JET Studio Brings Social Work Values to Development of New Technologies
Founders Dr. Courtney Cogburn and Dr. Desmond Patton believe a social work perspective on emerging technologies such as AI and VR is not only possible but critical.
“Social work and social workers are important to every phase of tech development,” says Associate Professor Courtney Cogburn. In their work at the Justice and Equitable Technology (JET) Studio — a think tank, collaboration center, and training initiative based at the Columbia School of Social Work — Cogburn and Desmond Upton Patton, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Curriculum Innovation and Professor, aim to make social work values of justice, equity, and inclusivity part of the groundwork of developing new technology products.
Rather than adopt every new tech product that comes along, without critically thinking about its impact on marginalized communities, they believe social workers should play a role in conceptualizing, testing, and using new applications of artificial intelligence and virtual reality before they are brought to market. In the case of potentially harmful technologies such as facial recognition, this deliberation may raise the question of whether they should exist at all.
“Development and application of these technologies without social workers is dangerous,” Cogburn explains. She is the co-creator of 1,000 Cut Journey, a virtual reality experience designed to raise awareness of racism and build empathy for those impacted by racism. “It will inevitably do harm and speed up processes that produce social inequity. Those leading these technologies don’t have the background to adequately anticipate the effects on society and humanity, particularly the oppressed and marginalized.”
Initially conceived as JET Lab, their project has been renamed JET Studio to emphasize community, development of new products and projects, and public engagement. Since receiving a grant last winter from the Public Interest Technology University Network to evaluate tech tools for their impact on structural racism, the Studio has expanded in a number of directions. Patton, a public interest technologist who has produced well-known work on youth, violence, and social media, is leading a transdisciplinary project with the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York to leverage social media data and community engagement to understand the needs of people who live in New York City neighborhoods.
JET Studio is also in talks with major social media companies about having social workers review, test, and use new products before they are launched, so that the tools will support, rather than further marginalize, vulnerable communities. In some cases, Cogburn underscores, social workers may recommend that products not be brought to market.
The Studio will incorporate an interview series and other live events shared over social media. This series will offer a platform for organizations developing technologies with a social justice focus, such as equitable tools for raising bail bonds, supervising people who are on probation, and delivering health care.
Moreover, JET Studio will provide a way for such creators to collaborate and find one another. “We are going to map the landscape of people who are at the intersections of emerging technology and social justice based in New York City,” Cogburn says.
In addition, the Studio is the home base for the School’s courses in Emergent Technology, Media, and Society (EMS), which are a powerful draw for students. They include a survey course that encourages students to think critically about privacy, ethics, and data use; a virtual reality course that meets in VR; and a design course emphasizing justice and human rights. Cogburn and Patton hope to establish field placements for students at tech companies and startups.
While students may be expected to know basic programming, Cogburn tells them, “You don’t need to have trained in the disciplines that create the actual product to have an expertise and perspective. Your training and background as a social worker give you a lot of what you need to do this kind of work.”