Harvard launches public interest tech lab

Harvard University is launching a new Public Interest Technology Lab to offer scholars practical technology tools and experience to help them reimagine how technology can be used by governments and civil society for public good.

The research initiative will be based at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and will form a collaboration among faculty across Harvard University and working with a network of other universities.

Supported by a $3 million grant from the Ford Foundation, the lab will be led by Latanya Sweeney, who joined the Kennedy School faculty as Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology in July, 2020.

Sweeney continues to hold a joint appointment with the Harvard University Department of Government, where she is Professor of Government and Technology.

She is the former Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and was the first Black woman to receive her PhD in Computer Science from MIT.

Sweeney said the new lab will give students, scholars, and faculty across the Kennedy School, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard University experience working directly with technology--algorithms, programs, tools, devices and more.

“I am thrilled to be launching the new Public Interest Tech Lab,” Sweeney said. “The Tech Lab can help solve the problem of scholars and practitioners viewing technology as an abstract black box. Hands-on experience and investigation of the actual worlds being built by technology companies provides more detailed understanding and exposes nuances and alternatives. The Tech Lab will help scholars reveal better ways for government and civil society to use new technologies.”

Sweeney is already working with students and faculty on a range of public interest technology projects focused on voting, vaccine access, and other societal challenges with technological implications.

As the new lab grows, it will develop along three distinct thrusts, all driven by student and faculty ideas: creating, developing, and providing technologies in the public interest; enabling research and development in the public interest; and providing ways to share knowledge about public interest technology across institutions and disciplines.

Shorenstein Center Director Nancy Gibbs, the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy, said: “With her combined experience in computer science and government service, Latanya Sweeney is the ideal person to launch this new research venture. The new lab will be an important addition to the School’s array of initiatives that have deepened teaching, scholarship and action-oriented public policy research on digital and related technology.”

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