Noura Howell on Sensors in Public Urban Environments at CHI 2019

21 May, 2019

Noura Howell on Sensors in Public Urban Environments at CHI 2019

Noura Howell received a Spring 2019 BCNM Conference Grant to help cover her costs attending the Human Factors in Computing Systems conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Noura presented "The Heart Sounds Bench." Read more about her experience in her own words below!

The BCNM conference grant supported my travel to the Human Factors in Computing Systems conference, also known as CHI (Computer-Human Interaction). The conference is the premier international venue for Human-Computer Interaction research, spanning technical advances in computer science, to new media, to social science. The conference is in a different location every year, and this year it was in Glasgow, Scotland.

At the conference, I presented my work on The Heart Sounds Bench. The bench amplifies the heart sounds of people sitting on the bench, inviting a quiet moment of rest, listening, and appreciating being alive. The project is part of a broader conversation at CHI around what the role of sensors and data should be in public urban environments. Efficiency and security are common roles for data in the sensor-laden "smart city", such as helping people access useful information or detecting or even trying to predict and prevent crime. While efficiency and security can be laudable goals, there is more to life than efficiency, and mounting evidence shows how data-driven approaches to security often reinforce historical trends of structural racism. The Heart Sounds Bench joins a new wave of design projects that critically question and generatively re-imagine the purpose of sensors and data in cities.

One of my favorite talks from CHI this year was a critique of empathy as it is commonly employed in the human-centered design process. The paper examines designs for people with disabilities, and how designers' empathy-building exercises (such as wearing a blindfold to simulate blindness, or using a wheelchair) both completely miss the mark of the experience of being a person living with a disability, and also risk effacing users' lived experiences with the trite limited experiences of designers. Instead of trying to be or feel "like" users when designing for them, it is often more respectful and more productive to be "with" users throughout the design process. I think this paper has broad implications for how we try to understand and relate to other people through the design process, and perhaps through sensors and data as well. Acknowledging the limits of our own ability to understand others may be one of the most respectful and productive ways we have of holding space for the experience, knowledge, and contributions of others.