IT for social justice - Dr Joanne Evans

6 March 2017

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“When you’re designing IT systems, you’ve got to be aware of your position of privilege and think about how you use that,” says Dr Joanne Evans.

Dr Evans is a leading researcher on the design and maintenance of sustainable information and recordkeeping infrastructure and systems. Her particular area of focus is on systems to serve vulnerable communities, in particular those who have suffered family disconnection and dislocation through being caught up in child welfare and protection systems. She is a passionate advocate for social justice and for IT systems – and professionals – that provide support rather than trauma or bureaucratic burden.

“Imagine if the IT systems for those working with the most vulnerable people in our community were actually the best systems in the world rather than the worst systems in the world,” she says. “How do you create a community of IT people who actually want to take on that challenge?”

That’s a question she tackles daily in her roles as ARC Future Fellow and co-ordinator of the Records Continuum Research Group in Monash’s Centre for Organisational and Social Informatics.  Although she won’t return to teaching the next generation of archivists, record managers, and library information professionals until the end of her fellowship, she’s a passionate believer in the crucial role educators play in broadening the focus of IT undergraduates, many of whom are drawn to the technical challenges and commercial applications of technology and regard the complex social issues underlying IT systems as “the fluffy stuff”, she says.

“One of the groups we have to work with is the information technology (IT) community, because one of the issues is that we’re not creating enough IT professionals who can actually build computer systems for social justice,” Dr Evans says.

“Mostly, IT is based on commercial vales. So how do we train and educate IT people who can work in this space and understand the complexity of the issues? We need to make it clear that it’s not just a commercial angle that you’re dealing with, it’s people’s lives, so that students and professionals are aware of the way that technology can enfranchise and disenfranchise us all too.

“At the moment, social justice is seen as a marginal issue in IT. I’d love for it to be a central part of the curriculum to ask questions about what kind of IT you want to create.”

Dr Evans’ experience working as an archival systems developer has shown her time and again how records that are incomplete, inaccurate, poorly integrated or hard to access let people down.

“The current system can actually re-traumatise people and deny them access to records. It treats them as the subjects of records, rather than co-creators.” she says.

The personal impacts can be devastating. In inquiry after inquiry, testimony after testimony, Care Leavers have highlighted the difficulties they have faced in finding and accessing records in the search for identity and memory, (re)connecting with family, holding the child-welfare system accountable for decisions and actions, and seeking redress for abuse and neglect

Despite good recommendations for change in numerous government inquiries and reports like 1997’s landmark Bringing Them Home, the problems plaguing our public records and archives are far from being solved. Dr Evans is passionate about nurturing IT students capable of co-designing better systems with the communities they’ll serve.

“If anything, the technical stuff is easy,” Dr Evans says. “But if you start asking questions of the technology, particularly social justice and social inclusion questions, I think it becomes a much more interesting technical exercise.”

Dr Evans and her colleagues are hosting a national summit on the topic in May 2017. Setting the Record Straight – For the Rights of the Child will bring care agencies, care leavers, government bodies and other key stakeholders together to develop a 10-year plan to transform recordkeeping and archival frameworks, policies and practices in Australia.

Categories

Information Technology; Research