My research seeks to unpack the promises of tech-for-good and the ethical imaginaries and practices of people making and receiving such promises across various contexts: labor organizing, humanitarian technology, corporate social responsibility projects in the tech sector, and information and communication technology for development.
Through my engagements with tech-for-good I have, alongside others, developed assets-based design as a concept and community seeking to intervene via design in sustainable ways. I have also worked on datafication and its intersections with community organizing and grassroots responses to migration crisis.
Tech-for-good in Labor Organizing
For my dissertation project, I am investigating a case of tech-for-good in the context of labor organizing. I am working with FrenApp, an app-based de-facto union for gig workers in Ecudaor. FrenApp has not been recognized by the Ministry of Labor at this point, but is fighting for their recognition as well as the passage and enforcement of laws that will protect the rights of gig workers. I am working primarily with the organizers leading FrenApp in Ecuador, who are supported by Solidarity Center and REDAL, an organization which has designed and funded the app through which FrenApp is meant to function. My research has extended to the Colombian (and original) version of the union-app as well, UnidApp.
I presented my work-in-progress at the Just Tech Transitions Workshop in summer 2022, titled “Ethical Imaginaries and Sociotechnical Systems Against Labor Exploitation in Venezuelan Migration.” I received a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant in support of this work.
Humanitarian Tech and Refugee Tech
I have approached tech-for-good in my research by examining how it has played out over its life cycle in humanitarian contexts, particularly relating to refugees and migration. In 2022, a paper co-first-authored with Bono Olgado, Stewarding the Documental Afterlives of Refugee Tech Initiatives, explored the artifacts left behind after the 2015 spike in “refugee tech” initiatives seeking to address challenges that came with mass displacement. We systematically reviewed the 118 websites listed in a publicly available database of refugee tech initiatives in Germany as they appeared five years after their initial launch. We proposed the term documental afterlives to refer to the range of fates to which these digital artifacts have fallen. We argue that an ethical response to these afterlives requires that we attend to them through stewardship, centering the notion of care and drawing from archival practices.
Based on my earlier ethnographic engagement at a literacy center in the US serving resettled refugees and immigrants, I argue that the digital divide and digital inequality based frameworks rest on a distributive logic, and assume that digital access is a good to be distributed to minoritized communities. However, my work showed that such a framing leaves out the important costs that necessarily come with access: in particular, startup, maintenance, and affective costs. In the paper Attenuated Access: Accounting for Startup, Maintenance, and Affective Costs in Resource-Constrained Communities, I (along with my co-author Roderic Crooks) advocate for design and access to be understood as an act of configuring both costs and benefits together.
Corporate Social Responsibility
I've pursued my broader agenda of examining tech-for-good in the context of corporate access initiatives and corporate social responsibility. A study co-first-authored with Bono Olgado examined Discover, a partially free-to-use application released under Facebook (now Meta’s) philanthropic initiative, Connectivity. Using document theory, we conducted a systematic analysis of the most popular websites (according to Discover itself’s display scheme) as they appear for free. Based on our findings, we argue that Discover’s logic of redaction and form moderation reproduces the very structural inequality that philanthropic initiatives such as Connect claim to ameliorate through access to the Internet. Our study’s results were published in the paper, Market, Testbed, Backroom: The Redacted Internet of Facebook’s Discover, in 2021 at CHI (the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems). Our work was subsequently picked up by Rest of World, and cited in the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, and Engadget.
I also have been working on a review of critical concepts related to corporate social responsibility. Part of my process has been shared in this PECE Essay, Reading Critical Corporate Social Responsibility.
Information and Communication Technology for Development
Another thread of tech-for-good I have followed in my research is that of work that corresponds to the label of ICTD, a contested and multidisciplinary field and banner for tech-related projects that try to address systemic and societal issues (infrastructure, connectivity, socio-economics, education, etc.). Together with Philip Garrison and Yvette Iribe Ramirez, I organized a panel at 4S 2022 in December. Our panel, Toward reunion: Conversations, criticisms, reconfigurations of ICTD, brought together scholars who both practice and critique or even disavow ICTD, recognizing that ICTD can include novel forms of neocolonial extraction but also can enact relationality and the responsibility of living well together
Philip and I are interested in how stakeholders understand their participation in ICTD projects. Our paper, Deferring Social Impact: Conceptions of ICTD and Computing Careers, was published in HICSS in 2021. Based on interviews with students who participated on a large-scale health ICTD project, we argue that students are motivated to participate in this sub-field of computing because of their interest in "social impact," which they contrast with the default focus of CS. Our discussions with students revealed a planned deferral of social impact-oriented careers as students sought to gain more skills and stability before returning to ICTD and similar work. We are working on another paper that analyzes the students' narrations of their engagements with ICTD through the lens of four modes of ethics (ethical substance, mode of subjection, techne, and telos).
My work has taken me through the development of Assets-Based Design. I first wrote about this concept in 2019, when trying to make sense of a project where we followed the "right" steps of needs-based, human-centered design, yet failed to deliver impact to the community of resettled refugees and immigrants at a literacy center where I worked as an English and technology teacher. The paper, We Did It Right, But It Was Still Wrong: Toward Assets-Based Design, introduces a framework arguing that an intervention's potential for sustainable impact can be improved by maximizing use of assets in the community and minimizing novelty.
Alongside Marisol Wong-Villacres, Aakash Gautam, Azra Ismael, Jessa Dickinson, Wendy Rolodan, and several other collaborators, I co-organized a virtual workshop From needs to strengths: Operationalizing an assets-based design of technology with over fifty attendees at CSCW 2020. Building on the momentum from this workshop, Sheena Erete, Marisol, and I guest-edited a special issue of the ACM's Interactions magazine, Designing with Community Strengths and Assets. As part of this issue, I convened a round table to discuss how assets-based design has been implemented in practice, and had an important conversation with Akwugo Emejulu about the roots of Assets-Based Community Development (ABCD) in anti-welfare ideology and the important heritage of minoritized communities' self-organizing.
Datafication and Community Organizing
I am interested in how community organizers and grassroots organizations both engage with and reject datafication in their spaces.
Bono Olgado and Roderic Crooks organized the first Data and Community Activism workshop in 2019, where many of our seminal commitments were worked out with community organizers, and articulated in the group-authored Medium post, What We Mean When We Say #AbolishBigData2019. In the 2022 CHI late-breaking work Narrativity, Audience, Legitimacy: Data Practices of Community Organizers (co-authored with Bono and Roderic), we analyze the first set of interviews conducted in a larger project about Community Organizing for Datafied Worlds. We find that across different domains of community organizing, narratives built with data were built with attention to different forms of legitimacy sought from different audiences, including the rejection of data collection for the sake of legitimacy in the eyes of community members. A forthcoming essay co-authored with Roderic for the In Focus section of the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, guest-edited by Shannon Mattern, further explores the relationship between data and storytelling for community organizers working toward collective action against state harms enacted on minoritized communities.
My interest in datafication has intersected with my research in the humanitarian context of mass Venezuelan migration. Carleen Maitland and Marisol Wong-Villacres are leading an international research project to understand datafication and the UNHCR and IOM's responses to refugee and migration crises. I joined the project with a focus on how grassroots organizations fit into this datafied milieu.