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Olin College Professor Receives 2019 Best Dissertation Award

The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) has awarded Assistant Professor of Social and Computer Science Erhardt Graeff the 2019 Best Dissertation Award for Evaluating Civic Technology Design for Citizen Empowerment (MIT).

“I am honored to be included among the inspiring scholars who have previously won this award,” said Graeff. “It is incredibly validating to be recognized for my efforts to do interdisciplinary research that has the potential to serve both practitioners and scholars.”

Graeff’s dissertation posed a timely question: “How might we design civic technologies for citizen empowerment and evaluate their impact on this goal?” To explore this question, Graeff analyzed SeeClickFix, a civic technology company that builds tools enabling citizens to report infrastructure problems to local governments.

The dissertation included two surveys of political efficacy and a randomized experiment with active users of SeeClickFix, followed by interviews with SeeClickFix staff. Graeff’s conclusion indicates the validity and utility of evaluating political efficacy as a measure of empowerment as well as the limitations of testing for incremental improvements.

Graeff’s research is particularly vital, as civic technology designers have a growing role as mediators of democracy. It is insufficient, according to Erhardt, for civic technology designers to just evaluate their designs in terms of ease of use and increased engagement with their platforms. 

According to AoIR, in an especially competitive year, the association chose Graeff’s dissertation because it “stood out in several respects. Its research topic is timely, meaningful, and impactful. Civic technology and people empowerment/engagement have shaped numerous socio-political movements in recent years.” Further, the award committee said Graeff’s dissertation “identifies the problems with current development of civic technology and proposes concrete solutions and directions for future research. In addition to its strengths in theory and evidence, this dissertation speaks to issues — of technology, participation, and power — at the heart of AoIR’s intellectual mission.”

AoIR is an academic association dedicated to the advancement of the cross-disciplinary field of internet studies. It is a member-based support network promoting critical and scholarly internet research independent from traditional disciplines and existing across academic borders.

Graeff joined the faculty at Olin College of Engineering in 2018.