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Interest Grows in Public Interest

The spirit of Public Interest Technology—designing for the greater good, with an emphasis on justice, equity and inclusion—has been alive and well at Olin since its inception, but this Spring, it’s sprouting in a new way.

Late last year, Olin joined 20 other colleges and universities as a charter member of the Public Interest Technology Universities Network (PIT-UN), a national coalition that formed to educate a students on ways to more effectively design, build and govern technologies in ways that advance the public interest.

Membership is starting to take shape differently on every campus, and Olin has taken up the mantle by forming a Public Interest Technology Clinic. While still in the discovery phase, the idea is inspired by public interest law clinics, which started a few decades ago to give law students a chance to experience what it’s like to do legal work in the service of the public, and to service clients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer’s fee.

“I was inspired to think about what a clinic model would look like here on campus because lots of students are interested in pursuing projects with organizations unable to afford engineering work,” says Erhardt Graeff, who ran a co-curricular on the topic and who is the Olin liaison to the PIT-UN network. The co-curricular, which was similarly focused on engineering and social context, illuminated just how many students are passionate about the topic.

Case in point: first year Shreya Chowdhary is a core member of the clinic team and had been looking for an outlet like this, especially after she attended a hack-a-thon at MIT in October about creating technology to address human trafficking solicitations over Facebook.

At the event, she learned that Massachusetts detectives were in dire need of an easier way to identify offenders. “When investigators request Facebook subpoenas, they get over 10,000 pages they have to sift through to collect evidence,” she says. So they built an app to allow them to massively improve their workload: What would have taken the detectives weeks to sift through now takes 15 minutes. “I thought, I come from school of 300 engineers with the skills that could do things like this!” she says.

It inspired Chowdhary to form a group on campus that connected Olin students to nonprofits needing tech assistance. Now, it’s taken shape under the clinic umbrella and will be a way to match students with worthwhile, non-profit projects. “Olin’s mission is to use engineering to do good in the world,” she says. “Public Interest Technology might be an avenue to do more of that and enact these principles we all deeply believe in.”

Community organizer Jennifer Ho speaking during the Public Interest Technology Party on April 24, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Technology Clinic and the Sketch Model program.

A core team of students, including Chowdhary, are working with Graeff to shape the mission of the clinic. The group has held weekly meetings since the beginning of the semester to determine its structure and goals, and has been spreading the word at the non-profit career fair, over lunch conversations and at a party co-sponsored with Sketch Model  that featured community organizer Jennifer Ho in conversation with Olin creative-in-resident Mimi Onuoha as well as Olin alumnus Doyung Lee. In addition to students using the clinic to create ways to work with nonprofits, students have voiced interest in using it as a physical venue for reflection around ethics and technology. This is especially relevant, given how many Olin students go on to work at high-tech companies and want to have hard conversations about the implications for working for companies that have complicated social justice implications.

“The clinic could be a literal and metaphorical place to have these conversations to critically assess the implications of new technologies, or to talk about something in the news that has ethical implications,” says Graeff.

The group is also exploring ways to integrate Public Interest Technology into the Olin curriculum on a broad scale. “It’s exciting to see so much support from staff and teachers,” says sophomore Emma Pan. Part of why Pan came to Olin was to train as a socially minded engineer, and she became a core clinic member because of the opportunity to have impactful work through her education. “It’s scratching an itch that a lot of students have had—to start doing things to make a change now, from the day they start at Olin,” she says. 

They’re keeping the momentum going over the summer so that in the fall they can hit the ground running. Over break, Pan and Chowdhary will be involved in Code for America in separate cities to see what it’s like to work with software professionals who are volunteering their time to address the gap between the public and private sectors in their use of technology and design. They hope to apply what they learn at the clinic.

The group is also putting the wheels in motion for ways to work with nonprofits next semester. One possibility is working with a school for children with disabilities in need of a way to better equip iPads for students who depend on them in order to communicate. Another option is pairing interested Olin students with high schoolers to work on an engineering project that could have a major, positive social impact.

“Olin students are excited about learning skills and tools to serve people and make their lives better,” says Graeff. “So the clinic will also be about identity development, to help them figure out, What type of engineer do I really want to be?”