Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

31 Oct 2016, 11:47 a.m.

How Do We Encourage Technologists in the Public Interest?

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2016 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

As I mentioned when the Recompiler interviewed me, my inspirations and role models in technology are technologists who serve the public interest. The person who introduced me to free and open source software, Seth Schoen, is a kind teacher and a rigorous thinker who deploys his software engineering expertise at the intersection of technology and activism. I was lucky enough to meet the right people early in my career so I see public interest technology as a desirable and viable career path AND something you can integrate into a career that doesn't focus on nonprofit/government work -- but not enough people know about it, and not enough institutions encourage it.

How do we help encourage and employ more Seths, more Bruce Schneiers, more Eleanor Saittas, more Kelsey Gilmore-Innises? If you were to say "Sumana, that's a pretty infosecurity-centric list there, what about people who are more about analytics to enable policy work, or the web developers at 18F, or --" then I would agree with you! This is a broad and deep field, and thus a broad and deep question.

Again and again, we were told that public interest organizations and government will not succeed if they do not quickly figure out how to better harness the wave of innovation sweeping the world, and that one key element of that challenge will be to implement more effective strategies for developing and integrating technologists into relevant organizations and projects.
That is from A Pivotal Moment: Developing a New Generation of Technologists for the Public Interest, a new report that aims to help philanthropists choose what to fund (and how) to make this change happen. This is not just a bunch of vague "let's grow the pipeline" stuff. The authors interviewed 60 experts, laid out 26 specific things we can do (many of which are already in progress), and made a bunch of recommendations. Section III, starting on page 10 (page 16 of the PDF), summarizes the interventions in five categories: interest cultivation, skill-building, recruitment and training, skill deployment, and growth and retention.

If you can influence decisions on grants or donations, or if you just want a framework for thinking about this problem and its solutions (and where your existing work sits in the ecology), check out the report.


Rachel Chalmers
31 Oct 2016, 13:12 p.m.

As you know, Sumana, this is a keen interest of mine ;) To the folks you mentioned I would add Jim Fruchterman and Freada Kapor Klein.

Freada has made multiple investments in companies working to make HR more equitable and inclusive, of which my current employer, Unitive, is one. We distill the best research in behavioral economics into decision support for hiring. It feels like a big, scary, important problem to solve.