Course Description

On the eve before its launch in 2013,, the health care insurance exchange website at the center of the Affordable Care Act, crashed and continued to crash over the following months. It was hampered by technical glitches, inflated costs, inefficiencies, user frustration, and an inadequate capacity to meet demand. Intended to be the Obama Administration’s crowning achievement and a demonstration of the potential modern technologies held for improving public services, confirmed public attitudes about government inefficiencies and its inability to solve large-scale social challenges.

This course will take up the question: What does technology designed, deployed, and sustained in the public interest look like? We will explore a wide range of technological situations from design practices to public policy, research, data privacy, social justice, platform development, data visualization, and artificial intelligence and consider what it means to develop technological innovations that center the communities they are designed to serve. The term Public Interest Technology (PIT) is most notably associated with New America’s financial investments in the field; therefore, we will consider the tensions between public and private funding, and their influence in developing technologies for the common good.

We will assemble a theoretical and historical framework in which to situate PIT, explore the legal, ethical, and practical challenges to public data privacy, management, and sustainability, and identify existing PIT projects with an eye toward their design, implementation, and funding. Readings will include selections from such works as Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter (2019) by Charlton McIlwain, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (2020) by Sasha Costanza-Chock, Automating Inequality: How High Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor (2018) by Virginia Eubanks, Artificial Unintelligence (2016) and More than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech (2023) by Meredith Broussard, Race After Technology (2019) by Ruha Benjamin, and Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition (2021) by Wendy Hui Kong Chun. These readings will be supplemented with articles, white papers, and project reports on the economics and politics of public infrastructures and funding (e.g. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015) by Wendy Brown, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) by Garrett Hardin, and The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom by Erik Nordman). By the end of the course, students will be familiar with the ethical, political, bureaucratic, public policy, social justice, economic, and design challenges faced by PIT technologists, as well as career and project opportunities in the field.