Dourish’s Collaborative Work on #thismymob Grant Supports Indigenous Communities

November 17, 2017

When an online game centered on violence toward Aboriginal Australians made headlines in 2016, Apple and Google quickly pulled the game from their app stores. But Indigenous researcher Chris Lawrence, an associate professor in the School of Software at the University of Technology Sydney, went a step further. Working with a team of researchers that includes UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics Paul Dourish, Lawrence started exploring how social networking technologies could enhance people’s notions of Indigenous identity.

According to Dourish, after the game was pulled, “Chris became interested in the potential to create positive experiences and safe spaces online for Indigenous people and to reconnect those disconnected from their Indigenous history.” This interest is now backed by a $473,000 grant, “#thismymob: Digital Land Rights and Reconnecting Indigenous Communities,” from the Australian Research Council. Dourish is a co-investigator on the three-year grant.

In October, Lawrence started conducting fieldwork in the remote Aboriginal communities of Lombadina and Wurrumiyanga, learning how the communities use digital technologies and including them in the design of the#thismymob platform. Dourish hopes to be involved in future field expeditions to deploy the working prototype, which he says will be “like a Facebook for Indigenous Australians.”

First, though, Dourish will visit Queensland University of Technology this December to give a lecture at a #thismymob workshop. He’ll be discussing the postcolonial computing framework he and some UCI students developed years ago, which Lawrence plans to use as an “orienting mechanism” for the platform. Dourish explains that the team’s Melbourne- and Sydney-based researchers have a strong background in human-computer interaction, and Lawrence is Indigenous and has a background in public health, but what’s missing is experience with cultural computing. Dourish will act as the link between the system design and questions of culture. In particular, his contribution will be “finding ways to respect Indigenous power, Indigenous ways of working and Indigenous context for knowledge production and dissemination.” This is where his informatics background comes into play.

“In the informatics department, we’ve been broadly engaged for many years in thinking about the interfunctioning of technology and culture,” says Dourish. He’s learned that design approaches for interactive systems are not nearly as universal as people think, noting that there are “narratives of design that have been brought to us by Silicon Valley.” His involvement in the #thismymob project is thus part of a “broader conversation about the relationship between technology and culture.”