Batten's National Security Policy Center Partners Across Grounds on Graduate Course to Advance Public Interest Technology

Students at the Pentagon with the National Security Policy Center

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – A multidisciplinary team of public policy, computer science, and law faculty at the University of Virginia has earned a national grant to establish a course aimed at teaching graduate students to examine the complex ethical, legal, and policy implications of new technologies.

The Public Interest Technology University Network, which is part of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America, awarded the grant as a way to cultivate academic initiatives that prepare the next generation of professionals to build, and govern new technologies that advance the public interest.

UVA, through the Office of the Provost, is the only Virginia university that is a founding partner of the
Public Interest Technology University Network. The $90,000 grant, one of 27 awarded across the country, will be led by Batten’s Philip Potter, associate professor of politics and public policy and director of the National Security Policy CenterJack Davidson, a professor of computer science and head of the University’s Cyber Innovation and Society Instituteand Thomas Nachbar, law professor and senior fellow at the Law School’s Center for National Security Law.  

“I am so pleased that a UVA team was recognized with one of the inaugural awards from the network,” said Louis P. Nelson, vice provost for academic outreach at the University of Virginia. “Our faculty recognize the need for cross-disciplinary partnerships between policy specialists, technologists, and experts in the humanities for solving global technological challenges. The collaborations we see at UVA—not to mention our mission—position us to be leaders in using technology to benefit society, with the team’s course development as an ideal example.”

The new graduate course, called Innovation in the Public Interest, will be offered for the first time in the spring of 2020. Through a program originally developed by the National Security Policy Center in partnership with the National Security Innovation Network at the Department of Defense (DoD), the course pairs students with DoD sponsors to tackle real problems. “The really hard national security policy problems facing the United States are nearly always also technical and legal problems,” said Potter. “By bringing together three UVA schools, we are preparing students to face that reality.”

Teams composed of students from the different schools will each be assigned a problem and will work together to develop a solution that incorporates ongoing stakeholder input throughout the process. Each team also will make a formal presentation of its designed solution to the stakeholders. This collaborative process aims to provide students with a structured experience in the development of public interest technology.

The interactive class structure is intended to emulate agile development, a process used by large corporations and start-ups alike designed to accelerate timelines on the delivery of better technology products. But the process can fall short in the age of big data, with so many social implications involved due to the ubiquitous nature of technology and the amount of information gathered.

“Policy students need to learn to operate in multidisciplinary spaces,” said Potter. “The cross-school teams that we have solving these hard national security problems are exactly the sort that students will be asked to be part of when they enter into their careers.”

“By integrating technology, policy, and law in our course, we are matching how this area is developing,” said Nachbar. “There is not a single discipline that determines how public sector innovation takes place and affects our society. Our course, which brings together faculty and students from the three disciplines to solve actual problems that are provided by public agency sponsors, reflects that reality.”

Unfortunately, agile development does not commonly consider legal requirements, policy ramifications or social implications of the new technologies. “That can result in serious problems down the road,” said Davidson. “The idea of the course is to introduce a new mindset about the current process and how it can work better with regards to the public interest. Better social outcomes can be reached by including diverse viewpoints from the very first stages of development.”

Innovation in the Public Interest course materials—including the syllabus, lectures, readings, assignments, and project descriptions—will be made publicly available for other universities working to build a similar pipeline of public interest technology students.

About the National Security Policy Center: The National Security Policy Center (NSPC) is housed at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The Center provides evidence-based teaching, research, and policy engagement on pressing national security issues facing the United States and the globe. We prepare students and security professionals for the challenging security issues of the twenty-first century. We seek to increase knowledge, build capability, develop relationships, and improve communication, both within the U.S. government, between the U.S. government and academics, and between the U.S. and foreign powers. Learn more at www.nspc.org.

About the University of Virginia Cyber Innovation and Society Institute: UVA’s Cyber Innovation and Society Institute carries out multidisciplinary research and education initiatives that focus on the complex technical, social and policy challenges posed by emerging cyber innovations, ensuring that cyber technology benefits all of society equally, fairly and dependably. The Institute has also launched a Distinguished Speaker Series, which will bring cyber, research, and policy thought leaders to the UVA School of Engineering over the course of the year to discuss topics in emerging technologies and assess their impact on society. Each lecture in the series is open to the UVA community and general public. Learn more at cyberinnovation.virginia.edu.

About the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy: The University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is authoring a new model of public policy education. Of the 250-plus schools of public policy and administration in the U.S., the Batten School has the distinction of being the only one explicitly committed to teaching leadership—how it works, why context matters in decision-making and which actions lead to tangible results. The School’s programs inspire students to act vigorously, effectively and ethically on behalf of the common good. Learn more at batten.virginia.edu.

About the Public Interest Technology University Network. The Public Interest Technology University Network (PITUN), which was convened in 2019 by the Ford Foundation, New America, and the Hewlett Foundation, is a partnership of 21 colleges and universities dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology, as well as growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists and digitally fluent policy leaders. The “Network Challenge” is funded through the generous support of the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Mastercard Impact Fund, Siegel Family Endowment, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and Raikes Foundation.