The PKG Center and Fostering Public Interest Technologists at MIT: an interview with Alison Hynd and Jill Bassett

There is a need is for us to continue to challenge how MIT students think about themselves and their role at the institute. It’s essential to make public the importance of students working on public interest technology issues.

The PKG Center and Fostering Public Interest Technologists at MIT: an interview with Alison Hynd and Jill Bassett

Question 1: What technologies are you working with, or have you worked with?

[Alison] In our work, we facilitate experiences for students who use technologies. Broadly speaking, this includes two buckets of students. The first group is made up of students who work with, typically nonprofits or government offices, but also other kinds of socially-focused organizations. These are students who take the tech skills they’ve gained at MIT, such as coding experience and data science, and apply them in agencies where these skills are often uncommon amongst staff and broader organizational processes. These students apply a set of tech skills in a context where it's very much needed, almost kind of as a consultant, rather than necessarily developing a public interest technology. The second group is composed of students who work with a community organization and help to establish or bolster how a particular technology is going to help the organization do something new and different in their work. Additionally, the PKG Center also sees students who have applied projects that they bring home with them, and therefore combine the tech skills with a vision for what technology can strategically become. This is where students work almost as temporary staff members, contributing directly within an organization due to their ability to navigate technology in practice. 

[Jill] Absolutely, echoing Alison, students work with organizations such as nonprofits, government organizations, or social enterprise on projects intersecting with technology and the social good. These students work either independently or in teams, through structured or more entrepreneurial programs. For example, students might work with a community partner to optimize software and technology, code or build something new, analyze and visualize data for operational changes or advocacy, or research and develop policies related to technology use,  

Question 2: How do you take account of MIT’s obligation to pursue the public interest in the work that you do? 

[Jill] The PKG Center is here to enable students, both undergraduates and graduates, to use the skills that they develop in the classroom in applied manners for social good in conjunction with community partners. For the Center, social good is defined broadly and is organized around the often-intersecting themes of Technology for Social Good, Health Equity, Climate Change and Sustainability, and racial and social justice. 

An inherent challenge, I think with MIT in general as well as for MIT students, is that the very skills that get them into MIT also have incredible market value. Students come in really excited about doing work for social good, often are drawn to careers in Silicon Valley and financial services. Therefore, the PKG Center works hard to provide a wide range of opportunities for students to learn about the many ways they might apply their talents to create social change personally and professionally throughout their lives. 

[Alison] Additionally, the role of the PKG center is to be a career development hub for students who've got these tech skills and don't really want to apply them in traditional tech work environments and for them to get a taste for the world of social impact organizations where skills can be brought to meaningful positions. Ones where students can play a forward facing role in social impact organizations and government to make that difference in the world. Whether in an organization or in their own companies, Students can integrate into MIT’s entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem with a social lens to engage with issues communities, governments, and social organizations are facing. This is also something we aim to accomplish with partners across the institute, such as the Innovation Headquarters (iHQ) and others.

Question 3: What more could you and others do to help MIT team meet its social obligation to pursue public interest technology?

[Jill] We at the PKG center have a set of expertise and skills that we embed into our own offerings and portfolio of opportunities for students. We also know that there are faculty and other departments, labs and centers at MIT that also have knowledge about working with communities and mutually respectful, reciprocal manners. We don't aim to own social good at MIT. However, we also know that our reach is currently limited and that there aren't specific requirements that do bring this to the doorstep of every student at MIT. If we think about the impact and general mission of MIT, a big part of this message is to produce educated global citizens, many of them who will be our future technologists. It feels imperative that public interest technology get infused into MIT not only through the PKG Center and partner Departments (DLCs), but also into curriculum broadly and bolstering opportunities for community engaged learning to reach the maximum number of students. As of right now, we have a modest, but difficult goal of reaching about 25% of undergraduates over the course of their four years here. 

[Alison] In this case, the need is for us to continue to challenge how MIT students think about themselves and their role at the institute. It’s essential to make public the importance of students working on public interest technology issues. Many undergraduates we engage with say they never have a conversation in any of their classes around tech ethics or applications of tech until they get to graduation. This should change to better reflect the role tech plays in our society. 

[Jill] Ultimately, the PKG Center is concerned about the use of tech in society, and we are interested to see where technology in the public interest can be applied by MIT students and graduates across a wide array of sectors across public and private organizations. There are many ways to do social good at MIT. We hope more students continue to engage the wealth of resources available at the PKG center and other on-campus organizations as they complete their studies and beyond.  

Alison Hynd is Assistant Dean and Instructor at the PKG Center. She oversees PKG Center  programs that support student high-intensity  community service projects locally, in the United States, and around the world. Alison also serves in a number of risk management roles at MIT, is a member of the Distinguished Fellowships Committee, the Community Service Fund Board, and the steering committee of Radius, a program focused on ethics and technology. 

Alison has an MA in Archaeology from the University of Edinburgh, UK, and an MSc and PhD in Palaeoecology from the University of Sheffield, UK. She has carried out archaeological and ecological fieldwork in Cyprus, Syria, Greece, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. Her international experience also includes working as the Assistant to the Director of Archaeology in the British Academy at Rome, Italy. Her doctoral work investigated the applicability of a method for using the physical characteristics of contemporary plant species to predict environmental conditions to plant remains from archaeological contexts.

Jill Bassett was formerly Associate Dean & Director of the Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Center. She currently serves as Chief of Staff to Chancellor Melissa Nobles at MIT. Prior to joining MIT, Jill served in executive director and strategic advisor roles at Florida International University and Harvard Medical School. She also served as chief of staff for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services, helping to oversee a portfolio that included a broad swath of state government agencies, programs, and initiatives. Jill earned her BA in Anthropology from Amherst College and holds a Master of Science degree from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health