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University of Michigan School of Information


Breaking down information barriers in Detroit

Thursday, 03/03/2016

For many people, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft offer a convenient and inexpensive alternative to taxis. But to UMSI researcher Tawanna Dillahunt, “sharing economy” services like Uber could offer something more – a way for urban Detroiters to move beyond their immediate circle of influence and be exposed to information sources outside the boundaries of their neighborhoods.

If they lack private transportation, and hampered by Detroit’s limited public transit, many residents have limited options when it comes to building their circle of acquaintances and expanding their knowledge to what’s available outside of their immediate circles. UMSI assistant professor Tawanna Dillahunt is currently studying the interactions between passengers and Uber drivers in Detroit, in which riders receive free passage in exchange for filling out a diary detailing their interactions with the drivers and conducting a brief interview.

“The perception is that you have to get out of Detroit in order to acquire resources and new knowledge,” Dillahunt says. “In this scenario, drivers come from all over, including the outskirts of the city, so they’re a potential source of new input and new ideas for the passengers. We see Uber drivers as knowledge and information carriers.” 

Dillahunt leads the Social Innovation Group at UMSI, an interdisciplinary team that has as its vision to design, build and enhance innovative technologies to solve real-world problems affecting marginalized populations. Their current projects aim to address unemployment, environmental sustainability and technical literacy by fostering social and sociotechnical capital within these communities.  

Many of their pilot projects are focused on Detroit, a region that offers the researchers the convenience of proximity and a populace suffering from many of the disadvantages the group aims to address.   

To address the challenges some people encounter when seeking employment, Dillahunt and her team have assembled a group of volunteers, including a human resources specialist from Zingerman’s, who provides feedback for job seekers on ways to improve their resumes and hone their interview skills. They have designed a website,, where job-seekers can post their resumes and receive anonymous feedback, and they plan to add an option for people to participate in mock interviews as well.

“People may reach the interview stage but not get the job,” she says. “They’re frustrated because they’re never told why. We may be able to connect them to volunteers who can provide advice and guidance so that they understand what may be preventing them from being offered a job.” 

Dillahunt acknowledges that other barriers to employment are posed by a lack of digital literacy. Many employers now require applications to be filled out online, which requires both access to a computer and the knowledge of how to use it. This is more of a problem for older job seekers, she says, as children now acquire computer skills in school. 

Another area of her team’s research concerns how MOOCs (massive open online courses) may improve employability. Her paper on the subject, Do Massive Open Online Course Platforms Support Employability?,  was presented at the CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) conference in late February in San Francisco, where she also moderated a panel considering the question “Does a Sharing Economy Do Any Good?”

Learn more about Tawanna Dillahunt and her Social Innovation Group.

- UMSI News Service