Identifying barriers and opportunities for building socio-technical capital

National Science Foundation EAGER grant funded UMSI research fellow and investigator Tawanna Dillahunt’s research on how socio-technical capital—ties that are created, maintained, or exploited through the use of information and communication technologies—is developed and used across different socioeconomic groups and populations.

Start date: 9/15/2013
End date: 8/31/2014

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This project seeks to advance the scientific understanding of how socio-technical capital is developed and used across different socioeconomic groups and populations. It is hypothesized that, like other valuable resources, the benefits of computer-mediated opportunities for building socio-technical capital are unequally distributed in society. For example, it appears as if far more effort has gone into building social networking tools and online markets for highly-paid professionals (such as LinkedIn) than for handymen or day laborers. And online labor markets that exist for low-skill, low-commitment jobs (such as Amazon Mechanical Turk) do not appear to offer a path toward building socio-technical capital that might lead to more stable, higher-wage jobs.

This project seeks to understand the prospects of tailoring the technologies of social networking tools and online labor markets to meet the needs of specific socio-economic populations, such as populations in Detroit, Michigan, and other cities in economic decline. The project will follow a human-centered approach of contextual inquiry, conducting interviews and focus groups employing a range of "design probes.” These probes will examine technologies such as LinkedIn, CareerBuilder, ODesk, TaskRabbit, and Angie's List that currently support the employment process. This research will identify fundamental barriers to usage and also generate ideas for features that might be especially useful.

Later sessions will include early prototypes generated in earlier sessions in order to articulate special needs, barriers and opportunities for using technology to help people in economically vulnerable communities to build, maintain and use social capital to start moving up the economic ladder. The project will investigate how information and communication technology can help create and maintain social and economic bridges between individuals within specific economic communities and people who can provide access to employment opportunities outside of those communities.

The project will have broad social impact by cultivating pathways to upward mobility in communities hit hardest by economic decline. If the research finds promising opportunities and surmountable barriers to the use of social networking tools and online labor markets, it will inform the design of future technologies and computer-mediated approaches to help these populations prosper. If the research finds limited opportunities or insurmountable barriers, practitioners will know to look elsewhere to help vulnerable populations find essential socio-technical capital.


EAGER: Identifying Barriers and Opportunities for Building SocioTechnical Capital, National Science Foundation: $149,942


The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…"