How PIT Prepares Students to Become Changemakers in Tech

Technology work for impact

How PIT Prepares Students to Become Changemakers in Tech

Institutionalizing PIT

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.

Sewanee DataLab 2022: Purifying Wastewater for Rural Communities

Sewanee DataLab 2022: Purifying Wastewater for Rural Communities

Theme: Public and Critical Infrastructure

The Sewanee DataLab makes the power of data analytics accessible for the greater good by training and supporting
a new generation of data scientists who work exclusively on social impact projects.

Source: Sewanee DataLab

The Dashboard

In 2022, a team of three student fellows, a professor (Deborah McGrath), researcher, and a mentor from Sewanee: The University of the South collaborated with the Sewanee Wetlands Project to create an interactive dashboard, using data collected by the Sewanee Utility District, to educate the public about the wetlands and climate change. 

The dashboard displays water quality comparisons between two wastewater treatment methods: the conventional lagoon treatment and the experimental wetland treatment. In addition, the dashboard shows yearly, monthly, daily, and hourly trends for both water quality parameters and weather conditions, such as air temperature and precipitation. 

The Data 

The data comes from the Sewanee Utility District and shows measurements of water quality parameters. 

  • SONDE: Dataset shows the measurements of different water quality variables from around 2017 to December 2021.
  • SUD: Dataset shows weather data, such as wind speed and air temperature from around October 2020 to December 2021.
  • OESS: Dataset shows temperature and rainfall measurements collected from the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability (OESS) from January 2021 to January 2022.


The original goal was to determine if the wetlands could improve wastewater treatment more efficiently than lagoon C. Our research and Dr. McGrath’s findings revealed how the wetland’s water quality variables changed over time and helped the team work toward seeing how the wetlands should be fixed to meet water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Student Q&A

Lauren Hutchison, Class of ’22

I found Sewanee’s DataLab through a recommendation from a friend who participated in its inaugural year. I had previously had some experience with coding, at the time a love-hate relationship, from using RStudio for a capstone project. I was by no means a great coder and had no idea at the time how much you could do with coding. DataLab is a program that begins with a bootcamp for coding that transitions into working on individual community projects. To my surprise, my knowledge of coding did not extend beyond the first day’s instruction. For the next two weeks, I learned more than I ever thought I would know about using RStudio. The boot camp instructors really went above and beyond during this time. I felt as though I not only learned how to write these codes but also was taught why and when to use them. My understanding of sorting data and creating visuals efficiently and effectively became much deeper. 

After the boot camp ended, we were sorted into project groups based on our interests. I was in the Sewanee Wetlands group, which worked with Dr. Deborah McGrath on her wetland experiment at the Sewanee Utility District. This was actually my first choice, as I am an environment and sustainability major who has always had an interest in water usage. The Sewanee Wetlands Project looks at the effectiveness of an artificial wetland in Sewanee that intends to help treat our wastewater in a sustainable way. Dr. McGrath was excellent to work with and provided a great foundation for us to work on. Her main task for our group was to create a dashboard that would provide visuals of her data that can be used now and in the future. She gave us some freedom to customize the dashboard and set it up as we thought it should go. It was at this point that you could really tell that the boot camp instruction was of high quality, as each group was able to go off on their own and begin working on their respective projects. 

Mentors and instructors were available to help when we became stuck, but I found myself really enjoying the problem-solving aspect associated with writing code. While the project did hit a few bumps along the way, I am really quite proud of the outcome. My group members and I, having limited to no coding experience, were able to produce a dashboard product that will allow Dr. McGrath to use it now and going forward, providing visuals that might one day be used to help make our wastewater cleaning process sustainable.

My first word of advice for those interested in this field would be don’t be afraid to get started. As someone who found a love for coding and computer science late in my college education, it is very possible to get into this field without a strong background in computer science. Completing any project really only requires a passion for it. I would also recommend that you utilize all the resources available to you. My project really could not have been completed without the help of my mentors and community partners, who could not have been more supportive and helpful. Lastly, have fun with it. Get creative and produce something that you are proud of. Just because you want something to be professional does not mean it has to be boring.

Coding it Forward: Civic Digital Fellowship and Civic Innovation Corps

Civic Digital Fellowship and Civic Innovation Corps

Founded in 2017, Coding it Forward is a nonprofit for early-career technologists creating new pathways into public interest technology. Through its paid, summer fellowship programs, the Civic Digital Fellowship and Civic Innovation Corps, Coding it Forward empowers early-career technologists to innovate at the intersections of technology and public service in federal, state, and local government. 

Fellows spend the summer working in software engineering, data, design, or product management to deliver policy, improve systems, and strengthen products on behalf of the American people.

  • The Civic Digital Fellowship places Fellows in federal government agencies.
  • The Civic Innovation Corps places Fellows in state, local, and county government offices.
  • Both programs are 10 weeks long, starting in mid-June.

Hear firsthand from former Fellows how they benefited from the work

Christina Andrade | Civic Innovation Corps,
Arapahoe County - Department of Information Technology (Digital Services Team)

San José State University, Master of Science in Human Factors and Ergonomics, Class ’23

As a user research fellow, I supported the digital services team of Arapahoe County in Colorado. My role was twofold: to enable and advance the department’s future user research initiatives and to examine current customer engagement with the county’s Motor Vehicles department. As part of my future-looking work, I helped to develop a reusable user research framework and laid the groundwork for a volunteer recruitment database to ease recruitment challenges. To examine customer engagement and experiences with the Motor Vehicles department, we conducted user interviews and on-site observations. We combined those findings with insights from survey responses and Google Analytics to answer our core research questions and develop a set of user personas to guide future research and design. 

First and foremost, my fellowship was my first time serving as an expert in my field on real-world challenges. It gave me the opportunity to both grow and apply the skills and knowledge I have learned in my graduate program at San Jose State University. The fellowship’s mentorship program was also instrumental to my own personal growth and in navigating the culture and nuances unique to government spaces. Lastly, having access to a community of like-minded peers and alumni of the fellowship interested in PIT both provided and continues to provide a powerful network of knowledge- and perspective-sharing. At the end of the fellowship, getting to see the variety of different projects that my peers were working on in government agencies around the country was great exposure to the variety of ongoing PIT projects out there and a powerful reminder of the impact that technologists’ skills can have in these spaces. 

The Civic Innovation Corps gave me my first work experience tackling impactful real-life challenges in the PIT space, which is essential. As many students are painfully aware, we are often caught in a “chicken and egg” dilemma of needing to build our experience but also needing experience to access the opportunities to build said experience. Coding it Forward’s fellowship provided me with my first work experience in user research that I can leverage to gain access to future roles in PIT. Through my work this past summer, I also gained an understanding of the different constraints and limitations present in government and PIT problem spaces and was able to practice navigating those challenges through strategic relationships and resourceful planning. 

Beyond my fellowship placement and working in PIT at a county level, being a Fellow gave me exposure to a variety of perspectives and influential voices within the civic tech and PIT spheres. Through speaker events, books, and other professional development resources Coding it Forward provided, I was able to learn more about the grander landscape and trajectory of the PIT movement. 

Most importantly, resources like the network of alumni and the relationship I built with my mentor are enduring and will continue to be sources of support, knowledge-sharing, and inspiration for years to come.

If you are eligible, take advantage of amazing programs like Coding it Forward and the U.S. Digital Corps, which offer an entry point to working in public interest technology in government and provide invaluable support like mentorship, career development resources, and powerful communities/networks. Volunteer projects are also a great way to get experience with and exposure to PIT projects. Organizations like the U.S. Digital Response or Code for America Brigades offer opportunities to contribute your skills and knowledge on impactful projects, sometimes within your own community. 


Lastly, know that a career in public interest technology can be chapters of a larger story. I feel that sometimes students who want to make a positive impact in their society and communities may feel it is a bit daunting to choose between public interest technology and private industry, but in reality, we do not have to dedicate our entire working lives to one or the other. There is room for and value in doing both. Though there may be cultural differences between the two, the skills and lessons learned can make for a beneficial and powerful cross-pollination of experience, knowledge, and emerging ideas/techniques.


Jaxon Silva | Civic Digital Fellowship
Department of Health and Human Services

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Bachelor of Science, Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies, Design Studies Concentration, Class ’22

I had the immense pleasure to work on two projects as a human-centered design fellow with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) InnovationX office, alongside a ton of amazing Fellows from various other fellowships. One of these projects was a dashboard that collated the various opportunity areas, frameworks, and work being done on infection-associated chronic illnesses into a neat framework. The idea was to help federal workers get a sense of what work they can do in this space and inspire them to make progress through a rating scale. I also helped develop a crowdsourcing design challenge aimed at grades K-12 students to give them the opportunity to come up with solutions or ideas to address the needs of fellow students with kidney disease or family members who had kidney disease. I also worked with the HHS Office of the Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer to conduct a study of how AI was utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was immensely cool to work on projects that were aimed to directly make the lives of people better. And to be able to do that with some of the most talented and amazing people–both staff and Fellows– I’ve ever met. I could get up every morning and smile, knowing that the work I was doing would lead to someone else out there having a better quality of life. That’s a slam dunk in my eyes.

Cal Poly has a small but mighty army of faculty, staff, and students who are working to bring a technical education that is much more grounded in social impact (leading to things like public interest technology), but it is still a burgeoning movement. However, as someone whose major lies at the intersection of engineering and liberal arts, I have been lucky to be part of various projects that have worked to help people, whether that has been efforts to redesign engineering curriculum to include social impact, conducting special effects for a music performance that was raising money for displaced and homeless people, or investigating the “ethical tech” industry. In any case, I do believe that the spirit of utilizing technology to help others is alive and well at Cal Poly, just very decentralized. Outside of that, my experiences this summer as a Civic Digital Fellow were the first time I interacted with other PIT students from other institutions that are part of the PIT-UN.

While I had vaguely known about public interest technology work, I think this fellowship gave me the opportunity to operate in a space where I could directly do PIT work with guidance from both Coding it Forward staff and my supervisors at HHS. Also, the Civic Digital Fellowship has made me aware of and brought me into the network of firms and groups that do PIT work to continue doing this work and continue working to help others, something that I am immensely interested in continuing to do.

I will say that I think fellowships like the Civic Digital Fellowship are a great way to test the waters and learn a lot about how you feel about a career in PIT. Beyond that, I think the best career advice I’ve received is to ask myself, “What is the one thing that interests me most right now?” And pursue that interest wherever it may take me. It’s advice that led me to the Civic Digital Fellowship and a pathway that has led me to discover topics like CoDesign and Design Justice.

Shanna Kurbonshoeva | Civic Innovation Corps
Des Moines - City Manager's Office

CUNY – Baruch College, Master of Public Administration, Class ’22

Last summer, as a Civic Innovations Corps Fellow, I worked in the city manager’s office in Des Moines. In my role as a data analyst and product manager, I worked on a performance measurement initiative project. Measures like these are important for institutions to be able to make the best use of their resources. By the end of the fellowship program, together with another Fellow from Coding it Forward, we were able to organize data on performance measurement for 12 city departments, visualize the measures for some departments, and design webpages for city departments’ performance measures.

As a CIF Fellow, you get the opportunity to work for a government agency. For me, this became an exceptionally valuable experience. It can also be for future fellows who wish to pursue a career in public interest technologies. I was able to attend events about civic tech and meet leaders in the industry. The opportunity to apply what I’ve learned and hone my craft in real-time situations has been beneficial to my professional and academic development. Exposure to the industry by working directly with civic institutions is extremely valuable. Overall, being a Fellow is a treasured experience that I would not have been able to find anywhere else.

The fellowship allowed me to gain a deeper sense of where and how technology is currently being used in government agencies. I was also able to experience firsthand what challenges government agencies face while trying to implement tech solutions to civic issues. This was a very valuable experience in preparing me to pursue a career in civic tech.

Constantly developing your tech skills would be a big advantage in your career path to public interest technology. In my own academic experience in pursuing a master of public administration at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs [at Baruch College in the City University of New York], I emphasized selecting courses that would expand my technical skills. For example, I strategically chose classes such as GIS and Python for analytics, big data technologies, and others that would greatly help me to improve my technical skills. In addition to expanding your technical skills, building a strong network of people with the same passion and interest in civic tech is crucial. Another big aspect is to find a social issue that you are passionate about and think about how technology could help you to solve or improve it. I believe finding a social issue you deeply care about could motivate you to continue pursuing a career in public interest technology despite all the challenges you might face.


Soma Badri | Civic Innovation Corps
State of New Jersey - Office of Innovation

Northeastern University Master’s, Computer Science, Class ’23

As part of the 2022 Civic Innovation Corps, I was a full stack software engineering fellow at the New Jersey Office of Innovation, where I was a member of the Business First Stop team. I worked on the Navigator, a one-stop application that allows entrepreneurs to create and maintain a business in New Jersey. I developed several features for the application while working within a scrum-based team. As a member of the team, I actively participated in scrum meetings such as story writing, design reviews, story grooming, and sprint retro meetings. The most exciting aspect of my time at the office was that my work directly provided value to the citizens of New Jersey.

Being a Fellow helped me gain confidence in my existing skill set and knowledge. It was an excellent opportunity to showcase what I learned within the classroom and in my previous experiences. Additionally, I was able to learn skills that aren’t taught in the classroom and bridge the gap between theory and practice.

My fellowship resulted in the most concrete path that can be provided. I was given the offer to continue full time as a software engineer for the New Jersey Office of Innovation. Additionally, during the summer, I had one-on-ones with several members of the office, where I learned about the various roles within civic tech and the impact their work has on the public. This led to a deeper insight into the world of civic tech and the role it plays in our society.

In my opinion, maintaining an open mind is extremely important while attempting to embark on a PIT career. There is a wide spectrum of jobs available within PIT. I believe it is vital to research the available options and find your own area of interest as you begin your career. Additionally, programs such as Coding it Forward are a great environment in which one can learn whether a career is PIT is for them or not.

In Pursuit of Public Interest Careers

In Pursuit of Public Interest Careers

Theme: Public and Critical Infrastructure

Format: Careers

The guide details fellowships and organizations, and more must-know information about social impact careers.

As a 2019 grantee, Stanford University was funded to shape and model public interest technology (PIT) career resources as part of Stanford University’s Haas Center for Public ServiceThe Haas Center for Public Service is a robust resource for helping students learn about and transition into a public service career.

Students interested in public service careers can benefit from the handy two-pager on local government careers to a step-by-step guide to finding public service career opportunities or the comprehensive Pursuing a Career with Impact that is organized by service theme. 

PIT Finding and Navigating Careers Webinar

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