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Creating a cross-sector field for a more just tech future

Public Interest Technology / Ford Foundation


Over the past five years, Spitfire has supported The Ford Foundation’s efforts to build the field of public interest technology (PIT).

Ford Foundation set its sights on bolstering the nascent field of public interest technology: recognizing that just as the technological innovations of the 21st century have unlocked human potential and empowered societies in ways that seemed impossible mere decades ago, they have simultaneously been created and deployed in ways that exacerbate systemic inequities.

Drawing from its experience to develop and fortify the field of public interest law in the 1960s and 1970s, the Ford Foundation committed $50 million in 2019 to a catalyst fund, intended to accelerate the development of the field of public interest technology: a cross-disciplinary approach that demands technology be designed, deployed and regulated in a responsible and equitable way—in other words, in service of the public interest. Ford’s approach centers on a theory of change that holds that for society to fully benefit from the power of technology while offsetting its harms, PIT will need to be infused across four key sectors of society, including academia, the private sector, government and nonprofits.

Spitfire has been an instrumental partner from the inception of Ford Foundation’s Public Interest Technology Catalyst Fund, collaborating closely with the director of the fund, the Foundation’s president, the international director of Technology and Society, and other program officers to holistically integrate PIT across the Foundation.

Spitfire has also supported Ford Foundation in communicating about the PIT field, from crafting messaging to make the case for the urgent need for a public interest approach to technology, defining what we mean when we say public interest technology, building thought leadership for the Foundation around its catalyzing role in building the field, and bringing in new partners to join the field across each of the four key sectors.

Making the Case for PIT across four key sectors
Civil Society: Spitfire has helped develop thought leadership for Ford Foundation among peer funders, building its profile as a catalyst in building the PIT field with media placements in prolific national and philanthropic trade outlets like Politico, Fast Company, Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Public Interest Technology Series, and Chronicle of Philanthropy, among others. We have also helped facilitate and prepare keynote, panelist and conference roles for PIT spokespeople at key events like 2022 Rightscon, the SSIR Frontiers of Social Innovation Conference and the 2023 Grace Hopper Celebration to name just a few. 

Spitfire has also supported Ford to bring more funders to the PIT table, catalyzing new investments in the field and creating new funding models to ensure longevity. We have organized numerous funder roundtables, dinners and other events to make the case for the importance of investing in a cross-sector PIT approach to some of the leading peer funders in the nation. For each of these gatherings, Spitfire has helped identify key influencers, crafted messaging to make the case based on their unique values and barriers, designed each meeting and its run of show, prepared spokespeople, crafted pre-reading background materials and facilitated next steps to maintain momentum. This has resulted in a number of collaborative efforts, pooled funds and even new funding programs with a PIT focus. 

Academia: One of Ford’s earliest and most promising investments is the Public Interest Technology-University Network (PIT-UN), a partnership that unites 49 colleges and universities committed to building the nascent field and growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists. Spitfire worked with the network’s communication and development teams to build the communications infrastructure among network members with a particular focus on engaging donors and the media. Spitfire created a messaging guide so all the campuses could tell the story of PIT in a consistent way as they train the next generation of public interest technologists. We created and hosted a community of practice among communications and development teams at participating universities, giving them the chance to learn from one another and identify best practices for promoting the field and securing funding. Spitfire has also designed several sessions at each annual PIT-UN conference, bringing together university presidents with funders and foundation presidents like Darren Walker to facilitate cross-sector knowledge sharing. 

We have also consistently partnered with PIT practitioners in academia to inject PIT considerations into critical discussions from elections in the New York Times and voter engagement in Axios, to contact tracing in Fast Company to leading the widely covered launch of Dr. Timnit Gebru’s new Distributed AI research Institute and Dr. Latanya Sweeney’s Public Interest Tech Lab at Harvard University. 

Private Sector: While Ford has funded PIT projects with civil society organizations for years, the private sector remained an elusive challenge. How do you convince companies that they need to be more proactive in protecting consumers from the unintended harms produced by their technologies? We started to crack this nut by interviewing executives from private sector companies to gain a better understanding about their knowledge of public interest technology and their barriers to integrating the concept into their company structure. Spitfire drafted a case statement for and graphic representation of the field for Ford to share with the companies and collect their insights. Ford is now in active conversations with a number of private sector companies to play a role in building this field, ranging from making the case for including interdisciplinary PIT experts at senior leadership levels at tech companies like Cisco, to forging cross-sector partnerships to reimagine how the digital ecosystem can better support the public interest. Additionally, from 2021 through 2023, Spitfire supported Ford Foundation in serving as a convener to facilitate voluntary cross-sector collaboration between private and public sectors, as an experiment to prove the viability of collaboration toward a shared goal among groups that historically have worked on different sides of the table. Over two years, Ford Foundation, Microsoft, and the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative at New America collaborated with dozens of cross-sector stakeholders within the technology ecosystem to identify conditions for better, healthier, more secure digital ecosystems that could help guide the next generation of open protocols and platforms. 

Public Sector: Spitfire has helped Ford make the case for PIT personnel to be at the highest levels of government in multiple ways including opinion pieces in Fast Company and The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Within the Biden Administration, top level technologists including Alondra Nelson, Acting Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Robin Carnahan, Administrator of the General Services Administration, infuse the public interest in everything from federal procurement to how people access government services and advancing equity to science and technology. Most recently, Spitfire supported Ford in announcing its partnership with the National Science Foundation and four other major funding partners, to launch the Responsible Design, Development, and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT) program to strengthen cross-sector collaboration and ensure that the design, development and deployment of technology includes the vital perspectives of those most impacted by technology’s harms while harnessing the positive potential of digital tools and programs.

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