Erick Oduor (left) outside of IBM Research Africa’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Graduate

Erick shares his graduate experience

March 12, 2019
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Erick Oduor received his Ph.D. from SIAT in 2015. He is currently a research scientist at IBM Research Africa located in Nairobi, Kenya. In this graduate alumni spotlight, Erick reflects on his experience at SIAT and offers advice to current graduate students.

Why did you choose the School of Interactive Arts & Technology over other programs?

As I was finishing my Master studies at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, I took a course in Interaction design where I worked on a group project called the Power Plant. The Power Plant was a plastic plant, with an embedded lighting apparatus, that displayed the electricity consumption in a home through variation of luminosity.  The goal with the Power Plant project was to make its users aware about their electricity consumption behaviour indirectly via dimming the lighting in case a lot of current was being consumed. Hopefully, the created awareness would make users act in a more environmental conscious way and reduce electricity consumption by switching off lights that were not actually being used. The project drew my interest in HCI and after some researching and speaking to various professors, I focused on working closely with a Dr. Saul Greenberg (HCI expert) of University of Calgary, Canada. However, Dr. Greenberg was scheduled to go on a one-year sabbatical leave around the period when I was interested in beginning my PhD studies. I asked him to introduce me to other professors who I could work with as I was eager to begin my PhD studies. Dr. Greenberg introduced me to Dr. Carman Neustaedter who had been his PhD student at University of Calgary. I looked at Carman’s work and liked the idea that he was working on how remote family members used ubiquitous technologies to connect with their loved ones via video beyond what existing applications such as Skype and Facetime offered. That is how I ended up at SFU SIAT.

Erick Oduor on a field study site in rural Kenya for an IBM Research project.

What was the area of your graduate studies and what is your current position?

My PhD work under the supervision of Dr. Carman Neustaedter focused on how technology supported family communication routines in rural and low-income urban parts of Kenya (video). I performed research in the areas of Human-Computer Interaction, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), and communications technologies in low-income communities in developing countries (ICTD).

Currently, I focus on the way people think and feel when using digital technologies in their daily routines. This informs the design of interface technologies that support HCI and addresses the problem of converting data into compelling, revealing, and interactive graphics that suit users' needs. The goal is to design systems that are easier and more delightful for people in rural parts of developing countries to use. I do this by continuously exploring how to design, implement, and evaluate these interfaces in the areas of water, healthcare, inclusive financial services and agriculture.

How did your experience as a graduate student influence your career path?

As a non-traditional information and communication technology researcher, my background, and my PhD research prepared me to explore the technological gap between developing countries and developed countries. Skills gathered during this process have enabled me to be just as comfortable in the field as in the lab/office. In the regions of Africa where we have introduced technological interventions, I focus my work time and again on the fact that that we cannot just throw technology at people and expect it to succeed. A key element of my research program is that for technological deployments to be successful in most parts of the developing world, we as implementers have to work side by side with the people who will be using the technology. The users need to feel like they are co-creators of the technology. When we have extensively gone out in the field, created relationships and got this co-creation buy-in we have generally succeeded; when we have not laid this groundwork, we have generally not been successful. The research skills gained at SFU during my graduate studies also help me to continuously push myself to learn new technical subjects, with my current interest areas being in machine learning.

What are the most important skills that you acquired as a PhD student that helped shape your current success?

As a graduate student, I pursued highly interdisciplinary research that spanned the areas of computer science, interaction design, social psychology, and anthropology where I led a research project on technology design for supporting family connectedness over distance in developing countries. I designed, developed, and deployed a new family communication technology for rural and urban regions of Kenya. Here, I focused on cultural issues such as technology literacy, economic hardship, and social practices in family communication. The skills I acquired as a PhD student showcased the breadth of my background and skills as a researcher, computer scientist, and designer. I also led the organization of a workshop at the ACM CHI Conference 2013 on personal video communication, which brought together leading international researchers from Canada, the United States, and Europe to present their research and discuss the future direction of video communication systems. I also became an active reviewer for the ACM CHI, DIS, CSCW, and AfriCHI Conferences. These experiences have provided me with valuable opportunities and skills that further entrenched myself within my research communities while actively contributing to the peer review process. In my current role at IBM as a Research Scientist in the area of HCI and Data Visualization. I have been the lead author on some of our lab’s important research papers, including one about the patterns of technology adoption by famers in central Kenya that won an honourable mention award at the 2018 CHI Conference. This work is currently featured on the IBM HCI and Data visualization page as a selected publication. (https://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view_group.php?id=4).

What was your most valuable grad student experience while at SIAT?

My valuable graduate school experience includes working with Carman and the Connections lab group. The Connections Lab research group was set in a manner that encouraged collaborations and continuous meetings among group members to ensure that we all understood the value of work that we were engaging in. I was also able to work with enthusiastic students that included Carolyn Pang, Serena Hillman, Azadeh Forghaini, Daniel Hawkins, and Jason Prosyk. Alongside the students, I also had the opportunity to work closely with Dr. Kate Hennessy as my co-supervisor. The collaborations acquired during my graduate student experience instilled in me research skills that I have carried with me to this day.

Do you have any advice that you would like to give to current grad students and / or recent graduates?

Of course, students could work better on structuring how they use their time during graduate school. Students should also put in the work to allow them complete the SIAT graduate student requirements in time. This approach put me in a great position whenever funding was available for grabs. For recent graduates, it is advisable to have career interests that you might not be skilled in, but passionate about. This will help in securing opportunities based on the drive you exhibit while discussing things you are so passionate about.

Oh! And to always remind themselves that… life is good.