UC Santa Cruz has been accepted into a new national network of colleges and universities that have made an explicit commitment to developing technology that will advance the public interest.

The Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) is a partnership convened by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation to build the nascent field of public interest technology.

“Tech for social good is needed now more than ever,” said Chris Benner, a professor of sociology and environmental studies, and one of the faculty members who took the lead on the campus’s application. “Technology is driving a lot of our inequality, and a focused, high-level effort to be sure technology is used for social good is a really timely thing.”

UC Santa Cruz is one of 15 institutions that are joining the network this month, bringing to 36 the total since the network launched in 2018. UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley are the only UC campuses represented in the network.

Benner, as director of the Institute for Social Transformation, partnered with Michael Matkin, assistant director of CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, to coordinate UCSC’s application to the network.

“UCSC has a lot of initiatives that fit under this broad umbrella of public-interest technology, but they’re pretty fragmented,” said Benner. Participating in the network, with the enthusiastic support of the chancellor and campus provost/executive vice chancellor, will “break down silos,” bring cohesion, and create opportunities for collaboration, he said. The network also provides some funding opportunities, “but it’s really more about sharing lessons, experience, curriculum, and research, and participating in an annual conference,” he said.

The Institute for Social Transformation, launched in 2018, supports innovative scholarship rooted in social justice and serves as a hub that connects UCSC scholars with partners beyond the university as they seek research-based solutions to pressing problems. The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute is a four-campus initiative focused on building tech-based solutions for society’s most pressing challenges. CITRIS was established in 2001 to shorten the pipeline between university-based laboratory research and the development of cutting-edge applications, platforms, companies, and even industries.

At UCSC, CITRIS is housed in the Baskin School of Engineering. Across the disciplines, however, UCSC is home to numerous initiatives focused on harnessing the power of technology to address social problems, reduce inequality, and promote justice, including the Everett Program, the Science and Justice Research Center, the Genomics Institute, and the new master’s degree program in Serious Games.

In just one example of tech for social good, UCSC researchers have used gaming technology to develop a speech therapy game for children with cleft palate. The game makes post-surgery follow-up care accessible to children around the world, including those in developing countries and those who lack the financial resources to access this essential therapy.

At UCSC and beyond, people have been trying to use technology in service of social change for decades, said Benner, but a national network of colleges and universities will advance the work exponentially and elevate themes of equity and social justice.

“It’s not a new area of interest,” he said. “We have efforts within disciplines to think about ethics and the social implications of technological change, but there are very few good, interdisciplinary communities that are trying to bridge technology and social change by training students and doing better research.”

“There are a lot of people in technology who want to develop the right app to support various needs,” added Benner. “But those efforts need to be integrated into understanding the social dynamics—the politics, race, gender, and class aspects of using technology in those contexts. We’ve seen good intentions gone awry, with social media and Facebook being large-scale examples.”

Facebook, he noted, was introduced and “framed” as being a tool for good, to build ties and connections. “But today all sorts of people use social media connections to manipulate people for their interests,” added Benner. “Without thinking through the social consequences at the early stages, we end up where our democracy is in peril.”

“This network is an opportunity to build out the field of public-interest technology,” said Benner.

The network supports public-interest technology through curriculum development, faculty research opportunities, and experiential learning programs. The goal is to inspire a new era of technological innovation and a new generation of policy leaders. 

As the network’s application states, “Colleges and universities have a fundamental responsibility to educate students to connect their technical education and practice to questions of individual rights, justice, social welfare, and the public good reflected in the university’s public purpose.” The network will connect and support educational institutions so they can define the field of public interest technology within academia and develop a pipeline of students who are eager to pursue careers in the field.

The network provided funding for 27 projects through its “Network Challenge” in 2019; outcomes will be highlighted during its annual meeting in November. New funding proposals will be reviewed through a 2020 Network Challenge.

“We need multidisciplinary teams at universities and colleges to respond to the joint technological and policy needs of the public,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, wrote in a congratulatory email to new members.

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