Nova100
07 Aprile 2008

TECHNOLOGY AMONG THE HOMELESS. An interview with Christopher A. Le Dantec (Georgia Institute of Technology)

We tend to
believe that technology is improving everybody’s life, at the workplace as well
as at home. But what about those who have neither a job nor a home? Christopher
A. Le Dantec, together with his colleague W. Keith Edwards, carried out a study
on the use of technology among the homeless and will present the results tomorrow at CHI 2008. The paper that describes the study was one of those that
received the conference Best Papers awards. I’ve asked him a few quick
questions about the study:

Why
did you choose to carry out a study on technology with homeless people?

” The study
was inspired by a discussion with a colleague: we wanted to look at
human-computer interaction in an ‘extreme’ case that had not been widely
considered before.”

Based on
your research, what is the role and perception of technology among the
homeless?

”One of the more interesting findings that came out of the work was that
technology plays a prominent role in identity management as much as it plays a
functional role.  In conversations about mobile phone use, the
participants in the study revealed how simply possessing a mobile phone
provided them with a tool to manage how the public perceived them; it became a
kind of totem that was used to mitigate the stigma of being homeless.“


How do volunteering associations that work with the homeless should take into
account your findings to improve their activities?

”There are a number of ways to think about how outreach organizations might
incorporate technology into their interaction with the homeless community.
There are two questions that should be kept in mind, one of ‘access’ and one of
‘use’. ‘Access’ to technology has the potential to affect communication,
information seeking, and employment. For centers whose service to the homeless
community is built around job seeking and life stabilization, increasing access
to technology can play an important role in the efficacy of that service. The
‘use’ of technology really focuses on presenting technology in ways that is
responsive to the kinds of situations the homeless are dealing with. Going back
to the example of the mobile phone, using the mobile phone to manage external
perception points to what an organization would need to consider when providing
technology to the homeless community.”

What are
the implications for design? Will future technologies make society less
inclusive?

”I do not know if future technologies will make society less inclusive, the
current trend suggests the opposite is certainly a possibility.  That
said, it is important to recognize that different segments of society
appropriate technology in ways that may not be obvious to the creators of that
technology.  As society incorporates more technology, the relationship of
various groups within society will change and the task is to identify and
mitigate factors that might increase risk of social exclusion.  In the
case of homeless individuals, the high cost of some technologies is prohibitive
and as more services move toward the digital realm, public access becomes more
important. This need for publicly available technology is coming at a time, at
least within the U.S., where public access points like pay-phones are being
scaled back as individual technology moves center stage.  The challenge to
designers is one that spans the devices, the deployment of those devices, and
social and economic policies that support those devices.”

 © 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.