Michael Swerdlow, Sep 23, 2020
In the era of COVID, public interest organizations from legal aid societies to public health departments have never been busier while many students have never had more free time. So, too, our civic need for effective social problem-solving has never been greater. What better time to launch a curated platform for social problem-solving and civic technology?
What if there was an online exchange and information-sharing forum, the Public Interest Project Hub (PIP Hub), that would enable students and public interest organizations to connect to share ideas and coordinate projects to address civic needs.
Public interest organizations or citizens with problems who understand public and organizational needs could add project proposals to the Hub. These ideas and proposals might range from a client intake system that facilitates real-time statistical analysis to a know-your-rights app that helps people understand regional laws and advocate for themselves, or a hundred other creative ways to address or mitigate collective problems. Students with relevant policy, design, and technological skills could then connect with the organization in a volunteer or contracted capacity to develop a project plan that leads to a research report, tech tool, website, or another outcome that helps scope or address the issue at hand.
GitHub has been wildly successful in allowing people from across the world to collaborate on technical projects such as Bootstrap and JQuery; but, without guaranteed and actively managed student and community/organizational participants, similar spaces for public interest technology have not emerged. This is a shame as there are likely many front-line organizations who have unmet technical needs and many students who would be excited to support them in developing solutions.
Think of PIP Hub as a forum combining features from Google Drive and GitHub. The drive would be the external-facing system that students and organizations could use to connect with each other. It would contain a project idea intake form and a Google sheet listing open projects that students could either apply to or just start working on. It could also contain white papers describing organizational and community needs; completed student research on public policy and/or social problem-solving issues; and folders that link to completed or ongoing social problem projects on GitHub. The PIP Hub would facilitate the collaborative development of technical projects. It would also make it easy to build open-source projects available to a broad community of developers and users.
Students who have worked on policy/civic tech projects but who have since stepped away from their work could also benefit from the hub. Many project-based courses require students to research and prototype projects, but after the term ends most of those projects never move forward. The next year another group of bright-eyed students enters the same course only to repeat the cycle. Students who worked on policy proposals or civic tech projects could leave their projects in the drive and then allow students who take a similar course, or are just interested in the project, to pick up where they left off and move the project further toward real-world use. Public interest organizations could also view these projects, provide feedback, and write proposals for a group of students to build a tool based on a student prototype.
Some public interest organizations may hesitate to engage with PIP Hub, pointing out their need to own the data they create and control the technology they rely on. Yet, the counterpoint is a pernicious trend in civic technology with proprietary software that privatizes public data, prevents community members from understanding a technology’s impact, and creates barriers for widespread adoption. To ensure ethical and effective design, all work-products that emerge from the hub should be open source or licensed through Creative Commons. If necessary for their mission, public interest organizations should be able to request that work products be closed source.
In sum, the PIP Hub could facilitate an innovation ecosystem grounded in civic engagement that would connect public interest organizations with unmet needs to students who are seeking ways to develop their skills in policy research and/or civic technology. It could also connect students who have started policy/civic tech projects to others looking to carry them forward.
To ensure a successful innovation ecosystem, PIP Hub staff would need to perform several administrative and constructive functions. They would need to publicize and solicit engagement for the drive from public service organizations, students, and professors. They could also structure the terms on which the work would be done and facilitate project sustainability by providing students with either course credit or grant funding. Once projects are completed, the Hub could publicize the products to similar organizations that could benefit from their use. Staff could also connect students and organizations to professors or foundations who could advise or fund projects. Lastly, they could organize and index documents so that content is easily searchable. On the Google drive, this could mean imposing a standard format on the tracking sheet and grouping projects displayed for external observation by issue area to be most accessible for partner organizations. On Github this could mean managing permissions and ensuring that each project has a README file containing a comprehensive summary of the project. Financing for the PIP Hub could be provided by such groups as the Public Interest Technology University Network or the philanthropies behind it. University programs and departments could pay small dues to give their students access, thereby enabling cross-university partnerships and team experiences for their students. Public interest organizations could join as members. Corporations could sponsor the hub as donors. Throughout, the Hub would retain its independence and neutrality to enable civic organizations, community members, and students to partner freely on projects. It may also be advantageous to pilot several different hubs with different funding and administrative models based out of different research universities. After a trial period, the hubs could compare, adopt best practices, or merge into a unified system.
In short, the PIP Hub would contribute to a world where communities can join together in collective problem solving to find sustainable solutions to public problems. It would facilitate the distributed creation of high-quality research and technical tools that public interest organizations could use at low-no cost. It could help communities share information and find collective solutions to problems they identify. It could serve as a training ground for a generation of students interested in applying analytical and technical methods to societal problems.
Michael Swerdlow is a recent Stanford graduate and admit to Columbia Law School. If any organizations are interested in creating their own PIP Hub feel free to reach out. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org