New Tech Research / Astrid Otero

What initially started as a project to get people out of parking tickets through straightforward legal services provided by a bot, has become much more than that. Joshua Browder, a 19-year-old undergrad student at Stanford University, created an AI chatbot that asks users a series of questions to figure out the best way to help them. The bot then takes that information to draft a claim letter, saving people on legal fees and quite possibly a headache or two. With the bot being able to successfully navigate the world of parking tickets (it overturned more than 160,000 parking fines), Browder decided to take on a much more challenging issue; homeless and refugee asylum claims.

With the assistance of lawyers, the Stanford undergraduate has been able to craft responses for homeless people specifically, as well as research trends on why public housing applicants are denied so as to help particularly vulnerable populations, one example being, those living with mental illness. The chatbot helps to determine which application the individual needs to fill out, and takes caution in asking questions in “plain English,” rather than usual legal jargon these forms are usually replete with. The details you give are used to auto-fill an application form for either the US, Canada or the UK. The data is destroyed from his servers within 10 minutes of someone using the bot. This specific feature tackling homelessness has had more than 3,000 users as of August 2016 (when the feature was launched), and Browder is currently working on making the service available in multiple languages and partnering with more internationally adopted platforms such as WhatsApp.

This is an amazing, simple, free tool that I hope continues to break news in a positive way, especially as diverse asylum seekers wish to follow the law and receive proper services, but are faced with more obstacles than they should in order to gain basic human rights.

Reading Response 3 / Astrid Otero

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary by Dan Hill is all about defining what strategic design is under the context of product and its frame of reference and how to oscillate between these two states in order to come up with better solutions. This seems fairly straight-forward, but it’s not quite the whole story of all strategic design can be. Hill writes about dark matter, all the intangible, messy politics that allow things to function the way they do – which, of course, usually exist right above a designer’s head. Still, to be an effective designer you must recognize these elusive things as a necessary part of the “design challenge” for they allow you to draw a wider net around a problem as well as give you as much insight into the question as the solution.

I found this all very interesting yet I was more personally captivated by ways to explore/think about strategic design which Dan Hill would later present.

“Design as a cultural act,” for example, are words that stuck out for me. This idea that design is most valuable when synthesizing disparate views and articulating alternative patterns of living, is the reason why I am in design and not some other product adjacent field like engineering or even merchandising. Beyond that, I have always been aware of the potential for change design has so I was further enthralled when Jonathan Ive’s perspective was unpacked.

“[…] it privileges the viewpoint of the designer, suggesting that the designer has perhaps the fundamental position in reorienting the world, that all things are design challenges.”

Ive’s way of viewing design doesn’t just create privilege, however, there is an enormous sense of accountability and responsibility that goes with it. You can see this in the examples of failure not being chalked up to the absence of attention but strong design decision-making, mostly when financial interests trump everything else.

There I was nodding my head as I read, when Hill decides to play devil’s advocate via “the characteristics of self-organizing systems!” He references David Korowicz, who argues things like that global economy are beyond our ability to understand, design and manage. Furthermore, he presents examples on algorithm-driven trades, which I have minimal knowledge on, but I do know that these are codes humans in fact wrote and can no longer read. Still, at this moment I cannot give up on Ive’s arguments for design, yet as I question to do so Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary asks what I’m thinking, “what are we supposed to do? Helplessness is not a happy place.”

Overall, I do not think all design lives in a middle-ground between the two arguments, it perhaps looks more like a spectrum, but it is likely most design has the potential to live in a space of impact under systems we don’t fully understand. As the text says, “with this more investigative view of design, there are no claims to having a clearly prescribed course of action with a straight line to the ideal solution. Yet we can still see the world as malleable.”

Transitioning off of that the article, Strategic Design vs. Tactical Design by Joe Johnston compliments the previous reading because in my mind it positions design right into the middle-ground emphasized by Hill. Johnston talks about two different approaches to design problem-solving. Where strategic design is focused on the “big picture” via systemic challenges that should inform product in order to have unabridged solutions; tactical design centers on iterative and adaptive solutions that through feedback loops are able to make way for more accurate questions as well as solutions. Similar to Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary the best outcome might just come through combining tactics as both are needed and important in their own right.

Reading Response 1 / Astrid Otero

    Speculative Everything seems like the type of book that you approach with a highlighter and end up highlighting most of the text. I enjoy books that are challenging, offer new perspectives, confront your definition of certain practices and terms, and give insights into concepts you weren’t necessarily aware of. The idea that “dreams have been downgraded to hopes” was one that particularly struck me, because who would think HOPE is disadvantageous? I’ve always categorized hopes and dreams into one bucket, yet here is this strong statement calling out hope for being passive and the call to action is to dream. Aren’t people usually yelling at our pessimistic society to be hopeful again? If we look at the documentary Before the Flood, for example, it’s narrated through this pessimistic lens of a dying earth (aka a fact) and the film is supposed to speak to decisions we can still make to not kill the earth as quickly and that’s where our hope can lie. As Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby continue, they talk about how design became fully integrated into the neoliberal model of capitalism making all other types of design viewed as economically unviable and therefore irrelevant. This approach to design thinking, therefore, asks of us to imagine better ways to participate as citizen-consumers and question our reality, especially when compared to ideals.

The article Are You Ready to Consider Capitalism Is the Real Problem? was an interesting read. It certainly provoked a few questions as I was going through it, so I enjoyed it in that sense. The Fast Company article spoke on the issues with capitalism, primarily on how profit trumps life. This idea that capitalism is so engrained in our society that we can’t engage with any challenges to the status quo was interesting to see play out on a national politics level. My initial thought when Nancy Pelosi dismissed Trevor Hill was something along the lines of, “this isn’t a debate with your conservative parents, this is a thoughtful question with research to back it up asked to a ‘servant of the people!’” As it went on, I wished the article had made points on the benefits of capitalism, especially for the United States, because ignoring that somewhat discredited the article, but there were interesting points made. I question if greed is the real issue and if capitalism is just a rather easy segway into greed, more so than other economic systems? Or is the bigger issue with capitalism its practical desire to make money and hence exclude anything that isn’t profitable/problem-solving based design?