Why economics matters to ICTD

Last fall, I did something that, in retrospect, feels like it was height of masochism: I enrolled in a standard, first-term grad level microeconomics course. My colleagues in the iSchool program probably thought I was crazy. Heck, I thought I was crazy. You might imagine that, looking back, I would say that I’m glad I took it. I will say that, but not for the reasons you might think.

But perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m a second-year PhD student interested in studying ICT and development. Although I studied econ as an undergrad, multiple decades ago (eek!), it really wasn’t my intent to study it at the grad level. But I now find myself gravitating back in that direction in my work

Why pedagogy matters

So, let’s return to this entry-level econ course. Frankly, pedagogy in econ seems to be stuck in about 1950. The idea of students co-creating a learning environment would be laughed at. Come in, the instructor writes some stuff on the board, you take notes, later on you take an exam. Questions are rare. Feedback as to whether anyone is learning anything is non-existent. (The TA, not the instructor, gave me the understanding I needed to pass that course.) Colleagues at other institutions tell me that it’s really a specific phenomenon to any one place. Some econ professors are better teachers than others, but in general the standard seems quite low.

This is a real shame, because sometimes the discipline of economics feels more like a fortress than a silo. Another reason for this — actually closely related — is a historical emphasis on a certain kind of mathematics, generating airtight proofs of theoretical propositions, but historically marginalizing empirical findings. I tend to think of this as characterizing a new science trying to prove itself, indeed trying to prove all of social science, in the gung-ho positivistic mid-1800s.Alas, econ seems to still live in that world where credibility is established by being mathy and theoretical.

It’s fine to value this sort of analysis, but it tends to shut out valuable contributions from those who don’t think as abstractly. That’s also too bad, because there’s is a lot of really valuable cross-disciplinary work that could benefit from incorporating economic models; this work could not only be improved, but could also give back to economics by enhancing those models. But it doesn’t happen.

Why economics matters

So what? At its root, economics is the study of how humans respond (usually rationally) to incentives. ICTD frankly makes no sense without a consideration of incentives. Will some new policy intervention have the desired effect, or won’t it? Will technology improve people’s lives, or will it hurt them? These aren’t easy questions, but they’re impossible questions if we have no basis to predict how individuals will respond to changes in their capabilities. (And really, isn’t the promise of ICT supposed to be about broadening capabilities? Or if you prefer the contrarian view, to argue ICT on balance has a negative effect, don’t you still need to address changing capabilities?)

To be sure, economics also involves a particular toolkit, oriented around models tested through quantitative analysis. It’s not always the best toolkit for this job of predicting behavior, and it might never be the only relevant toolkit. Anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology — all of these have an immense role to play in ICTD, and we need interdisciplinary ICTD scholars who can speak the different languages of their own respective disciplines and of the interdisciplinary field of ICTD. (The same need is no doubt there for fluency in more interdisciplinary fields like communications, international studies, education, women’s studies, and indigenous studies.)

I don’t really know all that much about econ, relative to, you know, actual economists. Frankly, I err on the side of being too brash in my criticisms of it. In giving my outsider’s impressions of the field, I’ve probably made assertions that are highly debatable. If any economists are reading, I’d like to have that debate.

The good news is, I do see a lot of change in the field from my undergrad days. Development econ seems to be much more about generating smaller theoretical models that help us understand empirically observable reality, rather than fitting everything into canonical theories come hell or high water. This quarter, our iSchool has started cosponsoring (with the econ department and the public policy school) a series of seminars on development econ that’s attracted interdisciplinary involvement. So I’m really optimistic that different fields are starting to talk to each other.

Was I a masochist to press on with my micro class? Probably. Will I use those specific theories discussed, or be called upon to derive proofs? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t enter the conversation if you don’t speak the language. ICTD needs more folks learning the language.

The use of social media in Syria

In this entry, I will write about the use of social media by Syrians, and mainly the use of Facebook [1]. Why is this interesting? I find it so because Syria and the Middle East are largely importers of digital technology, and still remain relatively under-studied by those who design and make technology. The other obvious reason is that due to the conditions and the events that Syrians are going through, looking at their use of social media for personal and public matters is one way to talk about the different motivations, actions, and circumstances that frame their lives, and a way to think about what that means for designing technology. Finally, in social informatics, and especially in community- related research, we are interested in “localities” where technology is used [Taylor 2004]. After all, as Howard Becker argues, every particular case has general implications [Becker 1998].

To write this post, I spent a couple of days looking at how people I could reach from my Facebook account use the platform. This includes Friends and personal connections, pages I follow or those I could reach because one of my connections referred to them, and activists who are usually individuals with extended social reach with a large audience base. My account is rather personal and I do not aim to be exhaustive or general [2]. I do try to be politically unbiased, although it is a particularly challenging matter to which I don’t think I can fully comply. Although there are atrocities committed by all sides, the sequence of events and the numbers do not put equal responsibility. I present these observations within themes, showing examples when possible [3], and I further use them to provoke questions about the design of social media. So, there we go.

Themes of Facebook use in Syria

1. News, events, and activism

Facebook is a main aggregator of various sources of news: news of family and friends, of the local town, of national events, and of world politics. This is supported both by the various possibilities for social connection (person-person, person-group, person-page, page-page) as well as its ability to curate various types of other media (photos, videos, and generic URLs). Facebook is therefore an important way for many Syrians to get news about local, national and international events. Although anybody can be a source of news, specific people (media activists), public figures, local groups, and media agencies dedicate special effort to follow the news and report on it (often with political commentary). Volunteers and local media groups often specialize in certain areas (a town or a region), and are almost always politically affiliated. The news can cover anything: the locations of bombings heard early morning, the state of repair of power and water lines, the condition of roads and the possibility of travel, the progress of combat on the front lines, the names of those killed in a recent strike, prices of vegetables, the elections in USA, and media statements made by politicians, activists, or military leaders.

A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

— A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

— A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

After the recent killing of "Father Frans"; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: "Bassel Shehadeh", who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist "Razan Zaitouneh" who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

— After the recent killing of “Father Frans”; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: “Bassel Shehadeh”, who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist “Razan Zaitouneh” who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

2. Personal connection, friends and family

The direct straight-forward theme is using Facebook to communicate and keep-up with friends and family. Syrians are becoming increasingly displaced. Large numbers of refugees continue to flood into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, while those better-off economically manage to leave to Egypt, the gulf states, or Europe. Browsing the Facebook feed has therefore became a primary way to get news and commentary about the whereabouts of friends and family, either inside or outside of Syria. My connections have mentioned often that browsing the “green dot” that indicates that somebody is online on Facebook chat was a way to know that they are doing OK. With the increased absence of electricity and Internet the whole city of Aleppo can go offline for several days, and even weeks. It is then common to have a wave of “online cheering” and exchange of greetings when the city gets reconnected with friends and family appearing back online.

A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

— A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

3. Nostalgia towards left places and sorrow over destruction

Numerous homes, villages and cities have suffered immense destruction, largely due to the use of heavy artillery and air bombing, and due to clashes taking place among inhabited areas. In Aleppo, the line of clashes goes right through the city center and the old city. You can often find posts of photos and Youtube videos with compassionate comments showing destruction in civilian areas, infrastructure, and historic sites, while comparing the condition of those places with photos and videos taken before 2011.

A Facebook page dedicated for celebrating local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with words of nostalgia: "Good morning o peace of my aching heart".

— A Facebook page dedicated for local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with the words: “Good morning, O peace of my aching heart”.

4. Solidarity with the missing

With Syrians detained by the government (estimates of 200,000), and also increasingly by various militant groups, it is common to use Facebook to report of missing Syrians. Friends and activists would spread posts explaining the circumstances of those detained or kidnapped, and Facebook pages would be opened to follow their news and to remind people with their disappearance. Sometimes, the family of those missing asks for no fuss to be made online, fearing that this will bring further hardship.

5. Loss, death, and grief

With 9 million displaced Syrians, many Syrians have experienced loss in one way or another over the past three years: losing home, losing a family member or a friend, or losing work and savings. As military action escalated in late 2011 and onward, it is rare to find a Syrian who does not have a family member or who did not personally know someone who was killed, either because of participating in combat, or as a result of detention and torture, or because of being a civilian under fire. It is almost a custom now that Facebook pages would be opened in memory of those who passed away, for friends to write elegies and words of condolence, and for the public to become aware of the reasons and circumstances of their death. The personal profiles of those who passed away would also become a place of mourning where friends would write words of farewell.

A Facebook page created in memory of "Waseem Abu Zenah", a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem's friends.

— A Facebook page created in memory of “Waseem Abu Zenah”, a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem’s friends.

6. Fight, debate, and violence

I would argue that it is next to impossible to remain neutral in light of the events in Syria. Debate (or simply online flaming) therefore takes place on any type of a shared post or a comment. Also, violent content is abundant in the Syrian online social sphere. Photos and videos of the aftermath of bombings, airstrikes and front-line fighting (which are extremely graphic and violent by any measure) are very common in the daily stream of content on my Facebook wall. Along this, it is common to find comments on these pieces of content that are inflaming and calling to exterminate and defeat the “other side” and calling for justice and revenge.

A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

— A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

-- A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

— A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

7. Collaboration and thriving local communities

Many Syrians use Facebook to collaborate, communicate and learn. This includes local activist groups connecting over Facebook groups to coordinate for covering the news of localities, relief and charity groups coordinating online fundraising campaigns, and potentially militants who communicate to coordinate some of their operations (this last one I have not observed personally, but activists mentioned that it happens). In my own work, I have worked for a prolonged period (over two years by now) with a community of learners (mostly university students) who use Facebook, blogs, youtube and custom wikis to learn about cutting-edge technology, hold public talks and presentations, and organize collaborative workshops. Social media helps them to find alternative places to collaborate and publish content as well as to spread the word about their events and grow the community by reaching to new members online.

8. Charity and relief

The cyberspace, and on top of it the social layer, has allowed Syrian groups and organizations to sprout and coordinate for the benefit of a certain activist agenda without having to establish official associations going through complex procedures (which are often unclear and subject to corruption and authoritative government control). Today, countless groups and organizations dedicated for the relief of Syrians use Facebook and other social media, sometimes as media outlets to announce their activities and publish reports, or even to coordinate the work between their members and to announce their need for volunteers and donations.

A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

— A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

-- A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

— A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

Meta. A word on marginalization and non-use

Internet access in Syria before 2011 has been gradually increasing with more private users, internet cafes, and public institutions getting connected. I have not found an informative report, but it is common sense to expect that those better off economically had better Internet access. This is also true after 2011. Government-controlled areas still have better access to electricity and Internet, and those better off economically have stronger voices online. News about areas outside of government control come mainly from media activists or from online media outlets (Facebook pages, Youtube channels) of oppositional armed groups. This heavily questions the non-proportionate representation of Syrians online, where those who access the Internet can deliver their point of view, while the weakest and the most vulnerable are photographed and studied by activists, media agencies, and relief associations instead of speaking for themselves. A Syrian researcher has an insightful report of his visit to Syrian refugee camps in northern Syria and Turkey where he comments on issues relevant to the marginalization of Syrian refugees from the possibility to take initiative in actively controlling their circumstances [Idlbi 2013]. In addition to that, with the escalation of military action in Syria, the voices of civil and peaceful activists have gradually faded out of the picture, and news of armed attacks became the more dominant content.

On the role of Social Media

After this quick overview of different existing uses of Facebook, I find it quite uninformative to claim that social media has a positive or a negative effect on the Syrian situation without being concrete and in relation to a particular case. Few months ago, I have attended a talk by Kentaro Toyama, who made the compelling argument (and I paraphrase), that by looking at the historical impact of technology, we can see that technology is an “amplifier” of human intentions, motivations and desires [Toyama 2011]. I find this accurate in the use of social media by Syrians, where people use it for family connections, relief efforts, collaboration, activism, news, war, and flaming. It is a question then on how to design social tools to enable certain forms of interaction while discouraging others. This  is a task that is neither easy nor politically-neutral (it will always come associated with a political agenda). On this note, I will close with deriving questions from the above themes on the design and making of social media in the context of the lives of Syrians.

Problematizing social media in Syria

  1. Spread of hate-speech: how can social media be designed to encourage mutual understanding or peaceful debate instead of increasing rift between people?
  2. Spread of graphic violent content: Facebook and Youtube frequently delete content that is deemed to be violent or offensive. The policies that these platforms follow to moderate content posted by their users remain unclear, but one of them is mass reports made by other users. For example, Syrian pro-government and pro-opposition pages often lead “reporting campaigns” in order to shut the opponents’ pages down. The question that I raise here is around regarding the nature of “violent content” and the effect of its posting and the discussion that goes around it. It is, on the one hand, a fundamental right to know about atrocities. On the other hand, this content is never neutral and is often interpreted and re-purposed for emotional charging and calls for in a war-torn Syria.
  3. Ownership of data and Facebook’s monopoly: a relevant issue is Facebook’s ultimate control over its content. Several activists and pages have reported the suspension of their accounts at one point or another, and content deletion is common due to mass reports. This has raised some concerns and suggestions to find an alternative, possibly federated, social platform where the ownership of data does not belong to one central authority. Such platforms do exist, but the immense popularity of Facebook where “everybody is there” makes such platforms less appealing.
  4. Security of data and cyber intelligence: when somebody gets detained or kidnapped (especially an activist or a charity worker), I have seen in many cases that their friends would swiftly write to Facebook administration to close their account. Even more, activists often leave their account passwords with people they trust such that those friends would change all passwords if the activist is detained or kidnapped. This is to prevent the leak of sensitive insider data (connections, personal messages, online social interactions, political affiliations) from being exposed, and thus further endangering the kidnapped and their social circle. Further, it is common among activists to be aware of suspicious account of people they do not know personally for they might be following them for the sake of tracking them down. This raises the questions on how we can protect private data and quickly lock-down accounts to protect against malicious access.
  5. Role in escalating or dampening violence: it is a big question whether social media in the case of Syria has actually contributed to reducing or escalating the violence. On the one hand, whenever an atrocity is committed, tweets, Youtube videos, and Facebook posts flood the media sphere. This somewhat enables people to become moral supervisors of each others. However, due to the flexibility of engineering your own connections online, I have seen several of my friends mentioning that in Facebook you can end up completely isolated within a similarly-minded group of people. This, in turn, might encourage extreme identities and a closed-world view where it is easier to dehumanize the other.
  6. Design for collaboration and for rapid small groupings: Facebook is being used by collaborative and volunteer groups to communicate, coordinate action, collect donations and announce events. However, I have seen concerns around the lack of possibility to organize and retrieve content on Facebook, which is linear and “decays” with time. Could there be alternative structuring for a social platform where there is the possibility to structure how information are created and retrieved? Further, could we think of providing small charity and voluntary groups with tools that help them express their needs and find resources? There are even local efforts by Syrians to create alternative social platforms that aim to address these very issues [4]

In the case of Syria, social media tools and platforms need to take into account radically new contexts and use cases. The current tools have provided a promising space, and their relative neutrality contributes significantly to their wide adoption and adaptation by various groups with diverse views, however, looking at how they are used within the Syrian context provokes various questions of the current status and alternative possibilities to work out. My final word here is to encourage others to provoke and suggest what I have omitted, where social media is surely being used by Syrians in ways far more diverse and complex that what I have listed in this post [5].

……………………………………………………………………………..……

Notes

  1. Facebook is what is mainly addressed here. However, due to connectedness of social media, it is a melting pot. On Facebook you can see references and discussions around videos, blog posts, news articles, photos, and statements made by public figures or activists. It is therefore fair to consider it as the social platform where most other social media are referenced, shared and discussed in the Syrian sphere.
  2. To clarify my position:  I am currently  located in Switzerland, working at the University of Fribourg, and with good contact with a local community of Syrian volunteers (mainly in Damascus) as well as with people working in charity and relief. I have spent the time between June 2011 and February 2012 in Aleppo. Since Aleppo is my home town, my connections and attention is naturally biased to it. Also, what I see on Facebook is only what my personal social & professional circles enable me to reach and what I tend to follow due to my political views. This post should therefore be read as a single account.
  3. In the screenshots taken, I have anonymized personal information, including personal names and profile pictures. In the case of public pages, I have left the snapshots un-blurred.  I have translated all content except for the one case where content was written originally in English (I noted that explicitly).
  4. MicroCommunity” is a project lead by Syrians for creating a social platform for encouraging the formation and collaboration of small-scale communities, particularly in the Arab world.
  5. The topics that I omitted include the use of social media for: fun and humor; history and documentation; political activism and popular mobilization; political propaganda; cyber war; and also, for connecting and recruiting foreign fighters, apparently mostly by the Islamic State of Iraq And Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Nusra front [ICSR 2014]. For more information, there is a number of media articles on the use of social media particularly in relation with the Syrian uprising, mentioning recruitment of fighters; fund-raising for humanitarian aid as well as for weapons and supplies; artistry; news and activism; cyber intelligence; debate and flaming; and media campaigns [MediaMeasurementMitchell, Reuters 2011Baker 2014].

References

  • Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (p. 232). University of Chicago Press.
  • Idlbi, A. (2013). On a Mission to Learn – My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp. Field report. Link
  • Taylor, W. (2004). Community Informatics in Perspective. In S. Marshall, W. Taylor, & X. Yu (Eds.) Using Community Informatics to Transform Regions (pp. 1-17). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.
  • Toyama, K. (2011). Technology as amplifier in international development. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference on – iConference ’11 (pp. 75–82). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.

“Neverland” or “networked publics”? : A review of “It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens”

A few months ago, I started collecting data for my Ph.D dissertation. Since I study interpersonal and group behavior in multiplayer online games, I got quite involved in the online forums of my studied game. I also interviewed many gamers via Skype text chat. As I expected, most of these gamers are teens (aged 14 to 17).

Their stories are not so different from my assumption: They love their parents but they want to escape from the “boring” family lives; they crave for friendships but they struggle with finding “true friends” in school; they look forward to love and romance but they are afraid of responsibilities; they expect to grow up but they are scared of the “cold” adult world.

What is out of my expectation is how Internet and social media have become a “natural” part of teens’ social lives. Many of these teens described how disappointed they felt with their offline lives but how wonderful those friends they made online; and how they felt restricted at home and at school but how much freedom they enjoyed in social media platforms. Those “cool” places – Facebook, Youtube, Tumbler, Snapchat, Instagram, online games, etc.— become Peter Pan’s “Neverland” where they can fly and “never grow up.”

But teens are not trying to live virtually or escape from the real world. Instead, Internet and social media compensate their living world and extend their social lives. Their social lives are more complicated than we, as adults, assume. They are also, sometimes, more self-conscious than we expect. I am very impressed by those teens’ stories. So I read danah boyd’s new book It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens.

This book is definitely a good work to help adults understand the “mysterious” teens in the Internet Era. Its main goal is to depict young people’s experience of using social media, and the role of social media in shaping their lives. boyd’s work is based on two essential understandings: First, teenhood is an awkward period “between childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence” (p. 17), and the penetration of social media into many aspects of teens’ lives makes contemporary youth more complex than before. Second, many adults worry about youth engagement with social media, but few listen to teens’ stories or understand them from teens’ own stance. How teens use social media to make sense of the world around them may be very different from adults’ imagination.

Thus, one of the most important contributions of this book is its focus on the teens’ own voice. Drawing on rich qualitative and ethnographic material that she collected from 2003 to 2012—and interview data con­ducted from 2007 to 2010, boyd provides vivid images of the old and new impacts of social media on teens’ lives, and the quality that social media add to or take away from teens’ social lives. Based on detailed quotes from interviews and in-depth analysis of teens’ true stories, audience can better understand why and how teens use social media from teens’ own perspective.

boyd’s another focus is “networked publics,” a main concept throughout the whole book.  boyd explains this concept at the very beginning: “[s]ocial media has become an important public space where teens can gather and socialize broadly with peers in an informal way. Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and help create what I call networked publics” (p.5). Networked publics is related to Ito (2008, 2010) ‘s work on digitally networked media and on “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” as boyd mentioned in notes on page 222.  But boyd uses networked publics here in a broader sense: Networked publics represent a complex interaction between technological affordances (i.e., networked technologies) and networked people. “Through engagement with publics, people develop a sense of others that ideally manifests as tolerance and respect.”

Based on this understanding, this well-researched book is organized into eight chapters that address seven important issues concerning youth engagement with social media, including identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, and literacy.  As a conclusion, the last chapter summarizes the impacts of networked publics on contem­porary youth: To create a world of their own (not shaped by parents and teachers), teens use social media to seek networked publics. Teens both construct and participate in such networked publics in their everyday lives, “to see and be seen,” to belong to a broader public world, and to “build networks of people and information” (p. 201).

As a researcher, I appreciate boyd’s endeavor to let us, adults who “have power over the lives of youth” (p. 28), better understand teens’ actual social lives in the networked era. boyd expresses her hope that adults and youth collaborate together to create a networked world that we all want to live” (p. 213), which is also our hope. As an adult who had teenhood not long time ago, this book makes me think about my own teenhood and how important it is for my life experience. Charles Dickens’ words may still be appropriate to describe how complicated someone’s teenhood can be in today’s network society:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. 

 

References

boyd, d. (2014). It’scomplicatedThe social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ito, M. (2008). Introduction. In K. Varnelis (Ed.), Networked Publics (pp. 1–14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ito, M., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

 

Impossible (?) Expectations of Overlap between Different Types of Mediated Interactions: Why Technology Has Not Yet Reinvented the Government “Wheel”

Ubiquitous participation in an inescapably digital society has led to well established norms of mediated interactions and socially mutual expectations for mediated environments, in terms of factors such as immediacy of feedback and constancy of accessibility. Panic ensues when Gmail services experience (brief) outages, for example, and Is it down right now? is commonly referenced when problems are experienced. Commercial services provide increasingly high levels of service and support, thus when online services and processes do not meet this comparative standard, they are disparaged. Public services frequently fail to meet the comparative standard. Discussion of healthcare.gov and other e-government initiatives often emphasizes disappointment and criticism upon evaluation of systems and implementation strategies.

Now assume the following to be true: ICTs and their contexts are mutually shaping, external factors affect interactions with information systems, and ICTs have social, technical, and institutional natures. Each of these precepts are individually supported within the corpus of social informatics literature and, given implied consistency of the paradigm, these general rules can be taken in concert. If technologies have social, technical, and institutional facets, each facet impacts and can be impacted by the context in which the technology is used and constructed, as well as by and with social actors using technologies.

Couple this with knowledge of policy implementation, bureaucracy, and complexity of government, and there is an indication that popular narratives of e-government and expectations for digitally mediated delivery of services simply are not grounded in the reality of citizen government interaction, but rather in something else entirely. Complexity is intuitively descriptive government bureaucracy. It has long been understood that the size of bureaucracy is directly related to complexity and differentiation of the social system, as context, in which it is situated (Noell, 1974). Furthermore, bureaucracy in the United States represents an increasingly complex environment as decision-making is both centralized in decision making and highly decentralized in implementation in many domains of government (Chen, 2013; Rice, 2013), yet centralized, direct management of e-government is extremely valuable to both the implementation and operation of complex e-services (Chen, 2013).

In this sense, the question ought not to be why can’t the government provide the same level of e-service as thousands of business are able to achieve, but rather: how has the complexity of bureaucracy in America impacted and been impacted by technology, and can technology be designed in such a way as to anticipate bureaucratic complexity so as to provide e-services in a way compatible with government? Given the healthcare deadline earlier this week, the complex interplay between policy and technology in the case of the Affordable Care Act presents an opportunity to examine how and why collective expectations are not met. A combination of knowledge about complex government sub-contracting regulation and cutting-edge technological expertise is relatively rare, yet the struggles of the online components of health insurance overhaul did not doom the project, as the goal of 7 million enrollees was met, but rather illustrated disconnects between bureaucracy and technological capacity.

Looking globally, e-government is often touted as a mechanism to increase access to government in attempts to spur development (Ahmad Mousa, 2012), yet the complexity of these contexts, and in particular the levels of social differentiation in non-democracies and ethnically diverse states implies that technology cannot radically transform government without parallel structural adjustments. Rather generally, e-government and digitally mediated citizen-government interaction must be thoughtfully integrated with the bureaucratic, and political, context to change government, with the expectation that it will be reciprocally impacted by government.

 

References

Ahmad Mousa, O. (2012). E-Government in developing countries: Framework of challenges and opportunities. Journal Of Theoretical & Applied Information Technology, 46(2), 1013.

Chen, Y. (2013). Improving transparency in the financial sector: E-Government XBRL Implementation in the United States. Public Performance & Management Review, 37(2), 241-262.

Noeli, J. J. (1974). On the Administrative Sector of Social Systems: An Analysis of the Size and Complexity of Government Bureaucracies in the American States. Social Forces, 52(4), 549-558.

Rice, D. (2013). Street-Level Bureaucrats and the Welfare State: Toward a Micro-Institutionalist Theory of Policy Implementation. Administration & Society, 45(9), 1038-1062. doi:10.1177/0095399712451895

A Technological Deterministic Crash: The case of the flight MH370

On Saturday March 8th, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed at 12:41 a.m. local time and was due to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. on the same day. The flight was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers. 20 days later, the only thing we can precisely say about this flight, as obvious as it may sound, is that the airplane went missing and its whereabouts is still unknown. But the puzzling question on everyone’s mind has been left answered: how could an aircraft like the Boeing 777-200ER simply vanish off the face of the Earth?

The motivation behind such a disquieting question is due to the trust and reliance on the Boeing’s Triple Seven. The aircraft is built with state of the art science and technology and, according to aviation specialists, is considered one of the world’s safest jetliners with a near-perfect safety record. The 777 has transponders, sensors and communication equipment that, even if it’s not triggered manually, still send data periodically and automatically. Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant who serves on India’s Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee, said it was “very, very rare” for an aircraft to lose contact completely without any previous indication of problems. “The 777 is a very safe aircraft – I’m surprised,” (The Guardian, 2014). The situation becomes even more intriguing in light of the fact that the last known location of the airplane was the Strait of Malacca, which along with the area flown / to be flown by MH370, is one of the most radar monitored and busiest airways.

Knowing that the event was so heavily surrounded by technology adds to our frustration: “how could the best technology out there have failed us?” It is not surprising that people turn to technology looking for answers. Technology gives us single cause with a single effect and it is also predictive. Since the pieces of technology – the airplane or any debris – have not been found, no answers could have been given, and because our society is so strung up on this inexistent precise science, we pressure authorities for proper answers. The Malaysian authorities, seeking a scientific answer and trying to look progressive, released a statement saying that everyone on that flight is dead based on a complicated and confusing math theory. Unfortunately, the family members of the MH370 passengers got such uncomforting answer through a text message on their mobile phones.

I’m not here to discuss the possible theories out there to explain the plane’s disappearance, or to say whether the passengers are alive or not. I’m trying to stress that our technological deterministic hunger had led us to situations of absurdity, discomfort and frustration, just like what is happening to the MH370 event. Such mind set, made us find, in a mathematical formula, the answer for a very complex social situation. The answer given by the Malaysian authorities is causing international and political tensions since China is demanding Malaysia to hand over all relevant satellite data analysis on the missing plane. If these frictions keep happening, it could compromise the efforts done by the international search team since nations that are not happy with the way things are handled could leave the team.

Up to this point, the MH370 case is a clear example of technological determinism, to the point of being presented at “Introduction to Social Informatics” lectures along with WIRED Magazine statements. It is too soon to make any precipitated conclusions, but in such case we can already notice a suspension of ethical judgment and the unintended consequences caused by “naïve science”. From now on, I hope the passenger’s family find better comfort and the authorities involved in this case be less technological deterministic, even if society demands them to be so. As David E. Nye (2007) stated: technologies do not drive change. They are the product of cultural choices and their use often has unintended consequences.

The Guardian (March 8th, 2014). “Malaysia Airlines: experts surprised at disappearance of ‘very safe’ Boeing 777”. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/08/malaysia-airlines-experts-surprised-at-disappearance-of-very-safe-boeing-777

Nye, D. E. (2006). Technology matters: Questions to live with (pp. 194-198). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2014 is finally here for the Social Informatics Blog!

Hello After a nice winter break, the Social Informatics Blog is back, and we bring great news: we have new brilliant brains among us! Padma Chirumamilla, Ammar Halabi, Paula Mate, Philip Reed and Madelyn Sanfilippo are joining our team of core authors. We are very excited to have this diverse team on board and looking forward to their posts. Here is more information about our new members. Welcome everyone!

BioPhotoMadelyn Sanfilippo is a doctoral student in Information Science at the School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington. She received a Master of Information Science (MIS) degree from Indiana University and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she studied Political Science, Spanish, International Studies, and Environmental Studies. Madelyn is interested in the relationship between social inequality and information inequality. Her work addresses social and political issues surrounding information and information technology access; she plans to specifically consider the interaction between information policy and information technology in the domain of government information, from a social informatics perspective. Website: http://ils.indiana.edu/faculty/spotlight/index.php?facid=301
philip-rioPhilip studies how information technology helps (or otherwise affects) people in low-income countries and communities, both in economic and noneconomic ways. He is a second year PhD student at the University of Washington Information School.
chirumamilla_padmaPadma is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, studying under Finn Brunton (who’s now at NYU Steinhardt) and Joyojeet Pal. Her current interests lie somewhere within the histories of media, science and technology (especially considered from a critical postcolonial perspective); theories of everyday life and temporality, material culture and anthropology, STS studies, and ICTD.
Ammar_avatarAmmar Halabi examines the role of Internet tools and social media in local communities in Syria. He is currently a PhD student in Informatics at the University of Fribourg, where he takes an ethnographic approach to study how community members communicate, collaborate, and organize themselves. Ammar also holds an MSc in HCI Design from Indiana University Bloomington, and a BSc in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence from the University of Aleppo in Syria. In his previous work he has been involved with international development organizations and in local volunteer communities. Ammar currently focuses on the design and implementation of online tools that facilitate collaboration and self-management of local communities, and especially those located in Syria.
paulamatePaula Mate is a PhD student in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. She is specializing in Social Informatics.  http://www.linkedin.com/pub/paula-mate/31/954/661

Art, Video Games, and Research

During the last year of my undergraduate education, I (Shad) encountered my first experience of the video games are(n’t) Art debate. While there was certainly a lot of passion surrounding the argument, the logic was somewhat lacking. One side seemed to center around the fact that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (which had been released earlier that year) contained vestiges of the stylistic aesthetic of the 1980s and presented a compelling point for social engagement with a distinct cultural setting from recent history. Alternately, the opposing side argued that these elements were simply superficial, and that the game’s message, at least in terms of any artistic merit, did not represent a real cultural statement to the degree required by the title of Art. However, these arguments seemed to center on the games themselves, as if Art were a property that is intrinsically part of some artifacts and intrinsically not part of some other artifacts. In short, the argument had missed the social connections that surround Art evaluation: the relationship between the concepts of Art, the Art World (comprised of critics and consumers of Art who ascribe a cultural value as well as a monetary value to Art objects), and the objets d’art themselves. At the time, I felt as if the current courses of debate were not ever going to result in any kind of conception of video games as Art, and that it would be a while before the discourse would develop to a point where video games could be spoken of as Art.

Ten years have passed since that point. At CHI 2013, the opening plenary was presented by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator and Architecture & Design Director for Research & Development at the MOMA. Her presentation focused on exhibitions that have looked at video games as Art at the MOMA and, more broadly, the importance of the relationship of design to art (and vice versa). It seems that, at least in practice if not in theory, my question from a decade earlier has been partially answered. Video games are beginning to be treated as Art is treated. Design, as an applied art, could act as an indicator or close relative of Art, but not a true member of the club. Video games should be appreciated in a manner similar to Art, video games, as designed experiences, can equally be treated as art.

Art and art theory have had a history of relevance to HCI, as is especially evident in the ACM SIGGRAPH Digital Arts Community (http://siggrapharts.ning.com/) and example topics including (but not limited to) the convergence of goals of Art and HCI (e.g. Sengers and Csikszentmihályi, 2003, Blythe 2013), collaboration (e.g. Adamczyk et al., 2007, England, 2012), and creativity support (e.g. Morris et al., 2009, Kerne et al 2013). While not a comprehensive list, from this it can be discerned that there is some sort of connection between the aims of HCI and Art, that there are challenges in the connecting of the two (both in terms of aims and in terms of what is considered valuable in a piece of art) and that supporting art is one possible goal for interaction design. As a possible overarching theme, there are elements of Art that are important to the practice of HCI and the creation of technology in general, but that there are both practical issues such as the economics of art and concerns of would-be collaborators and theoretical issues such as the density of art theory. Supporting creativity makes a convenient bridge point because it is a concept of equal importance to art as it is to HCI.

Returning to the consideration of video games as art, from the end of technological design there is some sort of convergence between the two and that this has warranted looking at art as a mean of understanding interaction design. As partial confirmation of this, it would seem that the Art World (of which the MOMA is certainly a part) has an interest in looking at some of the results of interaction design, including video games. So, for both stakeholders in the discourse, there is a benefit to treating video games like Art. But again I return to the question of discourse surrounding video games, which we believe leads straight to the questions of why and how to study video games.

So why should it matter that video games are beginning to be considered as art is considered. First, it means that there may be even greater cause to take video games seriously. Not just Games With a Purpose or games that are explicitly made to embody a political statement (such as the excellent games created by Lucas Pope (http://dukope.com/) but video games in general. Previous work has already started to look at video games from an ethnographic standpoint (see Boellstorff et al 2012 as well as the individual works of all its authors) as well as more quantitative approaches that look at data taken from play (e.g. Yee et al, 2012). There also have been calls for a much more in-depth study of games as a source of “social rationality,” taking a more critical stance of their content (Grimes and Feenberg, 2009). As a continuation of this trend, it seems like the way that games are observed – as both an aspect of social engagement and a reflection of society in general, needs to change. As more artistic elements become prevalent in a greater number of games, it will be important to understand how these elements developed in a historical sense. Even in games that do not attempt to challenge the norms and folkways of virtual worlds, as players become more aware of video games as art, there performances within those games may very well change with respect to this perception. Looking at virtual worlds as some sort of indicator of social phenomena, then, not only has a number of different approaches but seems to demand them to varying degrees. Employing the tactics of art theory and new media along with ethnographic investigations and analysis of data traces may very well result in new understandings not only of games, but also society and art.

It is an exciting time for the study of games. While they now have an increasing number of different meanings to different people, the fact that they have importance is becoming more difficult to ignore. However, along with the increased potential of game studies, there is also a necessity to broaden the approaches used to study virtual worlds.

Adamczyk, P. D., Hamilton, K., Twidale, M. B., & Bailey, B. P. (2007). HCI and new media arts: methodology and evaluation. In CHI’07 extended abstracts, pp. 2813-2816

Blythe, M., Briggs, J., Hook, J., Wright, P., & Olivier, P. (2013). Unlimited editions: three approaches to the dissemination and display of digital art. In Proc. CHI’13 pp. 139-148.

Boellstorff, T., & Marcus, G. E. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press.

England, D. (2012) Digital art and interaction: lessons in collaboration. In Proc. CHI’12. Pp. 703 – 12

Grimes, S. M., & Feenberg, A. (2009). Rationalizing play: A critical theory of digital gaming. The Information Society, 25(2), 105-118.

Kerne, A., Webb, A. M., Latulipe, C., Carroll, E., Drucker, S. M., Candy, L., & Höök, K. (2013). Evaluation methods for creativity support environments. In CHI’13 Extended Abstracts. pp. 3295-3298.

Morris, D., & Secretan, J. (2009). Computational creativity support: Using algorithms and machine learning to help people be more creative. In CHI’09 Extended Abstracts pp. 4733-4736.

Sengers, P and Csikszentmihaly, C. (2003) HCI and the arts: conflicted convergence? In Proc. CHI’03, ACM, pp. 876-7.

Yee, N. Ducheneaut, N. Yao, M and Nelson, N. (2011). Do men heal more when in drag?: conflicting identity cues between user and avatar. In Proc. CHI’11. pp.773-776.
776.

Social Informatics: The Basis for Informatics Systems Implementation in Healthcare Today

By Grant Webb

Many people don’t automatically think of the human element when they think of technology, but people and technology can’t help but influence each other. This mutual influence, which forms the basis of the field of social informatics, can be seen in the way that we use technology and the way that technology shapes our daily lives. Social informatics involves the study of information and communication tools in cultural or institutional contexts. Specifically, it examines the social aspects of computerization and its role in social and organizational change as well as how social practices influence information technology.

One of the most important contexts for social informatics is healthcare. Historically, healthcare has been a paper-intensive industry as practitioners kept printed copies of patient records and created written orders for tests and medications. Perhaps due to habit or possibly due to mistrust or unfamiliarity with computers, many healthcare professionals continued to rely on paper-based systems long after computerization gained wide acceptance and usage within the field.

One significant problem with paper-based systems is the lack of consistency in how records are filled out and maintained and how long they are stored. Individual doctors, nurses and other providers often have their own way in which they record notes and update patient records, even those who hold the same job title within the same institution. Thus, records differ from doctor to doctor, nurse to nurse and facility to facility, which introduces inconsistency and fosters miscommunication. These differences can also lead to a variety of errors that can negatively affect patients.

In addition to the differences in the ways that individuals keep records, manual record-keeping typically introduces a significant amount of human error, which also increases medical errors. Medical errors can range from relatively minor impacts, such as ordering unneeded diagnostic tests, to major impacts that can put a patient’s life at risk. At the point in which a provider’s personal social informatics habits, as related to patient record-keeping, conflict with those of other providers, paper-based systems then become detrimental to patients’ wellbeing. Discrepancies inherent in paper systems can also inhibit information sharing, collaboration and the expansion of collective knowledge.

As a result of various medical errors over the years, the Federal government has mandated that healthcare providers implement electronic health records by January of 2014. This mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, represents a drastic change for the healthcare field in an effort to reduce medical errors and streamline healthcare delivery and has increased the breadth of health informatics job offerings as a result. The electronic health record requirement has prompted many healthcare providers to abandon social informatics based on manual record keeping. In turn, this increasing implementation of electronic health records has led to the rapid expansion of health informatics.

Health informatics combines information technology, health science information and patient data to enhance and support clinical care, health services, administration, research and education while helping to contain costs and increase efficiency. Health informatics relies heavily on healthcare information technologies, such as electronic health records, computerized physician order entry and decision support systems but the implementation of these technologies is only as good as the people who use them. Management, clinicians and health information technology staff often assume that healthcare information technologies will deliver the results promised by vendors. As a result, they may unintentionally overlook the impact of interactions between new technologies and the existing sociotechnical environment. In the same manner, those who take for granted that technology will improve things may underestimate the contributions of clinical judgment and interaction with patients.

Healthcare providers are often quick to blame undesirable consequences and implementation failures on new technology. In reality, although technical issues are sometimes at the root of the problem, negative outcomes of healthcare information technology more often stem from the providers themselves due to differences between the new technology and the existing social and technical systems.

Health informatics can help pinpoint changes needed to existing social informatics such as workflows, culture and technology, to minimize negative outcomes and maximize the benefits of healthcare information technology. These benefits include improved patient safety, increased positive patient outcomes and greater levels of efficiency.

Grant Webb is an SEO Specialist at Bisk Education

http://www.bisk.com/

Just hanging out: challenges in transmediated ethnography

Questions about the practice of ethnographic research, both as a method and as an analytic way of knowing, have been a focus of my dissertation work.   The new Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method by Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, and Taylor has been helpful to think through my own ethnographic experiences. Although the subjects of my research do not inhabit virtual worlds as defined within this handbook, the bulk of their interaction occurs through networked digital media.  The handbook defines a virtual world as requiring the following traits: place, worldness, multi-user, persistence, and user embodiment (p 7). The groups that I study construct a social world (Star and Clark) that exist offline and online across many different media platforms (for example, interaction happens in person, through text messaging, across Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other online media), and as such they do not inhabit a particular virtual place. I have called this type of social engagement transmediated sociality (Terrell 2011).

While Boellstorff et al encourage ethnographers of virtual worlds to follow their informants into contexts (both online such as blogs, message forums, and Facebook and offline such as meetups and conferences) that extend beyond the in-world platform around which they are centralized (for instance, Second Life or World of Warcraft) ethnography of groups that are decentralized, spread across many online/offline spaces might be different in nuanced, but meaningful ways.

Doing ethnographic research with groups that are highly transmediated has presented a number of different challenges. Participant observation, a key component of ethnographic research, can be particularly challenging in transmediated settings. In my experience, participant observation can happen in two different ways. First one can attend, participate in, and observe events that are more formal and scheduled. In my work this is something like attending a wizard rock concert or a festival, which may be digitally mediated or may be in person. The second way one needs to participate is to just hang out, to be around to interact with others or observe interactions and cultural production as they happen in mundane everyday interaction, without a scheduled event.

Learning, knowing, and deciding where to hang out seems to be the most difficult aspect of participant observation of transmediated groups because one’s informants could be, and indeed are, hanging out in several different spaces all at once. As researchers we must struggle to define our field site. This never seems to be a simple task, even when our field site is apparently tied to a specific space; we must make choices about whom and what we include within our study. This is true for sites that are both virtual and non-virtual. While I recognize the difficulty in defining one’s field site, I wonder the extent to which the transmediated nature of the groups that I study give this struggle a new dimension.

In what ways is the lack of persistent placeness needed for the construction of a virtual world a challenge to the construction of the ethnographic field site? How does one decide where to hang out when the people she is studying could be interacting in several other mediated spaces? Are the challenges faced by the ethnographer of transmediated groups different than those faced by the ethnographer of virtual worlds where place is more strongly defined and more centrally located?

These are of course broad questions, but they are issues with which I struggle. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

 

References:

Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., and Taylor, T.L. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey

Star, S.L. and Clarke, A.  2007. The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package, in Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M., and Wajcman, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society.(113-138). MIT Press

Terrell, J. 2011. Transmediated Magic: Sociality in Wizard Rock. In Proceedings of International Conference on Information Technology: New Generations (ITNG 2011), April 2011, IEEE

 

Digital Divide Research as a Practice of Big Data

Big Data seems to be the new buzzword of the moment and the solution to all of society’s problems. Often we hear people coming up with studies involving a great amount of data aggregated from Twitter, Facebook and so on. I truly believe these studies are good; they take snapshots of scenes, let us know of interesting moments in a specific time and give us an overall idea of the problem.

boyd and Crawford (2012) define big data as “a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of: (1) Technology: maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets. (2) Analysis: drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims. (3) Mythology: the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.” (p. 663)

Big Data is usually thought as big numbers, the big N approached quantitatively. These numbers are generated based on people’s produced data; people that are online and constantly talking, sharing, posting, tweeting and “liking” things. But what about the people that are not doing that frequently, or even, not doing these activities at all? If we take Big Data and extend it to the ones experiencing digital inequalities, we would be imposing a colonial practice in which the voice of those constantly online will be obscuring the voice of those who are not. These voices are often clashing in different of contexts since they are rooted in social tensions and differences of power.

So, how can Big Data tell us the story of the people that are on the “wrong” side of the digital divide?

Mary L. Gray (2011) makes the case that Critical Ethnography is a practice of Big Data. She invites us to think of Big Data not solely as numbers and quantitative approaches, but also as a practice that is able to balance the value of ethnographic significance and statistical significance. Big Data is usually deeply concerned in mashing as much number as possible to be able to have some sort of reliability and statistics strength. The more you can get, the more reliable the information is.

Qualitative work is often seen as being too specific and doesn’t tell us anything, but Gray argues the opposite, qualitative approaches tell us something different, they give us a different perspective of the story. Ethnographic significance should be integrated as a complement in collaboration with statistical significance, so we are able to get something transformatively different.

I agree with Gray; at an earlier post here on the Social Informatics Blog (Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge) I make the case that the Digital Divide Research should move on from the statistical charts, census and Big Data, and go in the field to tell us about the context of those who are not on the internet, or not as often due to digital inequalities.

Big Data was the reason why I ended up going to the slum of Gurigica in Vitoria, Brazil. According to the census, the locals have a very low access to the LAN Houses and Telecentros that are inside the community. But if it wasn’t for my ethnographic research, I would have never known that this was happening due to the activities of the drug cartel that didn’t allow them to circulate freely on the streets. Therefore, Critical Ethnography is a powerful tool to approach the issues of the Digital Divide and contextualize the notions that Big Data gives us.

References (I highly recommend Gray’s video):

danah boyd, & Crawford, K. (2012). CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA.Information, Communication & Society15(5), 662-679.

Gray, M. L. (2011). Anthropology as BIG DATA: Making the case for ethnography as a critical dimension in media and technology studies. http://research.microsoft.com/apps/video/default.aspx?id=155639

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