What is public interest tech? This foundation leader breaks down what it means for DC - Technical.ly DC

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What is public interest tech? This foundation leader breaks down what it means for DC

DC can lead in building technology to address social issues, said Vilas Dhar, president of the Patrick J McGovern Foundation. It'll take a focus on building both tech tools, and jobs.

Vilas Dhar is president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation.

(Courtesy photo)

For public interest technology proponent Vilas Dhar, using technology to help boost social change will require more than a shift in priorities. It’s a changing power dynamic.

“We have this moment where AI and data come into play and all of a sudden we stop thinking about how technology nudges society,” Dhar told Technical.ly. “[Instead], we are made to think about how questions of equity and engagement and power between individuals and government, individuals and commercial providers, begin to change because these technologies change the rules of engagement.”

Public interest technology, generally defined as developing and deploying tech built with the common good in mind, has become more of a priority for organizations looking to boost initiatives like racial equity, healthcare and education.

Dhar, who is president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit with strong ties to the DC government sector, said that this increased engagement is just one of the ways public interest tech is popping up on the scene.

For Dhar, public interest technology can be looked at in two parts: the actual technology being built to address social issues, and how local governments and communities are building a workforce capable of creating and maintaining those tools.

To start, Dhar said there’s a need for government funding into these technologies and jobs. Dhar noted that he’s seen a good amount of this from the federal government, like the new Digital Corps, but he’d like more from local and state governments.

The second, he said, is applying technology to the nonprofit sector, either through partnerships or more positions for technologists within nonprofits.

And, lastly, he hopes to see increased partnerships with philanthropic players.

“This is an opportunity for government to step into a problem that affects all of us, and it’s a multi-faceted problem,” Dhar said. “It’s, how do we build better technology for democracy, for the engagement of citizens with government? And how do we create jobs for individuals that have these skills and want to use them in service?”

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"How do we build better technology for democracy, for the engagement of citizens with government? And how do we create jobs for individuals that have these skills and want to use them in service?"
Vilas Dhar, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation

While we’re in a world full of technological advancements and a heightened sense of social responsibility, Dhar thinks there’s more to be done than mesh technology with social justice movements. A lot of the work that still needs to be done is developing a talent pipeline and increasing digital equity and access early on for young students.

“In order to have equity, you need to start with digital identity and digital dignity,” Dhar said. “And in order to get there, we need to create equitable frames of access to all of these training programs. It’s not simply saying we have what’s here, we need to knit it together.”

For individual technologists interested in public interest tech, though, he noted that there’s more to be done than wait for companies to align their behaviors with values. In the meantime, he said, they can act as mentors and community organizers on top of their full-time jobs, and even petition their own companies to make changes.

With DC’s well-established government, nonprofit and activism sectors, Dhar said that the area is the perfect place to create a strong public interest tech sector. Especially given the strong education community on top of its government and advocacy concentrations, he thinks it’s the perfect place to get started. And with the area’s already strong tech sector, setting the public interest tech standard can make the area’s ecosystem is even more of a powerhouse, he noted.

“DC is the place that should model it for the whole country,” Dhar said. “There’s a robust school system, we know there are challenges, but there’s also an incredible amount of committed teachers who understand how technology can be in the classroom. And we need to really support that and create community ecosystems and support for them.”

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