Michael-Owen Liston: Designer
(in collaboration with the Greenlandic community and cultural organizations in Copenhagen. Special thanks to my project advisor Francesca Desmarais.)
October-December 2015
People Centered Research, Experience Prototyping, Prototyping, Service Design

TikilluaritSMS (“Tikilluarit” means welcome in Greenlandic) is an SMS chatbot-based service that supports Greenlanders who have recently moved to Denmark. It connects them with resources — both formal, governmental services, as well as knowledge, experience, and people within the community.

Conversational, text-message chatbots provide a low-barrier, always-on means of engaging with the service. People can use their natural language to describe their needs, without needing to first learn the terminology of Danish bureaucracy, which currently presents a major obstacle for Greenlanders seeking support in Denmark. The service can be both empathetic and proactive, suggesting opportunities for people based on their expressed interests and needs. TikilluaritSMS may be less than a person, but it’s more than a form.

Collaborating with Copenhagen’s Greenlandic community, including service organizations like the Greenlandic House, I researched and developed a functional prototype of the service.

What if you could just text the city a question?

In my research I learned that some Greenlanders did not have a mental model of the sorts of supports that were available to them — e.g. homeless support services, or community lawyers familiar with their cultural background — having never had a need for such services in Greenland. How can you even try to search for something when you don’t know that it exists? Rather than relying on pre-existing knowledge of the many complex and interwoven municipal and governmental systems, what if you could just have a conversation about your needs with the city as if it were a person, and be guided to the appropriate services?

Why Greenland?: Cultural Context

Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants are of predominantly Inuit background, and have a rich, vibrant, very distinct culture to that of Denmark. As a former colony of Denmark, however, Greenlanders are Danish passport holders and can travel just as freely as any other Dane to and from the Danish mainland. There are approximately 20,000 Greenlanders living in Denmark, but those who make the move often experience significant challenges, including stigma, racism, language barriers, profound culture shock, and challenges accessing basic services and supports.

Technological Opportunity: Chatbots for Civic Engagement

With the advances in the capabilities and adoption of intelligent assistant technologies such as Google Now and Apple’s Siri, natural language processing has become mainstream. We are simultaneously witnessing something of a renaissance for the humble chatbot, with SMS-based bot apps and the messaging service Slack’s own bot platform enjoying heightened popularity. Meanwhile in the public sector, open data initiatives the world over have begun to expose more of the workings of our communities in the name of transparency and democracy — though the capacity of most people to take advantage of this access is questionable, at best. And of course we have increasingly complex communities, widening gaps between rich and poor, and hollowing out of public resources and shared goods. To me this convergence of technical capacity, trends, and gaps seemed to present a fantastic opportunity.

What I Learned

I learned some new prototyping tricks, but I think my biggest learnings were around the challenge and craft of interviewing. It was a joy to develop relationships with the people I collaborated with during this project, and I was highly motivated to try and tell their stories well.

My IxDA Student Design Challenge submission, “SMS Chatbots for Civic Engagement” was selected as a finalist! My proposal directly built upon my TikilluaritSMS work.

You can read more about the Challenge and the other entrants here. Here’s my submission video.