Ph.D. Student Lucy Pei Wins International Scholarship for Research into Tech for Social Good

August 27, 2020

In 2019, Zonta International launched a new Women in Technology scholarship program, and Lucy Pei, an informatics Ph.D. student in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), was awarded $1,000 from the Zonta Club of Newport Harbor. Pei then went on to win a districtwide Zonta scholarship of $2,000 and was one of just six selected for the international scholarship of $8,000.

“I am immensely honored,” says Pei in a recent interview for The Zontian, “Women in Technology: Lucy Pei.” She goes on to explain during the interview how her dissertation explores “tech-for-good” projects. “I realized there needed to be more research that would delicately critique this area of well-intentioned initiatives,” she explains. “Such critique is necessary, not to undercut the good work that is being done, but to evaluate how underlying assumptions and ethical frameworks may still reproduce inequities that the projects are trying to address.”

For example, today Pei says she is looking at corporate social responsibility (CSR) and tech companies in relation to COVID-19, as the global pandemic has exposed the uneven distribution of technologies and exacerbated existing social inequalities. “In response, many tech companies have offered programs purported to help those affected by the pandemic,” she says. “These programs do provide important benefits to people who need it, but on the other hand, they narrow our view of how corporations express responsibility.” Because CSR initiatives are voluntary, Pei stresses that little is known about who or how many are actually served.

“A ‘COVID-19 free internet provision’ program for underserved communities could be highly publicized yet only serve a few communities for a short time,” she explains. “Other ways of addressing social harms in the pandemic such as regulatory measures could ensure a more accountable form of responsibility from corporations and a more adequate way of addressing technology-related inequalities.”

Pei is also studying the perspectives of people involved in tech-for-social-good and tech-for-development projects. “I’ve begun interviewing undergraduate computer science majors who have worked on projects in a tech-for-development lab to understand their motivations for engaging with this work.” She is also interested in exploring whether exposure to tech-for-development work has changed the students’ views about computer science and whether discussions of social implications of technology are otherwise included in their education. “This part of the project, which focuses on undergraduate computer science education, ties with some work that my collaborator and I wrapped up this spring [about] the importance of engaging with ethics in computer science education.” Pei and fellow informatics Ph.D. student Bono Olgado hope to have a paper about the work published next year.

Zonta International will continue the Women in Technology scholarship program, with the next round of funding slated to be awarded in 2021. More information on this and other Zonta programs in education is available online.

Shani Murray