Theory to Practice: Context-Aware Systems Symposium

logos and dancing figures

The Theory to Practice: Context-Aware Systems Symposium, taking place March 10 and 11, 2023 in the Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab at the Rockefeller Library, is an immersive applied workshop series presented in collaboration with Mellon Foundation, Black Beyond Data Project at Johns Hopkins University, Data Science Initiative, Department of Africana Studies, Center for Digital Scholarship at the Brown University Library, and Civic Software Foundation

Inspired by a “theory to practice” mindset, the event offers four sessions over two days and is designed to reach beyond discourse and criticism of the current data ethics landscape to offer tangible principles, methodologies, and frameworks for participants to experience what more equitable approaches to technology creation feels like in action.  

The structure combines lecture presentations and lab activities which ground theories of contextual technology development through curated learning examples and brings to life how embedded assumptions can distort the structures, interpretations, and impacts of data. Examples of learning material may include case studies, real datasets, dataset imaginaries, schema samples, simulated project environment elements, and hypothetical or gamified scenarios.

Sessions Overview

Keynote: Sonia Gipson-Rankin, “The Details are in the Data: Igniting the Catalyst for Transformative Change”

Lecture: Architectures of Friction and Flattening
Immersive Lab: “Les Deliverables”

Lecture: Data Constituent Engagement 
Immersive Lab: “Data-Driven Gaslighting”

Lecture: Beyond Performative Dashboards
Immersive Lab:  “Dashboard Glow Up”

Lecture: Remediating Bias With Contextual Metadata 
Immersive Lab: “Hansel and Gretel Bias”

*See workshop session descriptions below

Registration details

Register through Eventbrite

Registration is REQUIRED for each session and it is recommended to register early. Capacity for the keynote with Sonia Gipson-Rankin and Architectures of Friction and Flattening is capped at 40 in-person and 100 online participants. Capacity for sessions #2, #3, and #4 and “Les Deliverables,” the workshop portion of session #1, are capped at 25 participants, with additional spots which may be made available via waitlist. 

Workshops are designed to be modular, and you may register for one session or attend multiple/all sessions. Lecture attendance is mandatory for participation in the associated lab exercise. 

No prerequisites are necessary, and we encourage participation from faculty and graduate students from all disciplines. There will be something to learn for everyone, and the workshop structure provides opportunities for multidisciplinary collaborators to be creatively engaged and challenged in different ways.

Event Dates 

Friday March 10 + Saturday March 11, 2023 

Event Location 

 Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab at the Rockefeller Library


Friday, March 10

  • 8:30 to 9:15 a.m. – Continental Breakfast
  • 9:15 – 9:30 a.m. – Welcome and Opening Remarks from Brown (in-person and live streamed)
  • 9:30 – 10:15 a.m. – Keynote: Sonia Gipson-Rankin, “The Details are in the Data: Igniting the Catalyst for Transformative Change” (S#1 Lecture) (in-person and live streamed)
  • 10:15 – 10:45 a.m. – Catherine Nikolovski, Architectures of Friction and Flattening (in person and live streamed)
  • 10:45 – 11 a.m. – Break
  • 11 a.m. -12:30 p.m. – “Les Deliverables” (S#1 Lab)
  • 12:30 – 1 p.m. – Brown Bag Lunch (lunch provided) 
  • 1 – 2:15 p.m. – Data Constituent Engagement (S#2 Lecture)
  • 2:15 – 2:30 p.m. – Break
  • 2:30 – 3:45 p.m. – “Data-Driven Gaslighting”  (S#2 Lab)
  • 3:45 – 4 p.m. – Closing Remarks from Brown
  • 5 – 7 p.m. – Dinner offsite

Saturday, March 11

  • 9:30 to 10:15 a.m. – Continental Breakfast
  • 10:15 – 10:30 a.m. – Opening Remarks from Brown
  • 10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. – Beyond Performative Dashboards (S#3 Lecture)
  • 12 – 12:20 p.m. – Brown Bag Lunch (provided – lunch continues as working session)
  • 12:20 – 1:50 p.m. – “Dashboard Glow-Up” (S#3 Lab)
  • 1:50 to 2 p.m. – Break
  • 2 – 3:15 p.m. – Remediating Bias With Contextual Metadata (S#4 Lecture)
  • 3:15 – 3:30 p.m. – Break
  • 3:30 – 3:45 p.m. – Hansel and Gretel Bias (S#4 Lab)
  • 4:45 – 5 p.m. – Closing Remarks from Brown
  • 5 – 6 p.m. – Closing Reception

Workshop Descriptions

Session #1

Architectures of Friction and Flattening 

In this workshop, participants will learn to shift mindsets from data being objective and neutral to recognizing how cultural and environmental factors impact how we perceive information. We will present strategies to bring attention to what is lost in the gap between reality and what can be captured by information structures, in particular, embracing intersectional representation and lived experience.

We invite participants to imagine (and experience) how processes that center equity and impact not only improve industry-standard models, but are intrinsically necessary to break barriers and achieve the next stage of modern innovation. 

“Les Deliverables” 

An experiential game that simulates the experience of building and trying to successfully deliver an equity-based software product. The scenarios (dramatic, thrilling, and sometimes treacherous) are based on composites of real case studies and projects.

Session #2  

Data Constituent Engagement

This session expands on concepts from traditional human-centered design to include the role of “data constituents” and presents examples and case studies which illustrate how inclusive practices are not a marketing or PR strategy, and can measurably inform data structures, validation cycles, and interpretation of analytics.

“Data-Driven Gaslighting” 

Focusing on questions of information provenance, the participants will investigate the culture of confidence in data-driven decision-making with special emphasis on elusive ways that confidence may be misplaced when key constituents are left out of the process and the structures of accountability are not properly in place.

Session #3 

Beyond Performative Dashboards

In this session, we will deconstruct how data visualizations are a product of decision-making processes influencing what gets prioritized, obscured, or made hyper-visible—with a special emphasis on how cookie-cutter practices and constraints of the genre can perpetuate harmful distortions without proactive awareness. 

“Dashboard Glow Up”

Working in teams, participants will get a chance to work with their hands (paper prototyping: craft kits will be provided) to redesign a real open data dashboard, applying the concepts around key metadata from the earlier presentation. Teams will come together at the end to present their changes “before and after” style and share how their decisions impact the narrative and perceptions of the data.

Session #4 

Remediating Bias with Contextual Metadata

Datasets can become distorted by misplaced assumptions or biases, and when overlooked they can compound into larger problems—rendering your data unusable or actively inflicting harm to a constituency. Particularly when those assumptions are deeply rooted in a legacy system and amplify race, gender, or historic marginalization factors, action can feel unclear and overwhelming. 

In this session, we will present the CIVIC Contextual Metadata schema as a method to uncover and critically assess datasets, demonstrating how it can be applied to annotate datasets, discover bias, and increase the integrity of future use cases. 

Hansel and Gretel Bias”

Participants will work in teams to navigate a series of questions and prompts in order to author inputs for metadata schema fields. Each team will be assigned a specific scenario and related sample data. Following “breadcrumbs,” the teams will go through a guided investigation as the workshop facilitators role-play data custodians, stakeholders, and/or constituents to aid teams in completing all questions.