Navigating Complexity in the Pursuit of Public Interest Technology

September 7, 2016

The idea of public interest law was first noted in a famous speech by Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis in 1905. In that speech Brandeis argued that, “able lawyers have to a large extent allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected their obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people.” He essentially felt that lawyers had largely failed to utilize their skills in the protection and promotion of social good and that a significant refocus and cultural shift was needed.

His vision was not realized until the social instability and turmoil of the 1960’s. During this time, foundations, philanthropists, and community groups began to issue calls for fellowships and employment opportunities targeting “public-interested” law students. Likewise, law graduates also began to seek opportunities to make an impact and do meaningful work in the face of the complex social issues during the civil rights era. It’s my belief that we’re in that crossroads and social turmoil once again – but this time involving technology. 

We stand at a moment of tremendous change, unpredictability, and ambiguity. In a few short decades, technology has grown to touch every issue in our society, from health, employment, and education to economic development, political engagement, civic life, etc. It has also touched the American civil justice system which faces both promising opportunities and uphill battles in the development and implementation sustainable tech-enabled interventions. The Blue Ridge Labs Fellowship has been especially insightful in both imagining how a broader public interest technology strategy could be implemented as well as highlighting some areas that will require a more nuanced and concerted effort.

Here were my five main takeaways:

  • Importance of integrating the various distinct silos of expertise and information: There is a fundamental lack of evidence-based research and practice in the access to justice context. At the same time, the civil justice community involves a variety of stakeholders, from the direct users, to courts, legal aid, social service groups, government agencies, etc., each with their own observations and interpretations of problem areas and solutions. The Fellowship has taught me that a way to find commonality is to focus observations around pain points of the various stakeholders and then making connections and groupings of common points that are worth exploring closer.
  • Managing the tension between complexity and solvability: The access to justice context is highly complex. Each issue area, whether housing, consumer, immigration, family, etc., warrants a certain degree of specialization and deep digging. Due to this complexity, there is a tendency to focus on areas which most personally appeal to you or are easiest to comprehend. However, one must ask whether those issues with the most appeal are the ones worth focusing limited energy and resources. Should public technologist be allowed to explore problems and solutions they want to take on, or should substantive experts help guide them to the areas that would have the greatest impact?
  • Creating a common culture in support of innovation: The introduction of new sector of public interest technologists into social justice issue areas often dominated by traditional stakeholders is easier said than done. There is a need for a deep cultural shift to take place alongside the development of a public interest technology sector. Traditional stakeholders may need to learn to shift legacy attitudes and find ways to develop trust with the technology community. This is why a key element of that challenge will be to implement more effective strategies for developing and integrating technologists into relevant organizations and projects. Likewise, public sector technologists should actively seek the input and attempt to build bridges of understanding and empathy when interacting with traditional grassroots stakeholders.
  • Don’t forget the broader context: In the area of access to justice, one has to realize that the legal aid community is largely isolated from broader discussions and communities focused on social services and even human rights law and interventions. This creates a fragmented social net ecosystem. Therefore, there is deep insight and valuable lessons that can be drawn by looking at these broader systems which are relational to the legal aid sector.
  • Be prepared for translation problems: When you lack a common language and shared experiences around particular issues, sometimes you see the world in a different way – even though you may be saying the same thing! In helping to engage public-interest technologists around social justice issues, it’s helpful to have intermediaries which can help to translate those working in social justice translate their perspective, ideas, etc. to technologists, and vice versa.

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