GW Initiative Supporting Equitable Access to Technology Expands

The Ethical Tech Initiative of DC received renewal funding from the Public Interest Technology University Network.

November 22, 2021

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By Kristen Mitchell

The Ethical Tech Initiative of DC, a George Washington University collaboration that brings together GW’s experts in law, computer science, engineering, media and public affairs to address issues involved in the societal impacts of digital technology, is preparing to launch a new push to provide access to justice and educational technology to incarcerated persons in the District of Columbia.

The Ethical Tech Initiative (ETI) aims to advance values of fairness, content integrity, privacy, due process and transparency within widely deployed technologies. It also will develop technological solutions to provide access to justice in the context of civil actions and educational resources to marginalized and underrepresented communities, including incarcerated persons and other self-represented litigants.

It is co-directed by Dawn Nunziato, the William Wallace Kirkpatrick Research Professor at GW Law, and Robert Brauneis, GW Law’s Michael J. McKeon Professor of Intellectual Property Law.

The ETI received more than $135,000 in renewal funding this semester from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), which supported its founding in fall 2020. GW joined the PIT-UN network last year as one of 36 colleges and university partners dedicated to growing a new interdisciplinary field around public interest technology.

During its first year, the team brought in distinguished visiting technologists to help determine where they could have the most impact and held roundtable discussions on the role of technology in access to justice.

Distinguished technologists included director of the Access to Justice Tech Fellows Miguel Willis, Brian Hill of Edovo and Toni Marsh, founding director GW’s paralegal studies master's degree and graduate certificate programs.

In its second year, Ms. Nunziato and Mr. Brauneis are focused on improving access to justice and educational technology for underrepresented groups, especially incarcerated persons, starting with individuals in the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections. This includes deploying “educational content that will engage incarcerated persons and prepare them for productive lives, both while they're still in prison and when they get out,” Mr. Brauneis said. 

The ETI has a short-term goal to provide paralegal educational content and course modules to incarcerated individuals, starting with the D.C. Department of Corrections, through a partnership with Ms. Marsh and GW’s Paralegal Studies program. The team aims to ultimately expand this work to the Federal Bureau of Prisons through the partnership with Mr. Hill.

Incarcerated people have extremely limited access to communication and information, Ms. Nunziato said. This was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic when visitation was restricted and prison libraries closed. “Our hope is that with the use of technology we can provide education to those who are, in some ways, in most need of it,” she said. 

The ETI is also focused on researching and engaging in efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation online, including information related to the COVID-19 vaccine. This includes a collaboration with David Broniatowski, associate professor  at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Ethan Porter, assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs, both of whom are affiliated with GW Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, to research efficacy of different interventions for combating misinformation. Additionally, the ETI collaborates with Professor Lorien Abroms and the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s Health Communication Volunteer Corps to use Twitter’s pilot Birdwatch program to combat COVID-19 vaccine related misinformation on social media, with a focus on its impact on Latinx communities and Spanish speakers.

Tackling multifaceted technological problems requires cross-disciplinary collaborations, Ms. Nunziato said. GW Law faculty bring a theoretical perspective on preserving free speech while combating misinformation, and knowledge about how the court system might respond to changing laws or regulations, but there are no easy solutions to complex challenges.

“We need computer scientists to help understand how the bots are polluting our free speech ecosystem and how to effectively combat that. We need political scientists and data scientists to help run experiments. We need law professors who can weigh in on values of free speech and democracy,” Ms. Nunziato said. “It's really hard to do meaningful cross-disciplinary work when we're not used to talking to one another, but we've been fairly successful in these efforts so far, and we're going to continue with these efforts.”

The ETI is also focused on identifying the ethical and policy issues raised by artificial intelligence (AI). In the past year, researchers created an online, searchable database of information about ongoing and completed litigation involving artificial intelligence, including machine learning. The database encompasses legal cases about algorithms used in everything from hiring to criminal sentencing decisions to liability for accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

Researchers track these cases to advance the values of transparency, fairness and anti-discrimination in machine learning. AI makes predictions about the future based on information gathered about the past—this presents a challenge when past decisions were rooted in discrimination, Mr. Brauneis said.

“AI is going to imitate bias wherever it finds it, and that's an issue that is going to remain very important in the future,” he said. “By tracking litigation about that issue, we can make sure we understand all the areas which are coming up.”

The ETI will host a visiting speaker series focused on AI policy in the spring. The series will be coordinated with Mr. Brauneis’ “Law in the Algorithmic Society” course.