Advancing a new field of research: Sam Gill at University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public opening

In July, Knight Foundation made a $50 million investment to develop a new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy. Of this investment, $5 million went to form the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, which launched on December 3. Sam Gill, Knight vice president for communities and impact, spoke at the Center’s opening event. A stream of the full program is available in the video below, and Gill’s remarks are included underneath.

In the early 20th century, over 40 percent of the population across 11 southern states was infected with hookworm disease—many without knowledge they had the condition. In addition to the deleterious health effects, fatigue caused by the disease was a drain on the underdeveloped south and it threatened the physical and cognitive development of a generation of southerners.

In 1909, John D. Rockefeller gave a 1 million dollar grant – more than 25 million in today’s dollars – to form the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission dedicated to eradicating the disease. The commission focused on education and treatment—it also focused on building a sanitation system commensurate with the demands of 20th century, urbanized society. By the time the commission concluded its work in 1915, it had largely eradicated the problem. And the breakthrough was to recognize that the question of health in an industrial society had become a challenge at the scale of a whole population.

In fact, the leader of the commission, Wickliffe Rose, drew from the experience the belief that the future of disease control would require a new profession. Medicine, he postulated, would continue to focus on the individual treatment of disease. But a new field of public health would be required to control disease at the level of a whole population.

And, crucially, he saw this as a profession. It would include top government administrators, technical experts in the new kinds of knowledge required such as epidemiology and statistics, and then the frontline folks like food inspectors and public health nurses.The profession would require a variety of types of training, and extend across public and private sectors. But, at the center, Rose believed, there would have to be an independent school within a university that could serve as a font for knowledge and talent. The wellspring of a new field of study and of practice.

Based on this plan, the first school of public health opened at Johns Hopkins in 1918. The Johns Hopkins school was joined a few years later by others at Harvard, Columbia and Yale. Today, there’s no single hospital, public health agency or major corporation whose operations have implications for population level health that is not either led or staffed by experts trained in public health.

I believe we are here today to recognize a similar, new development.

The internet – and the corporations that provide services on it – now connect billions of people. The balance of our social, political and commercial transactions are directly or indirectly enabled and mediated by digital technology. This technology is how we are informed, how we engage in commerce, how we connect to each other. Indeed, this technology and the opportunities it affords are how we define our era.

The handful of companies that provide services on the internet are now among the largest in the world, and they operate their businesses wholly unlike the industrial manufacturing that built and defined the developed societies of the 20th century. They thrive not on raw materials, but on data about us and machine learning and artificial intelligence systems unlike anything witnessed in human history.

And just as the last industrial revolution unleashed both an immense leap in prosperity and flourishing, it also created new challenges at the scale of the whole of society. Challenges like those that spurred the advent of public health.

The internet and digital technology have generated opportunities for advancement, well-being and fulfillment that we could not have imagined even two decades ago. Along with these opportunities have emerged new questions that defy current knowledge.

What makes for efficient and fair commerce when data is a competitive advantage and efficiencies come from horizontally distributed network services? What engenders well being in a world when harassment and bullying can literally follow you around in your pocket, and manifest as an anonymized, global community out to get you?

And, most crucially for Knight Foundation, how can a democracy remain informed when, on the one hand, we have access to more information than at any time during human history yet, on the other, the authority behind facts is unclear and destabilized, and when the production and dissemination of information no longer rests in the hands of journalists and editors, but is distributed among the billions globally with an internet connection?

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports democracy through informed and engaged communities. And the modern foundation is operated in accordance with the values of our founders and the way they operated their business.The Knights ran their company at the apex of a professionalized news industry and an economic model that enabled a series of geographically distinct news entities, each bound to the context and culture of its place.That world has profoundly changed. The way the Knights ran their business was not to resist change but to embrace it.

Our investment in the University of Washington Center for an Informed Society is how we at the modern Knight Foundation are embracing these changes. This center is dedicated to thinking anew about the boundaries of knowledge in the academy, and proffering new methods and new questions that can help us to understand how information is organized and transmitted in this digital age.

And, like the public health schools of the early 20th century, this center and the University of Washington system, are dedicated to practical public service. The information school in which the center sits is already nationally recognized for its extensive outreach to practitioners and communities around the country.

Our investment is also part of a series of investments in these new centers. University of Washington has received one of five, $5 million dollar grants to establish such centers. The other recipients are Carnegie Mellon University, The George Washington University, the University of North Carolina and New York University. Another twenty five million has been allocated to similar research enterprises.

Like the Rockefeller Foundation of 100 years ago, we hope that this investment is the beginning of new insights, new knowledge and new paradigms that can help our democracy not only survive but thrive in this new age. We hope to accelerate the work of current scholars, inspire new entrants to the field, and equip a generation of individuals who can work across sectors to ensure that technology serves the interests of an informed democracy.

I’ll close by quoting the final paragraph of the entry of the 1916 Rockefeller Foundation memorandum to establish the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health:

“The benefits from the establishment of such a school as that contemplated will not be measured solely by the number of students trained within its walls. A far-reaching influence should be exerted upon the advancement of the science and the improvement of the practice of public health, in establishing higher standards and better methods of professional education in the field, in stimulating the founding of similar institutions in other parts of the country, in supplying teachers, and in cooperating with boards of health and other medical schools.”

We at Knight have no less an aspiration for the work being inaugurated here at the University of Washington today. Your charge could not be greater, the stakes could not be higher.

We’re proud to stand with you, we thank the University and this community for your mutual commitment, and we look expectantly to what is to come.

Thank you.

Sam Gill is VP/Communities and Impact and Senior Adviser to the President at Knight Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter at @thesamgill.


Photo (top) by Olivia Hagan, University of Washington Photography.