Arts, education and social justice: meet informatics

Authored on:

Nov 05, 2014

This editorial appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Iowa City Press Citizen on November 5.

The word “informatics” summons the 1999 film “The Matrix” — a terrifying world of streaming numbers (and Keanu Reeves). In the real world, patterns in a sea of data can become life rafts, for example, to individuals suffering from disease or activists tracking pollution. Designing ways for humans to interact effectively with computers and information is the goal of researchers in the growing area of computer science sometimes called human-computer interaction or HCI.

On Friday and Saturday, the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa welcomes six researchers to Iowa for a symposium, “Designing the Digital Future: A Human-Centered Approach to Informatics.” Why should you attend if you’re not a computer scientist or data analyst? From inventing with artists to documenting international trials, our speakers will share the many ways they are animating the “I” in informatics.

First, many people fear digital devices are leading us into isolated, passive online lives. As Sherry Turkle’s example in “Alone Together” of people who prefer the passivity of robotic infants to the demands of living infants suggests, this fear is not irrational. To avoid such a fate, our speakers and panelists from UI will share projects designed for creative, active, collaborative human-computer interactions.

Take Celine Latulipe from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. She partners with artists — most recently with dancers — to see how technology can enhance the creative process. Lisa Anthony, from the University of Florida, thinks about bodies and computers in a different way. She is designing software that responds to children’s gestures, so they may interact with computers more naturally. And Ron Wakkary, from Simon Fraser University, argues that creating sustainable designs means listening to ordinary people who use technology and weaving them into the design process.

Second, many of us worry that heavy reliance on technology in the classroom may lead to passive learning. Aren’t kids uncritically accepting whatever pops up first in a Google search as gospel? Researchers like Tamara Clegg, from the College of Education at the University of Maryland, agree. That’s why they turn students into inventors with projects like “Kitchen Chemistry” and “wearables for learning.”

A third concern for many is that informatics seem far removed from questions of equity and social justice. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Mary Beth Rosson, a dean at Penn State, tackles the gender imbalance in technology fields through programs like wConnect — an online community where girls and women assist each other in achieving their career goals. Lisa Nathan from the University of British Columbia is a pioneer in “values design.” After helping build an archive for the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she’s now doing the same with Native people in partnership with the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Finally, back to “The Matrix.” Keanu Reeve’s character confirmed suspicions that informatics researchers were utterly devoid of wit and play. We’re confident that a Friday night performance by LOUIE — the UI Laptop Orchestra — will lay that fear to rest.

From art to dance to music to education to ethics, “Designing the Digital Future” offers a chance to reflect together on the many ways artists and technologists on campus and in the community can collaborate. The events are free and all are welcome, but we encourage you to register, especially if you can join us for lunch Saturday. You’ll find the schedule and other details online at

The organizers of the “Designing the Digital Future” conference are Juan Pablo Hourcade, a professor in the Computer Science Department, and Teresa Mangum, director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.

If you go

• For a full schedule of this weekend’s “Designing the Digital Future” at the University of Iowa, go to