The rapid proliferation of social interactions online has enabled a new culture of sharing to emerge that supports citizens sharing their assets (Airbnb, Über), offer services (CrowdFlower, MTurk), and provide information (Wikipedia, FeedFinder) for profit or pleasure. This sharing economy holds potential for Digital Civics researchers to harness local sharing and interactions amongst communities. Interestingly, the explosive growth in the shared economy has gained traction, support and promotion by the United Kingdom Government in their 2015 budget proposal  as a mechanism to facilitate economic growth:
“This Budget announces a package of measures to unlock the potential of the sharing economy and to help UK businesses to succeed domestically and to expand into new markets overseas.”
This shift to an alternative economic ecosystem provides opportunities for citizens to utilise their local knowledge and expertise, which is currently underrepresented in this service-driven shared economy. To investigate why skill sharing is underrepresented, and how this could be explored from a design perspective, I examine and contrast two overlapping areas of social computing amongst existing peer-to-peer sharing platforms, and explore how the characteristics of these designs could be utilised to design future online platforms that promote civic skill sharing on a voluntary or paid basis. I believe that such a platform would encourage civic engagement, rejuvenation local community relationships, and promote local economic growth. This post therefore explores the social interactions afforded by the shared economy and social computing, and its’ potential for skill sharing within local communities.
A brief history of HCI
Explicitly defining HCI is challenging as it has become a conceptualised space representing multitudes of cross disciplinary sub-areas, from social computing (understanding and designing systems to afford online social interactions) to tangible computing (designing new ways to physical interact with and manipulate data, as opposed to current systems that manipulate data through devices, i.e. a mouse). I believe that all of the drastically differing sub-areas of HCI aspire to a common ideal – understanding, simplifying and improving the design and interaction of humans with machines. Bødker proposes that the history of HCI can be categorized into three waves that I feel succinctly describes the historical direction of HCI ; each wave affords paradigms targeting the interaction needs of technology from that era:
- 1980s: design aimed to optimise man-to-machine interactions.
- 1990s: theory-driven design for contextual workplace technologies.
- 2000s: design to accommodate lived experienced across culture, personal life and work.
Each wave incorporates additional social constructs that broadening the design space. As the scope and local context become broader, the involvement and complexity of the participants’ life becomes critical to understanding and incorporating in the design process as it’s where the artifiacts will have the most important. Bødker’s reflective article  on the changed in HCI over the past ten years demonstrates that through participation and sharing of artifacts (during the design process and in through artifact use) then a more suited design can be created that is beneficial to participants:
“When sharing becomes a matter of engaging with other users through multiple common artifacts, it is also in and through this multiplicity that people participate.”
It is interesting that Bødker’s reflection suggests that the complexity of modern life can be designed for through participation and an understanding of shared experiences with designed artifacts. Indeed, this would facilitate designing meaningful and social experiences for individuals, but given experiences of systems is objective, designing to generalise I feel is therefore a challenge amongst this area of research.
Sharing through social computing
Schuler’s description of designing “software services as an intermediary or a focus for social relation”  broadly describes social computing when in its infancy in 1994. This emphasis on facilitating civic participation through online communities’ parallels with my research interests in Digital Civics: designing technology to facilitate skill sharing amongst local communities through online social interactions. With the arrival of ubiquitous technologies that are used in everyday life, social interactions through technology have become increasingly complex and common. These new mechanisms of social exchange have been incorporated to social computing’s’ agenda , and I feel that a social shift towards a collective culture of sharing (i.e. social media) can be utilised by Digital Civics researchers when designing alternative systems for localised sharing and communication as participants would be familiar with sharing.
My current research interests aim to utilise social computing to design online platforms for peer-to-peer skill exchange that best afford meaningful (could these interactions lead to offline interactions that facilitate the job hunting process?), and secure (how can we verify users’ skills?) interactions amongst participants. Although the design of resource sharing peer-to-peer platforms is becoming increasingly popular, limited platforms exist that enable local communities to share their collective skills and expertise. To design appropriate systems to achieve this envisaged platform, understanding and utilising the affordances of existing social interactions with peer-to-peer exchange technologies is critical.
Existing approaches for sharing
The shared economy empowers citizens by enabling them to share their assets, services, information or skills to gain profit of social pleasure, for example, Airbnb offers local, shared accommodation at a cost, whereas couchsurfing offers accommodation for free to facilitate local cultural exploration of guests. With that in mind, I have explored two platforms of diverse forms of sharing (crowd-work and TimeBanking) to identify and examine the social experiences and interactions they afford (how individuals use these systems and interact with others through these) and how these interactions could be leveraged in a peer-to-peer skill sharing platform designed for community job listing, searching and acquisition, i.e. how best can a online and social platform utilize the expertise to accommodate local demand?
On the surface, this appears simple to answer – utilizing the skills developed through a career from local citizens, i.e. an accountant could perform tax returns for a local business, or a pianist could offer classes to a local group of children. However, this overlooks the multitude of roles (doctor, teacher, father) undertaken at once within a community  and the skills that are associated with each role. I believe that providing these atypical skills in a shared platform would enable new relations and roles to be extended and developed that had not been previously considered. The challenge remains: how can a system express and verify skills, and how can a system arrange meetings between individuals or groups?
Crowdsourcing: the future of the crowd
Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining services, ideas or content by employing individual contributions from a large group of individuals, typically online, rather than through employees. The idea is to take a large, complex task and distribute it into small chunks amongst a group. Individuals can work independently and collectively solve a challenging problem. Contributors solving the tasks often work at home, when they wish, and are reimbursed with a small fee for their time spent on the tasks, depending on its difficulty. A renowned voluntary version of crowd work is Wikipedia, where any individual can contribute their known (and supported) knowledge to the collective encyclopedia of shared knowledge.
This boom in distributing paid micro tasks has enabled companies and researchers to utilise the shared expertise and knowledge of the crowd. Whether individuals are utilising their expertise during crowd work depends on the assigned task, but typically, crowd work is low-paid, laborious, manual employment. The relationships and interactions of the requesters (those assigning the task) and workers (those completing the task) has become a topic of interest amongst social computing researchers. I previously explored this topic through Kittur et al’s question from “The Future of Crowd Work”  that aims to explore the current limitations of crowd work, and proposes a new framework for the success of future crowd work by attempting to answer and asking researchers to consider the following open-ended question:
“Can we foresee a future crowd workplace in which we would want our children to participate?”
Kittur proposed that the future of crowd work be “complex, creative, and highly valued work”, which I feel is unfeasible as there is no infrastructure to support standardizing online working conditions globally. This proposed framework adds complexity that would retract from the benefits of crowd sourcing, which I previously described as “cheap, fast, and distributed tasks”. Further, the proposed framework fails to explore or propose mechanisms to overcome labour abuse by requesters, which is currently the main concern of crowd work. Indeed, governmental support to improve crowd workers’ conditions has been recommended in the independent review of the shared economy  and described as:
“Instead, these platforms are offering new opportunities for work that would not otherwise have existed, and are helping people work more hours when they want to do so. However, both platforms and the government have a responsibility to ensure workers’ rights are maintained.”
The poor working conditions and small fees of crowdsourcing are explored in depth through an ethnomethodological analysis of crowd workers online Mechanical Turk chats in Martin et al’s “Being a turker” . The authors explores “Why do Turkers turk?”, identifying that they understand their role in the labour market and that their most frequent motive is earning money, despite the small wage and poor working conditions. Contrasting to Kittur’s proposed framework, if it was to be realised, or if governments try to improve the working conditions, then I believe demand for crowd work (from Turkers and requesters) would not change. I feel that this is succinctly described in a previous discussion with Jan on this same topic who commented: “Any steps towards ‘professionalism’ are necessarily steps against crowdness”.
Instead of restructuring crowd work, I suggest that a bottom-up approach to improving localised services and online job searching facilities (to utilise an array of diverse skills) would benefit individuals who complete crowd work for or to improve their salary. A focus could remain on work offered by local companies, where they employ local expertise as part time paid work. Understandably, offering alternative services does not solve the current crowd working conditions, but it provide opportunity for crowd workers to improve their current employment prospects.
Overall, the concept of crowd work is brilliant: solving large tasks through the distribution of smaller simpler ones. However, the lack of intellectually stimulation work suggests that the crowd workers are underutilising their skills that could secure them a better paid position. The future of the crowd in my opinion is the utilisation of these skills locally: performing crowd work for local businesses in return for short-term paid contracts. This would enable the businesses (the requesters) to continue to benefit from crowd work, while improving the work conditions of the crowd workers and making local connections.
Timebanking: local service and skill sharing
“The sharing economy is not limited to sharing physical things – people are also sharing both their time and their skills.” 
Timebanking is a community currency that supports local reciprocity, volunteering of skills and services between participants. Each member can earn an hour’s worth of “time dollars” that can be traded with other patrons who offer alternative services, for example, one hour spent cleaning a neighbours’ garden can be exchanged to another neighbour in piano lessons. Notably, time dollars hold no monetary value and can be exchanged in an endless variety of exchanges for the same amount of time. This encourages person-to-person exchange of services in a community setting that can have a significant impact social interactions with community members that individuals may not have engaged with before . Timebanking enables underprivileged members of society to strengthen their bonds within their communities through community contribution , to assist youth engagement in community , and has gained governmental support in the 2015 annual review  to be used by civil servants:
“Government departments should embrace time banks as a way of giving their staff the opportunity to volunteer with local charities and services, and to access new training and development opportunities for civil servants.”
Although there are community advantages and growing support for timebanking, a review of current HCI literature on timebanking [7,8,9] reveals significant design drawbacks that restrict its uptake. Bellotti et al provides an in-depth one-year field study of time banking , identifying underlying design issues associated with using time dollars as currency, exploring the limitations of relationships that are formed through these transactions, and suggestions for design implications. Although Bellotti’s paper  focuses on particular timebanking design limitations created as a result of time-dollars that retract from the kindness intention of timebanking, I feel that these issues are generalizable to alternative skill sharing platforms. In particular, the issue of motivation where users felt that “obtaining a service in this system [timebanking] is much like receiving a favour”  and proposed solutions of novel designs to draw participants attention to the positive characteristics of using the system could be utilised in alternative platform of sharing.
A limitation of timebanking that influenced me most, particularly within UK timebanking, is that participation of timebanking is significantly high amongst the unemployed and underprivileged [9,13]. This limited scope of participation restricts the potential range of civic skills and services on offer within the timebank. Understandably, these participants have more time, but the networks, skills and expertise afforded by other community members is underutilised, which I feel could diversify the jobs, skills and services timebanking or alternative skill sharing platforms have to offer. This particular drawback of timebanking made me reflect on the potential scope such a platform of skill sharing that I aim to design. I believe that these issues can be examined through exploring the following question:
“How can we design to encourage participation from all citizens to share their skills in an online platform?”
Although the ideal of community exchange is desired from timebanking, I feel that the current drawbacks outweigh the potential use of timebanking, and arguably demonstrates a need for improving its current mechanisms or designing an alternative system to accommodate the desire for community sharing. The social experiences afforded by timebanking as discussed above could be utilised in an alternative system, particular the design alterations proposed by Bellotti . I believe that designing to afford new local connections and opportunities, particularly local jobs by local businesses could be achieved through civic skill sharing. Bellotti demonstrated that participants must gain personal value from system use and the opportunity for connections that it provides. I believe that the incorporation of time dollars retracts from this ideal of sharing as the focus is in longer on caring for others, but ensuring your time dollars are positive, i.e. you are making a “worthwhile” contribution to your community through timebanking. Everyone has expertise to harness and teach to other participants, the question of interest is how to advertise through listings to enable quick searching of local (maybe previously unknown) skilled workers.
The future of civic skill sharing
I used this post as an opportunity to explore an area of growing interesting within HCI (social computing) that will benefit me when undertaking my MRes project later in the year. The focus of online sharing and the shared economy for self-interested, monetary gain, rather than the ideal of sharing for carrying amongst communities has consolidated my desire to design a civic skill sharing platform. Throughout I have explored and determined that many systems exist that afford service exchange, but limited platforms or research exist that exploits participants’ skills on a local level. The social platforms discussed demonstrate the capabilities of current service exchange online and that there exists a strong desire for local connections, particularly in the timebanking use-case.
This area of civic skill sharing is where I will direct my thesis project and is a potential area of future research that I am interested in. As discussed throughout, I aim to design an online platform for civic skill sharing that focuses on short-term job opportunities where participants (workers) can list their skills to find suitable listed jobs from local employers. From a researchers’ point-of-view (rather than my software developer lens), I am particularly interesting in exploring how this platform could afford localised skill sharing and community connectedness, and designing to afford the diverse skills community members have . Perhaps most interesting will be validating participants’ skills or arranging contracts amongst participant and employers. Personally, it will be exciting to realise the design ideas and goals set out in this post and explore the challenges that arise from designing such a system.
- Schuler, D. (1994). Community networks: building a new participatory medium. Communications of the ACM, 37(1), 38-51.
- Bødker, S. (2006). When Second Wave HCI Meets Third Wave Challenges. In Proceedings of the 4th Nordic Conference on Human-computer Interaction: Changing Roles (pp. 1–8). New York, NY, USA: ACM.
- Bødker, S. (2015). Third-wave HCI, 10 years later — participation and sharing. Interactions 22 (5), 24-31.
- Carroll, J. M., Rosson, M. B., (2013). Wild at Home: The Neighborhood as a Living Laboratory for HCI. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) – Special Issue of “The Turn to The Wild” v 20.
- Martin, D., Hanrahan, B. V., O’Neill, J., & Gupta, N. (2014). Being A Turker. Proceedings of the ACM 2014 conference on Computer supported cooperative work.
- Wang, F. Y., Carley, K. M., Zeng, D., & Mao, W. (2007). Social computing: From social informatics to social intelligence. Intelligent Systems, IEEE, 22(2), 79–83.
- Bellotti, V., Cambridge, S., Hoy, K., Shih, P., Handalian, L., Han, K., & Carroll, J. (2014). Towards community-centered support for peer-to-peer service exchange: rethinking the timebanking metaphor. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’14). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2975-2984.
- Carroll, J., Bellotti, V. (2015). Creating Value Together: The Emerging Design Space of Peer-to-Peer Currency and Exchange. In Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (CSCW ’15). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1500-1510.
- Shih, P., Bellotti, V., Han, K., & Carroll, J. (2015). Unequal Time for Unequal Value: Implications of Differing Motivations for Participation in Timebanking. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1075-1084.
- Gauke, D. (2015). BUDGET 2015. HM Treasury. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications [Accessed: 10 December 2015].
- Kittur, A., Nickerson, J., Bernstein, M., Gerber, E., Shaw, A., Zimmerman, J., Lease, M., & Horton, J. (2013). The future of crowd work. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (CSCW ’13). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1301-1318.
- Wosskow, D. (2014). Unlocking the sharing economy: An independent review. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-the-sharing-economy-independent-review [Accessed: 15th December 2015].
- Seyfang, G., Smith K. (2002). The Time Of Our Lives: Using time banking for neighbourhood renewal and community capacity building. London: New Economics Foundation.