Utah State University computer scientist Mahdi Nasrullah Al-Ameen describes the culture of his homeland, Bangladesh, as one of sharing.
“We share stories, we share experiences, we share laughter and sorrow,” says Al-Ameen, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Computer Science. “It’s common for families to live in an intergenerational household, in close contact and with lively, daily interaction.”
While designed to encourage social interaction and quick exchange of information, mobile phone applications developed in the West are created with a single user in mind. These applications, some argue, encourage self-expression and individualism over collectivism.
“This is a different point of view and can make using mobile technologies a challenge in a collectivist culture, where the group takes priority over the individual,” Al-Ameen says.
To address this phenomenon, Al-Ameen, with colleagues Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed of the University of Toronto and Sharifa Sultana of Cornell University, is exploring how women in rural Bangladesh are experiencing and adapting to digital forms of communication, including social media. The team members were recently selected for Meta’s 2021 People’s Expectations and Experiences with Digital Privacy Facebook Research Award for their proposal, “Understanding the Digital Privacy of Rural Women in Bangladesh.” The research team received a $100,000 grant to pursue their one-year project.
“Mahdi and his collaborators’ proposal was just one of seven projects selected from 89 proposals submitted by 74 universities worldwide,” says Xiaojun Qi, head of USU’s Department of Computer Science. “This is a distinct honor and an exciting research opportunity for Utah State.”
Al-Ameen’s project involves participatory ethnography, observations and in-depth interviews with women living in rural areas of Bangladesh, where privacy is at a premium and it is not always the norm for people to have their own personal digital device.
“One household might be sharing a mobile phone,” Al-Ameen says. “Different members of a family might be logging in and out of a device throughout the day. For women in Bangladeshi culture, this can be a challenge if they want to keep some interactions and digital documents private.”
Women in rural Bangladesh, he says, may be using a phone to conduct a small, in-home business, for banking, for shopping, as well as for social media and communication.
“In rural areas, women’s participation in social and economic activities through the use of technologies may get restricted by local myths, superstitions and other cultural practices,” Al-Ameen says. “Women in these areas have also developed many strategies to overcome these obstacles through creativity and collaboration.”
To conduct the project, Al-Ameen and the research team will explore novel design opportunities for mobile technologies through understanding the local values and challenges of rural women.
“We aim to design new solutions to empower women in Bangladesh,” he says. “This will have a broad impact to accommodate the situated privacy needs of underrepresented communities in the Global South.”
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Mahdi Nasrullah Al-Ameen
Department of Computer Science
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