Prof Bill Tucker from the Division of Computer Science in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stellenbosch University recently delivered his inaugural lecture titled “Walking forward together, sonke siya phambili, saam vorentoe". Tucker spoke to the Division of Corporate Communication and Marketing about his efforts to empower marginalised communities.
Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field?
The research we do is to pursue the consilience (linking together of principles from different disciplines) of computing and societal impact (CASI) to empower marginalised and vulnerable communities in South Africa. You might be surprised where most of the innovation comes from: these communities!
Shortly after moving to Cape Town from the USA, I started working in this sphere as a PhD student at the University of Cape Town, whilst working for the Department of Computer Science at the University of the Western Cape. This was around 2001 and I suppose it all started with the realisation that cutting-edge technology at the time, such as instant messaging and voice-over internet, could be used to slash communication costs of poor communities. And 20 years later, it still can! It's just that many of us reckon that what we normally think of as “accessibility", is not enough.
The digital divide has not magically gone away with advanced information and communication technology (ICT); if anything, the divide is worse! Large segments of our population are surrounded by “accessibility" they simply cannot afford. And even if available, and even somewhat frugally affordable, there are other issues too, like are people even aware of what they can do with ICT? Do they have the digital literacy and ability to use ICT as a tool? And for me, the killer is agency – do people actualise their agency? So, the core challenge for us is to leverage ICT to help people realise that agency; and just maybe, to build their own digital tools.
How would you describe the relevance of your work?
For me, the crux is that the tech, the ICT, is the easy part for us – the geeks – to deliver. Now whether it gets used or not, or even how it gets used, is another story.
One of the keystones behind my work has been the extended engagement with communities. Both Zenzeleni and SignSupport (social impact projects) have evolved over sustained engagement of about 20 years each, in parallel. The relevance to (not only computer scientists) is to provide examples of how this kind of work can be done; that we can get better at co-production of community-generated ICT that helps people solve community needs. It's a very African interpretation of human-centred computing: it's community-centred. And again, not necessarily limited to computer science.
What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?
For me, it's all about building relationships. I love working with different types of communities because over time, I become an honorary member. I feel the same about colleagues at various universities and disciplines, students, partners and stakeholders, even funders. I like being a part of something bigger.
I like learning what it means to be African-emergent. One of my students said it better than I can: that we can all trace our genetic roots to this part of Africa; therefore to bicker about this or that race, culture, language, ethnicity, etc. is pointless. We need to figure out how to move forward together; and innovative ICT can help us amplify our intentions and agency.
The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What keeps you motivated during these times?
Human contact! I do a lot of activities outdoors, where it's relatively Covid-safe to be with others. I try to keep doing things outdoors as much as possible, especially walking in the hills.
Tell us something exciting about yourself that few people would expect.
I'm a rock climber first and foremost. I met my South African wife almost 30 years ago while rock climbing, and it's who we are; it's what we do. We also surf and mountain bike. The Western Cape is our playground! Work hard, play harder!
How do you spend your free time away from lectures and research?
With family and friends. I try my best to set boundaries and stop working early enough to be able to spend time cooking, playing guitar, watching sci-fi with my wife and child, or just reading. I don't work weekends. We're too busy rock climbing, surfing, mountain biking or hiking somewhere.
I need to exercise to get tired enough to sleep, so I have more energy to devote to lectures and research; and then learn how to better leverage those toward social impact. Based on this book I'm reading now, Why we Sleep by Matthew Walker, I'm starting to see how more sleep means better lectures, better research and better social impact. I'm good with best effort!