Crisis Informatics in the Anthropocene: Disasters as Matters of Care (2019) by Robert Soden

Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Computer Science, University of Colorado, supervised by Leysia Palen


The information technologies that experts use to make sense of environmental challenges like disasters and climate change increasingly determine how we plan and execute responses. Alongside the rise of computing over the past half century, we have also witnessed the development of tools like satellite imagery, GPS, and environmental modeling. These tools now intervene in our understanding the world and our place in it with a depth and influence that was previously unimaginable. We might be forgiven for expecting that such changes would lead to a radically new relationship with the environment and an ability to finally and permanently vanquish disasters. Unfortunately disasters persist and our environmental problems are more challenging than ever. In this dissertation I show that the technologies deployed to understand and enact responses to environmental challenges frequently serve to reinforce or exacerbate the factors that create these problems. I use qualitative and design research across three field sites and engage with literature in human-centered computing and science and technology studies to account for this situation and illustrate some of the specific mechanisms by which this occurs. Against arguments that would blame this situation on characteristics essential to either technology or human nature, I instead identify a series of recurring configurations of information technology and social life that systematically produce troublesome understandings of nature-society relations. I argue that attending to the ways technology shapes our relationship to the environment is, in the language of feminist scholars of techno-science, an act of care. Practices of care are necessary to navigate the current upheaval along the nature/culture divide and provide a departure from past approaches to dealing with disasters characterized by relations of domination, exclusionary notions of expertise, and reductive epistemological stances. By surfacing the ways that our information systems that sustain problematic approaches and identifying tactics within the toolbox of design research and practice to resist them, I raise the opportunity for alternative approaches to developing environmental information systems. In doing so, I provide the theoretical and conceptual foundations, as well as practical suggestions, for a crisis informatics that can achieve safety, justice, and sustainability in the Anthropocene. 

Key Papers:
Infrastructuring the Imaginary: How Sea-Level Rise Comes to Matter in the San Francisco Bay Area
Mapping Silences, Reconfiguring Loss: Practices of Damage Assessment & Repair in Post-Earthquake Nepal
Thin Grey Lines: Confrontations With Risk on Colorado’s Front Range

Designing for Voice: The Challenges of Access, Autonomy and Accountability (2018) by Ishtiaque Ahmed

Ph.D., Computer Science, Cornell University, supervised by Steven J. Jackson

Abstract: Voice refers to a person’s ability to express their rightful opinions. This has long been a central concern for many sociologists, political scientists, and human-right activists, among others. Voice has also gotten the attention of the Computer Scientists, especially of some researchers of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Information and Communication Technology and Development (ICTD) in recent years, and various computing systems have been built to help people raise their voice in various contexts. However, the core challenges for designing appropriate computing technologies to support the voices of marginalized communities have mostly been unexplored. In this thesis, I have explored the theoretical and technical aspects of voice that are important to conceptualize the idea of voice and to design for it. This thesis presents a broad theoretical definition of voice based on the historical development of the ideas of justice and democracy, which are essential to understanding the politics and poetics of silencing. This thesis then advances two important notions of voice – “voice as a value”, and “voice as a process”. Furthermore, this thesis highlights three major components of voice that are necessary both for conceptualizing the idea of voice and for designing technologies to support a voice– access, autonomy, and accountability. These three components of voice are explained through three major projects that I completed during my Ph.D. at Cornell University. The first project is called “Suhrid”, and it was conducted with a group of low-literate rickshaw drivers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Suhrid demonstrates the complexities around ‘access’ without which voice is not possible. The second project presented in this thesis is called “Protibadi”, which reveals the challenges with ‘autonomy’ by demonstrating the hardship of Bangladeshi women in voicing their experiences with sexual harassment. The third project focuses on the tensions around ‘accountability’ – an inseparable component of voice. This project is based on my study to understand the public reactions to a recent government order in Bangladesh that has enforced the registration of each mobile SIM card with the biometric information of its owner. These three projects, as a set, define the concept of and complexities around voice, and demonstrate the challenges around design ng for access, autonomy, and accountability. This thesis thus contributes to the growing interest in Computer Science, HCI, and ICTD around social justice, inequality, empowerment, and international development.

Key Papers:
Privacy, Security, and Surveillance in the Global South: A Study of Biometric Mobile SIM Registration in Bangladesh
Protibadi: A platform for fighting sexual harassment in urban Bangladesh
Suhrid: A Collaborative Mobile Phone Interface for Low Literate People