U of T scholar giving 'voice' to marginalized communities

Assistant Professor Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed is one of 30 U of T scholars sharing $7.3 million in federal funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (photo by Nina Haikara).

The cacophony of voices on social media may be deafening but to U of T researcher Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, the voices of the silent, the marginalized and the fearful are worthy of new platforms designed to meet their needs.

The assistant professor in computer science is one of 30 scholars who are sharing $7.3 million in federal funding announced Wednesday through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

The money will fund new state-of-the-art equipment, new collaborations and research space.

Originally from Bangladesh, Ahmed arrived at U of T last September, bringing with him his Computing for Voice research project, which fuses computer science and ethnography together to create new technology that enables marginalized people to share their experiences and opinions.

For example, “there are millions of refugees around the world now who keep silent online out of fear,” he said. “Millions of factory workers do not talk about the oppression they experience because they fear they might lose their job.

“In many countries, people cannot freely criticize government decisions. That’s why the data we get over digital platforms are mostly shaped by the powerful entities in our society.”

To reach these communities, he and his team go out into the field and talk to people to understanding their cultures, practices, history and politics – “only then you can design an application that can help them,” said Ahmed.

This has led to the creation of a mobile phone app called Protibadi that enabled women in Bangladesh to combat sexual harassment anonymously. He’s also working with graduate student Dina Sabie on new software tailored for Syrian refugees in Ontario.

Working with Tovi Grossman, who will join U of T's computer science department as an assistant professor this summer, Ahmed will use the federal funding to buy new equipment for a Collaborative Mobile Interaction Workshop that will reduce the need for on-the-ground interactions for people involved in complex projects like building a house.

Instead, drones, robots and humans will work together, requiring a new collaborative way of communicating that is based on the same principles of voice – the technical means of expressing thoughts and listening. 

In addition to Ahmed, 29 other U of T researchers will receive funding through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

This article was first published on U of T News.