Better tech means a better world
The first-of-its-kind NYU Public Interest Technology (PIT) Convention and Career Fair showed the way
The success of NYU’s first Public Interest Technology (PIT) Convention and Career Fair is evident in the numbers. Organized by NYU Tandon Adjunct Professor Mona Sloane, who is also a senior research scientist at the school’s Center for Responsible AI, the two-day event drew 1,000 registrants for six collaborative workshops and 12 high-level dialogues and exponentially more who tuned in to seven streaming keynote presentations. Approximately 300 volunteers signed up for the hackathon, with 50 universities represented; around 40 employers set up at the virtual career fair, and 120 carefully curated jobs could be found on the job board.
The event was aimed at professionals, researchers, and students interested in responsible and accountable technology that serves the public interest, and the tone was set right from the opening keynote presentation, “Building Equity in PIT,” by Deputy Director of Science and Society in White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Alondra Nelson and NYU Vice Provost Charlton McIlwain.
While Nelson praised NYU for making equity a centerpiece of tech education, she cautioned that this was not just the work of elite universities but of everyone. Technology can be wonderful, she asserted, but it harbors dangers, particularly for marginalized communities who are affected when biased algorithmic decision-making systems are used to make housing or criminal justice decisions or when the digital divide prevents them from accessing information and services. “Equity must be considered right from the start,” she asserted, “so it’s important to consider who’s in the room when these tools and technology are being developed.”
Other keynote presentations focused on the role of philanthropy in building a PIT ecosystem; careers in PIT (which featured NYU Tandon student Lauryn Langster); approaches to PIT in government, design, and academia; the part big data can play; how journalists can safeguard the public interest by holding developers accountable; and why venture capitalists should be recognizing unconventional entrepreneurs and a greater variety of startups. (If the biggest problem you have is getting your laundry delivered on time, you might tend to fund ventures solving only that type of problem, one panelist explained.) For a list of the many high-profile keynote speakers, visit www.abettertech.net/#speakers.
Workshops allowed participants to help create an educational comic book under the guidance of Institute Associate Professor Julia Stoyanovich and artist Falaah Arif Khan, the creators of the Data, Responsibly comic series; discover the sometimes insidious role tech plays in the hiring processes at increasing numbers of companies; and much more. To see a complete list of workshops and dialogues — which ranged from unpacking the racial digital divide to predicting the results of an open and decentralized web — visit A Better Tech, and watch streaming content, including dozens of pithy, 10-minute “Ideas for Better Tech” on the Better Tech YouTube channel.
“It was an honor to lead the A BETTER TECH event, work with a very talented and hard-working team to reach thousands of PIT-enthusiasts across all career stages and sectors, and engage such a fantastic group of keynote speakers and presenters,” Sloane said. “The PIT movement is in full swing and I am very excited to see it grow over the coming months and years, here at Tandon, and beyond!”
A student perspective
Shadin Zayyad (NYU Tandon)
What did you learn during the event that was particularly useful or interesting?
I had the pleasure of attending the Demystifying AI Through Comics workshop led by Professor Julia Stoyanovich and Ms. Falaah Ali Khan. It was a pleasure for me, as an artist myself, to get a perspective on how art can be used in the application and education of deeply important concepts. I learned that it is important for new generations to understand, not only the basis of AI, but also the very real and relevant ways in which AI will continually affect ethical issues and societal structures. In a way, it reignited my passion for art as a medium for accessible education.
Was your favorite part?
I thoroughly enjoyed the portion of that workshop in which the participants analyzed some of the artist's illustrations and brainstormed the possible meanings. It was fascinating to see the intersections and the divergences between the audience's interpretations and the artist's design intentions. I think it's a testament to the vast raw potential of art as an educational resource, and it gave me insight into how I factor subjectivity into my own art.
Do you foresee pursuing a career involving ethical tech?
This workshop has definitely made me think further about the possibility of working in ethical tech. I realized how important it is to utilize art in educating audiences that may not have access to the kinds of courses that I am fortunate enough to take, such as the incredibly enriching tech/ethics courses I'm taking with Professor Mona Sloane. Accessibility, another theme reinforced through the workshop, is one that I am particularly in support of, especially for communities that don't have the access to knowledge or funds to understand the crucial effects that AI and tech have on our social narratives.
What else do you think readers might find it interesting to know?
I think that everyone would benefit from finding something that interests them in the realm of ethics and tech, then exploring it further. For a previous project I completed for Professor Sloane's class, I had the opportunity to delve into the intersection between eugenics, photography, and social media filters. This experience helped me understand the ways that social issues are constantly embedded within our everyday technologies; I came to the conclusion that understanding our technologies is analogous to understanding our societal patterns.
Unlike many hackathons, the one organized at the PIT Convention didn’t emphasize competition and prizes: instead, collaboration and problem-solving were prioritized.
Among the ideas presented were:
- The Accessibility Ratings Project, a crowdsourcing platform that allows developers to receive feedback on how accessible their work is to users of varying abilities
- The Banana App, connecting low-income families or seniors to food donations
- The Council Data Project, an effort to make the transcripts of city council meetings more easily available
- EnCiv, devoted to helping people discuss politics online productively by modeling in-person communication
- iSeaTree, an environmental learning game
- Neighborhood.org, a site listing state rankings on environmental issues
- The Shelter App, helping the unhoused find resources
- Proof of Humanity for Digital Services, bridging the gap for those who may be undocumented or homeless
- Smart City Planning, letting small cities use big data to systematically make decisions
- Transpar-NC, making political donations in the swing state of North Carolina more transparent
- VotER, a method of encouraging nonpartisan political engagement at healthcare sites
- The Yellow Box Project, a hardware solution for use in emergency situations like natural disasters and civic unrest
Students and others interested in PIT careers had plenty to consider. Organizations posting jobs included, among many others:
- Alan Turing Institute
- Algorithmic Justice League
- AspenTech Policy Hub
- Center for Humane Technology
- Consumer Reports
- Democracy Fund
- First Nations Technology Council
- Future of Life Institute
- Mozilla Foundation
- New America
- Tech Talent Project
- U.S. General Services Administration
- World Economic Forum