International eyes are on Pittsburgh this week as a prominent council holds its first meeting in the city.
On Wednesday, the newly formed United States and European Union Trade and Technology Council will meet in Pittsburgh to discuss future trade, investment and regulation across the two entities in an increasingly tech-centric economy.
Notably, the council will take place at Hazelwood Green, a former steel mill site that’s now a growing hotbed of modern manufacturing and tech entrepreneurship. Diplomatic leaders attending the event include Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Rep. Katherine Tai, in addition to European Commission Executive VPs Margrethe Vestager and Valdis Dombrovskis.
Industry and community leaders see significance in the choice of Pittsburgh for this new committee’s first meeting.
“Pittsburgh has become a global poster child of how you can transform regions, not by de-industrializing them and abandoning historic industries, but by fostering a community of innovation,” wrote Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, in an email to Technical.ly. “Pittsburgh is still home to many of the world’s leading advancing manufacturers and advanced materials related businesses, but today, we are also at the center of several new industries including AI, cybersecurity, robotics and autonomous vehicles. We are incredibly proud that the Biden administration selected [our] story to showcase to the world.”
On the table for the 10 working groups of the council will be discussions of climate change and environmental technology, data security and privacy and updated technology standards, among other topics. Russo herself will speak on a panel for workforce development.
“During my time in meeting with the world leaders, I plan to discuss the powerful role that apprenticeship programs can (and historically in many industries) play in helping us to address critical workforce shortages, including shortfalls in technology workers,” she said, hinting at the Tech Council’s recently launched local Apprenti program. “More importantly, apprenticeship programs create alternative and dynamic pathways into well-paying, family sustaining jobs to populations that have often felt disconnected from the technology sector.”
But a big focus of the meeting, as mentioned by a memo released last week, will be on reeling in big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon — all of which have local offices.
The EU has recently been more strict in regulations on these companies than the U.S., with Google in particular facing an antitrust investigation on its advertising unit there. The memo also indicated that hate speech, algorithm processes and data access for research will be part of the discussion. That focus comes after internal company documents revealed that Facebook was aware of hate speech and mental health problems sparked and amplified by its social media platforms.
These concerns are important to the local software development community, wrote Colin Dean, a software engineer and managing director of Code & Supply, in a message via Technical.ly’s Slack.
"Americans need to have a hard conversation about who owns data about them as individuals."
“Americans need to have a hard conversation about who owns data about them as individuals,” he wrote, adding that the Pittsburgh tech communities he’s involved with are frequently discussing security and privacy.
Part of that has to do with data accessibility for research and other important insights, Dean said, that the meeting could lead to a bigger push for the U.S. to model European governments’ use of open data for research and other initiatives.
“While convincing government to use open source software is a tremendous challenge, Pittsburgh has seen great success in opening its data via the Western PA Regional Data Center,” the engineer said, underscoring again that the city is an ideal choice for the inaugural council meeting.
Stefani Pashman, the CEO of the Allegheny Conference who will speak at the beginning of the meeting tomorrow, said that these general concerns about ethical use of big tech will likely prompt discussions on other parts of the industry.
“My understanding of what they will focus on is, number one, artificial intelligence and how that can drive the future economies and particularly around privacy and digital relationships,” she said. Mentioning Carnegie Mellon University’s deep history of developing AI, Pashman continued, “this is our expertise to do what we know about and being able to kind of benefit from from that kind of thinking and having those conversations with Pittsburgh is pretty significant.”
The city’s burgeoning environmental tech sector will be relevant to discussions, too, Pashman said: “Being able to inform that conversation, and be a part of how we drive the future of energy and the energy economy, is certainly a commentary on Pittsburgh’s potential.”
Beyond these discussions, Pashman said she hopes that this council meeting will attract more collaborations between Pittsburgh and Europe in the private sector. While many cross-continental partnerships are already in place, she hopes that the foreign diplomats at this meeting will notice that Pittsburgh is open for business and ready for even more business alliances.
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.