XXIV.3 May + June 2017
Page: 42
Digital Citation

Crossing borders, building bridges

Neha Kumar, Susan Dray

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Though every country and context is unique, and much of human-computer interaction (HCI) research aims to design for situatedness, there are lessons we might learn when we work across borders and across contexts. At CHI 2016, 71 participants representing 20 countries and six continents came together to ask questions such as these: What are common themes that tie together different geographic contexts? Could a mobile health project in India benefit from lessons learned from a project in the same domain but in Kenya? How might we, as a global HCI community, work within countries and across them as well? The short-term goal of our event, the Development Consortium, was initially to link research and practice across disparate HCI for development (HCI4D) contexts by creating a forum for conversations in which global community members could identify common interests and work toward potential projects or proposals. Our larger objective was to advance HCI4D so that we could engage productively as a community to leverage learning and collaborating across contexts. In that spirit, we named our event HCI4D Across Borders and invited cross-border collaborations on themes selected by participants—researchers actively involved in HCI projects in disparate geographies, many of whom conduct research on the margins of the so-called developing world.

back to top  Insights


We began planning by creating a program committee with members from across the globe, who came together to create an agenda for our event. This first step began an engaging dialogue regarding the constitution of the consortium. A discussion point that immediately arose involved the complex meanings associated with the word development in HCI4D. We learned that we had overlooked the extent to which this term alienated a sizable section of our target community, particularly those working in Africa. We subsequently took out the "4D," changing the name to HCI Across Borders. Widely publicizing our call for proposals, we solicited participation from places and people previously not included in this dialogue—and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. After receiving and selecting proposals, with valuable input from our program committee, we organized participants into groups of up to eight or nine individuals, attempting to align research interests based on submissions. These were titled Agriculture, EdTech, Health, Methods, Mobile, Refugees, Social, and Sociotech. There was also a "Meta" team that included members keen to chart out potential directions for the field, both for those in the room and for the community at large. Each of these teams was also assigned two mentors—those with several years' experience in conducting HCI research across borders.

Facebook allows users to update pages via email; we would like to understand why Cubans don't use this service.

Though the interest generated by the consortium was overwhelming, financial constraints and visa difficulties prevented us from being as inclusive as we would have liked. Still, we are grateful for the support of both SIGCHI and Facebook, which allowed us to bring in participants from Portugal, Singapore, Egypt, Bangladesh, and many other countries. The day before CHI, Facebook and Google invited us all to their headquarters, giving us much to discuss as they presented their international humanitarian-focused projects. Through the twoday workshop that followed, we brainstormed ways in which those in the room could deepen ties with each other. The conversations that resulted were stimulating, leading to abstracts that summarized their essence and generated future possible directions for collaboration. We present each of these abstracts below and list the names of all the participants responsible for crafting the set. We conclude with a brief mention of where we are headed in 2017.


back to top  Cultivating Reflexivity

The Meta team proposed a toolkit of activities to encourage HCI and HCI4D researchers and practitioners to be more reflexive. HCI4D work is frequently situated in real-world settings where the designer, design process, and design outcomes may be distanced from end-user populations. Reflexivity helps researchers become more conscious of and think more deeply about their own biases, assumptions, and worldviews, and how these affect research methods, participants, relationships, and artifacts. We imagine the reflexivity toolkit could be useful to scholars, industry, in HCI teaching, and in preparing researchers for fieldwork. Toolkit activities include, for instance, a play on the popular Never Have I Ever game to reveal research biases. Another is a hypothesis-testing activity in which one person makes a hypothesis about another, asks them open-ended questions, and through open discussion and feedback learns how their preexisting perspectives might have affected the ensuing dialogue. We hope that by engaging in these kinds of activities, researchers and practitioners can better empathize with people different from themselves and produce improved research, design, and social outcomes as a result.


back to top  Rethinking Social Media

In Cuba, Internet access is restricted by high cost and slow speed, making it challenging for individuals to get online for anything beyond sending and receiving email. The desire to create and update Facebook pages is there, but the process of doing so is cumbersome. Some individuals have begun to rely on friends with better Internet access to assist them in maintaining their Facebook accounts. The person wanting to add content to her Facebook page, for example, sends an email with the new content to a friend, who acts as an account administrator and posts the update. Facebook allows users to update pages via email; we would like to understand why Cubans don't use this service. We believe it might be revealing to study what motivates these somewhat divergent models of use—for Facebook and other social media platforms. The social and cultural dynamics that fuel these models could inform the design of future services for Cubans, and potentially for citizens of other under-resourced communities. They could also bring us to question the assumptions we make around social media adoption and use in disparate settings.


back to top  Sustaining Agriculture

Official documents from various ministries of agriculture and other government entities suggest that countries around the world are becoming increasingly concerned with sustainable agricultural practices. Sustainable agriculture, of course, depends crucially on farmers themselves—often smallholder farmers eking out a subsistence living. Thus, for sustainable agriculture to become a reality, governments must find ways to communicate the importance of sustainability to farmers. One way this might happen is through agriculture extension, arguably the primary way by which governments interact with farmers. Extension, however, is fraught with challenges, including underfunding, lack of relevance, and undertrained or unenthusiastic extension officers. How might high-level governmental concerns about sustainability be adequately transmitted to farmers in rural communities, such that farmers' own understanding of sustainability aligns with official concerns? We propose a multi-country investigation of how farmers perceive sustainability, particularly as it is communicated (or not) by government extension systems (see infographic above).


back to top  Evaluating Mobility

As we progress beyond questions of mobile and Internet access, one of the primary challenges we face will be of security and privacy for mobile-first or mobile-only users. Even among mainstream users of computing devices, passwords and other security measures are difficult to manage. We currently know very little about how economically and educationally disadvantaged people perceive, understand, and identify protection mechanisms. Prior research says it is common practice for them to ask intermediaries such as Internet-cafe operators or shopkeepers to keep track of passwords. Additionally, low-literate mobile users understandably seem to prefer pattern-based passwords over PINs and text, but pattern-based password systems are rare. We also know that while people may aspire to own a smartphone, many factors contribute to phone selection, for personal and professional use; no systematic method for understanding this diverse mobile landscape exists. Additionally, with project-issued devices, community health workers may share a single account, or when devices are returned daily, fail to log out, providing access to the next user. We view this as a human-centered design concern. As a first step toward investigating this concern, we need to study the extent to which infrastructures, identities, and other constraints facilitate or inhibit the use of mobile devices and mobile communications for enabling social inclusion. For this, we plan to develop a standardized instrument—a set of tested methods that can be used to evaluate current mobile usage, as well as possibilities for continued future access. We propose that such a toolbox will facilitate our investigations into security awareness and enable rich conversations in the broader research community around the ways in which access is being navigated in "developing" regions.


back to top  Owning Healthcare

Members of our group work on health-related projects in an array of countries, including Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Namibia, Lebanon, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Within these countries, our work targets many different kinds of people and contributes to projects focused on improving maternal and child health, supporting community health programs, aiding refugee populations, understanding mental health issues among youth in urban areas, and, more broadly, addressing the health of underserved or marginalized communities. We have also used a wide variety of HCI methods to work with these populations, including action research, ethnography, participatory design, and other qualitative and quantitative techniques. Despite the diverse array of interests, priorities, and target populations that we focused on as a group, our discussions and brainstorming sessions led us to realize that all our projects had one thing in common: a desire to create new ways of engaging communities in their own healthcare. With this in mind, we explored potential ideas for how we might better engage communities in healthcare. We talked about how current approaches to healthcare are often expert-driven and take a topdown approach, making it challenging for people within the community to understand and manage their own health. In addition, we discussed how, if we want to engage people and make them care about their own health, we need to create mechanisms to incentivize the kinds of behavior we want to promote. Finally, we seized upon the idea of incorporating elements of fun and entertainment into health-based systems that would encourage people to participate and help them to more easily understand and respond to their healthcare needs.


back to top  Deconstructing Sociotech

The diversity in the contexts of our experiences with sociotechnical systems foregrounded a number of challenges. It was difficult to come to consensus around the conceptualization and interpretation of, and optimism toward, development. However, we could align our arguments with scholarly discussions about infrastructures that bind people with technology. One major developmental challenge involves building, maintaining, and repairing such infrastructures. At the same time, the political aspects of such sociotech infrastructures are inherently associated with a network of power and values. These material and political facets of sociotech infrastructures bring into discussion the role of representation, participation, voice, and conflict among people and artifacts. A sociotech approach toward HCI across borders thus highlights a range of tensions along different human and technical dimensions that are subject to institutionalization, marginalization, and standardization. Proper realization of this complexity must be at the heart of the discipline to promote more critical engagement with society and technology.

back to top  Reintegrating Refugees

The global refugee crisis has been called the worst humanitarian disaster since the second World War. More than 60 million people have been forcibly displaced, and the United Nations Refugee Agency reports that this number is growing. Migration trends are transforming the social fabric of the countries hosting refugees and other displaced people at different stages of migration. Researchers, private organizations, and government agencies around the world are putting their heads together to address the issues facing these populations. This international community, however, is struggling to keep up with the pace of the crisis. The variation in social, cultural, and political contexts in different refugee settings makes it tough to share lessons learned from individual projects. There is a need for greater collaboration between stakeholders, to establish an international, interdisciplinary coalition of researchers with the goal of moving the conversation past individual projects toward systemic, technology-informed solutions. How might HCI knowledge be translated toward the reintegration of refugees across the sectors of education, communication, livelihoods, and health, and in collaboration with grassroots-level partners on the ground?

back to top  Reimagining Education

The EdTech group, drawing on disparate disciplines and cultures, engaged in thoughtful analysis of the ways in which we learn, the range of problems we might face with different modes of learning, and the cultural aspects that must be taken into account when crossing borders into "developing" countries. This analysis looked into the purpose of education when viewed across diverse contexts, the nuances differentiating education, learning, and knowledge, and the travails of mixing global and local knowledge. Discussing challenges that ranged from dealing with low literacy and technological barriers to negotiating logistical hurdles, we propose a path forward that involves addressing fundamental issues around education, such as the need to create more instructors, leverage existing instructional content, and design technologies to amplify existing educational systems.

back to top  Diversifying Methods

The Methods group proposed the production of a set of case studies (perhaps as a blog), exploring the way various methods are used in HCI and HCI4D research across borders, whether political, cultural, demographic, or otherwise. HCI4D in particular has often taken HCI methods designed in the Global North and applied them in the Global South, without adequate reflexivity, leading to unexpected and often unintended results. An example was the application of participatory design (PD) in a rural village setting, where the researchers had to step back to engage in a long-term process of capacity building in order for the villagers to engage in participatory design. Sharing these case studies would encourage the members of the HCI4D community to reflect on and develop methodological stories about the applicability of methods, from user-created persona construction, to PD, to interviews, to ethnography, exploring their application across a variety of borders through practical case studies. The identity of the researcher who applies the method and conducts the research (e.g., fly-in, fly-out versus embedded local researchers, etc.) is just as important as the method itself and could be included in case study descriptions, along with the potential advantages and disadvantages that the choice entails.

HCI4D has often taken HCI methods designed in the Global North and applied them in the Global South, without adequate reflexivity, leading to unexpected and often unintended results.

The abstracts here represent only some of the conversations that unfolded in the two days we all spent together in one large room of the San Jose Convention Center. How these disparate trains of thought have developed in the time that has passed remains to be seen. Will we discover, as we hope to, that collaborations did indeed flourish? That we are now more equipped to cultivate reflexivity, or to design technologies that engage patients toward better health practices? Are there new sets of questions that we must raise and address as a community? Join us as we find out at our CHI 2017 symposium titled, once again, HCI Across Borders.

back to top  CHI 2016 Development Consortium Participants

Monali Agarwal, Nova Ahmed, Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, Karin Amukugo, Richard Anderson, Kagonya Awori, Amna Basharat, Nicola Bidwell, Priyank Chandra, Jay Chen, Monchu Chen, Guanghua Chi, Arul Chib, Yoram Chisik, Edward Cutrell, Negin Dahya, Nicola Dell, Melissa Densmore, Brian De Renzi, Susan Dray, Haris Durrani, Michaelanne Dye, Karen Fisher, Daniel Cabrero, Laura Sanely Gaytán Lugo, Shion Guha, Julia Haines, Suama Hamunyela, Mark Harniss, Kurtis Heimerl, Jasmine Hentschel, Syed Ali Hussain, Margaret Jack, Vaishnav Kameswaran, Linus Kendall, Arkadeep Kumar, Neha Kumar, Hui Li, Zhengjie Liu, Maletsabisa Molapo, Leonel Vinicio Morales Diaz, Mario Moreno- Rocha, Andrew Nelson, David Nemer, Stuart Nicholson, Maria Ntinda, Fabian Okeke, Jacki O'Neill, Joyojeet Pal, Vineet Pandey, Trevor Perrier, Anicia Peters, Agha Ali Raza, MennatAllah Saleh, Nithya Sambasivan, Alfredo Sanchez, Eunice Sari, Robert Soden, Christian Sturm, Reem Talhouk, Rahel Teklegiorgis, Vanessa Thomas, Kentaro Toyama, Elba Valderrama-Bahamondez, Delvin Varghese, Aditya Vashistha, Rashmi Vashistha, Aditya Vishwanath, Eiad Yafi, Katya Yefimova, and Rui Zhou.

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Neha Kumar is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, jointly appointed at the schools of International Affairs and Interactive Computing. Her research focuses on human-centered computing for global development. She graduated from UC Berkeley's School of Information and was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington's Computer Science & Engineering department and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. neha.kumar@cc.gatech.edu

Susan M. Dray is president of Dray & Associates, Inc., where she provides contextual and ethnographic user research, usability evaluation, and interface design consultation for a wide range of products, systems, and applications. She contributed to the founding of ACM SIGCHI, was the 2006 recipient of the SIGCHI Lifetime Service Award, and was a recipient of the SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement in Practice Award in 2015. susan.dray@dray.com

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