As technology—especially computer, information, and Internet technology—permeates all aspects of our society, people who understand that technology need to be part of public-policy discussions. We need technologists who work in the public interest. We need public-interest technologists.
Defining this term is difficult. One Ford Foundation blog post described public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics in this field wrote that “public-interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest/generate public benefits/promote the public good.”
I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus, either by working on tech policy, working on a tech project with a public benefit, or working as a more traditional technologist for an organization with a public-interest focus. Public-interest technology isn’t one thing; it’s many things. And not everyone likes the term. Maybe it’s not the most accurate term for what different people do, but it’s the best umbrella term that covers everyone.
Public-interest technologists are a diverse and interdisciplinary group of people. Their backgrounds are in technology, policy, or law. (This is important, you do not need a computer-science degree to be a public-interest technologist.) They work inside governments, at nongovernmental agencies, for independent research institutions, within for-profit corporations, and for the press. Some of them do this full time as a career. Others take short leaves of absence from their careers to pursue public-interest technology. Still others do this in their spare time, as an avocation.
This is a resources page for public-interest technologists with a public policy focus. As such, it excludes the many tech organizations that are building public-interest tools. (Yes, they’re important, but they’re not my focus here.) The lists on this page are not exhaustive, and I am not endorsing or recommending any particular program. This is meant to be a curated sample of the richness of this space, one which I intend to further develop over time. Please e-mail me with corrections, additions, and suggestions — especially if you are from one of the organizations I list and I mischaracterize you in some important way.
It certainly seems that way on the surface.
Here’s a crazy story from the UK. Basically, someone sees a man and a little girl leaving a shopping center. Instead of thinking “it must be a father and daughter, which happens millions of times a day and is perfectly normal,” he thinks “this is obviously a case of child abduction and I must alert the authorities immediately.” And the police, instead of thinking “why in the world would this be a kidnapping and not a normal parental activity,” thinks “oh my god, we must all panic immediately.” And they do, scrambling helicopters, searching cars leaving the shopping center, and going door-to-door looking for clues. Seven hours later, the police eventually came to realize that she was safe asleep in bed.