Skip to main content

Public Interest Technology: Closing the Innovation Risk Gap, Part 1

Roland Alston, Appian
August 12, 2021

There’s no question that the benefits of hyperautomation are potentially limitless, with nearly endless ways to optimize efficiency, cost savings and competitive advantage.

But the challenge is how do you mitigate any potential ethical risks and unintended consequences of mainstreaming automation when almost two-thirds (65%) of senior executives can’t explain how specific artificial intelligence (AI) model decisions or predictions are made, and 73% struggle to get executive support for prioritizing AI ethics according to a recent study by global analytics firm FICO.

Closing this risk gap is more urgent than ever as businesses everywhere race to take advantage of AI, automation, and a broad range of other technologies to solve a mix of business problems including everything from managing IT infrastructure, to improving customer experience, to safeguarding against cyber threats, to making medical decisions, to turning remote work into a competitive advantage.

A New Innovation Movement

To get the most out of technology, it’s not enough to “build it and they will come.'' Better, argue a growing movement of public interest technologists, to take a human-centered approach to innovation with business strategies that invest in research, education, and ways to deploy technology that protect and benefit society.

Which gets at something that matters a lot: the urgency of mitigating poorly designed use-cases that undermine consumer trust and amplify calls for technology regulation. 

"Companies that are explicitly incorporating the public interest tech frame are beginning to see real value generated both in terms of their profits, but also in terms of the trust that they're generating with the critical communities that they're working with, showing up for, and engaging with through business relationships," says Michelle Shevin, a leading voice in the public interest technology (PIT) movement and a senior program manager of the PIT Catalyst Fund at the Ford Foundation.

"So, we think public interest tech is really core to a long-term ecosystem of building accountability and trust across constituencies and across customer relationships," says Shevin. “We think it's really core to business growth.”

“For example, as a business leader, you don't want to get 20 steps down the road of designing and deploying facial recognition technology that could soon be regulated out of existence because nobody thought to put guard rails in place, because nobody was consulting with the communities that might be most impacted by the technology."

If that sentiment makes you feel like rolling your eyes, don't. Research shows digital consumers are worrying less about cyber smash and grabs and more about how businesses are using technology and their data. Here’s the math: 

About half of US consumers (47%) say major tech companies should be regulated by the government more than they are now. And just 11% say tech firms should be regulated less according to a recent 2020 Pew Center survey

In other words, people are conflicted about the astonishing evolution of technology, the acceleration of digital transformation, and what it all means for business and society. But here’s the good news. Taking a human-centered approach to innovation can change how people look at technology—if it’s done with intention. 

So, what does that look like? Grab the Cheetos and tune in to this week’s episode of Digital Masters, as PIT thought leader Michelle Shevin gives us an inside look at the PIT movement and how it prioritizes public trust, speeds tech adoption, drives tech equity, and anticipates regulation in the age of hyperautomation.

Our conversation is condensed and edited for clarity.


Hi Michelle and welcome to Digital Masters.


Thanks for inviting me.


It's hard to talk about anything these days without talking about COVID-19. And I think that's especially true when it comes to talking about tech trends. So, let’s start there. Where were you when the pandemic hit?


I was living in New York. But I had a pre-planned trip to visit my parents in Connecticut. I pretty much didn't go back to the city after that. My office closed, at first temporarily and then indefinitely. And so, I've been in Connecticut since March of 2020. 


So, where in Connecticut are you?


I'm in a rural area they call the quiet corner of Connecticut. It's very woodsy and quiet. It's nestled between Providence, Boston, and Hartford. It has been a good place to sort of weather the (COVID) storm per se. 


We Need a new kind of Technologist


The public interest technology (PIT) movement seems to be gaining momentum. You talked about that in a recent Fast Company article you wrote. You basically argued we need more technologists trained to understand the ethical, legal, and political ramifications of the technology they create. Talk about that and also about what you’ve called the public interest law framing of PIT.


Public interest law is a useful  mental model to keep in mind. In the 1950s and 60s there was this great need for legal expertise that also understood the demands of the civil rights movement and at that time funders started to make big investments in legal defense funds, and institutions like the ACLU, and university law clinics, and pro-bono infrastructure for private law firms, for example.

Because public interest law is a thriving field, we often say that it’s hard to imagine now that this important infrastructure for the pursuit of justice needed to be intentionally built, but it did. And in that continued pursuit of justice we see now a big moment to invest in public interest tech. And this is  partially about responding to the escalating damage of the move-fast-and-break-things era that has characterized much of digital transformation thus far. 

So, it's become clear to stakeholders in philanthropy that we need a new framework to make sure technology is developed, deployed, designed, regulated, and used in a way that protects consumer rights and improves people's lives. So, PIT aims to be that new framework. And it's really a growing field that's made up of a different kind of technologist who tends to be more interdisciplinary and intersectional. 


In what way?


They might not be your classic computer scientist or programmer or developer. They could be journalists, they could be artists, they could be advocates and yes, they could also be coders and programmers. And it's this different kind of technologist that really expects and demands, you know, that technologies be created and used responsibly. And so you may have heard of the terms ‘responsible tech’ or ‘ethical tech’ or ‘tech for good’. Well, PIT resonates with all of those frames. It’s kind of a big tent. It's a movement, it's a field and it really is a home for technologists to call out where technology can better deliver services and contribute to solving big problems. 


So, PIT is really different from traditional computer science or data science expertise.


Increasingly we are going to see mainstream computer science and data science recognizing this, but traditionally it has not. Public interest tech centers a recognition  that historically marginalized groups are most often harmed by technology. Data is impacted by structural inequality. Computing is not immune to power dynamics. Public interest technologists are people who have the knowledge and experience to make technology that really advances values like justice and equity in addition to, for example, optimizing for the bottom line of the business, profit margin, cost savings, or efficiency. PIT is an extremely diverse field, as you could imagine. It spans job categories and it's intentionally diverse in terms of people's backgrounds. And because of that, it's a group who better represents public interests in the U.S. and abroad. 


People and Technology—in that Order


So, when you talk about equitable tech, you’re talking about making sure the technologies we develop really don't harm people or make the digital divide even worse than what it already is. But beyond social impact and doing the right thing, what’s the business case for PIT, and why should business leaders care about it? 


So, the private sector is a critical piece of the PIT ecosystem, and also a place where we think there's enormous potential for deepening commitments, expanding our notions of what accountability looks like in the private sector. And of course, a lot of technology development happens through private industry, which makes the private sector this really critical node. Simply put, companies that center public interest values in the way they hire talent, approach technology, and maintain technical systems will create stronger products and services. And when we think about that from the (Ford) Foundation’s perspective, when we think about what infrastructure needs to be built and funded to support this ecosystem, it's infrastructure that specifically is within and across the private sector, the public sector, academia, and civil society. So, we're really looking at promoting progress in this space and in this field.


So, if I’m a business leader who cares about driving innovation with a public interest mindset, what’s the playbook for doing that?


First, it’s essential to understand what PIT is, and how values like equity and transparency and accountability get prioritized in a business framework, right? So, we've seen anecdotally and at scale how transformative adopting a PIT mindset can be for businesses. You can look at companies like Twitter, and you’ll see that over the past year they've been hiring more and more public interest technologists.

We've also seen companies embrace PIT and generate real value not just in terms of profits, but also in terms of the trust they're generating with critical communities they're working with. We see these companies engaging with communities through business relationships. For businesses, this is core to building an ecosystem and winning trust across constituencies and across customer relationships.


But business leaders can be skeptical of terms like public interest technology. It can come across as just another way to say we need more tech regulation.


That’s an important distinction, because regulation is inevitable and important but has a reputation as a hard hammer that can inhibit innovation. But as a field and a set of approaches that work across sectors to center public interest values like equity and transparency and justice in the way we design and apply technology, public interest tech is core to driving your business growth and sustainability. So, we talk about PIT as a way to be anticipatory of forthcoming regulations and standards and important changes in the environment as it relates to regulatory hurdles and compliance.

Michelle Shevin,  Senior Program Manager, Ford Foundation


(Watch this space for the next episode of Public Interest Technology: Closing the Innovation Risk Gap, featuring the Ford Foundation’s Michelle Shevin.)