Renée Cummings arrived at the University of Virginia in October 2020 as the School of Data Science’s first data-activist-in-residence. Cummings, who speaks internationally on artificial intelligence ethics and inclusive innovation, also lectures on big data ethics in the school’s data science master’s program.
The No. 1 question she gets from UVA students is also big: “How do I make a difference?” Students want to know how to think about making decisions to ensure their choices are ethical and serve society.
“Our work at UVA is to give students the confidence to act responsibly and on behalf of the public good,” Cummings said. “We want students to understand why justice and social good and civic-mindedness are so critical to the work that we are doing in technology.”
Now Cummings is furthering her contributions to this mission by helping lead UVA’s role in the Public Interest Technology University Network, a consortium of 43 academic institutions focused on building the field of public interest technology and preparing the next generation of civic-minded technologists. Her co-leader at UVA, with whom she will serve a three-year term, is Jonathan L. Goodall, professor of civil engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“Technology can help address many challenges facing cities and communities, but technological solutions must be developed in partnership with communities so that they are trusted and targeted in their use,” Goodall said. “Public interest technology is a new field at this interface between technology and community engagement, with the aim of creating technology that best serves the public interest. It is exciting to work with Renée to build a community of folks from across Grounds engaging in this new field.”
UVA was one of 21 college and university founding members of the network, convened in 2019 by New America, the Ford Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. The goal of the Public Interest Technology University Network, which uses the abbreviation PIT-UN, is to collaborate on new curricula, faculty training, experiential learning opportunities and innovative ways to support students who enter public interest technology fields. The network provides grants to its members to support these efforts.
UVA’s relationship with the network was initiated by Louis Nelson, vice provost for academic outreach, who quickly moved to recruit content experts from across Grounds to guide the work.
“While public service and community-facing programs are clearly in the academic outreach domain, UVA is well-positioned to grow a stronger footprint in technology and ethics,” Nelson said. “Technology is going to shape the future, and I am thrilled that Renée and Jonathan are going to be leading and representing UVA in this space.”
“As a founding partner, UVA has a critical role to play, particularly at this moment,” Cummings said. “We have the ability to harness the power of the public in building justice-oriented, equitable, diverse and inclusive technology that is responsible, trustworthy and good for all.”
Cummings, who started her career as a journalist to give a voice to the underserved, went on to advocate as a criminologist, criminal psychologist and AI ethicist. She brings to data science a passion for developing ideas around how to create principled technology.
Goodall comes to the co-leadership role as a 2020 recipient of a network grant, one of three received by UVA since the inaugural grant cycle. The funding will help strengthen the Community Fellows Program, which is jointly spearheaded by UVA Engineering’s Link Lab for cyber-physical systems and the Center for Civic Innovation, a local nonprofit. The fellows program supports citizen-defined, civic innovation projects that serve the Charlottesville community. The 2021 cohort of fellows was announced Sept. 16.
A civil engineer by training, Goodall collaborates with cities facing flooding challenges due to climate change. He works in infrastructure, hydrology and technology, focusing on flood solutions and resiliency measures that best serve the localities.
Goodall is also the associate director of the Link Lab and leads research projects related to smart cities technology, one of the Link Lab’s key research focus areas. Interaction with local community is a critical component of the work and this new role builds on that foundation.
As co-leaders of UVA’s role in the network, Cummings and Goodall will promote opportunities for UVA peers to connect and cultivate public interest technology collaborations.
“Our purpose is to bring together researchers from a range of disciplines to imagine creative new solutions toward justness and fairness in the technology ecosystem,” Cummings said. “We seek to inspire interdisciplinary approaches that leverage the extraordinary promise, potential – and power – of technology for the social good and for the public good.”
Goodall and Cummings also will lead UVA teams in cooperative efforts with other network member schools aimed at supporting the use of data and technology to deliver better outcomes to the public
“Working with peer institutions will be imperative in defining what public interest technology will look like in the future,” Goodall said. “This problem is bigger than any one college or university, so collaborating across universities will be important.”
“The Public Interest Technology University Network collaboration offers an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine the world in a way that technology can be used for the benefit of all,” Cummings said. “Everything I have done in my past prepared me for that future.”