Chuck Watson – thank you

I am deeply saddened tonight to learn of the death of a mentor, friend, and co-author, Charles ‘Chuck’ Watson of Indiana University who died in September. Chuck was a diamond of a man, smart as a whip, funny, and a straight talker on the most difficult of subjects. His death makes the world a lesser place because he always practiced what he preached — do good work and make the world better.

I met Chuck 30 years ago, almost to the day. I had completed my PhD in Loughborough and was contemplating a post-doc at IU in a specially formed Institute for the Study of Human Capabilities that he directed. As luck would have it, he was on sabbatical at Cambridge that semester and drove up to interview me. In all honesty, the interview really consisted of several gin and tonics in the railway hotel across from my office while we chatted about various topics before he uttered a number, out of the blue. This, it turned out, was the salary I would receive and I was to think about it and let him know.

Of course, I took the offer (after a little bargaining) and found myself a couple of months later in a freezing Bloomington, living in a pint-sized apartment near the football stadium, trying to navigate life in the US. I planned to come for an academic year, but I ended up becoming a citizen. I worked with Chuck, among others, on a series of projects related to individual differences which resulted in a well-cited paper we published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Chuck would visit my office regularly to discuss ideas, and we would explore widely, but I also learned that while he enjoyed the topics and the ideas we exchanged, he also was quite keen that I keep a supply of Marlboro cigarettes which he could smoke during our conversations and the inevitable strolls that led us to the Runcible Spoon if it was morning, or better yet, Nick’s Bar if it was a little later.

Time passes and sometimes connections are not maintained as we would wish until it is too late. Tonight I mourn Chuck, but I think of the good times, the humor, and the moments that make a life. Chuck lived his fully, and I will honor his memory by doing the best I can to follow his advice: work hard at what you love and make the world a better place. To Chuck, thank you.

Collecting as a human activity

I was invited to participate in documentary film maker James Tate’s short piece on the desire evoked by mechanical watches among some people. You can view the results here

I might be arguing in my spare time….

Entering July, the deadest time of the summer when typical faculty are not actually on payroll and many are trying to get some downtime, I wake up to an email informing me I have compulsory training to complete on the prevention of cybercrime. Fine, another run through a set of packaged ‘lessons’ with associated tests that most of us view with minor annoyance. That’s the world we live in but what’s majorly annoying is I am told I have to complete these within 4 weeks if I am to remain ‘in compliance’ with my job. Are there other positions where we mandate employees to complete training on their own time?

Project 2021 a complete smockery? Wham bam, thank you Dan

You might remember that UT invested millions of $$ and made very brave claims about the power of new technologies to teach larger classes more effectively. Project 2021 was going to be the example all higher ed followed and finally educational technology was going to harness the power of the web to improve access, deliver tailored instruction, and save everyone lots of money in the process. Criticisms at the time were dismissed (I know because I found myself shouted down by the university administration and project team when I raised any!) Well I did cover that part before but was reminded of it all again when I read Dan Robinson’s thoughtful analysis of the data presented early on as justification for this approach. I won’t spoil it for you — you can read it here yourself.

On being magpies

I was delighted to contribute to Andrea Resmini, Sarah A. Rice, and Bernadette Irizarry’s edited book, Advances in Information Architecture, for Springer. Just published (and available here), this is a landmark book that takes a broad view of the field and the challenges ahead.

The magpies reference here is an allusion to the title of my chapter, wherein I note that the discipline of IA gathers together insights and methods from other fields, willingly, to serve the mission of designing better information infrastructures for all. Yes, there’s a nod to the old ‘big’ vs ‘small’ IA but that’s only in passing, the questions and conversation took is in far more interesting directions. With similar contributions from many figures in the field, this is a book that we all could have used earlier, but which probably could not have been written until now. Well done Andrea, Sarah and Bernadette, and thanks for inviting me to participate.

iSchool UXPA group up and running

I gave a quick overview of the basics of expert evaluations, using Heuristic and Cognitive Walkthroughs as exemplars to the iSchool chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association this week. Our student group, brought back to life thanks to the efforts of Beth Sarno and Aylin Saribudak last semester, is thriving and offered a set of talks this week involving several industry experts discussing professional work in the UX arena. It’s been impressive to see how quickly the group has gelled and the enthusiasm they bring to meetings and self-education. Find out more about the group on their Linked In page

A title is never firm

ASIST are apparently launching a new professional communications publication, unfortunately to be called Information Matters, which you can imagine sounds a little close to my own, admittedly quite unprofessional offering, in name. Seems they are not alone in liking the term as I find another blog called InfoMatters by SJA, consulting group, which I can date from 2015. I guess the terms are generic enough but it’s a shame that professional courtesy is in such short supply in the information professions that just taking or mildly altering the title of existing spaces is apparently acceptable. Given I am a former president and current member of ASIST…. oh well.

Texas power outage and the lack of information

By now you’re probably aware that we had a ‘weather-related’ incident here in Texas as the energy industry, which effectively runs our state’s production and delivery infrastructure with minimal oversight, failed catastrophically when temperatures plummeted. That’s what most people are paying attention to right now but there’s another aspect to all this which was sobering for those of us on the information side.

As power and water went out, people naturally became concerned. And when people are concerned they lean heavily into their information networks for guidance, updates, connections and support. The local and state government, as well as the utilities’ responses were mixed at best. With power going, so went many people’s internet connection, forcing them to use smart phones. For those fortunate enough to have sufficient data plans there was then the challenge of maintaining battery charge. Easy enough perhaps if you own a functioning vehicle but again, not everyone does.

On top of this infrastructure problem however the information provided by government and utilities was a mix of confusion, deflection and just plain unhelpful. Forget that our governor used an appearance on television to go off topic on the ‘green new deal’ which had nothing to do with anything, we had confused messages that blackouts would be rolled so those without power now could anticipate the situation changing shortly as the pain was shared around. If you planned on that basis you were in for a rude awakening.

If you managed to keep access to the web, you could check the Austin Electric and Austin Water sites for updates, but there again we saw a display of data that offered less help than you might have wanted. Check out Austin Energy’s outage map:

I was trying to determine if an outage was coming my way but I have no idea what this was telling me, nor did anyone else with whom I shared it. I know my home is in one of those red wedges but……yeah, you figure it out. A supreme example of data yielding a pretty display but no actual information.

Austin Water has just updated there site to include a general outage map that is mildly more informative now that the worst has passed but in the midst of the mess this week, they went low-tech, offering a simple list of current outage location, vaguely described in terms of an address and intersection e.g., 18th and Harvey to MLK, plus estimated time of restoration. Unfortunately, while my water was off, there was no way any of the locations listed mapped to my address so I inferred that if I was within a few 100 meters of a listed one, that was the most likely. That did not really help as one neighbor and I were cut-off but no others seemed affected on my street, and there was no outage listed within half a mile of my address. I submitted my data point via the link to provide outage info, along with my requested number for a promised text update when service outage might be resolved but, yep, you guessed it, I never heard back.

If you gave up on the official channels and tried searching for yourself, you found that news media were a little behind the current situation, you were better of contacting people directly or networking via NextDoor or other local connections. But again, all this requires to you have service and a functioning device, something that is not equally distributed across the population, as we know. Vague utterances from politicians to ‘check the web’ were useless, and don’t get me started on official pronouncements to ‘boil water before drinking’ — pretty impossible to do if you had neither power nor water.

In short, despite the lessons of Katrina, Harvey and the like, we seem so ill-prepared to handle the information needs of ordinary citizens when their needs are greatest. I did get one robocall over the week. It was on my landline (yes, I still have one) from the police department telling us not to call them if we had water leaks, this was not deemed a cause for emergency. Ok, so the one clear message I received was the instruction on what I should not do. Got it! I don’t think any organization comes out of this looking good, thank goodness for neighbors.

New interview with All Tech is Human

I did a quick interview for the All Tech is Human group who have produced an interesting new publication, The Business Case for AI. You can find the full document here. I would have said more if I’d had time but the whole document is full of interesting perspectives on a very important set of issues. The All Tech group want to grow the pipeline for more ethical information technologists, and that’s an aim many of us share.

Covid as a socio-tech challenge

Getting on top of the C-19 pandemic has seemingly challenged the resources and capabilities of our apparently developed nation. Lots of excuses are offered, many hinging on the argument that people are basically irresponsible or in denial, but my experience of trying to use the system we have in place to handle the outbreak raises more questions than answers.

When I developed symptoms I, like many others I am sure, tried to figure out what I had. I checked online for comparisons with flu, wondered if my headache was severe or mild, checked to see if I had any taste and so forth. Unsure what I learned here, I waited a day or two, hoping for the best but the symptoms persisted, I felt awful and decided I needed a test.

At our university we’ve made repeated public pronouncements of the commitment we make to our students, staff and faculty. There’s an app you can download to monitor your condition, register for quick test and find treatment advice. We have quick walk-in test options and a clearance option to register when you are on campus. All well and good, until I tried to use it.

I downloaded the app to my phone and very quickly realized it is one of the least usable apps I’ve experienced in some time. Problem #1. Clunky in terminology and navigation, the effort involved in engaging meaningfully with the app is significant, not the type of interaction experience one wants under stress. I tried to register for a test and was stymied. It became obvious, even with the app, that if you have symptoms you require a different protocol than if you just want clearance to be on campus. Unfortunately, exploring my options as a symptom-showing user kept returning me to the same dead end on the app. I gave up using it and called my doctor, which. as it turns out, is what you are supposed to do.

So, progress. By now it’s Friday. I’ve been feeling poorly since Wednesday. I call the doc’s office and ask if I can get tested for coronavirus. No, I am told. That is not how it works. Apparently only the doctor can authorize me for a test. Problem #2. OK, I suppose the number of calls for tests is high, the testing options are limited (what was that you said Mr Trump?) and the doctor serves as a clearing agent to avoid the apparent waste of sick or healthy people trying to figure out if they have it. So, put me through to the doctor please. Problem #3. My doc was not available and would not be able to see me (in the figurative sense since appointments were online) before Monday afternoon. Wow, ok, I’ll take the appointment but who knows if I’ll live that long.

Monday afternoon, after a quite awful weekend of symptoms that in my somewhat confused state can be nothing other than C-19, I chat with the doc via some web conference software and in two mins she tells me, yes, I should have a test. Thanks, how hard was that. She booked me one for the next day (so now, if you’re keeping count, its 6 days from first symptom to test date). And just in case, she tells me to test for flu as well. Next day I duly drive to test facility, am in and out in five minutes, and return home to lie down, wasted.

Now, it turns out, I tested negative, and so bewildered by this were the doctor and I that she suggested a re-test three days later. But none of that matters much. I recovered. What the experience showed me is that the reduction of Covid treatment to a numbers game (how many tests have we got? How many vaccines and when will we have them?) is really not solving the problem. Yes we need a vaccine but the vaccine alone is not the solution, its the vaccination. Getting the treatment to the person is a challenge not of medicine but of social science.

The test and vaccine concerns are legitimate but they are insufficient. Once we have the supply, they have to be delivered. People have to be able to receive swabs and injections. An access network that forms a bottleneck on delivery through sequencing of permissions, and information apps that confuse rather than assist troubled individuals is a recipe for slow uptake of preventative and treatment options. In this, the vaccine recipient is forced to work through a series of communication channels to determine how and where to gain access. Throw in misinformation about the situation, false promises of easy access to tests and treatment, partially confused messaging about how some people rather than others should proceed, and the need to have the time, persistence and ability to navigate this network raises serious questions about how well designed is our response to this pandemic.

Yes, it is a design challenge and frankly, one that casts our user-centered design skills in a poor light. Better apps would be a start, apps that recognize the context of use for Covid is stressful, personal and driven by a desire for help. But a better app is only a start. We need to recognize that information is a resource that exists at multiple levels, from the physical to the social, and only by considering people as actors at all levels, as users of devices and members of networked communities within a broad social structure, layers that have competing goals sometimes, differing power structures, and incomplete understanding of actors in differing roles, can we hope to create a seamless and humanly usable response to this situation. Yes, our IT in a time of covid is a highly contingent socio-technical system and unless we proceed to tackle the problem with this in mind, I foresee more roadblocks ahead.