Creating technology leaders to serve the public

By

Ashley Richards

Technology is an enabler. Applying it in the public interest means there is a use value for the common good. Creating an open and iterative feedback loop between stakeholders leads to building a better future together, and for everyone. A new master’s degree program at Arizona State University will explore this further by training leaders who will imagine, design and use technology for social good.

The School for the Future of Innovation in Society is launching the Master of Science in public interest technology this August. The online, cross-disciplinary program will help students develop the knowledge and skills that will allow them to understand the motivations for and challenges of public interest technology, assess new and emerging technologies for social impact, engage with users and deploy technologies responsibly.

“Public interest technology is a movement spearheaded by a group of philanthropies, like the Ford Foundation, and a network of about three dozen universities, including ASU. They are focused on developing academic programs and pathways for students to understand how science, technology, and innovation can be better developed and deployed for good in the world,” said Dave Guston, foundation professor and the school's founding director. “Now Ford and other funders are attempting a more ambitious effort: finding more ways that more people with tech interests and talents can serve the public interest, and developing intellectual perspectives that help us understand how we can as individuals and societies make better choices about technology.”

ASU is a charter member of the Public Interest Technology University Network, an organization dedicated to furthering the field of public interest technology and inspiring a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy leaders. The underlying ideas of public interest technology are in deep harmony with ASU’s charter and ASU’s identity as a New American University

“These ideas are also central to an intellectual perspective and commitment that many of us in SFIS identified and developed years ago — and persist in doing,” Guston said. “(The school) is dedicated to the idea that 'the future is for everyone.' A crucial way to make a reality of this aspiration is to ensure that technological change is strongly linked to the public interest — that is, to develop public interest technology.”

Students will learn to assess new and emerging technologies that are playing an integral role in society today. They will critically study, analyze and reflect on the successes and failures of existing sociotechnical systems and make recommendations on how to meet anticipated challenges and opportunities of new and emerging technologies.

In both its content and its online format, this program is for people from all over the world,” said Professor Katina Michael, who will direct the program. “It adopts “values by design,” focusing on care and empathy as a catalyst for change. Technologies are supposed to liberate users, not enslave them. We are looking for the next generation of thinkers who will shape a sustainable future and cut across a number of verticals from health, government, telecommunications, transportation, energy, for-profits and nonprofits alike.”

Several of the school's faculty members will share their expertise in public interest technology as part of the program, including Michael, who has spent her career studying the social implications of emerging technologies and their impact on ordinary people. Michael is an elected Board Member of the Australian Privacy Foundation, a senior member of the IEEE and founding editor in chief of the IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society. The program will feature classes this fall taught by Clinical Professor Benedicte Callan, Professor Robert Cook-Deegan, Professor of Practice Elisabeth Graffy, Clinical Associate Professor Mahmud Farooque, Associate Professor Erik Fisher and Professor Erik Johnston.

“Many of our faculty have enjoyed careers that have embodied these ideals of technology-for-social-good,” Guston said. “Either prior to working at a university or in conjunction with their academic work, they have brought their technical expertise to public sector or not-for-profit organizations. They have lived public interest technology and are passionate about teaching it.”

Students in the master’s degree program will explore how new technologies are changing how we interact and work, how to assess the impact of a technology and possible consequences, and how to effectively engage the public in discourse about technology and their interactions. 

“This master’s degree will typify a new generation who are more than engineering and computing brains,” Michael said. “They are multiskilled, multidisciplinary thinkers who shape the future through stakeholder engagement and participation as well as through invention.”

“Between the practical experience of the (school) faculty and the dynamic research programs that fuel their world-class scholarship, there is no better place on the planet to study and train in public interest technology,” Guston said. “And ASU, the nation’s most innovative university for five consecutive years, allows you to pursue this degree online, from wherever in the world you are.”

The master’s degree program will be enrolling students for August classes. Those interested in the program can discover more about the program and core faculty on the program site. Applications are now open.