General Information

Student: Anne-Laure Razat
School: Barnard College, Columbia University
Majors: Computer Science, American Studies
E-mail: ar3607@barnard.edu
Project: Public Interest Technology and Building Inclusive Computer Science Communities

Project Description

This project takes on the design problem of how to best apply the tools and techniques of public interest technology to build and strengthen computer science communities. Originally, this project focused on public interest technology and libraries - due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was modified.

Weekly Log

Week 1:

This week started the research program. It was ushered in by several introductory events (all online) and an orientation to break down expectations for us and our research. For my research this week, I primarily read several background texts in order to build my foundation of understanding the problem I'm trying to solve. I'm working on fundamentally a design problem of how to apply the tools and techniques of public interest technology to the space of a library, and then hopefully implementing my idea in some way. My readings were mainly books, including "Palaces for the People" by Eric Klinenberg, a text on how social infrastructure can help fight inequality, "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman, which breaksdown and details the importance and variety of implementations of design, "Why Journalism Still Matters" by Michsel Schudson, I will be working with journalists on this project so it felt like an important background text, and "The Tyranny of Metrics" by Jerry Muller, to consider and question how one could measure the success of any changes I implement. I had several meetings with my advisor discussing what I had read and what I want to further look into - we decided next week I will continue by focusing on how the American Library Association currently measures their success in librarys, more readings on selecting strong metrics to measure (ie looking into what non-profits measure), and thinking about how we design for people without stable lives (ie looking into government works, NGOs, and how they address this problem).

Week 2:

This week began with presentations from all participants in the DIMACS REU program; everyone provided 4/5 minute summaries of their projects and the goals they anticipated accomplishing this summer. I presented as well (see presentation here); I thought this process was a great way to see the work others are setting out on as well as setting clear goals and expectations for myself. My research this week primarily took the form of more reading, specificially the books "Building Online Communities" by Robert Kraut and "Measure What Matters" by John Doerr. I also looked extensively into how the American Library Association (ALA) currently measures library success - this took quite a bit of time to parse through as there have been a variety of endeavors over the years to improve library outcomes. Next week I plan to work with other students in the Public Interest Technology lab to establish a clear problem within libraries that we want to solve. I'll also be in discussion with several experts in the field, including Eric Klinenberg, whose book "Palaces for the People" I read last week.

Week 3:

This week I dove further into my research empowered by talking with several experts in the field, more enlightening readings, a data science workshop, and the Public Interest Technology (PIT) lab itself. On Monday, I met other students in the PIT lab - they come from across the fields of Computer Science, Architecture, Journalism, and Urban Studies. During the week, we had a variety of experts in the field come and talk with us. Erhardt Graeff, a social scientist and civic technologist, came to talk to us about his work in civic tech. After his presentation, I read his doctoral thesis and presented a summary of it and relevant points from it to the rest of the lab. The presentation can be found here. Eric Klinenberg, author, sociologist, and scholar of urban studies, culture, and media, also came and talked with us. He is the author of the book I read last week, Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Leah Meisterlin and Karen Fairbanks, two architects from Marble Fairbanks, an architecture, research, and planning office that focuses on "cultural institutions, integrated design processes, and education." came and talked about their work designing libraries, such as the new Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center that is currently being constructed in Brooklyn. Shannon Mattern, professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research who focuses on "focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition." also came and talked about her studies and understandings of libraries and social infrastructure. Her time with us was interesting because she really fostered a discussion and answered a variety of our questions. Michael Buckland, a professor at UC Berkeley who focuses on information, library services and their relation to culture and society came and discussed the past of library science and provided thought to what the future might look like. Finally, we talked with Deborah Estrin, a CS professor at Cornell University as well as the Associate Dean for Impact at Cornell Tech. She discussed social infrastructure and its relationship with technology, and also touched on how we might begin to define "public interest technology". In addition to these enriching presentations, I read User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and Human Centered Design which didn't prove to be as insightful as I imagined but was still a good base text. I also reached out to librarians on Twitter and through them was sent a variety of resources that I've begun to read on the deep history of inequality and segregation in libraries - we imagine libraries to be spaces open to any and all but throughout our nations history and even today, that does not prove to be the case. I also attended the DIMACS REU Data Science Workshop that ran everyday this week, taught by the CS Department Chair at Rutgers, Matthew Stone. Next week I look forward to synthesizing all the information I learned this week, interviewing librarians and library patrons, and working towards defining a specific project/implementation in libraries.

Week 4:

This week I started working directly with my group in the PIT lab; we're a combination of Architecture, Journalism, and Computer Science students. A big struggle we faced was framing our problem - libraries are a HUGE domain and there are variety of problems to focus on within them, so, we decided to start by talking to librarians and identify what they viewed as difficulties in their day to day. We used several library chat platforms - from the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library to connect with librarians. We gained great insight from these talks, specifically, they highlighted the great scope of tasks librarians face and the wide variety of solutions they can provide to their patrons. We synthesized this information and the following day interviewed a librarian over Zoom. After this interview, we began brainstorming ideas of things we would want to create/implement that either improve libraries or carry on the library mission. Then, based on these ideas, we crafted a definition for public interest technology: "Public Interest Technology encompasses the techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of a good, service, or event that empowers a disempowered population, without disempowering those outside of that population. It is not commercial or for profit, and is ideally not government affiliated. It is owned and operated by and for the people, mutable by those who use it. It fosters community building, establishing networks of connections outside of normal institutions that hold power over us, whether that be the state or corporations." We hope to use this definition to help us frame the change we're looking to implement. We presented some of preliminary brainstorming and definition to the lab and received helpful feedback on it. We're now working on further research into our fields of interest. I'm excited to see where our further research takes us next week.

Week 5:

This week marked the third and final week of working of the Public Interest Technology Lab at Columbia. My group created a final design for a product we think would help the library space - The Library of Community Action. First, we defined our problem - despite being largely underfunded, the public library is entrusted with a diverse range of responsibilities, including acting as the keeper of community knowledge and networks. As a result, librarians are expected to do much more than provide books and resources to patrons. We ask the question: what can we do to relieve the library of some of the burden of its current responsibilities? To solve this problem, we wanted to focus on putting knowledge in the hands of the community while simultaneously allowing the community to share their own knowledge with others both locally and globally, empowering people to build communities and networks through a shared information system. To accomplish this goal, we designed an online platform: the Library of Community Action (LCA). The LCA is a space where users can create, share, and fork community-building recipes. A further breakdown of this platform, its user experience/impact, and comparisons to other community building services can be found at our project website here. Our final presentation for the week can be found here. This week we accomplished a tremendous amount, from defining the specific problem we aimed to solve, to creating a solution, providing examples of that solution, and designing the platform for the solution. Next week, I look forward to beginning to think about how to implement this type of community platform.

Week 6:

As the PIT lab came to a close, my advisor and I discussed what I should work on moving forward. We knew I was going to work on implementing a community platform similar to what my group created in the lab but weren’t sure the exact specifics. In the lab, our platform revolved around relieving the library of some responsibility. After discussion, my advisor and I agreed that the human centered design approach for this product wouldn’t be possible given the current pandemic - I wouldn’t be able to go to the library and interview patrons about their experience using the library. As a result, we decided to pivot the space in which the community platform would be applied to - we thought, what space near and dear to us, besides the library, could use a community building tool? The CS department at Columbia! This past week, I’ve interviewed a range of students: freshman, juniors, seniors, TAs, POC, first-gen students, men, women and more. Hearing about all of their experiences in the department, it became clear a community building tool of some sort would be of great use to them all. To start the process of creating this platform, I researched community building theory as well as communities in STEM/CS that effectively bring people together. Next week, I look forward to synthesizing all of this information into a more concrete implementation plan.

Week 7:

This week we made significant progress in understanding what it means to create community and where specifically within the CS department students are searching for it. I continued to interview students in order to fill out our understanding of present problem spaces for community. We narrowed down our findings to three sentiments: there was a feeling of a lack of inclusivity from students throughout the department but especially for Black and Latinx students, many don’t know all of the CS resources available to them because they are scattered on various sites, and there is a general want for a CS “for good” community and/or learning space. Using these three problem spaces as our focus, we developed three potential ideas to solve them: creating a CS orientation and welcome event for newly-declared CS majors, creating a CS resource website, and creating a social good seminar. We performed a competitive analysis on these three ideas, looking to see where similar ideas existed, both at and outside of Columbia. Using evidence from our interviews and theses analyses, we established further support for our three ideas. After solidifying these ideas and their reasonings, we presented them to students, TAs, professors, and the former department chair. We wanted feedback as well as guidance on how to make these ideas a reality. Now, the goal for this research is to achieve some sort of official faculty sponsorship for the social good seminar and the welcome orientation, ensuring that they will happen, and for us to create some form of a resource website. Next week I look forward to introducing these ideas to more professors and designing/potentially implementing the resource website.

Week 8:

We started off the week speaking with more faculty about our ideas. From an administrative faculty member, we learned that creating an official website under the university is a cumbersome process through which we aren’t likely to get approved. We decided to take the “simple is the best” approach and are now making a well-organized google doc to share our collection of resources on our own terms, without university overhead. It’s interesting to think about how an effective public interest technology can be something as simple as a google doc. In the resource guide, I implemented a tag system to organize the different clubs and activities, allowing for students to find activities that fall under their interests more easily. I also created forms for user feedback/edits, so that the doc can grow with the viewers and the resources that they’re aware of. For our orientation idea, I created an outline of what the event could look like - next week we will be presenting it to the potential organizer of the event for their feedback. I also started writing out a syllabus for our social good seminar - while it is incredibly flexible, it will be a good example to show professors and administrators as we pitch them the idea. This week I also stumbled upon the TechShift toolkit for bringing attention to social good work in CS departments on college campuses. It was cool to read through this guide as a lot of the things they mentioned being important to do we are already doing/trying to implement! Finally, I started working on my essay and presentation for the DIMACS REU program, due at the end of next week. It’s exciting to write it all up and see how much I’ve accomplished over these past 8 weeks.

Week 9:

This is the last week of the research program! Reading through all my entries up until now it’s exciting to see how much I’ve accomplished. For this final week I did a lot of wrap up work. I shared the resource document out with the public and got great feedback which was exciting to see. I touched up the write-ups we created for our orientation proposal and our social good seminar proposal so that they’re ready to show higher-ups in the department. Finally, I finished my official paper for the DIMACS REU program and presented my work to other participants in the program, as well as watched their presentations! My presentation can be found here.


Additional Information


This work was carried out during the virtual 2020 DIMACS REU program at Rutgers University and the Barnard Computer Science Summer Research Program supported by Craig Newmark Philanthropies. I worked with the novel Public Interest Technology Lab at Columbia University throughout this time as well.