Public Interest Technology University Network Projects
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mercy Oladipo (’23)
Birth By Us: How My Interests Have Driven My PIT Work Time and Again
When I first learned how to code, much of my work was more Mercy interest technology than public interest technology (PIT): websites centering on fashion and style or BuzzFeed-style quizzes predicting which YouTuber was most like you. But as I started to refine my skills and learn more about computer science, I itched to apply what I was learning to real-world problems. In that way, my first experiences with PIT happened before I was even aware of the term, much less of the community of researchers and advocates surrounding it.
For example, growing up I was really interested in dermatology due to my own experiences with severe eczema. With this passion as fuel, I created an app that tells the user what sunscreen to use and when to reapply based on personal characteristics (skin tone, skin history, gender, etc.) and was able to present it at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Looking back with what I know now (having taken one course on data structures and algorithms), that app needs a lot of improvements. But, despite that, it was my first step into a direction where for some reason, programming, technology, and even innovation never felt good enough without social impact as the driver. The direction I now know as PIT.
Birth By Us Platform
Birth By Us, my current project, is nestled squarely in that niche and is actually the conglomeration of many things, but namely the fact that Black women and birthing individuals are dying in pregnancy at three times the rates of their peers and are suffering unnecessary complications that are often caught too late in the birthing journey. With outcomes and experiences like these, I felt an intense pull to get involved if not for anything but that I want to be a Black mother one day and I want to be a part of making that experience better for those like me.
Birth By Us is a web-based platform, created with support from Tufts University’s M.O.T.H.E.R. Lab and MIT’s Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. The platform publishes crowdsourced reviews and data metrics — by and for Black people searching for safe birthing options — along with objective standards of care on birthing and fertility services, helping Black parents make the most informed choice of where to birth.
Now let’s not be naive. One website, one tool cannot solve centuries-old systemwide inequities; we know that. But the key thing is that Birth By Us isn’t operating alone. There are so many organizations, like the National Birth Equity Collaborative, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and SisterSong, that have been doing this work for years. It’s by learning from and collaborating with those who’ve devoted their lives to this issue that we all can improve and help empower people through their pregnancies. And so, if Birth By Us can return even one piece of that power and return it to its rightful owner, then this tool is doing exactly what it needs to.
Tips for Students Interested in Getting Started in PIT
1. Find the most PIT-like classes at your school and work toward those.
Find the most PIT-like classes at your school and work toward those. For example, at MIT, we have courses like Software Studio where students work in teams to develop full stack websites around issues of social value.
2. Remember that it’s never too early.
Remember that it’s never too early. Last summer, I was a teaching assistant for Girls Who Code’s Summer Immersion Program, and there the students’ final projects were to build “activist tool kits,” reactive websites about various issues that allowed other students to get involved.
3. Connect with others!
Connect with others! Too often, we surround ourselves with others who don’t view technology in the same way, which can leave you feeling lost or unsure of your values. But in the opposite environments, magic happens. Take it from me: My idea for Birth By Us was born while I was participating in the Womxn Ignite program, a tech incubator for undergraduate women interested in public interest technology, and hit the ground running after that.