School of Information grant to connect data engineering and public interest

Raul Rodriguez

A grant awarded to the School of Information will support a spring 2020 conference dedicated to bridging the gap between public interest work and informatics, a field of study which merges data engineering and public health.

The Public Interest Technology University Network, which gifted the grant, is a collection of 21 universities interested in using the field of informatics to serve the public interest. The conference will be held during the spring semester with its location on campus still to be determined.

To diversify the experts, the School of Information plans provide 25 travel grants to invited assistant professors, graduate students and educators at minority institutions to attend the conference, said Kenneth Fleischmann, School of Information professor. 

Eric T. Meyer, dean of the School of Information, said the conference will connect individuals working in the informatics and public interest field.

“Most of the work on public interest technology is dispersed amongst lots of different departments,” Meyer said. “By bringing people together who are working in this area, we are going to be able to build up a shared understanding of what it means to train students who want to improve the public interest through the use of technology.”

The School of Information also plans to create an online community where public interest work can be incorporated into the school’s curriculum, said Fleischmann. Similarly, Meyer said a proposal to create a new undergraduate degree in informatics, focused on the applications of technology in society, is making its way through the University’s approvals process.

The University has already taken steps to advance their focus on public interest technology with the Texas Advanced Computing Center and a UT’s Good Systems program, said Fleischmann, the inaugural chair for Good Systems. He said the conference can show how informatics education can improve public
interest technology.

“(Good System’s) focus is on ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and essentially ensuring that AI serves the public interest,” Fleischmann said. “Part of (the conference) is to spread the word about public interest technology … how technology shouldn’t just be for a profit. It should also be for social good.”

Lan Li, an information studies graduate student, said people have to consider some of the social impacts of technology now more than ever.

“Future generations of students … need to have a better grounding in terms of the impacts of several lines of code beyond, ‘Does it run? Is it right?’,” Li said.