Cyber Innovation and Society Institute Receives Inaugural “Network Challenge” Grant

A multidisciplinary team of computer science, law, and public policy faculty at the University of Virginia has earned a national grant to establish a course aimed at teaching graduate students to deeply 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 lawyers, policy makers, and technologists to design, 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 Jack Davidson, a professor of computer science and an internationally renowned cybersecurity researcher at UVA’s School of Engineering who also leads the University’s Cyber Innovation and Society Institute. Davidson is collaborating with Thomas Nachbar, UVA law professor and senior fellow at the Law School’s Center for National Security Law, and Philip Potter, UVA associate professor of politics and public policy and director of the National Security Policy Center.

The graduate course they are creating will be called Innovation in the Public Interest. The course will be offered for the first time in the spring of 2020.

“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 award highlights a long-standing strength at UVA for research and teaching that analyzes the implications of technology for society, particularly through UVA Engineering’s Department of Engineering and Society. The Cyber Innovation and Society Institute, which UVA launched in 2018, brings faculty together from technical and humanities fields across the University to understand the impact of cyber systems on society, especially how they affect human values such as privacy, freedom, democracy, and individual autonomy.

The institute adopts an anticipatory approach, addressing political, ethical, and data ramifications before they emerge. In the process, the institute carries out multidisciplinary research and education initiatives that focus on the complex technical, social, and policy challenges posed by emerging cyber innovations to ensure that cyber technology benefits all of society equally, fairly, and dependably.

“As cyber technologies become pervasive, anticipating the impact these technologies have on society and developing policies that guide their interaction with society becomes critical,” Davidson said. “A major focus of this new public interest technology course is on creating cyber innovations that are in the public interest and ensure an ethical evolution.”

Innovation in the Public Interest will provide students with a structured experience in the development of public interest technology. The course will be offered through UVA’s schools of engineering, law, and politics. It will create hands-on, real-world, problem-solving challenges across each week of the course.

Davidson, Nachbar, and Potter are working with government and industry partners who have posed the problems. Teams of diverse students from the different schools will be assigned those problems. They then will conduct team “sprints” designed to quickly engineer 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 interactive class structure is intended to emulate the process of “agile development.” Used by large corporations and start-ups alike, the agile process accelerates timelines on 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 amount of information being gathered.

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,” Davidson said. “The idea of the course is to introduce a new mindset about the current process and how it can work better with regards to public interest. Better social outcomes can be reached by including diverse viewpoints from the very first stages of development.”

As the first course of its kind in UVA Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, the curriculum also reflects the Engineering School’s focus on diversity and multidisciplinary initiatives for better research outcomes. “Studies have shown that diverse groups come up with better solutions,” Davidson said. “In alignment with UVA’s 2030 strategic plan, a major impetus for offering the course is to expose our students to the rewarding possibilities of harnessing technology for the public good.”

Nachbar said, “By integrating technology, policy, and law in our course, we are matching how this area is developing. 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.”

“Policy students need to learn to operate in multidisciplinary spaces,” Potter added. “The really hard national security policy problems facing the United States are nearly always also technical and legal problems. By bringing together three UVA schools, we are preparing students to face that reality.”

Innovation in the Public Interest course materials — the syllabus, lectures, readings, assignments, and project descriptions — will also be made publicly available for other universities that are interested in building a similar pipeline of public interest technology students.