CMU Professors Awarded Grants to Advance Public Interest Technology

Faculty will spearhead projects on policy innovation and socially responsible language technologies

By Shryansh Mehta

Two Carnegie Mellon University faculty members, Christopher Goranson and Yulia Tsvetkov, have each received grants of $90,000 from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN).

Goranson, distinguished service professor in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, and Tsvetkov, an assistant professor in the Language Technologies Institute (LTI) of the School of Computer Science, were two of 27 awardees in the inaugural “Network Challenge.” The program supports the development of new public interest technology initiatives and institutions in academia, and fosters collaboration among the network’s partner institutions, which includes CMU.

The projects supported by these awards will continue the university’s leadership in the development of the public interest technology, a broadly defined and emerging area of study that combines digital innovation and public policy.

Policy Innovation Lab Starter Kit

Goranson leads the Policy Innovation Lab course, a new initiative that connects students with actual policy challenges and introduces an agile, design-driven framework to rapidly create solutions to those challenges. In fall 2019, the course is being co-taught with Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute. From improving transportation wayfinding to improving local government transparency, students are investigating smart city policy challenges and building policy-driven prototypes shaped by user research.

The course emphasizes an agile methodology, citizen-centered design and open-source as essential components of effective policy implementation to deliver products and services that have the potential to live beyond the course. The course is intended to prepare aspiring public interest technologists for careers in government service.

“This course gives our students the opportunity to work directly with external partners to experiment in building better government services and policies in ways that can make government work better for people” Goranson said.

Goranson was awarded a grant to develop an open-access, open-source starter kit and fellowship program that formalizes the course framework. The starter kit will help PIT-UN member universities train future public interest technologists by adopting coursework that encourages rapid experimentation, novel approaches and viable solutions that meet the needs of end users. By enabling the creation of programs modeled after Heinz College’s Policy Innovation Lab, the Public Interest Technology University Network will channel top talent into the field.

“The Policy Innovation Lab Starter Kit will help our partners pilot similar experiential coursework at their universities that will ultimately lead to better government policies and services for all in the future,” Goranson said.

All artifacts, code and research created through the Policy Innovation Lab programs will be available on Github and Canvas to further contribute intellectual resources and best practices to the shared benefit of all PIT-UN member universities.

Socially Responsible Language Technologies

New America also awarded a $90,000 grant to Tsvetkov for a project that aims to bridge the ethical gap in computer science education by enhancing competency across institutions to teach socially responsible language technologies.

Tsvetkov, along with Alan Black, an LTI professor, teaches an course in computational ethics, which introduces students to real-world language technology applications while addressing ethical implications and risks posed by language technology and other artificial intelligence tools.

“Billions of citizens use social media, email, and text messaging platforms built upon language technologies. These tools have become increasingly prevalent in data analysis, providing services on the web, even providing means for disaster response,” Tsvetkov said. “But there is also a growing awareness about the negative side: bias in AI tools learned from user-generated data, pervasiveness of hate speech, propaganda and fake news.”

The dual nature of language technology is at the core of Tsvetkov’s coursework, educating students about the positive and negative impacts of such technologies and how to view those impacts through an ethical lens. Through her course, Tsvetkov hopes to better equip the next generation of AI engineers and public interest technologists to make conscious, ethical decisions.

The award will help to expand the course for graduate and undergraduate students and to develop open-access educational materials including video lectures and slides, lecture notes, assignments, creation of a textbook and sample course projects.

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Debbie Groves
Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
Director of Development