Developing public interest technology for the future

By

Ashley Richards

Public interest technology is an emerging field. It serves to address social needs and challenges in society. So how should we develop this field that will be critical to our future? That was the theme at the IEEE International Symposium on Science and Technology (ISTAS 20), hosted by Arizona State University and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

“We were interested in the definitions of public interest technology,” said Professor Katina Michael, who was the general chair of the conference. “We were looking at emerging technologies, responsible innovation and the social implications of technology.”

ISTAS 20, the flagship conference for the IEEE’s Society on the Social Implications of Technology, took place virtually Nov. 12-15. It was organized by several School for the Future of Innovation in Society faculty, students and staff, including Michael and local chairs Associate Professor Netra Chhetri and Clinical Associate Professor Nalini Chhetri. Twenty-seven countries were represented at the conference, which featured more than 400 authors and 200 papers, and included presentations from ASU faculty and students.

“The goal of the conference was to convene with interdisciplinary scholars, experts, policymakers, engineers and many others working in this space,” said human and social dimensions of science and technology student Elma Hajric, who presented two papers at the conference. “It created a space for the exchanging of ideas around technologies and their societal implications." 

Sessions at the conference highlighted the role technology plays in societies and how people are impacted, including how technology can improve economic mobility, social inclusion and human development through processes, online access data and AI. 

“There was much enthusiasm about ISTAS 20, especially because it provided the opportunity to look at technologies through a social science lens,” said Salah Hamdoun, innovation in global development student and conference presenter. “Bringing together social science and engineering fields is a critical and emerging approach that has a tangible impact on people in our communities.” 

The conference included a joint event with the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), which featured topics on data governance and social and environmental justice. 

“The PIT-UN conference brought together a dynamic program,” Michael said. “Beyond the topics overtly requiring addressing such as racial discrimination, addictive technologies, inequities in access, the poor state of aboriginal peoples in diverse countries and social justice matters particularly of underrepresented minorities, we had complementary interventions by poets and teachers who came to read and share their work and bridge the gap between humanistic values and technology.

"These two dimensions are often incongruent because we innovate with the 'build and they will come' mentality instead of asking communities what they need and how we can better empower them to be innovators themselves. While we understand participation is important, we are struggling with creating new forms of data collection in a meaningful way that can orient our futures through collective awareness. Digital communities are quite splintered in their approach to the future, so how to make sense of this difference requires new methodologies, tools and approaches to business and governance.” 

The conference created a unique and inspiring environment where people from different backgrounds and disciplines could come together to share their thoughts and exchange new ideas.

“It wasn't a conference where people try to outdo each other or compete to see who had better quantitative metrics,” Michael said. “It was about the essence of why we conduct research, who we are helping and what we can learn together. When we support each other, great things are possible through better coordination.” 

“It was a truly special experience creating an opportunity for a community of people vested in human-centered technologies to share, inspire and provide insights into important social issues,” Hajric said. “I hope people left with the same feeling of support and hope that I experienced.” 

ASU and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society faculty, student and staff participants: David Guston, Andrew Maynard, Clark Miller, Nalini Chhetri, Netra Chhetri, Darshan Karwat, Katina Michael, Devon McAslan, Diana Madril, Elma Hajric, Faheem Hussain, Robert Cook-Deegan, Alexandrina Agoloro, Erik Fisher, Elisabeth Graffy, Fritz Smith, Jamey Wetmore, Salah Hamdoun, Toby Shulruff, Farah Najar Arevalo, Martín Pérez Comisso, Jamie Winterton, Leonard DeLeon, Anthony Levenda, Michael Bernstein, Kathleen Vogel, Kirk Jalbert, Laura Hosman, Mahmud Farooque, Mary Jane Parmentier, Chris Barton, Kevin Johnson, Yagana Hafe, Oluwabukola Makinde, Damita Kaloostian, Primrose Dzenga, Brittany M. McCall, Jared Byrne, Eric Stribling, Nikki Stevens, Josh Massad, Leonard Bruce, Sherri Wasserman, Shivam Zaveri, Ariel Anbar, Chris Barton, Hans Walter Behrens, Shenella Benjamin, Pooja Chitre, BrieAnne Davis, Nickolas Dodd, Haowen Fan, Alyssa Henning, Norwell Hinds, Danielle Jacobs, Parth Khopkar, Rovindra Lakenarine, Heewook Lee, Aurel Liddell, Hector Santiago Lopez Zurita, Madison Macias, Sarah Martin, Troy McDaniel, Francis Mendoza, Jordan Miller, Punya Mishra, Traci Morris, David Morrison, Edgard Musafiri Mimo, Lauryn Remmers, Marzieh Rezaei Ghaleh, Diana Seecharran, Yatiraj Shetty, Rebecca Stuch, Riley Tallman, Samantha Whitman, Cindy Dick and Melissa Waite.