“Now we’re putting that all out for the world to help us,” Sweeney says. “I see the lab as a transition point between a lot of the work that’s built up over the last decades and the transition to a brighter future.”
Shorenstein Center Director Nancy Gibbs, the Visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy, said Sweeney’s qualifications blending computer science, teaching, and government service make her the ideal person to launch the new venture.
“The new lab will be an important addition to Kennedy School initiatives that have deepened teaching, scholarship and action-oriented public policy research on digital and related technology,” Gibbs says.
Sweeney has already been working with students and faculty on a range of public interest technology projects focused on using technology to enhance democratic participation and vaccine access and to address other societal challenges. That work has already influenced government regulations and prompted technology companies including Facebook and Airbnb to change some of their practices.
Examples of initiatives that have resulted from collaborations with Harvard students and colleagues include VoteFlare, a service in Georgia that monitors voters’ registration status in real time and alerts them via email, text, or phone if something has changed (if they have been purged from a voter list, for example), giving them time to make corrections before election day.
Another project, called MyDataCan, is designed to take control of personal data from technology companies and give it back to users. When people use apps and web-based services that are affiliated with MyDataCan, they can view, delete, share, or privatize their data using encryption, depending on their privacy preferences.
Students carried out some of this work through the Data Privacy Lab, which Sweeney established while based in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. The Journal of Technology Science, which Sweeney founded and serves as editor in chief, has been a channel for sharing information about these projects.
But even as the public interest tech successes were achieved, Sweeney says, the need to expand from a purely Harvard-based, undergraduate program was becoming clearer. “It was realizing that, in any given year, we were leaving more problems unsolved than we could address,” she says. “We needed a way for students to get to do this work, not only at the undergraduate level, but at the graduate level as well.”
Sweeney said the new lab will give students, scholars, and faculty across the Kennedy School, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and other parts of Harvard University experience working directly with technology, including algorithms, programs, tools, devices, and more. Ultimately, the lab will have three overarching goals: creating, developing, and providing technologies in the public interest; enabling research; and providing ways to share knowledge about public interest technology across institutions and disciplines.
All of that effort, Sweeney says, will be guided by a desire not just to foster technology that serves some people, but that serves everyone. “As we go, as we’re shaping the future, we want to make sure that we’re also expanding the opportunities and advancing equity — making sure we’re bringing others along with us,” she says.