Cal Poly Joins Network to Help Ensure Technology Creates Public Benefit

Kim Bisheff

In January of 2020, Cal Poly joined the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), a partnership that fosters collaboration between universities and colleges committed to building the field of public interest technology and training a new generation of civic-minded technologists.

The public interest technology field is dedicated to leveraging technology to support public interest organizations and the people they serve. At Cal Poly, research projects related to this field are being funded by the university’s Center for Expressive Technologies, including research into using image classification technology to formulate better public health messaging on social media. Another project works with a group of multidisciplinary undergraduate research assistants to develop virtual reality scenarios meant to increase bystander behavior to reduce sexual harassment among college students.

In the university’s first year in PIT-UN, an interdisciplinary team of Cal Poly faculty and staff will establish the groundwork to build a field called “ethical technology” — comprised of inquiry and training that bridges humanistic and technical domains to create innovation that is equitable in both process and outcomes. This team will be led by Matthew Harsh, an professor in the Interdisciplinary Studies in the Liberal Arts Department and the director of the Center for Expressive Technologies.

“Cal Poly has made tremendous progress in building trans- and interdisciplinary opportunities for students and faculty, including four minors in science, technology and society; the interdisciplinary studies major; a data science minor and a computing for interactive arts minor,” Harsh said. “Building upon these, we can train the next generation of technologists to think with a humanist frame of mind and the next generation of humanists to gain technological skills.”

By joining PIT-UN, member institutions commit to launching or strengthening initiatives on their campuses that enable interdisciplinary education of students, develop experiential learning opportunities, support students who want to pursue careers in public interest technology, and provide faculty with the support and resources needed to build public interest technology as an area of inquiry.

PIT-UN has a total membership of 36 colleges and universities, including UC Berkeley, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, among other top-ranked institutions. The network is funded through partners in the philanthropic and public policy sectors, including the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, and New America, a think and action tank dedicated to public problem solving.

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