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Hamilton

Last night I was driving in my car and was signing along to the Hamilton soundtrack. I realized while I was singing that I discovered the Hamilton soundtrack at the end of my junior year of undergraduate, right as I started thinking about graduate school. And as I thought about the timeline in my car, I realized that the musical probably played a role in my decision to look at Congress. It reinstalled a sense of pride and faith into what the U.S. has built, and an empathy for those in charge today.

So thank you Hamilton. You may have lead to me to where I am today.

Down The Rabbit Hole

This quarter I will be entering the rabbit hole of literature to prepare for my qualifying exam in the spring (It’s basically a large literature review). There are a few questions that I need to start answering to situate my work:

[1] How many people are looking at technology in Congress and in what ways?

Yesterday I discovered a whole group of political science researchers looking at technology use in Congress, but most of them were looking at campaigns, rather than constituent-based communication. In some ways, it was almost embarrassing to know that I had completely missed their body of literature over the past year.  However, I think this is just part of academia, and it takes practice to discover similar content in very interdisciplinary concepts.

[2] Where is my work best situated?

This also leads to a bigger question of where do I want to frame my research career. Do I want to be known as the one who studies Congress? Or as the one who studies digital forms of civic communication? Do I want to situate all my future research in civic-based ICT, or broader development? Do you I want suggest future designs or processes? I don’t know yet, but creating an outlet for impact is important.

[4] Where are the arguments, discrepancies, and gaps within the literature?

This is where I can squish my own work into pre-existing work…yes, I did say squish. I think it describes the process quite nicely.

[5] What skills do I need to develop from reading certain pieces of literature?

I clearly need more experience with both qualitative and quantitative measures. So what do I need to read to gain those skills?

[6] Anything else?…

Smart Citizens, Smarter State

I finished reading Beth Novek’s book called Smart Citizen, Smarter State. Novek focuses on citizen engagement and calls for more expert-centric software to help government identify and utilize expertise outside of government to help with government decisions.

This book was a great representation of the lack of good software within government. Her examples of policies like FACA show how hard it is to use citizen engagement. Sometimes, it’s even illegal. In terms of my own research, she backs up the idea that government has limited technology and technology experts to make the systems that better the government.

The one thing that I think she needs to explore more is how that engagement would pan out, especially on a scale that she is trying to create. This is my internal conundrum with citizen communication to policymakers. Right now, it’s “broken”, but in what way? If you ask a policymaker how to fix it, the answer is probably quite different from the citizen’s answer. That’s because they embody different democratic values of engagement and influence.

Novek also focuses on citizen involvement in the knowledge collection, and not the decision making process. This goes along the lines of Churchill’s “Experts on Tap, Not on Top“.

This reflects an internal conundrum  I am exploring Ofcourse, policymakers should listen to what their citizens have to say. They have the constitutional right to do so, and their knowledge can provide assistance to those in power. But just because policymakers listen to the comments and demands of their citizens, does not mean they have to act upon them . So should novel technologies develop systems that have a goal to influence legislation?…Maybe not. Maybe the answer is as Novek suggested; to develop systems that provide quality knowledge to policymakers, so their own decisions can be based on rational evidence. (That possibility leads down a whole different rabbit hole of issues on what is ‘rational’… )

As of October 10, 2017, citizens are getting angry, and they want their policymakers to listen to them. But do they really have to? They were elected to represent, not listen. And they can choose not to listen at the risk of not being re-elected.

So as a technologist looking in, what are you suppose to do? Build something better? Is technology just in the way? It’s a hard question that I can’t answer. This doesn’t mean technology doesn’t have the positive potential to be a platform for engagement, but what’s the point of an expert management system if no one wants to engage in or use that expertise? 

At the end of the day, I have two internal tensions. First, I think Novek puts too much faith on the current state of the American people to actively participate. Citizens only get involved when they feel their government is failing, or at least that is my current perception with the state of our government today. That is why we established a government in the first place; to let someone represent us so we don’t have to make all the decisions ourselves. But second, I think she has a great point that citizens have something very valuable to offer policymakers and we should provide better access to their valuable knowledge. The question of how that knowledge will actually be used is still up in the air.

To Write About Yourself

 

“The first draft of anything is shit.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Writing and very often talking about yourself is hard. It’s even harder when it’s being evaluated by someone through the lens of a personal essay.

I am currently in the process of writing a draft for the NSF GRFP, and after reading about 20 previously accepted essays, I am still having trouble reflecting on how to make my own personal story “convincing”. I believe I have a strong statement to be made about why my research is important. But to convince the reviewers to support my work, I also need to convince them that I am a good researcher and I have the motivation and experience from my past to pursue said work.

So as a note to myself as I continue to write the first draft of this paper, here is what I should remember:

  • It’s gonna be crap the first time around
  • Just do it…not in an hour…now
  • Finish a draft on Sunday and send it to half of everyone you know
  • Finish another draft by next Sunday and send it to the other half
  • Don’t exaggerate but be BIG
  • Be confident
  • You can do it 🙂

Sam

Return to the Land of Good Weather and No Real Seasons

After my long wonderful crazy summer in Washington D.C., I have finally returned to Irvine for another quarter of school.

This summer definitely provided it’s up and downs, but it was a great learning experience. I learned so much about myself and what I want to accomplish in graduate school. I also made quite a number of mistakes, none of which I regret. They will help me be a better researcher in Congress if I return for another summer.

So to reflect on my experience, here are a few things I learned:

Things I Learned About Congress:

1. How You Dress Matters

This seems a bit obvious but it was definitely a wake up call for yours truly. I came to D.C. with only one backpacking backpack (basically one suitcase) filled with clothes for three months. I made it work, but I realized that my clothing standards were not as high as they should have been. I’ve spent so much time in school and in IT departments where jeans and a nice shirt are acceptable forms of attire. When I started working for CMF, I had to start doing dry cleaning for the first time (gasp!); I worse suits and dress pants and a pair of uncomfortable flats. Yet, even what I wore to CMF on a daily basis wasn’t enough for Congress. During my very last week of work, I had to attend a lunch presentation. I had completely forgotten that the lunch was in the Hart Senate building and that Congress was in session. Everyone was wearing full suits, high heels (for the ladies), and pressed jackets. I on the other hand had a sweater with holes in it, a decently nice blouse, green jeans, and flats…safe to say I hid in the corner during that presentation.

But I learned by lesson. As much as it’s going to be a hard adjustment, when I return I am definitely going to update my Congressional wardrobe.

2. Congress is Young

One morning, I was early to work and had to wait outside. So I decided to take a little stroll to the park next to the Raymond House Building to have some breakfast. When I got off the train at Capitol South, I sat and watched all the congressional employees go to work. If anyone knows the demographics of Congress, they will know that Congress is young….really young. The Sunlight Foundation says that the average age is 31.  Due to high turnover and high demand for previous staffers in the lobbying industry, the Hill is always hiring new people. The feeling of youthfulness is especially present in the summer time when there are an abundance of interns coming to work. When I watched people come up from the metro, I felt like every single person was around my age. No Bernie Sanders or John McCain or John Boehner in sight.

This, I think, is a vital component to shaping tensions between Congressional technology standards and technology demands within the House. The younger employees clearly feel the frustrations of using legacy software that doesn’t meet the demands of todays world, especially in regards to communication. In my opinion, it may also be slight beneficial…but that’s for another blog post.

3. Technology Standards are Changing Fast

For a more detailed look at this, read this article I wrote for CMF.

Things I Learned About Research:

1. Getting Interviews (in Congress) is hard

The fact of the matter is, if you don’t have the connections, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get an interview. All my interviews were chosen using contacts I have made over the summer. Even my own Representative’s office hasn’t gotten back to me, even after I called and emailed and showed up to their office in person multiple times. But again, each office is also very different, but the fact of the matter is that they are busy, and won’t take the time to stop and waste time on an hour long interview for something they don’t know or trust.

2. Thinking is hard

It’s hard to sit down and think, especially when you are working full time and want to take some time off after work to relax. I made sure to sit down and transcribe all my notes after every interview every day, but taking daily notes and doing daily reflections can get exhausting. Discipline is the name of the game and I most definitely did not have as much as I should have.

3. Matching Your Research to the Literature is Important

This is something I most definitely regret, but will learn from in the future. It’s important to actively read and review the literature while conducting research of any kind. It can help frame to work and give context to the story you are trying to tell. I did not spend enough time reviewing the literature as I continued to conduct my research.

4. Balancing Work and Family is Hard

In California, it’s pretty easy for me to balance work and personal life, but that’s mostly because I have no personal life…just kidding, but not really. I am still new to California so I haven’t established any long-standing friendships yet, so it’s easy for me to devote all my time to my work.

But in D.C. I am very close to home. I grew up in Maryland and my parents, sister, and close friends are all still in the DelMarVa area, so when I had time to see them, I took advantage of it. I did not spend a single weekend catching up on reading or writing because I was spending my time with my family and my friends. That is a personal choice that I do not regret. 

Also, during my first month in D.C. my commute was four hours every day (one car ride, one train, and a metro ride!), so when I returned to an apartment late at night with only 3 hours to spare before bed time, I wanted to spend that time relaxing after an exhausting commute. 

I am lucky ( and in many ways unlucky) to be in a position where I do not have family commitments while in school. So when family opportunities do arrive, I take advantage of spending as much time as possible with the people that I love; a trade-off most graduate students, or let’s be honest – ALL PEOPLE, must face throughout their career.

I may have made some mistakes this summer, but I learned so much, and I don’t regret a single minute of how I used my time….except for the time I binged watched Game of Thrones. That’s the only thing I regret.

So….what do you research again?

I get this question a lot.

What does the word informatics mean? How are you studying computer science but also Congress? What does this have to do with sustainability?

To answer these questions, I thought I would write a nice blog post to explain what it is I am researching and where it came from. For those not interested in the whole story, this partially sums it up…

The technology that Congress uses to communicate with citizens is bad. The technology advocacy groups and citizens use to communicate with Congress is bad. No good communication = no good policy.

The End.

If you want a little more information, keep reading.

So let’s start with the basics. What is informatics? That’s a great question. Honestly, the definition of that word really depends on who you are talking to. Different universities have different spins on the word information and what it means to study informatics, information, information systems, etc.

To many, informatics means the study of information or information science. Specifically information retrieval through computer systems. This typically involves learning topics like databases, software management, computer science, etc.

However, schools and departments that focus on information also typically house those in the field of human-computer interaction, or HCI for short. This phrase can also refer to user-centered computing, user-centered design, UX/UI, and HCI (although others would argue there are some differences to each of those terms, for general proposes I am smushing them all together). They all generally embody that same core idea of studying and developing technology with a user-based perspective. For those in industry, it means designing and developing technology for users and their needs. For those in academia, it also means observing how technology influences humans and how humans influence technology in different spheres of society and life.

So basically, if a human interfaces with a piece of computing technology in some way or another, it can be considered something of study in the field of Informatics and HCI. 

           + = SCIENCE

 

Make sense? Ok.

Is this really broad? Ofcourse it is, but that’s what makes it fun. One of the benefits of having such a broad definition of Informatics is that it opens up infinite opportunities to study how technology interacts with the world. In my own department we have research on game development, identity politics in online communities, technology for farming and sustainable agriculture, technology for accessibility, technology for health information, and so so sooooo much more. As a result, my department is filled with people from all different backgrounds. From anthropology and philosophy to computer science and software engineering, my department basically runs the gambit in expertise.

This diverse and interdisciplinary milieux can sometimes cause confilct. It can be confusing and quite stressful to have a such a broad spectrum of beliefs in one place, but it also opens up immense opportunity to tackle topics that are too broad to fit into one typical department.

And so, this is where my research lies!

When I first applied to graduate school, I wanted to focus more on sustainability and how computers impact the environment. It just so happens that multiple professors at UCI Irvine were doing just that in the lab they call the Green IT Lab in a group called the Social Code Group. Their mission is to “approach major social topics – such as environmental issues, education, and politics – through technological innovation, analysis, and understanding”

I was hooked.

A few months before I joined the program, I started engaging in advocacy for public land access for rock climbing. The Access Fund, which is a non-profit dedicated to this issue, had these really cool digital web forms that would allow me to send  a letter to my congressional representative in one click.

I broader example of these systems is something like Countable, which lets users send automated emails to their representatives by clicking ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ buttons above each piece of legislation.

I thought it was awesome, and I was really interested in how these system worked on a grander scale in advocacy and federal government. Lucky for me, my sister has spent much of her undergraduate career in D.C. working with different politicians. So I showed it to her and her response was…

“Oh, we don’t read those…”

And with that, my questions about policy, digital advocacy, and the environment took off.

What do you mean ‘we don’t read those’??? Why don’t politicians read those? I care about these issues and my Rep should be listening to me! Is this a website design issue? Are politicians just lazy and ignorant? Are these systems just not useful? Do advocacy groups know these emails are bad? What is clicktivism? Why will the revolution not be tweeted? What is arm chair activism? What are computers doing to protest? Why are there hundreds of advocacy groups using these form emails if they don’t influence politics?…… WHAT IS GOING ON????????

And then after spending my first year investigating just the surface of these questions, it hit me. Maybe I am tackling this issue from the wrong side. Maybe I have an opportunity to explore these systems on a level that hasn’t been explored yet (a.k.a the US Congress).

I care a lot about the environment and sustainability, and I also care deeply about how computers are simultaneously worsening and aiding our efforts to become a more sustainable society. If we want to make sure capitalist-driven development of technology does not continue to inflict harm upon this earth, we need large policies. However,  as my experience exploring these issues over the last year has shown, we can’t even communicate the policies we need to effectively make change because the pathways for that communication are technologically and culturally inefficient and unproductive.

There are a million different ways to approach issues surrounding sustainability and the environment, and technology for that matter; this just so happens to be mine. Plus, this research obviously umbrellas much more than just environmental policy; it affects how the U.S. democracy basically functions.

In summary: 

If we want to have real dialogue and real discussions that influence policy, first we have to fix the very channel where our voices are meant to be heard.

And that is where my research has led me today.

Still confusing? Read this paper I wrote.

Still confusing after reading the paper? Send me a message!

Hello world!

Welcome to my new and improved blog!

I tried to keep a blog during my first year of my PhD, but I was overwhelmed with the immense amount of reading and writing for classes that I never got around to writing my own blog. Hopefully as I become more organized and disciplined as a grad student, I will force myself to write more often.

I’ve kept blogs in the past. My most recent blog was about my undergraduate study abroad experience in Japan. I also kept a video blog of my jaw surgery in high school, but I can no longer find it. It’s buried in the depths of all the other surgery vlogs on Youtube. 

This blog will (hopefully) focus on my experience in my PhD program. My goal is to use this blog as a way to practice my writing, explore thoughts in my mind, and develop my research ideas into print.

I’m just about to finish a summer in D.C. working with a non-profit who studies Congress during a CRAZY time in America’s political history. So I’m sure I will have a lot to talk about 🙂

Cheers –

Sam