The Social Apps Lab at CITRIS was created by James Holston (Anthropology) and Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice and New Media Studies), both professors at the University of California, Berkeley. The Lab engages social science – especially anthropological investigation – computer science, and aspects of gameplay to identify urban social problems that mobile and web applications can productively address by reformulating the terms of democratic assembly and civic action. Its objective is both to study this potential critically and to produce apps that generate new opportunities for users to rethink and re-enact their citizenship.
The Social Apps Lab develops initiatives in research, teaching, and software design. Recently, it has focused on designing apps for health, urban infrastructure, participatory citizenship, and social engagement. It is supported at UC Berkeley by CITRIS and the Division of Social Sciences and receives external funding for its projects from such sponsors as the UBS Optimus Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Carlos Slim Institute for Health. Its activities bring into active collaboration people, research, and product design from the humanities, social sciences, and engineering and provides interdisciplinary opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, visiting scholars, and affiliated faculty.
The three research premises of the Social Apps Lab are:
1. To focus research on urban social issues that may be addressed through the development of new media technologies.
2. To develop research on the potential of web applications, mobile devices, and games to generate an active, critical engagement of citizens in social issues.
3. To use data generated during app use and game-play in the analysis of those issues.
The Lab’s research efforts focus on the contemporary city because it is the catalyst and relay of so many significant social issues and because urban populations have the highest concentration of cell phone use, encompassing a vast majority of residents in most cases.
A basic premise of the Lab is to create a research loop in urban detection, that is, to develop urban research that inspires the design of apps that, in turn, require players to investigate the city to solve app challenges. Thus, the Lab designs urban detection applications with game components that, for example, get players to explore their cities on foot, identify and eliminate pollutants and disease vectors, propose new uses for abandoned urban infrastructure, denounce institutional racism, and travel the historical layerings of time and space at specific urban sites. A second premise of the Lab’s research is that such app-driven explorations must have both practical and critical results: if they get people to exercise by walking, they do so in modes that challenge them to re-evaluate their assumptions and routines of city life. A third research premise is that players generate many kinds of scientifically significant data during app-play that reveal meaningful patterns of behavior, describe significant environmental conditions, and engage important ethical and political questions about the monitoring and use of signature digital data.
The Social Apps Lab coordinates a variety of teaching initiatives at UC Berkeley, including undergraduate and graduate courses, course threads, and undergraduate research apprenticeships during the academic year and the summer.
All the activities of Social Apps Lab have both a design and production component. The research investigates a problem with the aim of inspiring the design of an app that addresses it. The teaching combines reading, research, and design assignments while the design and production of the applications themselves emphasize teamwork; development of new mobile and web platform technologies; and implementation of supporting informational processes that advance collaborative investigation and data aggregation.
James Holston and Greg Niemeyer, Co-Directors