XXII.5 September-October 2015
Page: 69
Digital Citation

Public policy and HCI

Jonathan Lazar

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All systems, whether human or technical, evolve and grow. And we often call the time frame for growth and development a lifecycle. The Interacting with Public Policy forum has had a lifecycle of six years. It is now time to allow new topics to grace the pages of Interactions. Since this is the last article in this forum, I'm excited to report on the progress we have made since January 2010.

Together, the authors of articles in the forum, members of the SIGCHI International Public Policy Committee, and I have accomplished a lot, bringing attention to topics at the intersection of public policy and human-computer interaction.

Taken broadly, public policy includes not only laws, regulations, enforcement actions, lawsuits, and court actions, but also human rights treaties, international technical standards, non-governmental organizations, and multinational organizations. This meshes well with HCI's focus on real-world improvements and overall quality of life, in addition to careful theory and method development.

I was first introduced to public policy through my work on accessibility research and through commenting on regulatory processes, testifying to the Maryland state legislature, and participating in advocacy litigation. Public policy isn't a topic that most of us studied in graduate school or have first-hand experience with. But, regardless of whether we are aware of it, public policies have a major impact on the work we do in HCI. Therefore, it is important to engage with policymakers and the policymaking process. One of the most common misunderstandings is that public policy in HCI focuses exclusively on issues to do with digital and physical accessibility. This misunderstanding has arisen in part because there are laws, regulations, and even human rights treaties that relate to ensuring that people with disabilities have equal access to digital information and technology—clearly topics that are central to the mission of HCI. Thus, accessibility is the most well-known topic at the intersection of HCI and public policy, with a number of prominent HCI researchers having had a role in informing specific policies.

In addition to successes in the accessibility of specific technology and interface designs, members of the HCI community have also taken an active role in the development of international standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which is the technical basis for many laws and regulations around the world. Members of the HCI community have also played a role in informing the development of accessibility-related laws and regulations around the world. The outcry from the HCI community, the computing community in general (through USACM), and other groups helped influence the regulatory process for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the U.S. to use the international standards (WCAG 2.0) rather than a separate U.S.-only standard. Other successes related to informing public policies have occurred in ISO ergonomic standards (related to HCI) and in influencing the European Union national digital agendas. One member of the HCI community, Jan Gulliksen, was even named the "digital champion" of Sweden. These are all successes that we, as a community, can be proud of. However, there are many other topics at the intersection of HCI and public policy.

For most HCI topics, policymakers are unaware of the issues and haven't taken sides; therefore, there is great potential to inform them and influence their decision making.

For six years, Interacting with Public Policy has explored the different ways in which public policies impact HCI and, conversely, how HCI can and has impacted public policies. The articles in the forum have covered diverse topics, illustrating the global nature of engaging with policymaking. Topics have included: social networking, policies related to interface use while driving a car, tribunals and healing in Africa, e-government in France, the impacts of government rankings on HCI researchers in Brazil, electronic health records, international standards, accessibility policy in Spain, augmentative and alternative communication policies in the U.K., U.S. election interfaces, public policies related to ergonomics, the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure project, citizen science, public policies related to accessibility tools in Italy, public policies related to violence in video games, policies related to privacy and filtering in public libraries, and laws that require multilingual interfaces.


It's important to recognize differences in policy focus and policymaking that result from cultural and governmental prioritizations. Cultural and governmental context play a role in why, for instance, some countries utilize transparency, some countries provide prescriptive regulations, and other countries provide flexibility. Some countries utilize government oversight with regular compliance monitoring, whereas other countries encourage private citizens to sue in court for non-compliance with HCI-related regulations. What is considered appropriate depends on the country and cultural context.

It's also important to understand that, in general, HCI is a non-partisan topic for public policy. For some topics at the intersection of policy and science (e.g., stem cell research, climate change), policymakers have already taken sides and have strong lobbying pressures. For most HCI topics, though, policymakers are unaware of the issues and haven't taken sides; therefore, there is great potential to inform policymakers and influence their decision making. It is possible that voting access and ease of use is the one topic at the intersection of HCI and public policy where there are already partisan pressures.

However, there are many areas of public policy that influence HCI where the HCI community has not taken an active role, and where the role of the HCI community needs to increase. This includes policies and regulations on research involving human participants, metrics on how research is measured and evaluated (e.g., does HCI research count less for promotion, tenure, and funding decisions compared with computer theory?), laws related to multilingual requirements on interfaces (i.e., countries where interfaces are required to have multiple languages), research funding priorities, data privacy (does the interface clearly present privacy information?), and intellectual property (can you patent design, functionality, and ease of use?). Multiple for-profit and nonprofit sectors are impacted by policies related to HCI, including healthcare, government, transportation, education, libraries, and voting. There are thus a lot of opportunities to engage with the policymaking communities.

back to top  SIGCHI and Public Policy

In parallel with the six-year span of this forum, the SIGCHI executive committee, under my leadership as SIGCHI adjunct chair for public policy, has worked to increase the awareness and focus of the SIGCHI community on public policy. In this role, I created an international committee of individuals interested in the intersection of HCI and public policy. This committee currently has 27 members from 14 different countries. Public-policy-related events have been held at the annual CHI conference since 2011. At the CHI 2013 conference in Paris, a daylong workshop was held with 18 participants. Following this workshop, a full framework report was initiated, with 13 additional co-authors invited to examine opportunities at the intersection of HCI and public policy. The resulting final report was issued by SIGCHI in April 2015 (available at This report offers a high-level framework, examining not only areas where the HCI community has informed public policy, but also areas where public policies have influenced HCI research and practice. The report also examines how the HCI community could play a greater role and more actively engage with public policy in the future. The ultimate goal is to increase understanding of the large number of potential topics at the intersection of HCI and public policy and to increase engagement in policymaking from the HCI community.

There are three general types of action suggested in the April 2015 report:

Building a reputation as the human-computer interaction community. Other science and technology communities have been engaging with policymakers for decades, but the HCI community has not. We need to build our reputation, both in policymaking communities and in the general public. Think about how many times you have explained to new acquaintances the type of work you do. Our work often happens behind the scenes, improving and influencing interface design, yet there are not well-known models in the public sphere who are involved with HCI work. TV shows and movies have not, as of yet, highlighted the work of HCI. We need to be more proactive about building our community reputation, both in the general public and within the community of policymakers. It's important to get out there, outside the HCI community, outside the broader computing community, and talk about HCI! When the general public knows more about HCI, this will also raise the profile of HCI within the policymaking community.


Individual action by researchers and practitioners. Whenever possible, HCI researchers, practitioners, and educators should reach out to policymakers and get involved in policymaking processes. Individuals can take actions, such as establishing a formal position for or against a legislative bill or taking sides in a lawsuit, that a nonprofit professional organization such as SIGCHI cannot. Those involved in HCI work are encouraged to participate, for instance, in regulatory processes, by commenting on proposed new regulations. They are also encouraged to reach out to their legislative representatives when there are bills or proposed legislation that relate to HCI and from there form an ongoing relationship. Know that an "ongoing relationship" means more than emailing your representatives and letting them know about the research articles posted on your website. An ongoing relationship means a face-to-face meeting with the legislator or their staff, offering your professional expertise (without a consulting fee), being available to testify when needed, and keeping in touch. It may also mean that you are sometimes asked to provide advice, off the record and confidentially (don't be offended when the policymaker won't meet you in their office building, but will meet you at the Starbucks across the street!). It also means providing summaries of your research, if it relates to a policy issue, in an easy-to-understand format. Understanding how policy issues are framed is also important. For example, how many people does it affect in a legislative district? Is there longitudinal data on progress over 10 to 15 years? Just sending over a research article by itself is not truly engaging with policymakers, and you likely will not have any impact by doing so.

Action as an HCI community. Since 2011, the CHI conference has had at least one public-policy-related event, either on the official conference program or informally. In the future, perhaps an annual two- to three-day workshop on public policy and HCI could occur? Perhaps SIGCHI could sponsor opportunities for those interested in public policy to get experience with public policy? Perhaps short sponsored trips to learn about policymaking could be available, or semester-long fellowship experiences (similar to what AAAS offers for science and technology policy fellowships)? Perhaps SIGCHI could develop educational materials on the topic of public policy and HCI that could be utilized in courses around the world? SIGCHI will still not be able to play the same role that individuals can in supporting specific legislation outcomes, but there can be increased collaboration between SIGCHI and USACM (the U.S. ACM Public Policy Committee), and the newly formed EUACM (the E.U. ACM Public Policy Committee). Perhaps there are opportunities to encourage SIGCHI members to play a more active role in USACM and EUACM? Hopefully the next executive committee of SIGCHI will continue to place a focus on improving the engagement of the HCI community with public policy communities.

back to top  Giving Thanks

The end of a forum is a good time to give thanks. Thanks to the previous editors in chief, Jon Kolko and Richard Anderson, who decided to include a forum on public policy, and the current editors in chief, Erik Stolterman and Ron Wakkary, who have supported the forum. Thanks also go to the recent president and executive VP of SIGCHI, Gerrit van der Veer and Elizabeth Churchill, who invited me to serve in the role of adjunct chair of public policy in 2010. Thanks to all of the authors of articles in the forum, as well as everyone involved in the CHI conference activities, the 2013 workshop, and in authoring the final report on public policy and HCI. And a final note of thanks to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, who selected me for the Shutzer Fellowship in 2012–2013, allowing me to spend a year investigating the relationship between HCI, policy, and law.

back to top  Author

Jonathan Lazar is a professor of computer and information sciences and director of the undergraduate program in information systems at Towson University.

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Copyright held by author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.

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