Thursday, December 29, 2011

Interview with Lisa Nathan

Lisa Nathan is a faculty member at SLAIS, the iSchool at the University of British Columbia. Through a range of projects she investigates: 1) the design of information systems that address societal challenges, specifically those that are ethically charged and impact multiple generations (e.g., environmental degradation, war, colonialism) and 2) creative information practices that influence how these systems are appropriated over time. She is a founding member of the Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal project hosted by the University of Washington. The project's website provides citizens around the world with various means to access and use video interviews with personnel from the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (e.g., judges, defense lawyers, translators, prosecutors). The research team is building design theory and method to inform the development of the multi-lifespan information system design research initiative.

HCI for Peace interviewed Lisa about her work with the Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal project.

Lisa Nathan: A brief caveat before I dive into answering the questions - although the responses are mine, my experience with this project is strongly shaped by the numerous individuals I have had the honor of working with over the past few years. In particular, discussions with Batya Friedman (project PI), Nell Grey, Milli Lake, Bob Utter and Betty Utter continue to shape how I think about the project.

HCI for Peace: Can you briefly explain the concept of multi-lifespan information systems and how it may apply to post-conflict reconciliation?

Lisa Nathan: For me, the question motivating multi-lifespan information system design is simple - how can we design information systems to help us address complex societal challenges that influence many generations? For example, how might we design an information system to help recover from genocide or environmental degradation or colonization? Rather than thinking in the short term - designing an information system to meet the needs of today - the multi-lifespan information system approach is focused on longer-term goals. In terms of post-conflict reconciliation, the multi-lifespan design approach recognizes that reconciliation after horrific conflict will likely take many generations to achieve. The approach positions designers to investigate how an information system might scaffold this multi-year process. Although the concept is simple, implementation is complex and quite frankly, daunting.

HCI for Peace: How did you get involved in the project with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda?

Lisa Nathan: At the time I was a doctoral student working with Professor Batya Friedman at the University of Washington. We attended a talk by Angeline Djampou, the Director of LIbraries for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). After the talk we met with Ms. Djampou to discuss with her the multi-lifespan information system design approach, which at the time was a nascent concept. There was a great deal of synergy throughout the conversation. She invited us to visit the ICTR in Tanzania to speak with administrative officials about developing a multi-lifespan information system associated with the work of the ICTR. We made the trip a few months later and officials were very receptive to the idea. We were invited to return a few months later to start a project. Once we were back in Seattle we invited a range of people involved in information system design, international justice, international criminal law, and film to work with us on crafting the project. Over many long discussions and challenging debates, the Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal project began to take shape. We were given permission from the ICTR to recruit tribunal personnel for video interviews. During the interviews judges, defense lawyers, interpreters, prosecutors shared compelling reflections concerning the role of justice in the process of reconciliation. There were no restrictions in terms of interview questions and ICTR administration did not ask to review the material we collected. Interviewees were provided the opportunity to review his or her video interview, but only one person asked to have an interview sealed until the ICTR closes. That was the beginning of the project. Although an incredible amount of work has gone into the project over the past few years, it is still just getting underway.

HCI for Peace: What is one of the greatest challenges in the project?

Lisa Nathan: The multi-lifespan information system design approach is incredibly ambitious. It is much easier to critique than it is to feel that you have made progress because we are building a system to address a complex, shifting issue. Clearly this challenge is tied to what you use for metrics of success. Most projects in our field are in the 2-5 year range and it is a bit easier to figure out whether they were successful or not. Similarly, funding opportunities and other standard research components are based on projects with a much shorter time frame.

HCI for Peace: What are your hopes for the system you built?

Lisa Nathan: It is critical to realize that although there are strong technical components, at its heart this is a deeply human endeavor, it depends a lot on things like interpersonal relationships, goodwill, trust, and respect. I see those involved as stewards of the system, constantly evaluating and trying to improve the system (technical aspects, policies, protocols, etc.).One of my deepest wishes is that more Rwandans become actively involved in the project. I am not referring just to Rwandans using the material within the system to support local initiatives -- which is happening and is fantastic --but Rwandans becoming active stewards, helping to envision future adaptations of the Voices from the Rwandan Tribunal information system.