External Impact of F&A

Oct. 4, 2021

Written by Ayana Byrd & Kenrya Rankin

Back to Impact Narrative

Success in the F&A program is achieved not only by what it gives to participants directly, but also how their innovative work contributed—and continues to contribute, both directly and via ripple effects—to the internet health movement. In addition, positive impact means that organizationally, Mozilla has been able to expand its position within digital and human rights movements.

Mozilla helps grantees or fellows go faster on their topic, and it also provides us with a body of work that we can then apply to our advocacy tools and research tools.”

“The interesting thing is not how many [people or organizations] we fund, but what questions we were able to answer and what things we figured out in the world.”

“Mozilla has a large influence as a leader of critical discourse around tech’s most pressing problems and [they] use their investments to support change in thinking and actions.”

“It’s a network of people building a healthy internet and advocating for technologies that are trustworthy.”

There is a recognized challenge that in order to measure the impact of the F&A program, it is necessary to determine how Mozilla contributed to changes that are a part of the societal movement of internet health. It is difficult to measure impact in a sector when there are so many players and Mozilla is but one.

External 5.jpg

In order to mitigate this challenge, a multi-tiered evaluation approach can be used to measure the multiple ways in which the F&A program—and by extension, Mozilla—has impacted the tech landscape:

Individual Impact

The person or group who received the fellowship or award was able to further their career or become more dedicated in their area of work. “Did they get to go more where they wanted to with their career and with their heart and their values?” asks one staffer. “That’s a win in its own right.”

The fellowship program has been successful in taking technologists who were at a beginning- or mid-level part of their career and providing them the access and ability to become leaders in pivotal roles in accelerated periods of time. These include Sarah Aoun (2018 fellow; currently chief technology officer at Open Technology Fund); Terah Lyons (2017 policy fellow; currently executive director of PartnershipAI); Amba Kak (2017 policy fellow, currently director of global policy and programs for AI Now); Danielle Robinson (2016 fellow, currently executive director of Code for Society); and Matt Mitchell (2017 fellow; currently a tech fellow at Ford Foundation).

“I was working for the New York Times as a data journalist and spending my nights and weekends donating time, helping groups think about surveillance and digital safety and hygiene and security. I talked to a few people and they said, there’s this Mozilla fellowship you should look at. So I thought, I’ll apply and if I get it, I will dedicate myself to it, maybe I’ll feel more satisfied doing good and giving back that way.... It’s not even hyperbole when I say it changed my life.”

alumni fellow Matt Mitchell

“I was kind of a nobody open source contributor—nobody followed me on Twitter…. I got talks occasionally at conferences when I would apply and follow up a bunch, but I wasn’t a big name. And when I got the fellowship, all of a sudden, all these random people all over the world that I didn’t know were contacting me because they were Firefox contributors, or they had been involved with Mozilla’s growth and were interested in what I was working on. And I was getting more talks at conferences.”

“[I] had an incredible experience. It’s really powerful to be attached to the Mozilla name. You get amazing credibility from that.” \\ “It feels like this opportunity of a lifetime, to rethink a field that touches most of what people do every day.”

“The biggest thing the Mozilla fellowship has given me is not just the time to do what I love, but to do the work I know really needs to be done.”

The F&A program also led a number of grantees and fellows to enter internet health and public interest technology careers, often shifting from positions in big tech to nonprofit or civic technology. For instance, the Open Science program expanded participants’ understandings of what it meant to be a scientist or researcher. An Open Science fellow shared that the fellowship “helped me see the parallels between activism in the web space, what it means to have an open and free web, and how, in parallel, you can see that in research and academia.”

Organizational Impact

In this way, Mozilla’s impact is indirect, but can be evaluated by looking at how an organization’s strategy evolved as a result of the fellows program. This is exemplified by Amnesty International creating a tech division that focuses on global AI issues after having an embedded Mozilla fellow (2015 fellow Tim Sammut, discussed in more detail below). Another example is the Ford Foundation, the initial funder of the Open Web Fellows, creating its own tech fellowship. In both cases, not only did an organization amend its internal structure as a result of knowledge gained through the F&A program, but each did so in ways that align with Mozilla’s strategic goals around ethical AI.

“Ford funded us to do something early on, but they saw that the model was impactful and adopted it themselves internally. Under their Ford Fellowship program they bring senior technologists into nontechnical programs. And they are doing that to increase the knowledge and potential impact of bringing civil society issues together with technology. From a knowledge sharing perspective, these sorts of partnerships have grown.”

“With the recognition of the Media Fellowship, and the debates that emerged from that, we have changed our vision. In the beginning we were doing mostly direct advocacy activities and training with materials. Now we are also developing tools and media content for awareness raising on the power dynamics built into technology development and implementation. I think that we were able to reassure our media-centric focus as an institutional strategy because of the reflections of the fellowship.”

“Thinking from the development of the report [published as part of my fellowship] has hugely informed the direction of the Conscious Advertising Network, which is the organization I co-founded. Many of the findings outlined in the report are being addressed through the work of CAN going forward, including private forums with Google and Facebook, where we create space for civil society to challenge them, and lobby for change in policies and procedures.“

Movement Impact

This measure of success looks directly at the effects of a project that was completed by a fellow or grantee. Namely, was it able to create a seismic shift in how individuals (from open internet movement activists to the media to laypeople) regarded a topic; was it able to generate more philanthropic money around an issue as a result of having raised awareness or knowledge; and did it increase the number of organizations or constituents working in this area? In short, did it significantly and positively impact the internet health or human rights movement? Numerous projects funded through F&A have achieved these objectives, showing that Mozilla’s work continues to move the needle toward the goal of having a healthy internet. These include the work of 2015 fellow Paola Villareal (discussed in detail below) who was able to provide a tool that was used to legally fight against police brutality and reverse the convictions of 22,000 people. Another example is an Open Web Fellow who launched a human rights social networking site—the only one of its kind in the region—with 10,000 users to date. Say staffers and former fellows:

“The idea of the fellows from the beginning was to build a force of people who make a happier digital world, whether they’re programmers, artists, lawyers. That’s why we put $10 million into 200 fellowships over the last five years.”

“It’s helping along what might take years to happen by bringing people together who can take that work into the world and push it forward, even when they’re no longer associated with Mozilla.”

“My work contributed to a wider and growing body of work and conversation about the embodied impact of surveillance and harassment. I’ve drawn clear ties between organizational sustainability, emotional wellbeing and burnout and digital security practices within organisations and collectives. Organizations and funders I have spoken to now see HR and healing practices for activist organizations as necessary for any digital/organizational security intervention. I’ve uplifted the work of many queer and disability justice organisers who are citing the need for safety and care in their activism and movement work.”

“Chipping away at the freedom of expression and intermediary liability protection regimes in the name of national security is a worrying trend threatening the internet ecosystem. Internet health/digital rights arguments are often sidelined or discounted on account of the perceived gravity and danger, particularly in terrorist content discussion. The EU Terrorist Content Regulation and a host of new laws addressing problematic online content in the EU and the Balkans are being proposed or developed without reflecting the experience and hard-won knowledge of security practitioners. Through the work I did as part of my fellowship, I provided and channeled security practitioners’ perspectives and I started to network people—researchers, journalists, activists and security practitioners from countries underrepresented in the policy discussions but overexposed in terms of risk and harm.”

External 1.jpg

Based on these ideas of measuring impact via a multi-tiered approach, the following are examples of standout fellows and awardees from the F&A program:

Paola Villareal.

A member of the first cohort of the Open Web Fellowship in 2015, Villareal is a technologist who had not graduated from high school but was a self-taught systems engineer. She was matched with the American Civil Liberties Union in Boston. This ACLU chapter had data on the various methods used by the Boston Police Department (BDP) to overpolice Black and Brown neighborhoods. While it had this data, it did not have a way to show it visually in court. Villarreal created a visual map of what was happening and where arrests were taking place.The ACLU was able to use this map in its lawsuit against the BDP. The case was successful and opened the door for other ACLU chapters to use her tool to plug in their data.

As a result, Villareal’s ability to match data and science enabled attorneys to commute the sentences of 22,000 people who were wrongly imprisoned across the United States. Many of these individuals were able to regain access to public services, employment and housing after their convictions were overturned. Her project also showed the impact possible when you empower civil liberty organizations, like the ACLU, to use data and coding skills in their work.

Following her Mozilla fellowship, Villareal served as director of product engineering at Creative Commons, the open access nonprofit. She is currently the head of data and science engineering for Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia in Mexico City, using technology and data science to solve nationwide social issues. Villareal told The Harvard Gazette, ”The idea is to make the information accessible to the general public to identify needs. I believe in the power of data to help spread equality and social justice.”

Geoff Millener, The Enterprise Center.

This grantee in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has received multiple Mozilla grants, including from the Gigabit Community Fund (2016, 2017, 2018), Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society (WINS) Challenges (2018) and a mini science grant (2019). With WINS funding, Millener and his team created a wireless internet project that enabled more than 150,000 people in Chattanooga to access the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Says Millener:

"Mozilla, through awards dating back to the Gigabit Community Fund, has helped Chattanooga pioneer not just new technologies, but deploy them in collaborative ways that have a direct impact on public education, equity and opportunity. As someone working at this nexus of emerging technologies and economic development, access to Mozilla’s international network of passionate, dedicated professionals and leaders—all with a deep heart for, and understanding of, these same issues of equity, access and agency—has been an incredible resource."

Trang Ho.

In 2018 and 2019, Ho received two grants for her open source database called Tatoeba. It is a collaborative dictionary that focuses on sentence use, as opposed to individual words, and seeks to bridge cultures through language. The Mozilla Open Source Support Awards (MOSS) was created in 2015 to provide funding to open source technologists whose projects strive to broaden access, increase security and empower internet users. Ho's work is indicative of the projects MOSS strives to fund. With the two grants, Ho has been able to grow the site and successfully transition it to be mobile-friendly. Says Ho:

“MOSS really made a big difference for Tatoeba. It allowed us to tackle complex topics that we might have given up on even trying, to solve bugs that have been left hanging for years, and to just simply keep the project active and growing!”

Noah Levenson.

With a 2018 grant, Levenson created “Stealing Ur Feelings,” a six-minute short film on AI and facial recognition. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, made the film festival circuit and was displayed at London’s Tate Modern. The film explains facial recognition AI to people who did not know it existed and how it works when they use apps like Instagram. ”For a lot of people it’s been kind of a reconfiguration of what they think is happening when they’re using apps that seem innocent and fun,” said Levenson. His grant was through the Creative Media Awards which was launched in 2017 to fund art that explores the impact of artificial intelligence on society. Beyond Levenson’s work, Mozilla’s advocacy team ran a campaign around the issues Levenson explored on facial recognition. The campaign aimed to get the public to understand when they were inadvertently giving their dimensions or their biometrics to technology programs.

Since being a Mozilla fellow, Levenson has continued raising public awareness on what he considers unethical AI. He developed Free Food, a decentralized open protocol to democratize the food delivery service and eliminate the middleman. In 2019, he was a Rockefeller Foundation fellow on artificial intelligence, and today, Levenson heads research and development at Consumer Reports Digital Lab, a public interest computer science hub.

External 3.jpg

Measuring Impact Via an Integrated F&A Framework

While the origin stories of fellowship and awards were separate, they have been one team since 2017. And since then, in theory—if not always in practice—they are a singular entity. Together, fellowships and awards are two different models for investing in the internet health movement. And they work best together when Mozilla is able to identify a challenge and analyze it enough to know which tool, a fellowship or an award, would best serve the outcome that Mozilla is trying to achieve. In some cases, it made sense to put the weight of the platform behind individuals who are pioneers breaking new ground and paving new paths. In other cases, it makes more sense to give money to teams and to institutions that are already doing this work and not getting recognition or lack the platform to amplify their efforts.

Some of the organization’s most impactful work under F&A has come when both tools are used simultaneously, with fellows helping to select grantees and oversee an awards program.

Responsible Computer Science (Phase 1).

This program is one in which all of the pieces—and potential—of F&A have come together. Between December 2018 and July 2020, Mozilla, in partnership with the Omidyar Network, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Schmidt Futures, pledged to award up to $3.5 million in prizes for promising approaches to embed ethics into undergraduate computer science education. The belief was that by empowering graduating engineers in this way, there could be a culture shift in the tech industry toward a healthier internet. The challenge aimed to support the conceptualization, development and piloting of curricula that integrate ethics with undergraduate computer science training. Seventeen winners were declared, including: 1) Atri Rudra and Matthew Hertz at University at Buffalo, whose curriculum is divided over each year of a four-year undergraduate experience, with a first-year seminar titled “How the Internet Works,” a course on responsible algorithmic development for real-world problems for sophomores, a junior-year course on the ethical implications of machine learning, and a senior course on ethical thinking; 2) Sukanya Manna of Santa Clara University, whose initiative helps computer science students create an ethical analysis framework that complements their technical learning through a curriculum that is free, so it can be adopted by learning institutions worldwide; and 3) Augustin Chaintreau at Columbia University, whose approach integrates ethics directly into the computer science curriculum, in lieu of making it a standalone course.

Said awardee Sorelle Friedler in an interview with Haverford College:

“We wanted to [work with outside domain experts] because we wanted to make sure that the computer science students are not just exposed to data as an abstraction but actually understand the context that it comes from. Computer scientists are having a large impact on the world, both from an environmental standpoint and from a social standpoint, and so it’s very important that computer science students learn to think about those issues and to understand that those are not separate issues from their study of computer science but are actually fully integrated into what it means to be a computer scientist.”

This award was created prior to developing Mozilla’s 2019 Theory of Change, but its core focus of partnering a group of funders around a shared vision is in perfect alignment with it. It further upholds the Theory of Change in that it seeks to make a root cause investment—in this case, curriculum change—to address the systemic issue of an unhealthy internet.

The award also demonstrates the organizational power of having sustained interplay between the fellowship and award segments of F&A. Responsible Computer Science is co-run by a Mozilla program officer and fellow Kathy Pham, a founding member of the United States Digital Service. Responsible Computer Science has also built a community of professors focused on ethical computer science undergraduate curricula.

“Responsible Computer Science is deep-pointed toward the Theory of Change, which has a short-term goal of changing and influencing the talent base that is hired by tech companies.”

Looking to the Future

Six years after the launch of Mozilla’s Open Web fellows program, the organization continues to pursue methods and processes that will allow the organization to make better use of its network of fellows and awardees to impact the internet health movement. On the following pages, the program evaluation carried out by Simply Secure will consider reflections from the ecosystem and participants and ways the program might evolve. In the Key Opportunities section of this report you will find recommendations from Simply Secure on how the Foundation can maximize its impact specifically, accompanied by further insights drawn from this impact narrative.

Back to Impact Narrative