CHI 2016: Global, Diverse, Good

What can a 1000 scientists achieve when they invest one hour doing voluntary work?

At the heart of Silicon Valley, the CHI 2016 conference broke through new ceilings. CHI (pronounced kai) is the most prestigious international conference in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). It attracts researchers, designers, engineers, and artists who want to (re)shape technology and media to enhance people’s quality of life. This year, the conference took place in San Jose, USA. Over 3,800 participants from 52 countries presented their work in various media formats, including keynote presentations, media installations, interactive demos, and posters.

In the opening keynote, Dayo Olopade, a Nigerian-American journalist and author, portrayed the challenges she faced moving from the USA to Nairobi, and how the demographics and culture of different countries are unique and should be taken into account in the design of new digital tools. Dayo took the audience on a voyage to Africa where she slowly dissolved the western lense allowing them to see the chaotic, desperate Africa reveal its unconventional systems as an efficient act of “kanju”, a term which refers to the creativity that comes out of African difficulties. She showed areas in Africa where the informal infrastructure, streets and neighbourhoods, did not make it into any map app or address book system. Her apartment in Nairobi, she described, “was best triangulated by using a Chinese restaurant, a petrol station, and an enormous pothole.” Dayo encouraged the CHI community to look at Africa in a more positive demeanor, and instead of trying to westernize it with new tools, attempt to understand it and design for it. Amazon, Uber, and postal services are needed in Africa, just not in the same form they have in Silicon Valley.

Ten teleconference robots facilitated remote attendance to CHI 2016 conference.

Teleconference robots facilitated remote attendance throughout the CHI 2016 conference in San Jose, USA.

CHI touched upon other serious and global issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis. Reem Talhouk and colleagues shared their own experience and research with the Syrian refugees, and the challenges the refugees face, including access to services, integration into host communities, and fleeing to safety. The panel discussed how the research community can have a more actionable role towards aiding this emerging population in a timely manner, and emphasized collaborative research. At a time of increasing political and economical crises, Vasillis Vlachokyriakos and colleagues examined how HCI can promote democratic practices and social justice. They debated digital tools that open new avenues to alternative modes of political organization, civic participation, and heightened awareness of the various power relations at play.

Education was one of the hottest topics at CHI 2016. Two keynote speakers–Salman Khan of Khan Academy and Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code spoke of new ways to deliver quality education to everyone. Salman pointed out that online education should complement the physical classroom and not replace it. In turn, Khan Academy is working with several schools to test new teaching techniques and materials that would enhance students’ learning experience by combining the two learning methods.

Stanford lab toure.

Stanford University lab toure.

In the words of the conference chairs, CHI 2016 was “a more humane conference, transparent, data-driven, and accounted for the importance of families and work/life balance.” CHI is one of the most diverse scientific conferences out there. Women have a strong presence in all disciplines and positions–(vice)presidents, professionals, professors, doctoral candidates, and students. For the last three years, the conference hosted ‘CHI Women’s Breakfast’ for about 100 attendees, mostly women, to celebrate women in computing and discuss the gender gap in the computer science fields. This year the conference renamed this event to ‘Diversity & Inclusion Lunch‘, and hosted 500 diverse attendees. The aspects of diversity were expanded beyond gender to include aging, disability, physical appearance, race, ethnicity, nationality, marital status, and mental health. Speakers shared their personal stories and how they stood up in the face of these challenges by establishing support groups and speaking up. But inclusion may not be as simple as the employees diversity reports on the companies dashboards. Karen Holtzblatt and colleagues moderated a panel on the status and challenges of minorities in high tech. While many companies have implemented new recruitment techniques to reduce bias against underspreseted groups, Karen called companies to take the next step and understand the experiences of these groups so they would “stay, advance, and thrive”. On the conference level, the organizers did just that by providing parent attendees with a free-of-charge child care service in the conference building.

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lunch@chi allowed the attendees who are at myriad points in their careers and from various institutions to meet in smaller groups the first day of CHI.

A core framework in the human-computer interaction field is “user-centered design”–understand your users, design, evaluate, analyze, iterate. Each year, CHI organizers take this concept for a test-drive holding several sessions, such as ACM SIGCHI Town Hall Meeting and CHI Chairs Ask Me Anything (AMA), to discuss with the community how the conference programs, the review process, as well as the publication and dissemination channels can be enhanced. This year, in Transparent Statistics in HCI session, the attendees brainstormed new ways to inquiry the quality of data acquisition and analysis in research papers, and encourage the authors to publish their data and replicate other studies.

CHI 2016 theme was “chi4good”. The organizers of CHI, and for the first time, cracked the shell that separates scientific conferences from their surrounding communities.  Attendees we asked to arrive one day before the beginning of the conference and spend a few hours in community work. As a result, more than 700 hours were spent volunteering for nonprofit local organizations in the Silicon Valley.

CHI volunteers one day before the conference.

CHI volunteers one day before the conference.

But how about going beyond CHI? CHI 2016 has shown a few examples on how the impact of the science community can traverse beyond paper format to affect people in their current environments. Conferences of different fields should work on engaging scientists in more community and volunteer work to bridge the gap between incremental science and people’s real and current needs. Encouraging different institutes to work together to do good leads to new networks, exchange of expertise and knowledge, and future collaborations.

To this day, the field of HCI and the CHI community have put forward proposals to address many real-world problems. These solutions still need more investing and must reach the right people for them to have the desired impact. But what about prevention tools? How can HCI equip people with tools that help them avoid rather than merely cope with crises? How can HCI help people become more informed of their economical and political spheres, or even the ‘fine print’ on the products they purchase on daily basis?

After five days and on the 12th of May, CHI 2016 was concluded. Attendees left San Jose convention center with new aspirations and inspirations. CHI has been celebrating research in the field of human-computer interaction for the past 34 years. But this year, the conference set out new goals of global scope. Researchers will no longer look at the world in bulk, the evidence presented this year point out the intricacies of different populations and how targeted design is more impactful than one-design-fits-all.

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