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Beth Kolko: “Hackademia – Leveraging the conflict between expertise and innovation to create disruptive technologies”

Beth Kolko is the sort of academic who follows her muse from one fascinating topic to another. Colin Maclay traces some of her past work from a doctorate in English through research on use of technology in the developing world, through her current research on human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. For the past couple of years, Beth has been focused on research for a book on hackers and makers. This is a project that comes from her daily life, where she’s spent the last six years participating in hacking and making events in the Seattle area – she’s now considering the implications of hacking for academia and larger questions of how the DIY movement could impact civic engagement and educational reform.

There are three major areas her talk – titled “Hackademia” – focuses on. She’s interested in how hackers, makers and students, especially undergrad students, can work as innovators. She’s starting to identify patterns within non-expert communities that allow hackers and makers to innovate. And she’s interested in how we “make more of this ‘stuff'” – as society and as educators, how to we scaffold and maximize these contributions?

The key to understanding hacking and making, she suggests, is imagination: looking at people as creative problem-solvers. While there’s lots of research on how corporate and university researchers solve problems, there’s less research on how people without credentials solve problems. She’s specifically interested in rulebreakers, people who either break the rules of the academy or laws to innovate. Rulebreaking, she argues, is a type of power play: it’s a way ot fighting against the cultural and economic power of “being technical”, finding ways to be technical outside of an existing ruleset.

The people Beth studies are functional, rather than accredited engineers. She confesses, “I don’t really care about formal STEM (science, tech, education and math) education – okay, I care a little. But there are lots of studies on getting people to work in those fields. Instead, I’m trying to get people to be STEM literate and facile.”

Beth tells us about an experiment in group learning she participated in. A group is given a task – from three feet away, collaboratively find a way for the group to touch each card in a set of cards in order. While it’s a simple task, the challenge is to execute it collaboratively, and she reports that her group took a long time to discuss what ways would be sufficiently participatory, while another group never completed the task. When we’re faced with new sets of rules, we are forced to think through tacit assumptions that define our behavior, bringing those internalized constraints to the surface.

She tells us about an independent inventor in Detroit, who created a novel flash heating process for steel. It saves energy, and makes steel that’s 7% stronger than through conventional processes. While his research was independent and uncredited, it’s now being analyzed within metallurgy schools to verify the success of the process. One of the people verifying observes that, “Steel is a mature science”. We tend to assume that all that could be done has been done, but that’s not true.

For an example that’s even further from the academic community, she points us to a YouTube video of a fun parlor trick – removing a cork from a wine bottle without harming cork or bottle. The key is to insert a plastic bag, snare the cork, partially inflate the bag and then pull the apparatus out. An auto mechanic – Jorge Odon – was watching YouTube videos in his native Argentina, and thought this was a cool trick. He wondered if it would work for babies. And it does – the Odon device is now in trials as part of birth kits for the developing world.

There’s innovating from hacking as well. She points to wardriving, a technique developed to compromise networks, which now is part of business processes to ensure corporate networks are locked down. And she suggests that password testing tools have emerged almost exclusively from the hacking community. Security techniques designed to compromise networks become part of standard business practices.

Some of Beth’s recent work has focused on non-expert innovation from students, specifically work on a low-cost portable ultrasound kit. A colleague at the University of Washington working in radiology reached out to Beth for help with user interfaces for ultrasound systems used by midwives in Kampala, Uganda. The goal of the project was to train midwives to identify the three conditions that most contribute to maternal mortality and send affected women to hospitals, rather than giving birth at home.

As Beth and her students worked on the project, they discovered that one major problem was that midwives were trained for 2-6 weeks, while ultrasound readers in the US train for two years before being certified. Even the technicians who train for two years don’t use all the functions of a commercial ultrasound machine – in US ultrasound practice, the complex machines are heavily marked with signs created by the technicians warning not to use certain buttons or to use only certain ranges of frequencies.

Can we make this technology simpler for technicians with less training? This makes sense, as the Ugandan technicians are only trying to diagnose three conditions. The solution Beth and her team found was to move back to an older, cheaper technology and to marry those wands with simple netbooks, then focus on making the user interface as easy as possible.

Through ethnography with midwives and mothers, they discovered that the use of ultrasound is utterly different in Uganda than in US clinical practice. In the US, the technician can pass any ambiguous results to a support structure of doctors. Midwives in Uganda are generally all on their own – they need to give answers to mothers directly. So she and her students built a help system for the ultrasound device that was a learning system about maternal health, not just a manual for the tool.

“Not understanding the boundaries of the problem space allows innovation – including a help and learning system into the product was something my students did not know was prohibited.”

Beth’s insights in this field come from studying creativity around technology in the developing world, as well as US hackerspaces, makerspaces, hacker cons, and makerfaires. Extrapolating from both types of sites, she observes three characteristics:

– The importance of actual space in bringing communities together
– Systems of apprenticeship or scaffolded learning, including workshops that show people what they need to know to join a community
– Contests and other systems for building reputations, like the “black badges” issued to winners of capture the flag contests at Defcon, or the badges people win on instructables.com

She’s interested in the possible overlaps between university research, industry labs and independent researchers. Her goal is not to map the actual Venn diagram of the space, but to understand how independent researchers work in this space. She believes that independent researchers are particularly important for building disruptive technology. Academics have a disincentive to build highly disruptive systems – they’re hard to get academic funding for, and hard for PhD students to pitch dissertations around. It’s hard to disrupt in the corporate community, especially when disruptive tech is cheaper, as those sorts of innovations tend not to fit within existing sales structures. Independent researchers may be immune to these restrictions and especially capable of pushing forward disruptive innovations.

The structural constraints suggest that independent researchers may not be able to do fundamental research – it’s hard to investigate the deep structure of matter without strong funding. What independent researchers excel at is technological remix. She shows photos of makers building a panoramic camera designed to take photos from near space. There’s not much novel tech development involved with the project, but lots of remix of existing photographic technology.

Beth’s “Hackademia” project has attempted to learn from these general observations. She invited six undergraduate students to meet regularly in a physical space, equipped with desks and chairs and salvaged gear to hack with, including Arduino controllers. She asks the students to learn and keep track of how they learn. She offers no formal instruction, but lots of pointers to places her students can find learning materials.

One of the projects the Hackademia team took on was assembling a makerbot, a 3D printer that comes as a kit. Very seasoned engineers have been able to assemble the product in seven hours – her team took it slowly and took weeks. But they got it together, and developed some intense technical skills in the process. One student, who had been worried about touching any pieces of the kit for fear of breaking them, found herself some weeks later slapping Beth’s had when she tried to assemble something for her. This student had thought of herself as “non-technical”, Beth tells us. “But that notion of technical and non-technical broke down for them.”

Why Hackademia? Because there are few mechanisms at the university to allow non-science students to gain technical skills. It’s very hard for someone not on an engineering track to learn how to solder. But Beth’s work isn’t designed to create more professional engineers – it’s to get people to functional technical literacy. “We’re creating functional engineers one blinky LED at a time.”

Interventions like Hacakdemia, Beth hopes, can address at least six issues:

– self-efficacy – considering yourself capable of engaging in technical acts
– material technical practice – gaining concrete technical skills
– identity formation – identifying personally and socially as a technically competent person
– conception – understanding the scope and practice of technical knowledge
– motivation – articulating possible future selves
– social capital and sustainable participation – understanding how to seek out expert knowledge when necessary

On this last point, Seattle is a particularly sustainable place to build this sort of interventions, as it’s filled with hacker spaces and expert communities who can support this form of experimentation.

Beth’s new effort is Shiftlabs, an engineering and manufacturing company that works only with hackers. The company focuses on the engineering of low cost devices in the global health space, using R&D from independent researchers. Why a company and not a book? Beth explains that she’d never intended for this space to be the main locus of her research – it’s the product of taking a close look at something she’s become fascinated with in her personal life that’s turned into an academic and professional focus.

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