Sewanee is part of a university network developing the new academic field of public interest technology.

Earlier this year, Sewanee was accepted as one of only two liberal arts colleges in New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network; other members of the network are primarily research universities in urban settings. Now Sewanee has been named as one of 25 winners of a 2020 Network Challenge grant, and the only liberal arts college to receive one of this year’s grants.

Public interest technology (PIT) pulls knowledge from multiple fields—including engineering, data science, public policy, the social sciences, and the humanities—to help find solutions to society’s most pressing issues in an equitable, inclusive way. 

New America has partnered with 37 universities to develop the academic field of public interest technology, working with communities and social change organizations to develop a new generation of undergraduates who have a passion for social change and seek careers in public interest technology. “Sewanee is delighted to be a member of this innovative network addressing the urgent challenges in our society,” said Jim Peterman, the University’s director of civic engagement.

Sewanee has an established program in public interest work, with dozens of civic engagement internships funded each year, and plans to add PIT internships to this existing collection. The University has a record of distinction and effective partnerships in public interest work in a rural setting. 

The grant will be used to build data analytics and technology capacity to address public health challenges in underserved communities of Tennessee. Assistant Professor of Biology Clint Smith and Professor of Politics Amy Patterson will head up this program that will leverage existing faculty expertise, current relationships with community organizations, and an institutional partnership with Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Sewanee faculty and students will gain new skill in biostatistics and epidemiology through study at Meharry, and then will design a research project that involves researchers from both schools to address a public health challenge in both rural and urban areas. 

The University also will pilot a data analysis institute for College faculty and students. It will follow a model created by Rayid Ghani, C’99, and implemented at the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon’s “Data Science for Social Good” programs. The Sewanee Public Interest Data Analysis Institute will be led by Associate Professor of Mathematics Matthew Rudd, and will identify four public interest projects to be addressed by student and faculty teams.

The Public Interest Technology University Network is a partnership of colleges and universities convened by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation. The PIT-UN is dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology through curriculum development, faculty research opportunities, and experiential learning programs, in order to inspire a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy leaders.

Header photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash