“I came to Virginia Tech to work on educational technology. That was my passion and I still believe that learning and education is a way to gain power and to realize substantial change in society,” said Aakash Gautam, Virginia Tech 2021 alumni and now assistant professor at San Francisco State University.

Gautam recently won the 2022 SIGCHI Outstanding Dissertation Award for his thesis, “Designing Socio-Technical Systems to Illuminate Possibilities for a Vulnerable Population," which investigates the process of implementing a community-based design within a marginalized community.

“I'm from Nepal, so I wanted to go back home and work on projects that address issues that I've seen since I was young,” Gautam stated. “It morphed into a project that sought to support survivors of sex trafficking that were supported by an anti-trafficking organization.”

In his research, Gautam explores how socio-technical systems can aid survivors in achieving “dignified reintegration,” a term that can be boiled down to three interrelated dimensions: financial independence, social acceptance, and individual agency and power.

Although the anti-trafficking organization was providing quintessential services to Nepali survivors, Gautam believed there was still room for improvement, particularly when it came to enabling them to learn technological skills. “Earlier, the anti-trafficking organization had tried to introduce computers, and they had failed because the survivors had found it to be overwhelming.

They had never used a computer or even a smartphone before,” explained Gautam. “Instead, we chose to introduce computers through a more familiar context surrounding crafting and there were design elements that were aimed at supporting mutual collaboration and exploration.”

By taking incremental steps and presenting technology as a method of learning, the survivors were able to gain valuable computer skills that they could then teach to family members and others in their community. In the future, the organization hopes to teach survivors to become computer trainers, a result that Gautam finds particularly promising: “In the dissertation, I argue that building that relationship with our partners should be not only a means for research, but as an outcome in and of itself.”

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at San Francisco State University, Gautam continues to expand on the research he began in his dissertation and is currently working with students on community-based technology design. Meanwhile, his work in Nepal is ongoing.

At-present, he is focused on increasing the survivors’ participation in core processes so that they can have a greater voice in the organization as a whole.

“It's an interdependent world, after all,” says Gautam. “My responsibility does not end with the dissertation or my degree. My responsibility is to the organization who still exists even after my degree. So that means my work has to be ongoing, especially if I'm to practice what I'm teaching in my dissertation.”

Gautam completed his dissertation at Virginia Tech and credits his advisor Deborah Tatar as a major influence and source of support for his work. He also acknowledges the collaborative efforts of scholars, such as Steve Harrison, Marisol Wong-Villacres, and Neha Kumar, as well as the support of the Center for Human Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech.

--Article and video by Grace Daniels, an intern with the Department of Computer Science