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Aakash Gautam wins Outstanding Dissertation Award at SIGCHI 2022

April 18, 2022

Aakash Gautam

Aakash Gautam won the Outstanding Dissertation Award at SIGCHI 2022. This award recognizes exceptional work by doctoral students in scholarship, research, and writing in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Gautam graduated from Virginia Tech with a PhD in Computer Science and Applications this year. Gautam is now an assistant professor in the Computer Science department at San Francisco State University, where he works with students on community-based technology design that aims to counter the Silicon Valley credo of “move fast and break things.” He was advised by Deborah Tatar and his dissertation was inspired and carried out in collaboration with Steve Harrison, Marisol Wong-Villacres, and Neha Kumar. You can read more about his experience with the Center for Human-Interaction here.

Members of the dissertation committee and I. On the top row: Neha Kumar (Georgia Tech), Aakash Gautam, Sang Won Lee. Bottom row: Bonnie Zare, Deborah Tatar (Chair), Steve Harrison
Members of the dissertation committee and I. On the top row: Neha Kumar (Georgia Tech), Aakash Gautam, Sang Won Lee. Bottom row: Bonnie Zare, Deborah Tatar (Chair), Steve Harrison

Gautam’s dissertation (Designing Socio-Technical Systems to Illuminate Possibilities for a Vulnerable Population) examined the role of design and designers in supporting vulnerable populations. He collaborated with an anti-trafficking organization in Nepal and survivors of sex-trafficking supported by the organization to investigate how socio-technical systems could assist survivors in achieving what they called “dignified reintegration.” In his dissertation he details the slow, incremental steps in a long-term community-based design journey.

The framework of action that we pursued in the work. It involved the design of socio-technical systems that aimed to realize individual and institutional changes.
The framework of action that we pursued in the work. It involved the design of socio-technical systems that aimed to realize individual and institutional changes.

His contribution includes: (1) a rich account of the context and how those realities of the ground influenced methods and strategies, (2) a shift away from focusing exclusively on users’ needs by emphasizing approaches that identify and build upon the community’s existing assets, (3) an operationalizable definition of assets and a framework of action that leverages a community’s assets to realize change at an individual and institutional level, (4) a novel design of a voice-annotated web application that helped overcome barriers due to limited text and digital literacy and helped facilitate empowered technology use and adaptation, and (5) a call for greater accountability and a focus on reciprocity, mutuality, and ethical design action when working with vulnerable populations.

The dissertation puts forth the argument that the design of technology is not enough. The way it is introduced and the context in which it is presented needs careful consideration
The dissertation puts forth the argument that the design of technology is not enough. The way it is introduced and the context in which it is presented needs careful consideration

His advisor, Deborah Tatar noted, “Aakash’s work reflects the increasing reality that CS in general and Human-Computer Interaction in particular touch every part of life and ought to engage with identifying and supporting a wide range of values that have to do with quality of life and social justice, and transcend traditional engineering values such as optimization, efficiency and even, sometimes, the exploration of the edges of what the machine is capable of.  We are concerned both with what our systems *can* do, and what they *will* do in particular contexts, depending on how they are designed and utilized.”