Entry IV - “The improvement of understanding…” of Public Interest Technology

Kevin Frazier
Mar 27, 2019 · 4 min read

“The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” – John Locke

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John Locke. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress.

We’ve tried to improve our understanding of PIT by conducting a whole slew of interviews with Harvard experts. Here’s a partial list of those that have graciously spent some time with us:

These professors, program managers, and practitioners have pointed out a couple key findings.

First, interdisciplinary work poses several challenges. Harvard community members interested in PIT confront logistical and institutional obstacles to connecting with others on campus exploring the same and related topics. Some interviewees cited distance between schools among the chief obstacles — the time it takes to from HBS to HLS, for example, can be the difference between getting together for a coffee or simply opting for a phone call.

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A 22 minute walk may be the difference between an in-depth coffee chat or a phone call. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Collaboration within a school also proves difficult: there’s no easy way to quickly identify who is working on what at your own school and how you may be able to help them out. So instead of tracking down more information on other people’s research at Harvard, professors opt for their own personal networks to receive guidance on an issue outside of their domain but in the PIT realm. For instance, one HUGSE professor with a background in entrepreneurship told us that they simply reach out to their old startup colleagues when they need some fresh business insights rather than finding a knowledgeable person at their school. This sort of outreach isn’t right or wrong…it’s just what’s easiest for most professors and researchers.

Comparatively, students generally have an easier time charting their own interdisciplinary path. Students that want a diverse range of experiences can generally find their way into courses at different schools or even different institutions. This ability to mix and match courses from a variety of domains means that students can create their own PIT path. That said, there’s still room for making the cross-registering process easier for students.

Second, student demand for technological courses continues to grow. From the law school starting a Computer Programming for Lawyers course to HKS students taking MIT’s MOOC on Python over the summer, students have evidenced a desire to increase their digital proficiency. Consider that undergraduate enrollment in CS50 has more than doubled since 2008, climbing from 324 to 696 students in 2018.

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Chart of Computer Science Degrees courtesy of Education Week

Stories supplement these stats; we gathered plenty of them from professors and practitioners. They told us several anecdotes of students eager to learn more about the digital skills required to act on their business or nonprofit idea. These stats and stories fall in line with a national trend: the number of students earning computer science degrees continues to climb; it’s no surprise the demand for more tech is showing up at Harvard as well.

Third, Public Interest Technology remains difficult to define. Everyone we talk with seems to have a different conception of PIT. These talks have exposed us to PIT initiatives centered around health care, design, and educational content. We’ve expanded our own PIT universe to be more inclusive of work that’s applying tech to governance and vice versa as a result of the broad definitions of PIT held by different Harvard community members. While the breadth of PIT activity complicates writing our own definition of PIT in stone, this array of activity illustrates that people across campus are actively thinking about what they can do to contribute to the budding area.

Even though a formal definition will likely continue to evade us, we’re committed to celebrating and sharing the PIT ethos. So we’ll continue to collect information about the people pursuing PIT so that we can then deliver that knowledge to others.

And as we wrap up building out our PIT maps and spreadsheet of PIT-related coursework, we’ll shift our attention toward identifying where collaboration at Harvard seems most realistic and beneficial.

We look forward to connecting PIT thinkers across campus, within schools, and throughout the broader Harvard community. Let us know if you have any ideas of people that should exchange information and consider teaming up!

(@hks_digital @daeaves @kevintfrazier #PublicInterestTech)

digital HKS

digital HKS; exploring the relationship between digital…

Kevin Frazier

Written by

Student at the Harvard Kennedy School and UC Berkeley School of Law. Apolitical Contributing Author.

digital HKS

digital HKS; exploring the relationship between digital technology and governance as they relate to digital government services

Kevin Frazier

Written by

Student at the Harvard Kennedy School and UC Berkeley School of Law. Apolitical Contributing Author.

digital HKS

digital HKS; exploring the relationship between digital technology and governance as they relate to digital government services

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