Designing Systems to Support Innovative Interventions

What we know from the book and our Python learning already is that there is no end to the stuff you can do with Python. Though it’s only possible to cover a finite amount of stuff in a single book, however big it is, by the time you’re at the final chapter the hope is that you have an appreciation of Python as a multi-purpose tool, and that what’s required to wield that tool is not so much knowledge of the ins-and-outs of Python as a language but a creative approach to using that tool to think about and solve the problems that lie in front of you. One such problem/creative application might be to use Python to design novel and innovative ways to interact with participants to garner information about the social world, or make positive interventions within it.

Building tools to interact with participants is not something that routinely occurs in the social sciences, but it is a more longstanding practice in fields like Human–Computer Interaction, where researchers might conduct their research by designing and deploying a software system that can be used in some way to speak to social issues. For instance, in a 2017 study, Feltwell et al. built a mobile phone app called Spotting Guide, designed to be used alongside reality TV viewing, where users watching a TV programme create categories and count the occurrences of the tropes they identify. For instance, when watching a programme such as Channel 4’s  ‘  Benefits Street’, a reality show about the lives of benefits claimants in an impoverished area of Birmingham, users could use the app to spot and count references to such things as drug use, neglect of children, hygiene, and so on. In this way, the app was designed to confront users with the ways in which the production of the programme itself was designed to impart a particular sensationalist, stigmatising and misleading message around social welfare, and thereby encourage users/viewers to be more critical about the content of the programme and look for alternative messages within it that were less demonising of welfare claimants.

Feltwell, T., Wood, G., Long, K., Brooker, P., Schofield, T., Petridis, I., Barnett, J., Vines, J., & S. Lawson (2017)  ‘ I’ve been manipulated!’: Designing second screen experiences for critical viewing of reality TV, Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Denver, Colorado, USA, May 6th to 11th 2017. New York: ACM, pp. 2252–2263.

Feltwell et al.’s study uses Spotting Guide as a tool both for collecting data from participants (i.e. about the themes they spot while watching potentially stigmatising reality TV content), as well as offering a tool to participants (i.e. a system through which users can collaborate on the generation of critical discussions of socio-political issues such as welfare and benefits).

Researchers have also commented on the use of other novel formats of interaction – for instance, Bogost (2007) comments on the use of video games as a critical medium, noting that Molleindustria’s The McDonald’s Videogame provides a player experience of being in control of the McDonald’s production environment, where often-less-than-ethical decisions must be made in order to maximise profits (e.g. feeding cattle cheap animal by-products, and bribing health officers when diseased meat appears in restaurants). In this way, The McDonald’s Videogame asks players to critically think about the morality of global industrial processes; though this is not a topic that people might necessarily think about or come into contact with in their everyday lives, working through these ideas in the form of a videogame proves an engaging and impactful activity.

Taking the information in the book on design as a starting point (Chapter 9; and perhaps also exploring some of the extra libraries listed in the directory of libraries on this website that can help with building games or graphic user interfaces):

Can you design and build a system for interacting with participants to generate novel and innovative forms of data through which we might understand the social world? Or can you design a tool that intervenes in a social problem within your research interests (e.g. stigmatising discourse around welfare and benefits)? Or both?

A project like this might conceivably take your skills far outside of the scope of what it’s been possible to cover in the book, but has a lot of potential to provide something really valuable, interesting and insightful.