More tech savvy people are needed for government and nonprofit jobs. Philanthropy can help.
Something remarkable happened earlier this year when millions of people signed up to receive free Covid-19 test kits from the federal government. The process work. The government website was simple to use. Registration took a few seconds. And most people received their test kits within weeks.
Contrast that with the problematic healthcare.gov rollout in 2013 or the torturous phone lines for vaccination appointments a year ago.
What changed? Experts in the emerging public domain–technology of interest had a place at the table from the start. The result: 18 people of two government agencies – the US Digital Service, formed in the wake of the Affordable Care Act website debacle, and the US Postal Service – built an online portal in three weeks that handled 68 million visitors to during its first week only.
The need for technology experts in the field of public service has never been clearer than during the pandemic. American digital responsea nonprofit organization that places volunteer technicians with government agencies and other organizations during crises, has helped state leaders address issues such as find vaccination appointments and identify nursing staff during Covid-19 surges. To achieve this, thousands of tech experts across the country, including senior executives from companies like Dropbox and veterans with deep outdated government systemsgave their time to respond to criticism Needs in their communities.
But useful palliative measures like these are not enough. Philanthropy must harness the momentum of the past two years to dramatically increase the number of public interest technologists – engineers, computer scientists and other technology practitioners who have experience and training in how to use technology to advance the social good fairly and effectively.
Technology experts are needed to develop more responsive, transparent, and reliable technology systems in areas such as health, housing, poverty alleviation, climate, racial and gender justice, and voting access. And they are essential for eliminate discriminatory algorithms and other technological practices that lead to racial profiling in many industries.
Lack of professionals
Despite the growth in the field in recent years, the United States needs a much deeper bench of public interest technologists who are trained to work in government and the nonprofit world. The government in particular faces huge gaps in filling tech positions. In 2021, for example, 31% of all federal IT jobs remained empty.
A variety of factors contributed to the problem. Many government agency leaders lack a technology background and don’t fully appreciate the need for more technology expertise. The lack of cross-disciplinary technological training in areas such as law and public policy has also hindered hiring. And historical government practices that favor outside consultants over the development of in-house expertise limit the career paths of those who might be interested in working in the public service.
Some philanthropy-supported efforts offer potential solutions to these challenges. For example, several major funders, including the Ford Foundation, where I work, supported the creation of the Public Interest Technology University Network, a consortium of 49 universities that trains students from different disciplines in technological skills to serve the public. The MacArthur and Surdna foundations were the first investors in the Social Science Research Council Just Tech Scholarshipwhich supports researchers who focus on identifying and addressing unfair practices in new technologies.
Public interest right
But much more investment is needed in every academic discipline, in civil society, in government and even in business. The role of philanthropy should be seen as similar to its pivot work in expanding the now solid domain of public interest law. From the 1960s, the growth of the field was fueled largely by investments by Ford and others in public interest legal education and research, legal justice groups, and pro bono work.
Supporting the area of public interest technology should follow a similar trajectory. It starts with investing in developing a strong and diverse pool of young people interested in meaningful government careers. the American Digital Corps, for example, offers two-year fellowships to early-career technologists who seek to make a difference in areas such as racial equity, economic opportunity, and pandemic response and recovery. Philanthropic support is needed for complementary efforts such as Tech Talent Projectwhich provides expertise and resources to help the federal government recruit more technology leaders.
Just as philanthropy has helped create a field of advocates committed to expanding and defending basic rights, it must support researchers and scholars who are discovering how technology can exacerbate systemic biases. The National Institute of Standards and Technology recommendations on human-centered design in artificial intelligence, for example, are the result of years of sustained work by technologists to place the public interest at the center of technological innovation.
Leaders in this field include Timnit Gebru, who founded the Distributed AI Research Institute after being fired by Google for raising concerns about workplace discrimination, and Joy Buolamwini, whose own experience with algorithmic discrimination led her to found the Algorithmic Justice League. Increased funding for leaders and prospects like this is essential.
Democracy, healthcare and more
Finally, donors should invest more in efforts to provide public-interest technology expertise in areas beyond the traditional technology arena, including democracy and free speech, justice, climate and health. More recently, technological tools have been used to amplify correct information about the war in Ukraine and eliminate disinformation, such as misleading videos on TikTok and other social media platforms.
Conversely, centering public interest technology early could have prevented abuses such as those by the IRS recently. discarded unreliable and racially biased deployment attempt facial recognitionor the Department of Justice’s reliance on Model algorithm to determine which people incarcerated for federal crimes are eligible for early release.
Philanthropy can help create a field that anticipates the unintended consequences of such technological design choices, protects people from potentially dangerous mistakes, and shapes technological systems directly related to the needs of particular communities. We are at a critical point in the development of the field of technologies of public interest. Philanthropy must come on board.