Three GW Research Initiatives Awarded PIT-UN Funding

These interdisciplinary collaborations will provide opportunities for students to explore careers in public interest technology.

November 13, 2020

GW gates

By Kristen Mitchell

George Washington University faculty will develop and support three cross-disciplinary, collaborative research initiatives that center on using technology for public good after receiving funding from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN). The university joined the PIT-UN partnership, dedicated to growing a new interdisciplinary field around public interest technology, earlier this year.

GW is one of 36 colleges and university partners in the PIT-UN. Its aim is to place people, especially those most vulnerable or marginalized, at the center of technology development and grow a new generation of civic-minded technologists and digitally-fluent policy leaders. The GW PIT-UN group, led by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Susan Aaronson, a research professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs and director of the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub, submitted three proposals for funding—all of which were accepted. The awards were announced at the PIT-UN Virtual Convening last week. 

Here are the projects that were funded:

Supporting the Next Generation of Coders
The university received funding to support
GW Coders, an initiative launched earlier this year to create a community for programmers across schools. This network aims to encourage GW students of all backgrounds and disciplines to learn how to code and to help forge cross-disciplinary connections between students and faculty.

The group is led by John Helveston, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Ryan Watkins, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. The group will use the PIT-UN funding to launch a scholarship and internship program primarily for undergraduate students. The scholarship program will support underrepresented students in tech and non-STEM fields, covering the cost of tuition for their first coding class at GW.

“Coding is a general skill that’s useful for anybody. Every student in any degree could benefit, I think, from having a little bit of coding practice,” said Dr. Helveston, principal investigator on the project. “In the future that’s going to become more and more important.”

GW Coders also will use the funding to launch a paid internship program to match undergraduate programmers with both STEM and non-STEM faculty members across the university who need coding support for their research projects. 

“A bunch of researchers need coding support,” Dr. Helveston said. “There’s a lot of research going on where if they had a student who could help them with this one coding piece, they would be able to get this research off the ground.”

Connecting D.C. Students: Collaborations, Not Competition
GW received funding to support the PIT Foundry of DC, a
regional multidisciplinary collective of institutions from local universities that aims to connect students who are interested in public interest technology law with job placements and opportunities, regardless of which university they attend. This effort seeks to pool resources that will help students network and find positions in the field, ultimately diversifying and expanding the career pipeline.

Dawn Nunziato, the William Wallace Kirkpatrick Research Professor at GW Law and principal investigator on the project, said it’s time for universities to collaborate more to meet the pressing issues of our time. Institutions of higher education often view one other as competitors in a zero-sum game, she said, but in fields that have traditionally been more exclusive and less diverse, this exacerbates existing access and equity challenges for students. 

“It’s important for students to start with a collaborative model and find others in D.C. with whom they share interests to start building these partnerships,” she said. “Not seeing other interested students as competitors but as potential collaborators.”

Ms. Nunziato is working closely on this project with co-principal investigator Robert Brauneis, GW Law’s Michael J. McKeon Professor of Intellectual Property Law. The team will use the PIT-UN funding to place students in experiential learning partnerships and externships with public interest technology employers and host virtual professional events for students. Both faculty members are affiliated with GW’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics

Promoting Ethical Technology
Mr. Brauneis and Ms. Nunziato also received funding to form the Ethical Tech Initiative, a 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. 

The Ethical Tech Initiative promotes privacy, fairness, inclusivity and free speech values in digital technology, beginning by focusing on algorithmic decision making and misinformation, said Mr. Brauneis, principal investigator on the project. The initiative aims to examine the values that digital technologies implicitly embody and reflect, and the values that they should be built or redesigned to support. Mr. Brauneis’ research interests include how artificial intelligence is changing the way governments and private companies make decisions.

The Ethical Tech Initiative will bring in guest technologists to interact with faculty and students, lecture and participate in roundtables on issues such as manipulation through disinformation and the values implicit in algorithmic decision making. The initiative will also launch a research project with colleagues from SEAS and the School of Media and Public Affairs on the efficacy of a variety of methods for combatting disinformation. Student researchers from GW Law and other graduate-level programs will study fact checking and labeling of disinformation communications on social media and ultimately write a paper on their findings. 

“Through student involvement with these projects, we hope to nurture a new generation of ethical tech natives who are equipped with the tools necessary to understand the values that are embodied within digital technologies,” Mr. Brauneis said.