How can science, technology, and engineering serve the needs of people in our communities who are advocating for more perfect justice? That question is at the heart of CREATE Lab (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab), a unit of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. Determined to avoid traditional approaches of “community engagement,” where researchers drop in to a place, decide on residents’ needs, and create “solutions” more beholden to their own tech interests than to what might improve the quality of life for the people who actually live there, CREATE Lab seeks to develop meaningful relationships with community organizations and advocacy groups from the get-go. The idea is to allow the people who know their neighborhoods best to decide what might help them in their own advocacy — and develop tech solutions in response.
Founded in 2000 by Illah Nourbakhsh, who was joined in 2009 by two other lead researchers he had collaborated with at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Randy Sargent and Anne Wright, CREATE Lab has taken on a wide range of projects that are notable for their interdisciplinarity and human-centered approach. Some, including Breathe Cam, have used cutting-edge tech to quantify everyday problems. In the face of concerns by Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), an environmental group, that a local coke works was violating EPA regulations, a PhD student at CREATE Lab devised an algorithm that used video cameras to detect when the plant was emitting pollutants. This visual data, along with data collected from affordable air quality monitors placed in residents’ homes, as well as real-time reporting of bad smells collected on an app called Smell My City, meant that ACCAN’s concerns would be taken seriously by the EPA. (The coke works was eventually shut down.)
What this “citizen science” model results in … is less of a focus on delivering solutions to communities, and more on helping them achieve their goals.
Other projects, including Hear Me, are more analogue in orientation. For this project, volunteers spoke to thousands of young people around Pittsburgh, getting a sense of their urgencies and concerns about a variety of issues. Those stories were then made available to the public via kiosks that took the form of a speaker inserted in a soup-can-and-string “telephone” installed in multiple sites around the city, from parks to street corners to coffee shops. When the city was in the process of selecting a new chief of police, the opinions of youth who had taken part in Hear Me were gathered and presented to the selection committee — an important instance of bringing young people into the political process.
What this “citizen science” model results in, says Ryan Hoffman, a project manager at the lab, is less of a focus on delivering solutions to communities, and more on helping them achieve their goals. “We’re not providing solutions,” he says. “We’re providing tools to help people find their own solution. But is there a tool we can provide to help? That’s where the engineers and tinkerers in the lab get to flex their muscles and say, ‘Well, what if we had this?’”
The approach also requires a commitment to collaboration among academic disciplines, which means CREATE Lab is transforming the university itself. “What we do is a blend,” says Hoffman. “It’s a blend of hard sciences, engineering, mixed with humanities and arts education. The data piece, the science piece, the engineering piece — each is just one aspect of what we can analyze. Hear Me was very centered on storytelling. The Smell MyCity app relied on human sensors, not machines.”
CREATE Lab’s long-term collaborations with community groups have allowed it to respond to immediate needs, such as the current mandates for social distancing due to COVID-19. Over the last 10 years, the lab has been gathering annual cohorts of teachers from Pittsburgh school districts — as well as from other parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio — to develop fluency with data and technology that they can then pass on to their colleagues for use in the classroom. So when it was clear that schools would have to move to online instruction, CREATE Lab, collaborating with other CMU units, including the Simon Initiative, the School of Computer Science, and the Entertainment Technology Center, worked to figure out how to continue supporting educators through technology.
One solution has been to host online office hours to help identify issues teachers are having with the shift from in-person to online classrooms, and making available open-source resources for teachers, students, and families. The online office hours have ended up functioning in part as a kind of community forum, connecting individual teachers, schools, districts, and towns that might otherwise feel isolated, both literally and figuratively. One of the biggest concerns teachers and districts had was that some of their students lived in areas where Internet networks were not sufficient to sustain online learning. So the lab joined SEEN (Sustaining Equity in Education Network), and is working in collaboration with a community organization called Meta Mesh to pursue mesh networking solutions in underserved areas — essentially creating a temporary public Wi-Fi by encouraging businesses and other entities to share their connectivity.
Part of the goal of SEEN has been to educate students on the technology that’s out there, while giving them the skills to advocate for it in their communities. CREATE Lab turns immediate needs into problem-based learning projects. Jessica Kaminsky, who is a specialist in education at the lab, sees this as an important aspect of creating equity in K–12 education: “It’s important to recognize that not all students have equal access. Mesh networking is one of the ways to level the playing field a little bit. It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but it is one way to respond to the problem. So we’re creating a board game that’s going to teach some of the basics of what this network is and what it might look like in my community — what businesses could I approach and who do I need to talk to?”
“I could totally imagine,” Kaminsky continues, “a group of students who are learning a little bit about the technical capacity of mesh networking saying, ‘Well, if what it takes is for me to put this antenna in a workplace where it can provide access to this neighborhood, why is that business not on board? We can go approach that business about it.’”
Recognizing the very human needs that can be served by high tech is part of what CREATE Lab is about. Anne Wright explains that tools like GigaPan (an open-source program that allows users to create panorama photographs by stitching very high definition images together) was motivated by the desire to find ways to foster connections across the globe. “What was involved in this project was the realization that a big part of what the world needs is increased empathy, and if you can see — and in immersive, intimate detail — the world from somebody else’s point of view, it helps fight against all of the forces that are trying to get you to treat other people like inexplicable ciphers. It resists dehumanizing narratives.”
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GigaPan has been put to many uses, from augmenting classroom experiences to assisting recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the devastating earthquake in Pakistan.
Another project, EarthTime — which does for real-time moving images what GigaPan does for static snapshots — creates planet-sized time machine videos. EarthTime proved useful in assisting advocates for fair housing in Pittsburgh by overlaying maps of the city with census data, providing a powerful data tool for those seeking economic justice for low-income residents of the city.
2020: Exponential Growth CREATE Lab’s EarthTime project enables users to view compelling animations that draw upon its vast data library to tell stories that illuminate our collective impact on the planet. Here, “The Pandemic and the City” story captures the spread of COVID-19 as of February 29 (top) and May 29 (above). Within three months, COVID-19 had spread to virtually every country in the world. Globally, as of August 11, 2020, there have been 19,936,210 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 732,499 deaths, reported to the World Health Organization. (Credit: EarthTime.org | CMU Create Lab)
Because CREATE Lab put in the community groundwork, when COVID-19 hit, the Lab was able to step in to provide data visualizations to identify the communities — largely peoples of color — that were being hit hardest by the virus. By scraping data from the Allegheny County Health Department and making that data widely available, CREATE Lab is providing tools for advocates in the push to get local health officials to offer more testing and to set up more response centers in the city’s most vulnerable areas.
As more and more researchers around the country search for technological solutions free of the kinds of unintended consequences that reduce our quality of life, the CREATE Lab team has been placing human concerns at the center of their thinking for two decades. They are, says CMU president Farnam Jahanian, exactly what the world needs right now: “CREATE Lab’s work leverages the power of technology, combined with community-driven engagement, to expand Carnegie Mellon’s societal mission in order to promote shared prosperity. Under Professor Illah Nourbakhsh’s leadership, the CREATE Lab team’s unique, collaborative approach is serving as a model of community engagement for urban research universities across the U.S. I am both proud and humbled by the work they are doing, and I believe their efforts can foment national change at a critical time for our society.”
Aruna D’Souza is a writer based in western Massachusetts. She is the author of Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, and cocurator of an upcoming exhibition of the work of artist Lorraine O’Grady at the Brooklyn Museum. She is a regular contributor to and member of the advisory board of 4Columns, and her writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, CNN.com, and other publications.