In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries around the world developed contact-tracing apps, but the reception to them has been lukewarm. Despite initial enthusiasm among the general public, uptake has been disappointing for the most part. The technology works, so what’s the problem?
This is precisely the problem that motivates Dr. María Menéndez-Blanco of the Faculty of Computer Science at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (unibz) in South Tyrol, Italy. Her research explores human-computer interaction and examines how we, as a society, engage with technology. She explains, “When you design a piece of technology, there are many things that need to be taken into consideration, in addition to the technical parts, such as communication and how it's introduced. So we look at all these social-technical aspects and try to investigate, in this case, how they have influenced adoption.”
The existence of a bridge between the user and the technology was really brought home for María when she was carrying out her PhD research. She was examining why children with dyslexia weren’t engaging with video games that would help improve cognitive processes. “Only the kids with dyslexia or other kinds of special needs were allowed to have their laptop at school, while other kids weren’t. The computer became a stigmatising piece of technology,” María says. After discussing the problem with parents, teachers and cognitive scientists, she realised that technology could be used to change the narrative around dyslexia. Instead of being seen as a disease, it would be perceived as just a different way of processing information. To do this, María and her colleagues organised the European Week of Dyslexia. They also created a new video game for dyslexic children but encouraged everyone to play it, meaning that nobody was singled out as different.
María’s doctoral research cemented her interest in the field of human-computer interaction, which encompasses computer science, design and behavioural sciences. Much of the focus of her recent work has been on gender equality issues. Using data spanning twenty years, María and her colleagues are examining gender diversity at unibz. She says, “One of the results observed (and it’s something that’s not unique to unibz, but also occurs at the national level) is that the proportion of women per research position decreases as the seniority increases.” With support from unibz, Maria and a local designer are developing a digital platform to present the data in a more accessible way and facilitate community discussions about gender issues at the university. They also hope to collaborate with a local digital newspaper to promote wider public engagement.
Connecting with society is central to unibz’s mission, which encourages researchers to contribute to the development of the local area. It’s also an important part of María’s work on civic technology, which uses computing technology to enable citizens to engage with their local government and express their views on issues that affect them, such as how public money is spent. María started this work in Madrid, where for six months, she collaborated with city officials, researchers, and local citizens. She examined how technology could support citizen participation in democratic processes. Part of this was evaluating the citizens’ assembly, a group of randomly selected individuals whose role was to examine ideas put forward by the local population. What made this project truly innovative was that it attempted to use digital technology to give power back to Madrid’s citizens. Currently, María is writing a paper with a collaborator in Denmark examining what key elements are needed when designing these types of digital platforms. She says, “Many of these platforms are being designed without really considering human-computer interaction. So we’re trying to look with all this knowledge that we have on designing data platforms, whether they can be applied to civic technologies.”
María moved around Europe a lot during her career before settling in unibz last year as an assistant professor. She fell in love with South Tyrol while doing her PhD in the region so she was excited by the opportunity to return to such an attractive area. After doing a postdoc at a larger university, María was also looking for a position at a smaller institution with more of a human touch. Working at a smaller university doesn’t mean compromising on research quality though, explains María. “Although unibz is small, there are many researchers that are very well known at the international level,” she says. She also appreciates the resources that the university offers its faculty, including free German and Italian classes at the on campus language centre. “Everything is internally organised, and it’s really nicely done. So that’s a big pleasure,” she says.