Reports and reflections from the Science in Public 2012

Last week(end) I was at the Science in Public 2012 conference at the University College London, which took place on 20th and 21st of July. I enjoyed the conference very much as it was not too crowded and still filled with many interesting talks and people – I am a bit in favour of these little conference compared to ones with thousand(s of) people. Compared to this conference the upcoming 4S/EASST conference in Copenhagen in October 2012 will probably become much more like what the Olympics-induced congestion jam and the overcrowded tube looked like, that caused me to miss my flight back home to Vienna on Monday morning just by 10 minutes. Well perhaps I can at least better get ahead of the conference programme in Copenhagen then. But back to London first.

In this blog post I want to present you a some of my subjective conference highlights, as well as some reflections on my own presentation that I gave there. As this post is a bit longer I give you here just the contents overview, and if you find anything interesting go for more and jump to the specific sections:

  • Reflections on my own presentation
  • Opening talks
  • Session A3 – Engagement with science
  • Session B2 – Emerging Technologies
  • Keynote on openness of science
  • Session C3 – Representations of science
  • Session D2 – Interfaces and Knowledge Transfer
  • Session E1 – Scientists’ experiences in different public contexts
  • Further reports

In any case my reports here are often merely my interpretations of what was presented, and I have missed some and overemphasized on others. Well, in the end it is what I just found relevant to my own research interests, and what my sparse time at the moment permitted me to write – because just a day after I came back from London, I already headed off to some remote area for a week-long seminar where we don’t have internet, not even cell phone network (which is great for me and our group work, only not so much for my blogging activity) – and I have to use sparse in-between times to write this and put it online. So, if you want to catch up with some other views on the conference head down for the last section on “Further reports”, where I have linked to other sources by other conference participants (if you find other interesting sources or have written something yourself and want it linked to, just leave me a comment).

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Some insights into participatory design and research in computer science

Today I gave a presentation at the Science in Public 2012 conference at the University College London. The topic of my talk was “Participatory design and feminist interventions. Emancipatory potentials of public engagement. Some insights into participatory design and research in computer science.” Here you can find the slides and the transcript including full references.

I will write some more introductory words and also report on some (personal) highlights of the conference in the next days.

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Dear wanderers of the web and other people who stumbled upon this blog, either by chance or determinately so: welcome to my newly started online outlet for my reports and thoughts about feminist Science & Technology Studies (STS) and critical informatics!

What I will present here throughout the next few months will consist largely of parts of my actual work on my masters thesis. This may either be in form of summarizes of single papers that seem rather interesting and important to me or it might also be in form of more extensive parts synthesizing several sources to highlight specific aspects I encounter. Occasionally I might also throw in just some assembled thoughts on some peripheral aspects of my work.

But the heck, what is my work about in the first place? Let me try to explain. My thesis so far runs under the working title “Computer scientists & their publics. On the construction of relevant groups in context of participatory design and research”. As such titles of academic works have it, to get a better picture of what I am doing, I will roll it up from behind. Participatory design and research designates diverse practices and methodologies in computer science that try to integrate users, or more broadly, relevant groups of people into their research, who are usually excluded in mainstream computer science. The idea behind this participation is, that the products of design and research better fulfill the needs of those who are working with it – either because a well-designed computer artifact is tailored in a situation contextually aware of the real world outside the development setting (workshop, laboratory, programming office, …) or because the theories based on and empirical insights gained by research better explain or account for real world phenomena as they are happening in the participants daily lives. Of course this depends on the settings and aims of the research. In context of computer science the actual research usually aims on technologically enabling certain situations or on exploring methods and practices that might later on be used to technologically enable certain situations. These situations are very often defined as working contexts, but increasingly we find research on other aspects of individual and public life.

So far this is all very abstract. Perhaps some concrete examples of what this computer science research and design is about might give you a better picture. I will try to invent some common examples in one of the upcoming posts. But first, let me finish explaining my thesis title. Well, the mentioned relevant groups might be rather diverse, as already the abstract description suggests. So, for which perspectives should such groups account for in the end, and who shall participate in research and design? Certainly not every single person that might be affected will be able to participate – whether the person herself is not willing to participate or has not the resources to do so or because there would be so many potential participants that the resources of the researching computer scientists do not suffice to enable all potential participants to really successfully participate in their research. So, in almost all cases the researchers will have to find a way to engage only a limited number of certain potential participants in their research, either by choosing them as representatives of certain groups or by choosing a certain group in spite of others. In any way, we might ask how they find out who is relevant and whose perspectives might be best included in order to develop more inclusive artifacts (technological, symbolic or cognitive). This decision will be based on several things based on the researchers’ visions of the scope of the research, technology, public relevancy and affected socio-technical contexts. Often the researchers cannot only rely on their past experiences or abstract theories for this decision, but they have to actively explore the socio-technical contexts or cut down otherwise to a reasonable set of criteria for choosing the final participants. This is a process of construction wherein certain publics are not only imagined by computer scientists, but where they are actively – although perhaps subconsciously – constructed. That means that there are not just some abstract patterns that may be derived from theories out of social sciences and humanities or even cognitive sciences or some other theoretical or practical background, from which the computer scientists then just might choose a representational sample (even if that might be possible, this act in itself would be a certain construction, because no such sample can be empirically objective). Despite all theoretical backgrounds the participatory situation demands several (micro-)decisions from the researchers in order to come to a functional participatory research setting, in which the concrete group of participation, which we might call an engaged mini-public, is set up (or constructed) physically – like a building is built of course on basis of sound physical and constructional theories but nevertheless constructed in a unique process with unique exceptions and peculiarities, even if they might be functionally insignificant in the end.

This way we have gone through once from back to forth of my thesis title: “Computer scientists & their publics. On the construction of relevant groups in context of participatory design and research”. Of course there is even more to it as with every work. In the end the work even might concentrate much more on a very different aspect, as major parts are also explorations of influences of feminist epistemologies on participatory approaches. Also a short part on the historical development of Participatory Design will be given. Participatory Design, or in short PD, is a dedicated inter- and multidisciplinary research field historically based in computer science. This also builds a strong focus of my empirical explorations, although I want to take into account participatory approaches to computer science research and design in general. Another aspect that will come up is Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS), as this is often deemed participatory or democratic per se – which it is of course only in very selected contexts while it in some contexts even is less inclusive and less emancipatory than other artifacts surrounding software development or computer science in a more general sense. And of course there will be also a significant part on classical STS literature regarding public participation in technosciences.

So, I hope I can give some interesting and comprehensible insights throughout the next few months. I plan on posting at least one posting each weak until the end of September. After that I will have to reorient. Either I am already done with my work, what I hope for, or I will have to go on anyway for several more weeks. In any case, after I am done with my master thesis I still plan to regularly publish on this blog, then just with a more general background of feminist STS and critical informatics.

If you want to comment, please feel free to do so. I would be happy to get some feedback. If you want to contact me personally, please send an e-mail to jackie (at) diebin (dot) at.

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