Mitigating risks, maximizing benefits: Brandie Nonnecke bridges tech research and policy

Dome of U.S. Capitol Building lit up at dusk.

The founding director of the CITRIS Policy Lab and UC Berkeley associate research professor demystifies emerging technology to help lawmakers create responsible policy.

Brandie Nonnecke smiling.

“I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to work at CITRIS for all of these years,” said Brandie Nonnecke, founding director of the CITRIS Policy Lab and associate research professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’ve learned an incredible amount. The people are so inspiring, and the work we do is helping to build a more responsible world in how we use information technology.”

Nonnecke’s path to becoming a renowned tech policy expert, with research published in Science and Wired and work cited by the Federal Trade Commission and the White House, started in an unconventional place: graphic design. 

A two-time Iowa State University grad, she received a bachelor’s degree in design and advertising before pursuing a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication. While at Iowa State, she worked as a designer for the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods, an organization that operates in one of the poorest areas of Uganda.

As she was building out the center’s website, something struck her as odd. Most of the people living in the Kamuli District did not have easy access to electricity and had to walk far to obtain clean drinking water — yet most of them owned cell phones.

“I learned that, even though this very poor district had limited infrastructure, these multinational companies were coming in and investing in telecommunications,” Nonnecke said. “People would charge their phones by taking them into the ‘town,’ the one road that’s paved, and paying to charge them. 

“The subsistence farmers used their phones to help them better ensure that their crops and livestock were in good standing. Working to understand their situation, I became very interested in telecom policy.”

Nonnecke received her doctorate in mass communications with an emphasis in telecommunications policy from the Pennsylvania State University in 2013. She then took a postdoctoral research position at UC Berkeley, where she worked with Camille Crittenden, at the time the deputy director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS), and Ken Goldberg, William S. Floyd Jr. Distinguished Chair in Engineering, professor of industrial engineering and operations research, and then-faculty director of the CITRIS Data and Democracy (DDI) research initiative, as DDI’s research and development manager. 

“I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to work at CITRIS for all of these years. The work we do is helping to build a more responsible world in how we use information technology.”

Brandie Nonnecke

In 2014, Crittenden, Goldberg and Nonnecke developed the California Report Card (CRC) in collaboration with the office of Gavin Newsom, then serving as the state’s lieutenant governor, with support from the UC Berkeley Blum Center for Developing Economies and the Development Impact Lab (part of the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network), and the UC Berkeley Algorithms, Machines and People Lab. 

The CRC allowed California residents to assign grades to the state government’s performance on public issues, including health care policy, the cost of education and immigrant rights, and to enter an online “cafe” to provide feedback on the platform itself.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were building a recommender system — just like Google and other platforms — where we would recommend content to others to see if they agreed with it or not,” Nonnecke said. “I realized how powerful these systems are at influencing people’s behavior, and I got a lot more interested in platform governance issues, especially social media platforms.”

The CRC was one of many projects that Nonnecke helped create in the award-winning Development Collaborative Assessment and Feedback Engine system, also known as DevCAFE or CAFE, including international endeavors Malasakit and México Participa.

DevCAFE even brought her back to the Kumali District to help debut Uganda CAFE. The study used a customized interface with infographics and audio instructions to collect data about the effectiveness of reproductive health training to enable targeted reforms to local family planning campaigns. 

In parallel with her DevCAFE efforts, Nonnecke also worked with Crittenden to launch CITRIS Tech for Social Good. Among the student-led, CITRIS-funded projects from the program’s early days were a prototype of a flexible robot for disaster relief and a social platform to connect refugees with services and information.  

In late 2018, at the end of her postdoctoral appointment, Nonnecke was named the first director of the new CITRIS Policy Lab, an initiative established to provide researchers the opportunity to engage with policymakers at the intersection of technology and governance. The CITRIS Policy Lab recruits experts throughout the four CITRIS campuses — UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz — to help draft bills and participate in briefings with governmental bodies such as the California State Legislature and U.S. Congress. 

“Launching the CITRIS Policy Lab was huge because CITRIS is multidisciplinary by design, and tech policy issues are multidisciplinary by necessity,” she said. “These issues are also grounded in social, economic and environmental issues.

“CITRIS is well positioned to serve as a convener, a bridge, of these disciplines to help move tech policy forward.”

In service to the Policy Lab’s role as a bridge and convener, Nonnecke has worked to build strong connections across disciplines. She serves as an associate research professor at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, where she directs the Tech Policy Initiative. She also co-directs the UC Berkeley AI Policy Hub, a partnership between the CITRIS Policy Lab and the UC Berkeley School of Information’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, and the UC Berkeley Center for Law & Technology at the UC Berkeley School of Law, where she joins a roster of noted scholars at the Artificial Intelligence, Platforms, and Society Center.

“Collaborating with Brandie is a joy. She’s insightful, responsive, fast and productive.”

Janet Napolitano

In 2022, Nonnecke was selected to lead the Our Better Web initiative, a collaboration that unites the UC Berkeley Center for Security in Politics at the Goldman School of Public Policy; School of Information; School of Journalism; and School of Law in efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation online. 

There, she made an impression on Janet Napolitano, professor of public policy, director of the Center for Security in Politics, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, and 20th president of the University of California system.

“Collaborating with Brandie is a joy. She’s insightful, responsive, fast and productive,” said Napolitano.

“One of the things we’re trying to do at the Center for Security in Politics is to link the academic brain power of Berkeley to solving real government problems and to foster that bridging function, that dialogue,” she said. “Brandie has been an active, key participant in that effort.”

One of the lab’s most prominent activities to date has been offering guidance on the University of California’s use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Selfie of Brandie Nonnecke with green-domed California State Capitol building behind her.

Nonnecke served as co-chair of the UC Presidential Working Group on Artificial Intelligence, which released a set of recommendations in October 2021 for the safe and ethical adoption of AI throughout the university. She is now a member of the group’s successor, the UC AI Council, which will develop strategies to operationalize the UC’s responsible AI principles systemwide. 

But the influence of the CITRIS Policy Lab extends beyond California’s borders, and it has taken Nonnecke to the national capital twice so far. In February 2019, she and CITRIS’s then-Director Costas Spanos traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss a new executive order with a focus on AI and introduce the Policy Lab to congressional representatives. 

In November 2023, after the release of a subsequent executive order on safe, secure and trustworthy AI, Nonnecke returned to Capitol Hill with several prominent UC researchers to give briefings before the Senate Commerce Committee and members of Congress. The UC delegation spoke to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Nonnecke was also invited to speak at a roundtable with the drafters of the executive order, where she was able to offer direct feedback on the directive.

Brandie Nonnecke posing with four other UC researchers in U.S. Capitol rotunda with flag and statues of Lincoln in background.
Brandie Nonnecke, second from right, with researchers Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), Leilani Gilpin (UC Santa Cruz), David Danks (UC San Diego) and William Wang (UC Santa Barbara) in the U.S. Capitol rotunda before they offer a briefing on artificial intelligence to members of Congress. Photo courtesy of the UC Office of Federal Governmental Relations.

“Our goal with the trip was to cut through the hype. If you just look at headlines, the situation looks pretty dystopian — AI taking over, robots replacing workers, the death of creativity — so we wanted to give a more nuanced view of what the real risks and benefits of AI are,” she said.

Nonnecke continues to battle disinformation with TecHype, a video and podcast series she launched in 2023 with CITRIS and GSPP support to help debunk common misunderstandings about emergent technologies. Recent guests include Yoel Roth, former head of trust and safety at Twitter (now known as X); UC Berkeley professor Stuart Russell, named one of the 100 most influential people in AI by Time magazine; and actor and writer Alex Winter, who directed the 2022 documentary “The YouTube Effect.”

In her more than a decade with CITRIS, Nonnecke has launched powerful programs and led highly effective initiatives in support of the institute’s mission of applying information technology for public benefit. Among her many successful CITRIS activities, though, she notes one passion project in particular that made her proud.

“A few years ago, people were really into wearable technology,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be cool if I made pointe shoes that would make music when I move?’” 

A classically trained ballet dancer, Nonnecke took her idea — Ballet Bot — to the CITRIS Invention Lab and asked the staff and superusers for a hand. ChatGPT helped her fix up her Python code, and she incorporated motion sensors to create a pair of smart pointe shoes.

Close-up photo of a dancer in pointe shoes with one foot en pointe. A disc with visible sensors and wires is connected to the ribbon wrapped around the dancer’s ankle.

“One of the best things about CITRIS, for me as a woman in the tech and policy space, is how inviting and empowering it is to people of diverse backgrounds, to be able to build these really cool technologies.”

Ballet Bot is set to make its debut this summer in an international documentary called “Wider Than the Sky.”

Nonnecke’s instinct to connect disparate technologies — from cell phones to recommender systems to musical shoes — to the ways they influence people was something that caught collaborator Janet Napolitano’s attention. 

“One of the unique characteristics that Brandie has is that she doesn’t view technology simply through a technology lens,” Napolitano said. “She puts it into a societal context, and a problem-solving context, then deploys her technology chops to that broader context. 

“It’s easy to say, but a very difficult thing to do.”