CSCW 2006 Roundup


Just returned yesterday from the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conference, which took place in gorgeous Banff, Alberta. Here’s a brief summary of cool stuff presented there:

The Social Side of Software Development Workshop – One of the highlights for me, since this is my area. Several people here were doing cool research using Social Network Analysis – Daniela Damian from the University of Victoria, Masao Ohira from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Cleidson de Souza from the Universidade Federal do Para. Flore Barcellini presented a visualization of interactions in the Python development mailing list, Suzanne Soroczak studied why project managers shun MS Project in favour of spreadsheets, Sadat Shami had an ethnographic study of collaboration between developers and academics, and Birgit Krogstie was exploring instant messaging in for software development collaboration.

There were more than thirty people in the workshop, all with very exciting projects. I won’t describe them all here, but if you’re interested you can take a look at the workshop proceedings. Steve and I presented a position paper on distributed cognition in software engineering research, and got great feedback from the participants.

Lake Louise lookoutThe CSCW conference itself – CSCW is a strange community. Some talks were not about computers, some were not about support, others were not about cooperation, and some were not about work. CSCW seems like a misnomer, then, for research that is really about the interaction among people through any kind of technology – from the ways airplane pilots use paper notes, to how World of Warcraft players form in guilds and throw virtual parties with conga lines.

The community seems to be aware of this, and is apparently going through some sort of identity crisis. Some CSCW veterans had a very bizarre panel in which they wondered about the level of success or failure of the community, about why were they not involved in the revolutionary development of the Internet (the ultimate CSCW endeavour), and whether these are the best times ever for CSCW or, alternatively, the conference should close shop. Bill Buxton, who gave a great closing plenary talk, compared the existential angst of CSCWers with that of Canadians (which can’t seem to describe themselves without mentioning Americans).

There were some very good ideas, papers, posters, and demos, but I have to say that the quality was uneven. The research methods of some projects, and the relevance of some posters, were questionable. I guess this goes with the territory of conferences this size, but it’s still unfortunate.

Lake LouiseThe Toronto people – There were a lot of people from the University of Toronto with cool projects. Some of them: Chris Collins presented a translator that avoids the clumsiness of current automatic translators by offering several alternatives, as a lattice, to the reader –when it’s ready it may really help chatters with no language in common. Danielle Lottridge had a nice proposal to visualize the frequency and length of communications between intimate pairs as the rings of a tree. Abhishek Ranjan has a project to improve videoconferencing by inferring what should cameras be focusing on. Mike Wu presented part of his work on using technology to help people with Alzheimer.

And the people from Toronto’s DGP lab, along with Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab, throw the best conference parties around.

All in all, a good conference where I got a chance to meet and talk to people that I look up to. Looking forward to the next one!

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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6 Responses to CSCW 2006 Roundup

  1. Neil Ernst says:

    Hi Jorge, interesting writeup. Can you define ‘ethno-methodology’? How does it relate to ethnography – an ethnographic technique?

    If you don’t do analysis in situ (I’m assuming all ethnographies are in situ), how can you properly understand all the artifacts in play? You seem to say that subjects will inform you about these, and then you can simplify the analysis. But isn’t a central tenet of DC the notion that you *can’t* know these things a priori? Will the participants be truly aware of all artifacts they use? I don’t know, but I’m curious.

    Very interesting project.

  2. Jorge says:

    Thanks Neil. You raise some very good points. A couple of clarifications:

    Ethnomethodology is a collection of techniques to find out about the “methods” of the people you observe. It is ethnographic in nature, as you suggest, and the two things that in my opinion bring it apart from other ethnographic approaches are, first, a lack of assumptions and a detachment about the domain and about theoretical elaboration; and second, a very careful attention to detail -for example, using conversational analysis to find insights about people’s perceptions and social rules.

    Distributed cognition has largely been studied this way, even if researchers don’t label their studies as ethnomethodological. But our claim in that position paper is that DC does not require these methods -they’re just helpful when you can apply them, and they’re so popular in the DC literature due to the academic background of its main proponents. But for the type of study we have in mind (with hundreds or thousands of participants geographically distributed, throughout the course of a year or three), it’s simply impossible to do ethnomethodology.

    So to address your question – most DC researchers would say that you can’t know about the artifacts people use a priori, and that participants are not truly aware of all of them, so you need to observe them to find out. In contrast, I think these considerations are accidental to the theory. I propose that it is possible to view a domain -in our case, software development- with the distributed cognition lens, avoiding these methodological obstacles, and getting great insights in return. You lose detail, but you win in terms of scale.

    I don’t know how this proposal will fare with the main DC researchers; it’s quite possible they won’t like it. I briefly spoke to Christine Halverson at CSCW, and I sent Ed Hutchins the position paper recently. Hope to get their feedback sometime soon -I’ll let you know how it goes.

  3. Joe McCarthy says:

    Hi Jorge,

    Thanks for sharing your notes from the conference. I added a link from the notes I posted on my blog ( I particularly like — and agree with — your assessment that CSCW is (or ought to be) about the interaction of people through any kind of technology!


  4. Jorge says:

    Thanks for the link, Joe!

    If anyone is interested in finding more about CSCW 2006, Joe’s notes are much more detailed and insightful than my own –go take a look! Bill Buxton did and left a comment summarizing some of the ideas from his plenary talk too.

  5. Hi Jorge,

    Thanks for the notes and the review of Toronto contributions. It was nice to finally meet you at the conference. I’ll send you a link to the translation IM client when it’s ready!


  6. Jorge says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Chris! I’ll be looking forward to it.

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