Fb Fellow Highlight: Empowering ladies in rural communities by analysis in HCI

Every year doctoral students from all over the world apply for the Facebook Fellowship, a program to promote and support doctoral students doing innovative and relevant research in the fields of computer science and engineering at an accredited university.

As a continuation of our Fellowship Spotlight series, we are introducing Facebook Fellow Sharifa Sultana in 2020.

Sharifa is a PhD student in Information Science at Cornell University. Her work focuses on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD) from a critical computer and feminist HCI perspective.

Growing up in Jessore, Bangladesh, Sharifa found that women were underrepresented in STEM education and other professions around the world, particularly in Bangladesh. Because of this underrepresentation, many women in rural communities have difficulty accessing, trusting and using technology. This inspired Sharifa to work towards creating a more inclusive environment in which women feel empowered to use technology and in which technology could, in turn, help combat the oppression of women in their home country.

“My research asks, ‘Why doesn’t technology work for women in rural Bangladesh in rural areas? How can we use technology to fight oppression? ‘”She says. Sharifa’s approach examines how women in rural communities interact with technology to design and implement solutions that meet their critical needs.

One of these imperatives is the fight against gender-based harassment. “In Bangladesh, women are often harassed by colleagues, friends, family members – people they want to trust,” she says. “Nevertheless, for many reasons, it is often difficult for them to seek legal assistance.”

To enable women to counteract harassment, Sharifa has developed a digital tool – “Unmochon” – to collect evidence of technical harassment via Facebook Messenger. Users can install and run it to collect image evidence for harassing messages and the harassers’ Facebook handles. This tool allows users to report the incident to the appropriate authorities and confirm the authenticity of the evidence.

Sharifa’s recent research focuses on alternative rationalities in computer science – namely, examining how rural communities determine what information is true, and how misinformation can deter women from receiving health care. “The goal is to develop technologies that would actually help [women]that they would actually use, ”says Sharifa.

Health care misinformation is a serious concern for rural communities in Bangladesh, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to develop technology that will give people access to reliable information and connect them to the healthcare they need.

Sharifa’s research has opened a new discussion on how HCI design can be used to combat gender-based harassment online, and how studying HCI can help bridge the gap between women in accessing life-saving health care. Sharifa is currently working in Bangladesh on a local research project to find out what kind of technology and health practices could benefit rural communities.

To learn more about Sharifa Sultana, visit her Fellowship Profile.

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