Helping Children and Families Learn About Algorithmic Systems That Impact Their Lives


CERES support has enabled a 1st year PhD student, Wesley Deng, to define his own PhD research project with the working title “CivicTechKit”, which he is now beginning. Wesley’s research, supported through CERES, focuses on helping children and families learn about algorithmic systems that impact their lives (e.g., public algorithms, public interest technologies, or “smart city” innovations), and preparing them to actively participate in shaping how emerging technologies will impact their local communities.

As an initial step, we have recently conducted several community workshops and a survey of more than 1,500 Pittsburgh residents. We found a striking lack of public awareness of the ways algorithms are being used to make day-to-day decisions that impact Pittsburgh residents. Despite this, as community members learn more, they express interest in providing feedback on community-facing technologies that impact their lives.

Phase 1 – Understanding community needs and design opportunities: We will further investigate various stakeholders’ needs through interviews and workshop studies to begin to understand (1) When and how community members might wish to engage around local community-facing technologies, and (2) What forms of engagement and feedback are useful for government decision-makers and technology developers.

Phase 2 – Co-designing and prototyping “CivicTechKit”: We will iteratively co-design, develop, and prototype an integrated ecosystem of physical and digital tools for civic learning and engagement. Examples include but are not limited to: interactive digital kiosks; digital posters in public libraries; community workshops; online community platforms. Collaborating with a local community learning center, Assemble Pittsburgh, we will run a new set of learning programs for local youth and families, aimed at preparing community members to actively participate in shaping how emerging technologies will impact their local communities. We will also conduct workshops with our collaborators from local government agencies and technology innovation hubs (including our own university, CMU), to better understand their specific desires for community feedback, as well as the kinds of changes that can be practically implemented based on such feedback. Throughout these programs, we will engage participants in co-designing CivicTechKit.

In year 2, we will use CERES support to help fund a PhD student working on pedagogical tools for children to become technosocial agents of change; that is, rather than simply consumers of technology, for them to become advocates for and builders of technologies that have positive outcomes for their communities. This research involves understanding how families have agency to advocate for fairness in public and private technologies, as well as the design and development of educational technologies that support them in learning computer science and AI concepts while investigating issues of ethics, identity, and power in technology. This work will further fund efforts to ensure that education content delivered through classroom instruction is accessible to mixed-ability groups. We will do this through on-going development of Human-AI support tools to make presentations accessible to and to make the collaborative process of creating presentations accessible to everyone. This work will be sustained through the programming provided to CERES Scholars, namely the ongoing mentorship and peer engagement that can help her investigate these questions through multiple lens.