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.