Katie Montgomery is a Graduate Research Intern in the Program on Information Science, researching the areas of usability and accessibility.
by Katherine Montgomery
Research libraries are catalysts for interaction with and creation of knowledge. As information and interactions with it become increasingly digital, librarians are increasingly concerned with the way that computers and humans interact. 
The Computer Human Interface group of the ACM is a group of professionals devoted to studying these interactions. Their annual conference, CHI, is a place where people share the state of the art, and learn to use the state of the practice. CHI itself isn’t a standard library conference but it addresses many of the concerns of librarians in a broader context. For example, focal points include digital privacy (which libraries work to protect), improving UX in virtual and physical realms, gamifying learning interactions, and addressing the pitfalls of automation. The conference is also packed with people the library serves, i.e. academics.
A ‘jam’ or a ‘hackathon’ is distinguished by teams of relative strangers coming together to tackle specific problems in a focused and creative way within a limited time frame. The event fosters personal connections, concrete learning, pride in the product, and has the potential to generate real life changes. Libraries aim to nurture precisely these elements and would do well to look to hackathons and jams and adapt their structure to empower patrons. Here at the MIT libraries, we aim to create and inspire hacks in the great MIT tradition of using ingenuity and teamwork to create something remarkable.
Attending the Science Jam is a great way to start CHI, especially if you’re coming from a library background. The Science Jam enables you to interact with your prototypical patrons on problems that interest both of you and in a fashion that familiarizes you with patron needs. The Science Jam itself is a way to hack the conference. 
This is the first year they’ve run the program, and if you’ve never heard of a Science Jam before here’s the lowdown: it’s essentially a hackathon for scientists. You form teams, come up with a problem, pose a question, create a hypothesis, design a test, run the test, analyze your results, and present your study, all in 36 hours. About 60 people attended this year’s jam. We formed ten teams, broke into two rooms (so we could use each-other as test subjects the next day without contaminating our sample with knowledge of the study), and began the stimulating and occasionally frantic process. My team tackled privacy. Our initial problem? People share other people’s data without thinking about it or even realizing it. Our question was, how could we change this behavior? In order to create something testable we quickly honed the question to a much more specific issue and hypothesis. When people attend large conferences, or festivals, or concerts, or other public events they often take pictures that focus on a screen, or a float, or a stage, but include strangers in the foreground or to the sides. They then upload those pictures to their social media accounts where, even if they aren’t tagged, those strangers are vulnerable to facial analysis software and the eyes of the public. We hypothesized that if given cues that they are sharing the faces of strangers people might change their behavior by altering the photo to obscure those faces. Our initial hope was to create a digital interface but time and tech constraints limited us to a paper prototype. We took photographs which contained bystanders but were focussed on a different element, in this case a sign or a presenter with slides. We gave our participants the choice of selecting one of these photos to hypothetically upload to their social media account (we asked the participants to imagine that these were pictures they had taken). After selecting the photo they were presented with an upload interface with the option to go back and select another photo, crop the image, or upload the photo. However, these were given to three different groups with three additional caveats. The first group was given no textual cues as to the presence of potential bystanders in the photo (our control). The second group was given textual cues that there were potential bystanders in the picture, ie “this photo may contain two people, inside, standing up”. The third group was given visual cues that there were potential bystanders, ie blown up images of the faces beneath the main image.
These images were used with the express permission of the people they depict
For the most part, people uploaded the pictures anyway, not bothering to crop out the bystanders and not expressing concern for privacy in the follow-up questionnaire. The cues didn’t make a significant difference between behaviors, but we were surprised that such a technologically enlightened group didn’t take measures to protect people’s privacy more. Of course, our test group only contained 15 people (five per scenario), our prototype was on paper, and there were a number of other potential issues with our methodology, but the question and premise remain sound. How can we help people be aware of the fact that they may be violating other people’s privacy when uploading photographs to social media? And how do we help them alter that behavior?
The next day I attended a presentation given by Roberto Hoyle about his work testing the efficacy of various photo alterations in protecting privacy. Afterwards, we got to talking and posited an idea. What if Facebook added a feature to their image upload interface that asked a simple question: “Do you want to protect the privacy of the people you don’t know in this picture?”. If the person said yes then Facebook could auto-blur the faces it didn’t recognize as friends. The blur feature could be removed or modified, but it would bring the issue to the attention of the user and make it easy (and hopefully aesthetically pleasing, or at least acceptable), to obscure the faces of strangers.
While we agreed it was probably a moon shot I decided to go down to the exhibition hall and talk with the Facebook folks at their booth. I was met with a combination of skepticism and interest. Since then I’ve been in touch with a couple people at Facebook advocating for the idea. If your Facebook interface changes you’ll know it’s been a success. If not? Then the benefits are exclusively mine. Because of the Science Jam I had the opportunity to meet and work with people I would otherwise have never known, pursue meaningful ideas, improve my teamwork, practice scientific testing and analysis with a tight deadline, exercise my presentation skills, and make friends ahead of the conference itself. Libraries could benefit from implementing a similar model ahead of extended programming. Doing a week of events on graphic novels? Include a Cartoon Jam where people can come in, team up, generate ideas, produce some sketches and storylines, and share them with each other! Running a summer of gardening programs? Engage a couple of professionals in your area and encourage patrons to bring in photographs of their trouble gardens (lots of shade, rocky, hot, snow spill), form groups, hit the books, and pick each other’s minds for solutions. Trying to get the library more involved with the school letterpress? Collaborate with the experts there and run a Book Jam , challenging your students to connect e-readers and the early practice of printing. There are any number of ways that Libraries can take advantage of the Jam/hackathon model to engage their patrons and further the goal of becoming hubs for creation, not just consumption.
Excited? Inspired? Ready to work up a plan for your own hackathon or Jam? Take a look at the resources below and get cooking.
- How to run a successful Hackathon: A step-by-step guide by Joshua Tauberer based on running and participating in many hackathons
- So You Think You Want to Run a Hackathon? Think Again: a case study on smart organizing for #civictech
- Hack the library: Organizing Adelphi University Libraries’ first hackathon
- Current research in the Program on Information Science focuses on how measures of attention and emotion could be integrated into these interactions.
- CHI will be in beautiful Scotland next year. Attend the Science Jam. You won’t regret it. Oh, and if you want to check out some of the documentation from this year’s Science Jam take a look at #ScienceJam #CHI2018 on Twitter.
- The very cool Codex Hackathon is already taken