September 22, 2021

CITP’s Summer Fellowship Program for Training Public Interest Technologists

In 2020, CITP launched the Public Interest Technology Summer Fellowship (PIT-SF) program aimed at rising juniors and seniors interested in getting first-hand experience working on technology policy at the federal, state and local level. The program is supported by the PIT-UN network and accepts students from member universities. We pay students a stipend and cover their reasonable travel costs. We are delighted to announce that applications are open for second year of the program. This post describes the firsthand reflections of three students from the program’s inaugural cohort. 

Who are we and where were our fellowships?

Manish Nagireddy: I’m a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon studying statistics and machine learning. I worked in the AI/ML division of the Data Science and Analytics group at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Julia Meltzer: I’m a junior at Stanford, doing a major in Symbolic Systems (part linguistics, part computer science, part philosophy, and part psychology) and minoring in Ethics and Technology. I worked on the Policy Team for the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MoCTO).

Meena Balan: I’m a junior at Georgetown studying International Politics with a concentration in International Law, Ethics, and Institutions, and minors in Russian and Computer Science. Last summer I had the opportunity to work with the Office of Policy Planning (OPP) at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 

What made you apply for the PIT-SF fellowship? 

Meena: As a student of both the practical and the qualitative aspects of technology, I am strongly drawn to the PIT field because of the opportunity to combine my interests in law, policy, ethics, and technological governance and engage with the social and economic impacts of technology at a national scale. In addition to gaining unique real-world experience and working on cutting-edge issues in the field, I found the PIT-SF fellowship particularly compelling because of its emphasis on mentorship, both from peers and experts in the field, which I believed would help me to grapple more meaningfully with issues I had previously only encountered in a classroom environment. 

Julia: I have long been attracted to and inspired by the Public Interest Technology (PIT) sphere which allows technologists, policymakers, activists, and experts in all fields to ensure that the technological era is just and that the incredible power tech offers is used for social good. As a student with interests in policy, programming, and social impact, I was thrilled to find the rare opportunity to make a difference, in an entry-level position, working on the problems I find most essential. The fellowship also offered the benefit of wisdom from the program’s leaders and guest speakers.

Manish: PIT to me, at face value, means creating and using technology in responsible manners. Specifically, this term represents the mindset of always keeping social values and humanitarian ethics when designing sophisticated technological systems. I applied to this fellowship because it offered a unique opportunity to combine my love of technology for social good as well as gain insight into how government agencies deal with tech-related issues.

How did the PIT-SF fellowship influence you?

Julia: From CITP and the orientation for the fellowship, I learned about the wide range of policy issues central to regulating technology. The personal narratives that guest speakers and the program leaders shared provided assurance that there is no wrong way to join the PIT coalition and inspired me to follow the path that I feel drawn to instead of whatever may seem like the correct one.

At MoCTO, I experienced the full range of what it means to work on local (city-wide) PIT efforts. From watching the design team navigate website accessibility to tracking global COVID-19 technical solutions to advocating for new legislation, my summer as a fellow has compelled me to enter a career in civil service at the same intersection into which MoCTO provided me a foray. I’ve had the privilege to continue working for MoCTO where I’ve begun to gain a deep and full understanding of the ways in which technology policy is written and passed into law. Thanks to the role models I found through MoCTO, I am now applying to law schools not only to become a lawyer, but to increase my comprehension of PIT. I learned by watching my supervisor and the rest of our team that a systematic and complete mastery of the technical logistics, the historical use, the social implications, and the legal context are all essential knowledge bases for those working in the PIT sphere.

Meena: As a fellow working with the FTC, I worked on analyzing acquisitions by prominent technology companies. The process of acquisition analysis is one that combines both technical and qualitative skills, allowing me to uniquely leverage my multidisciplinary background to engage with the business structures, technological features, and post-acquisition implications of hundreds of companies. In addition to gaining a better understanding of investment and growth patterns in the tech sector, I developed a deeper understanding of the economic theories and laws underlying antitrust analysis through direct mentorship with experts in the field. At the culmination of my fellowship, my peers and I presented our findings to the OPP and received valuable feedback from senior leadership, which fueled my interest in the field of tech policy and guided me to follow cutting-edge trends in the applications of emerging technologies more closely. 

Through the course of the fellowship, CITP also offered incredible exposure to PIT niches outside of antitrust, empowering me to develop a greater understanding of both public and private sector perspectives and the broader issue landscape. During the bootcamp, fellows were invited to participate in meaningful discussions with industry leaders and senior experts across federal and local government, intelligence, law, and the technology sectors. This provided us with unique opportunities to understand the issues of privacy, equity and access, and algorithmic fairness not only through a regulatory lens, but also in terms of the technical, business, and ethical challenges that play a significant role in shaping PIT initiatives. Given the broad complexity of the PIT field and the evolving nature of professional exposure at the undergraduate level, the PIT-SF fellowship offered impressive and unparalleled real world experience that has contributed significantly to my pursuit of a career at the intersection of technology, law, and policy.

Manish: During my fellowship at the CFPB, I worked on fair-lending models and this introduced me to the field that I wish to join full time: fairness in machine learning. Borne out of a need to create models that maintain equality with respect to various desirable features/metrics, fair-ml is an interdisciplinary topic that deals with both the algorithmic foundations as well as the real-world implications of fairness-aware machine learning systems.

My fellowship directly introduced me to this field and, by the end of my stint at the CFPB, I compiled all of the knowledge I had amassed through a literature deep-dive in the form of a formal summary paper (linked here). Moreover, this fellowship gave me the necessary background for my current role of leading a research team based in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) where the focus is on how industry practitioners formulate and solve fairness-related tasks.

One of the best parts about this fellowship is that public interest technology itself is broad enough of a field to allow for extremely diverse experiences with one common thread: relevance. Every fellowship dealt with, in some capacity, a timely and cutting edge topic. Personally, the field of fair-ml has only been rigorously studied within the past decade, which allowed me to easily find the most important papers and people to read and reach out to, respectively. The ability to find both incredibly pertinent and also rather interesting work is an immediate consequence of my PIT-SF fellowship.

Conclusion: We plan to invite approximately 16 students to this year program, which will operate in a hybrid format. Like last year, we begin with a virtual three-day policy bootcamp led by Mihir Kshirsagar and Tithi Chattopadhyay. The bootcamp will educate students about law and policy, and will feature leading experts as guest speakers in the fields of computer science and policy. After the bootcamp, fellows will travel to (or join virtually) the host government agencies in different cities that our program has matched them with to spend approximately eight weeks working with the agency. We will also have weekly virtual clinic-style seminars to support the fellows during their internships. At the conclusion of the summer, we aim to bring the 2021 and 2020 PIT-SF fellows for an in-person debriefing session in Princeton (subject to the latest health guidelines). CITP is committed to building a culturally diverse community, and we are interested in receiving applications from members of groups that have been historically underrepresented in this field. The deadline to apply is February 10, 2021 and the application is available here.