means to connect our librarians who determine data privacy policy within the university and scholars in humanities and human sciences who study policy, data ethics, and public affairs. As a further example, PIT has also connected specific, project-based teaching and learning in technical areas to curricular work in humanities centering on social disparities and equitable outcomes. As a result of this integration, one of our student teams recently collaborated to offer college-level, technology-enabled instruction to incarcerated students who are eager to advance their education. All of this has facilitated our efforts to operationalize a commitment to greater inclusivity, social justice, and public good. 

PIT & Humanities: Stronger Together

I would be remiss not to emphasize another area of vast importance by which the network has benefited Virginia Tech. The mission of PIT-UN, which advances public interest and civic benefit in a technological society, has provided external validation for the internal efforts at Virginia Tech to elevate the role of arts, humanities and social sciences for research, teaching, career paths, and societal impact. 

This has happened within a larger environment that is often harshly negative toward humanistic and artistic disciplines. Barely a month or two passes without a popular article lamenting the decline of humanities or questioning the relevance of humanistic studies in the United States.

The most grave technological threats lie at the human frontier of technology.

Faculty and administrators alike are accustomed to thinking about humanities through the mode of crisis. Legislative assemblies have spent decades defunding comprehensive education through a narrow focus on STEM skills. Parents frequently warn their kids away from majoring in humanities. As a result of these things, college students increasingly arrive on campus with the view that majoring in humanities or pursuing studies in creativity is a dead-end for career success. 

In this context, it is important to heed the message of technology leaders who have repeatedly warned against pitting specialized technical fields against generalist approaches to knowledge and education in non-STEM areas such as humanities, human sciences, and creativity. 

Among these is Scott Hartley, a successful innovation and technology entrepreneur who has authored The Fuzzie and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World. Hartley studied political science in college before pursuing graduate studies in international affairs and in business. Throughout his career as a leader building businesses, technology, and civic infrastructure, Hartley has championed the role of liberal arts education in shaping technology leaders who are curious about high-level questions, broadly empathetic, and skillful in perceiving the larger context of problems they seek to solve. These are essential for addressing the most difficult challenges our technological society faces; they are also the very skills and sensibilities the liberal arts excel in cultivating.

PIT and the Purpose of Higher Ed

Public interest technology is emerging as a field that is enabling a broader range of stakeholders to understand that technology is a comprehensive issue–not merely a technical one. This is why it should come as no surprise that the most difficult technological problems to solve are in ethical, political, legal, and social domains. The most grave technological threats and harms, in other words, lie at the human frontier of technology. 

The American sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson was especially perceptive when he expressed almost 15 years ago that the fundamental problem with humanity is that we have “Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Resolving these tensions will require the future of talent to draw on a vast array of knowledge and expertise, traversing technical, scientific, humanistic, and artistic domains. This is one of the most important messages that public interest technology is amplifying, and it is one that must be embraced by our current and future students and faculty and the larger society for the sake of our human future.

As our academic institutions increasingly engage with transdisciplinarity and problem-based learning, it seems clear enough that the field of public interest technology has become an especially potent and urgent means to enable our colleges and universities to fulfill their mission in service to all members of society – particularly those who are at greatest risk when things go wrong. 

As we continue to elevate the public interest as our north star for the governance of technology, let us work to ensure that the future of innovation can be one that ultimately serves the public interest, sustainability, and human flourishing.

New Certificates & Degree Programs from PIT-UN Members

New Certificates & Degrees from PIT-UN Members

Public and Critical Infrastructure

March 2023

Case Western Reserve University: Graduate Certificate in DSSI

Case Western Reserve University offers a Graduate Certificate in Data Science for Social Impact (DSSI), which equips students with the skills to use data science to improve social welfare. The certificate program is overseen by the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and the Case School of Engineering, and as such aims to operate at the intersection of data science and social science. Students take four courses to earn this certificate.

Cleveland State University Ohio: Society 5.0

Cleveland State University Ohio offers an interdisciplinary graduate certificate, Society 5.0, which is focused on the impacts of emerging technologies on the future of human life. Students take four courses across three colleges to earn this certificate.

Miami Dade College: College Credit Certificate in GIS Technology

Miami Dade College offers a College Credit Certificate in GIS Technology, accompanied by a dual enrollment opportunity for high school students. The certificate acts as a stackable component of the college’s Associate in Sciences degree in Computer Information Technology (CIT); students who wish to do so can continue on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in CIT. The goal of this program is to forge a career pathway for students in Miami Dade County to pursue GIS (geographic information systems), with a particular focus on environmental hazards awareness and community engagement (issues that are particularly relevant in the greater Miami area).

Arizona State University: Master’s of Science in Public Interest Technology

Arizona State University’s Master’s of Science in Public Interest Technology equips students to become leaders in the PIT field. Though the degree includes technical courses, the Master’s program emphasizes social responsibility over technical competency.

Meet MSI/Equity Fellow Sheetal Dhir

Equity Fellow Sheetal Dhir

Q&A with Sheetal Dhir, Equity/MSI Fellow

Institutionalizing PIT

March, 2023

Equity Fellow Sheetal Dhir

Sheetal Dhir is a senior strategist with over ten years experience in media, politics and advocacy and PIT-UN’s newest team member.

She sat down with our second-newest team member, Communications & Events Manager Kip Dooley, to discuss why she joined PIT-UN, what she’s learning from our members, and her professional superpowers.

Kip Dooley: Sheetal, my first question is one I always ask our members and partners: what’s your connection to PIT? How did you get into this space, and why do you care about these issues?

Sheetal Dhir: I think it’s three-fold. First and foremost, I was privileged enough to be on the launch team for PIT at New America as a consultant working closely with [now-Director] Andreen Soley. I got to read and write some of PIT-UN’s founding documents during the nascent stages, so the notion of public interest tech has been swirling around in my mind and marinating for years.

Secondly, in my last job at Color Of Change, we did very intensive work around how technology impacts communities of color. Part of how we tried to lead and push for change was by chewing on some of the big questions that public interest technology poses, like “who makes the decisions about how technology is designed and deployed? Who is not in those rooms, and what’s the downstream impact of that reality?” One of COC’s pillars is tech accountability, so I spent a lot of time thinking about bias within tech as well as policies like Section 230. 

My third connection is really about my personal relationship to technology. Once I joined the working world, my career completely changed twice because of the internet: first, the news cycle became 24-hour and dictated by ad revenue, and later, advocacy work became much more donor-driven. 

Since I left news media, nearly every project I worked on has involved tech and society in some way.

I started off as a news producer in the days of the Blackberry. Anytime my phone rang, I would flinch because it meant I could be stuck in an editing bay for the next three days. The fast transfer of information and the need to respond to it was astounding and transformational in terms of the balance between editorial and business. To me, it became less about context and more about getting the information out quickly. I don’t know if that’s been to our benefit or detriment, I guess it depends on the story or the thing you’re advocating for. Watching how the news cycle, and later the world of advocacy, were completely transformed by technology has left a lasting impression. 

On a basic level, a big thing that drives this work for me is just trying to figure out how I’m going to engage with this thing [holds up smartphone] for the rest of my life.


Kip: You’ve worked in broadcast media, strategic communications and advocacy. Which professional experiences prepared you best for this current role as Equity/MSI Fellow with PIT-UN?

Sheetal: Since I left news media, nearly every project I worked on has involved tech and society in some way. When I worked with the ACLU’s David Trone Center for Criminal Justice Reform, camera footage of police killings was starting to become easily shareable. We often got early footage of this video from our affiliates on the ground, and that was my introduction to the power of surveillance technology – either in service of the public good and social change, or in service of policing communities in a very militarized way.

Similarly, when I was at Amnesty International doing crisis work I saw how the Department of Homeland Security started using cell phone technology and public utilities to track migrants and process asylum applications. We were stuck with a really difficult question: is this technology actually empowering people? Are they actually getting on a path to citizenship because of this technology – or are they just becoming numbers on an app? Before this technology, there were citizenship officers talking to migrants and hearing their stories. There was certainly bias in many of those interactions, but now so many migrants just get sorted by an algorithm that no one can see or understand outside of the federal government.

At the ACLU, Amnesty, and Color Of Change, we had to grapple with questions about how the government was deploying technology. That was a big shifting of the lens for me: technology is everywhere, and is built into the fabric of how we administer the state.

Kip: These are massive questions.

Sheetal: Yes, and I have to be honest: I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet. When I was researching disinformation for the president of Color Of Change, it was clear that there are a ton of big questions and no silver bullets or straightforward answers. That’s another thing that inspired me to take on this role with PIT-UN. We’re housed in a think tank, so our job is to think through issues and communicate what we find; we’re also supporting a network of universities creating curriculum, pedagogy, research – and, importantly, a supply of skilled labor so that these issues don’t stay siloed in academia, but they filter into all sectors, both private and public. 


Kip: Speaking of our network of universities, you’ve been meeting with our minority-serving institutions (MSI’s) to get a sense of their needs and interests. What are you learning?

Sheetal: What I’m learning is that the boots-on-the-ground academics who are doing the work of PIT and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible are both incredibly passionate and wildly under-resourced. There is just too much to do and too little time. We’re still in a pandemic. Their ideas are amazing, it’s just that we need, like, six of them to get all the work done on each campus. I’m really interested in the possibility of creating a train-the-trainer model so that we don’t have to rely so heavily on the expertise and work of just a few people. We need to spread the wealth. 

What’s more, I think there are so many people doing PIT work, but they just don’t call it PIT yet. The more we can get our members to become ambassadors who engage in thought leadership and inspire their colleagues to join us, the better.


Kip: Ok, let’s end with a fun one: what are your professional superpowers?

Sheetal: You know what – I actually took an online quiz the other day that was spot-on. My first superpower is complexity-busting: cutting through layers of information to find the most important ideas. It really comes in handy when a team has a ton of research or ideas, but isn’t sure what it all means.

Kip: I’m even more excited to have you on our team now. 

Sheetal: The shadow side is that I can paint in really broad strokes, so I have to make sure I don’t leave out important details. Keep me honest!

Kip: I will!

Sheetal: The second superpower is I’m an empathizer. I pick up on the needs and emotions of people around me, and learn a person’s quirks even without them telling me. The quiz did say that empathizers sometimes channel others’ perspectives so easily that it can be difficult to develop their own point of view or opinions. I definitely do not have that problem.

Kip: Are there any topics folks should ask for your opinion about? Anything you love to discuss?

Sheetal: I’ve learned a lot about Ayurvedic cooking through my own nutrition journey. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve learned a good deal and enjoy talking about it. I’m also very strong at early 90’s trivia, so go ahead and quiz me. And I love talking about my experience in community organizing. I’m pretty good at getting large groups of people to do complicated things in a short amount of time.

Kip: Wow. Working with PIT-UN seems like a great fit for you. 

Sheetal: Let’s just say that I’m excited to be here. 

Sheetal Dhir manages PIT-UN’s equity, inclusion and justice strategy while working with MSI members to develop and sustain their PIT programs. Her PIT interests include working with MSIs to ensure they have the resources they need to do the work they are excited about. Reach her if you’re looking for a thought partner to discuss how to best capitalize on your current research docket: dhir (at) newamerica.org.

How PIT Prepares Students to Become Changemakers in Tech

Technology work for impact

How PIT Prepares Students to Become Changemakers in Tech

Public and Critical Infrastructure

March, 2023

Author: Toby Shulruff is a writer, a technology safety project manager, and a graduate student in the Public Interest Technology program at Arizona State University. She recently published a report on Trust & Safety work based on interviews with practitioners in the field.

After nearly 20 years in the gender-based violence prevention field, I decided to go back to school. The knowledge, skills and confidence I developed through Arizona State’s Master’s in Public Interest Technology program have immediately helped me address tech abuse further upstream, rather than patching together solutions after harms have been inflicted, or, worse, simply playing down those harms and shirking responsibility.

Early in my career, I was often “the tech person” at nonprofits, fixing the printer, building a database, or updating websites. These two threads of technology and gender-based violence combined in 2003, when I began working with the Safety Net Project to help local support programs across the US respond to the countless ways in which new technologies like GPS, mobile phones, and social media are used by abusers to stalk and intimidate survivors of violence.

Though we helped many people cope with the immediate threats they were facing, we were too far downstream from the companies designing these tools to stem the tide. 

As we began partnering with privacy advocates and tech companies, I became driven by two key questions:

  1. Why technology is the way that it is?
  2. Could including a wider range of voices shift the direction technology is going?

What I learned at ASU is that public interest tech is not a set of solutions, but rather a whole new way of thinking. It’s a paradigm shift that takes a lot of time, energy and work. Reframing one’s thinking about technology – not to mention effecting real change after graduation – requires the support of a dedicated, interdisciplinary PIT faculty who can help students explore issues from multiple angles and ask the kinds of questions that actually lead to paradigm change. 

My first-year courses at ASU explored the roots of public interest technology in responsible innovation, technology assessment and governance, and public engagement with science and technology. My perspective was broadened immensely by classmates who came from UX design, public policy and entertainment. In the core Codesigning the Future course, we learned how to bring more voices into the design process from the earliest stage of defining the problem, to ensure that tech serves a wide range of human needs, not just the share price of the company building it. We won a prestigious award from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society for our work on a variety of projects including a COVID vaccine locator app, safer websites for domestic violence survivors, community financial tools, and a wildlife streaming camera. 

Once I finished my core courses, I had the chance to dive into the research literature on a specific topic. For the first 20 years of my career, there was very little academic research on gender-based violence and tech. In 2017, the topic caught fire in academia, and I discovered that there was a vibrant community of cybersecurity, sociology and criminology experts in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. working on this intersection. I found a new vitality in my own field that I hadn’t seen before.

My core faculty at ASU didn’t specialize directly in this area, but I was able to connect with faculty from the School of Social Work and together they showed me how to construct high quality research questions, do literature reviews and translate academic research into actionable insights. Through my existing work and contacts, I was able to dive into a number of global technology and development questions like grassroots innovation and cross-border, bilingual research collaborations within my program and in the growing network of international scholars and practitioners I met from the U.K., Nigeria and Argentina. 

The standard thinking for many years was that stalking, harassment and domestic abuse are old behaviors, and tech just makes them a little easier for people to do. But the newer literature shows that technology has completely transformed these dynamics. It accelerates and amplifies abuse, and enables abusers to reach across space and time. In the past, someone had to physically follow you around to stalk you. Now, you never know when your abuser might pop back up and start monitoring you with some new form of spyware, or harassing you on social media. There’s no endpoint. 

We’ll never arrive at a single solution, but we can articulate important principles for ethical design to guide the decision making process.

I came across cybersecurity researchers at Cornell Tech who were analyzing spyware companies to identify software and settings that are easily leveraged by abusers, or identifying ways that serial stalkers were actually accelerating the uptake of these practices through online forums. University College London and the Oxford Internet Institute are defining an Intimate Partner Threat model based on cybersecurity principles, which for so long focused just on national security, corporate espionage and consumer harms, and completely neglected what happens to people when they are inside their own homes. End-to-end encryption is pretty useless if a violent partner or family member can just coerce me into giving them my password. There’s a growing movement of feminist technologists who are pushing back against these underlying assumptions in computer science and cybersecurity.

In my research and work with tech companies, I can now lift up these voices and insights, and because of my PIT coursework, I can recognize the limitations of my clients’ design frameworks and help them to be more responsive to the real life impacts of their products. So often, they just want to know, “what’s the one big threat to worry about?” or “what are the one or two personas we’re designing for?” I push them to consider power dynamics, and also the multitude of perspectives and needs of people who have to cope with the disproportionate impacts of technology. 

For example, the newer location tracking devices for lost wallets or keys have been used for stalking. Understanding both the threat models of gender-based violence and design processes helps companies to consider really tricky design questions that weren’t on their radar, like how to help people find out if they are being tracked with one of the company’s devices, or what kind of governance the industry as a whole could adopt in order to protect users. With my clients we can surface all kinds of tradeoffs that they would not have recognized on their own: if the device makes a noise, would that end up putting the threatened person in more danger? What if the person is deaf, so a noise wouldn’t be helpful? There are so many users, there’s never just one persona and how you design tech can define life-or-death situations.

The first step to designing better tech is identifying the issues you weren’t seeing before, and establishing new principles and goals accordingly. Thanks to the hard work of faculty and administrators at Arizona State who laid the groundwork for my comprehensive PIT education, the work I do every day is addressing the foundational questions about tech that really drive me – and that I hope will drive change in the industry in the years to come.

DataWorks: Participatory Design in Action

DataWorks at Georgia Tech

How Participatory Design Can Bring
the Value of Higher Ed into our Local Communities

Public and Critical Infrastructure

March, 2023

Carl DiSalvo

Author: Carl DiSalvo is an Associate Professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. He teaches design, theory, and methods courses, in addition to serving on the DataWorks team. His most recent book is Design as Democratic Inquiry (MIT Press, 2022), and he is an editor of the journal Design Issues.

One of the great things about PIT-UN is that each member has a unique approach to public interest technology. Our different specialties, histories, student bodies and geographical locations make for a rich mix of ideas and approaches. A number of us at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing have strong backgrounds in Participatory Design (often called Co-Design), so it has naturally been at the center of many of our efforts – including one of our flagship projects, DataWorks.

DataWorks is a program based at Georgia Tech that recruits young people from communities historically minoritized in computing, and employs them as data wranglers on contract-based projects with local government, small business and nonprofit clients. 

The Why & How Behind DataWorks

Like many start-ups, DataWorks was born out of long-standing frustrations. My colleagues and I had over the years encountered countless organizations in our community that wanted to collect and use data somehow, but lacked the time and resources to do so. Simultaneously, there is a wealth of labor potential in Atlanta communities that have been historically shut out of computing professions. At the intersection of these two problems, we saw an opportunity.

Drawing on grant funding and income generated from contract-based projects with non-profit, government, and for-profit organizations, DataWorks hires data workers as Georgia Tech employees with benefits and hourly pay. Faculty and students who contribute to the project do not receive compensation, but get meaningful work experience while engaging more deeply with our surrounding communities. 

At a time when higher education is under question and under attack, demonstrating how we produce value to our communities is not just the ethically right move, but the politically sensible move as well.

Through learning how to responsibly handle data using tools like Excel and Python, workers develop new, transferable skills, and are eligible to take courses at Georgia Tech. In keeping with Participatory Design principles, we aim to make DataWorks as democratic as possible, so our workers have a say in both their working conditions, and in the outputs of their labor.

I’ll give an example to make this concrete. Before we start on a project, our workers review a sample of the data and have the opportunity to raise issues with how it’s being collected, and how it might be used. Given that data is often used in extractive or otherwise harmful ways against marginalized communities, we think this is well worth the time and effort. In one case, our workers even wrote up terms and conditions for a client, to ensure that the data they cleaned and processed wouldn’t be used in a harmful way. 

Participatory Design & Institutionalizing PIT

If DataWorks sounds to you like a lot of time and effort, that’s because it is. We’re still figuring out how to balance this work with our existing teaching and research, but we’re confident that we can make a compelling case for course releases and other exemptions to our senior leadership. I’ll lay out a few of these rationales here, before closing with some advice should you be interested in pursuing a Participatory Design project with your community.

We see DataWorks as part of our responsibility to provide value to the state of Georgia, not just to the students who are able to attend our institution. Higher education has gone so far in the direction of job preparation, we’ve forgotten about our role in promoting the public interest beyond the four walls of the classroom. Furthermore, because universities are often not the best neighbors, this project is one way we can contribute in a positive way and build healthier relationships with Atlanta communities.

On a practical level, this work is especially important at a time when higher education is under question and under attack. Demonstrating how our university produces value to our communities is not just the ethically right move, but the politically sensible move as well. 

We’re hopeful that more and more institutional leaders will realize that having strong PIT programs provides a clear rationale for protecting and funding higher education in an evermore technological world. 


Key Learnings

Finally, if you’re considering pursuing a Participatory Design project with your community, here are a few of our learnings:

When seeking out partnerships with people and organizations in your community, remember that you’re asking for a commitment to do something outside of their jobs and their personal lives. Accordingly, it’s our job as academics to show up and contribute before we make an ask. If you want to co-design a project to help with evictions defense, spend some time volunteering with a tenants’ rights group or legal advocacy nonprofit. Show that you’re committed to the work, not just your own teaching or research agenda. 

Really ask and really listen to what will work for community members you want to engage. This one is particularly hard for designers and technologists, as we’re accustomed to having much of the power and say in how tech is designed and deployed. As a rule of thumb, draw up a formal agreement, and don’t commit to anything you won’t be able to deliver.

On the other hand, it’s possible to go too far in the direction of power-sharing. Designers and technologists have a certain amount of authority in society, and Participatory Design exists as a means to share space and power with other forms of expertise. However, our workers have let us know that they really do want us to lead in certain areas. For example, when they are developing the basic skills for the job, they don’t yet have time  to engage in meta-level work, like co-designing a project tracking mechanism. 

DataWorks has laid a strong foundation for us to advocate for longer-term institutional investment in public interest technology at Georgia Tech; we hope to see many more projects like it across PIT-UN, and look forward to contributing to your journey however we can. 

IEEE Journal fosters Transdisciplinary Dialogue for Public Interest Technology

Robot city science fiction. Image by ParallelVision from Pixabay.

Transdisciplinary Dialogue for Public Interest Technology

Institutionalizing PIT

March, 2023

Although Public Interest Technology (PIT) is a nascent field, it builds on longstanding scholarly traditions of investigating the interplay between technology and society. Roba Abbas of the University of Wollongong and Katina Michael of Arizona State University have led a groundbreaking effort to cultivate scholarship that encourages transdisciplinary dialogue and advocates for the development of PIT. 

The journal IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society, was the first academic outlet to publish a special issue dedicated to PIT, providing a wealth of scholarship building on the outcomes of the IEEE SSIT’s International Symposium on Technology and Society 2020 (ISTAS20). Each edition includes at least one free, downloadable PDF, including:

A Conceptual Model and Metaplatform for Public Interest Technology Design: “[D]esigning public interest technologies (PIT) needs to prioritize qualitative values of people and communities as suprafunctional requirements.” (Jeremy Pitt and Stephen Cranefield, Vol. 2, Issue 2, June 2021)

Bringing Care and Concern to Engineering Students Through STS Knowledge“In this article, I discuss how the matters of concern and the matters of care can be utilized within engineering education to shift students’ attitudes regarding the social impact of their work.” (Anne Y. Patrick, Vol. 2, Issue 2, June 2021)

Insider Threats and Individual Differences: Intention and Unintentional Motivations: This study extends “research on the development of a brief cybersecurity questionnaire … to identify individual differences that are associated with cybersecurity vulnerabilities and cyber hygiene behavior.” (Jordan Richard Schoenherr, Vol. 3, Issue 3, September 2022)

What Happens to COVID-19 Data After the Pandemic? Socio-Technical Lessons: “In this paper, we examine the Australian COVID-19 technological response…was the data effectively used or integrated into the proposed processes?” (Katina Michael and Roba Abbas, Vol. 3, Issue 4, December 2022)

Several of the journal’s PIT articles were first presented at ISTAS20, which featured 210 abstracts and represented over 400 authors from 27 countries. The Full Conference proceedings are available, as are the special issues on socio-technical design, co-designing the future, and purpose-driven socio-technical innovation for PIT.

You can subscribe to the quarterly publication here, and submit articles here.

Roba Abbas

Author: Roba Abbas, Senior Lecturer, School of Business, University of Wollongong. Visiting Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University (2022)

Author: Katina Michael, Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, Arizona State University. Honorary Professor School of Business, University of Wollongong (2022- )

Q&A with Dr. Cynthia Warrick, President of Stillman College

Dr. Cynthia Warrick, president of Stillman College

Q&A with Dr. Cynthia Warrick, President of Stillman College

Dr. Cynthia Warrick, president of Stillman College
Courtesy of Stillman College

Five years ago, Dr. Cynthia Warrick answered the call to lead Stillman College, a Historically Black College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and member of PIT-UN. As its president, Warrick has navigated the college through rocky times financially and academically. Today, Stillman is thriving and its public interest technology programs continue to grow. Here, she reflects on her journey and hopes for Stillman’s future as she prepares to retire in June, 2023.

Q. Stillman College is one of the newest members of Public Interest Technology University Network. What are the values that drew Stillman to PIT-UN?

Stillman is very proud of our involvement in this network of over 50 academic institutions to ensure that all community members have the knowledge and skills to understand and access technology, which is playing a greater role in our daily lives.  As tools like AI-powered search engines come to the market, PIT-UN helps ensure that less educated, underserved, and communities of color will have a voice in the technology advances of today and tomorrow.

Q. As a liberal arts college, why is public interest technology important to the students and college?

When the public thinks about technology, the engineering field comes to mind.  But everyone is not going to be an engineer, or even think like an engineer. A liberal arts education prepares students to examine ideas from multiple vantage points, and to critically integrate problem-solving through multi-disciplinary collaboration across historical, social and cultural norms. Public interest technology helps students view technology’s impacts through a liberal arts lens.

Q. Stillman recently received a $2.7 million federal grant to build a cybersecurity IT training center. What does this mean for the college, students and the community?

Stillman College is located in the 3 poorest census tracts in Tuscaloosa; and is the largest employer and contiguous land-owner in West Tuscaloosa, which is 94 percent African American.  Under the Biden Administration Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, West Tuscaloosa is considered a Justice 40 community in several categories: Low Income, Higher education non-enrollment, Energy burden, Housing cost burden, Asthma, Diabetes, Heart disease, Low life expectancy, Low median income, Unemployment, and Poverty.  Converting Geneva Hall (a former dormitory built in 1954) into a Cybersecurity and Information Technology Training Center will address some of these socio-economic issues among the residents in West Tuscaloosa.  They will have access to state-of-the-art technology, education, and training enabling them for certificates, badges, and credentials, that will improve their quality of life.

Q. As the leader of a HBCU, what is your vision for the future of the college in advancing equity, racial and social justice?

HBCUs are institutions where students, faculty, and staff, can grow and develop without the burden of racism.  Stillman, like most HBCUs, has been leaders in the fight for equal rights and social justice; producing leaders yesterday and today. I pray that our commitment to equality and justice will continue as long as those ideals are needed in the nation and the world.

Q. As the first female president for the college, what do you think was the biggest challenge and opportunity looking back at the past five years?

The biggest challenge facing Stillman’s future was the $40 million dollar US Department of Education HBCU Capital Finance Loan that was taken out in 2012, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, would probably never be paid back. I led a contingent of other HBCU presidents with these loans to petition legislators to forgive the loans which totaled $1.6 billion dollars, with $400 million dollars of debt forgiveness for HBCUs in Alabama.  

Q. Stillman College’s Cybersecurity DEI Clinics project is one of the 18 Network Challenge grantees this year. Can you describe the impetus behind the project and the impact it aims to achieve?

Stillman’s Cybersecurity diversity, equity, and inclusion clinics are based on the Citizen Clinic model developed at UC Berkeley’s Center for Long Term Cybersecurity.  Clinics will be scheduled with our HBCU Consortium members in major urban centers: Birmingham, Houston, Nashville, and Memphis.  These clinics will increase cyber risk awareness in underserved communities, introduce HBCU students to interdisciplinary cybersecurity training, and enhance also enhance awareness of ethical concerns coming out of the implementation of smart cities and smart homes.  

Q. One of the college’s key missions is building diverse talent pipelines for public interest technology and other fields where students of color are underrepresented. What is your strategy and approaches to advance these goals?  

Stillman College recognizes that cybersecurity and technology fields are a mainstay for the future.  In November 2017, we experienced a ransomware hack that crashed our entire ERP system, exposing the reality that there were not any professionals in Tuscaloosa with the expertise and knowledge to address this issue. In December 2017, we joined the Independent College Enterprise consortium of eight colleges of similar size to share technology infrastructure, housed at the University of Charleston in West Virginia. We then developed a cybersecurity concentration to ensure that we were educating students in fields that were relevant to the challenges of today. We received grant funding from the National Security Agency to support our academic and research development and are on the path toward a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Education. 

Congratulations to Dr. Warrick on her career and Stillman’s ongoing growth. To learn more about HBCUs in the Public Interest Technology University Network, visit our Member Directory and select the HBCU tag.