Noyce Gains Fireflies (and a Conscience to Boot!)
Entering the Noyce Science Center's northeastern stairwell, you may note a welcome change to the décor: 27 glowing firefly sculptures, made of wire and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), now line the banister. The fireflies are the result of a summer Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) headed by Janet Davis, assistant professor of computer science, and executed by computer science majors Tim Miller '09 and Pat Rich '10.
The MAP's title is ADAPT: Audience Design of Ambient Persuasive Technology. Starting with the question, "How can we design computer systems that are sensitive to communities and human values and needs?" Davis wanted to find a way to use computer technology to address greater ethical issues such as democracy, privacy, and political transparency. In this particular case, she found that persuasive technology, a concept coined by technological researcher B.J. Fogg, fit the bill. "Persuasive technology," Davis explains, "is ... the idea of using technology to change people's behaviors." In this case, the technology was used to address the issue of environmental sustainability.
According to their final report, "[They] attempted to use participatory design to find an environmental deficiency in Grinnell's infrastructure, target it, and use persuasion to encourage people to change their behavior to ameliorate the deficiency." In other words, they decided to use focus group-like events to develop their design.
Miller and Rich generated ideas and comments from other Grinnell students during the spring and summer of 2008 -- the team figured that this was the best way to develop participatory design. As they stated, "If you're trying to persuade people, wouldn't you want them to be involved in the process?" The team uncovered a lot of "targets" for the project, ranging from excessive water consumption to the abuse of Grinnell's automatic doors. They eventually narrowed it down to their firefly project, designed to persuade users to save electricity by using stairs instead of the elevator.
Two groups of fireflies are currently active in Noyce -- one in the northeast stairwell and one by the elevator nearby. The project is designed so that when a participant reaches for the elevator button, five fireflies on the wall light up in such a way as to direct that participant's attention toward the stairwell. Sean Dunaway '08.5 attests to the effectiveness of the elevator display. "The fireflies told me I'm a bad person all the way up the elevator."
The real ingenuity of the firefly display, however, is the way in which it engages the participant and turns the outcome of the experiment into a game. To race the elevator from the first floor to the third, just press the "Up" button and start running. The fireflies' light ascends the staircase at the approximate speed of the elevator. If you hit the "Down" button on the third floor before the light reaches the top, the fireflies' LEDs flicker wildly to celebrate. You can also race the fireflies down the stairs, though you may not feel as accomplished. Regardless, this project is temporary, so catch it while you can!