The global COVID-19 pandemic brought into stark relief the differences between the haves and the have-nots. The divide is especially apparent when it comes to technology. Lack of devices and connectivity limited the access of low-income communities to education and health care. Many nonprofits without tech capacity failed to transition to online programming when in-person activities were suspended due to lockdown orders. State and federal governments struggled with policy responses, hobbled by a lack of detailed information about the health, economic, and social consequences of COVID-19 on people in need. Well-off individuals prospered while lower-income individuals became even poorer and suffered a disproportionate number of COVID-related deaths and disabilities. The debacle raises this question: Is it possible to use technology to reverse these trends rather than accelerate them?

In Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology, New America’s Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank put forth a vision of government programs and policymaking based in modern digital technology. Their objective is no less than the creation of a new field of practice, public interest technology, which they define as “the application of design, data, and delivery to advance the public interest and promote the public good in the digital age.”

The authors come to this topic with deep experience in government’s use of technology. McGuinness, the director of New America’s New Practice Lab, was intimately involved in the central tragedy/redemption episode of GovTech: the disastrous launch of during the Obama administration and its famed rescue by a team of Silicon Valley technologists. Schank, New America’s strategy director for public interest technology, comes from a long career in consulting and tech; she was an early hire at the US Digital Service—the entity born from the fiasco to recruit technologists to find solutions for the country’s most important problems. McGuinness and Schank’s collective experience with technology done both right and wrong inspired this book’s argument for overhauling how government agencies use software and data to better serve citizens.

Read the full article about tech for the public good by Jim Fruchterman at Stanford Social Innovation Review.