Transcript of the panel:
Can you do good and do well? Exploring HCI Careers for Societal Impact
May 1, 2014, 2-3:20 PM, Room: 715A , Metro Toronto Convention Centre
CHI 2014 conference, Toronto, Canada.
(Transcribed by Meg Young, UW Tech Policy Lab)

We are thinking about ways to do work in the social sector, defined broadly.
Originally this panel was about ICTD, but there’s a bigger conversation here— we’ll talk about working not only abroad, but also at home.

Ed Cutrell – moderator, Manager TEM group
Tawanna Dillahunt Univ. Michigan School of Information Faculty
Jacob Korenblum Souktel NGO
Rowena Luk – Dimagi, private sector group that serves NGOs

Short presentations, then questions

Tawanna intro

Was a software engineer at Intel for 7 years, goal was to develop value-add software to help sell Intel desktop computers. The products she worked on 10 years ago are still available now; these products were built to help Intel in the desktop wars. At the time, she didn’t feel that this had a societal impact,, so she went to the doctoral program at CMU HCI.

Interested in health and education, the first job she worked on was the UbiGreen Mobile Application to try to help promote sustainable transportation behaviors. UbiGreen made you accountable in two ways-- to the app and to the people in your network you are sharing with. She looked at:
RQ1. Is it possible to sense what people are doing and sense their transport behaviors?
RQ2. How are people engaging with this application?
RQ3. Social aspect—how did people talk to others about their consumption?

She was also fascinated with sensing technologies in the home. Lots of eco sustainability research at the time was on people who identified as green and could afford to retrofit with solar panels, etc. She asked, what about low-income households? What are their perceptions of energy use? She observed that there is a social element—in low-income areas, your use depends in part on your landlords, and neighborhood. She asked, how can we build technologies to promote sustainable energy use within the home, in light of the social context? This work wasn’t commercialized.

So, next, she wanted to see if we could do this in industrial research. She went to IBM research in upstate NY, IBM T.J. Watson. Looked at mobile phone use in feature phones. For example, looked at use of a mobile platform knowledge base on farming practices for low resource parts of Africa.

Next, decided to do a post doc to have more time to think about how to do socially valuable work.

Her current post is in Ann Arbor, close to Detroit. She is still interested in environmental and economic sustainability. Wants to look at how technologies can support social capital building. Because Detroit has had a lot of people move away and it is a transient place, there is a lack of trust. Was interested in how people can have not only bridging ties but also strong ties. Presented work at CHI.

Also interested in education, affordability, and MOOCs. What about people who cant afford a formal education, are they using MOOCs? Coursera?

She looked into the people who said to Coursera that they can’t afford a formal education. They have done some qualitative research on people who have elected to use MOOCs for these reasons—found that belief was that it would help them get jobs but that’s not necessarily true. So, she is hoping that going forward we can connect people to the skills hat would help them find jobs…and to spread awareness about MOOCs.

It’s had to measure social good in economic terms, there’s no marketing manager that can quantify positive impact. There are no metrics she has for herself right now, so at the moment is asking, “how do I know that I’m having a social impact?”

It feels good to see that the products she worked on earlier in her career are still there. Is hoping that is the case with her current products.

Why academia? Flexibility to work with problems that matter to her most. Working with great students. Opportunity to multiply impact, students can learn from her mistakes. Harder to get products out of the door, but there are more start up opportunities in our area—that is growing.

Tawanna’s key questions:
- Metrics
- Setting up platforms for longitudinal or long terms research?
- Funding

Jacob intro

Our company: we’re HCI professionals but we want to do good in the world. We aren’t just interested in consumers but those to whom it can make a difference.

It’s a social venture with non- and for-profit arms

Background: usually based in Middle East but originally from Toronto, the team is interesting in that he and half the team are former humanitarian workers. They create UX for lay users, not tech savvy people. The other half of team is the techies who develop the software and interface it with commercial mobile networks. We also have former MNO staff who enable them to connect to that infrastructure.

The Middle East has a lot of challenges remaining on an everyday basis. Roads, electricity. Cell phones are working however, and there are enough base station that people are able to communicate with friends, loved ones and family. How do we help people leverage this to get info on useful things—food, water, and shelter? Emergency response?

The team includes former Orange, Microsoft and Sales Force employees. Lots of people who have gotten educated in US and returned to their home country to do good.

Customers include high income and low-income consumers both- a lot of challenges that face them both on a daily basis.

This is not about victims or beneficiaries. These are people like you and me with purchasing power, who like to go out, who like to buy things,
Rather than HCI4Good, he thinks about it instead as people who need an extra boost to further their social standing.

Consider the checkpoints from Ramallah to Jerusalem-- many traffic jams. If you are going out to look for work or anything else on foot, it’s inferior to getting the info on your phone. People use mobile phones; it’s the cheapest way to communicate with people.

10 years ago they had a platform to help people look for work via text message which queries a database which employers post to—searchable by SMS. It was granular data, a basic mobile tech application for linking labor supply and labor demand. It was simple technology with real social impact; especially for women, where in the communities they work in, women are less able to walk around in order to pass around their CVs. Cell phones help because it’s a trusted source. Employer has your credentials before they meet you, and you only go in for an interview.

It’s a commercial revenue generating service. Both pay a small premium. In some places it is profit generating, in others its nonprofit and just convers its cost. Bringing in a bit of profit in the experience is a good way to go. People are not looking for handouts-- they are looking for opportunities. Brought the app to east Africa—Somalia and several other countries.
This is a labor market with millions of people coming back, foreign investment and construction increasing. Infrastructure in the area is low, so technology can help bridge supply and demand.

It runs on simple devices; [finding something with social value] doesn’t need to be complicated.

Interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t need to be the Cadillac of software. 50% software and UX, other 50% is how it is rolled out within the community.
If this is a field you’re interested in getting into, it was an easy shift. This is growing in NGO space in prominence and level of interest. It is a bit of a leap of faith to leave Microsoft to go to Dimagi, for example, but you can make a living doing it. It’s not about bottom line, it’s about how many people you help. Look for what resonates personally.

Rowena intro

Got a degree in engineering from Waterloo, decided wasn’t ready to go to Google, so studied in TIER with Eric Brewer, and worked with Intel research lab at Berkeley.

Worked on coming up with a technology to help bits go faster over a wireless connection, to help people with bad internet get slightly better internet.

Ended up leaving the research side, wasn’t as interested in novel contribution, was interested in making things work.

Came back to Toronto to set up system for Ghana --Amita-- an EMR system. It does not exist today but it was a great learning experience. She admires Jacob’s company and how he made a start up work. She struggled with getting funding in the aid sector. They were trying to build a tool to help 1000s of health workers convey a health message better. They came up against a fundamental mismatch with the structure of aid funding. It’s easier to get funding for education, or other interest areas. She was also just getting started out.

Now she’s at Dimagi, a private organization. NGOs come to them with a problem or question – I want to distribute bed nets, for example, how can I go to a place where there’s little infrastructure and accomplish that goal?

She’s been there for 5 years. She was the 6th employee when it was a startup in Boston. Now they have 75.

The tool she came to work on, it really didn’t exist when she stared—it was a great idea but it was not built. Now, it is in 40 countries. If you get treated for HIV in Zambia, if you get counseling from a community health worker in Haiti (in 2 years) chances are they are using Dimagi’s tool for health records

She feels so grateful for time being embedded in the HCI community.

In each of her sectors, research, NGO and private sector—there are so many questions to explore.
- How do you motivate community health workers?
- How do you teach skills across cultural contexts?
- How do you do mockups with people who are not tech literate or semi-literate?

In the ‘doing good’ space, it’s very important we measure what we do because it’s less tangible than money. When we say we’re striving for impact, what does that mean? Dimagi has hired a research scientist to track their programs to address this question.

What opportunities are out there?
There’s an incredible opportunity in each of these sectors. It’s hard, hard to get funding, connect with users, but an incredible adventure and absolutely worth it.

Ed does a survey of who is in the room. More than 1/3rd students, less than 1/3rd professors, about 1/3rd private sector 1-2 people from government departments

Think about what you want to know, are concerned about, are thinking about lately. Now we can have an open conversation.

Ed, getting started:
Ed thought the HCI he was doing was boing, wanted to do something that mattered. How tech can be used in global development on the ground with folks.

He can address questions on what its like to do research overseas. All countries’ experiences are different. India’s different from The Middle East, which will be different from Senegal, different from Brazil. At this panel, we’re interested in all settings-- Detroit, Toronto.

Q1 to panel from Ed
When you’re doing work in this space, one of the most important things in Ed’s experience is who you partner with. What are the things you have to look out for when you make those choices in partnership?

So many factors go into it. Dimagi is currently in the process of making a framework to make these decisions better.
  1. Is there institutional buy in? That is, not just that the project is funded, but that the government will be involved
  2. Having a goal and having a way to measure it. Making sure you and your partner agree that that way of measuring it aligned with what you’re interested in.
  3. Believing in the team you partner with. That’s a lot harder when you work with big orgs. There’s something to be said about working with orgs that have a big heart and big head.

With partners we find we will have different organizational cultures. We like to say we work iteratively—a disruptive thinking process. ßThat’s not usually how the Middle East is, didactic, hierarchical, centralized power. However, the team has people from many different cultures.
They’re working in conflict zones where an educated work force has usually left so they usually have second tier personnel in terms of decision-making. No one has money. So ability for local orgs to partner is usually high desire but limits on everything else. So how do we work with orgs that have the desire but little absorpative capacity, and little to no resources to roll out, etc. if we don’t have counterparts, we have to go in ourselves to do it or it doesn’t happen. Those are challenges.

As a PhD student, you think ‘ who wants to partner with me? Who’s willing?’ it can be a win-win situation on both sides. There was a development partner that paid the energy bills of her participants so that was a win-win for them.

There are universities that have a good reputation in an area or bad reputation in an area—participants may feel that “you’re going to come here, study us, and leave.” That’s why she values participatory design, because at least usually people leave with something.

So, she looked for other faculty on campus who have done work with the Detroit community before. She was also looking for orgs that are interested in serving the community.

Q2 to panel from Ed
When you work with government, what do you look out for and how do you manage that?

Working with government is hard, you can’t not work with government. A key is—do they have to room and the energy for it? Everyone is really busy, particularly the governments in Africa. Some governments will talk about their problems as if someone else needs to come in and fix it for them; it’s not the right approach. Need to find the people in governments who want to fix it and partner with them.

Need to find people who want to know what the role of technology can be in government?

Inertia is a problem, but corporations overseas, even Microsoft, actually work at the same pace. Before, he might have made a distinction, but when you get to something the size of a multinational organization, or an MNC like Cisqo or Intel, it takes a lot of time for things to happen.

With new media, there is such a risk aversion in decision-making-- way more decisions need to be vetted.

Also note the challenges that come with elections- if there’s a minister of ICT or labor who is an advocate for what Jacob and his team do, they can be swept out with elections and the team starts right back at zero with a new administration. This happens in the US too.

Dimagi is strategic with their business model. If they partner with ministries of health, they can make large-scale changes instead of starting with NGOs.

Dimagi wants to change the game by making social apps that make more of a pull system, wherein people are using these apps because they are willing to invest a little bit in health, education. Not sure if it will work, but ties into dialogue about how to engage with ministries, but also with people who are so far away from the capital… [Ed. note: Missed the rest of this sentence]

Ed observes the potential for politicization of their work. They’re doing research, some sexy thing with tablets, the government will come and say ‘oh lets spend a couple hundred million on tablets’ and Ed needs to put on the brake to say ‘No, we’re just trying to figure this out.’ They don’t want people to get too excited.

Q3 from audience
What is the challenge of designing for low digital literacy population?

Maybe you’re asking whether we should design for today besides designing for 100 years from now, when everyone will have iPads. If you look at trends today, the world is getting a little bit better, if you look at the areas of greatest need—they’re interested in serving the people who haven’t been interacting with iPads since they were 2 years old and won’t be very soon.

Many of the governments Dimagi works with have been saying that they’ll put a computer in every clinic for 20 years. We’re not willing to wait, we need to design for the context now

Follow up Q4
I was curious if tech use comes naturally to people?

There are specific mental models you gain through familiarity with tech use, specific interactions are counterintuitive for people who haven’t been interacting with technology for a long time.

Q5 from audience
Was there ever a situation when a government or entity tried to slow down what you do?

We adhere closely to what the law says, but every law is open to interpretation. A government ministry said ‘the stuff you are sending out is violating the law.’ Even though it wasn’t, they adjusted what they sent to avoid conflict.
The thing is that technology makes it easy to scale information, which can be dangerous in a volatile environment.

Another strategy to deal with that problem is to make sure your work appears unthreatening.

MSR had a system for citizen journalism in Maoist separatist state. They installed a feature for vetting entries to the system, which wasn’t needed but it made the government more comfortable. The government is is paying attention.

The more transparent you make something, the more likely it is that you’re stealing someone’s bribe. They have had situations where people have tried to pull wires or delete files from Dimagi’s systems.

To counteract this, you get enough buy-in from the people at the clinic. Once the group recognizes that this is something that they want to make work, they will attend to 1-2 people resisting change

Al Jazeera News in Iraq polled people: “How many hours a day do you get electricity?”
They wanted to know if the data they were getting is accurate? Frequency based analysis.

Advocacy has to be there, the government is being held to account, the discrepancy between government reports and reality is being recognized and action needs to be taken. Despite sensitivity you’ve got to do these things.

Q6 from audience
How to get started in this space? What if you’re working in an area that doesn’t necessarily have a societal impact?

Coming to conferences like this helps. When you are in this context you can always ask ‘how can this have an impact?’ you’d be surprised. Talk about your research, ask other people. How can my knowledge and skillset benefit others? Where do you see the opportunities? Eventually it will just come to you.

Also, the discrete skills you have, what you know about tech, what you know about research can be applied in other ways. At the beginning of her career, she was interested in applying a certain technology to any problem-- that was the wrong approach. Maybe you try to understand the space first and then you can develop the technologies. You then have the skills to build it. In a low resource space, there are so many opportunities.

Contrasting view from Rowena; there are a lot of people who want to help, but their expertise is diffuse. Having a specific product is a goldmine, the only thing you need to come up with is the use case—could be in any number of different contexts. You’re sitting on a resource, that’s great.

Look in the ICT4D space – go to the conference, go on social media, read how other technologies are being applied.

Q7 from audience for Rowena:
Could you compare doing good in North America and doing work internationally?

That’s a great question. I should have intelligent things to say because I tried. I was in Toronto. Was trying to connect with rural doctors in Ninevah [?] and in Ghana.

However, Dimagi has a strong user base even in the United States. Not community health workers per se but ‘advocates,’ making use of same tools, benefit from patient tracking and how to follow up with their case in the community. As an organization, we use the income we get from our domestic products to help services overseas. It helps our sustainability story.

There’s a particular niche in America that we work closely with, and there are areas that are way too complicated and we don’t have the capacity to deal with regulations like large-scale EMR companies do.
There are opportunities for crossover [between the US and international partners] to happen at Dimagi. I never imagined something like Dimagi could exist.

Q8 from audience
With regards to the integration of technology, researcher or activist into local communities-- how do you get their trust? How do you make them feel you’re one of them and not just an outsider?

Hire locally so you have people from your community on your team, whether that’s your exact user community or a national of the country.

The model for a lot of organizations is to have a US based HQ and small offices elsewhere. His org’s main office is in Palestine, that has a host of challenges, but that’s helped a lot because they’re not just parachuting in, they have a presence in the community.

I don’t look like people in Senegal; I don’t talk like them, even after 20 years there are challenges. However, the way to be successful is to have a team and to empower other people to replicate those things outwards. Not only because they’re from the same country but also because they have influence in the community, they’re someone’s friend or mother.

I may look like my target population (e.g., those participants of my research) , but I don’t just go in, I find an “in” in the community and I go through social ties. I don’t just jump in, I found faculty at Michigan who have been working in Detroit for a while. It was easier as a student because everyone wanted to help. As a professor, it’s different (some are used to researchers constantly probing their community and leaving—it may leave a bad impression and make it difficult for other researchers to do research in an area).

I will add onto this notion of the “in,” we work with someone at an NGO who KNOWS the community VERY well. They act as the bridge and they can see the difficulties researchers cant to avoid them. Other piece is that they always want to create value for the people that they’re working with because they’re not going to be there forever, need them to walk away with something too.

Q9 from audience
Have you ever had doubts about doing the right thing? Whether it’s a positive social impact? Could it be negative?

Absolutely. I think that doubt is important in a sector with as much hype as technology, important to foster and keep. However, the opposite problem is paralysis. ‘It’s not my problem, I don’t understand it, I’m not going to do anything’ thinks that it’s good just to try, and use your doubt to try to steer you in the right direction. Across all the products and use cases, that’s why it’s so important to ask whether there are metrics to use to make the work a little bit better. Listening to feedback and try to get better, more competent. It’s true, though, I’m sure that some of our projects have been bad-- hopefully more good than bad.

Touch wood, I don’t think we’ve had negative social impact. However, sometimes it doesn’t have as positive of an impact as you wanted. It can be neutral. Also, the foreign aid sector is problematic—navigating that is challenging.

For me, it’s important to be reflective. What’s difficult is seeing the value tensions, reflecting on what was done, and trying to do better

Be cognizant of the energy that is put into tech training and into what we do. Every hour a doctor spends with you learning the new technology you’re introducing to them is one they could spend with a patient— that’s an opportunity cost.
However, designing tech is a process of changing how things work, and you help an organization examine their practices and see if there’s something they can do better. This is an area that we have gotten better at as a society over time.

Q10 from audience
A researcher told me this week that her research feel like it’s an unequal exchange because we’re getting rewarded in our careers from data and work based on what we get from informants. We’re indebted to research participants, funders, and society. She wasn’t troubled but very mindful of it. I had never thought this way. Do you feel conflicted in this same way?

I go back to the community, and present findings to them. In the case of landlords and tenants landlords said ‘wow, we didn’t know the tenants were feeling this way.’ That’s part of it. Another part for me is, say, in a participatory design exercise, they are getting a lot, even if what they gain comes from other participants.

Comment: that’s a nice example because you are starting something that could have long-term implications.

It is an unequal exchange. There’s an imbalance from the start between the community, who haven’t finished primary school, and myself, who has been very fortunate. However, the market reflects whether or not it is useful to them. If it helps them, they will pay a bit for it, and hopefully that will render it an equal exchange.

In developing regions, there are many problems and many to potentially solve, and as a researcher you might choose one you can make inroads on, but its not necessarily one that the community would have chosen. What feels good is choosing the right problem, such that it’s worth the time and investment and they can see the output from that.

Q11 from audience
Is there a tension between your passion to improve social outcomes and corporations you work with, which may view emerging markets as a profit opportunity?

I am not poised to answer this well because while we are technically a for-profit team with a social good purpose, our books are zero every year.

This is a question I get a lot. So, one of the things is that we’re a research organization. I work at MSR-- we’re not building products to sell. Almost everything we do we end up open sourcing or [providing for free. Certainly there’s a suspicion that we’re a mega corporation, you’re not doing this out of the good of your heart, but in a way we kind of are. We think the research itself is fundamentally useful. It’s useful to Microsoft too…. We end up talking to a lot of product groups, for example in the Redmond office they might have some crazy idea of what they want to do, and we can change the course of it. We may not be making profit but avoiding very expensive mistakes.

Intel as an organization has done a lot of really good things, like making computers. So while I don’t think I did good things while I was at Intel, I think the organization in general is a good organization, does create value for people

Nokia, for example, had a huge impact for a lot of the developing world with the affordable durable phones they ma[de].

Conclusion and thanks