Dan Calacci Dissertation Defense

Dissertation Title:  Centering Communities in Research and Technology Design


Large companies hold an increasingly large monopoly on data and information about community behavior, making contexts ranging from instrumented city neighborhoods to online platforms more legible than ever to private firms. Meanwhile, many communities lack the tools and methods they need to access, use, and make sense of their own data, creating an information asymmetry that restricts their ability to understand their own conditions and relationships with new technologies. What methods, tools, and policies can help communities leverage their own data and disrupt this concentration of power? This dissertation investigates how community-focused computational research can help communities understand their own behaviors and the impact of new technologies in three domains: experienced urban segregation, online platform design, and algorithmic management. First, the study on urban segregation highlights how individual mobility behaviors can contribute to city-wide measures of income inequality, and provides an example of how large-scale data analysis can prioritize community agency. The second study concentrates on online platform design, and demonstrates how communities can understand their relationship to new online platforms by studying the racialized use of a hyper-local "neighborhood watch" social network. The third study explores how community co-research and design can help communities interrogate their relationship to algorithms by presenting a worker-led algorithmic audit of a delivery platform's pay system. In addition to their field-specific contributions, each study demonstrates a distinct epistemic and ethical approach to knowledge production. Using design lessons from each study, this dissertation also examines various approaches to community-focused research, discusses their main legal and logistical obstacles, and offers strategies for overcoming them. These contributions offer key ways that research and technology design can center communities, examples of how this practice can engage and empower worker groups and neighborhoods, and concrete policy and organizing strategies to make community-focused research more common and accessible.

Committee members: 

Alex ’Sandy’ Pentland
Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Andrés Monroy-Hernandéz
Assistant Professor, Princeton University

Dr. Christina J. Colclough
Founder, Why Not Lab

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