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Fostering the next generation of innovators, leaders, and thinkers who will shape technology toward positive societal outcomes

Public Interest Tech is an emerging scholarly and professional field that is defined by the deployment of technological expertise in service of public needs, such as climate and environmental objectives, public health, social justice, consumer rights, and healthy information ecosystems.

Since Cornell Tech’s founding in 2011, the societal and economic impacts of digital technology have only become more powerful, and with it, the growing desire among our most ambitious technical students, researchers, and working professionals to shape technology to serve public needs.

Our Vision

PiTech at Cornell Tech is activating a community of technologists, researchers, and practitioners dedicated to societal challenges that too frequently “fall between the cracks” of federal research funding and commercial investment.

We are doing so by creating educational and professional experiences for the next generation of innovators, leaders, and thinkers who will shape technology toward positive societal outcomes.

We are supported by a seed investment from The Atlantic Philanthropies, which recognized that Cornell Tech has the right mix to effect population-scale progress: our technical depth and builder mentality, our New York City home, and the breadth of our research endeavor.

 

 

Our Activities

We are building a community of impact-focused scholars and practitioners through PiTech Studio, and Impact Fellowships. A strong diversity of perspectives and experiences is critically important to building effective PiTech, and our PiTech Visiting Practitioner’s Program reflects this priority.

PiTech Studio

The PiTech Studio track is the latest addition to Cornell Tech’s unique Studio program in which Master’s students develop real-world tech with leading startups, established companies, and NYC organizations. Training public interest-minded technologists demands special attention, including opportunities to engage community leaders, public sector agencies, and non-profit funders. PiTech Studio focuses specifically on product development and business models to accelerate positive social change.. 

PiTech Impact Fellowships

PiTech Fellowships support technical researchers seeking to contribute to the public interest by actively engaging with a particular public concern that is enabled or complicated by technology. Our PhD Impact Fellowship summer program (launched in 2021)  provides doctoral fellows with direct financial support as they embed within a community, NGO, foundation, or public sector organization.  Our vision is to host annual cohorts of doctoral fellows, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty sabbaticals dedicated to addressing specific societal needs; and to broadly foster the practice of public interest tech in the research community.

Visiting Practitioners (ViPs) Program

The Visiting Practitioners (ViPs) program brings the perspectives of leading Public Interest Tech practitioners to the Cornell Tech community.

Values in Design

Dynamic integration of legal, ethical, and policy frameworks is necessary for sustainable movement towards more socially responsible technology outcomes. For this, PiTech is leveraging the strengths of Cornell Tech’s influential Digital Life Initiative (DLI). The DLI community of scholars and policy portfolio is growing rapidly, as more leaders from industry and government look to DLI for guidance on issues of privacy, cybersecurity, blockchain, and AI ethics. PiTech and DLI’s partnership enables foundations in law and ethics to be put into practice and creates virtuous feedback across research, policy, and community impact.

K-16

Another key element of Cornell Tech’s work in the public interest is our focus on building a more inclusive tech ecosystem. In service of this goal, PiTech collaborates with Cornell Tech’s K-12 Initiative and Break Through Tech in promoting equitable access to computing education and jobs.

Spotlight

Visiting Practitioners (ViP) Fireside Chat

Cornell Tech’s newly launched Visiting Practitioners program (ViP) kicked off its first event with ViP Anjana Rajan, CTO of Polaris. Rajan spoke to Cornell Tech Master’s students at a Fireside chat about her academic and professional experience, and detailed how students can think about creating impact at any level of an organization.

Rajan is the Chief Technology Officer of Polaris, an NGO that uses data-driven strategies to disrupt and prevent human trafficking and modern slavery. She is a seasoned executive and entrepreneur whose expertise is applying technology to human rights and national security issues.

Previously, she was the CTO of Callisto, a nonprofit that builds technology to combat sexual assault. Before that, she worked at Palantir Technologies, where she built and deployed products in the Middle East. She was a Knight Scholar at Cornell University’s Engineering School and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Operations Research and Information Engineering.

ViPs are tech leaders from a range of impact-oriented organizations, and the newly launched program will enable these practitioners to engage with the Cornell Tech community by giving talks, offering office hours, and providing feedback on product and business ideas.

2021 PhD Impact Fellow: Briana Vecchione / Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood

Briana Vecchione embedded with Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood this past summer as one of our inaugural PiTech Impact Fellows. She worked with the early-stage social ventures selected for Blue Ridge Labs’ 2021 Catalyst accelerator program, which were Touchdown NYCCommunifi, UnlockEd, and Karen’s Club

Her work included outlining research questions and pursuing background research –providing teams with academic findings that informed and justified design decisions. The overarching theme of her contributions was to prompt founders to think about ethical uses and considerations for their technology solutions, including discussions around responsible data collection, usage, and privacy.

Robin Hood is NYC’s largest poverty-fighting organization, supporting low-income families by building and fueling impactful nonprofits that are elevating people from poverty. Blue Ridge Labs is a program of Robin Hood and specializes in creating and supporting early-stage social tech ventures.

Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA)

Our first Tech Clinic, launched fall 2019, addresses Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in partnership with the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. By pairing Cornell Tech’s expertise in human-computer interaction and security with engagement on the part of IPV victims and policymakers, Professors Nicki Dell and Tom Ristenpart developed the Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA), a first of its kind computer security clinic that helps IPV survivors navigate technology abuse. They are now scaling the clinic to serve the larger New York City metropolitan region and create a model that is replicable across the country.

ADL, Consumer Reports, Blue Ridge Labs, MakerLAB, and Coler logos, with corresponding headshots

Summer 2021 PhD Impact Fellows

Yiqing Hua (CS) & The Anti-Defamation League: Center on Extremism | Applying Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing to characterize how radical extremist content creators on online platforms such as YouTube use the platform to generate revenues.  

Ilan Mandel (IS) & Consumer Reports Digital Lab | Working with the Digital Lab to develop new ways to test the privacy and security of connected products, and strengthen consumer privacy and data rights.

Briana Vecchione (IS) & Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood | Embedding with Catalyst Incubator Teams, early stage social impact tech ventures addressing economic inequality, to help inform their product and service design.

Yiran Zhao (IS) & Maker Lab with NYC H+H: Coler Hospital | Actively engaging Coler Hospital residents in focus groups about the application and design of wearable devices for older adults and their caregivers.

2021 Pitech Studio Teams

The PiTech Studio course explores the roles that technology and design can play in the advancement of the public good. 

The 2021 PiTech Studio teams built:

dem.os | Platform built for accessible and consensus-driven public consultation, harnessing machine learning to derive quality insights

OnlyFood | Vendor management mobile app to optimize capacity planning for food pantry managers in urban cities

Paw Pals | A solution to connect older adults with people who have pets in hopes of reducing loneliness, fulfilling social needs, and creating lasting friendships 

Parvah | An on demand teletherapy platform for schools

R_DNA | Tool to help local news publishers market their publications better by synthesizing the information of value for potential funders, advertisers, and subscribers

SadPandasClub | A safe space to share difficult feelings anonymously online and find your tribe

Power to the Public - Book Release Event

Cornell Tech recently hosted a discussion with Hana Schank and Tara Dawson McGuinness, authors of the newly released book Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology, moderated by Deborah Estrin.

In the book, Schank and McGuinness share how governments and nonprofits around the world are solving hard problems through a new practice of problem-solving using approaches like data, design, delivery to help governments become faster and more connected to those citizens they serve.