UC Berkeley awarded $188,000 to grow projects at ‘intersection of public service and technology’

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UC Berkeley received $188,000 in grant money Monday from the Public Interest Technology University Network, or PIT-UN, a partnership between 21 different universities intended to grow the field of public interest technology.

The partnership was announced in March and intends to advance public interest technology, or PIT, through the creation of a “robust pipeline” for students across disciplines. PIT-UN is a partnership between New America, the Ford Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. It aims to facilitate collaboration between technologists and public policy leaders in “serving society,” Jennifer Mangold, principal investigator and director of the Fung Fellowship, said in a Fung Fellowship press release.

“I think bringing together people from a variety of disciplines … (is) going to yield more promising projects and those that will have greater impact than those that came from any single discipline or sector,” said Camille Crittenden, executive director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute.

According to Crittenden, PIT is a new field that aligns both technology and public interest law. She said the partnership intends to hold workshops for individuals to share developments on their campuses. They also hope to create certificate programs, degrees and ideas for public service projects at the “intersection of public service and technology.”

According to a UC Berkeley School of Information press release, UC Berkeley has been developing the field of PIT for over two decades, although the partnership was created recently. Development toward PIT includes projects spearheaded by a variety of research centers, according to the press release.

The Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group, or AFOG, for example, incorporates members across the School of Information, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and the UC Berkeley School of Law, among others, to tackle issues of “fairness, transparency, interpretability, and accountability” in algorithms, according to the group’s website. The group strives to identify how data and algorithmic classification affect patterns of social mobility in society.

AFOG aims to understand technologists’ role in developing mass media and social media that hold the power to affect “the stability of our democracy,” according to its website.

Crittenden agreed that the partnership will “spark new ideas,” and she anticipates that campus groups will consider new proposals in the next year.  The partnership is a several-year initiative to encourage the harvesting of new ideas coming from the field, according to Crittenden.

According to Mangold, there are already some researchers and investigators doing work in this area of PIT. It is a matter of “building these threads and these commonalities” across technical and nontechnical fields to define this interdisciplinary landscape, Mangold said.

“It’s (going to) help bring all of these efforts and initiatives to more cohesion,” Mangold said. “The interdisciplinary is what’s needed, agnostic of discipline, agnostic of technology.”

Sasha Langholz is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UC Berkeley received all of a $3 million grant. In fact, the grant was dispersed between multiple grantees, and UC Berkeley received $188,000 in grant money.