The Ford Foundation: Leading the Way in Public Interest Technology

Public Interest Technology

Written by Jackie Bilodeau

I am the Communications Director for CGNET, having returned to CGNET in 2018 after a 10-year stint in the 1990's. I enjoy hiking, music, dance, photography, writing and travel. Read more about my work at CGNET here.

February 7, 2019

The Ford Foundation is working with a community of partners to develop a path for people to use their technology skills to change the world for the better.  I’m referring here to the relatively new professional field of Public Interest Technology.

So just what is Public Interest Technology?

Well, it is exactly what it sounds like:  Technology used to serve the public good.  Because while technology opens up so many possibilities in our lives, it can also deepen and expose the inequalities that already exist throughout the world.  The Ford Foundation strives to “harness technology to serve justice and the public interest.”  A noble cause indeed!

Working since 2014 with several partners – including Mozilla Foundation, Media Democracy Fund and New America –  the Ford Foundation has tapped existing technology experts to bring their skills to help advocate and  guide policy decisions for organizations Ford supports around the world.   This prepares these organizations to “ward off threats, seize opportunities, and take full advantage of technology’s transformative potential.”

Keeping up with the Jones’s

When it comes to tech, philanthropic organizations can’t afford to lag behind their for-profit counterparts.   If funders don’t connect their grantees with the skills they need to adapt to the technology revolution, they simply won’t be equipped to have the greatest impact.

To have this real impact, organizations need to be savvy about how they use technology. With the constant changes and development of new tech tools, this can be a challenging mission.  But failing to take technology seriously can devastate organizations, leaving data and security vulnerable—and leaving powerful opportunities for impact on the table.

The Ford Foundation gets it.  They realize the importance of using technology to its fullest advantage.  For that reason, they have they incorporated public interest technology across all of their program teams. They have also assigned a full-time technologist to work with each grant making team to help them think about how to use tech to their greatest advantage in achieving their mission.  They note that a number of fellow philanthropies, including the Knight Foundation and Open Society Foundations, are doing something similar.

The Internet and Public Policy

Ford points out that far more is needed by way of government policy and initiative in the United States.   This is well-explained in a short video on both the Ford Foundation website and YouTube (watch here) featuring Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law Professor, author and Internet activist, who counts herself among this growing community of Public Interest Technologists.  Crawford points to the digital divide between the haves and have-nots within the US. This is thanks in large part to the regional monopolies held by 5 private telecommunications companies.   Their overwhelming control, without government intervention to advocate for the “greater good”, results in expensive — yet second rate — service.

She notes how the US also lags behind much of the world (countries like Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway) who already have 100% fiber optic coverage that is government-regulated and low-cost.  Currently there is no industrial policy in place in the US for an upgrade to nationwide fiber optic coverage.  And without government involvement, the private sector has no incentive to provide all Americans with “persistent, cheap, ubiquitous fiber optic internet access”.  This leaves tens of millions of people across the US either completely without, or with only very low-quality, internet access.  Again, that digital divide.

Help Wanted: Public Interest Technologists

The Ford Foundation recognizes this great need for having “people at the table”, as Susan Crawford puts it, who understand government and the regulatory ideal, as well as technology.   So too, those who simply want to apply their expertise in technology to advance social justice in other ways.  These are the Public Interest Technologists of the present and hopefully even moreso, of the future.   As noted on their website, a recent survey revealed that more than 90 percent of Millennials said they want to use their skills for good. And more than half of those report that they would take a pay cut for work that “aligns with their values”.  Millennials may get a lot of “heat” from the generations that preceded them, but for this ideal they should certainly be applauded!

Ford has awarded fellowships since 2015 in this area so that tech experts can work with organizations advancing social justice.  They are also pushing for universities to include PIT coursework in their curriculum.   The future of this new field is looking strong, with Ford helping to lead the way.

To learn more about The Ford Foundation’s work in this area, click here.   You can also follow and join in on the discussion on Twitter using #PublicInterestTech.

Written by Jackie Bilodeau

I am the Communications Director for CGNET, having returned to CGNET in 2018 after a 10-year stint in the 1990's. I enjoy hiking, music, dance, photography, writing and travel. Read more about my work at CGNET here.

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