UF to lead $7.5M NSF study

UF Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) building
UF Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) building. (Courtesy UF)

UF engineers are using a $7.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead a study in effort to understand how certain groups like the poor, children and the elderly, and the disabled are marginalized by current technologies like smartphones and video conferencing and how to design more inclusive technologies going forward.

“Computing systems and services have become ubiquitous in modern society and are deeply embedded in people’s daily lives,” said Kevin Butler, a professor in UF’s Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) and the project’s principal investigation, in a press release. “As practices and technologies for ensuring security and privacy of computing systems emerge in this rapidly changing technological landscape, the needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations have been largely unaddressed, as have the consequences of their exclusion.”

Butler, who is collaborating on the five-year project with University of Washington and Indiana University researchers, cited the move to virtual courtrooms during the pandemic as an example.

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“This was intended as a means of providing remote and convenient access to justice for all,” he said. “However, it was soon evident that low socioeconomic status defendants, without access to Zoom and only able to call into the courtroom by phone, overwhelmingly lost their cases and never saw the judge throughout the process. Informed by real-world issues such as these, the team envisions a more equitable society where technology is created with everyone in mind.”

The goal is to change the fundamental approach to both privacy and security in computing so these communities are considered the norm rather than the exception, or even an afterthought, Butler said.

The researchers will draw upon the resources of the Florida Institute for Cybersecurity (FICS) Research in UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, of which Butler is associate director. Other UF participants include CISE Professor Patrick Traynor, who has expertise in cellular and voice-based systems and payment systems, and whose own work involves improving life outcomes of economically marginalized and visually impaired populations; and Eakta Jain, a CISE associate professor, whose research involves human-computer interaction and virtual reality.

Forrest Masters, professor and associate dean for research and facilities, said in the release that “this project demonstrates the college’s deep commitment to creating equity and accessibility in technology and aligns with our vision of a future that is created with everyone in mind. Its outcomes will stretch beyond the walls of academia and will benefit consumers of technology from all walks of life.”

The project is part of NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace Frontiers program.

Other team members include Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner at the University of Washington, Apu Kapadia at Indiana University and Elissa Redmiles, CEO and Principal Researcher at Human Computing Associates.

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