Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Massive brainstorm at CHI 2010

How can computing be used to promote peace and prevent conflict? Join us in a massive brainstorm to coincide with CHI 2010 by following these steps:

Become a Peace Ambassador. Find a peace ribbon attached to postcards near the CHI 2010 registration desk or in the Exhibits Hall and add it to your nametag.
Talk to your friends about computing for peace.
Share your ideas on Twitter (#hciforpeace), our Facebook page (HCI for Peace), and this blog by commenting on this story.

Need some food for thought? Browse this blog for articles on computing initiatives related to peace and interviews with Allison Druin and Ben Bederson (winners of the 2010 ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award), Ben Shneiderman and others.

Not going to CHI? We would still like to hear your ideas. Share them through one of our online homes.

We are hoping to spark a massive online brainstorm, tapping into the expertise, knowledge, and wisdom of the HCI community. Our grassroots movement seeks to create the conditions for peace by promoting the precursors of peace – democracy, education, economic opportunity – and decreasing the known causes of conflict -war profiteering, inequality, environmental stress, and the failure of the social contract, to name a few. The HCI community is uniquely positioned in the computing world to affect change in this arena, its focus not only on individual users, but on the effect of technology at a societal and global scale.

Through wearing the peace ribbon, you not only express your desire for a more peaceful world, but also are instantly linked with the like-minded Peace Ambassadors around you, visibly united in a common goal; we hope this call to action starts community-wide discussions from which positive action can spring. CHI brings together individuals from different backgrounds and areas of expertise, from many countries, with different opinions. It is our wish that this diversity will cross-pollinate, resulting in a wide variety of ideas on how computing can help achieve peace. Our world can be no brighter than the worlds we dream of.

It is our dream that the conversations started at this conference will encourage research, create a community of impassioned individuals, forge new partnerships, start long-lasting discussions, and prompt actions to promote peace and prevent conflict.

And, if you know of computing for peace work we should feature on our blog, e-mail us at

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Interview with Thomas Smyth

Thomas Smyth is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research focus is on technologies for international development. At CHI 2010, he will present a paper titled "MOSES: Exploring New Ground in Media and Post-Conflict Reconciliation," which was selected as an Honorable Mention. We recently had a chance to interview Thomas about his research in Liberia and his thoughts on the use of computing in post-conflict reconciliation efforts.

HCI for Peace: Could you tell us a bit about MOSES and your experiences in Liberia?

Thomas: Sure! The MOSES project was conceived in partnership with Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in an effort to promote and support a national dialogue on the causes and effects of the war, as well as on other topics. Together, we realized that Liberia's severely limited post-war communications infrastructure could not support rich communications across large distances. So we designed a mobile, video-sharing kiosk system allowing users to record and browse comments, opinions, and discussions. I've attached a few photographs of the system in use.

MOSES has been across much of Liberia, thanks to the tireless work of our country program manager, John Etherton. We have collected over 900 videos and thousands have used the system. We found that MOSES was very well received by Liberians. They were quite willing to engage seriously with the system, talking about a wide range of serious issues, and also contributing lots of lighter content such as jokes and songs. In an interview study we conducted, the results of which appear at CHI this year, users expressed feelings of empathy and solidarity they derived from the system, as well as a general enthusiasm towards the experience of using the novel machine. Users were especially affectionate towards the system's cartoon helper character, also called Moses. As a result, we are particularly excited about the potential of animated agent technology for novice, low-literate user groups. In general, we've learned a huge amount about designing for such groups.

Of course what we can't claim is that MOSES has had a general, positive impact on Liberia's prospects for peace. Measuring such a thing would nigh to impossible given the time scales we're faced with (the TRC's mandate has now expired and our project has since wound down along with the TRC itself.) On the other hand, we can claim to have built and fielded an advanced, interactive, new media technology for dialogue, and found that it was understood, embraced, and engaged with on a deep and meaningful level by ordinary Liberians from all strata of society. We saw that the system supported rich connections and communications between far flung regions of Liberia, where none would have been possible otherwise. We feel that this is a great first step in this largely unexplored territory.

My personal experiences in Liberia were truly unforgettable. I spent three weeks there last year helping to ready MOSES for deployment. I travelled to several rural areas within a few hours of the capital, where the sheer beauty of the Liberian countryside and warmth of its people were in plain and abundant view. Remnants of the era of conflict were also sadly everywhere, be they bombed out buildings, amputee ex-combatants, abandoned tanks, UN checkpoints, or a feeling of insecurity among locals in some areas, due to the regular occurrence of armed robberies. Twice, Liberian research assistants I was working with had to intervene to prevent me from wandering off into dangerous situations. Luckily, I did not actually get into any trouble while I was there. Despite all the reminders of turmoil, though, I experienced a palpable degree of hope among the people I met. This came out both through discussions I had with people as well as through what they recorded using MOSES. Issues of development--better schools, better roads, better hospitals, better economic performance--were hot on everyone's tongues. The war received far fewer attention. I look at this as a good sign.

HCI for Peace: What role do you see for computing technologies in future post-conflict reconciliation efforts?

Thomas: I think supporting communication should and will continue to be a focal point. I would be interested to explore using new media technologies in conjunction with a human moderator to support in-person synchronous discussions, as a complement to the more automated approach we adopted with MOSES. It would also be great to see MOSES scaled up, perhaps in a different context, to include multiple kiosks--our initial pilot only included one.

Sadly, intra-state conflict of the sort experienced by Liberia is on the rise in today's world. As such, I think that efforts to incorporate ICTs into post-conflict reconciliation efforts will only increase, as the cost of technologies continues to drop. It will be interesting to follow the results of these experiences in the future, as a consensus on best practices hopefully emerges.

I would close, though, by putting a large set of parentheses around this work and other efforts like it. I think anyone would agree that the most important factor in preventing repeated civil conflicts is strong and careful leadership both from within the country and from the international community. We position MOSES as an example (and we hope an inspiring one) of some of the tools at the disposal of those who must work tirelessly to build and maintain peace. We remain at their service.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Interview with Ben Shneiderman

We recently had a chance to interview Ben Shneiderman, one of the founders of the human-computer interaction field. Ben is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Founding Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, and Member of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland. He was made a Fellow of the ACM in 1997, elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2001, and received the ACM CHI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

HCI for Peace: You have been a consistent advocate for designers of technologies to take into account the impact of their creations on society. This has included calls to consider the impact of technologies on peace and democracy. In what ways can the HCI community encourage researchers and practitioners to use social impact statements and other forms of promoting the ethical and responsible design of technologies?

Ben: I believe developers of every socio-technical system should consider its impact on society and invite stakeholders to comment during planning stages. This is especially appropriate for government funded efforts, as described in:
Shneiderman, B., Rose, A., Social Impact Statements: Engaging Public Participation in Information Technology Design. Proc. CQL'96, ACM SIGCAS Symposium on Computers and the Quality of Life (Feb. 1996) 90-96.

Other researchers, using the term Value Sensitive Design have carried these arguments further and showed how careful analysis can lead to improved designs that reduce bias, increase privacy, or promote participation. Practitioners can build on these suggestions and then record their efforts on public web sites so as to inspire others. For example, in working with Jonathan Lazar we helped the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to make their web site more accessible and universally usable, which they describe in a link from every page:

Developers of commercial web sites can also describe their process to consider the social impact of their work. This could include ways to promote health equity, social justice, democratic processes, and especially peace. HCI professionals can volunteer to monitor voting machine usage or consult for state governments on the design of effective voting machines.

HCI for Peace: With Harry Hochheiser, Jenny Preece and others, you have been recently focusing your attention on technology-mediated social participation. How can we use or design social participation technologies to promote peace and prevent conflict?

Ben: The widely popular social networks, blogs, microblogs, and other communications technologies could spawn dramatically increased social/civic participation for valuable national priorities such as healthcare, energy sustainability, education, disaster response, and community safety. However, applying these technologies to promote peace and prevent conflict will require imagination and effort.

We can all be inspired by the example of Jodie Williams whose emailing and organizing work to develop the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won her the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Similar efforts by inspired leaders could organize citizens to ban other weapons, reduce arms spending, fight oppression, promote human rights, and prevent conflicts. I and other HCI professionals have had the opportunity to help design instruments for the International Atomic Energy Association (UN unit in Vienna) to monitor adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTBT). Raising awareness of the opportunities for HCI involvement in similar efforts is an important step.