Among Ford's Foot Soldiers For Combating Inequality: Public Interest Technologists

When the Ford Foundation pivoted toward combating inequality "in all its forms," many people wondered how, practically speaking, this strategy would play out in the real world—and, far more importantly, in regard to the foundation's longstanding areas of grantmaking.

In the year and a half since President Darren Walker's announcement, the foundation's new mission has come into sharper focus across the arts and media space.

In April, for example, Ford bet that storytelling could be a powerful medium for fighting inequality. Meanwhile, we recently reported on the foundation's support for Dance/NYC, an organization devoted to advancing disability rights.

Now comes word that Mozilla announced the second class of Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellows. This program is part of the Ford Foundation's commitment to "support the development of a new generation of public interest technologists: People establishing professional careers that leverage their technology-related expertise to serve the public good." In short, fellows share the common belief that the world can be made a better—and, we surmise, more equal—place by leveraging the open internet. 

The 2016 class of fellows come from five continents and bring their expertise in data visualization, design, development, digital storytelling, research and policy analysis to eight international NGOs.

If Ford's efforts in developing career paths for "public interest technologists" sounds eerily similar to Knight's "community platform collaboration" model in the digital journalism space, don't be too surprised. Big funders are dialed in to a kind of collective consciousness involving the promising, yet still ambiguous role of emerging technologies and practices across the sector. They're all navigating the same uncharted waters.

To that end, Ford articulated three lessons learned from last year's inaugural program:

  • Agree on "common goals and what success looks like" between the fellow and the host organization
  • Balance fellow-to-fellow collaboration with their organizational work
  • Support collaboration among host organizations 

Now, we admit, up to this point, nothing about the fellowships suggest they'd be supported by the inequality-fighting Ford Foundation. It seems like standard stuff. But take a closer look at the fellows' areas of expertise and proposed projects, and suddenly things start to crystallize.

Fellow Matt Mitchell, for example, is bringing his experience training activists and journalists on digital security issues to supporting ColorOfChange’s mission to strengthen Black America’s political voice. Steffania Paola Costa di Albanez from Brazil, meanwhile, brings data and design experience to support Derechos Digitales in promoting human rights in the digital environment across Latin America.

Yup, sounds like Ford to us.