In April 2018, Danilo Giglitto, Research Associate at the Hilali Network, presented our work on merging HCI and ICH at the 2018 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2018) at the Palais des congrès de Montréal in Canada. Danilo shared outcomes related to the practice-based research carried out by educators and students during the 2017 Hilali Summer School in Egypt.
CHI is arguably the biggest and most important conference about Human Computer Interaction (HCI). HCI is a field of study focusing on the design of computer technology and, in particular, the interaction between humans (the users) and computers. It encompasses multiple disciplines, such as computer science, cognitive science, and human-factors engineering. While initially concerned with computers, HCI has since expanded to cover almost all forms of information technology design (https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/human-computer-interaction).
This annual session hosted more than 3,000 computer educators, researchers and professionals who participated in ground-breaking talks and discussions about a manifold of topics addressing challenges around the human-factor in technology design. The 2018 theme of the conference, Engage, really captured the essence our work carried out at the Hilali Summer School, in which we worked with students to engage the Bedouins of North-Central Egypt in the design of suitable mobile technology for the self-documentation of intangible cultural heritage (ICH).
The presented paper (downloadable from this link) – which was co-authored by Shaimaa Lazem and Anne Preston – was included in the session “User Innovation in Marginalized Communities”. This session was consistent with two of the core objectives of the Hilali Network: 1) to advance human-computer education in Egypt by empowering local designers and 2) to safeguard Bedouin ICH through digital means. The importance of the first objective stems from evidences showing how an establishment of HCI education in Egyptian university courses could be beneficial for the growth of the Egyptian ICT sector and, as a result, the Egyptian economy overall. The relevance of the ‘safeguarding’ aspects derives from the risk of fading away that the ICH of this community is going through because of big societal changes. To try counteracting this phenomenon, the member of this community showed a willingness to become the users for the design that took place within this project.
The talk explained how the specific configuration of the Hilali Network, which is a partnership between the UK and Egypt, represented also an opportunity to look at something we were interested in from the outset, which is the power dynamics within our attempt to engage the Bedouins in the design of technology and the subsequent documentation of ICH. In fact, the Hilali Summer School was both our way to advance HCI education in Egypt and our case study for our attempt to explore decolonising and postcolonial stances in learning about HCI. While we acted as mentors during the student-led school activities, we used postcolonial and decolonizing investigative lenses to further the theoretical advancement scholarly movements such as postcolonialism in HCI, Arab HCI, and AfriCHI. To this scope, we presented to the audience two main research questions which were anchored to different perspectives, respectively an international and intranational perspective. The international perspective was about how the Egyptian students perceived the power dynamics within our project. The intranational perspective was about what were the main challenges for the students-designers in enacting the participation of a culturally-distant community.
The pinnacle of the presentation was represented by our findings showing how more practical and theoretical work is needed to better understand (and, hopefully, overcome) colonising legacies and attitudes in cross-cultural design processes. We explained how from the students’ perspective, the Hilali Summer School had – initially – a colonialist flavour, with Western institutions such as Kingston University and UNESCO misrepresented as having much agency in the design process. However, the findings of the intranational perspective suggest that new power relationships may take place when designers from a developing country lead a design for a culturally-distant community such as the Bedouins.
Given the complexity of the scenario proposed, we closed the presentation with three recommendations. Firstly, to support local HCI communities such as AfriCHI and Arab HCI as these are the ones that allow understanding a cultural context better and, in doing so, making to engage marginalised voices into a design more likely. Secondly, to embrace complexity, especially when looking at themes such as post colonialism in design, and to explore preconceptions at a micro level. Finally, to explore the power dynamics with local teams beforehand as this could allow discovering hidden struggles and perceived lack of agency that need addressing.
Engaging a high number of researchers and practitioners in such complex themes is what makes conference such as CHI must-go venues to foster deep reflections and conversations.
Our participation in the conference was made possible by The Newton Fund, part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment, whose primary focus is to develop partner countries research and innovation capacity for longterm sustainable growth.