Human Computer Interaction meets the streets

I’ve just returned from my first CHI conference where I joined one of the pre-conference 2-day workshops. The workshop I did was HCI, Politics and the City. We were broken into teams to deal with real-life problems being experienced by local grassroots organizations in Vancouver, Canada (where the conference was held). It was a great opportunity to really experience the locale of the conference as soon as we hit the ground, and to collaborate on some real-world problems.

I was lucky to be working with a team of smart, switched on people from different specializations in HCI. Computer Science, Architecture, Comm/Media and Art backgrounds were all present on my small team.

Vancouver, a stunning cityscape.

My team was chosen to work with the fantastic people at Peers Vancouver, a non-profit organization committed to helping sex workers find alternative employment and transition out of the sex industry. In an incredibly eye-opening weekend (where I have never felt more naïve), I learned about the realities the organisation faces in doing it’s work – trying to assist people into better lives without making them feel worse about the life they have – and often battling the misconceived opinions of the wider community in the process.

There are numerous problems being faced by Peers – as there are in any community-based organization. But here we saw one where technology was a key element in creating social ill. Young entrants to the sex industry were getting off the streets, and instead plying their trade online more and more. For once, the digital native myth is realized with these young people as they use the internet to find ‘dates’, become disconnected from each other and instead rely on their own instincts to get by. Of course, traditional forms of street outreach from organisations such as Peers become less effective when the people you’re trying to help are no longer on the streets. You can’t see them to begin building relationships and trust. Peers needed help in working out how to enter the digital realm – a space they just didn’t know. To choose a metaphor, they thought it would be like going to Mars and trying to work with people there instead of the street corners they knew so well.

We worked on providing the organization with a plan for moving forward. A plan which included telling Peers that the core aspects of what they do are still entirely relevant in the digital space. All we needed to do was replicate it in a digital sense. To complete the metaphor, it was like letting them know that the internet would not be Mars for them, but instead, it’s just a different ‘city’ with the same basic things behind it, driving it and challenges to be met. Finding those parallels was difficult because we were not familiar with that environment. However, when given the invitation, the Peers directors could start having the conversation about what to fill in where we had blanks. It was a great opportunity for all of us to learn.

So what did I learn?

The workshop was incredibly useful. It helped me understand what it’s like to work with people of very different backgrounds and specialisations, as well as how to speak technology to people who are extremely good at things which are not technologically based, and who are wanting to find out more about that space. All members of the team have decided to continue a relationship with Peers, and assist with seeing their plans through to fruition.

Real-world problems are the same if you’re in a big city in Vancouver, Sydney or Denver. I’m guessing they’re also the same in London (where two of my workshop team mates were from) – attitudes, the scope of the land, and the scope of the problem, are always the same. The lack of location- and domain-centric issues is interesting – I remain fascinated by the relationships between geography and social media.

Real-world cityscapes and dynamics of community are the same as well. There is a Chinatown in Vancouver, as there is in so many other cities. There is an impoverished part of the city area, and it is separated from the classier parts by just a few blocks. There is no spoken distinction. The unsaid, however, does not stop the socially understood difference – even to foreigners such as myself. In these city streets, people’s attitudes change, the environment changes, the ‘feel’ of the area changes as you segway from one part of town to the other. In this way, Vancouver is every-city.

It was a great workshop to be a part of, and I’m grateful for the experience. It really brought home the fact that as researchers, we also must connect with the people we design and work to help. HCI has a place everywhere. We are about more than just smart homes, smart phones and yes, even smart people. HCI has a heart. It’s what makes it a very special and vital part of the world of information technology. The fact that this workshop ran this year shows that the people at CHI are seeking to retain that sense of heart as it moves forward – and as we find people questioning what the broad field of HCI should or should not be, while it retains this heart, it’s humbling and socially relevant to be part of it.


  • All the technology in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you forget about the people who drive it, does it? Love this Jo. I was so jealous hearing about your experience at CHI last night!! How awesome.

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