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Columbia Receives Grant to Support New Curricula on Technology Design

Pitun grant
Lydia Chilton, Laura Kurgan, and Mark Hansen
October 30, 2019

Three Columbia professors working at the intersection of human-computer interaction (HCI) have received a grant from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PITUN) to support creation of new curricula on designing computational technology that better serves society. Public interest technology is a broadly defined and emerging area of study that combines digital innovation and public policy.

Columbia received one of 27 grants awarded as part of PITUN’s inaugural “Network Challenge,” which aims to support the development of new public interest technology initiatives and institutions in academia, and foster collaboration among the network’s partner institutions.

Traditional approaches to software design can result in computational products that distort and undermine the long-term health of society, political life, and the environment. Combining expertise from journalism, architecture, and computer science, the Columbia University team will create new processes for building technologies in partnership with local civic groups, ensuring that public interests are prioritized. The group will also design a related set of curricula, where computer science students can learn methods for engaging and researching social and physical spaces while students from journalism and architecture will gain the technical skills to build human-centered computational systems.
“HCI is currently optimized for short-term metrics, such as clicks and daily active users,” said Lydia Chilton, an assistant professor of computer science who is part of the project team. “Our students want to create long-term value. They’re looking to produce technologies that respect the histories and cultures of the communities they are addressing with design.”

Chilton is collaborating with Mark Hansen, Columbia’s David and Helen Gurley Brown Professor of Journalism and Innovation and head of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the School of Journalism, and Laura Kurgan, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation and director of the Center for Spatial Research.

Together, the group will run a summer workshop that will serve as a development engine for new processes and curricula. Working with diverse communities in New York City, they will create case studies for building technologies that support long-term community goals in the public interest, with an eye toward ultimately inviting participation from other PITUN universities and creating strategies applicable to diverse areas with unique local challenges.

PITUN, which was convened earlier this year by the Ford Foundation, New America, and the Hewlett Foundation, is a partnership of 21 colleges and universities dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology, as well as growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists and digitally fluent policy leaders. The “Network Challenge” is funded through the generous support of the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Mastercard Impact Fund, Siegel Family Endowment, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and Raikes Foundation.