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

Intellectual Themes and Example Research Challenges Prompted by that Theme


Mainstream computing systems have traditionally targeted only a narrow slice of the diverse global population; in fact, only recently has the core technical infrastructure of computing evolved to the ability to represent multiple languages well. Bringing an understanding of the broader cultural, linguistic, and gender diversities on our planet is essential for widening the currently narrow focus of computing technology and informing what technologies could and should be built.

  • What types of methodological innovations do we need to make in our data collection and analysis methods so that we not only capture this diversity, but also do so appropriately?
  • How might the results of these investigations highlight the assumptions that often remain implicit in systems designed for technologically saturated sectors of society?
  • What values will we discover, and how will those values interact with current methods and theories used to inform and guide design and evaluation?


Most computing technologies are designed with a world of plenty in mind: ready access to power, ubiquitous connectivity, and ample bandwidth. Designing for scarcity rather than abundance can lead to innovative new technologies that meet the needs of previously excluded populations while advancing the field toward more sustainable solutions that scale beyond marginal communities.

  • What types of computational innovations are required to address these challenges?
  • What kinds of novel operating systems, networking protocols, data structures and algorithms does scarcity require?
  • What is not scarce in these environments and how can we leverage that in our innovations?

Human Capacity

Human capacity—both physical and mental—forms a spectrum along which we all lie. Technologies designed for the “norm” may exclude those with disabilities, those who lack education or literacy skills, or even people whose capabilities may be diminished through age.

  • How can we extend our design processes so that they adequately support the development of interactive experiences that reach all of human capacity?
  • If the interactive experience of computing is divided between human and machine, how do we divide that interaction to scaffold the full spectrum of human capacity?
  • How does engagement with populations across the spectrum change our evaluation methods and criteria?
  • How do we design applications that most effectively engage with all languages and all capacities?


Globally, our population is increasingly mobile and transient: from job seekers who must move very few months or years to find work, to the urban homeless, to those displaced by conflict, to trans-nationals and broader national and international diasporas. Technology has a key role to play here, providing continuity of access and information mobility to populations on the move.

  • What types of innovations does a highly mobile, sometimes forced, population require?
  • What does it mean to deploy and evaluate systems in this mobile context? How will our methods need to change to cope with evaluation?
  • Can, and if so how, populations such as diasporas be a surrogate starting point for designs eventually targeted for people from the country that they left.