Columbia University
Public
Interest
Technology

We are a group of students and faculty working to design, build, and deploy technology that serves the public. We are a part of the inaugural class of New America's Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN).

Our mission is to develop design practices that help technologists design for the public. Technology for the private sector is often designed with the double diamond design process. Although this has been successful at making consumer goods, designing for the public is a broader problem with the potential to deepen existing inequities in society. For example, deciding to designing for people with a personal computer biases products towards wealthier users. We are working to understand how the design process can be altered to be inclusive of the public. Our current tool is the PIT Design Process.

the public interest technology (PIT) double diamond process

In this process has two distinct differences from the traditional design process:

  1. At every stage of design, there are critical questions to make user the process covers the full range of the public.
  2. The process places greater emphasis on (a) research and engagement phases and (b) the prototyping and testing phases. For PIT, it takes more time to understand the full extent of the problem and to evaluate it with users who may be hard to reach or whose trust may take time to earn.

We develop and teach these practices though courses and independent projects. Examples of projects from Fall 2020 are below.

Fall 2020 Projects
Benefits Quiz
A texting chatbot to help individuals check if they qualify for government benefits in less than 5 minutes.

Full write-up of the design process
Defne Sonmez, Iliana Cantu, Nava Amalfard, Michelle Quin
Mentor: Lydia Chilton
Power Reclamation through Technology
Enhancing Clearfork's ad hoc local network to address community needs

Clearfork Valley is currently mitigating the institutional impacts of the long, exploitative history of the mining industry. Despite many challenges, Clearfork remains resilient with a thriving Appalachian culture and hope in the potential of reliable internet access.

The community has improved access to internet through newly installed Portable Network Kits. This new design not only supports existing community efforts, but also expands on the off-grid applications available on the PNK through an improved user interface and new archiving platform.

Community members and visitors to Clearfork are able to share, preserve and explore the history and culture of Clearfork on a local network with easily navigable functionality. The updates to the PNK is a mechanism for empowerment, that looks “beyond the goal of simply connecting people to the internet.”

Full write-up of the design process
Regina Alcazar, Dillon Davis, Zuzanna Jarzynska, Karen Lin, Yuanyang Teng, Evan Tilley, Ian Wach, Bonnie Wang
Mentor: Mark Hansen
Culture Buddies
A mutual aid network to bridge cultures while supporting immigrants and non-English speakers in Queens.

Culture Buddies is a program allowing people attending a QPL event to be paired together to stay on after the event to assist each other with a language needs. It is geared towards anyone residing in broader New York City, who would like to attend at least one QPL event, has access to a computer/smartphone and an internet connection, and is willing to meet other members of their community to receive or give language-related assistance.

Full write-up of the design process
Paul Berthe, Rupal Gupta, Andrea Molina, Ramisa Murshed
Mentor: Laura Kurgan
Culture Catcher
Cultural Resources for specific language group

Our design aims to provide users with a platform for cultural activities systematically and intuitively. Enhance the sense of cultural belonging and identity. At the same time, it provides a platform for those who are used to multiculturalism.​

Full write-up of the design process
Xindi Wang, Rui Zhang, Chen Liu
Mentor: Celeste Layne
Supporting Community Fridges
Knowledge sharing in mutual aid networks

We created a web application that would allow community fridge volunteers and organizers to share information and resources with one another in a centralized and user friendly way. Our product is an example of public interest technology because it aims to assist mutual aid organizers who promote social good in their communities.

Full write-up of the design process
Sharon, Pazit, Francesca, Zoe, Rousol
Mentor: Celeste Layne
Making Healthcare Accessible
Digitizing Form-Filling at University of Miami's Health Rights Clinic

platForMed is an application that makes filling and managing medical forms intuitive. It provides an user-friendly interface for filling out complex medical forms and a dashboard for viewing client information

Full write-up of the design process
Roopa Bhat, Lord Crawford, Eric Goetschel, Alaz Sengul
Mentor: Lydia Chilton
Multi-Log
Refining Equal Access to Queen’s Public Library

A progressive web application that is designed to decentralize the prevalence of English as the default language for most website development. Given a large population of the Queen’s Public Library (QPL) patrons do not speak English very well and are often bilingual or multilingual, Multi-log treats all languages equally by curating content based on the user’s language preference. The goal is to ensure the user experience for all is maintained regardless of the user’s known language, enabling non-English speakers (especially immigrants) to fully utilize QPL’s services.

Full write-up of the design process
Aruna A. Das, Julio Gomez, Scarlet Tong, Xabier Peralta, Jean Kim
Mentor: Laura Kurgan
Supporting Immigrants Seeking Citizenship
A Customized Checklist App for Naturalization Documents

Naturalize addresses a common problem we came across in our research and interviews: the naturalization process is filled with complicated paperwork and requires applicants to submit various documents, which can be overwhelming and confusing, especially because every applicant has unique circumstances which may call for different, additional documents. The application provides a simplified, customized checklist so users can see exactly which documents they are required to gather and submit when applying for citizenship and keep track of them. To generate the checklist, the application first asks a series of simple (yes or no) questions to ensure the user is eligible for naturalization, then another set of simple (yes or no) questions about their life circumstances. Based on the user’s answers, the application will generate the appropriate list of documents for the customized checklist which is produced after the questions are answered.

Full write-up of the design process
The Bao Ngo, Nicole Hong, Pierre Rodgers, Anna Sabine Low-Beer, and Hannah Hetzer
Mentor: Lydia Chilton
Palimpsest
Engaging with Local History in Livingston Manor

Livingston Manor, a small town on the edge of the Catskill Mountains with just over 1,233 residents in 2018 serves as our case study for this project. Livingston Manor only has one newsroom and one library, so it’s both a news and library desert. The town’s only newspaper is run by two adults and five high school students. Today, news and knowledge about the town is captured and recorded only by this grassroots newsroom.

Our solution, “Palimpsest”, introduces a prototype that encourages communities to share their moments and their local history. The act of sharing memories allows for connections to be drawn between community members and creates a sense of belonging and unity within the neighborhood.

Their responsibility to capture and preserve community knowledge, prompts our question: How might we help Livingston Manor record and engage with their shared history so that community members have a greater sense of identity, belonging, and unity?

Full write-up of the design process
Aya Abdallah, Amy Huang, Pelin Cetin, Will Cao
Mentor: Stacy Tao
Patron Help Center
Assisting Underserved Libraries by Constructing Low-Cost Q/A Applications

Our team’s design challenge was to create a public-interest technology (PIT) tool that would support librarians in their quotidien work through knowledge sharing. Through our initial conversations with librarians at the Queens Public Library , the Miami-Dade Public Library System , and other public libraries in the United States, we primarily considered how we might help librarians make exceptions to rules when needed for high-need groups. The scope of our PIT tool focuses on creating a tool that would redirect the day-to-day labor of librarians who are tasked with assisting patrons toward a more permanent resource that could continuously serve as a form of knowledge sharing, as opposed to fleeting and temporary interactions.

Full write-up of the design process
Adela Locsin, Carlos Eguiluz Rosas, Jared Payne & Kamrul Hossain
Mentor: Anne-Laure Razat