Resources for Working in Public-Interest Technology
For scientists, engineers, PMs, students, lawyers, and policy-makers, and anyone in between.
last updated : 09/09/21
Working in and around the tech industry, and feeling like you could be making a more direct, positive impact is a common issue. However, given the desire by technologists to do positive work, why is there such a large divide between what is worked on, and what people think is a positive impact?
One commonly cited reason is that there is not a standard career-path to work in public-interest, as a technologist. The primary goal of this article is to provide resources to empower technical people, and those who work adjacent to the tech industry, to find ways to apply their skills and careers towards public-interest and social-good. A secondary goal of this article is simply to push the concept of public-interest tech further into the common lexicon.
In this article, I focus on the umbrella term “public-interest technologist,” which one blog post by the Ford Foundation defines as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public-interest.” I prefer this over terms like tech-for-good, which McKinsey defines as “using technology to smooth disruption and improve well-being,” because tech-for-good seems to put more emphasis on “tech” than “good.”
As a first-order approximation, I consider something public-interest if it helps a group of people and is likely not to be addressed by the for-profit market (without government or NGO funding). Ads might help the internet be free, but if you don’t go work on them, someone else will — the same is not true for building a homeless shelter. This said, this article has resources for how to contribute within both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
How to use this resource list?
This resource list isn’t intended to be read from start to finish — start where you want, and see where it takes you.
Disclaimer: This list isn’t comprehensive, and there’s a huge bias towards things that I’m exposed to as a software engineer in the SF Bay Area. It’s also a growing list, so feel encouraged to comment or message me about which parts you find useful (or not useful), and what content you want to see more of, in this post and future ones.
Outline of the resource list
- What is public-interest technology?
- Resources to help you use your career for public-interest technology
- Resources for working with policy and the US government
- Resources for graduate school in public-interest technology
- Miscellaneous resources I’ve found valuable
What is public-interest technology?
- Cybersecurity for the Public Interest. If you read nothing else about public-interest technology, read this article by Bruce Schneier. It is relatively short, and it does a good job of giving a high-level description of the need for public-interest technologists in their many forms. A related video by him can be found here.
- Public-Interest Technology Resources. This is a fantastic (and very long) list of many public-interest tech resources, hosted by the same Bruce Schneier who wrote the above article. The goals of his resource list and this one are quite similar; however, his resource list provides a more comprehensive survey of the different aspects of public-interest tech and focuses on policy, whereas this resource list is largely targeted at finding a career or career-path, not necessarily in policy.
- A Pivotal Moment. This is a study by Freedman Consulting, which investigates the biggest factors in the “pipeline problem,” which prevent a healthy flow of people going from tech and adjacent fields into public-interest work. It specifically investigates: “The Current Pipeline Is Insufficient,” “Public Interest Technology Is Not Diverse,” “Connection and Training Can Be Improved,” “Barriers to Recruitment and Retention Are Acute,” and “Leadership toward Culture Change Is Necessary.” It builds off of their previous article, A Future of Failure.
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Resources to help you use your career for public-interest technology
Jobs and projects “for good”
- Ben Green’s Jobs Page. Ben is a PhD candidate at Harvard who maintains a jobs board for professional and academic opportunities related to computer science, public policy, and the public interest.
- #MoreThanCode projects and organizations. #MoreThanCode is a research project produced to better understand the type of work done for social justice (and more broadly, in the public interest), as well as the pathways people take into this work. One of the byproducts of their research was this Jobs Board, but their website is a worthwhile exploration of public-interest technology.
- Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) Jobs. ICT4D is an initiative aimed at bridging the disparity between technological “have” and “have not” groups and aiding economic development by ensuring equitable access to up-to-date communications technologies. This jobs board is maintained to share jobs deemed to bridge this divide — conveniently, it also has a regularly updated newsletter.
- Tech Jobs for Good. This site keeps up-to-date postings of tech jobs at social impact companies, foundations, and innovative nonprofits in the United States. It allows employers to post vacancies and connects potential employees to employers directly.
- The Bridge. This site has a very similar structure to Tech Jobs for Good, except it caters to a wider range of roles, focusing on “Tech, Policy, and Politics.” It also maintains a bi-weekly newsletter.
- Idealist jobs board. Idealist, also known as Action without Borders, is a fairly incredible resource board, which includes jobs, internship, volunteering, and grad school opportunities. Their work is not restricted to only technologists, but rather anyone interested in “for-good” jobs/careers/volunteer-work.
- Code for America jobs board. Code for America is a non-profit seeking to address the widening gap between the public and private sectors in their effective use of technology and design. If you believe government technology can be better and want to be a part of it, they recommend you either: join them, work in government, or partner with them. They also organize volunteer brigades where technologists can collaborate on public-interest projects, and they have a newsletter.
- Internet Law and Policy Foundry jobs board. The Foundry is an organization for Internet law and policy professionals who are focused on both the legal and technical sides of disruptive innovation. They “revel in the disruption at the intersection of law and technological innovation.” Their jobs board is focused solely on Internet law and policy jobs.
- 80,000 Hours jobs board. 80,000 Hours seeks to direct people into positions where they can have a strong positive impact on a specific list of problems they deem ‘the most pressing’. They particularly focus on young people in their 20s and 30s, and consider both impact and career capital in their recommendations. Their jobs board and newsletter is frequently updated.
- Roy’s personally compiled list of organizations. I put together a short list of organizations that I’ve found interesting or wanted to keep tabs on. As a disclaimer, having a company on this list is not an endorsement by me, but rather, just a suggestion for consideration.
Projects and volunteering boards
- Solve for Good projects board. Solve for Good maintains a platform to connect social-good organizations with volunteers, to help solve those problems that need data-intensive help. They also maintain a list of organizations that contribute projects, which can be a great starting point for investigation.
- TapRoot Opportunities. TapRoot is a platform similar to Solve for Good, except it is not limited to purely technical work, they connect with people to do work ranging from branding and market strategy to website development and database management.
- Catchafire. This is another volunteer-project platform; like TapRoot, it is not limited to purely technical work.
Startups: accelerators and incubators
Note: especially for this section, there are many more great organizations that I haven’t included, this list is just a starting point.
- Reboot Democracy accelerator. This is a non-profit democracy tech accelerator starting its first cohort relatively soon. They also maintain a list of projects and organizations that have been presented at their events.
- TomKat Clean Energy Innovation Transfer Grants. This is a part of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, which directs resources, money, and people towards clean energy technology.
- SparkWave. This is a relatively new NYC-based incubator focusing on social science and mental health software companies.
- Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub. The Tech Policy Hub is a west coast policy incubator, training tech experts to become policy entrepreneurs, run by Aspen Institute.
- Lincoln Network’s Policy Hackers. Policy Hackers is a year-long, non-resident fellowship program for tech professionals (this isn’t for people who already work in policy). The curriculum is designed to work around the busy schedule of innovators and to teach them how to be effective policy advocates in their current role and to equip them for long-term success working the the policy space.
- Charity Entrepreneurship. This is a research and training program which develops high-impact charities.
This section errs more on the side of tech-for-good through for-profit markets, rather than strictly public-interest; however, there are enough companies focused on social-good in each of the following VCs that I feel there is value in sharing them. So, while I am not giving a blanket endorsement to these organizations and their investments, they can serve to be a starting point for finding startups that align with your values, or examples of positive impact investing.
- Omidyar Network portfolio. Omidyar Network invests in for-profit and non-profit companies focused in three main areas: Beneficial Technology, Discovering Emergent Issues, and Reimagining Capitalism.
- Bethnal Green Ventures portfolio. Bethnal Green is a European VC with focuses in civic tech, education, health, sustainability, workertech, and child-care tech.
- Mustard Seed portfolio. Mustard Seed is an investor in early-stage businesses that follow a ‘lock-step’ model, meaning they invest in businesses’ whose core product or service is inherently beneficial to society.
- Double Bottom Line (DBL) Partners portfolio. DBL is an SF-based VC, which invests in Clean Technology, Health Care, Information Technology, Sustainable Products & Services. Their most famous investments have been in Tesla, SpaceX, the RealReal, and Planet labs.
Resources for working with policy and the US government
Directly working for the US government can be a great way to contribute to society. However, I’m personally relatively uninformed on what working for the government exactly entails, and because of this, my primary recommendation is to look for work in the US government through Code for America. I’d also like to highlight 80,000 Hours’ case for building expertise to work on US AI policy, and how to do it, as a guide for what you can do as an individual.
While I am not in a position to review all government agencies, here are a few agencies and fellowships that I’ve looked into and can recommend. You can also check out USA Jobs, which is the US government’s website for listing civil service jobs with federal agencies, and evaluate each yourself.
US government agencies
- U.S. Digital Services. This organization is a group of technologists who join from diverse backgrounds (often industry) to work across the federal government to transform critical services using technology. People serve “tours” of civic service within the agency.
- 18F. This organization within the US General Services Administration collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how the government serves the public through technology. 18F is similar to USDS in a lot of ways, so here is an article on the differences between 18F and USDS.
US government fellowships
- Congress Innovation Fellows. This is TechCongress’s mid-career policy pipeline fellowship aiming to connect policy makers with technologists.
- Congressional Innovation Scholars Program. This is TechCongress’s graduate pipeline to Congress.
- Presidential Innovation Fellows. This is a prestigious Government fellowship to link technologists with federal officials, similar to TechCongress’s fellowships.
- Presidential Management Fellows (PMF). This is an entry-level leadership development program for recent graduates of advanced degrees, run by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
- The AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship. This is a one year policy fellowship for people with social science or STEM PhDs or engineering master’s.
- NSIN National Security Fellowship. This is a fellowship which connects STEM graduates with key policy makers in the DoD and congress, run by National Security Innovation Network (NSIN).
- Civic Digital Fellowship. This is a US government fellowship organized by Coding It Forward for college students in design, software, data science, and product management positions with gov agencies.
I feel I am not informed enough on the specific work that different think tanks do to comment on them, so for this section, I only provide a set of links for you to look through.
- Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs : Science, Technology, and Public Policy
- New America : Public Interest Technology
- Human Rights Watch: Technology and Rights
- Council on Foreign Relations
- Brookings : Cybersecurity
- CATO Institute : Telecom, Internet and Information Policy
- RAND Corporation : Cyber and Data Sciences
- Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
- Stimson : Cyber Security
Resources for graduate school in public-interest technology
- Tech Policy Grad-School Funding and Post-Graduation Opportunities. This is a really fantastic (and very long) document compiled by 80,000 Hours on graduate school opportunities to work in Tech Policy.
- So you want to study technology, democracy, and social change? This is a “guide to interdisciplinary PhD programs” by a current Assistant Professor at Cornell.
- The Public-Interest Technology University Network. This is a consortium of universities that have programs related to public-interest tech (it’s also referenced in Bruce Schneier’s Public-Interest Technology Resources).
Miscellaneous resources I’ve found valuable
Here are links to resources that have been important in framing my view on public-interest technology and don’t fit elsewhere in the resource list. Most of these resources are not directly helpful for building a career, but I found them quite influential for wanting to work in public-interest tech, and understanding the problems in doing so.
Blogs and Articles
- Ben Green’s publications page. As of this article’s time of writing, Ben is a PhD candidate at Harvard studying Science, Technology, and Society. He has a lot of good articles, but in particular, I liked: Data Science as Political Action, which is a criticism of the apolitical nature data-science has so far taken; and Good isn’t Good Enough, which is a general criticism on “X for good” and why incrementalist technocratic solutions don’t go far enough.
- Shelby Switzer’s blog Civic Unrest. This blog tries to answer 2 questions — what is the role of technology in public infrastructure? And what is the role of public infrastructure in technology?
- #MoreThanCode’s report. Their report on the current field of tech in social justice and public interest is a great resource for framing the world of public interest tech (note: their organizations list is mentioned in the jobs section of this post).
- CitizenLab’s blog. CitizenLab is a “democracy platform” which seeks to provide governments with tools to engage with their citizens, their blog is a good source for Civic Tech and GovTech resources.
- 80,000 Hours interview with Bruce Schneier (maintainer of Public-Interest Technology Resources). They discuss the role of cybersecurity in our lives, voting insecurity, and the need for technologists to work with policy-makers.
- 80,000 Hours interview with Glen Weyl. They discuss radical institutional reforms that could make capitalism and democracy work better — this is less about technology, and more about radical forms of change.
- 80,000 Hours interview with Professor Stuart Russel. They discuss the flaws with our current incentives in AI design, and how we can change them.
- Click Here to Kill Everybody by Bruce Schneier. This book is about the current status and dangers of cybersecurity, and how we solve them. In the second half of the book, he advocates for stronger and better rules and regulations for internet policies, and outlines some plans for how it’s possible to achieve them.
- Weapons of Math Destruction By Cathy O’Neil. This book explores how big-data algorithms are increasingly used in ways that reinforce pre-existing inequality. While it doesn’t provide many solutions, this book laid the groundwork for a lot of the momentum in fields related to computational social science and algorithmic fairness.
- The Ethical Algorithm by Aaron Roth and Michael Kearns. I view this book as a continuation and response to Weapons of Math Destruction, it details how algorithms can be designed to be more “socially aware.” It provides a high-level synopsis for investigating how computer science researchers are fighting inequity in algorithms, using algorithms. I think this book could be particularly informative to students interested in research fields as public interest technologists.
- The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord. This book is about existential threats to humanity and what we can do about them. He assesses that the majority of the risk is from anthropogenic risks from things that are related to technology, specifically: 1. Nuclear Winter, 2. Engineered Pandemics, 3. Climate Change, 4. Unaligned AI (in no particular order). Working on existential risk reduction is a great (and often under-valued) way to be a public-interest technologist. If this interests you, I recommend the 80,000 Hours article How to use your career to help reduce existential risk.
In searching for answers to “how can I most effectively help the world using technology?”, I found the Effective Altruism (EA) community, which is concerned with the broader question “how can I most effectively help the world?” The community cares deeply about doing good in the world, and their growing community has an active forum where individual issues or ideas are discussed. I believe looking at public-interest tech through a similar lens to EA can help avoid being too technosolutionist. The EA Resources Page is a great place to conduct your own research, but I want to highlight a few organizations.
- Givewell. This is a top EA organization, which evaluates charities and creates free reports for all for how to effectively give money.
- Open Philanthropy. This organization spun out from a GiveWell grant, and is a research and grantmaking foundation. It aims to make grants and to share its findings openly. They are a prominent global priorities research and Effective Altruism organization. It’s worth also looking into Good Ventures, which is not an EA organization, but is a philanthropic foundation that often works with OpenPhil and GiveWell, to give money towards high-impact projects.
- 80,000 Hours. This organization is trying to help people think about how most appropriately spend their career to help others. (The name comes from: If you work 40hr/week, 50 weeks/yr for 40 years, you have 80,000 hours in your career.)
- Giving What We Can. This charity helps individuals donate a small, but meaningful percentage of their incomes.
- Animal Charity Evaluators. This is a charity which evaluates organizations based on their effectiveness in helping animals.
That concludes my current public interest tech resource list. This is a growing list, so please feel free to contact me with feedback or suggestions.
Thank you to Abbey Chaver, Akshay Balwally, Colleen Morris, Heather Little, Lex Carlsson, Ozair Ahmad, Robert Young, Toly Rinberg for reviewing my work, and providing excellent comments.
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