Dean's Lecture

Human Systems as Design Tools in Resource-constrained Environments

Wednesday, April 12, 2017
4:10 pm to 5:30 pm
Nithya Sambasivan

Human Systems as Design Tools in Resource-constrained Environments (Nithya Sambasivan)

Human Systems as Design Tools in Resource-constrained Environments (Nithya Sambasivan)

What does it mean to design for a human system rather than a user? As technology finds new users in developing countries, alternative interactions emerge that challenge traditional HCI assumptions of personal, private, and pervasive access. While most ICTD research seeks to build solutions that address physical resource constraints, such as poor Internet connectivity, there often exist thriving human systems to address or work around these constraints. How can we start with the human system and amplify, modify, or forge it through design to achieve socio-economic development goals? In this talk, I will present my research focusing on designing for human collectives in developing countries, through three examples from prior work based in India.

First, an empirical understanding of how communities socially produce usage in urban slums. Second, how an existing social system was leveraged in the design of an information broadcasting system for urban sex workers. Third, how one of the world’s largest public Wi-Fi networks was designed with human intermediaries. In the final part of the talk, I will present some early results from a field study of emergent decentralized crisis response during the 2015 Chennai floods, and outline future opportunities to design for human collectives for large scale socio-economic issues, including crises, access blackouts, and environmental degradation. Throughout the talk, I discuss my approach of ethnographically-inspired research, design engagements, and empirical evaluations of systems.

Nithya Sambasivan is a researcher in the areas of HCI and ICTD, designing technologies for developing countries for over 10 years. Her work has won many awards at top conferences in these fields. She has been a researcher at Google since 2012, where she works with product teams to build technologies for the next billion users. Her research has influenced several high-impact projects for developing countries, such as public Wi-Fi in Indian train stations (launched by the Indian PM and Google CEO), mobile data transparency tools, and grid electrification, and has been directly translated to core libraries and metrics for building products for developing countries. Nithya has a Ph.D. in information and computer sciences from University of California, Irvine and an MS in HCI from Georgia Tech. Her dissertation focused on technology design for low-income communities of slums, urban sex workers and microenterprises in India. She is a recipient of Google’s Anita Borg and UC Irvine Dean’s fellowships. Nithya has interned at Microsoft Research India, Nokia Research Center and IBM TJ Watson.

Last updated:

April 5, 2017