Designing Socio-Technical Systems to Illuminate Possibilities for a Vulnerable Population

Published in Virginia Tech Computer Science Department, 2021

Recommended citation: Gautam, A. Designing Socio-Technical Systems to Illuminate Possibilities for a Vulnerable Population. Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Tech. http://aakash.xyz/files/defense2021.pdf

How might computer scientists work with communities in facilitating meaningful social change? In this project, we make a case for an approach that builds upon what the individuals and community already have—their assets—rather than emphasizing “user’s needs” as typically postulated by human-centered design. We present details of our four-year-long assets-based engagement with an anti-trafficking organization in Nepal and the sex trafficking survivors supported by the organization. We explored the potential role that socio-technical systems and technology designers can play in assisting the survivors to build on their existing assets towards their vision of “dignified reintegration”. The research involves three fieldwork and a remote study, each one leveraging carefully tailored socio-technical systems to investigate a design proposition. We present an operationalizable definition of assets and a framework of action to leverage assets in realizing change at an individual and institutional level. We describe the conditions that influenced the possibilities for our interventions and the factors that guided the design of the socio-technical systems. We further highlight how we adapted our methods to the local resources and practices in order to foster a space that promoted comfort and control to the study participants. The detailed account of our approach aims to provide a justification for undertaking slow, incremental steps with the community.

A recording of the final presentation can be seen here

A PDF version of the slide deck that I used for the final presentation can be accessed here