Ubiquitous Computing is a project within human-computer interaction that aims to embed computers into everyday spaces. As computing has moved away from desktop paradigms and is increasingly designed to operate ‘in the world’, the practice of ubiquitous computing has become heavily concerned with issues around space and place; particularly, with how technology fits in the relationship between people, space, and the understandings that bind them. Given the wider range of social and cultural contexts computational devices find themselves in, understanding the existing relationships between humans and their environments has become increasingly important to designers of technology. However, most of this research is centred around urban computing, conducted within cities, or focused on the mobility of urban dwellers. Indeed, little focus has been given to ubiquitous computing for non-urban environments.

This research expands the understanding of the relationship between technology and environmental understanding for ubiquitous computing. Through the case study of a national park, this thesis proposes new ways of thinking about designing technology that plays a role in the production of environmental understanding that moves beyond the typical focus on urban centres and mobility. It does so by drawing upon relational notions of space and understanding from cultural geography; examining how meaning of the world is socially and culturally produced and constructed. Building on this foundation, two multi-sited ethnographic studies with a state government organisation, Parks Victoria, are presented that demonstrate various productions of environmental knowledge in practice.

Based on analysis of these studies, a series of design principles are presented that reframe space and environmental understanding as emergent and seasonal processes. Drawing on these design principles, two design concepts are presented that are envisioned for use within Parks Victoria: Habitat, a location-based platform for tacit knowledge, and Wayfarer, a visualisation and narrative tool for situated understandings. A reflection on these related pieces of research will then serve to highlight new, practical directions for further work in ubiquitous computing in a non-urban context.

For those wanting a bit more meat, I’ve included a synopsis for my thesis so far. Like everything else, it’s an ever-mutating work in progress. If you’d like the graphical version of this, I have a presentation on slideshare that might help.

The Detail

How can Parks Victoria better facilitate the retention and dissemination of the knowledge it and its staff have?

Based in Victoria, Australia, Parks Victoria is a geographically disperse organisation tasked with managing over 100 publicly owned national and state parks, marine parks, marine sanctuaries, and other historical and cultural heritage site – the total landmass of which span over 4 million hectares, and represents about 17% of the entire state. The organisation has a field staff of 400 spread across the state.

Whereas in the past rangers were likely to spend their entire career in one park, staff now rarely spend more than a few years in any given location. This has profound consequences for the management of these areas – valuable park specific knowledge, obtained by rangers through many years of experience, is inaccessible to other rangers and vanishes completely when they move on. Deep knowledge of these natural environments is being lost, and this has negative implications for their ongoing management.

Using location as a frame through which to view this knowledge, I aim to explore the possibilities for a location-based and context-aware service to facilitate the discovery and creation of these deep and tacit understandings of locations. In this respect, I will show that ‘location’ is small piece belonging to the broader notion of context, and that an understanding of context is necessary in the retention, dissemination and creation of knowledge.

Building on the work of Seely Brown & Duguid (2001), Knorr-Cetina (2000) and others, I will argue that knowledge is social and subjective, and exists in the relationships between people and place. Further, I will explore how a phenomenological and subjective view of context (as in Dourish, 1996) – rather than explicit and objective view – can be exploiting to facilitate knowledge discovery and creation.

Through an ethnographic study of rangers and their practices, I will aim to answer the following core questions:

  1. What role does location play for rangers, and how do interpretations of location differ between them?
  2. How can these interpretations of location – that is, notions of “place” – be used to understand the knowledge rangers possess? and;
  3. More broadly, how can knowledge of place be effectively retained and communicated?

Answering these questions will require me to become engrained in the daily work of rangers in a national park, and through a combination of both remote and on-site research methods I hope to paint a picture of rangers and their organisation from a near-sociological perspective. I then hope to use this understanding as a framework to explore the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that are both (to a degree) a) context-agnostic and b) context-facilitating, and to design a service or system that enable rangers to better communicate and discover connections between data, people and places.


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