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.

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