Why I'm going to grad school


As a sort of organizational nut who grew up playing many hours of Sim City and other simulation games, I naively wondered how I can so easily create an efficient virtual metropolis in Sim City, yet how real cities like Detroit can utterly fail. Did Detroit not have the kind of real-time information and analysis that Sim City gave its players? If the public had access to the same real-time information, could they have done something as well?

My undergraduate education in media studies and computer science, paired with my research in civic media and collaborative consumption, has primed me to solve these questions. My recent work that I’ve detailed in my background (attached to this application) has helped me connect the practical applications of these skills and knowledge. It has also shown me what further education I need to continue my work into improving the digital and computational aspects of civic media and open government.

My primary goal in the M.S. HCI program is to become a leader in harnessing emerging technologies and digital media to build the next generation of civic media, as well as analyzing the weaknesses and failures of our current civic systems to best apply them. By joining the College of Computing, I intend to become more of a technical leader, as such a skill set and perspective seems most necessary in my experience of this field.

For example, in the past few years, I have frequently met with community and special interest leaders, from urban farmers to data science hackers. These people are often more aware than others of the civic systems they are involved in every day, and they know what needs to be done. For example, how to connect people to healthy food, how people commute to work, what city services people subscribe to, and what ordinances and legislation they may have issues with are all current issues with civic systems. What these community leaders can’t always do is directly work on the change they seek. Instead, they invite volunteers to hackathons and meetups to prove solutions exist. Georgia Tech has both the resources and capability to expedite this process, and it can allow me to help these leaders and solve these challenging issues.

One particular challenge I want to research while in the program is why people are much more likely to participate in social media rather than civic media. Civic media in many cities is often limited to one-way communication like websites and in-person meetings. These meetings with the mayor, city council, or town hall are neither as accessible nor successful in engaging the public at large as digital social media. In fact, more people of voting age comment on their friends’ updates and answer polls on Facebook than turn out to vote on local issues. My recent work with two local urban farmers and an underserved neighbourhood demonstrate how a mixed-media project can improve two-way communication and civic participation.

The two farmers, Suzanne and Jamaica, manage a community garden in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighbourhood whose harvest has yielded over a ton of food for its food-insecure residents. Working with my project studio class, we created digital artifacts that help them better engage with investors and improve the neighborhood’s public image, while also garnering more attention in the surrounding community. Seeing how this neighborhood can benefit from the research and technical skills I can apply demonstrates how Atlanta is a prime location for further research and development.

Despite its turbulent past few decades, Atlanta’s growing startup community and reputation as the Silicon Valley of the Southeast can make it the underdog star with investment in civic technologies. By continuing my research with Georgia Tech in the M.S. HCI program and learning more technical skills such as interaction design and cognitive science, I am confident that I will be a leader in that investment.