Campus pursues tech- based service projects

by Sasha Dudding | 11/5/12 11:00pm

A growing number of Dartmouth students and faculty members are pursuing initiatives that use technology to achieve social change, ranging from tracking the spread of malaria to assisting local homeless shelters. Technology is not a "silver bullet" for inspiring social change, but its role is important and growing, according to Max Seidman '12, a Tiltfactor Laboratory game designer.

Tiltfactor is a Dartmouth-based initiative that designs digital and card games used to inspire social change on an individual level by teaching players about global issues such as the importance of immunization, according to Tiltfactor founder and digital humanities professor Mary Flanagan.

"What sort of social change would you have if you didn't have personal change?" Flanagan said. "All of our games have a social mission."

Flanagan began her career in software design but said she was inspired to create Tiltfactor when she realized she could use her skills to have a positive impact on society. She founded Tiltfactor at Hunter College in 2003 and moved it to Dartmouth in 2008 when she accepted a faculty position at the College.

"I wanted to make stuff for social good instead of just selling things," she said. "I wanted to make things that mattered."

This fall, Tiltfactor moved into the Black Family Visual Arts Center and has continued to expand. It currently has more than a dozen members and recently won multiple awards for its games, she said.

People often do not focus when using technology, which can limit the positive impact of digital games, Seidman said. He noted that the role of technology can be further reduced if people do not have access to it.

"We choose the medium that is correct for what we're trying to do," he said. "High-tech solutions have cool potential for reaching lots of audiences quickly, but they have limited applications."

Other Dartmouth initiatives have also explored the intersection between technology and social change through academic research, online learning platforms and direct service. Institutes such as the Rockefeller Center, the Dickey Center, the Tucker Foundation and the Neukom Institute have all been involved in these efforts.

Ben Southworth '13 received a Neukom Scholarship for the 2011-2012 academic year to work with mathematics professor Dorothy Wallace to model the spread of malaria. No accurate model has yet been published, but finding one would enable researchers to understand the best tools for intervention, such as where to distribute mosquito nets and insecticide, he said.

"The ideal goal is to be able to decrease the spread of malaria, to get an understanding of how it spreads and to be able to reduce its impact," he said. "We can try to understand it, and it gets better and better every year."

Tucker recently awarded a grant for a technology-related service project through its Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship, which is given annually to one undergraduate student. As a fellow, Dexter Zhuang '13 worked with the Upper Valley Business and Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization that helps local students seek out internships and job shadowing opportunities.

During the four terms of his fellowship, Zhuang worked to provide the organization with better self-evaluation tools. After the fellowship ended, he continued to explore his interest in technology and social change by working with the Neukom Institute to create a mobile phone application that helps Native American students monitor their college applications.

Tucker will also be supporting Noah Bond '13, who plans to work with the Upper Valley Haven, a homeless shelter in White River Junction. He will promote text messaging to help former residents maintain contact with the shelter's support system, according to Tracy Dustin-Eichler, program officer for local community service at the Tucker Foundation.

Last summer, five students traveled to Liberia through the Paganucci Fellows program at the Tuck School of Business, which provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to take part in business solutions to social problems.

In Liberia, the students worked with Global Grassroots, a nonprofit organization founded by Gretchen Wallace Tu'01 in 2004. The organization trains social entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries, according to Paganucci Fellow and Global Grassroots intern Mahmud Johnson '13.

The students worked to develop the online platform eAcademy, which enables social entrepreneurs to create business plans and budgets for new nonprofit organizations. On the trip, they decided to focus on urban areas because rural entrepreneurs did not have the same levels of access to computers, Johnson said.

This winter, Dickey and the Rockefeller Center will send four more students to Liberia through a new program called uAcademy. The program is a subset of Rocky's Global Leadership Program and is intended to encourage individuals passionate about specific social issues to enact positive change in society, Dickey Center Student Programs Officer Amy Newcomb said.

Johnson said he appreciated the increased level of awareness and funding for students interested in social ventures, which he said could help increase the number of students considering employment in this area.

"I think there's an overemphasis on the corporate route [at the College]," he said. "For people interested in social enterprise who usually have to do a lot more work on their own, it's great that there are more resources to do that now."