What are we Doing and Why are we Doing It: The Relationship Between Digital Civics and HCI


The relationship between Digital Civics research and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research can be tricky to pin down. Digital Civics research can be classed as an aspect, or sub-set of HCI research but I feel that the nature of Digital Civics means it includes elements that takes it far beyond a pure HCI agenda [1]. HCI has long been a discipline that sits at the intersection of many fields, incorporating ideas from areas such as computer science, psychology and design to name but a few [2], however Digital Civics takes these areas and adds to them aspects of political and social theory and this for me is what makes it look somewhat different to the bulk of HCI research.

So what’s this thing HCI all about then?

The Digital Civics research agenda goes beyond what many might think of as HCI research. Traditionally HCI research has focussed primarily on usability of computer systems and has been grounded in the scientific method with hypotheses to be proven, controlled experiments and quantitative statistical analysis all carried out in a lab-based setting. Of course, as technologies have changed so has the way they are studied and this is true in HCI research which has shifted over the years as new technologies emerged. These shifts are often described as “waves” of HCI research and can be summarised as follows:

First Wave HCI: This is primarily focused on the practical and often sticks to concrete problems, there is a large focus on ergonomics and human-factors engineering and research is usually analysed using highly quantitative methods such as performance metrics.

Second Wave HCI: This wave uses ideas from psychology and seeks to understand more about how the mind is involved with human-machine interactions. There is a little more focus on the context in which these interactions take place but the main focus is still usability and efficiency.

Third Wave HCI: Came about as technologies moved more into everyday life and out of a predominantly work environment. This means issues such as meaning making and personal experience in our interactions with technology become worthy of exploration – which is what third wave HCI aims to do [3, 4].

Although I am using the term “wave” as it’s a common term used by many when discussing HCI research it’s worth noting that in reality these are more like ‘strands’ of research as the coming of a new wave didn’t and shouldn’t lead to work in the previous waves stopping. Indeed there is still valuable work being done in each strand [4].

As well as a shift in focus with the different waves of HCI research there has also been an accompanying shift in research paradigm, meaning that the world view in which the subject is situated has changed and as such different theoretical underpinnings and methodologies have become acceptable. Again this is not to say that there is something wrong with previous paradigms just that the discipline has embraced a wider range of theoretical and methodological perspectives than before.

These changes in paradigm are examined by Kuutti and Bannon in their 2014 paper ‘The Turn to Practice in HCI: Towards a Research Agenda’ [4]. They outline two paradigms in HCI research, one that fits more traditional HCI research which they term the interaction paradigm and one that is emergent in the field of HCI which they term the practice paradigm. The interaction paradigm applies to studies that work with a more traditional scientific experimental model. Studies within this paradigm tend to be lab based with a narrow, specific, focus and look at one moment in time with little wider context. In contrast, studies in the practice paradigm are situated and informed by the time and place in which they take place, they are usually field based and can cover a broader scope and time period. Kuutti and Bannon note that there is growing use of the practice paradigm in HCI research and it certainly seems that both paradigms should have validity when it comes to producing “good” HCI research. Although the so called practice paradigm is new to HCI research it is well established in the social-sciences and is better suited to research that looks at the “messiness” that is inherent when looking at how people interact with the world around them. It acknowledges that it is difficult to measure and quantify people’s thoughts, feelings and the way they interact and so doesn’t try.

The ideas underpinning Third Wave HCI research and the accompanying shifts in what is deemed an ‘acceptable’ research paradigm definitely fit with what I see as the digital civics research agenda. Digital Civics isn’t greatly interested in how technologies can be shaped to improve efficiency or the experience of using a technological item or system it is instead concerned with how technology can support citizens to have better interactions with the state and other bodies to shape and improve provision of services in areas such as health and education to name just a couple [1].

It’s all about the publics

So how does digital civics research go about improving services and interactions? From what I see most digital civics research is concerned to some extent in creating publics. There are a number of different views as to what exactly constitutes a public but for this piece I’m going to use Le Dantec’s ideas regarding publics which in turn build on ideas put forward by Dewey. In this sense the notion of publics is distinct from the concept of the public, while the public is used to refer to a population as a whole a public is a group of individuals which forms around or in response to a specific issue. As Le Dantec summarises, a public:

forms through the identification and expression of a common social condition […] it is the combination of identifying a shared issue, one that crosses multiple stakeholder boundaries, and then in working toward a common end to overcome or resolve that issue [5].

So a public can be seen as a group who come together in response to a particular issue and then work together to enact some form of change. This seems to cover the ‘civics’ bit but what about the ‘digital’? Of course, there is always the question as to how to bring people together to form a public, or to make them aware of a pre-existing one, for example there might be many people concerned about cycling provision in an area but if there isn’t a means of bringing those multiple voices together people may be unaware that others think like them on the issue. It is here that the digital has a key role to play.

Digital systems can play a key role in bringing people together around an issue and in creating a space for their voices to be heard in relation to the issue. These systems can take many forms and platforms such as everyday social media can be as effective as a bespoke solution depending on the situation. As an example of the former take the Friends of Tynemouth Outdoor Pool. This was a group that came together through Facebook to form a public and get their voices heard in relation to plans by the local authority to redevelop an unused outdoor lido into other leisure facilities such as a theatre space and volleyball courts. The group formed on Facebook and used this platform to reminisce about the pool and to organise opposition to the authority’s plans, eventually causing them to abandon them [6]. The ability of social media platforms to enable a diverse group of people to come together around an issue makes it a useful tool for enabling publics to form however there can be issues around the lack of facilitation [6] on platforms like Facebook which can often mean such groups become dominated by a few prominent voices or simply descend into exchanging personal insults. Because of this sometimes a bespoke system is a better means of creating and supporting publics. An interesting example of this can be seen in the Community Resource Messenger (CRM) project which Le Dantec and DiSalvo discuss in their article ‘Infrastructuring and the Formation of Publics in Participatory Design’ [7]. This was a system which enabled mobile phones to be utilised in order for messages and information to be exchanged between staff and users of a homeless shelter for mothers and their children. In this scenario there were two publics involved with the staff forming one public and the shelter users a second. While the staff were clearly a group before the process the women using the shelter were a less coherent group to start with and it was through helping design and then using the system that they started to feel a sense of common identity and so a public was formed [7]. These two examples clearly show the power of digital systems to bring people together as a public around an issue. While this is far removed from the traditional world of HCI research it fits well with the Third Wave of HCI and the practice paradigm. Using systems to create publics around issues means addressing the inherent messiness of people and societal interactions, and it also requires looking at systems in the context of everyday life and environments all of which fit with the viewpoint of Third Wave HCI. Furthermore by being interested in how technology can support the messy interactions of groups of humans the practice paradigm seems much more equipped to carry out research in this area than the interaction paradigm, as this isn’t largely research that can be conducted fruitfully in a controlled lab based setting, In order to be successful the messiness needs to be embraced not removed. This suggests that the area of Digital Civics has been able to emerge due to the changes in focus and research paradigm that have occurred in the field of HCI allowing work with publics to be conducted under the HCI umbrella and regarded by others as appropriate and good work in the field.

Harnessing the Digital Everywhere

As well as creating publics digital civics research also aims to leverage these publics to enact change in people’s communities or within service provision. It is here that Digital Civics meets the ubiquitous compuing (ubicomp) research agenda as there is an acknowledgement that the proliferation of technologies in everyday life is a significant part of what makes them useful as tools for enacting change. For example, an app aimed at improving access to or providing a particular service, such as the Feedfinder App or the Condom Token App [8] wouldn’t be much use if the majority of the people it was aimed at didn’t have a smartphone.

Despite the huge presence of digital technologies in everyday life there is still some debate in the ubicomp field as to whether the world we are living in can truly be classed as fitting the ubicomp vision. Ever since Weiser published his seminal article ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’ [9] (widely regarded as the paper which launched the ubicomp research agenda) researchers have been chasing a world of ever more integrated and seamless technologies which are always in the tantalisingly close, yet currently unreachable, domain of ‘the near future’ [10]. For evidence of this constant future chasing compare Weiser’s vision of 21st century computing as something where computers have “vanish[ed] into the background” with statements made by Adam Greenfield in his 2006 book ‘Everyware: The Dawning of Ubiquitous Computing’ where “in the next few years” processing power will be “so distributed […] that computers per se effectively disappear” [11]. This suggests things haven’t moved on very much in over twenty years. This constant future chasing by the ubicomp field is problematic as it results in few examinations of what the present state of affairs actually looks like, instead if it doesn’t match up to a vision of the future written nearly thirty years ago it can’t be ubicomp and thus we must keep searching for this mythical future rather than assessing whether in many ways we are living in a ubicomp world already.

That we are living in an era of ubicomp is the position taken by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish in their article ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows’ where societies with high access to broadband internet and widespread mobile phone use are taken as evidence of technology being integrated into everyday life [10]. For me what is particularly surprising is that this article was written in 2005 (published 2006) which sets it in a world where Facebook is only available to college students, that is pre iPhone (released 2007) and iPad (released 2010) and where 3G mobile networks were only two years old in the UK (4G didn’t go live in Britain until 2012). If this could be argued to be a world of ubicomp then our current world of smartphones and 4G mobile networks which put all the web has to offer in our pockets must be. So why is there still a debate? Well the modern world of technology doesn’t match up to Weiser’s future vision as told in the story of Sal and our use of technologies most often involves something contained in a box of some description and for Weiser, true ubicomp means not being focused on “a single box” but instead having technologies integrated more seamlessly [9]. But if you ignore the ‘fairy-tale of Sal’ and other guesses as to what a ubicomp world might look like in a practical sense and instead focus on the underlying philosophical outline I think the current situation matches the ubicomp vision quite well. The subtitle of Weiser’s article summarises his position nicely:

Specialized elements of hardware and software, connected by wires, radio waves and infrared, will be so ubiquitous that no one will notice their presence [9].

This seems fairly apt for our current world where every time we want to know something (why is my train late? what breed of dog is that?) we whip our smartphones out without a second thought nor comments from those around us. The presence of digital devices is everywhere and is so normal that I don’t think the focus on a box is a problem because such boxes have become so integrated into day to day life.

Given then that we do seem to be living in a society where digital technologies are widespread and their presence is barely deemed noteworthy then it makes sense to me to harness such technologies for creating change in people’s day to lives and this is something that digital civics research is trying to do. The challenge here though is how to involve people in the design and implementation of such systems so they provide support that people need and reflect the reality of their existence rather than it being a case of “researcher knows best” and a top down approach to solving issues [12]. To achieve this we have to go beyond gathering user opinions in the design process of a particular technology and instead harness the power of that technology to create conversations that aren’t currently happening. This can be done in numerous ways whether through existing platforms or with bespoke tools as well as through participatory design processes but for me the important thing is not the specifics of how it is done but that we remain critically aware of the fact that it needs to happen and ensure we don’t lose sight of this during research.


So what is the relationship between digital civics and HCI? For me what we are aiming to do under the digital civics research agenda is to take technologies and ideas from various fields of HCI research and work to implement them in more social and political settings. The aim of doing this is to create publics, work on social solutions and to create and enhance conversations within and between communities and to ensure users’ voices are heard by service providers to enable a better day to day experience for all.



[1] Vlachokyriakos, V., et al. (2016). Digital Civics: Citizen Empowerment With and Through Technology. CHI ’16. San Jose, CA, USA: 1096-1099. DOI:10.1145/2851581.2886436

[2] Hewett, T. T., et al. (1992). ACM SIGCHI Curricula for Human-Computer Interaction. New York, NY, ACM SIGCHI.

[3] Duarte, E. F. and M. C. C. Baranauskas (2016). Revisiting the Three HCI Waves: A Preliminary Discussion on Philosophy of Science and Research Paradigms. IHC ’16. Sao Paulo, Brazil. DOI: 10.1145/3033701.3033740

[4] Kuutti, K. and L. J. Bannon (2014). The Turn to Practice in HCI: Towards a Research Agenda. CHI’ 14. Toronto, ON, Canada: 3543-3552. DOI: 10.1145/2556288.2557111

[5] Le Dantec, C. A. (2012). Participation and Publics: Supporting Community Engagement. CHI ’12. Austin, TX, USA. DOI: 10.1145/2207676.2208593

[6] Crivellaro, C., et al. (2014). A Pool of Dreams: Facebook, Politics and the Emergence of a Social Movement. CHI ’14. Toronto. DOI: 10.1145/2556288.2557100

[7] Le Dantec, C. A. and C. DiSalvo (2013). “Infrastructuring and the Formation of Publics in Participatory Design.” Social Studies of Science 43(2): 241-264. DOI: 10.1177/0306312712471581

[8] Wood, M., et al. (2018). “Protection on that Erection?”: Discourses of Accountability & Compromising Participation in Digital Sexual Health. CHI ’18. Montreal QC, Canada, ACM: 1-12. DOI: 10.1145/3173574.3174238

[9] Weiser, M. (1991). The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American. 265: 94-104.

[10] Bell, G. and P. Dourish (2007). “Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11(2): 133-143. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00779-006-0071-x 

[11] Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware : the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. Berkeley, CA, USA, New Riders.

[12] Olivier, P. and P. Wright (2015). “Digital civics: taking a local turn.” interactions 22(4): 61-63. DOI: 10.1145/2776885

Author: Hattie Rowling

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