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!