Five Years of Assembly: Interdisciplinary fellowship offers paths forward in public interest technology
By Zenzele Best
Between 2017 and 2021, the Assembly Program at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKC) at Harvard University brought together almost 150 professionals, experts, and students to better understand and develop solutions to some of the most intractable issues in technology policy. Led by Professor Jonathan Zittrain and supported by faculty, staff, and experts from across the University and the Center, the program explored topics in digital security, artificial intelligence (AI), and disinformation; produced a variety of prototypes and projects; and fostered a community that spanned across sectors and disciplines.
“Being academic isn’t, at its core, about credentials or paper-writing for its own sake,” said Zittrain. “It’s about approaching problems with humility, energy, and an open mind, attacking those problems rigorously, and reviewing whether one is even asking the right questions. Assembly was begun on the theory that people outside academia, from across disciplines and sectors, would be eager to take on problems that way, and with the overall public interest in mind, rather than the interests of one player in a larger ecosystem. We found an extraordinary number of people willing to engage in that spirit.”
Over five years, Assembly grew from a pilot project that brought together professionals from across sectors to a multi-pronged, interdisciplinary fellowship program that developed innovative approaches and cross-sectoral collaborations focused on the public interest. In 2019, Assembly expanded to include two additional tracks, the Forum and Student Fellowship, which convened senior leaders and Harvard students, respectively, to discuss the spread of disinformation on online platforms. In 2021 — the program’s fifth and final year — the Assembly Fellowship invited ongoing alumni project teams to return (virtually) to BKC to support their work and celebrate their continued success.
“Our initial goal with Assembly was to combine the real-world expertise of people in industry with the socially-motivated nature of academia,” said Jordi Weinstock, one of the founders of the Assembly Program. “From day one of the pilot year, we had no idea whether any of the projects would develop beyond a nascent stage, or even if that was a necessity. Instead, we worked to create a lasting community within the cohort, one that would continue to bring positive change for the world long after their program ended. Through the years, both the thematic focus and the people involved would change, but consistent throughout has been the strength of the Assembly community. To me, it is both a bonus and a testament to our Assemblers and staff that many projects did, in fact, flourish.”
Over twenty prototypes explore solutions to complex tech policy questions
How can we build AI systems to serve the public interest and not perpetuate or exacerbate existing inequalities? How can we improve security vulnerabilities among “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices? Who should be held accountable for the spread of disinformation on social media platforms? How do we govern cyberspace across international borders?
Five years of Assembly projects have sought to make progress on complex, whole-of-society questions like these. Created as a model to help solve some of society’s most pressing issues around technologies, the program brought together a community of professionals from around the world to leverage their expertise across disciplines and actively collaborate on provocations and prototypes in the public interest.
Incoming fellowship cohorts convened at Harvard to meet each other, identify problem spaces and form project teams, and participate in programming in-residence before working asynchronously on their projects for the remainder of the four-month development period. Each cohort was supported by an expert Advisory Board of faculty and practitioners with expertise across the range of topics fellows explored. Between 2017 and 2020, four Assembly Fellowship cohorts developed twenty-one projects that aim to offer paths forward on complex challenges in the digital public sphere. As Hilary Ross, Assembly’s program manager, put it, “Assembly created a space for people from across disciplines to come together around complex technology and policy problems, problems that at times feel intractable and really require effort from across all sectors. Through programming and projects, fellows got to both better understand those problems from varied perspectives, and collectively find paths forward and demonstrate possibilities.”
Assembly’s pilot year in 2017 focused on the challenge of digital security and sought to answer a central question: how do we move beyond a world where virtually every computing device and network is insecure? Over four months, the sixteen professionals that comprised the cohort explored the complex interaction between Internet governance organizations and sovereign states, the tension between the ease of disseminating information online and the interest of copyright holders, privacy advocates, and other stakeholders, and the roles of intermediaries and platforms in shaping what people can and cannot do online. The first year of Assembly produced five projects aimed at addressing these challenges, including: Clean Insights, a privacy-oriented analytics tool and Information Fiduciaries and Data Transparency, a prototype of a visualization tool that would enable companies to better document their collection and use of consumer data.
“[Assembly] provided an opportunity for participants to pop out of their usual bubbles of collaborators, to connect with committed thinkers, scholars, experts, advocates and hackers from a diverse set of contexts and experiences. Whether participating on a project or reviewing the teams’ work as [an advisor], I benefited deeply from the exposure to smart people, working collectively, to find novel approaches to difficult challenges.” — Nathan Freitas, 2017 and 2021 Assembly Fellow, 2020 Assembly Advisor
The 2018 and 2019 Assembly cohorts focused on the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence. AI technology has become increasingly sophisticated over the past decade, driving innovations in industries from healthcare to travel to manufacturing and becoming a feature in many homes, smartphones, and vehicles. However, as AI becomes even more ubiquitous, these advances have raised new questions: how do we prevent, detect, and mitigate bias in AI systems? What factors should municipal governments consider before deciding whether to implement AI technology in a city space? What are the risks of pursuing surveillance-related AI work, and how do we mitigate them? Between 2018 and 2019, the Assembly Fellowship developed ten frameworks, tools, and other projects aimed at addressing these challenges, including AI Blindspot, a framework for identifying and mitigating bias in AI systems and the Data Nutrition Project, a tool that improves the accuracy and fairness of algorithms by helping practitioners better assess datasets.
“The [Assembly Fellowship]…gave me an opportunity to experiment: I wore many hats, performed many roles, and ultimately learned more about myself and what I am good at and what I want to do. In a world that pushes us to excel rather than to explore, I really appreciated the space to try things I never thought I’d do — from writing a TV pilot to building interactive data visualizations to reading hundreds of military RFPs — and being given the support to try.” — B Cavello, 2019 Assembly Fellow
In 2019, BKC launched Assembly: Disinformation, which built on the success of both the previous three iterations of the Assembly Fellowship and other programs at the Center. The 2016 United States general election vaulted online disinformation — and its real world ramifications — into the national discourse. In the aftermath of the election, the program sought to make progress on important questions about the United States’ vulnerability for foreign influence operations, the importance of digital literacy, and the role of social media companies in disseminating and amplifying false information. The 2020 cohort developed projects that included Semaphore, a prototype of a tool to help users publicly flag false information on platforms, Into the Voids, a framework for evaluating data voids and the harms they pose, and Disinfodex, a database that indexes publicly available information about disinformation campaigns.
“Outside of academia, it is so rare to be able to explore a complicated societal challenge like disinformation in a completely unconstrained way, and even rarer to actually produce a final project addressing that issue. The long-lasting relationships formed with my teammates and cohort from working on these projects will be something I take away long after the conclusion of Assembly.” — Jenny Fan, 2020 and 2021 Assembly Fellow
In its capstone year in 2021, Assembly invited back five independently continuing alumni projects: AI Blindspot, Clean Insights, the Data Nutrition Project, Disinfodex, and Cloak & Pixel (an evolution of the equalAIs project, developed by Assembly fellows in 2018). The projects address the variety of challenges that the Fellowship explored since 2017: how can companies better balance user privacy and product development? How can we improve the accuracy and fairness of algorithms to help practitioners better assess the viability of datasets? How can we better track and understand influence operations on online platforms? Through this final year of the program, the cohort learned from each other, developed new iterations of their tools, and reached new audiences. Watch the cohort’s final showcase and learn more about the teams’ work here.
Alumni community continues to integrate new approaches to responsible technology
“Assembly was the most interesting collection of people I’ve ever met working on some of the hardest, most important problems on the internet. One unexpected gift I got from the program was a good look at the lots of different ways to change things: there are techniques and career paths I’d never have thought about [on my own]. Through the program, I met so many tremendous folks, and I now see so much more potential.” — John Hess, 2017 and 2020 Assembly Fellow
The Assembly Fellowship, one of three of the program’s core tracks, offered a model in which professionals from across sectors could learn from, challenge, and collaborate with each other. Its impact was twofold: while Assembly produced a number of public interest-focused prototypes, frameworks, and other projects, the Fellowship’s most lasting impact might be the people that comprise its community. The Assembly Fellowship helped to shape the way its alumni think about the intersection of technology and society: since their time in the program, alumni have pursued new career paths, continued to develop their Assembly projects, and used the tools and perspectives they gained as fellows to integrate new approaches to responsible technology.
Below are some stories from former Assembly Fellows about their experience in the program and its impact:
“As a practitioner working at the crux of democracy and technology for over a decade, Assembly was an opportunity to connect with the latest thinking about the challenges and solutions to how technology impacts people’s lives. The program offered a space to both reflect and learn, while at the same time contributing to developing practical tools and approaches that address some of the toughest challenges we face in data-driven societies… Being part of an interdisciplinary team expanded my interest in providing a useful bridge between advancing the intellectual frontiers of how data-centric technologies impact society and translating that knowledge into action by policymakers, technologists, and civil society. This has led to an exciting new path in my career as Managing Director at Data & Society, working with our research and engagement teams to shift the focus onto the people most impacted by technological change.” — Ania Calderon, 2019 and 2021 Assembly Fellow
“I was grateful that Assembly brought together people who might not have otherwise found each other…[my cohort was comprised of] a bunch of brilliant thinkers and doers who may have shared values, but certainly had different approaches and backgrounds that ultimately informed our work together. Working with activists and academics, corporate professionals and service members, and creatives and educators broadened my worldview and helped me realize that I have allies in more places than I would have thought. The fellowship also gave me an opportunity to experiment: I wore many hats, performed many roles, and ultimately learned more about myself and what I am good at and what I want to do. In a world that pushes us to excel rather than to explore, I really appreciated the space to try things I never thought I’d do — from writing a TV pilot to building interactive data visualizations to reading hundreds of military RFPs — and being given the support to try.” — B Cavello, 2019 Assembly Fellow
“As someone working in industry, it’s almost impossible to get dedicated time to think through really challenging issues. I applied to Assembly because the fellowship gave me exactly that: a chunk of time to dig into the complexities around the ethics and governance of AI. Through Assembly, I met a truly inspirational community of people who were interested in the same questions I was asking, but coming from all sorts of backgrounds. Together, we launched a research group that continues to this day — the Data Nutrition Project (DNP), which builds ‘nutritional labels’ for datasets meant to increase overall awareness and health of datasets being used to build algorithmic systems. DNP, and the amazing support from the Assembly program and community since, has really changed the trajectory of my own career. I am much more aware of and focused on addressing issues of inequality in algorithmic systems, and I now bring that to everything I do during my daily work — from building COVID analytics frameworks to assessing the quality of humanitarian datasets.” — Kasia Chmielinski, 2018 and 2021 Assembly Fellow
“Assembly, for me, achieved the delicate balance between the often slow, deeply considered pace of academia and the less thoughtful ‘move fast and break things’ mentality common in the tech industry. It provided an opportunity for participants to pop out of their usual bubbles of collaborators, to connect with committed thinkers, scholars, experts, advocates and hackers from a diverse set of contexts and experiences. Whether participating on a project or reviewing the teams’ work as [an advisor], I benefited deeply from the exposure to smart people, working collectively, to find novel approaches to difficult challenges. In addition, the access to and feedback of accomplished mentors and advisors was a critical aspect of the program, one that helped [project teams] reconsider, rethink, or more fully commit to a particular direction…In my case, I was fortunate to have Assembly be a place where a seed of an idea was germinated into a fully blossoming independent, grant-funded endeavor. Through our project [Clean Insights], the Assembly Fellowship will have a lasting impact on data privacy, security and sovereignty for real people around the world.” — Nathan Freitas, 2020 Assembly Advisor, 2017 and 2021 Assembly Fellow
“As a fellow, a member of the advisory board, and a member of the staff team, Assembly has been the most meaningful, impactful, and inspiring program I have been involved with in my more than seven years at Harvard: the support, the community, the ideas and their impact in the world are all things I expect to benefit and learn from throughout the remainder of my career. Launching and continuing to work with the Data Nutrition Project has been a consistent source of inspiration for me. So impressed by (and grateful for!) the reach and breadth of this program.” — Sarah Newman, 2020 Assembly Advisor, 2018 and 2021 Assembly Fellow, and 2019–21 Assembly staff
Over five years, the Assembly Fellowship brought together nearly 80 journalists, engineers, policymakers, designers, and other practitioners all deeply committed to the public interest. As the program draws to a close, BKC will continue to carry forward Assembly’s models, lessons, and approaches through the Center’s Rebooting Social Media Institute and other programs and initiatives.