One's academic impulses can take an unexpected turn sometimes, as Carl F. DiSalvo discovered when he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.
"I had the opportunity to work with professors who were really committed to community engagement, both in terms of community building and learning," says DiSalvo, an assistant professor in the Graduate Program in Digital Media, School of Literature, Media and Communication. "I hadn't thought about that before, and it wasn't something I had initially planned on doing."
DiSalvo studies the products and process of interaction design. The interdisciplinary work, which draws from the humanities, science and technology, and design, aims to increase community building and public engagement through digital media. He is assisted by graduate student Thomas Lodato.
How would you characterize your research?
My research has to do with engaging with the public around issues of science and technology — more specifically around the design of digital communications infrastructures to support social interaction. Much of my current work is focused on small-scale agriculture and exploring how we can design digital technologies to support local food-production activities and systems.
Why the focus on food systems?
Here in Georgia, lots of people care about locally grown food and they participate in local food production activities. It's a form of social interaction that promotes community building.
For example, many people participate in community gardens. Others have sizable gardens, and they might sell their produce at a local farmer's market or even give their food away — that's really important to food banks and churches and other services that provide fresh fruits and vegetables to people in need.
We're also thinking about people who make food products — cheese makers, sausage makers.
Someplace else, you might have community concerns around another issue — pollution, for example. The communication tools we'd want to develop in that area would be different, but the basic question would remain the same: How do we provide technology tools for people who want to pursue these community-based projects and help them succeed with them?
Once we develop these practical tools, we want to communicate our findings to other researchers who are interested in finding ways to facilitate community participation, so they can see if what we've done can be adapted to their own particular areas of interest.
How might communications technology support local food-production systems?
One of the basic questions is land use. Let's say you want to grow a garden, and you pass by an empty plot of land every time you go into town. How do you find out whether or not you can use that land? How do you find out if the city or a private business owns that land, or how it's zoned? We want to know how these answers can be communicated to people and provide them with access to underutilized land.
Here's another example: Right behind Decatur High School is a large community garden. Folks are out there all the time. They probably don't need technology to make their farm work, it probably works fine as it is, but the people in charge may be able to use technology to help manage and communicate with their volunteers.
How do you go about identifying the problems that communications technology might address?
Hackathons are where people get together and work on problems for a day or two in a really concentrated way. We're developing a series of hackathons in Atlanta that will look at the question: How can we better design technology to support local food systems?
We're going to bring together about 50 people from various walks of life. We have collaborations with the Atlanta Local Food Initiative, the city of Atlanta mayor's office, the Atlanta Food Bank, as well as with programmers and designers, and community advocates. They'll spend a day developing prototypes of new information systems to support local food production.
Who will use the information that comes out of these hackathons?
Our hope is that on a pragmatic level something will get built — an idea will be generated, and over the course of the next year an actual tool gets produced that will be used by the citizens of greater Atlanta.
At the same time, our findings will be communicated to research communities that are interested in ideas surrounding community participation. The questions these researchers ask are what sorts of resources do we need to facilitate community participation and how do we evaluate it? There is a lot of discussion about the subject because it's not clear how participation actually happens or becomes sustaining — how it evolves from a bunch of people with a common interest getting together on weekends to do some kind of activity, to something deeper that builds a sense of community. So we want to evaluate whether or not a participatory activity has meaningful effect and develop rubrics for assessing participation.
How does this research complement your job as a teacher?
I bring this research to a project studio I teach where we're working with a small farm over on English Avenue called the Friends of English Avenue Farm. This is a very special place. It's a small endeavor on a vacant lot where a house once stood, and it's run by two people. They grow fruits and vegetables and then every other week give them away to people in the neighborhood who are in need. It's a wonderful service.
The class studies the operation to determine what kinds of tools we can provide for these folks to help them better manage their farm, attract donors and volunteers, and communicate their mission and success to a larger audience. For example, we created a visualization tool — a web-based application that takes raw data and converts it into various graphical formats — that enables Suzanne Baker at the Friends of English Avenue to chart her farm's yield over time. Using this tool she can show in a compelling visual format how much produce and the variety of produce that the farm has contributed to the community over time. In addition, we redesigned the Friends of English Avenue website to better integrate with social media and feature rich visual content, such as photos and an interactive timeline. This further enables Suzanne to share the important work of the Friends of English Avenue.
This project is affiliated with Georgia Tech’s Westside Communities Initiative. Led by Ivan Allen College and the College of Architecture, the initiative is connecting people and organizations across the Institute and across Atlanta to create sustainable solutions and foster points of unity.
Associate Professor, School of Literature, Media, and Communication
Carl F. DiSalvo is an associate professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication. He earned a Ph.D. in Design from Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 and was a visiting fellow in The Studio for Creative Inquiry and The Center for the Arts in Society from 2006-2007 (also at CMU). His work explores the intersection of design, art, technology, and politics.