For a third consecutive summer, Princeton’s Information Technology Policy Center gave students the opportunity to learn about the workings of local, state and federal government in the Public Interest Technology Summer Fellowship (PIT-SF).
Students, five from Princeton and 14 from other universitiesspent about eight weeks working for agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
In August, fellows were invited to Princeton to share their experiences. About two dozen attended the sessions, including fellows from the 2020 and 2021 cohorts who were unable to come to campus during the first two years of PIT-SF due to COVID restrictions.
The PIT-SF targets aspiring juniors and seniors who want to work on policy at the federal, state, or local level of government and are attending a school in the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-A). It includes Princeton and other schools like Boston University, Columbia, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Ohio State, and Stanford.
The PIT-SF program was designed to integrate students with government agencies, giving them first-hand experience on issues such as child protection on the web, crimes against the elderly, and cryptocurrency schemes.
The program kicks off with a boot camp hosted by the CITP Technical Policy Clinic Manager Mihir Kshirsagar and Director General of PACI Tithi Chattopadhyayfollowed by a series of workshops with technology policy experts.
An idea comes to fruition
“It certainly met all my expectations,” said Kshirsagar, who came up with the idea for the scholarship. “Giving college students hands-on, hands-on experience in politics is precisely what we’re aiming for,” he said.
The scholarship was modeled after programs for public interest lawyers that Kshirsagar, a former attorney in the New York Attorney General’s Office, knew about. But in the fast-growing sphere of public-interest technology, where regulators and policymakers are hungry for expertise on privacy and security issues in online data, social media and digital advertising, a he declared, “nothing like this existed”.
With the support of then CITP Director, Ed Felten and Chattopadhyay, Kshirsagar wrote a proposal to a Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America and was awarded a scholarship under the PIT-ONE initiative.
Emma Bearsa Princeton School of Public and International Affairs student who was assigned to the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy and identity division, said she was impressed with her peers and their commitment to public service.
“After two years of having everything on Zoom, having some sort of in-person experience has been so rewarding,” Bearss said.
“Everyone is incredibly smart and passionate about these issues,” she said. “Having a space made up entirely of people with these goals, just this drive to want to do good, has also been amazing.”
Christopher Maximos, a political science student and rising senior at Stanford University, once viewed federal agencies as “the do-it-all institutions.” But in the PIT-SF program, he was introduced to the inner workings of local government as a product manager in the mayor’s office of technology and innovation in San Jose, California.
Maximos was tasked with analyzing the data to determine how to enroll more qualified residents in the city’s underutilized child care program. He has seen first-hand how his work has directly helped eligible residents get the information they need to enroll and get the support they need.
“It’s a tangible and rewarding experience,” he said. “Working in local government has really taught me that I can have a direct impact. In fact, I was able to talk to the mayor about my ideas.
Policy experts share their advice
Fellows also gained insight from leading experts at the forefront of technology policy and regulation. They included:
- Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of SPIA, member of CITP Advisory Board and CEO of New America
- Samuel Levine, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Consumer Protection
- CITP faculty member Jonathan Mayerassistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton
- Travis LeBlanc, Partner at Cooley Law Firm, LLP, and CITP Advisory Board Member
- Colin Doctorow, Special Advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Erie Mayer, chief technologist at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Slaughter spoke to students about the challenges of breaking into government work. Mayer encouraged them to learn a variety of digital technology skills, including investigative work, interview techniques and the use of web crawlers. Levine told the students their expertise was needed by the government.
“Having tech talent in our agency makes a huge difference in our ability to respond to the threats consumers face,” Levine said. “It’s a great way to channel your talent in a way that helps people.”
CITP Acting Director Prateek Mittal also met with the fellows, sharing his experience as a privacy and security expert and congratulating them on completing their fellowships.
He also offered some advice: “The real world is rarely as simple as a classroom environment. The real world is rarely structured. Whenever you see a fork in the road, follow the more ambitious path.