programming to save the planet

Adrian Friday is Head of Department and Professor of Computing and Sustainability at Lancaster University.

Adrian Friday is Professor of Computing and Sustainability at Lancaster University talking about programmers power to create responsibly.

I loved creating new things

Vision for future

(Can computing save the world?) Computing has a role to play – it helps us understand the world.

Creating better systems

I think you have to be a bit of a party-pooper. Our business models and the way we chose to run society, the way those businesses run that want to see more demand..and as society I think we have to hold that to account. As scientists it is our responsibility to say ‘hang on a second, we are creating systems that are putting more computers into our homes just so you can switch the lights on, with an extra energy footprint, extra resource footprint’ and I think it is our responsibility to try and highlight that these are design elements that are not currently factored into our processes.

Technology is innately situated in the world –

There’s a perception that green technology will save us…because it is more efficient it is more sustainable…but I personally don’t believe that the future is more of the same.

There’s a community who care about the impact technology is having on the world and on people

Programming superpower to try to save the planet

We’ve got a bit hooked on new stuff, more convenience.

Socioecological systems…look at where people’s lives have impact

On demand shopping… how (in)efficient is that? And what of the social impact? If we just look at the movement, that’s a traditional computer science problem (travelling salesman), but when you add in the social, we have to talk with other people

(Is computing sustainable?) It’s on an unsustainable trajectory.

Unsustainable computing, we’re locked into cycles of updates. We’ve created an expectation of updates – people aren’t happy with keeping things the same.

How do we create systems of longevity? – that we want things to last?

We’re very good at design things that are quickly going to be obsolete.

Ubicomp as a scientific lens – computing is throughout the chain, affecting people’s lives in very direct ways – we have to be responsible practitioners.

People are focused on a particular thing – like being a really good computer scientist – they’re not there necessarily to become a sustainable computer scientist. So there’s a challenge in how we communicate that in an engaging way.

Definition: environmental sustainability… energy and carbon impacts…not the business interpretation that is often conflated.

Success: Freight transport projects, walking and hybrid routing problem – hoping that this will change policy – so having a greater impact.

Superpower: computer science, being able to create my vision through the power of programming. It’s one of those tools that lets you create the future, and realise your dreams. It sounds a bit saccharine but you could be passionate about crowdfunding for a charity, or transforming cancer care – you could go out and help people achieve that with your programming superpower. So I’m going to apply my programming superpower to try to save the planet.

Activist: No.

Motivation: Work ethic. I do have a passion for this topic, and that’s a little bit selfless because it’s probably not a career maker if I was to be purely self-centred, but I do think that it is really important.

Challenge: I can speaking to academic audience really well, but there are huge changes, we have to address the climate change emergency, we academics fly too much. We have to have more impact.

Miracle: A global summit about climate change that focuses

Advice: Read Mike Berners-Lee’s book.

There’s this idea that sustainability is about giving things up. But actually sustainability is about valuing the human and doing things differently. If we get it right, we can have quiet roads, less pollution, places for the kids to play, more wildlife…lots of benefits for humankind that we’re not currently realising.

Engage with the impacts., and lobby politicians so that it’s clear that it’s important to you.


Computing for social responsibility

Alan Borning is Professor Emeritus at Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. He is the founder of Solutions for Environment, Economy and Democracy (SEED).

For the longest time, the things that I care about – sustainability, urban form – were not really connected to my day job, so I refocused my research.

Impacting the political process is a responsibility

How human values are expressed in software…value sensitive design

We have a crisis of democracy, a broken democracy and a broken discourse

Definition: Living within nature, a society that enables a different thriving and prosperity

Success: OneBusAway

Activist: Yes, I support activists

Motivation: Doing something about huge problems. It’s easy to get pessimistic so hope is important – things that have a possibility of working out, lets focus on that.

Challenge: Surveillance capitalism

Miracle: Change the political system to take money out of politics. Vote.

Advice: Looks for things that motivate you. See how it ties into bigger picture, but don’t get overwhelmed by that.


rethinking impact

Lucy Pei is a PhD student at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at University of California Irvine. Lucy was volunteering at a literacy centre for resettled refugees and could see problems with the things she and others were doing – even though they we doing it properly. This led to her paper We Did It Right, But It Was Still Wrong: Toward Assets-Based Design.  We discuss how interventions often fall short of delivering lasting impact in resource-constrained contexts,and the need for different ways of thinking about impacts, and different time scales.

Wholly different ways of doing science interventions

We need a willingness to try, but carefully.

computing design

Imagining how things could be different

Ann Light is Professor of Design & Creative Technology at the University of Sussex and Prof of Interaction Design, Social Change and Sustainability at
Malmö University, Sweden.

Ann is a qualitative researcher specializing in design for social wellbeing, participatory design and social innovation, with a particular interest in creative practice for transformations to sustainability. She also studies how grassroots organizations use design.

How do we democratise futures?

Meaningful positives

Together as a force

Looking at how we can dwell together better

Systems to empower better human nature

Thought experiment workshops – we’re all in it together

I don’t work well from a position of hopelessness

How do we change the message? There’s a beautiful, kind, gentle…party going on

How things get connected and in balance

Something to hope for

Definition: Dwell together well

Superhero: Collectively we’ve imagined how things could be different

Activist: Yes, that’s my identity

Motivation: Realising potential

Miracle: Something for people to hope for.

Advice: Take that first act, find person who believes and do it together.

computing design music

Artful Design

Ge Wang is the Artful Designer. Associate Professor in the Department of Music (and by courtesy in Computer Science) at Stanford University.

His book Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime is a masterpiece of photocomic that hides a book on the nature, meaning, and purpose of design in this age of technology, that hides a manifesto on values in practice.

Talking points

I make things that make me feel good.

Sufficiently good design

Design is a series of choices

Design not just for the needs, but for the values that underlie the needs.

(do we see value-wash?) Yes, things that were never designed with our wellbeing in mind.

What is good and for whom?

The choices we make hold implications…unintended consequences.

The choices we make in design hold implications for our users that are tantamount to taking actions ourselves.

The platinum rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

Sustainability needs to be an act of design. What purpose are we serving? What kind of society do we want?

Questions about questions. We need to be asking questions for which we not only don’t have the answers, but those for which we don’t have the questions.

Activist? Yes, good things don’t happen by staying neutral.

Go out of your way to help good ideas flourish.

Motivation: There’s so much to be done.

Challenge: Education shift, education has trended to the transaction. How do we align the thing you do with what you are genuinely interested in.

The conversation was recorded at ACM Creativity and Cognition in San Diego in June 2019.

community garden computing education permaculture

Planting seeds

Cal Egan is a researcher at Edinburgh Napier University investigating intersections of permaculture and digital design and technology. He is developing Lions’ Gate as a regenerative ‘blended space’ as a space for exploring urban permaculture and as a place to explore the role of technology in a thriving future.

I wanted to know why things were

We’re trying to be a bit provocative, but in a way that is beautiful and works

It’s about the relationships, the things you can’t see, the living engine, we have to enrich that.

We need to learn how to grow a different sort of abundance

Come hither, we’re reconceptualising our spaces – a permaculture garden in an urban setting, re-establishing a wildlife corridor, a food forest that is a place for sustainability.

Provoking to action

We’re at the interface of permaculture and computing. Both how computing can help permaculture, but perhaps more how permaculture helps computing, design, business. Dourish’s knowledge of space.

A place to slow down. Hurry up and slow down. How do we overcome information anxiety?

Living more thoughtful. Social relations. Stripping our crazy world back to reality.

Computing can learn about a different sort of design process. One focused on growing the substrate, on energies – personal and biophysical, and boundaries and edges. A process that starts and ends with care of the planet.

Care of the planet – that’s what makes me happy.

I decided to be a very vocal person.

We’re working towards a self-sustaining system, circular food, water management, performance – we’re a Fringe venue. We’re making an interactive throne that tells stories, bringing people into spaces. With a “horrible mode” if air pollution is bad it may lock people out.

A place of calm yet we have to provoke, I want it to be dangerous.

Advice: Plant seeds – take over the neighbourhood. Follow your heart and intuition.

Recorded at ICT4S and ACM Limits at Lappeenranta, Finland.

computing energy water

Big data habits

Dr Ben Anderson is Principal Research Fellow in the Energy & Climate Change Division of the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton, UK . We ask what big data can tell us about habitual energy and water consumption.

Living beyond our means. We are currently living outside of our day-to-day means as a global population, because we are digging up the past and burning it. So I would define sustainability as living within our day-to-day energy means such that we can continue to continue living on the planet.

Ask yourself how can New Zealand be a shining light in terms of research, innovation and building capacity in a future way of living?

Try to burn less, try to consume less, have a think about what you are doing and when you are doing it.

community computing

Creative technical innovation

Dr Will Simm is a Senior Research Associate with the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University. He works in short lifecycle community-led digital technology innovation projects.

Playful in space you wouldn’t expect

Prototypes to understand problem space, not as a solution

Perhaps the grandest challenge of our time, but beyond problematising individual’s behaviour.

Equip policy makers to change the system

business computing environmental entrepreneur

Enterprising Sustainable Technophile

Dr Jack Townsend has worked to investigate startups that address resource and sustainability challenges. The resulting framework can analyse investment portfolios, and  identify opportunities for new digital products.

Talking points

Superpower: Persuasion, I think at the end of the day sustainability is about us having to make some difficult decisions in our longer term interest as a species.


Motivation: A mixture of a strong concern for sustainability, being a technophile and being incredibly curious and inquisitive.   


Miracle: I’d like to see the entire world transition to a decent cycling infrastructure, so that people aren’t pushed into dangerous roads and that I can let my kids go out cyclicing without having to constantly worry about their wellbeing.


Advice: Please start to think about the importance of digital technology and start to reach out to digital communities especially entrepreneurs with your problems, because there is lots of new things that we can do and it is extremely important for digital technology to have a significant role in sustainability.

computing design

Saving the world through computing(?)

Vanessa Thomas hails from Alberta, Canada via Lancaster, England.  She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and sustainability.


Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here tonight because I’m in San Jose, California at a conference.


Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Vanessa Thomas, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster and is a research associate in the Institute of Social Futures, also at Lancaster but she’s not Lancastrian. Where’d you grow up?


Vanessa: I’m from Edmonton Alberta, Canada, which will probably give you a lot of context for why I do what I do if you know anything about the environment and oil sands and natural resource extraction.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grow up?


Vanessa: A fire truck but I’m not allowed to say that am I? Initially, in high school, I thought I wanted to be an accountant.


Sam: You saw the light?


Vanessa: I entered university and I took some entry-level classes, then I saw the light. I also took entry-level classes in computer science and learned that all of my skills in mathematics, which was what I always excelled at, could be applied to computing is well.


Sam: You shifted into computing?


Vanessa: Yes. During the first year I shifted away from accounting towards computing because I had thought that it was a more exciting and creative field for me to be in than just plain old numbers and maths and accounting.


Sam: What did you think you were going to do with computing at that stage?


Vanessa: I think I bought into a lot of the rhetoric around computing about saving the world through digital technologies, so I thought that I would get a job with Google. Google was just starting up at the time and it was really, really cool. Alternatively, I thought I would use my programming skills to make cool tools that would help people with their problems.


Sam: Interesting that you described that as the rhetoric. I would say that the “cool tools” rhetoric is a lot stronger than any “saving the world” rhetoric, doing something innovative perhaps with digital technology, but I don’t know if there’s a common “saving the world” vibe.


Vanessa: You’re right. I think retroactively I’m applying the saving the world rhetoric just because of the communities that I got involved with. Probably building the cool tools rhetoric was what I saw at first but that’s quite a long time ago. It’s over a decade ago that I started doing this, so it’s hard for me to remember exactly, back then.


Sam: You said that Edmonton in Alberta, if I know anything about that, I’ll know everything about you. Okay. Pretend I don’t know anything about it.


Vanessa: A lot of people won’t know very much about it, so that’s fair. Edmonton Alberta is a city of about a million people at this point. It was around 800,000 when I was growing up. It is heavily attached to the natural resource extraction industry in Canada and in Alberta specifically.


Obviously, Edmonton is the capital city, so a lot of companies are based there, our government is based there, so policies around natural resource extraction are developed there, which means that groups that want to lobby for and against that are also based there and are also quite active there.


Many people from Edmonton go and work in the natural resource extraction industries and those industries include forestry, they include oil. They also include fishing. There’s a large farming community as well, which you can argue is or is not a culture that sometimes gets looped in with natural resource extraction, if you consider crops, extraction, but some people don’t. In which case, it’s kept separate.


Sam: What I want to know is, were the tensions that are implicit in that, apparent when you were at school?


Vanessa: I would say it wasn’t clear to me when I was a teenager. I’m sure for some teenagers who were far more aware of those issues, it was obvious for them. For me, it didn’t really make sense. These issues came clear to me probably at about the time that I turned 20 or 21, certainly not when I was younger.


Sam: What happened?


Vanessa: I started getting involved with student groups on campus. Just through convenience and interest, I became involved with the Student’s Union at the University. They were a very open and welcoming group who shared a lot of nerdy interests with me and I didn’t know very much about how Alberta’s industries were tied to Canada in global economic issues at the time.


They introduced me to a lot of those issues and retrospectively, I could see how that was linked to my upbringing and a lot of the issues in the area of the city that I’m from, which is quite a low income area, the city. A lot of people that I went to high school with graduated and chose to take jobs in the oil sands, or in forestry, or in the natural resource extraction area industries.


I was one of the few people from my graduating class that went to university. There may be a cohort of like 20 of us from a graduating class of 700, who went to university. The rest all went off to low income housing and/or natural resource extraction industry jobs, things that didn’t require anything else after high school.


Sam: Were you living at home or on campus?


Vanessa: I was living at home. Yeah, with my parents. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.


Sam: Did the neighbourhood think you were going off to a day job as a hippie?


Vanessa: I didn’t look like a hippie at the time. I didn’t have dreadlocks at the time. My immediate neighbours, one was an old couple and they were just happy to see us go off and do anything and the other house had quite a transient population, so we didn’t really get to know them very well at all. It changed over a year or two, so I have no idea what they thought of me. They often didn’t talk with us.


Sam: Around the family dinner table, were you bringing in new ideas or was it carrying on ideas, developing ideas that were already there?


Vanessa: No. There was quite a lot of friction, especially when I became vegetarian and then eventually vegan. That caused a lot of friction. My family has a conservative bend to it, I would say. That’s the polite way of phrasing it, because Alberta, for a very long time, for 44 years had a conservative government in power. Everybody was just assumed to be conservative.


You obviously supported the natural resource extraction industries. We had a large active beef farming community, so you obviously ate a lot of beef to support that. Yeah. Very conservative. The idea of having a vegetarian in the family was very off-putting. I remember vividly, a conversation with my dad where he asked if I would still eat my vegan burgers if it was cooked on the same grill as a beef burger, now that I had become vegan.


Sam: Similar conversations in your computer science classes?


Vanessa: No. No. Not at all. No. I had very few friends in my computer science classes. First and foremost, I was one of the few women. In one of the first classes that I took actually, one of my peers said that I never had to do any programming because I was female and I could get away with just letting the boys do the work for me.


I didn’t actually make many friends in my computer science classes. I think that’s part of why I turned to the Student’s Union, because they were an open welcoming group who had similar ideas to me. They didn’t care that I was programming. They didn’t really care what I did for school, we just had these shared values.


Sam: Within the academic frame, where there opportunities to explore the social side of computing?


Vanessa: During my undergraduate, no. No. Not at all. Actually, I dropped out/got kicked out and took an internship, an international development internship, after three years in Ecuador doing something called ICT4D, Information and Communication Technologies for Development.


I worked in a human rights nonprofit called Defensa De Los Niños, Defence of the Children. They helped support street children in Ecuador to do with all of the very many issues that they faced. I helped them set up their database and website, which in 2006 was very new for them. I helped them get email in their workplace. I trained them in how to maintain their website and maintain some of the computers that were also in the workplace. That opened me up to questioning the values of computing.


Sam: You went back and finished your degree?


Vanessa: I did. It was a very slow process. It took me until 2011 to get my degree. I started in 2003 and it took me until 2011 to get my undergraduate degree. I ended up taking courses in feminism along the way. I also took courses in management studies, communication studies, Earth and atmospheric sciences.


I went looking for answers that computer science wasn’t giving me and that meant that it extended the length of the time I spent in my undergraduate but I also had a much more well-rounded and eclectic education as a result.


Sam: Can you see a way of structuring a computer science degree that you wouldn’t need to go searching for those things?


Vanessa: Absolutely. Yeah. If you included more flexibility in the course offerings. If you allowed people to take classes from the … Every University will obviously have a different departmental structure but if you we’re allowed to take courses in the environmental sciences and have that count towards your degree. If you we’re allowed to take courses from women’s studies or indigenous studies and have that count toward your degree, I think that would help.


Sam: Having gone through the left-field way of eventually finishing a computer science degree. Then, you turned your back on all that and went to work in a bank. Is that right?


Vanessa: Well, no. I was also working throughout that entire process because I needed to be able to pay for my education. I had been working for utility company for a bit, so they provided the power and water services in my city. I also worked for the government in my province, both for the energy ministry and the environment ministry.


I eventually also tacked on a Master’s degree at the same time, to all of that. By 2013, I had earned a Master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies while working quite extensively in government and nonprofits and briefly, for-profits. Then, I quit all of that and went and worked in the Inter-American Development Bank for a few months before starting my PhD, so yeah I did get to the bank.


Sam: What were you doing in the environment ministry?


Vanessa: I was doing the same thing in the environment ministry and the energy ministry. I was the internal communications technology specialist. I helped set up and run their websites internally. I also was a member of a lot of projects helping employees feel more engaged within those ministries and to share their work because there was very low engagement.


People were very angry and upset about what they were doing in those two ministries specifically. They had the lowest engagement scores of any of the ministries that the government delivered us, so I was trying to help that.


Sam: What’s the structure of the government? Is the environment ministry to protect the environment or is it to provide a vehicle for extraction to go on? How does that tension sit?


Vanessa: Yeah. There’s no real clear answer there. You can take the slogans that the government offers at face value if you’d like. I believe that, at that time, the slogan for the environment ministry … The full name for the environment ministry was Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and they were stewards of Alberta’s environment. However you wanted to take stewardship, you could.


Sam: They’ve got all of the options stuck in that title.


Vanessa: Yes they do. Yes they do. That is a very carefully worded title, I think for a reason. I think also, what they pursued policy wise was very different than what many of the employees had in mind with that ministry.


Some of them were really keen on protecting the environment and making sure that Alberta had a long sustainable ecosystem with crop rotations and carefully planned forests that handle different animals as well as bugs and just had a proper forest ecosystem in place.


Then, there were others who were more keen on making sure that we could just move those issues aside to make oil development a more easy process. It was a highly conflicting environment at Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.


Sam: Were you based in the IT department?


Vanessa: No. I was strategically based in the communications department so that we had more flexibility to do what we wanted to do. The IT department was very structured and had a very slow approval process for everything.


When you want to help employees with engagement, you want to have quite a lot of quick movement at your fingers, I would say. You don’t want to be bogged down in bureaucratic structures that take a year just to get a website approved.


Sam: Interesting that you’re a person who’s clearly driven by social justice and the environment. Having coming out with a computer science degree, in which you’ve got none of that, except which you’ve managed to shoehorn in. Did you then manage to find a job that enabled you to do both or was it still more computing?


Vanessa: I wasn’t able to find a job that allowed me to do both, which is why I ended up pursuing that PhD that I’m pursuing. I’m still desperately seeking a way to reconcile the real social and environmental justice activism I used to be involved with and my computing career because they’re not two things that are easily reconcilable, as I’m sure you’re aware.


Sam: Okay. You said you were working for some non-profits as well or at the same time. What was that about?


Vanessa: Yeah. I also worked for another non-profit in Bolivia, which was called INFOCAL. It teaches people from low income areas, skills that they would need to be employed as a mechanic or doing food prep, just giving the skills that people from low income areas from Bolivia would need to find employment.


I was also involved with a bunch of groups that help immigrants when they moved to Edmonton, helped them get settled. I was involved with something called the Sierra Club and also briefly Greenpeace in Alberta. I was the provincial coordinator for the Canadian commission of UNESCO’s Alberta presence and they did work on biospheres and also education support in rural communities.


I was involved with just a peace organisation, the John Humphrey Centre for Human Rights. I was involved with a lot of different things. I didn’t sleep very much because in all of my spare time I went seeking the things that my job didn’t offer me.


Sam: What were you trying to achieve? I’m sure there’s a path to a theme in there, but I don’t know what it is.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think it put a lot of people off because I was doing a lot of things.   The pattern for me was trying to … I don’t know what the pattern is. I still don’t know what the pattern is. You can help me with that baby.


Sam: MSc in interdisciplinary studies, what was that about?


Vanessa: Yeah. It was actually an MA, a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. It was focused on something called Human Security, which is a United Nations development programme paradigm for looking at any sort of issue that you may have, any sort of problem around the world.


There are seven pillars to this paradigm. We’ve got the economic security pillar, the food security pillar, to health security pillar, the environment security pillar, the personal security pillar, the community security pillar and the political security pillar. Those are the seven. You look in any sort of thing, you can even look at objects with those pillars and pick apart how they’re related to it.


How does this microphone affect somebody’s food security, their access to food? How does this microphone affect somebody’s environmental security, their access to safe tree spaces, green spaces as well as water? Water’s typically linked with environment. It could be also put under food. Political security is another one. How does this affect whether or not somebody is going to be arrested? How does this link to their community security, which relates to their friendships with people?


If I’m giving this interview now, now that this microphone is recording it, is this going to make somebody in my community hate me? Is it going to make them more accepting of me? All sorts of things. You pick apart anything with these seven pillars and that … As I was searching for, actually something quite like this paradigm, it came into my life through the Masters and it helped me see things differently. I think I was looking for something like it during my computer science undergraduate degree, which is why I went so broad with my extra classes and ended up taking a lot more than I needed.


Sam: In your Masters, did you relate that in any way back to computing?


Vanessa: I did in a couple of papers. I also related it to media systems because I feel like in a lot of … Media systems and computing are connected and have been for quite some time, so I linked them to both of those.


Sam: What did you find?


Vanessa: I found some not pretty stuff. That’s where I first started learning about eWaste – eWaste is electronics waste, so what happens to your electronic devices when you throw them away when you get rid of them. It’s a massive issue globally.


It’s also where I first learned about some of the rare earth minerals that are in computing devices and the flows of minerals and materials that make up our devices. I had somehow not managed to put these pieces together before I got to my Masters. In part because I’d been distracted by the more common things that people are interested in.


Environmental issues, I had been interested in, so at that time it was a lot about oil industry in Alberta and also plastics in the ocean. Food waste was a big thing that people talked about but I hadn’t thought to link all of that with computing.


Sam: Because we don’t go out of our way to connect those things?


Vanessa: I think so. I think we definitely don’t go out of our way to connect those things.


Sam: We’re happily seeing these things as information appliances with no consequences, they just exist.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the rhetoric around those appliances aids that by saying that we’re putting our data in the cloud. I’ve actually had conversations with people where they think their data is up in some cloud. It’s got nothing to do with the ground and the planet. There’s no physical place.


Sam: There’s no such thing as the cloud. It’s somebody else’s computer. People just don’t get it, do they?


Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the rhetoric supports that, that they don’t want you to think about it in a way. That sounds very, like a conspiracy theory because … Yeah. It does. That’s not how I meant for that to come out. I don’t mean it to sound like there’s a conspiracy but I think the wording around the cloud, I think we need to change it. I think we have to.


Sam: What do we need to change?


Vanessa: I think we need to have some pretty open and honest conversations about what happens with our digital devices after they’re used. I think we also need to have some pretty open and honest conversations about what happens with our digital devices while they’re being used.


What is the cost of a Tweet? Why don’t more people know that? What is in the background of all of those Facebook feeds? How often are those algorithms making calls to a database on the other side of the planet and what cost does that have?


Sam: You finished your MA, then what?


Vanessa: I thought I wanted to go work for the United Nations, to try to tackle some of the big global issues that I had problems with, so I got a job at the Inter-American Development Bank, which is a smaller international development organisation. That was not a pleasant experience, so … I had also applied for some PhD’s at the time, thinking that perhaps I could spend some time researching the issues that I was interested in.


Sam: I’d like you to take this positively but I can’t imagine you ever thinking that going to work for a bank was a good idea, even if it’s a development bank.


Vanessa: Yeah. I completely agree. It was not the smartest decision, I would say in retrospect. I really actually desperately wanted to get out of the Alberta government, so I started looking for options and that was one of the first ones that came up.


When I worked in Latin America, actually the Inter-American Development Bank had a very good reputation. It funds a lot of very successful and very helpful projects around sanitation, around urban development. They support a lot of good work, even if they are a bank and-


Sam: On a continuum of not-for-profit Sierra Club through to corporate bank, where does that sit on that continuum?


Vanessa: Obviously, at the corporate bank end of things but they were at least a corporate bank interested in social justice and they really do support a lot of amazing projects in Latin America that would otherwise not have happened. Most of the bank is staffed by people from Latin America.


A majority of the people working at the bank are from Latin America and they find projects that they care about because they affect the people that they care about. That’s certainly a gross simplification of it and there are bad projects funded and there is money wasted, of course, but I had also just witnessed the exact same thing at the government of Alberta, which was a non-corporate public sector organisation that I thought should have been doing a lot more good and at times it was.


I was perhaps a bit lost and looking for answers and I thought that this organisation that had supported a lot of great projects in Latin America might have had some of the answers and they didn’t, so I pursued my PhD instead.


Sam: Okay. You decided to pursue a PhD.


Vanessa: Yep.


Sam: Where did you look?


Vanessa: In England because I was getting old and I didn’t want to spend eight years in Canada doing a PhD. That’s probably too honest. Also, England has a lot of really unique programmes, a lot of really unique interdisciplinary programmes, which is what I was seeking.


I didn’t want to go back to feeling like I was stuck in one discipline and just needed to study one thing. I wanted to be able to draw on all of my very different knowledge bases and experiences and work that into the research that I was doing.


I applied to a couple of different schools in the UK. When I met the people at Lancaster University, I immediately got along with them incredibly well. Their programme was the most radical of all of the programmes that I had applied to as well and it seemed like the right fit for me, so I joined them.


Sam: Which programme is it or what-


Vanessa: It’s called the High Wire Centre for Doctoral Training. It is a post-disciplinary doctoral training centre, which means we’re supposed to be long beyond any sort of disciplinary confines. The people that it has attracted, I think, share a similar set of values to me.


Sam: You took yourself off to England?


Vanessa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Sam: Then what? Did you know what you wanted to do?


Vanessa: Initially I thought that I would look at how digital technologies were being used in rural communities because sorry, I also grew up splitting my time between Edmonton and a farming community where my grandparents are based, in a small town in Alberta called Killam. It’s a side story, it’s not important. Anyway, I was interested in rural development so I thought I would see how digital technologies in rural development would be used, or would be linked rather.


Sam: You said initially?


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: That didn’t last long then?


Vanessa: No. Part of the fun of High Wire, is that they actually tell you to get rid of your initial idea when you enter. You go through this year-long process of basically being put in a blender with all of these other people from different backgrounds.


I worked with somebody who had studied philosophy. I worked with somebody who had run an arts organisation and was a poet. I worked with somebody from China who had become a service designer and an ethnographer. There’s a fellow from Mexico who does audio locative. It’s called Locative Audio Experiences.


I’ve worked with somebody who had done indigenous studies work with the Sami people in Scandinavia. I worked with a comic artist as well. We were all doing very different things and coming at our ideas with very different perspectives, so we were told to forget that initial idea that we had developed before we met all of these fabulous other people and to instead, come up with something new, with and amongst and even from them, so I did.


Sam: What else did you try in that process?


Vanessa: Throughout all of this, I was also involved with something called the Standby Task Force, which helps the United Nations during-


Sam: Of course you were!


Vanessa: Of course I was! I had briefly thought about studying crisis informatics, crisis response in digital technologies. I actually ended up co-authoring a book chapter about that and I am still involved with an EU project related to this.


I also dabbled in something called Smart Cities, which is a … Do you want to call it a paradigm? Can I call a paradigm? A current research and tech development industry paradigm trying to make cities smarter and by smarter they mean more full of technologies to help make people’s lives easier.


Sam: For someone that’s questioning the value of computing, pumping more of it into a city wouldn’t seem to be a sensible place to start.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think when I first looked at the marketing materials, I was interested in what they were trying to achieve by pumping more technologies into cities. I was very fortunate that right when I started to get interested in Smart Cities, a fellow by the name of Adam Greenfield published a book critiquing them. I read it and immediately connected with everything he said.


He’s a brilliant man and everybody should look into his pamphlet called ‘Against the Smart City.’ That started to help me unpick a lot of the marketing materials, which is mostly what I had been exposed to. There was quite a large body of research at the time, also about Smart cities, but it was mostly about specific digital technologies and how they would address a certain “problem” within a city. None of it seemed to make much sense to me. I was very sceptical and then Adam’s book crystallised a lot of that scepticism.


Sam: That’s what you’re not doing.


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: What are you doing?


Vanessa: I’m now finally, very happily, looking at how natural resource scarcity will affect people who do HCI.


Sam: In which order is that? How natural resource scarcity-


Vanessa: I should say, might affect people.


Sam: Might affect.


Vanessa: Might affect people who are HCI researchers.


Sam: Why is that of interest?


Vanessa: Because I think that throughout this whole messy process I’ve realised that a lot of what I did in industry was HCI. I was working with people trying to design technologies to support them and help them, which is a lot of what HCI is supposed to be about. Also, I have always had this, not always, I’ve had for the past decade or so, this interest in environmental issues.


I crafted this research as an attempt to unify these seemingly disparate threads in my life and try to crystallise something for me. It’s a very selfish endeavour. I want to know what I can do in the face of natural resource scarcity, as somebody who does HCI.


Sam: What are you doing? Are you talking to people?


Vanessa: Yeah. I’ve done two phases of research. I’m in the middle of the second phase. The first phase I interviewed people who repair and maintain retro computing technologies, so Commodores, super Nintendo’s, Sega Genesis, BBC micros. I was trying to talk with anybody who still repaired those.


Then, now I’m talking with people who are currently active in HCI research and finding out what they do and how they do it, how they develop new things because I think the two groups are linked and that resource scarcity is one of the things that will link them.


Sam: Are you particularly looking for people who are thinking those two things, the HCI, the Human Computer Interaction Research or practise and environmental stuff, the natural resource scarcity?


Vanessa: Yes. Definitely. I work with people who are in sustainable HCI, which is, I think, the closest field dealing with these issues. I’ve also the Limits Community to be quite interesting because they are playing around with similar topics.


Sam: Because, while there’s a few people doing that, the vast majority aren’t.


Vanessa: Yeah.


Sam: What are you hoping to find?


Vanessa: This is not going to be a very satisfying answer but I want to find answers for myself. I want to have a good idea of how I will be affected. I think, because I’m learning that the HCI community is quite a small, close-knit community, I think I will start by sharing my research amongst people who do similar things.


Then, I will progressively get shoutier and try to integrate this into broader HCI discourses because I think that more people within HCI need to think about how what they’re doing relates to climate change and the environment.


Sam: You’ve done some of those interviews?


Vanessa: I have done some of those interviews, yes. I’ve got 17 done so far. I just started a couple of weeks ago. I intend to spend the next three months interviewing as many people as possible and having as many conversations around this is possible. Then, I will try to write it up.


Sam: Has anyone said anything surprising so far?


Vanessa: Yes and no. Most people aren’t thinking about, even if they’re going to maintain their data for the next 10 years because University requirements state that they have to, most people aren’t thinking about whether or not they should go back to that data and reuse it in an interesting way and how that relates to the environment or doesn’t, for some people.


The more interesting things for me selfishly, have just been the differences between countries and the pressures that they face to deal with these things and the pressures that they face to publish interesting new work every year. That’s not a thing that I was expecting. Perhaps that shows how young and naïve I am within the field. I was expecting it to be a little bit more homogenous than it has been.


Sam: The academic publishing cycle of identify a problem or define a problem, identify solution, do an intervention, measuring it and write it up real quick, doesn’t sit very nicely with-


Vanessa: No, it doesn’t.


Sam: -intergenerational equity with looking at changes on large scale over long time periods and messy wicked problems and so on.


Vanessa: Right.


Sam: Has anyone got a solution to that?


Vanessa: Not anybody that I’ve spoken with but I’m hoping that somebody might.


Sam: You’re hoping that there’s someone out there?


Vanessa: I’m hoping. Yeah.


Sam: When you do …


Vanessa: I think I have to hope that other people are thinking about this right now. I don’t have to hope that. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who acknowledge that it’s a problem, they know that it’s a problem. They don’t like that there is this publishing cycle that they have to adhere to but they also would rather not be fired.


They would also rather not lose access to their immediate colleagues and peers if they don’t do this because you have to make a living as well. They feel almost a sense of discomfort and inability to do anything in the face of this particular challenge. The ones that are saying this to me mostly are ones who are not super senior academics. Most of the senior academics … That’s not true, I’m generalising. I want to take all of that back.


I had a conversation with a very senior academic from Cambridge. He’d given a presentation to a large group of people where he had been calling for more interdisciplinary researchers and he was saying that we need to rethink the publishing cycle and rethink how we value people within academia.


I went up to him after his presentation and I was like, “That was great. That really resonated with me. Thank you so much for saying that. I want to do an interdisciplinary generalist PhD. If I came to Cambridge, how would I do that without facing the pressures of this publishing cycle?”


He laughed in my face and said, “You’re too early. Come back in a decade. We might be able to accommodate something like that then but right now, no. Nobody’s going to allow you to do that.” To me, that interaction optimised the problem in academia. People want it, they will claim it to a large crowd of people. They will say, “This is the thing that we need to be doing,” but nobody’s making steps, they’re just deferring the problem to 10 years from now.


In many ways, that is the exact same issue we’re facing with environmental problems around the world, with climate change. “Oh, we won’t deal with that right now. Come back in 10 years and we’ll have a solution for that. In the next 10 years we’ll have figured it out but right now you’re too early to be trying to figure out the answers to these issues.”


Sam: You’ve been involved in a lot of different organisations.


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: Probably more than anyone else on the planet and from a whole range of different areas mixing both environmental and social justice and culture and everything else. How come you came down to natural resource scarcity in your question?


Vanessa: Because you have to have a very narrow question to get your PhD done. It was a practical choice. If I could … The paper that I’m writing about the retro computing people, it’s actually far more broad.


It’s just resource scarcity that includes access to knowledge, that includes access to support, that includes access to the physical components that you need to replace broken things on your computer. For my thesis, I had to be quite narrowly focused so that I could finish it in the time and meet the requirements of this academic structure that is not ready for something more broad.


Sam: Do you have a go-to definition of sustainability?


Vanessa: I do not. I know that I probably should but I keep it quite flexible because of the broad variety of people that I speak with. Business sustainability is a very different thing than environmental sustainability, which is a very different thing than community sustainability, even though they’re all connected. If that makes sense. I wish that I had an easy to ramble off thing so that … I’m probably going to need to articulate one at some point in the near future and it’s going to be very difficult for me.


Sam: What do you say when somebody says, “We’re computer scientists, this is not our problem”? What’s your line into it?


Vanessa: I ask them typically, why they think it’s not our problem and then I ask more probing questions like, “Have you ever considered where we get the materials to build our computers? What happens to your data? Where are you storing it? What do you know about the broader context?”


They typically respond with more questions and then through that questioning process, I try to provide them what information I have on hand and that changes regularly as well because I think new research comes up quite regularly about the environmental impact of computing. Yeah. I try to fit that into the conversation as they’re responding to me.


Sam: On the scale I’ve just invented of one to 10, where one is optimist and 10 is pessimist?


Vanessa: Oh. Ah. Scales, again. I fluctuate between probably one and 10, quite regularly, even earlier today, depending on a lot of things. I have to be optimistic because I’m just in my 30s and I know I have a long, long trail ahead of me. I think if I was pessimistic all of the time I would not have the energy to get myself out of bed in the morning but I also see a lot of exciting things happening. I see cool projects like to Restart Project. I see cool projects like Fairphone.  Fairphone’s a great project.


Things like that give me hope and make me quite optimistic but then, talking with lots of researchers who don’t think about the environmental impact of their computing at all makes me quite pessimistic. Attending presentations by large search companies who talk about wanting to provide abundant access to the Internet for everybody and then not having them acknowledge that the environmental impact of that. That makes me quite pessimistic as well.


Sam: The whole paradigm, not just of computing but of technology and business itself really, is make new products and sell more stuff.


Vanessa: Yep.


Sam: Are we kidding ourselves?


Vanessa: By trying to think about environmental issues related to that?


Sam: No. About turning around that sight, that discipline, that science, that industry that’s behind it, the business.


Vanessa: I don’t really care if we’re kidding ourselves. I feel like somebody has to be saying it. Somebody has to be trying to raise these issues with big business or it will never change. I don’t know if in the long term this will matter, I don’t really care.


I just feel like I have to do it. It feels like the right thing to do and beyond that I don’t really care. I should care because I know that neoliberalism is the problem and that we should try to bring it down but I also know that I am one person.


Sam: Some questions to end with. What is your sustainable superpower?


Vanessa: Yeah. Laughter? Am I allowed to say that’s my superpower?


Sam: You just did.


Vanessa: Great.


Sam: I’ve written it down, so that’s what it is.


Vanessa: Perfect. I feel like I have to laugh in the face of some of the things that make me incredibly pessimistic. That’s probably what keeps me optimistic.


Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Vanessa: Oh, wow. Quitting my job at the government of Alberta and pursuing what I cared about.


Sam: Do you consider yourself an activist?


Vanessa: Yeah. That’s a question that I’ve always struggled with. I should, I should consider myself an activist and sometimes I do. Right now I don’t. I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. I’m just doing a PhD and some research. I don’t feel like I’m enough of an activist right now. I used to be.


Sam: Do you see a long-term future where you can be an activist?


Vanessa: I see a long-term future where I will be an activist. Yeah-


Sam: Do you think that you’ve cracked it? Through your myriad of things that you’ve done there’s been a separation between computing and your, let’s call that part that bit of the activism.


Vanessa: Right.


Sam: Do you see a long-term future where you’re going to be able to bring the two together?


Vanessa: Yes, and I’m trying to right now. I just submitted an environmental impact of computing … Yes. I just submitted a digital technologies and climate change proposal to the government of Canada, a competition about a month ago that closed.


I’ve made it to the top 10 for that particular competition, so there’s a very good chance that this submission I have is going to affect policy in Canada, getting the government to think about how their computing regime is linked to the environment. That’s my first step.


I intend to write a lot more for the public sector, more policy document submissions. I’m going to try to engage with some ministers. I intend to be more active about this specific subject, at least within Canada because we have recently had a government change there and I think that we now have the right people in place to think about these issues, so yeah-


Sam: How’s that going down in Edmonton?


Vanessa: I will find out when I’m home in about a week and I start chatting with some people.


Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Vanessa: Yeah. That’s a great question. What does motivate me and get me out of bed in the morning? There are the typical motivations that everybody has. I need to eat food and survive, those things. I need to have friends…like motivations, whatever.


I am motivated by … I hate this question. I’m so terrible at answering it. I should have an answer to this question and I don’t. I have an idea of what I want to see from the world and I’m motivated by pursuing that idea. It’s a broad, messy, complicated idea that draws in all of these different threads, so it’s not an easy thing for me to articulate. I do end up styling it a bit when I am talking with different people but that gets me up in the morning.  Pursuing that gets me up in the morning.


Sam: Maybe it’s always only ever going to be a broad, messy, complicated idea.


Vanessa: I think it’s going-


Sam: If there was a silver bullet, simple idea, we would have fixed it already.


Vanessa: I would agree. Yeah.


Sam: Good. You can stick with, “Oh, your answer was good there,” remember that one.


Vanessa: Thanks.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would it be?


Vanessa: I can give you a flippant answer or a very serious one.


Sam: Give me both.


Vanessa: Okay. I would wave a magic wand and we would all be transported to Jurassic Park and it would be a fabulous, exciting time with dinosaurs.


Sam: Except we would get eaten.


Vanessa: They need food too. Dinosaurs need food too. I’m not a species-ist, I’m not. Yeah. No, if I could wave a magic wand and make one thing happen it would be that the world would be a less unequal place for everyone and the environment.


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


Vanessa: The-


Sam: It’s this last question, it’s a free hit.


Vanessa: I know. I know. I’m sorry. The advice that I used to give when I was a mentor for young women entering computing was that you should feel and it’s such a piece of advice from a place of privilege, you should feel that you can pursue the things that you care about, even if they don’t fit into the nice, normal, clean, clear structures that are centred in front of you.


Even if you are an engineer, if you want to learn about knitting, go learn about knitting. If you are a nurse and you want to learn how to fix a car, go learn about fixing a car. That would be my advice. Pursue the things that you’re curious about and be curious. Be curious, please.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Vanessa: Yeah. Thank you. I’m sorry that was so rambled.


Sam: All of the best stories are a ramble.


Vanessa: Are they?


Sam: You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann.


We broadcast on our title access radio, and Podcast on On, we’re building up searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens.


Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Vanessa Thomas, variously from Lancaster and Alberta, Canada. She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and, let’s just call it sustainability. Although, she didn’t.


You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via iTunes for free and it goes out to lots of other party places. Please do like us on Facebook. It keeps the wolves from the door and it means we don’t have to go and get a job working in the oil sands.


That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.


computing education

Making a difference through work

Lisa Kaczmarczyk

 Don’t let your personal and your professional life be separate on things that you feel passionate about. If you really feel something is important, work out how to bring it in.

Dr Lisa Kaczmarczyk has an adjunct position at Harvey Mudd and runs a business specializing in the evaluation of computer science and engineering education programmes.    Her book from a couple of years ago is Computing and Society: Computing for Good.

Sam:  Welcome to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio. A weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane is not here tonight because I’m in San Diego. Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through what we’re calling the sustainable prospective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s Sustainable Lens is that of Dr Lisa Kaczmarczyk.

Lisa: Well done.

Sam: It doesn’t look like that when it’s written down.

Lisa: That’s true, but if you’re Polish, it looks exactly like that.

Sam: I’ll just go for Lisa. Lisa has an adjunct position at Harvey Mudd and runs a business specializing in the evaluation of computer science and engineering, research, particularly that with a social good type of aspect. She can say that better than I can. Her book from a couple of years ago is Computing and Society: Computing for Good. Thank you for joining me.

Lisa: It’s very nice to be here.

Sam: It’s your house.

Lisa: It’s true. Nice of you to come.

Sam: Let’s start with some big picture things, where did you grow up?

Lisa: Mostly in Massachusetts. I moved around a lot. I was born in Boston, I was there for a while, moved to New Hampshire for a few years, moved back to Massachusetts, spent a year of living in England, and back to Massachusetts and then left in my 20s.

Sam: Did you get settled in places enough to be attached to the place?

Lisa: Yes, but every time you move, you have to get unattached and uprooted, but I try really hard to get grounded everywhere I go.

Sam: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Lisa: I wanted to be a spy and a world traveller. A spy, a world traveller, and a writer, all three of those things. Actually, I tend to think that I’ve accomplished it, so I’m very happy about that.

Sam: Hang on, I can get the world traveller a bit because you do travel, and you’ve written a book, so that’s a … What about the spying business?

Lisa: My favourite book when I was growing up was called Harriet the Spy and it was this book about this little girl who ran around with her spy notebook and she spied on all of her neighbours and her teachers and she wrote down everything that she observed, and so I imitated her. I had a spy notebook and I ran around and peered in the windows of my neighbours, wrote down everything about what my classmates were doing, made commentary on everything that I saw. It turns out, many years later, that becoming a researcher, and especially a qualitative researcher, is very much about the same sort of thing. Although, people know that you’re doing it as opposed to it being sneaky. You end up actually watching people, listening to them very carefully.

Sam: And not getting arrested.

Lisa: Not getting arrested, yeah, I think about it sometimes, what would have happened if I’d gotten caught. It would not have been a good scene. My parents would have been extremely unhappy, I think.

Sam: When you realized that you could be a world traveller and a writer, and perhaps a spy, what did you actually get off to do? You didn’t go to spy school?

Lisa: No, I got distracted somewhere along the way. I decided, first, that I wanted to be in theatre, and so I went off and I got a degree in drama and Spanish, dual degree. Then, I decided that the computer industry was really interesting, so I went into the computer industry. I went off in a lot of different directions but eventually, it all started pulling together as I realized it, the social aspects of all of these things were really important. Yeah, it was not a direct path.

Sam: What did you take away from your degree in drama?

Lisa: Gosh, Well, I ended up mostly working behind the scenes. My idea of being on stage didn’t work out. It turned out I just didn’t have the right something, I don’t know what it was. I ended up working in lighting, primarily, which was very technical, which is where I met a lot of engineers, which was the beginning of my move into, eventually, into the computer field. I’m not sure if that means that I actually took that away from theatre, but theatre certainly gives you a lot of opportunity to learn about how to be in front of other people and talk to other people.

Sam: And tell stories.

Lisa: And tell stories, exactly.

Sam: You found yourself being seduced by the lights, not being in front of them, but being behind them, eventually.

Lisa: Yeah, I think there was an appeal to that because I was introverted. Most of my friends would not believe that because I’ve always been very actively present, but in my head I was very introverted. It was actually easier to get very nerdy about the lights, and study them, and buy all the lighting technical manuals and start reading them, and starting figuring out, “Okay, how does this actually work?”

Sam: Did you then go off to get a Computer Science degree?

Lisa: Not immediately. I graduated from college with my drama and Spanish degree, but had decided by that point that I wanted to go and work in the new computer industry. This was the early 80s, in which everything was a Wild West still. I talked my way into my first computer science job, at a little start-up. That went out of business almost immediately, which was traumatic. I got another job. I just kept talking my way into computer science jobs because at that time, if you were good at talking your way into things, which I was, it was easier because you didn’t have to have a Computer Science degree at that time. I think it would be harder now. I spent about eight years moving from one job to another. The 80s was a time of a lot of turmoil. I got laid off several times as companies folded, evaporated, or were bought out by someone else.

Then, eventually, I started going back to school at night. Did that for a couple of years, then, went back full time. Finished a Master’s in Information System, decided that it was so cool going to school, that I had to do more of it. Went into a Master’s in Computer Science after that. Then, went back to work again, and many years later, went back and got a PhD. It was work, school, work, school, work, school.

Sam: A Master’s in Information Systems and in Computer Science?

Lisa: Yes, one after the other.

Sam: What brought that on?

Lisa: Well, the original Information Systems degree started because I had a boss who didn’t like the work that I was doing. I was a programmer, and he thought I wasn’t doing a very good job as a programmer. With hindsight, he may have had a point, so he said, “I think you should go take some classes in order to get better at this.” I thought, “Okay.” I started taking classes at night school thinking that that would make everything work out. Well, that particular job didn’t work out, and so I just said, “Fine, I’m going to finish this up full time.”

Sam: PhD?

Lisa: Later.

Sam: Yeah.

Lisa: Yes. After I finished the second Master’s it was another one of these … I think traumatic experiences have formed several of my important changes in my career because when I was in my second Masters, the Master of Computer Science, I had a faculty member who didn’t have a good attitude towards women students, I think that’s a polite way of putting it. I worked really hard in his class. I went into his office one time to ask how I was doing. I had gotten a B on the midterm. I want to talk about how I can do better. His response to my coming to ask questions was, “The fact that you’re here in my office asking questions means you clearly don’t know anything about the material. I’m going to have to reassess how you’re doing.” I burst into tears in his office, it was terribly humiliating. He then went back and failed me in the class and wrote a letter telling the other faculty how what he had done was justified.

It was a horrible experience, and I was so angry that it changed my career path, because my initial plan had been, finish the Master’s degree, go back in the industry and keep going up that corporate ladder, but I decided I can do a better job teaching than this guy. I can also make sure this thing doesn’t happen to anyone else.

Sam: That wouldn’t be hard by the sound of it.

Lisa: Yeah.

Sam: The response to somebody asking questions is that they’re somehow being threatening or something.

Lisa: Yeah, I have never forgotten that. I was offered two jobs. One was in Silicon Valley and it was obviously, it was a tech job, and at the same time, I was offered a job teaching at a community college. The salary disparity was amazing. The community college job paid almost nothing, but I took it, because my gut was telling me, “Follow that. Set aside the money, the ego, the prestige.” It was a hard decision, but it was the best decision, because I went to the community college and they were very student-oriented, and it was all about teaching and how do you teach well, and how do you understand what the students’ needs are and help them to succeed. They hired me to develop their Computer Science transfer programme. Not only did I get to develop a whole new program from scratch with a lot of support for being student-oriented, but I got to run around the entire state, I was living in Oregon by this time, and talk to all the universities and develop articulation agreements.

That was just exciting and thrilling. I was on a roll at that point with having an academic career and never really looked back.

Sam: From there to a PhD?

Lisa: After about eight years. I spent about eight years at the community college, I started getting a little bit restless. I started doing research on the side. I had no clue about how formally you were supposed to do research officially. I just started doing it and of course, got rejected. I submitted things to journals. I didn’t know anything about how you’re supposed to do this, which is good because I just did it without anybody telling me you can’t or you shouldn’t or that’s not appropriate, or, you don’t have whatever degree you need. I just started doing that, and I was the only one in the community college with any kind of computer science background at all. It forced me to have to reach out to find community, and I, again, ended up with a boss who didn’t particularly appreciate me. That’s another kind way of putting it. A combination of trying to do research on top of teaching, which there really wasn’t time for in a community college setting, and a boss who I didn’t get along with so well.

Then, somebody reached out to me and said, “Have you thought about coming to University of Texas, Austin to do a graduate degree, a PhD?” I was like, “Great idea.” Again, I didn’t know you how you were supposed to do things or the right way to do it, but I applied, got in and off I went.

Sam: Awesome, so what did you do your PhD on?

Lisa: I went in through the Science Education programme, because that was the way to do computer science education research at that time, but the first thing I did was boogie on over to the Computer Science department and got them to give me a teaching, an instructor teaching position. I was able to do that because I had prior teaching experience. That started about six months after I got there. At the same time, because I had essentially no money, I got a job working part-time in a start-up in Austin. The first two years that I was in Austin I was … what’s the word I want, split personality life. I would go downtown, I would work in this fancy start-up on the 14th floor of a building with shiny windows, and it was the first dot com boom. They’re throwing money around, left, right and sideways. Everybody thought they were going to be rich.

I would do that for a while, and then I will take the bus back to campus and I would go into my dark, dirty office, way off in the side building somewhere and work on developing course materials and on my PhD. It was actually very formative because I got to see two worlds at the same time, which was neat, but it also helped to pay for me to go to school.

Sam: What was your thesis on?

Lisa: I developed neural net … I developed a neural network in order to investigate human learning of some calculus concepts. This is long enough ago now that I’m trying to pull it all back together in my mind, but there were two parts to it. The first part was very traditional computer science with artificial neural networks and the second part was very much a science education human studies, I think. The first part, I modelled human learning. I took the Math education literature and modelled, got the neural network to model human learning of some mathematical concepts. Don’t ask me what they are because I can’t remember right now. It’s been too long. After I got the neural network accurately modelling human learning of these particular concepts, then I asked it to make some predictions. Then, I went and did a human subject study to see if people actually did learn the way the neural network said that they would learn this next piece of the Math concepts.

Then, I wrote the dissertation around those two, and so it was very much … this was another one of those career forming things, because half my committee was in computer science, and half my committee was in either science … Well, Science education and Math education, which shared a department or psychology, and they couldn’t have seen the worlds more differently. The one group really valued quantitative methods and statistics and the other valued qualitative methods. Their whole view of how you do research and what’s considered rigorous and robust were totally different. A significant portion of my PhD experience, and this is the part that really lasted long beyond the topic, was learning how to get these two groups to be in the same room, work together, respect each other’s approach to research, see the validity of it, make them come together.

That was very hard, but that is something that I continue to do and still do. Another trial by fire type of thing.

Sam: More recently, your work has had a sort of an underlying thread, at least more recently, at least for the ten years or so that I’ve known you. Your work has had an underlying thread of social good or sustainability. You haven’t mentioned that all the way through this process to date. Was it there?

Lisa: Yeah, I think there was a period of time where I was suppressing the interest that I had always had in these things and segmenting it from my professional life, because I bought into this idea that science is logic and science is the hard, not meaning difficult, but hard science. Then, this personal human stuff didn’t really fit. It was part of my personal life, and the things I did in my personal life are very much about that, in terms of volunteering at personal activities and stuff. I kept them separate but this was causing, I think a lot of conflict on some level somewhere. The way it all changed was my first semester at UT Austin, in graduate school, there were two courses that I was required to take because I was in Science Education.

One of them was qualitative research methods and the other was educational, an educational psychology class. I thought these were both going to be the most horrible classes and so I would take them first semester to get them out of the way so I never had to deal with them again.

They totally rocked my world. They changed everything. They blew my mind, those two classes. It changed my approach to my dissertation, it made me realize that I actually could, should and wanted to make this human social issues, global issues central to the work that I do.

From there, I was then able to start actually talking about it, work with it, try to figure out how you actually incorporate this, no longer say, I have to separate these two. The more further I went along, the more confident I got, the more it started coming out into the open and not be the secret thing off to the side, that only my friends knew about.

Sam: When you then had to get a job, did you look for something that explicitly allowed you to do that or was that a matter of putting that back in the box?

Lisa: Oh gosh, that’s hard. I wanted very much to stay teaching-centric. I really wanted an academic position where I could be focused on teaching. I was very interested in their disciplinary things but I didn’t yet see at that point how I would incorporate that into being a Computer Science educator. I ended up taking a teaching-oriented position at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where it turns out they’re very open to experimentation and they’re very student-centred. That’s where I started experimenting a little bit. In addition to the core classes, I started experimenting with what other kinds of course could I teach. Sustainability continued to be tricky because, again, there wasn’t any precedence, it’s like, “How do you do this?” At that point, people still weren’t even talking about, very much about energy, saving energy, which is now the thing you’d probably hear about the most in computing. Is, “How do we save energy and if it’s tied to hardware and resource usage related to electricity?”

Even then, that wasn’t really talked about, so the more I was focused on more explicitly human as opposed to environmental aspects, because I was still trying to figure this out. It was several years later that I started to figure it out, even though I’m still questing on that, in that direction. It’s a hard thing.

Sam: I wonder why there weren’t any precedents. It’s not as if sustainability hadn’t been around for 20, 30, 40 years by then. It was a long time after the first Earth Day in 1970.

Lisa: Yeah, in fact, that’s from the original Earth Day in San Diego, something like 30 years ago. That’s the original poster. Sustainability has come to be much more accepted in engineering and especially in Civil Engineering because the connections have been, up until now, more explicitly obvious for people. If you are building things, if you are working on infrastructures, all these things you think of with engineering, it’s more obvious to people how you deal with research usage, how you deal with waste, how you deal with life cycle issues of things. Physical things that you think more about in engineering as opposed to software things which we think about more in computer science. I forget exactly how you posed your question.

Sam: Why wasn’t it there?

Lisa: Partially because people haven’t seen how to do it. They haven’t seen that it’s central to computer science, they haven’t seen that it’s relevant, centrally relevant, as opposed to an extra or, it would be nice if … it’s really someone else’s issue, have the engineers do it, or have the ecologists do it, or have the natural scientists do it. They haven’t seen how this relates to something that seems more abstract. You’re writing software. You don’t put your hand on it. The machines are built by somebody else. I would say it’s the thinking. The machines are not built by the computer scientist, they’re built by some hardware people somewhere over there but not in our department. The focus, and Computer Science very heavily draws out of Math, and so there’s been a very strong historical lifetime focus on mathematics and algorithms and abstractions and things that don’t readily, immediately lead people to think about sustainability in the natural world environment, eco-systems, all of these.

Sam: That’s the reason why it’s not there? What would be your argument for being there?

Lisa: Our entire planet at this point, the global infrastructure is supported by computers, it’s run by computers, it’s run by software. It’s hard to even imagine what it would be like if all of the software and all the computer systems disappeared. All of these means that all of our world, all of our lives, everything that we do, everything that we make, everything that we use, everything that we interact with is probably somehow tied to software. When we design software, we design programs, when we think about how we’re going to solve systemic problems, decisions that we make along the way have a ripple effect outwards. If you start looking at something like programming, just where most computer science undergraduate curriculum starts, they start with programming concepts, if you start thinking beyond just syntactical issues of, how to write code and get it to compile and run and do some mathematical algorithms, you start looking at what are the possible effects of what you’re writing, what applications.

You’re going to be writing it for the people that are going to use this. You start thinking about these things and you start realizing that every time you make a decision, when you’re developing a program and then coding it, it is going to have effects on people and the environment. You need to start thinking about that. What are they? That’s what we’re not doing very much right now. Looking for those connections, figuring out what they are, figuring out what they mean and then figuring out, “Oh, okay, how does that affect the choices that I’m going to make?” If you’re the educator, how does that affect the choices that I’m going to make and how I introduce material and get students to think about their options.

Sam: One of the things I didn’t say in the introduction is that you’re on the ACM Education Council. What does that do?

Lisa: The Education Council provides feedback and suggestions to the ACM Education Board, which provides education, and it sounds all kind of more complicated, I think, than it is but they provide advice on education matters and policy to ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery.

Sam: That’s the big computing society?

Lisa: Yes.

Sam: In that role you have a pretty good overview of what’s going on, supposedly international, but particularly American education.

Lisa: Right, we’re really stretching the end of the international domain now. ACM is very consciously trying to be much conscious and aware of global computing issues.

Sam: Well, I’ve been at several ACM conferences. Well, they’ve stood up and said that and put up a map of the world and said, “ACM is global,” and it doesn’t have new Zealand on it.

Lisa: Yeah, it’s really unfortunate that New Zealand tends to fall off of maps somewhere. I think it’s over there, yeah. I’m glad to say it’s on that map because the map I have on my wall is Pacific-centric as opposed to Atlantic-centric, which I did on purpose because it’s reminding you, you got to look at the world differently than what you’re used to, but yeah.

Sam: That’s the one we’re used to.

Lisa: That’s the one you’re used to. Yes, yes. New Zealand doesn’t fall off that one, but it sometimes falls off the Atlantic one, which is…

Sam: … as the ACM did, put a legend there over the top of it.

Lisa: No.

Sam: Anyway.

Lisa: Yes.

Sam: The overview of education.

Lisa: Yes.

Sam: Are there any places getting it right in terms of the incorporation of sustainability, social good and so on?

Lisa: If I separate those two, then it’s easier to say we’re making good progress, because there are a lot of schools that are working really hard and I would actually take Harvey Mudd, where I’m currently an adjunct, is an example of school who’s actually working really hard and walking the talk about trying to infuse social good and social issues into the development of well-educated engineers and computer scientists. Sustainability is trickier and I don’t honestly know of any place that is really doing it. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I’m not aware of them, and I often have my ear to the ground on this stuff.

Sam: Exactly. If it’s not jumping out at you, it’s probably not there.

Lisa: No, and we still get into the same issues that you and I were talking earlier about the trajectory forward about how it has now become very difficult just by, I think you said something like this, it would be hard to justify teaching courses that had sexism and racism built into them or just ignored. We’re not at that point with sustainability where it’s considered a problem. They were not directly addressing this as part of our development of good computer scientists and engineers. There are schools that from a social justice issue are doing … I think they’re doing well, they’re doing really well. I’m actually really proud of what Harvey Mudd does. Sustainability, yeah, I don’t know.

Sam: One of the things that the ACM does, it puts out curriculum documents and sustainability is there.

Lisa: Yes.

Sam: It’s there as a couple of optional courses, but at least it’s there.

Lisa: Well, one thing they did was CS 2013, which is the most recent curricular recommendations. I do agree that it’s not a huge section and what they’ve done is they’ve divided them into what they call tiered hours and it’s how many hours that they’re recommending that you should require in a curriculum, and you can incorporate it anyway you want. You can integrate it in, you can make it a course, you can … Whatever way you want. The sustainability has one recommended tier one hour and one recommended hour for tier two and what that means is that they’re saying that Computer Science departments should require all of their programmes to have at least one hour addressing two topics that they list here. They provide some extensive learning.

Sam: Is that one hour, or is that one hour multiplied by a few?

Lisa: Oh, gosh, good question. I’m going to guess, I would have to go back and read, I think. They just talked about it as hours. I think it’s, I’m going to guess, it’s literally an hour, which is not, no, not much at all. The tier two is another hour that they’re saying you should require your departments to try to cover. An interesting observation about this relates back to what we’re talking about is, in the curricular guidelines, where they describe why is something in Core Tier 1, why is it in Core Tier 2, is that through this very broad process that they went through to come to agreement, and this is happening nationally, the core Tier 1 are the things that they had wide spread consensus on. Core Tier 2, not so high a consensus, and this shows you how hard it is, because what it says in Core Tier 1 is that being a sustainable practitioner, by taking into consideration cultural and environmental impacts of implementation decisions.

When they talk about that means in the learning outcomes, it’s familiarity as opposed … identify ways to be a sustainable practitioner, be familiar with this. Then, the second piece is illustrate global, social and environmental impacts of computer use in disposal as in e-waste. These are very much still, essentially, awareness-building, as opposed to action oriented. You get into Tier 2 and it’s a little more closely tied to how do you actually implement this. It talks about thinking about design decisions, but again, we’re still at the level of, it’s like consciousness raising. It makes me think of the 1960s, when they were all in the consciousness raising about racial and gender issues. That’s still where I feel we are with sustainability and computer science.

It is fantastic that this is even in here, in these guidelines and that we have some recommended requirements. This is actually huge.

Sam: It took some fighting to get that there.

Lisa: It did. It’s big progress, but still we’re not at that point where we’re saying, as I was referring to earlier, where it would be really wonderful if every single course in the undergraduate CS curriculum said, “Okay, these are designed decisions we’re making, whatever course it is, how does sustainability play into that and the choices that we’re going to make, as theoreticians and practitioners.

Sam: We were working on that together about eight years ago, at ITiCSE, one of the big computing education research conferences and a working group on …

Lisa: Sustainability.

Sam: Sustainability and Computer Science Education. One of the things we did was survey the …

Lisa: The faculty that were there at the conference. Yeah.

Sam: Yeah, and we got a range of responses.

Lisa: Right, we went to great lengths to develop a survey that we wanted to find out what the faculty attitudes were, if I recall and just how they do feel about this and get input so that we can make recommendations for sustainability in the curriculum. We worked really hard on the survey, and then we ran around the conference asking people to fill it out. There were three things that I really remember about it, it totally blew my mind. There were some people who flat out refused to even take it and they were not nice about it, and they just wouldn’t take it. They heard what the topic was and it’s like, “Get this out of here.” Then, there were people who filled it out and there were two polarized sets of responses. One set of responses was, “Thank God somebody is finally addressing this issue. I am so glad that somebody is thinking about sustainability in computing. We need this.”

They gushed about how happy they were and how much we needed this. Then, there was an equally passionate set of negative responses that gushed about, and there was one, and this is almost a direct quote, “Don’t you dare stuff this crap down my throat. I can’t stand it.” Then, this person went off on this, and several people did this. It wasn’t one. Went off on this rant about people stuffing their politically correct ideology into their curriculum and none of this stuff belonged there, and angry, nasty. It was just like the paper was burning in my hand when I would read those responses. What this really told me was this is still a hot button issue for people. People have really strong opinion, so weren’t … We’re no way near this ground of, “Can we have a reasonable conversation about this?” They were either really for it, or they were really against it, and it was not rational.

What’s behind all of that? I’m not sure, that’s the interesting question that the survey couldn’t get at. Is, what’s behind this incredibly powerful, emotional reactions to this topic? What do you remember?

Sam: It leads me a to a question of why would you not want to include being good?

Lisa: My cynical response, it makes me think back to where I was probably in my 20s, when I was in that place, where I was separating my professional world from my personal passions. I felt that anything that was tied to … I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but things that were tied to people and so called soft issues didn’t belong in science. Well, I know. I got that from certain aspects of my childhood and my upbringing, but this idea that science, and in this case computer science, is not about that soft stuff. Therefore, you try to stick that into the curriculum and you are diluting it, destroying it, ruining it, getting political. We have to try and keep everything objective in computer science, and therefore nothing related to politics or opinion. It ties this whole idea that you can be objective in the first place, and that you can be neutral, science for science’s sake.

Don’t worry about what’s going to be done with it, that’s someone else’s problem. It’s something that I still hear people say occasionally, so I would guess that that’s where that’s coming from for some people, and for other people who just have very strong political stances about anything in politics is, you push their button about a topic and it’s like their rationality leaves their brain entirely and they just go off on it.

Sam: Why did you write a book?  D

Lisa: Because there was this huge need, I didn’t see anything out there that showed that you could actually get a job and have a career in computer science and do social good. That’s something that I have believed for so long, but there was no way to essentially show it to people. I would talk to people about, “You can get a job and you can do something really cool and change the world.” They’d say, “Yeah, but I don’t want to join the Peace Corps. I don’t want to go off and not get paid and slave and volunteer.” There’s this belief that that was the only way that you could use technology to do good. I wanted to show concretely, “Here are case studies of people who are making a living, a good living working in the technology world as computer scientist.” Almost every case study in there is not a non-profit. They’re not exclusively that way, but almost all of them are people working for profit entities, working as computer scientist and doing things that are good for the world.

Whether it’s explicitly for a social cause or an environmental cause, or something that contributes positively to some intersection of those two. Now, I wanted to be able to hold up to students in the classroom and say, “Here, see? These are real people doing real things. These are not academic case examples. You can do this, too.” I wanted to provide a way for people to actually be able to teach a class around this, if they wanted because having a text book helps a lot. The idea being that, “Okay, you want to teach a computers in society course that is a little different.” Because traditional computers and society courses were, and in fact, often still are, purely about ethics. There’s an ethical component to this, but it’s not an ethics book. Sometimes, the ethics courses get very much into the abstract in which they are … They’re talking about, let’s read about the legal principles of ethics and how is ethics developed, and the philosophy of ethics and all of these things and then, ethical decision-makings to avoid problems.

That was the other thing, is I wanted computers and society to be not just about addressing problems after they have occurred, or avoiding problems, which is where the dominant conversation tended to go, if you had a computers and society conversation, which is a very negative way to approach computers in society. I want to be able to approach it from a positive perspective. That’s the other thing. These are not about, “Here’s the disaster, here’s how we fix it, or how we address it.” It’s about directly doing good.

Sam: Because you said that your criteria for including them were people who are making a living doing such good in computer science. Do you think that is actually making a difference, a positive difference?

Lisa: The things that they’re doing?

Sam: Yeah, so I’m thinking about Kentaro Toyama’s book, The Geek Heresy, basically saying, “We’re deluded if we think this is making a difference”.  He was particularly focused on the ICT for Development… go in and equip a school in rural India with computers and get out, and it doesn’t tend to work.

Lisa: Well, I think it’s very easy for people to get burned out, if they are very passionate about making a difference, and you encounter realities on the ground. You can get burned out, and I know working in development is particularly hard. It’s something in the last few years I’ve started learning more and more about, because I’m interested in it. These are really complicated problems, so I don’t have simple answers. You’re not going to write an algorithm to fix them. I don’t think that means you can’t make a difference. I think all of these things do make a difference. They absolutely do. You can go and look. There are millions of, I don’t want to say millions, there are lots and lots of well-documented examples where a difference is being made. There are ripple effects of these things. You can hear some approaches, especially with development and global development problems, where it’s top down, some of them bottom up.

There’s a big discussion in the development community about which one works best and where and how, but I would certainly argue against anyone who said, “You can’t make a difference, why bother trying?”

Sam: Maybe that’s the catch. The catch is as you said, you can’t write an algorithm to fix these things, but you can make a difference. The problem is, is that they’re messy, they’re wicked problems, which computing is not very good at doing.

Lisa: I think we can become better at it. I think we can become a lot better at it, and this is part of where the education question is directly relevant, because if we educate people to think that computers science is only about coming up with algorithms to fix problems, and we can only directly address problems, where we know it’s computable, or theoretically computable, then we are missing the nuances of the real world. If we start educating students from the very beginning to integrate ideas of flexibility and complexity and systems thinking, from the very beginning, systems thinking is key, then everything changes. Because then, you’re not going to have people totally ingrained with this idea that it can’t be done, or it’s not my domain. Someone else has to do all of that stuff.

Sam: There’s a big move to push computing thinking, if not coding, down through the grade levels.

Lisa: Right.

Sam: That’s a good point. If we are teaching them to identify computable problem, are we making that problem worse by pushing that further down?

Lisa: How would it be making it worse? What’s the argument?

Sam: If we’re pushing down our way of thinking that is limited to efficiency type, how can we make this program work faster, or how can we make this system work faster?

Lisa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. No, in fact, I can give you an example, because a couple of the projects that I’m working on as an evaluator are now in the K-12 arena. I’m working on a project in Broward County, Florida in which they are introducing computing into Grades 3 through 5. The way that they’re doing it is they’re integrating it into the literacy curriculum. Literacy is required and so they have, what they call literacy blocks, I guess everything in the elementary schools, they talk about it in blocks. They are working on how do you integrate … It becomes interdisciplinary, which is I think a key thing at whatever level you’re talking about. How do you integrate into the literacy curriculum issues of computability and computational thinking at an age developmentally appropriate level?

What you’re doing is you’re starting … They’re developing units, and this is still in progress right now, the development part. How do you get kids to start just integrating computability and computational thinking into other areas, in this case, literacy? I think that’s how you approach it. That also helps keep it from being isolated, something we’re going to be just be lopped off or removed, or seen as separate.

Sam: Your book is titled “Computing and Society: Computing for Good”, would you write it differently if it was “computational thinking for society”?

Lisa: Probably, because one of the things that I wanted to do was really focus on computer scientists. Computer science, I know that’s the United States’ term, in other parts of the world, in other countries, they use different terms, like informatics or computing, depending on where you are. Within the terminology of the United States, I wanted this slightly narrower term computer science as oppose to computing or IT, or information systems, because I was really focused on our computer science classes, our computer science departments, which at least within the United States are fairly well-defined and separate from some of those other areas. If you’re going to get faculty administrators, students, to take seriously what I’m talking about, you have to use the language that they are using.

Computational thinking is somewhat different, and there are different definitions depending on who you talk to, but it’s not an equivalent for computer science.

Sam: You mentioned your evaluation work, what is it that you’re doing for that?

Lisa: The majority of my projects, I’m working with faculty who have grants from the National Science Foundation to do computer science or engineering research, some of them are also in K-12. They are typically looking at ways to improve the teaching of computer science, so whatever level we’re talking about. Part of what’s really important is for people to be able to, people who were conducting these projects, to be able to see if the impact that they’re having is what they would desire. You don’t want to wait till the end and then see, “Oh, it worked.” Or, “It didn’t work,” and nothing at that point can be changed. We put together an evaluation plan, which means we talked at the very beginning of the project, what are the goals you want to achieve. Then, based upon those goals, what are the outcomes or objectives that you would like to see so that you know that you’re having the impact that you would like to have with this project.

Our kids are learning computational thinking in Grade 3 at the level that you would hope and expect a third grader to be able to do it, or at the undergraduate level, wherever it is. Once we get that all laid out, then we talk about how do you actually go in and assess it? What do you do? We don’t want to leap right to, “Okay, we’ll do a survey.” We develop this whole plan and then over the course of the project, whether it’s two years, three years, four years, five years, I go in and I gather the data, whether it’s qualitative or quantitative, in order to see how they’re doing at various touch points. Give them informative feedback about, “This is what I’m seeing, this is what I’m hearing.” I’m somewhat removed from them, so I don’t have the same kind of … agenda is not the word I want. I can look at it with a little more distance in perspective than they can, as the researchers. I can give them this information.

We can talk about what I’m seeing. I can make some observations and suggestions and then they decide what to do with it. They may decide, “Okay, this is great. We’ll keep doing it this way, or this other thing here, were a little off track, all right, we can adjust.” Then, you go through the whole period of time doing that, hopefully keeping on track of something, some aspect of your project doesn’t get way off before you realize what’s going on. That’s the idea.

Sam: How would you measure the impact?  Say people started talking about some of the bigger issues, they wanted to have impact on social change, or on sustainability issues, or going big picture, inter-generational equity.

Lisa: Well, most of the projects I work on do want to have impact in social change, because we’re dealing with people, we’re dealing with learning. We’re dealing with learning computer science, which hopefully they will then apply, whether they are in the field directly or not. It’s the same process no matter what, whether it would be sustainability related or not. We start with that goal conversation, what are the goals of this project? You have to get very explicit about it. Can you say that in a sentence? Can you give me a one, this is something I often say, “Can you give a one sentence grammatically correct statement of your goal? If you have multiple goals, let’s do that for each one of them.” It’s a hard conversation to have, but you get it pinned down. Then, you then move from there, it’s a one to many relationship between each of those goals and outcomes and objectives. Same thing, “Can you give me a one sentence – a grammatically correct statement – of an outcome that will show me that you are on track for accomplishing that goal.”

In other words, “What will would see?” It wouldn’t matter if it was sustainability. If their project was related to an undergraduate algorithms class, and they want to do a corporate sustainability into the algorithms class, it will be the exact same conversation. Okay. What’s your understanding as the practitioner, teacher, educator, researcher, whichever hat they had on at the moment, what’s your understanding of what sustainability means for algorithms? If this is an introductory class, what would that mean? Okay, can you give me a statement of what that means? Then, we just roll from there. I think that’s something that even if you’re not conducting research, that a practitioner could do, if they want to incorporate sustainability into any of their classes in the curriculum. They can step back and they can say, because we’re already expert at developing learning outcomes and syllabi, “Why are we doing what we’re doing and how are we going to … What are our pedagogical approaches?”

Take a look at whatever it is that we’re teaching and say, “Okay, how does sustainability fit in here? What does it mean? Okay, can I make a goal statement about that? What learning outcomes would I like to see?” Some of that is listed in the CS 2013. They do give some suggestions for what some learning outcomes could be, which if you’re totally stumped, could be a jumping off point. Take a look at those, read those. Oh, okay, I can see the tie-in, and work from there and you just would incorporate that along with everything else.

Sam: At the largest level… I’m just running a sentence, I don’t think it’s grammatically correct yet…

Lisa: Okay.

Sam: Is computing overall having a positive effect on restorative socio-ecological transformation?

Lisa: Wow, computing overall, is it having a positive effect on social … ?

Sam: Restorative socio-ecological transformation.

Lisa: Oh, the jury’s out. The jury’s out. I think this can go whichever way we want to take it. If we want it to have a positive effect and make a difference and enough of us want that, it will. If we don’t, if we get cynical and throw off our hands and say, “Impossible.” Then, it won’t.

Sam: How many do we need? Can the one person who’s passionate about this in every department, can they do it?

Lisa: It’s always got to be more than one person. This is something I learned early on. Is that, a single passionate person who doesn’t work in some way to get other people involved, when they go, the project goes. Depending on who you are and what your strengths are, you can do different things. If you are somebody with a lot of charisma, you might bring a lot of people on because they love your idea and they implement it in their own place, because they want to do what you’re doing. If you’re a real team person, you might actually bring on physical collaborators, whether they’re at your school, or they’re not available at other schools. If you’re a text book writer, you’d write a text book. Somehow, you have to get a growing number of people to think of this as normal. Normal, expected and important. As long as it’s on the fringe, as long as it’s in extra, as long as it’s on elective, as long as it say, “If we have time,” then, it’s not going to make a big difference.

Sam: Do you know of any studies, perhaps just informal ones, where the students are coming in, knowing this stuff, expecting it, where they think it’s normal, expected, and important, so they’re ahead of the district … ?

Lisa: Are we doing specifically about sustainability or social issues?

Sam: Well, my Venn Diagram is a very fuzzy one, so I would …

Lisa: Yeah, I am continually, happily impressed with a lot of the students that I meet. I sound old when I say that, oh my God, but it’s true, not the old part. A lot of students that I meet, whether it’s … These days, it’s students at Harvey Mudd, but other places, too, they’ve got a strong social conscience. These things are important to them. What they then get in college, I think, is going to influence whether they continue to see that or whether they learn to see that as integral to what they do professionally or whether they get forced to bifurcate. It would be really nice if students didn’t go down the road that I went down where for many years I didn’t see these things as compatible. If they come in with this idea, which I think a lot of them are, that social and environmental issues are important. Regardless of whether they might be on the political spectrum, if they see these things as important and we just reinforces normal that, “Yes, these are things that you think about when you make your decisions.”

Then, I think, yeah, it will have that large ripple effect without our having to do extraordinary things that might not work anyway because we burn out and get cynical.

Sam: Some questions to end with.

Lisa: Yes.

Sam: We’re writing a book of these talks, we’re calling it Tomorrows Heroes, how would you like your sustainable super power to be described? You can’t have laser eyes. You can’t fly.

Lisa: This is something that I could do? What is a sustainable superpower?

Sam: I don’t know, we’ve made it up.

Lisa: Oh, this is what I wish I could have?

Sam: It could be what you wish you could have or what you do have.

Lisa: I would like to eliminate the need for plastic, you want to talk about a wild and crazy dream. I think plastic had some of the nastiest environmental side effects on the planet. It’s come with an incredible amount of good, but boy, some plastic is really awful. I would love us to be able to get rid of the majority of plastic.

Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?

Lisa: Having the confidence to start and run and become successful with my own business that enables me to follow things that I’m passionate about.

Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

Lisa: An activist who’s not particularly loud and noisy, but yes.

Sam: In what way?

Lisa: Oh, my gosh, in what way? It’s through life decisions that I make that I’m not afraid to tell people that I’m making. Several years ago, I said I’m not going to … it sounds small, but I don’t think it is, really. I said I’m not going to buy plastic baggies anymore, period. I’m not going to buy saran wrap or plastic wrap anymore, period. In other words, I started focusing really hard specifically on things in the kitchen sink, plastic, gone. I tell people about this, and people say “It’s impossible. You can’t do that. How do you live without plastic baggies? How do you live without saran wrap? Tupperware, my God, I can’t get rid of my Tupperware.” Then, I tell them and I showed them, and well, I don’t know if they listen, but I’m always on lookout for things like that. It seems small. Waste is my huge thing. I really, really hate waste. I’m always looking at ways to … It’s like the old thing from the 60s, reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s like my world functions on how to not waste.

Sam: People seemed to have forgotten that recycle is the worst one of those.

Lisa: Uh-hmm. (affirmative) Right.

Sam: The reduced one, it’s just like it doesn’t exist.

Lisa: Yeah.

Sam:  As a matter of fact, it’s the first one. We’ve obsessed by the recycle because we get to use it anyway and throw it in the bin and hope that somebody is going to dig it out and probably downcycle it.

Lisa: Right, which is, yeah, which is why I tried it when possible just not to get them in the first place.

Sam: There’s a whole lot of stuff about reduce, that would be of interest to computer science people, what would it take for us not to be buying computers every year? What would it do, well, every two or three years, what would it do to the computing industry if we move to our model?

Lisa: I don’t know how feasible, if this is scalable, but I saw not long ago online a computer that was built without plastic. It was mostly made of wood and it functioned. It was a laptop. I was like, “This is really cool.” I don’t know. I would love to see that sort of thing explored to see how scalable is that, because it could be possible. I have a USB flash drive that I got from a conference in Europe that, again, is made almost entirely out of wood. It’s got some electronics in the middle, but it’s wood. You might think this is crazy, but if you don’t push these things, how are you going to change the world? If you just think all these things are impractical or they’re crazy, or it’s also totally embedded that we couldn’t possibly change it, then, sure, nothing is going to change. We absolutely can make change.

Maybe the wooden computer doesn’t turn out to be the thing that works, but maybe in exploring the wooden computer we discover something else that does work. We wouldn’t have known about it if we didn’t explore the wooden computer.

Sam: What motivates you?

Lisa: I always wanted to figure out why do I feel so strongly about these things, but I just … I want a healthy planet, and I want us not to destroy it. I think of the earth as alive, not in a sentient way, but I think of the earth as very much a living thing. When I think about the earth as a living thing and then everything becomes interconnected, then I care very deeply about it. I hate the idea that it’s getting destroyed, because that also affects people’s lives. People suffer horribly as the earth gets destroyed. Sometimes, in a developed country, we don’t really see it.

Sam: We were at the Hoover Dam two or three days ago, and the water level in Lake Mead is pretty low. We went on a tour for an hour or something, wandering around inside the dam. I think in response to one question, they mentioned the fact that the water level is ridiculously low. Other than perhaps 10 seconds in that whole time, there was no mention of the fact that each year there was more water being taken out of that dam than that’s coming into it, yet, it’s still being celebrated as this enormous achievement of American know-how, American engineering, how American systems run, and totally and utterly … It’s right in front of you, there’s no water in the dam. It couldn’t be more obvious, if you tried.

Lisa: Well, the whole history of water usage in politics, in the American West, is absolutely fascinating. Not too long ago I read a book about the politics of the building of the dams in the West. For the most part they weren’t built because of an environmental need, they’re built because of politics and heralded its great feats of engineering, which they are. It hasn’t been often about ecology and the environment, it’s been about politics and as warped sense of economics. No, it’s not going to be something they’re going to emphasize until it’s so in their face, they have no choice. We’re in a huge drought right here, you may have noticed in Southern California. Some people are really on top of it and recognizing we have a really serious long term problem and other people are kicking, screaming, and yelling. It’s only because of an incredible political pressure that we finally had instituted mandatory restrictions which the governor just lifted about two days ago.

This seems to be insane. We got a little bit more rain, a little bit more snow packs. We lift our restrictions, it’s like, “This is nuts,” but it’s not about the environment always, unfortunately.

Sam: It’s not just about the environment, it’s about what’s going to happen when Lake Mead runs out of water.

Lisa: Right.

Sam: I don’t know where the water goes, presumably lots of it must go to Las Vegas, and it’s still growing at 6000 people a month or something.

Lisa: Right. I think there’s this general problem that people have a hard time, and this maybe something having to do with the evolutionary wiring. We have a hard time grappling with huge problems that are in the future. We just can’t wrap our head around it, we can’t deal with it, so we don’t. We focus on what’s right in front of us, and if something is too big and overwhelming, we just shovel it over to the side. There’s this view of perhaps, “We’ll deal with that problem when we get there. Lake Mead runs out of water, we’ll deal with. We’ll come up with a technological solution. We’ll figure something out.”

Sam: That’s it. The “solution” is to move the intake lower, to take even more of the water out.

Lisa: Yes, or at one point, there was actually, a couple of decades ago, I could see this coming up again, it was floated that we should start siphoning the water down from Oregon, because Oregon has a lot more water. It rains in the Pacific Northwest and they have some big rivers. The idea was, we could build an aqueduct and pull it all down. I’m not sure Oregon wants their water stolen, but there’s been precedent, California has done this sort of thing before.

Sam: Like to Mexico.

Lisa: Well, there was this whole thing that happened, I forget which decade it was, maybe it’s the ’30s, the Owens River Valley. There used to be this whole lush area in Central California, I think it was called the Owens River. Anyway, they built an aqueduct and they sucked the entire river and it was gone, to take it to L.A. This is famous in the water wars and results political intrigue and stuff that happened. Yeah, everything became a desert. They literally piped the entire river to L.A.

Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?

Lisa: I’m trying to do a couple of things. I want to expand much more into the international arena. I want to expand much more into working on issues of equity and social justice within computing and see how I can really focus more and more on projects where I can see a difference being made. Because what I’m doing now, I see a difference, I just want to keep driving that direction.

Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur tomorrow morning, what would that be? All right, in terms of this social justice and so on within computing education, what’s the smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact?

Lisa: We as an educator community or something larger?

Sam: We as an education community, within that community, what’s the thing that would make the biggest change?

Lisa: I think if we took the time to actually look at how sustainability can be incorporated into the learning goals and outcomes of each one of our courses, integrate it in so that it becomes essentially intertwined and inseparable, I think we can do it. It just takes people saying, “We’re going to do it.” Because we do it with other things all the time. Every time we revise a curriculum, we revise a course, we go back to basics and we think about what’s important about this course, what’s central? We’ve started to do it with other issues, like we referred to earlier, things related to social … other social issues, we could do it. Maybe somebody needs to get a really big grant to do it, or they need a sabbatical to do it, because this is going to take some time. It’s not something you’re going to pull off in a weekend, or even a series of weekends. I think that would be a totally awesome idea, if we just went through the curriculum and you brought in people who … These were their areas.

You’re an algorithm…you guys or women are algorithms people, all right, let’s talk about it. You guys are the operating systems people, let’s talk about it. Where does it go? You’re the content area and pedagogical experts in this. Let’s figure out how sustainability can be interwoven in. That would be just awesome. Okay, that’s my magic wand thing, for tomorrow, it would be that if we suddenly had a curriculum where all of this was interwoven in and inseparable.

Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

Lisa: On anything at all?

Sam: Anything at all.

Lisa: Well, yeah, walk the talk. Don’t let your personal and your professional life be separate on things that you feel passionate about. If you really feel something is important, work how to bring it in. Make it part of what you do.

Sam: It sounds good to me. Thank you very much for joining me.

Lisa: Thank you very much for asking.

Sam: You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainable topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. We broadcast on Otago Access Radio, and podcast on, on We are building up a search archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are applying their skills through a sustainable future. In our conversations, we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Dr Lisa Kaczmarczyk. You can follow the link on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via iTunes for free, and all the other sorts of party places. That was Sustainable Lens, I’m Sam. I hope you enjoyed the show.

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Africa computing India

HCI4Development: love for people

Nicki Dell & Neha Kumar


Working closely with people in a much more holistic approach to understanding this domain rather than thinking that technology is just going to be a silver bullet for a lot of these issues.


Dr Nicola Dell of Cornell Tech and Dr Neha Kumar of Georgia Tech join us to talk Human Computer Interaction for Development.


Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens – Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher who is not here tonight and me, Samuel Mann. Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens.

Tonight we have two Sustainable Lenses, that of Nicki Dell from Cornell Tech and Neha Kumar from Georgia Tech. They both work in the area of Human-Computer Interaction for Development, both developing technologies for underserved populations, marginal populations and so on. Thank you for joining me.

Nicki: Thank you for having us.

Sam: We’ll start with Nicki then, shall we? Where did you grow up?

Nicki: I grew up in Zimbabwe actually, Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, that’s where I was born and that’s where I still call home.

Sam: What did you want to be when you grow up?

Nicki: That’s an interesting question. Most of my family is in the health area. My parents are pharmacists, my grandfather is a doctor and so I kind of defined my goals by not wanting to be in health and ended up choosing computer science because it was about as different from going into a medical profession as I could find at the time in Zimbabwe.

Sam: What did you think was going to happen if you did computer science?

Nicki: I wasn’t too sure. I think I didn’t really know what it was. It just sounded cool at the time. Once I started doing some programming courses, there weren’t very many at my school. It was kind of a small community. I decided that this was something that I liked a lot and I liked using code to build things that were useful to people, but I didn’t really have any idea that I would end up where I am today.

Sam: You did always think useful to people or is that something that you think you might be looking back on and thinking that’s what the goal was?

Nicki: Remember that the very first project that I ever worked on when I was fourteen working in a very old programming language called COBOL, that is from the ’70s, I was building a system for tracking pharmaceutical drugs to try and identify if people would take two drugs that had an interaction, whether or not they would end up combining. There was definitely from the beginning an interest in building systems that actually did something and that helped people.

Sam: That sounds suspiciously like a health front.

Nicki: I know. Well, I failed in my mission as you can probably tell almost immediately. That was the motivation was to not get a degree or to do anything academically related to health, but turns out that over the years I’ve progressed probably more and more towards doing projects that at least touch on the health domain in some way, so I guess I’m a failure.

Sam: And Neha?

Neha: Hi.

Sam: Where did you grow up?

Neha: I grew up in New Delhi. That’s where I was born and brought up. That is also where I still call home.

Sam: What did you want to be when you grow up?

Neha: I can’t really remember what I wanted to be. I think I just wanted to do math and that’s what I wanted to do in high school. When I went to college, it’s what I wanted to do. Of course my sister had done economics, and so I thought I could do math and economics and be exactly like her but then I ended up taking a different track.

My Mom was insistent that I take computer science or at least try it out. In my first semester as an undergrad I remember thinking that I’m just going to take this course so that I can finally just tell her that I don’t like it and that will be the end of it. Otherwise she’s always going to be telling me to take this course. Then I took it and I loved it, so that’s how I ended up doing computer science but I also did math.

Sam: Why did she want you to do that?

Neha: She thought it was really exciting. She thought, for whatever reason, that I would be good at it. I’m sure she thought that it was the thing to do because that’s what a lot of Indian parents think. She also felt like she would have loved to do it and she didn’t really have that chance, so she wanted me to try it out.

Sam: Where did you do your degree?

Neha: At Berkeley.

Sam: Straight on to?

Neha: I went on to do my master’s in computer science. That was at Stanford and then I went and worked at Microsoft for a couple of years. I was working on the PowerPoint team. At that point I was really excited because I was working on a product that I thought everyone knew and used and found useful, but it quickly got boring.

Very soon after, I was really kind of dying to get out. I thought I had my mid-life crisis. It was probably a quarter-life crisis but I just felt extremely unhappy, as I put it then, working on technology for technology’s sake.

The other thing was that I had always had an interest in education, so I had worked through my undergrad in an education nonprofit and working to support education projects in India. I didn’t know what else to do but thought I would try to use my computing skills somehow in the field of education, and that’s what made me go back to grad school.

Sam: What did you do then or where did you go?

Neha: I went back to Stanford to do my Master’s in Learning, Design and Technology and that was a programme in the School of Education. It was a fairly new programme at that point, but they had put it together to get people to think about how technologies could be useful in the education space. That was a one-year programme.

While I was doing that, I had the chance to do fieldwork for the very first time. I was in rural Karnataka in India helping another grad student in Berkeley with his PhD research. That experience is still my most favourite field experience, and will be I’m sure.

Sam: When you described it as Learning, Design and Technology, I was imagining it was going to be about designing, modelling things for use at places like U.S. institutions, but they had a much wider use in that?

Neha: No, they didn’t. Interestingly, I knew someone in that programme and she was developing a curriculum for teaching youth about HIV and how they could be more aware. I thought that that was incredible that there was a programme that would allow people to do that kind of work in their master’s research. I got involved with that project only because she needed someone who could speak with an Indian accent.

I was just doing voiceover, but when I found out more about her project I thought that was really cool and I need to apply to this programme and I need to do this thing. When I started the programme, I realized that I was the only one who had an interest in doing anything outside of the U.S. but I tried to do that anyway. That’s also when I applied to do my PhD to work with Tapan Parikh at the Berkeley School of Information. He had been doing work in this space for a long time.

Sam: What did you end up doing a PhD on?

Neha: My PhD was actually in ethnography. I was studying youth from marginalized communities in rural, semi-urban, and urban India and trying to understand what drives the adoption of technology in those contexts. My goal was to actually do a situated ethnography, understand how people were driven or why people were driven to using these technologies, and how technology could be designed in ways that actually resonated based on the uses of technology by these people. That’s how I ended up doing my PhD research and trying to understand how these youth were appropriating mobile technologies.

Sam: What’s the short version of the summary of the findings?

Neha: The findings, well what I found was that entertainment was of course the driving force. I studied how music was a motivator and how music and videos and soon the social networking were really driving adoption of these mobile technologies. What I studied and what I wrote about in my dissertation was really how these youth were a little driven by leisure and entertainment and ended up creating these informal learning environments for themselves and how these entertainment-driven uses were actually leading to development oriented outcomes.

Sam: Back to Nicki. Where did you do your undergrad education?

Nicki: I did my undergrad degree in the UK at a university called the University of East Anglia which is in Norwich. I did a year of it abroad from there in Canada at the University of Victoria in Vancouver Island.

Sam: You did?

Nicki: My degree was in computer science and most of the work that I did as an undergrad actually focused on computer graphics, which at the time I was very taken with. When I graduated I actually moved from England back to Africa to South Africa and lived for two years in Cape Town, working in an animation studio there mostly designing and creating digital content for kids. The animation studio has since put out several feature-length films that I think are Africa’s first feature-length animation, CG animation films.

Sam: Cool. That sounds fun. Why did you leave that?

Nicki: The entertainment industry ended up being not all that I thought it was going to be. I found that very quickly I also got a little bit bored with the actual day to day of the work that I was doing. In addition, it seemed to be a little bit more focused on designing characters that would sell and franchises and those sorts of things rather on kind of learning content or fun content for kids. I think I lost a little bit of the … The stars in my eyes were put out a little bit by that.

Maybe as Neha said, it was more boredom and the desire to go and see the world a little bit more and do some travelling. I quit my job in Cape Town and then I moved actually to South Korea and worked as an elementary school teacher for two years in South Korea teaching math, science, and English to elementary school children in an English immersion program in South Korea.

Sam: I wouldn’t have predicted you were going to say you went from Cape Town to South Korea.

Neha: Yeah.

Nicki: That’s why this is an interesting story. I mean, it was an incredibly valuable experience. In a lot of ways, it allowed me to travel extensively around Asia and Southeast Asia and to experience a lot of contexts that were different to Africa in a lot of ways, but also similar in many ways.

I also discovered that I did like teaching. Now having ended up as a professor, I think that was key in learning that being in a classroom and having kids learn or having students learn is something that I really enjoy. It definitely influenced my future career trajectory.

Sam: After that?

Nicki: After that I decided to conform to the rest of my life and applied to do my PhD in America. Interestingly, I was mostly motivated by not having lived in the States yet, so applying for grad school in the States was partly an excuse to go and live there for a while. My top choice of places to do my PhD by far was the University of Washington. They have a fantastic Computer Science department and were really very supportive from the very first email that I ever sent the administrator there. When I was accepted there, it was kind of clearly my top choice of place to go.

Sam: Did you know what you wanted to do?

Nicki: I did not. I started out thinking that I wanted to do more image processing and computer vision, which is when computers are essentially being able to see and interpret things in the world as we do. Although in my first year of the PhD I met my advisor, Gaetano Borriello, and he was working in this space. Initially I was incredibly skeptical.

I went to some of his seminars and I sat through some of the talks and I kind of thought this stuff is never going to work. The challenges are too great. The people are not going to be interested in this. Everything is going to break. It’s dusty. It’s dirty. Why are we even trying? This is all a waste of time. Then perhaps like Neha, so Gaetano kept at me for a while and I eventually started to come around and then I went and did some fieldwork myself.

I think as with her experience being in the field and actually seeing people and talking to them and interacting with them fundamentally changed the way that I thought about this particular part of computer science. Seeing their eagerness to embrace new technologies and to do things that everyone else was already doing, but more than that to do it for their own purposes and have the same opportunities that are enabled by digital devices and information really motivated me to stick with this particular area and continue to do work.

My PhD work ended up focusing on trying to see what we could do with the camera that comes built in to commercially available smartphones. If we can take images and videos using the camera, process them on the device to solve problems in data collection. Collecting data from communities and in settings where most data collection is still done on paper forms and to improve disease diagnosis by analyzing diagnostic tests for diseases like HIV and malaria.

Sam: This was about enabling communities to digitize their land records or…?

Nicki: Yeah. I really worked on two systems. One was digitizing data from paper forms. The basic idea is that you take a picture of a piece of paper using the camera on the device and it will register that image and automatically extract the information from that picture and put it into a database that can be queried and searched and analyzed in ways that paper can’t be, but continue to let people at the field level to use paper because they’re familiar with it. It’s cheap.

There’s a variety of different reasons why people like paper even in U.S. contexts, so universities. It’s everywhere. We wanted to allow them to keep using paper but at the same time digitize the data so that it could be useful for more decision making and higher level analysis that it currently wasn’t being used for.

Sam: My experience of paper-based forms outside the western world is that they’re incredibly intricate and really complicated things.

Nicki: Yes, absolutely and we saw that a lot. A lot of the forms that we ended up looking at, so we specifically focused on nongovernmental organizations or ministry forms and overwhelmingly there’s a huge push to convert all of the data into structured data. Most of it was looking at, for example, filling bubbles or check boxes or numbers rather than having fieldworkers write long passages of text. Developing algorithms and machine learning systems to interpret that structured data was a much more tractable problem and something we could find solutions for, using the computation power available on a mobile device.

Sam: Your field site for this was in Africa?

Nicki: The work that I did for this was based primarily in Mozambique. I was there, I did two deployments in Mozambique and we actually have another deployment that’s still going on in Malawi.

Sam: You had the advantage of coming from Africa, but you still had that experience of going backwards and forwards from a lab writing code environment to a field environment.

Nicki: Yes.

Sam: I’m not sure if “were you prepared for that is?” the right question, but is it hard?

Nicki: Absolutely. It was definitely very challenging. I think the first thing you learn immediately as you take something, a new system or a new device out into the field is that every assumption that you made was probably wrong. There’s a lot of you go back to your hotel room in the evening and redo everything hurriedly and hopefully in time for the next morning and the next day’s fieldwork.

There’s a lot of things that go wrong. I think something that always strikes me though is people’s willingness to put up with imperfection. From my perspective, I wanted the system to be perfect. I wanted everybody to be able to use it and have it never fail, never have any data collection issues or server issues or never lose internet connectivity. In reality, these things happen very frequently and people’s patience and willingness to persevere even when those things happen or the imperfection of the system is making it difficult for them to do their job is something that always struck me.

Sam: The second project you did was on diagnosis?

Nicki: The second project I did was similar. The first project was taking pictures of paper forms and extracting data. The second one was taking pictures of diagnostic tests and automatically interpreting the result of those. You would have a little plastic cartridge and that would have a series of coloured lines that would tell you whether or not somebody, for example, had malaria or HIV or syphilis.

It turned out that a lot of the nurses in the settings where they use these tests make mistakes. They don’t see faint lines, faint positive results. They don’t have a lot of eye care, so a lot of the older nurses, for example, don’t wear glasses when they should and there was a lot of positive tests being missed.

The idea behind having a system take pictures of the tests was that there would be a record of that afterwards. The system could interpret the diagnosis to either confirm the same diagnosis as the nurse or provide an alternate one that would suggest maybe do another test and get another opinion. Taking that data and then transmitting it to a database that was accessible to the Ministry of Health for them to start doing some disease surveillance and outbreak detection and those sorts of higher level decision making.

Sam: Now, the paper that you have presented at this conference is a meta-analysis of a lot of work done in HCI for Development, HCI4D. Before we talk about that, I’m having such a good time listening about your actual projects both of you. Let’s carry on doing that for a bit and then we’ll talk about the work that you came here to talk about.

Nicki: Absolutely.

Sam: Neha, what sort of work have you done since you graduated?

Neha: Since I graduated, I had the chance to be at the University of Washington where I was a postdoc in the same group that Nicki was doing her PhD.  That’s how we first got to know each other and started to work together. The project that I was doing primarily during my postdoc was actually operationizing my dissertation findings, so trying to see how media practices that I had observed and written about in my dissertation, how those could be leveraged in maternal health contexts in rural India.

There’s a project called Projecting Health, which I’m still working on though remotely that was started at the University of Washington. The goal of that was to use videos that were created by the community for the community and of the community for training or teaching mothers, the new mothers, how to feed, how to take care of their newborn infants. That’s the project that’s been going on now for more than three and a half years in rural UP in India.

Sam: That involves teaching people how to make the videos to start with?

Neha: Yes. In the beginning there’s a workshop of one or two weeks. We’re going to do one again soon, but the project started with that. There were NGOs that we were partnering with in the field. The staff from the NGOs were shown how to create videos using these low-cost cameras and then how to edit these videos, and also the process of storyboarding, so how they could take a health message and turn that into a video that wasn’t purely instructional, but also had like a little bit of a story in it.

They appropriated that process to then create these ten minute, fifteen minute videos which were really kind of short Bollywood films, I would say, of people within the community and trying to get at how … I mean, there were certain topics such as exclusive breastfeeding or institution deliveries or family planning methods. These are films that are kind of revolving around those topics.

The health workers are the ones who are responsible for getting this information, these films out to the communities. The staff of the NGO is responsible for creating these videos and for auditioning people, so bringing them into the cast of these videos and such.

Sam: Has it worked?

Neha: Has it worked?

Sam: How do you tell?

Neha: Well yeah, how do you tell? That’s a great question. I think that’s a really important question to ask for any project in this field. I think that the key point here is that we’ve been partnering with PATH, which is a global health organization. They have been responsible for doing the baseline, the end-line surveys to kind of see how the project has been progressing, what are the issues from the health and behaviour change standpoint.

The folks at the University of Washington and me have been looking at the technology side of things, so how could we leverage existing technology practices. For instance, how people are using mobile phones to either create or watch these videos and how those practices could be brought into this system so that the community can then both consume and share this content with others.

Sam: For this conference, the first keynote Dayo Olopade talked about development in Africa. She talked a lot about the informality and so on of the work and those different things. The first question someone stood up and asked a question along the lines of, why should San Francisco care or how is this going to make money for San Francisco? It seemed to me that he’d not listened to the whole talk. Are people talking at totally cross-purposes?

Neha: Are people talking at …?

Sam: At cross-purposes, are people like not listening at all? How far away from San Francisco development is development for Africa and India and so on?

Nicki: Hopefully it’s something that is getting better particularly within this HCI community and at the conference that we’re at. We’re starting to see that by having keynote speakers like Dayo come and give the keynote, one of the great things about a talk like that is that it starts to sensitize more of the people that are focused primarily on results, which settings or the Silicon Valley setting and allows them to think more about the kinds of problems that happen in other parts of the world.

I think it’s starting to happen more and more and bridging those divides. Our paper, for example, is similarly trying to offer a perspective to the larger HCI community and say here are some of the findings. Here are some of the lessons that we’ve learned and that can inform the broader field so that we can start to have more cross-pollination of ideas.

Neha: One thing in particular that I would say that she talked about, which I think is really critical even for people in our community to kind of listen to and think about, is the agency of the people themselves. It’s not just that we are developing these technologies to help people. I think if we get into that job then there’s no getting out of it.

It’s not that we’re helping people, so to speak, because that kind of also carries with it a very paternalistic sense. I personally think that I’m doing this work for myself and not for anyone else that I’m trying to help, but also I think that that helps in seeing people for who they are and valuing things the way that they value them as opposed to imposing our own value systems and our own judgements on them.

I think that’s something that she talked about with this idea of Kanju, I’m not sure if I’m saying it right, but Kanju, which is similar to Jugaad in India. This idea that people figure out their way based on the limited resources that they have. Certainly we can develop technology-based solutions for them, but we have to be really careful that we’re not also imposing our own value systems on them as we do that.

Sam: You’re listening to Sustainable Lens – Resilience on Radio. I’m talking with Nicki Dell and Neha Kumar about HCI4D, Human-Computer Interaction for Development, of which you’ve just done a big study of hundreds of papers that have been written in this field. Tell me about that study.

Nicki: We wanted to have a moment in time in which we pull together the field and kind of take stock of the ground that we’ve covered so far as well as analyzing some of the challenges that lie ahead and how we can move forward as a community. I don’t think anyone has done a kind of synthesis like this for a number of years now, and so it kind of was a good time to do it. The theme of the CHI Conference this year being CHI For Good, it also felt like a good moment in time to do this particular work. I’ll let Neha talk about some of the details.

Neha: Well, I think that just the process of putting together repository of papers was really challenging. Initially it was just hard to figure out like where do we look to find these papers? We tried to do it in as a methodologically rigorous a way as possible to try to target a good number of scholars and asking them where to look for these papers, what work to look at.

Then we went through the process of actually looking through all of these hundreds of papers, brought the list down to two fifty-nine somehow. It would have been nice to have a round number but we settled on two fifty-nine and then did the work of actually going through all of those papers.

Both Nicki and I went through them separately then went through them together, try to come up with a table of which we’re hoping to then share with the community and we’re hoping also that it will be useful for them. This table basically captures what the paper is trying to achieve in terms of who it targets and where the work has been done, why or what purpose such as education or healthcare or internet access and such.

Sam: We don’t have the paper in front of us, but I’m sure you can remember the generalities. Where was most of the work? Where were people focusing?

Neha: Well, a lot of the work was done in India and I think one of the big reasons for that is that there’s a Microsoft Research Lab in India which has been turning out a bunch of papers ever since it was set up more than ten years ago. Also the fact that English is … You can pretty much get by with speaking in English. The government is friendly to folks doing this kind of work.

For a lot of those reasons, India turned out to be the most popular country. I think there were more than a hundred papers that were looking at work in India. Aside from that, what were the other countries would you say?

Nicki: I think the next two most popular countries were South Africa and Kenya. Perhaps for similar reasons, they’re a little bit more friendly to English-speaking research communities. One of the great challenges I think that were surfacing in some of the deeper analysis that we did was the issue surrounding language and this bias for countries where English is spoken.

For instance, there was a dramatic lack, I would say, of work that had taken place in Central and South America at these particular conferences. The question we got at the end about looking at more local venues if we have been doing an analysis of maybe the venues actually in South America where the content is in Spanish and people are reading it in Spanish, there would be more work there. The point I guess is that that work is being done but it’s not finding its way into our community and our conferences, probably at least in part because of the language barrier.

Sam: What focus areas are people working on?

Nicki: There were three that really stuck out as being the leaders. I think the first one was education which covered both formal education, so interventions or systems that were targeting schools and teachers in schools, as well as more informal education.

For example, by teaching people how to do house work so that they could get a job as a house keeper, teaching people about health practices and other information services. Education was first. I think second was access, which we defined broadly as systems that sought to give people access to computing, access to the internet, access to information through …

Neha: Also papers that were studying access, so how communities were accessing technologies and the internet.

Nicki: Social media platforms like Facebook.

Neha: Yeah.

Nicki: Then the third one was health. There was a lot of work that was looking at community health workers and maternal health and trying to use usually very basic phones to provide information to patients around good health practices. Reminding them to go and do clinic visits and those sorts of interventions.

Neha: I would say that some of these papers do actually fall in a couple of areas. It’s not just that they’re only education, they’re only health, they’re only access. They might span both health and education for instance.

Sam: How do people frame the problem? I don’t want to say that they need a problem for the paper, carefully avoiding saying that a city or town is a problem, but how are people seeing what they’re doing? What’s motivating them, I suppose?

Nicki: Yeah. I think there’s a couple of things. A lot of things have identified very concrete problems. Some of the higher level goals are, for example, set by the Millennium Development Goals or now they’re the Sustainability Development Goals.

Neha: Sustainable Development Goals, yeah.

Nicki: Sustainable Development Goals. One of those would be to reduce by half maternal mortality. You would then say in this particular country, the maternal mortality rate is whatever number and that’s high compared to the world average. We wanted to design something to see if we could reduce maternal mortality in some way.

Neha: It’s very much about identifying resources that you’re looking at that are limited in some way and then trying to make up for those limitations by using technology-based solutions. That’s the interventionist work, but there’s also quite a bit of qualitative, more interpretive work that looks at, in specific contexts, how are people engaging with technologies? How are they using them for education, for finding jobs, for accessing social media sites?

There are those sort of parallel tracks also because the people who are doing this work come from very different backgrounds. There are computer scientists. There are also social scientists. There are cultural anthropologists.

I think that one of the unique things about this community is that there are people from these different disciplines who are able to come together and work together and use different methods, which is not always something that you find in other areas. There’s been a fairly harmonious coexistence I would say.

Nicki: Just to add to that, something that I think our paper at the conference really surfaces quite nicely is that maybe a decade ago a lot of this work was much more technology-driven. It was how can we take technology and put it into these contexts and have it save them and help them?

I think certainly what our work has shown is that we’ve come a long way in recognizing that we need to actually contextualize it. We need to go there and speak to people and understand their realities. Working closely with people in a much more holistic approach to understanding this domain rather than thinking that technology is just going to be a silver bullet for a lot of these issues.

Sam: How do people claim success? Not how you’ve measured their success, but what are they claiming?

Neha: A lot of different ways I suppose, and that also goes back to the disciplines that people are coming from. If they’re in global health, for instance, or they work in education, for instance, then their metrics are a little bit different. Again, they might be looking very much at quantitative measures or they might be looking at more qualitative aspects.

Success is hard to measure over a short period of time. There are some projects that have tried to do that, but they are mostly the projects that have lasted for four or five years or more. There’s not that many of them still in our field and one of the things that we talk about in the paper also is this distinction between outcomes and outputs and what we’re trying to produce immediately with our research and what we’re aspiring to produce in the long-term.

There’s also the difference between just looking at engagement with technology as opposed to actual say learning outcomes in the field of education. There’s lots of different ways that people try to conceptualize these things, but success, there’s no single definition of it. It mostly comes from the disciplines, so HCI or education or health or development. I think it gets harder and harder in that, harder to measure success.

Sam: There’s always going to be a problem with doing academic research in a development type thing when we’re starting to talk about intergenerational equity and things taking tens of years if not longer, and the drive to get on the conference cycle, you’ve got to produce something in six months. The PhDs are lucky if they get to stay in the field for more than a few weeks.

Neha: Yeah.

Sam: Is that unsolvable or do you have any suggestions on how we could address that mismatch of timescales?

Nicki: There’s been a couple of different ways that people have started to do this. Certainly one thing that came up a lot and that Neha pointed out is this idea that we’re aspiring, for example, to reduce maternal mortality. What we can show in the short-term is that reminding people using SMS reminders, for example, will increase the number of times they go to the clinic.

You’re not necessarily showing them the whole outcome, but you’re showing some improvement in metrics that do actually matter. There has been a different way of doing this is that we know certainly of a few people who have then taken their PhD work and created companies or organizations around that so that they can do this in the longer term. I think there’s a large push towards trying to do things in a sustainable way, so having interventions or projects or systems that go on for multiple years.

Figuring out how to support that or how it can be self-sustaining is one of the big challenges that people are grappling with at the moment. Rather than just doing your three years of PhD work and then packing up and everything is over, how do you actually build capacity in these places and put systems in place that don’t require you to manage it and maintain it.

Neha: One of the things that I think has worked well with a couple of the scholars that I know the work of is that when they’ve been in the field, they’ve tried to recruit local students and tried to work with them. What happens then is that when they’re not in the field, the students can still continue working. Certainly having Skype has helped and being able to work remotely or conference remotely.

Those are also some of the things that people have tried. I would say that different programs also have different requirements. Being at the Information School, I was able to actually spend one and a half years, a total of one and a half years in the field before I graduated but that’s not something I think I could have done in several other programs.

Sam: Do you have a favourite study that you looked at, it doesn’t have to be one of yours, that you thought, “They nailed it”? Maybe it’s not an individual study. Maybe it’s a sort of approach or pattern or something.

Nicki: Yeah. We did actually ask about some of the work that the people we were talking to and the people whose opinions we really document in the paper. We asked about work that they considered to be exemplary research and there were a couple of things that really bubbled up to the surface.

One was a body of work that has been looking at how to create systems that enable low literate people or people who might be blind, for example, to engage over voice or through graphical text-free interfaces. I think a lot of the work that’s really focused on providing low literate or illiterate people with access to the same kinds of services and information that people have when they are literate was certainly one of the biggest things that came up when people were thinking about exemplary work in this area.

Neha: Yeah. I would say that in general the type of work that I find really inspiring is when people put in a lot of effort to understand a space using ethnographic methods. Looking at the entire context and not just technology for instance. Looking at the socio-technical contexts and then designing technology interventions that might address that particular population in their context, addressing their needs and so on.

There is some work that’s more recent that I think tries to do that coming from Cornell actually by Ishtiaque Ahmed who has been doing work in Bangladesh. I think that from a methodological standpoint that is really inspiring. There’s a few other programs again that we mentioned in the paper.

Like Digital Green, for instance, which started out as a research project at Microsoft Research back in 2006 maybe. Then they span off. They created a nonprofit. They are now expanding to something like sixteen countries. That’s definitely a success story. No longer a research project, but they have made quite an impact.

Sam: I have some questions to end with. I think we’ll do them, both questions for both of you. We just have to be quick. Do you have an idea of what your sustainable superpower is? I’ll give you the background.

We’re writing a book called Tomorrow’s Heroes. We’re trying to distil the work that people are doing. What is it that you’re bringing to this that we can say, “Yes, that’s a really useful thing. Let’s see if we can duplicate that.” It doesn’t have to be an actual superpower, obviously. Unless you’re going to animate yourself to get back to…

Neha: I’m going to say love.

Nicki: For her I would say diplomacy. She’s very, very good at fostering consensus among people with different opinions.

Neha: Loving, it’s not just about between people or diplomacy. It’s really just about bringing all of yourself to this work and really thinking about what you have to give, not just to the field but to students which is part of the job. It just has to come from that place of love.

It’s so easy to be discouraged by so many things in the field. People try to take advantage of you or people … I mean, all kinds of things can happen in the field. If you don’t go with that feeling by constantly sort of replenishing your love supply, I think it’s just very hard to do this work.

Nicki: She’s a hard act to follow. I mean, I think for me it’s interesting because the very first thing that sprang to mind was students. I think that particularly as an academic and as a professor, it’s really the students that you can work with and inspiring them to do the best work they can do and to be the best researchers they can be is really what I see as being my primary goal for the foreseeable future. I guess I would want my superpower to be helping other people figure out what their superpowers are. It’s very meta for a meta paper.

Sam: What is the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?

Nicki: Getting a PhD. I think for me it’s been probably learning from people in this community who have been incredible mentors and incredible researchers. I feel incredibly privileged to know people like this and to know that they are there and that they’re also working in this space. As a community I think we can do interesting things together. It’s not really a success, but I think trying to get to know these people and network with these people. I don’t know, it’s not very well articulated.

Neha: For me it’s the students that I have. I feel extremely grateful to have them. There’s a good bunch of students that I have gotten to know over the past year and I’m just very, very grateful that they’re so motivated, so committed, so sincere in the work that they’re doing and that they’re willing to give me a chance as well, because they could be working with a lot of other people.

Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

Neha: Yes.

Sam: In what way?

Neha: In every way. I think this goes into even like my day to day job and everything, there’s a very strong sense of … I think this just comes from doing ICTD work that there’s just a very strong sense of this is the right thing. I’m sure that I’m not always the only one who is right.

I’m sure that various people are right in various different ways. If I do think that something is the right thing to do, then it’s very hard for me to deal with not being able to do that. Sometimes you do have to give up certain things, but that’s very hard for me to do.

Nicki: Yes absolutely. I think as Neha has said, most of the people working in this space are doing so often for personal reasons. I grew up in Africa, she grew up in India and this desire to try and make the world a more equal place is certainly something that we’re both very eager to work towards and encourage other people to work towards.

Sam: You’ve just answered my next question, but I’m going to ask it anyway because then you get a free hit. What motivates you?

Nicki: What motivates us?

Sam: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Neha: Students.

Nicki: Yes students. Definitely I would say two things, one is the freedom to work on problems that you find interesting definitely is something that … One of the main reasons that I chose to go into academia was this freedom of choice. Fortunately for me, the kinds of students that also want to work on those problems are amazing students who want to change the world and who have deep dreams to do better things. Those two things together are really worth getting out of bed for.

Neha: Yeah, absolutely. Whenever I have a meeting, so Wednesdays are my days for meeting with students starting 9:00 and going until 5:00, and that’s just the best day I have. I can barely talk by the end of the day, but it’s just the best day of the week.

Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?

Nicki: Trying to figure out how to have more time I think.

Neha: Graduating my PhD students. I’m really terrified of that right now.

Nicki: Yes. Certainly taking on the responsibility for students’ careers and making them successful and trying to help them work on the things that they want to work on is probably the biggest challenge and the biggest responsibility that I feel at this point.

Neha: Having more people do this work and having the community grow and more and more people want to do this work and realize the importance of it. I think the other challenge that both Nicki and I are dealing with and will be dealing with is just having other people kind of see what we’re doing and think that it is relevant because certainly as activists we think it is relevant.

Sam: Hopefully as that community builds, those graduating students won’t find it necessary to do this as a hobby and find a “real” bit of computer science to do.

Neha: Absolutely, yes.

Nicki: Yes.

Sam: I think that’s going to be really important.

Neha: Yeah.

Nicki: Absolutely.

Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur by tomorrow morning, what would it be?

Nicki: Wow, that’s a tough question.

Sam: If you don’t believe in miracles, I have a backup question which is, what is the smallest thing that you could do that would have the biggest impact?

Nicki: That’s an even harder question.

Sam: Okay, back to miracle.

Neha: No, miracle. You said miracle, right?

Sam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Neha: I would just make sure that there are like a billion jobs for ICT4D interested folks, so that they don’t have to think about what other things they should be doing or how they should be going and joining these tech companies to do other boring work.

Nicki: Yeah. I don’t know. I think for me the miracle is more centered on the work itself would be in education. I think in general education ultimately is the cure and the solution for all problems. Trying to have several generations of people instantly be educated and able to have the skills to solve their own problems would be my miracle.

Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

Nicki: Be activists.

Neha: Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

Sam: Thank you very much for joining me. You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens – Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me Samuel Mann. We broadcast on Otago Access Radio and podcast on

On, we are building up a searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lenses are that of Nicki Dell from Cornell Tech and Neha Kumar from Georgia Tech.

You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via all the pod sorts of places including iTunes for free. That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.


Loyalty to devices, not just brands



Christian Remy is a researcher at the University of Zurich,   He researches attachment theory and considers how we can encourage loyalty to devices, not just brands.


Talking points
Christian: What kind of consumer electronics do people buy and how can we give them information on how to make better-informed purchasing decisions. We had some information back then, we thought we had some information on this later on, which turned out to be not the case, so that project changed, slightly changed gears in my PhD.

What I stuck with was studying people’s purchasing behavior, what kind of technology are they buying and why are they buying this? Then there was this entire research area around the replacement cycle; basically, so why do people buy a new mobile phone every year, when actually in theory there is no reason why it shouldn’t work for 5 years? If you look at it objectively, there’s lots of motivation to not buy a new phone, because you got accustomed to it, you have all of your data on it, it’s expensive, and all of this kind of stuff, but still people go on and buy a new iPhone every year, or a new AT&T phone, something, whatever, every year.

That got me into this obsolescence thing, obviously. You have this designed obsolescence discussion, which is the sort of paranoid, maybe true assumption that industry is building devices on purpose so that they break after 2 years. There’s this joke usually that a phone has a 2-year guarantee and exactly after 2 years and 1 day, the phone breaks.

Sam: The business model is entirely determined on selling more stuff.

Christian: Exactly.

Sam: They have to sell you that new phone?

Christian: Exactly.

Sam: Even if it doesn’t break, they heavily advertise the next one so you feel quite embarrassed that you’ve got an old one.

Christian: Yeah, and there is the social peer pressure, obviously, like, “Oh, my God, you still have the old phone like from last year. How dare you? That’s unacceptable, you need to have the new phone, 10SE, whatever.”

Sam: Now you have this sustainable viewpoint, is that the killer app? but is that the killer undoing of computing and sustainability that is so fundamental that we need to sell you a new computer, a new phone? Can we overcome that?

Christian: I would argue we can, because the industry itself actually, I see a silver lining within the industry itself, which is the move from selling devices, selling hardware, to selling services, which you see in all of this cloud computing that is coming up. Everything is moving into the cloud. You don’t buy a piece of software anymore, but you buy a subscription for a piece of software, and you have all of those different income strategies. Maybe those at some point can, for industry, make up for the effect of reduced revenue from selling new devices. I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a silver lining. It’s a little bit of wishful thinking, maybe, on my part, but maybe that’s the case.

I very recently, just before I came to this conference, read an article that actually there are signs for this rapid replacement cycle slowing down. I don’t remember the exact figures, but I think there were studies that in the U.S. people were replacing their phones every 14 months, on average, and I think that is slightly going down. It’s probably down to something like 17 months, and obviously at some point every market is saturated as well. I think in 2014 we were producing or selling 1 billion phones a year, and at some point everyone has a phone.

Sam: Have they perhaps reached a zenith of the stuff that they can pack into a phone that’s useful? There’s not many more things, perhaps, that they can put into it that’s going to make such a big difference to me?

Christian: You would think so. Obviously, every phone has a camera right now. Many phones have some kind of super-high precision detection thing, which can even do fingerprint detection and stuff like that. If the new phone doesn’t have any new features, besides just being 5% faster, then at some point people might also just be reluctant to buy a new phone, because they don’t really see the point. Yeah, that could be the case.

Obviously, as history has shown us, Moore’s Law and all those kinds of things that predict that technological advancement will always go on and go on, and go on, and there will always be new things, so maybe in 10 years from now there will be a new thing that needs to be in everyone’s phone, which proves us wrong.

Sam: Yeah, I’m just trying to think about what else are we carrying. You see those pictures of what the phone has replaced, the desk and the typewriter, and the camera, and everything else, but not carrying that much else. I bet there’ll be something else, won’t there?

Christian: If you told someone in the ’80s that every phone once would have a camera, they would be like, “Why? I don’t have a camera with me? I don’t think … ” I don’t know, ask 100 people in the ’80s on the streets if they have a camera with them. I don’t think there would be that many people, so the camera became an essential part of the phone now, even though it hasn’t really been something that everyone has been carrying with them. I think it would have to go beyond just what people have on them, but what artefacts of technology are you using in your everyday life?

It is an interesting discussion. It’s sort of dangerous, because we’re doing the job for industry to find the new thing to carry on obsolescence, almost.

Sam: Yes, but now we’re at the point where we can argue that it’s not going to carry on. Is it a problem that we can say actually that that problem is going to fade away? You’d have to be brave to say that, wouldn’t you?

Christian: Yeah, brave or maybe naïve. I don’t think just sitting back and waiting for the problem to disappear is a good strategy. I’d rather like to be proactive, obviously, and my research has been trying to do that. Yeah, rather than just sitting there and waiting for the problem to be…

Sam: That’s what you started with when you went to Zurich. Then where did you go?

Christian: Yeah, like I said, obsolescence was the kind of issue. Then one of the things that I found out, that there are so many motivators for people to buy new phones, but what are the motivators for people to actually keep their phones? Then I looked at research, and there is actually so much in the research domain that already tells us strategies on how to design devices in a way that people don’t throw them away as easily. There’s lots of stuff about augmentation, so, for example, how can you reuse technology later on?

We have met some people here at the conference, actually, who took their old tablet just as an e-book reader, even though it wasn’t 100% functional anymore. You can, obviously, resell devices like a second-hand market, and then my kind of direction of the research is rather something about ensoulment, or emotional design, as Don Norman called, or attachment framework, which is exactly what I’m focusing on. How can we design devices so that people really get so attached to the particular device that they don’t want to replace it? That’s what I was focusing on.

The thing is, like I said, the research has already been done. Those frameworks exist, but I saw it as my goal of my thesis to bring this to product designers, so that’s what I took. I took this framework, this knowledge about how to create attachment, how to foster attachment, and gave this to product designers and asked them to create a piece of consumer electronics, a tablet in particular …

Sam: Okay, so emotional design or attachment design 101, go.

Christian: 101, well, it has some criteria on how to achieve this, so one of those is, for example, engagement. If you have a device that, when you use it, it creates some sort of … You’re engaged in using it. The way how you interact with the device really is fun and enjoyable; that’s something. Memories is a strong facilitator for attachment. When you look at your device and you remember, “Oh, I’ve used that at this conference. I’ve used that on my vacation, and I really don’t want to get rid of that,” because those memories are connected to the device.

We usually don’t see this connected to devices, but actually to other physical objects, like there’s studies of people who keep old cups, for example, with some kind of labels or whatever on them for many decades, because they remember them or something. Those are the kind of criteria that …

Sam: Isn’t my attachment to the stuff that’s in the device, not the device? The photos that I’ve collected migrate quite happily around my progression of, my series of devices.

Christian: That is exactly the difference between the kind of attachment I’m talking about and the attachment that already exists, because marketing has done a great deal of this research, now to foster attachment, however, what they’re doing is brand attachment, or it’s called “brand loyalty,” in marketing speech. What I’m rather doing is, I sometimes call it “device loyalty,” because rather than just, “I really want this next Samsung phone, or Apple phone, or iPhone, obviously, I rather want to keep this particular device.”

For example, that’s an idea that came out very recently, that someone had just yesterday. What if a phone would have a casing made out of wood and then as you used the phone, obviously the wood gets a different patina, a different look and feel, and it feels very personalized? If you were to buy a new phone, yes, you could take the pictures with you and put on the new phone, but it would definitely look different, and it wouldn’t really feel like your phone. It’s kind of like an old wallet. You know, if you have an old wallet that’s …

Sam: I was about to say that what’s working for me is that my phone, I’m just holding it up in front of me here, looking at it, my phone is attached to my wallet and for me that’s the thing that’s made such a huge difference. I used to lose all the time, misplace all the time, both my wallet and my phone. Having the 2 things joined together means that it’s working for me, and I really, really like this solution. I’ve seen others, and there’s other things that work as well. For me, this 100% works.

Christian: What are you actually attached to? Are you attached to the wallet, or to the phone? It looks to me like you could easily just replace the phone and buy a new one, as long as it fits the form factor of this particular wallet.

Sam: I’m attached to this combo.

Christian: That’s interesting.

Sam: Just thinking about it, I said it’s perfect, but it’s not quite perfect. You see here … Sorry people on the radio, see here that I’ve drawn lines here, and those lines are to remind me, when I put my cards in, I have to put the strip in on that side, because I went through 2 or 3 cycles of breaking cards by putting them in on that side and having the magnets that hold it close, breaking the magnetic strip.

Christian: Oh, there’s a magnet in there?

Sam: Yeah, there’s a magnet that holds that closed like that …

Christian: Ooh.

Sam: … but, once I fixed that, and maybe that’s one of those things about the attachment is that I’m able to modify it to suit me.

Christian: That is a perfect example of attachment through customization, because you personalized this. This is not only like some kind of wallet you’ve found worked really well for you, but you actually modified this to suit your needs. You made some modifications to it and even if I had exactly the same one, it wouldn’t have those personalized marks there, or maybe if I make the discovery and I would put them on there. This is like not just finding this particular brand of wallet and that particular design, but actually just this one is very individual, like you wouldn’t find a second one.

Sam: Actually, annoying, as you said this particular brand. It’s not branded and that has meant that I can’t find a replacement.

Christian: Oh, my God.

Sam: I can’t go into a shop and say, “I want the something, something one,” because it doesn’t appear to exist. I can’t find it again.

Christian: Which is obviously very difficult for consumer electronics, because they’re very much on brand.

Sam: Yeah, and there’s 2 things. One of them, it’s changed my behaviour in 2 ways. One of them is that they little bit that goes around the corner here on the outside of it moves down. As it’s aged a bit it moves down and it covers the camera. Whenever I go to take a photo, I have to remember to do that, to move it out the way. It’s only a little thing, but whenever I get somebody else to take a picture with it I forget to tell them and the picture has got a big shadow across half of it, but I don’t mind, because I remember to do it. I rarely take a picture that I forget to do it, so it’s almost like it’s a personalised …

Christian: That reminds me of another criterion, which is learned functionality, which usually refers more to technological things, but that’s kind of like you learned the particular way on how to use the technology in accommodation with this wallet, which is something that you probably have a certain value assigned to this, like, “I know how to use this.” Like you said, it doesn’t really bother you, so it’s fine, but it you were to buy a new wallet or a new phone that would all of a sudden have a camera positioned slightly elsewhere, and then you have to learn a new behaviour, or learn a new functionality. That would be off-putting, and maybe it’s another reason to be already attached this particular wallet and this phone.

Sam: Another thing about it is that it didn’t actually suit me at the start, and I had to change my behavior in a significant way because of it, and that is because it doesn’t have a place for coins. It quickly prompted me to avoid coins like the plaque, because I’d end up putting them in other places, in pockets and things, and then I’d spend them to get rid of them, because I don’t want to carry coins. I like this. It works for me, except that I had to quite quickly wean myself off coins.

Christian: Well, maybe not too bad, as long as it works.

Sam: Maybe I’m talking myself out of this, but it bizarrely works for me. You mentioned the form factor before, so this is a form factor for an iPhone 5. Not that I’ve needed an iPhone 6, but if I get an iPhone 6, I also have to replace this.

Christian: Yep.

Sam: I imagine if somebody was to give me an iPhone 6, I might solve that problem, but I’m certainly not in a rush because of it.

Christian: Yeah, so that’s a good point. Actually, I don’t remember one of the designers that we did the study with, actually had an idea to that; maybe. Off the top of my head I don’t recall it, but it would certainly be something that we would go back to have … What am I looking for? The kind of peripherals that you have, like the casings, like in the ’90s we had casings for phones and stuff like that you could switch off the keyboards and stuff like that. Now every phone has a bumper, I think they call them bumpers for the iPhone, so maybe those kind of things can also be used in combination to create this kind of attachment. Yeah, could be. Could be potential.

Sam: The companies don’t help the situation by changing, primarily for technical reasons, but, for example, when they changed the big plug on the iPhone and the iPad to a little one, to the Lightning connector, the microphone that we’re currently talking through has got an adapter and for some reason they still haven’t provided a Lightning Adapter for that device. I have sellotaped to the output from the microphone the adapter to go into the Lightning, so I’m kind of like, “This microphone works for me. It’s much, much better than the microphone on the iPad itself.

Christian: Right.

Sam: Where did that lead you, that work?

Christian: Where did it lead me? Now, as I’m finishing my work, as in writing up, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s very interesting because, obviously, it’s both very interesting and very well-received, like even at previous conferences I’ve met people from industry, who actually said this was very interesting, but at the same time it’s also very challenging. I always come across those arguments. It’s kind of like this dilemma that, yes, attachment is great and probably people want to be attached to their personal belongings, especially something as expensive as a phone, but also the industry and economy works against that.

That’s the dilemma I’m facing, but in my future work I would say, in my outlook, I’ve taken this prerogative stance that maybe this is all changing in the future, hopefully, I’d say, as I said before, with more and more upcoming services structure that we’re moving more into companies providing services rather than just hardware.

Sam: Those deals that you can get, certainly in New Zealand and I’ve seen them in the U.K., so presumably they’re wider, where instead of buying a phone you buy the phone service with the company, the advantage of doing that is that they promise continual upgrades. The other way that they have moved to that phone as a service is by doing what we would think is the wrong thing.

Christian: By giving you an entirely new phone every year, you say?

Sam: Yes.

Christian: Yeah, right, so obviously that’s not what I’m thinking of. What I’m thinking of is more like the entire area of modular phones, which has been proposed, I think, first time 10 years ago. More recently, we’ve seen them coming up more and more, and also being more successful. The Fairphone is just one of them, it’s like the very popular one, but there’s Phonebloks, there’s Project Ara, there’s a couple of phones that are coming out and offering those modular things.

I guess we were looking at this, and rather than just giving you an entirely new phone, they would give you the option to … “You have this subscription-based thing. If a new phone comes out, we promise you we’ll just give you the high-resolution screen and you can switch it.” Obviously, the best way would be if you could switch it yourself, because what else would give you more satisfaction than if you could replace something in your phone yourself, rather than just send it somewhere and you get a new phone back, or you get a new part of the phone back?

I think, again, that’s something where we don’t know what the future holds. I certainly hope that it goes into this direction, that’s it’s into the modular phones instead of just replacing entire devices.

Sam: Is this the work that you’re extracting these sorts of themes and calling them as patterns?

Christian: Yeah. I think there is a lot of patterns in there, because as you have said, moving entirely into services, have modular phones, have re-user phones, so you give it someone else after you personally are not using it anymore, for whatever reason, maybe augmenting a device by using it for something beyond its intended purpose. After some of the functionality breaks, maybe you can use the tablet as a picture frame on your cupboard. There are a variety of patterns in there that I see emerging, that could be potentially very useful for us in the future.

Sam: You initially started out stumbling into computer programming by solving your math problems with computer programming. Are we going to be able to solve sustainability problems with computer programming?

Christian: Good question, difficult question. I don’t think that’s a yes or no answer here. I often like to say we are part of the problem, and that’s why I think we have an obligation to be part of the solution. If you look at this conference here, there are 3700 people, I think, around here, and they’re all striving for innovation. They are all, not all of them, but many of them are striving to find the new technological development that brings HCI, human-computer interaction, as a field forward, that brings computer science forward.

New technology is being developed and this obviously contributes to obsolescence, because, as we’ve talked about before, 20, 30 years ago no one would have thought of a camera being on a mobile phone. Maybe in 20 years from now we have something in our pockets that doesn’t look at all like the mobile phone, but it’s something that is super-obvious and we all need then. Maybe that’s something that is appearing here, now, in computing research.

That’s why I think we are part of the problem. This obsolescence is brought upon the society by our computing community, and that’s why I think we need to try to address this issue.

Sam: I’ve thought of an app that we don’t have yet, and that’s if we could take a pill and be filled up with some nanobots. It would be continually monitoring our health from the inside and our phone would be connected to medical specialists and it looked after us. That’s a compelling reason for buying a new phone. I’m sorry, even if I like the device, that would be a thing that would say, “Sorry, old device, you’re gone,” so, are we kidding ourselves?

Christian: Maybe we are, I don’t know. Maybe related to what you mentioned, there’s actually a piece of research that actually talks about, I think they’re called “insertables,” I don’t know, things you put under your skin. We’re almost turning ourselves into robots, as one of my undergrad instructors about HCI used to say, “There is no human 2.0. We can always change technology. We can’t change humans.” Maybe that’s not exactly true, because maybe the future will actually be …

Oh, my God, I don’t even want to think about that, but maybe it is something like that. I don’t know if I want to upgrade something that’s embedded in my skin every year, even if I have it.

Sam: It would hurt.

Christian: Yeah, exactly, so nope, I’d rather not.

Sam: As we get closer to that cyborg thing, we’re going to be more attached to it, because it’s me.

Christian: Yeah, it’s a part of us.

Sam: Maybe that’s where I’m going with my wallet. It feels like it’s mine, it’s part of my identity, hopefully, anyway. Other people might not recognize it.

Christian: It certainly does, yeah. I hope that we are going into a future where we don’t replace the synergy all the time, and maybe also it’s the same discussion we have about peak oil, that in 20 years from now we don’t have enough oil anymore for the entire world. The problem is we have been saying this for 50 years from now, so maybe the same thing happens at some point to some of the materials we are using in technology, that we will run out of them. It doesn’t really look like that, but maybe at some point we will be forced for reasons of availability of resources to change our entire production cycles of those things.

Sam: If you could either go back in time or change it for the people that are doing now, what would you change in your undergrad education? Would it have been beneficial and would it be beneficial for the wider crowd to have more sociological work, earth systems? Is it worth trying to get that into computer science?

Christian: I think so. I have to be honest, when I started my undergrad, I had to pick a minor. It was called “application subject,” or something like that, and one of them was psychology. I was like, “What? What’s the connection between computer science and psychology?” I totally didn’t see that, and obviously once I took HCI courses I was like, “Yes, I see the connection. I want to change,” and I couldn’t change anymore because the European system changed to Bologna and there was lots of political reasons involved, so I stuck with physics, which is obviously very different to psychology, but now I see this, I personally would have liked this.

I personally would say, yes, it would be great if we would give everyone at least the opportunity to more realize how much this all back-feeds into the society. What we do in terms of technological advancement, it also might change society for the better. I don’t know. The thing is that I don’t really know if many people see it that way, especially in undergrad when you start, like me, very naïve. You start and you want to program stuff. You study computer science for a reason. Not everybody is really interested in this. Not everyone really wants to do this. I think it would be great to have more sociology and those kind of things in the curriculum, but how, that’s a challenge, how to get people hooked on that.

Sam: Maybe we need to get better at selling those connections to psychology and whatever else to computer science, in this case, but then there’s the challenges you just raised, that the students want to be doing computer science. Like you, they’ll say, “What’s the relevance of this?”

Christian: Yeah.

Sam: Do you think there’s a killer app out there for sustainability?

Christian: Maybe, but if so I don’t see it. If I saw it, I would be developing it. I would go home and start developing it, but I don’t really see it, unfortunately.

Sam: We’re writing a book of these interviews. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes, as if we were looking back at people who are doing good, and let’s described those as heroes. Even if people don’t want to be described as heroes, we’re doing it anyway. How would you see your sustainable superpower? What’s the special thing that you’re bringing to us?

Christian: Ooh, wow, that’s a lot of responsibility put on one. Obviously, as I’m writing my PhD thesis, it all comes down to the question like summarize the thesis in one sentence. Like I said, I think the research is already there, but just trying to connect the research that’s out there to practitioners that then apply this in everyday life, and in product design, hopefully, at some point, that would probably be what I would say. Obviously, like you said, I wouldn’t like it to be called like heroes or a superpower.

Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years? You’ve almost written your thesis. I think that is a success. I’m going to name it for you. I think getting to that point of saying, “Right, I’m writing this, it’s nearly done.”

Christian: Yeah, yeah, I guess. It took me quite a while to find a spot in research where I really feel like, “Okay, that’s kind of resonating with the community.” The problem is when you’re doing a PhD, you’re doing this work you’re looking at every day for years, and you’re kind of like, “Everything is so obvious. This is so obvious, what am I doing here? I’m just saying the obvious things.”

Then you talk to other people and at some point they’re like, “Oh, that’s really interesting,” and they show some sincere interest in this kind of work. I think identifying those kind of spots, and obviously that culminates in a PhD, so, yeah, I would agree.

Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

Christian: I would love to say yes, but I have to say no.

Sam: Okay, there’s 2 questions in there. Why would you love to say yes, and why do you have to say no?

Christian: Because I feel like we need more activists, we need more action. Like I said before, just sitting back and waiting for things to happen, to turn out to be better, isn’t really what we should do, but it’s just more convenient to do exactly that, so I could do so much more besides my research, obviously.

Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Christian: That depends if it’s a work day or a weekend. I think one of the great things about doing a PhD is that you’re doing work that you really enjoy. I think that that is always something that I’ll look forward to. Yeah, that’s actually one of the things that kept me from writing in the past few months. I have so many other things that are so much more interesting. Obviously, everything else is much more interesting than writing up this piece of research.

Sam: Including doing the dishes?

Christian: Yeah, yeah, everything, cleaning your house top to bottom.

Sam: What’s the biggest challenge you’re looking forward to in the next couple of years?

Christian: In my personal life or in general?

Sam: Whatever you like.

Christian: Figuring out what to do next, honestly, that’s kind of the thing, because I have no idea where it’s going to be in one year from now.

Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur by the time we wake up tomorrow morning, on San Jose time, what would that be?

Christian: Just one? We talked about so many problems here and we had this great workshop over the past 2 days, where we had about 100 problems that we put on the wall. Solving some of them would be awesome. I’m not going to go for the very cliché like world peace, but something like … Obviously, I have a vested interest in my PhD research, so solving some of those issues with the magic wand would be amazing, yeah.

Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

Christian: Act responsibility, think responsibility, yeah, maybe just be aware of what your actions are and what they imply. Like I said, activism is a big thing here, but that takes a lot of commitment.


This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.

computing energy

Footprints of digital infrastructure


Knowing the impact can be used to start a conversation, to reflect on choices.

Dr Daniel Schien is an expert on the footprint of digital infrastructure. We talk about his background – Informatics in Berlin, developing software in Australia and teaching computing in Afghanistan. His research has involved the environmental impact of the transformation of the Guardian newspaper. He also teaches teaching environmental management and is involved in Green Hackathon.

Talking points

I was always interested of questions of ethical concern

Curriculum was technical content but it was informatics so questions of ethics and intersection of computers and society, not just the numbers.

Understanding of the consequence of future business

In making a comment on the environmental impact of a service we need to be clear that we are not making a comment on its value from another perspective. …that technology might be liberating…we are not claiming that environmental sustainability is the only criteria that should be applied.

Systems methods of dealing with the complexity of so-called wicked problems.

How can you deal with this wicked problem with no single optimisation criteria

The goal is to make sure that communities who are often marginalised in decision making…when other organisations are dominating the decision making, marginalising some actors. There is a potential here to make a change for good by teaching environmental managers -giving them the tools to involve everybody who is affected.

The Green Doors was a project to see how can we use ICT to make other practices more sustainable

(Superhero) Because I’m a computer scientist I’ve got an understanding of the anatomy of digital systems, but I bring into this a passion for sustainability, and an awareness of processes in the social domain. That’s a good starting point for doing this interdisciplinary work.

(Success) Daughter.

(Activist) No, my work takes place professionally. Activist compromises professional activities.

Guardian, making a difference…environmental footprint, I hope that other organisations follow

Chance here to create more awareness for consumers about the sustainability implications of consuming these services…a decision support tool. Knowing the impact can be used to start a conversation, to reflect on choices. The goal is not to blame people, to make people feel guilty, but to create more awareness and understanding.

By exposing themselves to criticism they should be applauded while other players are shying of that risk.

(Motivation) Chance to make a difference

(Challenges) having impact from academic position

Miracle: The biggest environmental concerns I have are around transportation, domestic heating and consumption.

Advice: trying to remain cool and aware, not too frantic about trying to play academic game

computing education

Searching for Sustainability


Searching per se doesn’t have ethical force, however, it can help you to make a better choice, as a consumer, acting, behaving and voting.

Dr Daniel Russell is a research scientist at Google where has been working in the area of search quality, with a focus on understanding what makes Google users happy, skilled and competent in their use of web search. As a “search anthropologist” he works to understand how people use the tools of technology to amplify their intelligence. So, the big question for the expert in search, how can we better search for a sustainable future?

In searching for this positive future we first consider the role of questions in operational aspects (eg how we can better find information on positioning solar panels), and behaviour change (should I take the bike to work today?), then moving onto the harder questions of sustainability, values, wicked problems, contested concepts, answering ethical dilemmas expanded in space and time and so on.

This conversation was recorded at CHI2016, where Dan was co-chair the CHI4Good programme.

Talking points

Possibility in computing to build your own universe

The beautiful AI systems I was building didn’t work for people…I need to sort this out…so I switched to human computer interaction, the art and science of making things simple to use, so people understand them,

The paradox is that the simplest things are the hardest to design – the things that seem straight-forward and obvious are often not.

What is expert now? Looking up is not the same as knowing

Helping to teach the world to become better searchers.

Searching when it the question gets complicated…that’s the million dollar question

Should is always “with respect to…”. The big shift, as we get better at machine learning, we’ll get better at interpreting questions. But “should”, that’s a tough one.

(Google is us, changing our identity as it changes our relationship to knowledge) yes, but this has been going on forever, when we invented writing we changed our relationship with knowledge, an externalised relationship with information

(Contested concepts – will we see answers to climate change in the same way we currently see movie listings?) Even things like stream flow rates can suddenly become contested. The choice to put it on the homepage is only for pretty clear topics.

(Who is deciding that clarity? Machine or people?) Great question…machine.

(Does Google have expectations of journalistic integrity?) We do our best to have an objective ranking function…we do not consider political intent or perspective.

Searching per se doesn’t have ethical force, however, it can help you to make a better choice, as a consumer, acting, behaving and voting.

Rise of availability of information combined with ability to find it. You now have a chance of finding out.

(Restorative socio-ecological transformation, what will be search’s contribution?) Helping people find out what is going on, discovering underlying causes.

To discover that the aquifers are well managed is a straightforward search. To discover that they are not is a more complex search – not for the least because there are people that don’t want you to know that. But at least now you have half a chance. You can, through Google, access many more information sources than you possibly could before. This is transforming. For sustainability, for making responsible ecologically valid choices. Now you can find out.

Is the truth drowning in the swamp of information? It is incumbent on you as the information consumer to be able to distinguish between publishers.
That’s why I teach people how to search.

One of the fundamental skills is how to discriminate information.

Searching for a positive future. There’s nothing intuitive about this. My big message is it’s easy to search, but it’s easy to get it wrong as well. Let me show you some skills that will make you a better, more accurate, more powerful searcher.

(Superpower:) The ability to teach. What I mean is teaching – a grand a glorious profession, but as a superhero powerful teacher would be someone that can communicate complex ideas easily and efficiently and help you understand what that has to do with your life.

Its relatively straightforward to teach someone how to do, say, calculus. But how do you teach judgement, how do you teach that skill of assessment?

A hero teacher would be someone who could come in and say ‘the world is big and complicated, there’s all sorts of trade offs, there’s stuff going on…let me show you, let me work with you to help you understand how to be a reasonable interpreter of what you see going on in the world so that you can get at the bottom of it.

Judgement requires that you have a bit of self knowledge. You have to understand why am I making this choice in this particular way.

(Success) Mooc. I’ve had 2.8 million students taking my class – teaching people how to do this kind of search.

(Activist) I am active in local things – local politics, local sustainability, local Sierra Club. I’m not a trans-national activist. I think as I get older I might become that.

Multiple political perspectives are respected at work, and there are a lot of politically active people there – so it’s not a barrier. So yes you can, but there are also well understood boundaries around political speech, and activist speech and activist action,

There’s also an interesting distinction between what the corporation does and what individuals do. Google as an organisation is very environmentally conscious.

(Motivation) It sounds trite, but teaching people to do this stuff really does. Communicate ideas…what we’ve been talking about, this is my passion, this is what motivates me. And music, and running, and being out in the world, diving. If I was to be a transnational activist, it would be about coral reefs, ocean acidification and so on. That motivates me in a negative way – it makes me sad and I want to fix it.

(Challenges) Packaging up a lot of these experiences and skills…a book.

(Miracle) Fix the oceans.

(Advice) be a discriminating consumer of knowledge that you find.

computing design values

Values: Working on problems that really matter

Batya Friedman

Multi-lifespan information systems, starts with premise that there are certain categories of problems that we’re unlikely to solve in a single human lifespan.

Dr Batya Friedman is a Professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. She tells us how her early interests in science, arts, education and politics all came together in value sensitive design. Batya’s recent work in multi-lifespan information systems has lessons for sustainability – in particular, the implications for intergenerational equity.

Talking points

Interested in how people organise society, and the choices they make, what sort of society we want to build and what tools we want to build – those themes have stuck with me.

Science museum…exploring residues that we create when we do any kind of work. What is the work we are doing, and when does that justify the kinds of waste we are producing?

I was teaching in a situation where we had 8 computers for 15 kids, traditionally the teacher would allocate them, but I turned it around to the students a and said how are we going to share these? And they came up with policies, and we would vote on those, and them implement them, and then reflect… the policies started to change as the kids saw what the implications and consequences where for this small community, and so they took those things into account as they allocated the resources they were using. It put in their hands this issue of resource allocation., and they were able to have their own conversations about what’s fair, what’s just, how do we create a caring society in our classroom around these kinds of resources. There wasn’t any whining about access to technology, there was mature conversation. The students learned to express what their needs were, what their desires were, and to listen to what other kids’ needs and desires were

(Thesis) Kids understand canonical things – stealing a bike, a car – the nature of the harm is clear, but when you move to the digital realm, it isn’t so clear to them what are the natures of the harm.

When we have new technologies and the conventions around them are not well understood, the adolescents I worked with fell back on moral reasoning – trying to identify harms, and then trying to identify the harms, and then coming up with a way of acting in the world that was respectful of the harms that they understood.

Human beings are tool users, and our tools become a part of what we do and how we go about being in the world. So there’s no strong delineation between a tool-use act, and a non-tool use act

We act in the world and we act with our tools

And as we act in the world, we ask ourselves these questions…am I hurting somebody by engaging in this action, is this fair…what’s the nature of justice, am I building community, am I being a good friend to somebody, am I being generous? These questions these qualities are part of how we want to be in the world, and technologies are an integral part of that.

The issue isn’t whether there is technology of a tool there, the interesting moment is when we introduce a new technology that gives us a very different way of acting or being in the world and we are unfamiliar with the ways in which it will intersect with all the other things we are doing.

By being conscious and intentional about some of the value implications that we are more likely to have effects that are positive or at least to avoid some of the more egregious negative impacts.

Designers of technology don’t control all the aspects of how these technologies will be appropriated and used by society, but they do control some of the important pieces. And if we don’t attend to those then I think there may be inadvertent consequences where had we been attentive, we could have been proactive on something positive.

Does the technology embody values? – yes, the architecture of the technology makes somethings easier and other things harder if not impossible.

Historically the greatest protection on privacy was just the amount of effort it would take. Rules and practices evolved from a time when you had to physically go down to the courthouse and look at records if you thought something was amiss, but it was accessible to you, you could examine them if you thought there was good need. Now you can do that search from your house, with very little effort. That balance between privacy and transparency, that delicate balance in place for a certain kind of technology, that has been changed. So the question for society is what balance do we want between privacy and transparency, then to put in place the technical infrastructure so we can experience that balance that we think is beneficial for society.

We hold a multiplicity of values, and they all sit in delicate balance with each other, just like the strands of a spider-web. If you pick up one value, put pressure on one part of the web, all the other values move with it. Two things can be in tension and together that tension holds them up. These tensions and how they sit in relation to one another is the nature of human life. So the question is how do we hold onto them. Take something like calmness, or the desire to be left alone, and also the desire to be part of community, also to be able to be responsive if someone has a need or emergency. We value all of those things simultaneously – holding onto that is the design challenge.

We can question the presumption about building more and more widgets. How many microprocessors do people have? We can ask is that sustainable? In therms of the resources, power? We’re building things now with the presumption of 24/7 access to power and network, and people are increasingly putting data and activities that are critical to their lives into infrastructure that needs to be on and functioning 24/7. We created this idea of 24/7 ubiquity, we can question that.

Multi-lifespan work, starts with premise that there are certain categories of problems that we’re unlikely to solve in a single human lifespan.

Multi-lifespan because of the nature of the problem: 1. limitations of the human pscyhe…lasting peace…first generation agree to keeping children alive, second generation grow up in environment where they don’t feel threatened, maybe third generation can really build a peace. 2. tears in social fabric (Rwanda) 3. Environmental timescales

We need to recognise that these problems and solutions are going to unfold over longer periods of time.

How do we engage in this longer term design thinking? We can help people understand where their lifespan fits, how that relates in to environmental time-frames, so you can begin to see how decisions in your lifespan can begin to affect and mesh with what might be going on on an environmental timeline. We can think about doing supporting people doing co-design 20-40 years in the future. What might be the systemic conditions in 40 years? then we can bring people back to “well what if we made some different design choices now?”

We’re at the start of the development of systems of international justice – just like where democracy was 200 years ago.

While can be discouraged about how our societies are evolving, we can point to areas of real progress, and that’s really important to hold onto

Take skeptism seriously, then go build something

Starting to do the work, slowly doing the work as best one can, trying to having eyes open to complexity, then over time one has a proof of concept about how you could make progress.

Working on problems that really matter is important

You could spend your life working on things that you know you can solve, but if you and others don’t really care about those problems, then maybe there’s a better way to spend your time.

If you work on something you care about, even if it is really hard, and you fail, or you don’t make progress, at least you know you are working on something that really matters.

For me if failure isn’t a actual possibility, then it doesn’t meet the criteria of a problem for me to work on.

There are things that really matter to us where we know we can do better.

(Learning from stone carving) Continually working the whole, without ever being able to see the whole. I’m comfortable going into a project not knowing where it is going to end or what it will look like at the end. You can use principles and be adaptive in the goals, and as you move into the project you can understand better what the next move will be. If I try and prescribe things, the solution ends up being brittle.

(Superpower) Systemic thinking and approach, it is organic and in some ways spatial or visual, and context, situation, to technically what is there, and then wait until I know how to act. Time is crucial. The same with research, we can be designing a system, and we don’t know yet what the next right thing to do is.

(Success) 25 years ago even saying you were working in values and technology was considered out there, now there are many people doing this.

(Activist) Not in a traditional way, but I am beginning to think of myself as a public intellectual, playing that role.

I would like to participate more in a public conversation about what kind of science and technology we should be engaging in. I would like us to be more thoughtful about which technology we should build out – that is a choice. What sort of society do we want to live in, what technologies do we want to support that?

Yes, I do work on margins, and those margins are always moving. What are the hard questions, but also what are the socially ethically important questions with respect to our tool use and infrastructure building?

(Motivation) Curiosity about each day

(Challenge) Crossroads…art, some big ideas, but also pushing at those margins, multi-lifespan work. And contributing to public discussion… different forms of expression…theatre, animation, artefacts…stories.

(Miracle) Peace

(Smallest thing biggest impact) Sleep: I mean that, seriously, a lot of aggressions and micro-aggressions…when people are exhausted they get cranky, if everyone on the planet could get a really good night sleep on the same night and reset

Advice: Slow down. Get a good nights sleep and wake up in the morning without an agenda, just opening your eyes and looking at the world and what it is offering and take that opportunity. Our society is so goal directed, we don’t see what is in front of us.

This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.

children computing design

Children as design partners in technology and sustainability

Allison Druin

We’ve got to start with the large to be able to connect the dots of excellence.

Professor Allison Druin is a Professor in the iSchool and Chief Futurist for the Division of Research at University of Maryland. She has been a leader in the the use of children as design partners, which has been widely applied, including to digital libraries for children (eg ICDL). She is currently seconded to the National Park Service, where she is Special Advisor for National Digital Strategy.

Talking points

With an inventor scientist father and an artist mother I’m a mix between the two of them

My undergraduate degree is in graphic design…A wonderful thing, I always say to people, if you want a real degree: problem solving, creativity, exploration – go get yourself a degree in design, it’s incredible.

I realised that I think like a designer -sometimes visually, sometimes problem solving – but really it’s about what are the parameters in front of me, how can I think out of the box to make something better than it is today.

Then at MIT, in my head I was translating from design-speak to technology-speak.

Not just how technology affects children but how children affect the design of technology

I was a big proponent – back when this was a bit of the lunatic fringe – of really hearing the voices of users as designers, as participants, full participants in the design process.

Rarely do you get a chance to ask kids who don’t have a lot of experience with technology, how do you tell stories? Why do you tell stories? What matters to you with stories? and then to work with them to figure out what that means in terms of new technologies.

It’s a people-led process – its understanding the needs of people, the desires of people, it’s also understanding how processes work, and how they are broken. And where you can bring solutions in that make change

We’re an information-centric world – the scale and speed that information moves, and we need better solutions, we can’t just keep doing the same things faster.

When we do amazing research for a particular population, it spreads like wildfire to what the rest of the world needs

The sooner you can get kids into the design process, the better the outcome will be, and the shorter the process will be in terms of back-end testing.

The notion of cultural tolerance was always underneath the surface of everything we do.

It was never about how do we make kids better readers, it was always how do we help people think about each other, oh and by the way, make them a better reader at the same time.

National Parks Service…a long time partner…maybe it is time for me to come in and think about a national strategy

How do we make it so that kids have a lifelong experience with parks? The pre- and post- experiences can be enhanced with new technologies

Today’s kids will look harder at the mountains if they’ve got a cellphone in their hands.

They’re thinking deeply about what is it that I am doing so that then I can report back to my friends.

Kids have a hard time not being able to be reporters themselves, not being able to share that experience.

If we do let our technology separate us from our physical world too much, that is a bad thing, but with embedded, mobile, ubiquitous technologies we can have physical/digital switching seriously, without a context collapse.

So what sort of language do we use with the Park Service about digital?

What does it mean to have 24/7 to the front door of the parks? Traditionally we built larger and larger visitor centres with beautiful exhibits, but what happens if the mobile app is the front door?

What would it mean if kids could digitally tag a landscape – to tell other kids this is a really cool place to go?

The messages, themes, are really important – the parks are about stewardship, about learning. The parks are not necessarily glorified vacation spots.

The parks are our best idea in education – they’re about teaching the American public that we need to be stewards of our own environment, or else there’s not going to be an environment.

Traditionally we’ve not been able to implicitly share these themes – some administrations haven’t wanted us to focus on climate change or the science behind things. Thankfully in more recent times we have been able to say the science matters, climate change matters, how do we look to ensure we are preserving

This goes for digital too – how do we look to digital to preserve what we know and what we care about?

The first innovation of the Park Service was the campfire (talks), before that they were really just to protect the land from poachers. In the campfire discussions we started talking about the stories behind the wilderness, the culture and the heritage that we have.

(Success) People taking up the methods: children in the design process.

People don’t question why we need to have children at the design table anymore, they just question why we haven’t done it sooner.

(Activist) I think all good academics, researchers, thinkers, are activists. Because we have to share ideas, we have to share what we are thinking. And we have to convince people that what we are doing matters, is unique and truly is a contribution.

(Motivation) Being able to help make change in this world.

CHI Conference (of which Allison is 2016 co-chair) theme is CHI for Good.

Making a little bit of change is going to make the world a little bit better in the long run. It’s not about making money, it’s not about better law, it’s about making people’s lives better.

We’re in a field HCI Human Computer Interaction, that starts with humans,

I’ve never seen such a uniformly positive response to a conference theme in 30 years of coming to this conference.

(how will it stick, not just be the year CHI was good) People really care deeply about change, and keeping that activist-change idea in the CHI community.

We’ve found that the impactful research is where you create innovative technologies that have broad impact.

(Challenges) HCI at scale.

It’s not about one type of user, one type of interaction. How do we work for multitudes of users, in multitudes of contexts, with multitudes of data.

(Miracle) I use this question. My most favourite answer was from a kid who I asked if you could wave a magic wand in your library, what would it be? And he didn’t know what a magic wand was – he had learnt to read reading his Mom’s magazines in the beauty shop. Once I had explained – if you could just change something, what would it be? He said, “I’d put grass on the floor of the library”. I said “what?” and he said “I’ve always been afraid to sit in the grass and read a book where I live, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do”. So if I could wave a magic wand, I’d give grass everywhere so kids could feel safe, to learn, to be quiet, to explore, to do whatever they wanted, to sit and read a book.

That’s the challenge – HCI, technology at scale. When I got to the Park Service one of my colleagues said maybe you should start with one small thing and grow it. But I said that’s the problem, we’ve been doing that for too many years, we’ve got to see the larger picture. We’ve got to start with the large to be able to connect the dots of excellence.

We do so many wonderful things in this world, but they don’t seem to be connected to the next wonderful thing. In those connections, that glue, that’s where change can happen.

Working with children as design partners – it’s the surprises that make it worth doing everyday.
Could I have imagined that a kid would ask for grass on the floor the public library?
What does that mean? Can technology help? I made a digital library that makes it as fun to do the reading as the searching.

(Advice) Be a futurist. If all of us collectively could not just try and predict the future, but really try and prepare for it. And in preparing for the future we do what matters today – and the rest is commentary.

My children insist I put up this one too:

Allison Druin 2


This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.

communication community computing participation

Empowering communities


Working with communities to empower them rather than to change them.

Rob Comber is a a Lecturer in Computer Mediated Communication based at Newcastle University’s Open Lab. With training in psychology, Rob has worked on the role of online communities and now is focussed on food, activism, urban space, and sustainability – all through a lens of civic engagement.

Talking points

How people construct, create, and maintain relationships with each other through some of the mechanisms of pressing buttons and friending each other

How can you create a community when all you can really say is “I like this person” or “I like this thing that they’ve said”?

“Do online communities have the same characteristics as real communities?” is where I started, but I found there’s no real difference between them – same values, people commit to them, spend time building relationships and doing things.

Online, digital, virtual isn’t replacing but augmenting what we are doing in our everyday lives.

Yes it is easier to press like…but you’ve done a lot of work to construct that community around you – so saying it is easier to press like is a bit like saying that if you are already a member of that club then it is easier for you to open the door and walk in.

So the idea that “slacktivism” is easy hides the work people have to do beforehand. It’s public too – you have to make a real commitment to say this is who I am. People can use that quite carefully to construct an image of themselves – this is the person who I am, and this statement is of value because I am making that commitment in front of other people

A challenge of looking at online communities is the romanticisation of offline communities.

Being exposed to poly-vocality, multiple voices and perspectives really enriches the way that we think about the world.

Why do we buy two to get one free, when we only need half?

Trying to find ways to connect communities together to improve the sharing of knowledge and expertise that they already have…inclusion and social sustainability.

Issues of resilience – looking at unrealised and under-realised capital that’s already there

We found a focus on behaviour change was quite useful if you wanted to stop someone from doing something, but very difficult to do if you wanted someone to try something new and to keep doing it.

Civic engagement: not saying “we know best we can tell you what to do and here’s how you can make your city better”, instead it’s “we know you know how to make your city better, we want you to tell us so we can help you do it”.

Working with communities to empower them rather than to change them.

Realise that we don’t have that power to magically change a community, it’s much more beneficial to work together with them.

Role of a Civic University means the local community is not just the place where we are, but it is the place that we are.

We have to engage with the issues that arise here, partly because it is a disadvantaged area, but also because it is fundamental to what a university should be doing.

We have to be really able to demonstrate value and if we can show that it is intertwined and embedded in the lives of the people around the university then you don’t have to struggle to find why you are doing what you are doing, it comes from the people who are there already.

Water, energy and food nexus – trying to understand how these resources come together…how they are connected as systems.

How do you know if engagement is doing good? You get a sense of it, do the people I engage with see value in that engagement? Do they see outcomes they might have otherwise not anticipated? Unlike behaviour change work where we decide what we will change and therefore can evaluate it…but with engagement…what has changed for you?

We try to activate the activists. Find people who will take on that engagement and take on the role of saying “we need something more here, we need something better here” –whatever they decide. It’s being able to say that when we have to leave, that it becomes sustained by the community.

What a community should be…agonism…continually questioning the world around us.

We’re good at looking at ourselves and asking “is it good now”, we’re not so good at asking “will we still be happy with this situation in 5, 10, 50 years?”

A sense of questioning the status quo, but also questioning the future of that

Questioning across scales, but identifying other communities where you might be having an impact is a significant challenge even before you think about what that impact might be.

A sense of belonging is important, place tied to history, but we rarely think of a sense of belonging in terms of future generations.

In the same way that we look to previous generations for our sense of place, future generations belong to us in that way.

People think of technology as the future, so let’s use technology to represent the future back to us now.

Engagement: there’s no simple message of how to convince people to change behaviour, the point is that you’re not really convincing them, they have to convince themselves.

The long term element of engagement is a time scale of 3, 10 or 50 years – compared to nice results after a year or six months or a year for publishing “this is what we did it was amazing”.

We recognise the easy life, but if that was an amazing future then we wouldn’t need to be subversive.

The questioning itself is an important part – we need to take this critical stance in designing technology, even if the response is that we won’t design technology. This is different from a basis (of computing) of selling more new stuff

It is important to say can we sell less stuff? Can we even ask that question?

(Sustainable Superpower): People to be able to see connections between the things that they do – spatially, temporally, socially.

(Success): Being and to work in a research lab that values engagement and in ten years time we might be able to say that we did some good in hat engagement.

(Activist): I wouldn’t see myself as an activist. I wouldn’t see myself as the person who has the responsibility as the person in the community who knows and who knows which action is best. Academic research, when it’s well intentioned, when it’s working best through engagement is facilitative – is the aim of that to facilitate activism? I think so. Am I a facilitator? I hope so.

(Motivation): People. Above all else, taking a humanist perspective, and saying people are good, we need to work from that as a basic principle of what we are doing.

(Challenge): Engagement – being able to demonstrate that engagement is useful.

(Miracle): 100% turn out in every bit of local, national government – for people to wake up in the morning and really think about the society around them and something that they are involved and not to just take the easy life of sailing through it.

(Advice): Think about the world around you, and the people that are in it, and work with those people.

This conversation was recorded at Open Lab in Newcastle in September 2015.