Computing at the Margins Symposium, May 6 and 7, 2009

NSF Workshop: Creating a Research Agenda in Computing at the Margins

Atlanta Georgia, February 17–19, 2010.

The workshop was a great success and we would like to thank all of our invited participants. Please see the complete workshop report for more detail.


While Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have demonstrated their ability to transform some societies, others remain on the computational margins. One approach to addressing the challenge of Computing at the Margins has been to make scientific and policy assessments that argue for increased access to, and infrastructure support for, the same technologies found in more technologically saturated sectors of society. But results of this approach have reported mixed results. Further, the “increased access” approach also closes off research opportunities to examine whether, and if so how, scientific and methodological practices may themselves be contributing to the persistence of the digital divide and the breakdown in technology transfer that it continues to represent.

Evidence mounts that what is actually required is scientific and methodological innovation predicated on the assumption that the digital divide represents unique infrastructural, computational, and societal challenges that when accounted for in the methods and theories of Computer Science lead to impact. For example, infrastructure poor environments have driven innovation by challenging the assumptions of the IP network architecture; these innovations have led to the notion of delay-tolerant and disruption-tolerant networks as an expanding area of study. Others have viewed unreliable power environments as an opportunity to explore novel mobile messaging architectures. Human Computer Interaction researchers working with different cultures report how their methods and designs change with respect to unique user needs. Further, the ability to compare scientific and technical tradeoffs between domains (e.g., traditional IP versus delay-tolerant architectures; or the use of different HCI methods required by different settings) builds new knowledge about the scope of our science. In other words, evidence shows that domains that have typically been outside the scope of Computer Science research (i.e., those that have been at the margins of scientific investigation such as countries in the Global South and underserved demographics in developed nations), provide powerful catalysts for scientific and methodological innovations because of their unique infrastructural, computational, and societal differences.


The goal of this workshop is to bring people together to define the shared research agenda of Computing at the Margins so that it can be developed at the national level. We will define and discuss grand challenges in this space that, successfully solved, will advance Computer Science. We will also begin the process of sharing results across the disparate projects and fields already involved in this research agenda as part of building a community of colleagues. The time is right to develop this agenda, because while some funding agencies have the mandate to eradicate the digital divide, far fewer see it as a site for basic research. And those that do, such as the National Science Foundation, have a variety of calls that maintain the current fractured state of research in this space.


This workshop is supported by the National Science Foundation, award number 0956948