Monday, March 29, 2010

Peace innovation from Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab

Good news for us: We are not the only ones in the field talking about computing technology and peace.

BJ Fogg, Director of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, has taught a class called Peace Innovation: Learning How Technology Can Promote Global Harmony in 30 Years. The class gave students the task of devising ways to use Web 2.0 technology – YouTube, Flickr, Google Maps – to promote greater harmony. Students worked in small teams to run “peace innovation trials”, creating goals, their own tools for measuring success, and developing tools that “ordinary people” could use to measure the impact of a peace trial.

A main idea was that by creating these materials and making them widely available, high school and college instructors all over the world would be able to lead their own students in peace innovation. The projects ranged from Unplug Now, whose goal was to get users to unplug any unused appliance in their proximity, to Peace and Sticky Rice, an application that attempted to use game-playing as a way to increase participants’ willingness to take action to end hunger, and measure the “stickiness” (or resistance to change) of attitude changes at later points in time. Through not prescribing any one solution, and defining peace by evaluating how to create its antecedents, the solutions can be flexible, efficient, and efficacious.

Fogg, recognized as one of Fortune’s 2008 10 New Gurus You Should Know, lays out his steps for creating a peace technology infrastructure now:
1. peace technology course at Stanford
2. blogging about peace technology examples
3. creating direction of peace technology initiatives
4. developing teaching materials
5. preparing to fund trials
6. systematic insights (resources)

Often, Fogg notes, trying to define peace serves as an obstacle to achieving it, when discussion gets mired down and then prevents the taking of action. Instead, he suggests, we should focus on creating the environment for peace. First, he says, it is important to examine the antecedents of peace, then evaluate the importance of each antecedent and how likely it is to be achieved, and with that information then target the antecedents that will bring about the most change fastest.

Fogg also helped found Peace Dot, a directory of websites that show their interest in peace by registering subdomains with a “peace” prefix.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Louis Fein, champion of academic computer science and computing for peace

In 1963, on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moment the world teetered precipitously on the edge of the outbreak of nuclear war, a computer consultant in Palo Alto, California proposed the idea of a new organization: the Peace on Earth Research Center. The proposition, put forth in Computer-Oriented Peace Research, suggests putting the sharpest analytical minds to the practical problems of achieving peace, constructing computer models to understand the problems that cause armed conflict, and developing solutions to prevent future conflicts.

Its author, the Palo Alto consultant Dr. Louis Fein, had just seen an achievement of his vision at Purdue University, which established the first Computer Science Department in the United States in October 1962. Fein played an instrumental role in the movement to establish computer science as a discrete academic discipline, parted from engineering and mathematics. Oft-rebuffed by universities around the country, he persevered in his attempts, publishing papers and presenting his views across the country.

Fein held pioneering views not only on the place for computer science in academia, but on the role of computers in peace oriented research as well. In Computer-Oriented Peace Research, Fein notes that computer-oriented analysts have directed their experience in many areas,
"...banking, insurance, combinatorial mathematics, chemical engineering, and war gaming. We are quite familiar with the role of computers as problem solvers, as calculators and as simulators, emulators, and imitators. But computers play their most significant role as a socratic goad to analysis and problem formulation."
Just as the Manhattan Project was completed only with a vast research team, Fein writes, we should not expect that peace is task for one professor, or a "lone genius" "on a dedicated philanthropist's grant," but a project needing serious and expert attention from the community as a whole.

It can be difficult to conceptualize peace, and to talk about it as well, but, Fein dismisses complexity as a reason to neglect peace, noting "the distinctive analytic approach to practical problems and computing instruments of computer-oriented analysts" can only be beneficial in finding the solutions for peace.

Now, almost 50 years later, how has the field responded to his call? The past 10-15 years have seen a large number of publications addressing Fein’s first challenge to understand the breakdown of peace by statistically analyzing the empirical data on conflict to better understand the risk factors.

Equipped with this information, the computing community is prepared to tackle Fein’s second challenge: using computing technology to defuse current conflicts and prevent future ones from occurring. Private motivation to go to war as well as the horrific impact of war could be exposed through information visualization techniques. Mobile technologies can help provide information to prevent disease, promote healthy habits, and aid people in developing regions. Technologies to facilitate peer-to-peer micro-financing can also provide more people with opportunities to become economically self-sufficient.

“What the hell are we making these machines for,” asks Fein in a 1965 Time article, “if not to free people?”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Interview with Allison Druin and Ben Bederson

We recently had a chance to interview Allison Druin and Ben Bederson, winners of the 2010 ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award. Allison is the current Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland and Ben preceded Allison in the same position. Ben and Allison have both conducted research on technologies with strong ties towards promoting peace and understanding. Below is a transcript of our interview.

HCI for Peace: Education and awareness of other cultures are often cited as precursors of peace. You have been a leader in giving children a voice in the design of technologies. You have also led, with Ben, the International Children’s Digital Library, providing free online access to thousands books in over 50 languages. What is your long-term vision for your work on giving children a voice in the design of technologies and promoting intercultural understanding?

Allison Druin: My long-term mission which I believe is shared by our whole research team in Maryland, is to create more design methods and technologies that can increase participation of children from all cultures. We are currently working on new “Distributed Co-Design” methods that can enable children in Haiti to add their ideas to a design problem being worked on by a group in Israel or Mongolia. We need online tools that can support this kind of distributed intergenerational design collaboration. We are just at the beginning stages of understanding what is needed. We believe though when this can happen, our technologies can give voice to all children from all cultures which is a critical first step in understanding what we all share and how we are different.

HCI for Peace: One of the most consistent findings in the literature on the causes of conflict is that fully democratic countries are less likely to participate in international conflicts and to have civil wars. What role can the human-computer interaction community play in supporting democracy by designing and evaluating computer-based voting systems?

Ben Bederson: There are two critical components to voting systems. The first is that they accurately record the voter’s intended vote. The second is that the voter believes that their vote was accurately recorded. Both are crucial. If citizens don’t have confidence that their vote is accurate (even if it is), then the voting system – and resulting outcome – is suspect, and can cause grave social problems. The HCI community must help ensure that not only are voting systems reliable, secure and accurate, but also that the voters understand and believe in them. This is a very important distinction because some of solutions that aim to solve security and accuracy issues are likely to decrease user confidence – by using complex cryptographic techniques. As always, the best solutions balance the needs of all stakeholders.