Batya Friedman: Generational Change Takes Time

Women’s rights have generally been on a positive trajectory since the late 19th century: women have the right to vote, own land, hold leadership positions in government and industry. However, there is still a ways to go to achieve parity in certain things such as wages. In 2010, women earned 77.4% of men’s earnings for performing comparable jobs. Although this is up from 59.2% in 1962(1), creating wage parity has been slow. Solutions to societal issues tend to unfold slowly, spanning multiple life times, requiring the concerted efforts of women and men working together to bring about change.

The proliferation of information technology and digitization of content provides increasingly easy access to information. As a society we record everything without really thinking about how it will be used in the future. Is this the best approach or ought we to be thinking of ways to make information less salient and thereby help society to heal as well as remember? Professor Batya Friedman’s research has focused on designing information technology centered on human values, spanning multiple lifespans.

As a young software designer, Professor Friedman was very interested in building things that would be good for people. Tool use is fundamental to human existence. They shape how we interact with and experience the world, which in turn leads to the invention of new tools. Tools can help people flourish as well as experience harm, for example, design of browsers and web security impacts user experience directly. As she began looking for methodologies to guide her work, she found little focused on human values. This led to her creating value-sensitive design, a methodology based on moral and ethical values such as human dignity, privacy, trust and social justice. Professor Friedman’s current focus of research is on multi-lifespan information system design.

“In times of peace and in times of war, in times of internal political upheaval and in those of good governance, in bustling economies and in widespread poverty, information systems throughout the world mediate socio-political human experience. Such systems underlie (and, conversely, can undermine) people’s ability to be informed, to engage in dialog and critical discourse, to participate in politics, to gain access to justice, to preserve historical accounts, and to recover from conflict.”(2)

The Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal is an example of a multi-lifespan information system she is currently working on. Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda which resulted in the death of 800,000 people in 100 days, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UN-ICTR) to prosecute the alleged perpetrators. A large volume of judicial records was generated in the process, which are potentially of interest to current and future generations learning about the genocide and international justice. Some of this material is highly sensitive and will not be released for many years.

What can be done with information system design to ensure that the material when released will fit naturally into the stream, while preserving authenticity and preventing revisionist history?

Professor Friedman and a team a team from the University of Washington’s iSchool have been implementing, an information system that records the proceedings of the justice tribunal. She and a team of information scientists, legal experts, and cinematographers interviewed the UN-ICTR personnel to record their experiences in dispensing justice. In addition, interviewers were asked to speak about their opinions on how events in the past lead up to the genocide and how to prevent future such occurrences. The information available on this website is designed for easy access and sharing among people interested in international justice as well as various Rwandan institutions working on rebuilding Rwanda. Designers of information systems have a responsibility to provide historic information in ways that enable generational healing, says Professor Friedman.

Batya Friedman is a Professor in the Information School, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Computer Science, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington where she directs the Value Sensitive Design Research Lab. In 2012 Batya was awarded the SIG-CHI Social Impact Award and named the 2012-2013 University Faculty Lecturer by the University of Washington.


(2)Batya Friedman et al (2010) Multi-lifespan Information System Design in the Aftermath of Genocide: An Early-Stage Report from Rwanda

Our guest writer is Mala Sarat Chandra, a faculty member of the University of Washington’s iSchool and CEO of MyMobilife, a consultancy focusing on the convergence of mobile, location and social media technologies. Prior to that she has held executive positions at several F100 high tech companies. Her full bio may be found at

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