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Interdisciplinary studies of user participation will contribute to the IT of the future

IT is now an integral part of our social and cultural lives, and to an increasing extent we all contribute to shaping the technology to our own needs. Over the coming years, researchers from the Department of Aesthetics and Communication and from the Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University will be exploring together aspects of and potentials for the transformation of IT users into participants in IT design. The research will be conducted at a new interdisciplinary centre, Participatory Information Technology (PIT).

Not so long ago, IT was something that programmers developed, and the rest of us used it in the form that designers made available to us. Today, we all contribute to developing IT whenever we use it. We have all become participants in the process, and the old clear-cut distinction between designers and developers on the one hand and users on the other is becoming increasingly blurred. The new interdisciplinary PIT centre plans to investigate various aspects of this trend over the coming years.

'We want to study the ways in which digitally supported social and cultural environments emerge, develop and change. When, for example, a group of young people construct small IT systems at home in a basement or at a youth club, we can study what they do from a technological angle – but we can also view their activities from a social and cultural perspective as they work together, conceive ideas and develop new concepts,' says Professor Kim Halskov of the Department of Aesthetics and Communication (Information Studies).

'For me, the most important reason for conducting research in the field of technology is that we need to think about alternatives. People are doing things themselves with technology that are not decided centrally, which is very exciting. Our research will help people to develop and shape technologies,' says Professor Susanne Bødker of the Department of Computer Science.

The culmination of an interdisciplinary trend

Susanne Bødker and Kim Halskov will head the new centre, which in a completely interdisciplinary spirit will share its leadership between two of the main academic areas at Aarhus University, namely Arts and Science and Technology.

The five new interdisciplinary centres which have recently opened at Aarhus University are all staffed by researchers from a variety of academic fields, who have been given the financial and academic freedom to seek new knowledge and understanding in the border areas between their disciplines.
However, though the interdisciplinary centres may be new, research that crosses disciplinary boundaries is far from being a novelty at Aarhus University. 

PIT is the current culmination of a trend that began when AU became one of the first universities in the world to take an interdisciplinary approach to IT with the study programme in information science for the humanities, and which continued when IT researchers from subject areas spread all over the campus moved together ten years ago.

Participation then and now

'Participatory information technology' is an offshoot of the discipline 'participatory design' – a discipline which has strong roots in Scandinavia and from which Kim Halskov and Susanne Bødker both originate. The subject area had its beginnings in the 1980s, when people started to realise that problems with IT systems did not always arise from technical faults – often they were due to the fact that the systems were designed without much thought for the people who were going to use them. Participatory design involves the users in the design process.

'It was realised that when people could not get IT systems to work, it was because they had not been involved in designing them. That was a step forward, because designers and system developers then began to work with the future users of the systems,' explains Kim Halskov.

Originally, this involvement of users typically took place in the development of IT systems for use in the workplace. However, the times when IT was something people used mainly in their work are long past.

'IT has become an integral part of our lives, in our homes and leisure activities as well as at work. It is even used dynamically when people are on the move, out in the countryside or in town. Identifying who users are, in order then to find out how we can involve them actively, is not as simple as it was when IT was only used at work,' Kim Halskov continues.

PIT will consider IT in the contexts of aesthetic and cultural experience, and the focus will not be solely on the participatory use of existing software.  New software will also be developed, software that invites new forms of participation in a variety of contexts of use.

'We want to develop software that people can use as a basis for creating things themselves. For example, we see young people today making small applications for the iPhone. For them, it's an obvious thing to do to build further on existing software. It has become a natural material for them to work with, in the same way as clay, cardboard and wood were for previous generations,' says Kim Halskov.

'At Aarhus University we build technology using bottom-up methods, and if we are to do that properly, we must also become much wiser about how technology should look, both today and in the future,' says Susanne Bødker.

Democratisation and new dividing lines

Wikipedia is an example of a successful method for people to share information. But there are also examples of how groups of people have used social media in completely different ways to those for which they were designed – simply because they were available.

'Social media were heavily used in connection with the Arab Spring movement. However, the users were limited by only being able to do what Facebook and Twitter offered. One could discuss, a little provocatively, whether Facebook provides the best support base for revolutions! But the people seized upon and made use of the technological means they had available,' says Susanne Bødker.

As the dividing lines between users and developers of IT disappear, and digital platforms become democratised, new barriers and control measures arise to hold back the process of democratisation. For example, anyone is free to develop apps and have them distributed through Apple's AppStore – but not without the approval of Apple.

'At PIT we are concerned with participation, creativity and innovation at the micro level, with examining what people do in their own environments.  But we are also interested in what goes on at the higher level of organisations and companies – in what promotes or hinders participation, and in what goes on in these processes of promoting and restricting participation,' says Kim Halskov.

Hackers on the agenda

One of the areas of interest for PIT is hacker environments. However, this is not about studying people who break into the Pentagon's IT systems.

'We understand this area as relating to ordinary people who work with technologies and who investigate how they can be used in new ways, in what we could call "Do-It-Yourself" environments. We want to see what actually goes on in these environments, which are also "do it together" environments,' says Kim Halskov.

'I think we can find things of interest among groups who get things to work in their own ways. One example is the Steampunk movement, who dress up technology to look as though it was developed a hundred years ago or more. A common factor for these grass-roots movements is that they are good at documenting their building processes and their design solutions in the social media,' explains Susanne Bødker.

Larger perspectives

PIT wishes not only to study user participation in digitally supported environments from the outside, but also to use experimental interventions to challenge users and indicate new possibilities to them.
The new interdisciplinary centre at AU wishes to seek new insights, but Kim Halskov stresses that these insights should also contribute to change.

'We are not futurologists, but we do want to create alternative designs and interventions that can be used to investigate what the future will be like. We can hope that other elements of society will want to take up some of these and be inspired by them,' he tells us.

'We want to introduce people to the idea that technology can be done in different ways, and that they themselves can be involved in this,' adds Susanne Bødker.

About PIT

PIT brings together researchers from four disciplines at Aarhus University:

From the Department of Aesthetics and Communication at the Faculty of Arts:

  • Digital aesthetics
  • Interaction design

From the Department of Computer Science at the Faculty of Science and Technology:

  • Computer mediated activities
  • Ubiquitous computing and interaction

PIT will work together with citizen groups, cultural organisations, public authorities and private companies. PIT's methods and findings will provide input for teaching on Aarhus University's study programmes in computer science, IT, information science and digital design.

Contact information

Professor Kim Halskov, Centre Director, Department of Aesthetics and Communication
Tel: +45 8716 1982
Mobile: +45 2899 2251
E-mail: imvkhm@hum.au.dk

Professor Susanne Bødker, Centre Director, Department of Computer Science
Tel: +45 8715 6148
Mobile: +45 4024 7988
E-mail: bodker@cs.au.dk