Five Years of Assembly: Interdisciplinary fellowship offers paths forward in public interest technology

By Zenzele Best

Assembly Program logo, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

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

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.”

2017

“[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

2018–2019

“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

2020

“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

2021

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.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how…

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Assembly at the Berkman Klein Center

Written by

Assembly @BKCHarvard brings together students, technology professionals, and experts drawn to explore disinformation in the digital public sphere.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)