How can the engineers and data scientists who work on public-interest research offer mutual support in our work to create systems and pathways for equitable, just research?

Today at RightsCon, a group of engineers, data scientists, artists, and researchers gathered to discuss how the people who create and maintain public-interest research systems can better connect and support each other. The session, facilitated by Kaitlin Thaney (Invest in Open Infrastructure), was facilitated by CAT Lab’s Eric Pennington, Akshay Mehra (SITU Research, Dartmouth), and Bryan Nunez (Open Technology Fund).

The session was also an opening conversation for a new community of practice for public-interest research engineers and data scientists (sign up here).

Here’s what we learned in the conversation, which featured roughly 30 attendees:

Why Connect Engineers & Data Scientists

Session participants discussed common challenges that they want rich conversations and relationships with peers about:

  • Discussions about how, practically, to incorporate community and participant power into research processes and software
  • Peer feedback and expertise sharing on privacy and ethics
  • Resources on effective ways to support affected communities to shape the interpretation and uses of evidence
  • Conversations about day to day operations, from codes of conduct to collaboration processes and data responsibility practices
  • Creative brainstorming and organizing around topics of common concern, such as rights and labor equity in data labeling for AI
  • Best practices for thinking about ideas of scale for community-focused technology creation, where scale is not (and should not) be an end in itself

Common Needs and Resources

In breakouts, we found so many opportunities for mutual support around needs and resources:

  • Mentorship: In large corporations, people get support to grow professionally as engineers, but we don’t get support to think radically about the values and power and ethics in that work. In public-interest research projects, we are often too small to give or receive that kind of mentorship. A larger community of practice could provide that mutual support
  • Common services/resources: smaller teams might sometimes struggle to find the resources for essential security audits, localization, and accessibility support. A larger collective could sign up for support and services together
  • Common learning and growth opportunities— exploring new technologies or practices together through invited talks or peer learning

Things This Community of Practice Should Avoid:

  • We should get away from the hype for constructive conversations about real challenges and what to do about them
  • We should avoid getting stuck into the blinders of a single sector— the most valuable opportunities to create new value can happen across civil society, academia, journalism, and and communities

Creating A Community of Practice for Public-Interest Research Engineers & Data Scientists

The conversation at RightsCon was hugely inspiring, and we were encouraged by people’s enthusiasm to gather for mutual support. If you are excited by this idea and want to get involved, here are three things you can do: