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.

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