PIT-UN Grant Will Further the Aims of the School’s Justice, Equity & Technology Lab
Funding received by two CSSW professors will help train students to evaluate tech tools for their potential to assess and address the impacts of structural racism.
Associate Professors Courtney Cogburn and Desmond Patton have received one of 25 Challenge Grants awarded to the members of Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN). PIT-UN is a partnership that unites colleges and universities committed to building the nascent field of public interest technology by developing curricula, research agendas, and experiential learning programs in the public interest technology space. The two faculty members will use their grant to further the aims of the Justice, Equity, Technology Lab (JET Lab) they co-direct, which has as its mission forging a partnership between social work and technology.
“As the past year has clearly demonstrated to us, technology touches every area of our personal, professional, and civic lives. This shift makes it even more important to critique new technologies through a social work and social justice lens,” said Dean Melissa Begg. “I am delighted by the innovation that Professors Cogburn and Patton have shown as they explore how tech can be used to advance racial equity, one of our nation’s most pressing challenges.”
Both Cogburn and Patton have established reputations as innovators in bringing the concerns of the social work profession into tech circles and in using tech tools to enhance purpose-driven social science.
Patton is a leader in the field of making technology studies empathetic, culturally sensitive and less biased. He is the founding director of SAFE Lab, which creatively uses qualitative and computational data collection methods to examine how gang-involved youth use media, and particularly social media, to express themselves. A key finding has been that grief over traumatic losses can be a pathway to aggressive communication on Twitter but that this context is often overlooked—leading to real-life consequences both in the legal system and in public perception. Lately, Patton has turned to exploring the potential of virtual reality to educate youth and policymakers about the ways social media can be used against them and how race plays a part.
Cogburn’s research explores the use of emerging technologies to examine patterns in and the psychosocial effects of cultural racism. She is the lead creator of 1000 Cut Journey, an immersive virtual reality racism experience, developed in collaboration with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. She is now running multiple studies to empirically assess the effects of that VR experience, to see if it increases levels of racial empathy and also leads to actual behavioral shifts. Cogburn has recently received funding to develop new work exploring the use of VR to visualize structural racism and examine racial politics and sentiment on Twitter, in collaboration with Barnard College psychologist Colin Leach and several Columbia faculty in computer science and data science.
Both professors share a commitment to leveraging technology to map and address complex social ecologies and to support the development of digital tools that address racial disparities in mental, physical, and communal health.
“This award is important because it really positions social work as a major player in the development of emerging technologies,” Patton said. Noting that their plans for the JET Lab call for partnering with community-based organizations and recognizing community members as domain experts, he added: “We hope to infuse a set of ethical ideas and appropriate methods for inclusion. When you integrate the most vulnerable and center people of color, you value the humanity of everyone.”
For Cogburn, one of the most important functions of the JET Lab lies in providing a home to the School’s Emergent Technology, Media, and Society (EMS) minor. Developed two years ago, EMS trains students to interrogate how social work practice intersects with advances in technology and pressing social issues such as poverty, violence, racism, systemic bias, mental health, and the need for privacy and safety. Offering courses in collaboration with other Columbia schools and units, such as the Journalism School, the Digital Storytelling Lab, the Data Science Institute, and the Division of Narrative Medicine, the minor also supports practicum placement opportunities at the NYC Media Lab, Civic Hall, Games for Change, and Firelight Media, as well as many New York City start-ups.
“I tell my students that they already have the skill set and knowledge base necessary to critique technology and how it’s being used in society,” Cogburn said. “They don’t necessarily need to know how to code. They don’t necessarily need to know all of the technical underpinnings of this particular app. They need to feel empowered to speak out on the grounds that this app is interfacing with society, with human beings, and with human behavior, and those interactions have implications for how our society is structured and whether structural inequalities are addressed.”
The full list of PIT-UN’s 2020 Network Challenge winners can be found here.