News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Recognizing Tech that Serves the Public Good

| May 21, 2021

After a year in which so many lost so much, the Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose (TAPP) Project recognized purpose-minded technologists who innovated in the face of crisis. These pioneers mobilized, organized, and charted a path forward to tackle fundamental problems spanning the medical field, structural racism, and privacy concerns in our online world.

In a ceremony on May 20th, TAPP Faculty Director and Belfer Center Director Ash Carter joined author and professor Safiya Noble and WIRED’s global editorial director Gideon Lichfield to honor the finalists of the annual Tech Spotlight program.

Now in its second year, the Tech Spotlight program attracted several hundred nominations from 14 countries, including from nonprofit organizations, Fortune 500 companies, and start-ups. A common theme of this year’s leading entries was the effort to address some of the most vexing policy and social challenges of our time, from COVID-19 and facial recognition to police surveillance.

“At a time when there's such an egregious and, dare I say, immoral and unfair distribution of resources in the world, we need creative, courageous, and audacious voices to speak truth to power,” said Dr. Noble. “We need thinkers who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. We need people of conscience, who value people over profits.”

As part of its overall mission to create a future where technology serves humanity as a whole, the TAPP team launched Tech Spotlight in 2019 to recognize projects and initiatives that demonstrate commitment to public purpose.

This intention is vital, because many of history’s most consequential technologies are both tools and weapons. A knife, for example, can be used to build shelter, or settle a fight. Nuclear energy can power homes and factories, or threaten human extinction. Social media can inform and inspire, or manipulate.

The good these technologies generate – or the harm they inflict – depend largely on how and why they’re deployed. Ensuring that today’s innovations reflect explicit efforts to limit social risk and maximize public good is the heart of all the work done by the TAPP team, run by inaugural Director Laura Manley.

Nine panelists on screen in a still image from the event.

“In a year where tech was so central to our lives, there have been amazing innovations and clear benefits, but also significant societal harms,” Manley said. “We were excited to review so many projects and initiatives that were doing their part to make a safer, fairer, more inclusive world.”

The 2020 Spotlight program recognized three finalists: 1) the 2020 Census Disclosure Avoidance System (DAS) by the U.S. Census Bureau; 2) the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) by the ACLU; and 3) Project Galileo by Cloudflare.

In a conversation moderated by WIRED’s Lichfield, Kasia Chmielinski talked about the role of the Dataset Nutrition Label in combating algorithmic bias. The ACLU’s Chad Marlow discussed the need to shift ownership over surveillance technologies to local citizens and decisionmakers. Payel Das shared how the Molecular Explorer helps researchers identify possible antiviral drugs to fight COVID-19. Alissa Starzak of Project Galileo reminded attendees of the extraordinary volume of cyberattacks being waged on the digital systems of civil society groups and social organizers. And the Census Bureau’s Michael Hawes examined the challenge of protecting the privacy of census respondents.

Runners-up included:

  • COVID Symptom Study App by COVID Symptom Study                   
  • COVID-19 Molecular Explorer by IBM Research
  • Mind the Gap by Black and Brown Skin
  • Student Privacy Project by the Electronic Privacy Information Center
  • Safe House and Shelter Training Program by Operation Safe Escape
  • Racial Disparities in Automated Speech Recognition by Stanford Computational Policy Lab
  • Dataset Nutrition Label by The Data Nutrition Project 
  • Garbage In, Garbage Out: Face Recognition on Flawed Data by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law
  • Upsolve App by Upsolve
  • Project Amelia by Probable Models 
  • *Privacy Not Included by the Mozilla Foundation
  • Project Lighthouse by Airbnb
  • Terms of Service Ratings by Terms of Service; Didn’t Read Association
  • SmartNoise by OpenDP and Microsoft

“We congratulate all of our finalists this year,” said Carter. “They exemplify the ambition to bend the arc of technological change toward the public good.” 

To read case studies of our 2021 Tech Spotlight Finalists, visit

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Recognizing Tech that Serves the Public Good.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 21, 2021.