Hansen and Institute Alumni Receive Grant to Support New Curricula on Technology Design

Award from the Public Interest Technology University Network is part of $3 million “Network Challenge” to grow the field of public interest technology.

Three Columbia professors working at the intersection of human-computer interaction (HCI) have received a grant from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PITUN) to support creation of new curricula on designing computational technology that better serves society.

Public interest technology is a broadly defined and emerging area of study that combines digital innovation and public policy.

Columbia received one of 27 grants awarded as part of PITUN’s inaugural “Network Challenge,” which aims to support the development of new public interest technology initiatives and institutions in academia, and foster collaboration among the network’s partner institutions.

Traditional approaches to software design can result in computational products that distort and undermine the long-term health of society, political life, and the environment. Combining expertise from journalism, architecture, and computer science, the Columbia University team will create new processes for building technologies in partnership with local civic groups, ensuring that public interests are prioritized. The group will also design a related set of curricula, where computer science students can learn methods for engaging and researching social and physical spaces while students from journalism and architecture will gain the technical skills to build human-centered computational systems.

“Computation has been transforming the practice of journalism for some time now — from creating innovative news products, to scaling reporters’ investigations as they examine the algorithms and data that control how our society functions,” said Prof. Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. “Everything that we do at the Brown Institute—where we’re constantly thinking about the intersection of tech, media and people—is in the public interest and this grant will help advance that mission.”

Everything that we do at the Brown Institute—where we’re constantly thinking about the intersection of tech, media and people—is in the public interest and this grant will help advance that mission. – Mark Hansen, Director, Brown Institute

“HCI is currently optimized for short-term metrics, such as clicks and daily active users,” said Lydia Chilton, an assistant professor of computer science who is part of the project team and a former grantee/fellow at the Brown Institute. “Our students want to create long-term value. They’re looking to produce technologies that respect the histories and cultures of the communities they are addressing with design.”

Chilton is collaborating with Mark Hansen, Columbia’s David and Helen Gurley Brown Professor of Journalism and Innovation and head of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the School of Journalism, as well as Laura Kurgan, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation and director of the Center for Spatial Research and another alumni of the Brown Institute.

Together, the group will run a summer workshop that will serve as a development engine for new processes and curricula. Working with diverse communities in New York City, they will create case studies for building technologies that support long-term community goals in the public interest, with an eye toward ultimately inviting participation from other PITUN universities and creating strategies applicable to diverse areas with unique local challenges.

PITUN, which was convened earlier this year by the Ford Foundation, New America, and the Hewlett Foundation, is a partnership of 21 colleges and universities dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology, as well as growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists and digitally fluent policy leaders. The “Network Challenge” is funded through the generous support of the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Mastercard Impact Fund, Siegel Family Endowment, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and Raikes Foundation.

This announcement was originally published by Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.