‘Contemporary HCI’ a panel discussion

This week three UK Universities came together to host a HCI Summer Festival: HCID at City University London, Open Lab at Newcastle University, and NORTHLab at Northumbria University. This week started with a panel about ‘contemporary issues in HCI’. Touching on issues of inequality, structural injustice, and working towards more hopeful futures.

I was part of this panel with Prof Abi Durrant, Prof Alex Taylor, and Dr Reem Talhouk. And here’s my part of the conversation. During the panel, this should be read in conversation with the others’ comments, which built on one another. But I do not want to post their notes here. As always, I like to ad-lib a little bit when I speak, and it’s actually a bit strange for me to write out a script for what I was going to say, but I felt I needed to say some things that were difficult for me to say. So here is what I was supposed to read out about contemporary issues in HCI:

We’re at a time in HCI where we have moved towards at a time in HCI where we have moved towards doing research in-the-world, but where many areas of HCI research are also still engaging with traditional experiments.

We have people working on projects that aim to advance social justice ideals and are developing interdisciplinary ways of understanding technologies.

  • Postcolonial computing
  • Crit disability studies
  • Crit race studies
  • Different forms of feminism
  • And many more

But at the same time, we continue to see work that re-enforces the technologies and approaches some of us have been critiquing for years. We are not just the social justice HCI community, we are a wider community of disparate conversations that are at great odds with one another.

But HCI isn’t just about the research we produce and talk about. It’s about the universities in which we do this work, our research groups, and the wider ‘community’. It’s about who is, and who feels welcome in these spaces.

We can’t talk about ‘contemporary’ HCI without talking about recent discrimination experienced by the RACE Diversity and Inclusion team.

And we can’t talk about that as an isolated incident. The bravery of the authors of the blogpost cannot be understated, but we also have to ask ourselves, and I have to ask myself, what I have done, and continue to do to perpetuate this system. And then I must act on those reflections.  

This is not the first time people have spoken up about mistreatment and discrimination in relation to SIGCHI or the ACM. And it won’t be the last.

I know of papers that have received shocking reviews that discredit the work for years, to then receive best paper awards when the publication venues was ready.

Articles for a Crossroads Special Issue were heavily edited or forcefully removed by senior editors when they were deemed inappropriate. And it required the work of so many, building on anger, tears, and fear for their safety in response to an awful keynote in 2018 for people to come together to write an open letter that was read at the town hall meeting that year.

Fempower.tech and I were heavily involved with this letter and have been told that this played a part in the establishment of the inclusion teams, of which RACE is one. And now the teams that were born out of inequities and exclusion are themselves experiencing marginalisation. But this time perhaps this is even more harmful for those involved: before it could be explained away as indifference or ignorance but what are we going to do now?

We write so carefully about inclusion, inequities, and social justice in our researcher. We now must also live this way of working.

I want to read a segment from the 2018 open letter in response to the keynote, which seems incredibly relevant again two years later.

This discrimination is a “catalyst and symptom of wider issues in HCI and CHI that we have chosen to strategically avoid over the last few years. Yes, there have been campaigns, policies, and actions, but the fact that this happened, shows that inclusion is still a work in progress. […]

We need to learn to encounter, address, acknowledge, and constructively deal with these differences democratically and collectively, rather than relying on top-down decision-making consensus. […]

This letter is a call for social change that is complex, and nuanced, and necessary. Something we have to work on together, and something that is an ongoing conversation about intersectional inclusivity of varied experiences across ACM membership.

We need to stop the self-congratulation about being the ‘best’ conference in relation to diversity and inclusion in the ACM, as this gives the false impression that the job is done. Instead, we must celebrate our small victories and simultaneously work towards becoming a better, more welcoming and retaining, space for the most marginalised in our SIGCHI community.”

The fact we are having these conversations is a step in the right direction, but they are little steps, often difficult and potentially hurtful steps, but they are steps that we must continue to take.

Technologies and Social Justice Outcomes in Sex Work Charities: Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives

In exactly one week, I’ll to be sitting on a metro that is taking me to the airport. I’ll probably be equally nervous and excited about flying to Denver, Colorado, USA to attend CHI2017. While there, I’m hoping to meet some awesome new people who do awesome research, I’ll be working on some cross stitch to raise funds for Planned Parenthood, and I’ll be running a few pop-up stalls for zine making for people to share their different experiences of being at CHI, but I’ll also be presenting my paper.

So, maybe I should give a little bit of context here. As fempower.tech, some great people that I work with and I are organising what we have called #CHIversity. It’s an attempt to make diversity (whatever that is) more visible at the conference, and to foster discussion on inclusion, representation, feminisms, and social justice while there. The name, CHIversity, is naff. We know. It was a bit of a play on the topic of diversity (again, whatever that means) and CHI, and is supposed to be tongue in cheek. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to start a discussion. In this way, we hope to provide a small alternative to the usual exclusive parties that people go to to network by providing a comfortable, safe, relaxed, and alcohol-free environment for people to come together. Since we’ll be crafting, if someone doesn’t want to talk but rather just enjoy the presence of others, that’s absolutely fine. If someone wants to chat and not craft, that’s also more than okay.

We’ll be doing a number of things: tweeting, blogging, fundraising, making zines, and supporting our colleagues at the diversity lunch. Something I’m quite excited about is our feminist CHI programme. It’s not complete by any means, but it’s a nice starting point for something that we could maybe keep doing at other conferences we go to?

You can find out more about what we’re planning by having a look at our website and to keep up-to-date with what’s going on while in Denver, please follow @fempowertech on twitter. 

While all of that is exciting, it’s not the only reason I’m going to CHI. I’ll also be presenting a paper I wrote with Mary Laing and Rob Comber. It’s called Technologies and Social Justice Outcomes in Sex Work Charities: Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives and is based on some of the work I’ve done with National Ugly Mugs. It’s an analysis of their service delivery in relation to social justice, and I outline how they utilise technologies for their reporting, alerting, and mobilising practices to support their social justice outcomes. The paper ends on implications for design that will be useful for people who want to design digital technologies with charities.

If that made you curious enough to want to read the whole ten pages, you can either go download it from the ACM digital library (once it’s out on there, probably around the 6/7/8 of May), but if you don’t have access to that or want to read it before then, here you go. See below for the abstract:

[edit on 3rd of May 2017: the paper’s now been published in open access, so go download it here to boost that download count, because academic metrics :p]

Sex workers’ rights are human rights, and as such are an issue inherently based in social, criminal, and political justice debates. As HCI continues to move towards feminist and social justice oriented research and design approaches, we argue that we need to take into consideration the difficulties faced by sex workers; and explore how technology can and does mediate social justice outcomes for them. We contribute directly to this challenge by providing an empirical account of a charity whose work is built on the underlying move towards social and criminal justice for sex workers in the UK. Through ethnographic fieldwork, meetings, interviews, surveys, and creative workshops we describe the different points of view associated with the charity from a variety of stakeholders. We discuss their service provision and the ways in which HCI is uniquely positioned to be able respond to the needs of and to support sex work support services.


Digital Economy Diversity Network Funding

At the beginning of February, I went to the Digital Economy Annual Meeting. Among other things, we talked about diversity and the importance of reflecting on our situation in the individual Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), but also across the Digital Economy (DE) research centres, and the Digital Economy Network (DEN) overall; and doing something about it.

A few colleagues and I were very keen to try to work on something, to do something about it. So we thought of some ideas and started putting together a funding bid to be able to do this. I wrote about why I started working on a funding bid to try to do this with some friends and colleagues in an earlier post, but we’ve had some exciting things happen since then. Janis and I put together a proposal for a Digital Economy Diversity Network to send to the DEN. We did this with support from Manu (from HighWire) and Astrid (from Media & Arts Technology) and full backing from our CDT manager.

We had a couple of different ideas, but also some very strong ideas about what we didn’t want this to be. We didn’t want this to be a ‘data collection’ tool for the DEN to gauge how ‘well’ they’re doing in student / researcher satisfaction, and we didn’t want this to be a single event where everyone moans about all their problems and then celebrates the good things without any real outcome. Instead, we wanted to create something that we would hope could be a sustainable network to keep the conversation about diversity, equality, and equity alive. We wanted it to be intersectional, to go beyond the tick-box exercises of counting how many men, women, and non-cis people applied to and were accepted to the CDTs.

So here’s what we came up with:

We proposed to organise 4 meetings a year for 2 students from each of the 11 CDTs to come together in a working group. Each of these meetings would be hosted and organised by a different CDT in a different UK city/university, and the students that attended should be slightly different too (to reduce workload for the attendants, but also to encourage those that would usually not go to a ‘diversity’ meeting to go) At these meetings we would have three types of activities: (1) critically discuss a particular issue (2) find some sort of consensus or learning outcome from these discussions (3) develop one ‘job’ that each pair of students should do to report back to their CDT what was discussed at the working group.

With these activities, we hope to be able to take into account the specificities and contexts of each of the CDTs (Do they have a central office? Do they share an office with others? What does the integration with the rest of the department, school, university look like?). At the same time, we hope to share experiences across CDTs based on a particular issue, and hopefully share some tips and tricks at how to tackle specific things among CDT students.

An example: During one of the meetings, the topic of concern is recruitment and how to ensure that CDT recruitment takes into considerations issues of equality and diversity. Throughout the day the host CDT will have organised activities and points of discussion around this, and the outcome could be a set of guidelines for labs / CDTs to follow to ensure recruitment is accessible. The activity that each participant is to take back to their own CDT could then be that the participant is to organise a meeting with the Professor of their lab to discuss their recruitment policy for the next cohort, pointing towards ways in which this could be made more accessible to a more diverse set of applicants.

While each of these meetings should have a very specific outcome (notes in some shape or form from the discussions of the workshop, the exchange of good practice among CDTs, and a feedback mechanism to share insights with the rest of the CDT after the meeting), we hope that after a year of running these workshops we also have an overarching outcome. While we hope for some unmeasurable changes in work culture and environments, we will also be putting together a report on how the workshops went with some recommendations for policy for the DEN, seeing as currently there is not a single diversity or equality policy in place.

If you want to read more details from our proposal, you can find it here.

In theory this sounds great, but to be able to run something like this, we need support and enthusiasm from students in other CDTs. We need people who want to engage in these kinds of discussions, and we need these people to be able to come together to discuss them. A part of this is also that we would need a measurable sum of money to run these meetings to ensure that no CDT has to find funds to host, facilitate, or send their students to these meetings. This is why we applied for funding from DEN. Yesterday, was the exciting day where we received the e-mail we had been waiting for!

Yesterday, we got the e-mail that said we had received the £6000 we applied for to run a pilot of this network for one year. 

This is fantastic, but also scary. It’s an exciting opportunity for all of us involved, and I’m looking forward to starting to organise the first workshop with Janis.

Reflections on Double Dabble

Last weekend Double Dabble: A Feminist Day of Making finally came around. Janis and I had been planning, organising, sending e-mails, and attempting to figure out what was going to happen for the last few months, and on Saturday the day finally came.

members of fempower.tech that were at Double Dabble
[me, Helen, Ko-Le, Janis, Rosie, Vidya and her little one] Thanks for the photo, Vidya!
As fempower.tech, we won the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association‘s small grant scheme this year, and were able to obtain match-funding from the Digital Economy Network to make Double Dabble happen!

The idea was simple: create a space where feminists can come together to discuss theory and making; to delve into a world of support, comfortable discussion, and creativity. Our way of doing this was to essentially create what we are starting to call an anti-hackathon.

Astrid crafting a muscle activity sensor

We took the things we liked about hackathons (making, creating, exchange of ideas) and got rid of all the things we don’t like about them (competition, judges, stress, teams, segregating of ‘techies’ and ‘non-techies’). Taking these things into consideration, we hosted 5 stalls and a ‘zine machine’ to reflect on the day as the day was happening. The stalls were designed by groups of two (except for one stall that was run by one person only) – what was particularly beautiful about these teams was that they always came from different academic disciplines (or one was non-academic) and had very different backgrounds, approaches, and research topics. I don’t think any of them had known each other before they were put in contact with each other by Janis and me, and I’m pretty sure most hadn’t seen each other before Saturday.

Let’s just say, it was an experiment.
And I was nervous about how it would turn out.

To my surprise it all went alright in the end though! Running up to the event, I was worried about not being worried enough – it’s a weird thing I do when I know I should be stressed, but for some reason am not. I fully understand the ridiculousness of this, but I can’t help it. Whenever I organise an event there is usually a moment of panic; a point (usually one or two weeks before the event is to take place) where it feels like it is all going to fall apart, where something goes horribly wrong, or where we receive some horrible news about a major participant in the event. Not at Double Dabble! Until the morning of the day, we had been working for a few minutes or hours each day for a few months to make the day happen. Janis and I had (many) informal exchanges about an e-mail we had just received or about something we had to figure out, and as such never had the pressure to deal with something on our own, but rather knew that we always had back-up. Thank you so much, Janis for all the support you gave me in organising this event. It truly was a team effort, and I really appreciate all the hard work you put in!

The day was relaxed, informative, and delicious. We had some fantastic feedback from participants and stall holders. We made cool things, we made new friends, and we made a great day!

Learning more about pre-technological Fanfiction written by Emily Brontë: Gondal stories and poetry

We’ll be sharing more reflections and information on how we organised Double Dabble over on the fempower.tech website soon (hopefully, we’re all a bunch of PhD students though, so this might take a while! haha), so if you want to keep in touch or learn more about Double Dabble and other events we’re organising subscribe to our blog, or follow us on twitter!

Happy Crafting!

Women’s Work stall where we learnt how to knit, crochet, and quilt while discussing hte invisibility of women’s work

DEN Annual Meeting

Just over a week ago, we received an e-mail that we are to attend the annual meeting of the Digital Economy Network (DEN) in London. So, on Wednesday a group of roughly 15 people groggily got on a train at 6:30am in Newcastle, heading South. There was talk of last years annual meeting that only a few of us attended, and previous DEN conferences and events that took part in London.

After an hour long delay, we finally arrive at Kings Cross Station, head out and walk towards the Digital Catapult, and try to find the building on Euston Road. Once finally there, we quietly walked into the room where a presentation was going on. Throughout the day, we listened to presentations and joined ‘workshops’ that were more like half-hour long discussions around a certain topic on issues related to the student experiences across the 11 CDTs the DEN supports.

It was a weird day. I was engaged with the group that was discussing potential events, barriers, and opportunities for diversity and equality within DEN and its CDTs. In the end what I had learnt was that the DEN really wants to find out our experiences of equality and diversity, but also that they think we are doing a ‘pretty good job’ in relation to gender diversity.

Looking at the room we were in, I’d have to agree on the basis that it’s rare to find a CDT or a DEN event where the audience doesn’t have a relatively large number of women, but on the grand scale of things, I’m not sure how ‘well’ we really are doing. Just because you have an audience that is 1/4 to 1/2 women, does not mean you’re doing a great job. How do those women feel? Are there any policies in place to support them? Most importantly however, diversity goes beyond this. Where are all the people of colour? Those from working class backgrounds? …

As a network, what are we doing to engage rather than alienate those that think differently, those with different backgrounds, and those who look differently?

Something I quite liked about the last discussion group we had, was that after it finished, a woman came up to my friend (not the one that proposed the topic, but the one I run fempower.tech with…) and me and started a conversation about the futility of Athena Swan, and how women are always the ones who end up having to do the work in it. About how it’s almost impossible to even start conversations about diversity, because of the lack of understanding of what diversity is – the idea that it goes beyond quotas and having a woman CEO!

So, DEN, just to let you know: while you have a (much) better gender balance than traditional engineering and computer science spaces, we need to engage in some work to encourage diversity. I’m glad that this is what came out of our discussion at the event, and that DEN seems to support this idea.

My two friends and I are now working on putting a proposal together to develop a cross-CDT working group to tackle this issue. It’s going to encourage exchange between all the CDTs and encourage each participant at the quarterly meetings to go back to their CDT and to be a champion for diversity, enacting at least one ‘thing’ after the meeting. It was encouraged by DEN at their annual meeting that we do something on this issue.

Thank you for that, and thank you for listening to the importance of this topic. At the same time though, let’s take some time to reflect, and see what we can do. While I was starting to put together the proposal for this network yesterday, I went looking for a diversity policy on the DEN website. I couldn’t find one. So, maybe that’s a starting point. Or an end point?

Athena Swan? Athena Swan.

Yesterday, I did something I didn’t think I would do. I joined the first Athena Swan Self Assessment Team (SAT) meeting.

Before I get into how and why I didn’t think I would do it, and why I ended up going, I want to give just a little overview of what Athena Swan and the SAT are. The Athena SWAN Charter, created and organised by the Equality Challenge Unit, attempts to recognise “advancement of gender equality” through “representation, progression and success for all”.

The SAT is a working group of people who want to advance this “gender equality” in their school.

So, why would I not think I’d be part of this? I have my apprehensions about Athena Swan, it’s often seen as a tick-box exercise for schools to be recognised for their ‘hard work’ rather than an honest attempt to further representation, progression, and success “for all” in the school. It’s an odd one, and the meeting yesterday made me think about all of this again. This post isn’t going to be about all the different reasons why I think Athena Swan is good or bad, but rather a reflection on what happened at the first SAT meeting yesterday.

So, in our school we have a fantastic young woman, let’s call her Lucy, who is in charge of it this year. She’s a part-time member of staff and a part-time student, she’s been involved in this kind of thing previously, has strong opinions on this issue, knows many of the right people, and is able to mobilise people. She’s also absolutely lovely and a pleasure to work with, so overall, I am quite happy that she is the one who is in charge.

After getting myself a cup of coffee, I sat down next to someone I didn’t know; although to be fair, I didn’t know most of the people in the room. Lucy went through what Athena Swan was, how we were trying to reach silver this year, and the timeline we would have to go through. She was very clear that she had some ideas and goals, but that she also didn’t know all the answers; that she needed help and support from us and the school; and that there was lots of work to share and go round.

She hadn’t expected there to be as many people there as there were (I would say there was a good 35 people or so in the room – including the head of school, a number of senior academics, PhD students, and probably many other roles filled by people I simply don’t know yet), so it’s great to see that there’s at least interest in the school to make a change.

After Lucy had explained everything to us, she opened the floor for questions. After a slow start, people began asking questions, which inevitably turned into a discussion around the room. Although I was the one to ask the first question, I guess it’s not very surprising that it was very often the men who talked (and didn’t necessarily ask as many questions). There were some interesting points raised around the importance of gender distribution stats and making sure to write the application in such a way that we would receive the award, making all my fears around joining a team such as the SAT come true. Why is the school engaged in this? Do the men who are in charge actually fundamentally understand what Athena Swan is about? Or maybe I am the one who doesn’t understand the point of it?

So, I asked a seemingly silly question that made the room feel strangely tense for a few seconds: are we trying to apply for this award because we want to get the award, or because we want to make a genuine effort to better the school?

The discomfort I had caused with this question seemed quite clear to me, and the final answer to the question was: a little bit of both. 

After this discussion the room moved to start to write down ideas of how we could go about making the award happen for the school. Many words were written down on flip charts, and many conversations were had. At the end of the hour-long meeting I didn’t really know what to think or how to feel about this application. I want to be part of a group that attempted to make a genuine (and desperately needed) attempt at improving the situation for everyone (who is not a cis, white, middle class man), but at the same time, I don’t want to be a part of a group who is able to spin a beautiful story out of a messy situation simply to get an award. Taking Lucy’s stance towards the whole event into consideration, and learning from the discussions that were had, I feel like the SAT will be a group of people working within that strange dichotomy. It’s about ‘making things happen’, but it’s also about making them happen not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we want to receive this award (that is so rarely publicly criticised!).

I guess I’ll continue doing the work I am already doing as a part of fempower.tech for our idealistic, potentially naive, and definitely activist mission. And there isn’t really a reason why the whole school shouldn’t benefit from it – in fact, we had been talking about how the school should benefit from our little group! So, I’m going to take it on me (as part of the SAT) to make fempower.tech a bigger thing. To involve others who are not in Open Lab and to encourage people to organise to make things happen. I’ll go to the monthly Athena Swan SAT meetings to encourage this, and to be a pain in the arse to those who see this application only as a way of getting an award…

Oh, I’m going to have fun, and hopefully we can begin to make a movement towards encouraging a genuine attempt at changing the situation at a school level.