Talk about needing a Geowiki!

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This Slashdot post talks about TIGR, the Tactical Ground Reporting System, which the US military developed for groupd troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Developed as much on the
ground in active warzones as in a lab, TIGR lets platoons access the
latest satellite and drone imagery in an easy-to-use map based
interface, as well as recording their experiences in the field and
accessing the reports of other troops.”

For more details, see the interview with the developers. Some fascinating quotes, including:

soldiers learn … the area that they’re
assigned. That is they learn the people. They learn the villages. They
learn the roads. And that knowledge that they gain over the course of a
deployment is often times lost. When those soldiers rotate back to the
United States and new soldiers come in and are assigned a territory,
then they come in without all of that knowledge. They used to come in
without all of that knowledge. And that was actually a very, very
dangerous period of time called the turnover of authority. And one
thing TIGR has done is that TIGR has made all of that information
available to the soldiers that are coming in new, as it were, to an
area, so that they’re acclimated and have good knowledge of the people
and the places and the roads and things of this sort when they arrive.

you’re just really looking for geospatially relevant information for
the mission at hand. If you’re going to take this route and you’re not
familiar with this route that you’re thinking of taking, you can look
and see how many attacks have taken place; what kind of attacks have
taken place; who’s been there before. So all of that information is at
your fingertips.

What a different application than Cyclopath! (And one that I personally would have qualms about working on, although I don’t see this as a simple case of ‘working on a military application’.) And yet the motivation for the approach is nearly identical. More evidence for the utility of a geowiki approach!

Way Beyond the Desktop

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When I teach user interface design, I always come to a point about 2/3 of the way through the semester where I show the students this picture. It’s a picture from circa late 70s or early 80s of someone sitting in front of a Xerox Star. I tell them this was the dawn of the desktop computer / GUI era, and this picture illustrates many of the assumptions that were implicit in this area. Then I ask the students to tell me what they notice about the picture.

Maybe you want to try it before reading any further…

OK, you’re back?

The students notice lots of interesting stuff, but a lot of what I want to point out they usually don’t notice: it’s too obvious to notice, like: the user is an adult, a man, can see, can read, has no motor disabilities, is white, is a white collar worker, which means he’s probably educated, is working (not having fun), is alone, etc.

Then I say that all of these assumptions are false for many (or most) human beings and for many (or most) human activities.

Well, at CHI 2009, I was finally convinced that the CHI community has definitively got that. Now, many CHI’ers have gotten this long ago. Maybe it’s just me noticing this is true about the field. In any case, there was great stuff about topics like: tabletop devices, social media, and, my favorite, designing in the developing world.

My absolute favorite event in this vein was Jan Chipchase’s presentation. Jan Chipchase has the coolest job in the world. He’s a researcher for Nokia, and he travels all around the world observing practices related (veeeeeeery broadly) to mobile phone use and coming up with ideas for new Nokia designs and products. By “all around the world”, I don’t mean North America, Europe, and Japan (although he certainly spends lots of time there). I mean Ghana and Uganda and Afghanistan and Vietnam, among lots of other places. He does contextual inquiry in monsoons, participatory design in shanty towns, and lofi prototyping in villages. His talk consisted of showing a large number of slides and telling stories. It was great. If you’re interested in learning more about what he does, check out his web site referenced above. He has lots of interesting blog entries and posts his slides for all or most of his slides.

CHI Considered Useful

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The CHI 2009 conference was April 4-9 in Boston. I’m not here to give a trip report, not going to do it. I just want to mention one highlight.

I saw the most entertaining CHI event ever (and this was my 16th CHI conference: yikes!). It was a paper + panel session titled “Ethnography Considered Harmful”. The featured paper was written by a quartet of British ethnomethodologists: Andrew Crabtree, Tom Rodden, Peter Tolmie, and Graham Button. The presentation of their paper was followed by remarks from Bill Gaver, Wendy Kellogg, Mark Rouncefield, and Tracey Lovejoy.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “yes, that sounds just fascinating!” But just in case you’re not, here’s why you should. Crabtree et al. criticized the use of certain methods in HCI and systems design that they chracterized as “newer” or “cultural” approaches, claiming that they simply did not provide useful guidance for design. Now, I haven’t read their paper, nor am I very familiar with the approaches they critique. However, as someone who teaches user interface design, including discussing the use of observational methods like ethnography, I think this is a crucial topic. Most of the students I teach are going to go into industry (and, in my program, most will not take another HCI course). Therefore, I want to outfit them with the most useful tools and knowledge of when and how to use these tools.

So, after the four authors had their say, it was the panelists turn. And here’s where things took a turn I’ve never seen before.  Three of the four panelists attacked Crabtree et al.’s arguments in a way I’ve never seen before at CHI… or any other scientific conference I’ve attended. The attacks were witty, knowledgeable, sarcastic, scathing, and well-performed. The audience responded with a mix of laughter and stunned silence. It was great theater.

OK, great theater, but was it a positive thing? Or was it sound and fury? And hey, you might wonder: do I think the authors or the panelists are right? Let me me tackle all these questions.

Yes, it was sound and fury. Am I shallow for enjoying it? I don’t think so, provided that all the participants meant it. As long as they were sincere and not just posturing, I welcome a heated argument. It has made me — and I’m sure many others — pay much more attention to this set of issues than we otherwise would have.

Was it positive? Yes, as I already said, I think so. But others certainly disagree. The first speaker from the audience scolded everyone on the stage, said they should be ashamed of themselves, and expressed embarassment that any students and newcomers to CHI should have seen the event. Well…. like I said, as long as the participants were sincere, I don’t feel that way. This event certainly was not representative of the CHI ethos (which is friendly and positive to a fault). But I just don’t think a heated argument now and then hurts anything. Of course, I admit that I would never have acted the way the panelists did… too polite, I guess. And I’m sure glad I wasn’t in the authors’ shoes!

Finally, who do I think is right? Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t read the “Ethnography Considered Harmful” paper nor the works it critiques. For what it’s worth, I thought the panelists made the best showing on stage (they certainly were the superior performers), but my inclination is with the authors. (In any case, I will evalute the merit of these (and other) approaches in terms of their ability to inform design.) Again, what makes me think this was a valuable event is that I will read these papers. And if everyone on the stage that day in Boston had been polite, I probably would not have.

So bravo (and brava) to all of you for sticking your necks out.