The SITS-Brazil Workshop in 2020: When Information Technology Meets Diversity, Creativity, and Social Change

Published on February 18th, 2020

Written by Graduate Research Assistant Iago Bojczuk

On the trip back to Cambridge, Massachusetts after leading the Social IT Solutions Workshop at the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) in Tanzania during January 2019, the GMTaC team came up with an ambitious plan to run a SITS workshop in Brazil in 2020. Back then, we thought that offering  the SITS workshop in another country would not only help globalize MIT’s commitment to interdisciplinary and international education, but also expose MIT students to other social and cultural realities. Given the ongoing research in the lab on Brazilian media technologies by myself and Gabriel Pereira, a former visiting predoctoral fellow, organizing a workshop in that country seemed reasonable. It would enhance  our learning experiences at the Institute as graduate students and researchers interested in the uses of media technologies in international contexts. 

What started out as just as an idea eventually  materialized as a reality in January 2020 during MIT’s IAP session. After months of researching and planning, the second version of the Social IT Solutions Workshop (SITS) occurred in the cities of Vitória da Conquista and Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, and engaged twenty-four students over the course of two weeks in an intensive problem-finding and problem-solving curriculum, culminating in a human-centered design competition that showcased the students’ growth and exploration in conducting original research. 

The State University of Southwestern Bahia (UESB) and the Federal University of Bahia (UBA)––represented by their faculty members Dr. Catia Khouri, Dr. Maisa Soares, Dr. Paulo Gomes, and Dr. Francisco Barretto––partnered with the GMTaC Lab to provide an interdisciplinary and entrepreneurially-oriented workshop with a focus on IT solutions for social challenges. Building upon the work we had previously done in Tanzania, the SITS-Brazil workshop trained Brazilian undergraduate students from these two institutions with knowledge and skills in the areas of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for development, human-centered design, social impacts of technology, community outreach, fieldwork, and digital media studies.

Photos of the first week of the SITS-Brazil at UESB’s Campus in Vitória da Conquista

In the higher education system in Brazil, undergraduate students currently have access to a computer science curriculum across the country’s five regions, but often do not have opportunities to think entrepreneurially or to apply their technical knowledge while taking into consideration other humanities and social sciences disciplines such as anthropology, media studies, history, geography, and political science. Over a decade ago, the Brazilian Society of Computing (SBC) had already identified multidisciplinarity as one of the key elements in solving what then they considered as the grand challenges in computing for 2006-2016 in Brazil.

Despite over a decade of effort to create changes in the curricula across colleges and universities in Brazil, most CS programs in higher education fail to offer such multidisciplinary approaches to undergraduate students when it comes to addressing social issues. This is a similar reality to what we encountered when leading the SITS-Tanzania during IAP 2020.“Throughout my research, educators in many countries have been telling me that students often learn computer programming apart from considerations of their countries’ socioeconomic conditions and development challenges. This workshop is intended to help address some of these issues, and to support ongoing creativity and technological innovation of Brazil,” says GMTaC Lab Director, Dr. Lisa Parks.

Based on the experience we had acquired in leading the first edition of the SITS workshop in Tanzania with students and faculty from the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) and the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA), we designed the SITS-Brazil workshop with the goal to impact higher education in the northeastern region of Brazil and to make an intellectual imprint on the participants in the workshop who may become IT influencers in Bahia or beyond. In other words, we wanted to help establish a community of students who think critically of technology, and who deploy IT solutions not only with the ultimate goal of maximizing production or profit but rather on how to make a social impact via technology; thus, promoting the UN sustainable development goals and inspiring others to think interdisciplinarily. We also wanted to learn from Brazilian professors and students, and, working across languages, try to understand how media and information technologies are thought about, designed, and used in diverse contexts. 

Inspired by the work of other prominent Brazilian educators such as Paulo Freire (2000), we wanted to experiment with different pedagogies while also focusing on an active learning framework; in other words, we wanted our SITS-Brazil students to apply concepts learned in class, interact and collaborate  with one another, and co-create a project. This approach of linking the local academic research and practice has guided several aspects of our lab’s ongoing work. But, as you can imagine, planning a workshop from scratch is challenging and requires flexibility and constant exchange, which we had to learn since the early phases of the project.

The organizational phase of the project involved bi-monthly phone calls with our partners in Brazil and dozens of emails exchange to learn more about the kinds of educational experiences we wanted to provide to the students and, most importantly, how that would help them advance their own projects, careers, and goals. Aware of the differences between the educational systems and viewpoints, we did not want to create a curriculum alone and simply pass it on to students. Instead, we decided to prioritize getting to know our local  partners and thus co-create the curriculum and learning modules around topics of common interests. We also took into account challenges that are part of the realities of the public higher education systems in the state of Bahia.

In a way, it is not a stretch to think of SITS-Brazil as a genuinely international initiative –– as the project not only involved students from four different countries (China, the U.S., Peru, and Brazil), but was organized remotely from Cambridge, Aarhus, Vitória da Conquista, and Salvador. Dabbling different time zones and varying levels of Internet speed, we managed to establish a strong bond with the faculty partners from UFBA and UESB, and their input was essential and eye-opening. Their teaching and research experience, local knowledge, and perseverance for a better Brazil were remarkable and taught us tremendously in all phases of the SITS Brazil collaboration, and in the ways in which I look at my own research practices as a Brazilian graduate student at MIT.

Growing up in the countryside of the state of São Paulo, in Brazil’s southeast region, I knew that going to Bahia would expand my horizon and knowledge about my own country. The northeastern region of Brazil has been one of the region’s most affected historically by inequality, and other social, political, and economic troubles, but, at the same time, a region that I knew for the rich and diverse cultural capital. In fact, Bahia was one of the first regions to be colonized by the Portuguese in the Americas, and was the location of the first slave port in the Americas as well. Bahia’s neighboring states––such as Pernambuco––are often regarded as constituents of “Brazil’s Silicon Valley,” given the number of startups and tech industries developing products in a vast array of fields and feeding a growing ecosystem of innovation outside the São Paulo – Rio de Janeiro axis. 

While researching and talking to residents of Bahia, it was clear for us that by establishing a collaboration with two public universities in that state we would help forge connections between two different cities and socioeconomic realities, thus catalyzing cooperation between universities  that, though close in geography, do not often work together. UFBA, located in Bahia’s capital of Salvador, and UESB, situated in the countryside region of Vitória da Conquista, are very different universities and learning environments that share in common an interest in developing more socially-aware IT training. The synergy between these two partners, in their differences and similarities, was e crucial in making the project relevant for the students involved.

During the first week, the 3-hour class time, coupled with afternoon breakout sessions, consisted of introducing concepts and methods that the MIT team learned  as part of their graduate studies, followed by applied group and individual exercises that emphasized the mens et manus motto of MIT. The Brazilian students would then share what they found challenging or generative with the class in an open discussion format, getting to know students from different disciplines, walks of life, and various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Alongside Han Su and Diego Cerna Aragon, other GMTaC Lab graduate research assistants from the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, Alan Zhang (Ph.D. student at Sloan School of Management) and Gabriel Pereira (Ph.D. student in Information Studies at Aarhus University), we covered the following topics: the mapping of social issues through community research and ethnography; critical analysis of gambiarra, creativity, and innovation in Bahia; design methodologies; unintended consequences of technology; programming skills; iteration; and prototyping. In order to benefit from the knowledge possessed by our local partners from UFBA and UESB, we engaged them with many breakout sessions in the afternoon, which included topics as diverse as technology and inequality, computational thinking; business and big data, and AI, art and social critique. 

In the evenings, students were given short homework assignments coupled with assigned readings to ensure they moved through the human-centered design process at an appropriate pace. They sourced social challenges from the communities they encounter on a daily basis, conducted site visits, interviewed individuals who were impacted by social problems, and gathered documentation and data to assist in prototyping solutions. 

Some examples of the prototypes developed by the groups SISI (information services for the elderly) and Traschcend (e-waste program).

By the end of the first week, workshop facilitators organized  the students into six diverse teams, each with a mixture of interests, academic background, home university, and gender. This encouraged the students to practice the listening and interpersonal skills necessary for collaboration, and it also ensured that the students interacted with new people and new ideas. 

UFBA and UESB students working on their projects during the second week at UFBA

The teams were required to decide on one social problem to focus on  for the remainder of the first week and the entirety of the second week, designing their own socially-informed information technologies. They then present prototypes before a panel of judges and packed room at the end of workshop. Students’ projects addressed issues of electronic recycling, food waste at public markets, energy consumption in universities, parental involvement in public education, emergency services for the elderly, and water distribution to low-income communities. 

On the final day, the teams presented their final projects to a panel of judges including Dr. Lisa Parks, Dr. Catia Khouri, Dr. Maisa Soares, Dr. Paulo Gomes, Dr. Francisco Barretto as well as two industry representatives, Debora Nunes and Nathalia from Movile, a Brazilian tech company that partnered with the GMTaC Lab to sponsor a trip for  the winning team of the SITS Brazil workshop to visit their headquarters in São Paulo.

The projects incorporated a variety of media, including a pitch deck, a physical prototype, a website, and a formal presentation. The process of developing presentations helped students to refine their expressive and analytical capabilities using a range of physical and digital media. The evaluation criteria were developed in dialogue with the students, another instance of integrated student involvement that respondents praised in final interviews, and assessed the projects according to feasibility, teamwork, creativity, and quality of presentation. 

MIT Professor Lisa Parks, UESB Professors Cátia Khhouri, UFBA Professors Paulo Gomes and Francisco Barretto and Moville’s representatives Natália and Debora with the winning team (Xepa) composed by Estéfane Cortez and Ricardo Martinez from UFBA and Laverty and Tarciana Oliveira from UESB. They designed an IT smart box that would help reduce food waste at public markets in Vitória da Conquista, Bahia.

The panel of judges selected two projects as “winners” at the end of the workshop in Salvador. The honorable mention went to team Traschcend, a platform designed with the goal of facilitating access to new teaching-learning methodologies through educational robotics for Brazilian public schools. The platform allows the teacher to request a kit produced from the reuse of e-waste from local, regional, and national companies. As part of their media documentation, the team produced the following illustration video:

However, the winning developed Projeto Xepa, an IT-enabled response to the growing problem of food waste in Brazil, where 40 tons of food are wasted daily –– and where such a waste will increase 30% by the end of 2030 according to team. After conducting ethnographic research in four different street markets in the city of Vitória da Conquista, the team members of Projeto Xepa came up with the following project question: how to improve and facilitate communication between the merchant and the people who rescue food in Vitória da Conquista’s street markets? With the goal of  tackling the problem of food waste and in an effort to maximize the opportunities for those who rely on this kind of food for survival in Conquista’s street fairs, the team proposed an IT solution that is illustrated in the following pictures.

The plan for this easy-to-operate smart box is to use of sensors in its interior. By implementing the box at specific sites at street fairs in the city of Vitória da Conquista, the sensors would send out a message to local members of entities and NGOs that work to combat hunger or to reduce the barriers to food access for socioeconomically vulnerable communities, and thus also reduce  the growing proportions of food waste that occur on a weekly basis in the city’s street fairs. The first illustration shows one of the first iterations of the final prototype.

According to Laverty, a Computer Science undergraduate student from UESB, the workshop guided them in “learning how to place the human needs at the core of a given IT solution, which impacted the way we looked at people’s needs and how they relate to the communities they are inserted. Coupled with several iterations facilitated by the thinking tools provided by the MIT facilitators, we managed to experiment with new ways of IT development: one that respects the local culture and takes the account the various social nuances that are often invisible,” says Laverty.

The end of the SITS  experience was certainly bittersweet. My time at MIT would not have been the same had I not worked on these  educational and research collaborations in different parts of the globe. I am thankful for having had the chance to not only learn from my colleagues at MIT, but also from the Tanzanian students at DIT and SUZA we had the privilege of working with in 2019, but also from my fellow Brazilians at UFBA and UESB in 2020. 

We are grateful for funding awarded through MIT International  Science and Technology Initiatives, the Danish Research Council, and MIT New Media Action Lab, as well as for all the infrastructure and additional support from UFBA and UESB. This project is also supported by the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab, the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT and the MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program. 

On behalf of the MIT GMTaC Lab, I also wanted to express my deep gratitude to Rosabelli Coelho-Keyssar from the MIT-Brazil program. We are grateful for the Lemann Seed Funds Projects for Collaborative Project for making SITS-Brazil possible, and for allowing me and other MIT graduate students to work with such bright, talented, and engaging undergraduate students and faculty from the country I dearly call home.