Research Themes

Co-Design and Mobile HCI

The Mobile HCI and Co-design group sees that collaboration between developers and people is essential to successfully address real needs. The purpose of the group is to find ways to bridge the gap between system design and human practices by working closely with community members.  We work cooperatively with communities by placing computer experts and community members on an equal footing to design ICTs that suit their needs and functions. Although no two communities are alike, we have been able to establish some methodological best practices. We make use of this research approach with diverse communities, such as young creatives, micro-entrepreneurs and the Deaf. Many of our projects involve developing a deeper understanding of how our communities interact with mobile phones and the mobile applications directed towards their benefit.

Staff Researchers: Edwin Blake, Marion Walton, Melissa Densmore

Research Highlight: In collaboration with colleagues at the Polytechnic of Namibia, a recent co-design project focused on a remote village in Hereroland in Namibia (Kapuire). The project addressed the loss of traditional knowledge by a community that takes place when elders die without passing on their insights. Working with other colleagues we have been addressing the task of creating systems to capture and reflect this knowledge back to the community.

Digital Participation

People around the world are embracing computing and digital media, using an array of devices, operating systems, local media sharing and cloud-based services. Increasingly affordable consumer electronics have expanded the number of contexts in which media, games and other software can be accessed. This technology has also improved our ability to create, share and interact with and around various forms of media. Many new voices can make themselves heard particularly through social and mobile media as they converge with mass media. Nonetheless, key voices in society are still silenced or struggle to gain attention. Digital surveillance, monetisation and algorithmic controls also threaten freedom.

By taking user-centred, ethnographic and action-research approaches our Digital Participation group studies technologies in use in field contexts such as homes, libraries, clinics, classrooms, community broadcasters, after-school and holiday programmes, as well as in controlled settings at the university. Such fieldwork allows us to understand the economic, social and power dynamics that come into play as people access, use and create digital media.

Through a variety of methods - technical and creative - we explore these relationships and tensions, with a focus on implications for practical designs. This research, at the intersection of creative arts, anthropology, linguistics, information technology and media studies, is inspired by the need to understand agency and obstacles to digital participation.

Staff Researchers: Edwin Blake, Marion Walton, Melissa Densmore

Research Highlight: The “Beyond consumption” project, funded by Nokia (later Microsoft Mobile) has explored several dimensions of mobile content creation, using in-depth media ethnographies as springboards for design projects. These have produced large-screen displays for community settings and peer-to-peer collocated sharing as well as apps supporting the mobile-centric practices of young media producers, The project has supported several Computer Science and Centre for Film and Media Studies students working on inter-related projects, including mobile coding, image sharing, graphic design, mobile music production and hip hop performance. Our work in mobile coding won awards from the World Design Capital 2014 and a Shuttleworth Flash grant.

Educational Technology

Research in Educational Technology focuses on the application of ICTs to address critical problems in teaching and learning environments using a combination of learner-centric, teacher-centric and non-interventionist approaches.  These solutions must contend with a variety of resource limitations, such as limited or no Internet connectivity as well as limited access to textbooks.  We develop prototype systems to support teachers and learners in different environments: rural, urban and peri-urban. As with most ICT4D interventions, these solutions often include mobile technology and resource-appropriate adaptations of Internet technology.

Our work centres on technology in support of educational objectives, which means that we seek novel technology designs that have an impact on education rather than novel educational designs.  However, our work is deeply rooted in the realities of education systems in sub-Saharan Africa.  One such key reality and guiding principle is the central role of the teacher and the teacher-learner interaction; thus, our experimental systems support, complement and enhance these roles instead of ignoring them.

Staff Researchers: Hussein Suleman, Edwin Blake

Research Highlight: Learning management systems (LMSes) often come bundled with mobile interfaces that expose all functionality on a small screen device.  These ought to be very useful in poor countries where students have greater access to mobile devices than desktop computers, but Grace Ssekakubo (PhD student) found that this was not the case. He then used a learner-centred design approach to reorganise the mobile interface to the LMS at UCT and demonstrated a substantial improvement in acceptance and use by students.  For this work, Grace won the best paper award at the 2012 IADIS e-Learning conference in Lisbon.

Digital Libraries

Research in the Digital Libraries Laboratory over the last five years has focused on digital preservation of heritage and the structure of simple archives. The former is related to the development of human dignity and the support of education and research. The latter is an investigation into alternative underlying software architectures for low-resource environments. At the intersection of these ideas, the Digital Bleek and Lloyd Collection was developed as a collaboration with the Centre for Curating the Archive. The aim was to promote knowledge of the original inhabitants of the Western Cape, while simultaneously serving as a vehicle for experiments into more appropriate archive software technology.  The current focus of the group is on African language information retrieval and natural language processing.

In the sphere of heritage archive tools, experimental systems have been built to use machine learning, information retrieval, crowd-sourcing and social networking to actively engage with users and make heritage-oriented archives more useful for education and research. These specifically address local problems such as information retrieval in smaller African languages.

Various projects converged into the simplyCT software engineering theoretical model that was developed as a set of guiding principles for archives in low-resource environments.  This has been tested in experimental systems to illustrate its applicability in a wide range of scenarios and has resulted in many prototype systems and publications.

Staff Researchers: Hussein Suleman, Maria Keet

Research Highlight: A key challenge in the digitization of heritage information is the separation of form from factor so that content can be appropriately repurposed for new media.  The Bleek and Lloyd collection contains thousands of pages of hand-written text in the |Xam language, which is of great historical interest in South Africa.  We have therefore made multiple attempts to transcribe this text into machine-readable forms.  In 2011, Kyle Williams did an exhaustive comparison of machine learning algorithms for this task, which earned him the best paper award at the SAICSIT 2012 conference.


In our Health research group we study existing and design new ICTs that support health and service delivery in low-income settings by improving supervision and administration; empowering the health workforce and increasing knowledge at the beneficiary level.

Our work currently includes projects touching on electronic health records, health education, clinical decision support and behaviour change support. Working with the entire spectrum of stakeholders directly - including targeted sub-populations of the general public (pregnant women for example), community health workers and facility-based health care workers - allows us to ensure that any new systems designed will strengthen an existing health. While ICTs are not a panacea for health systems, they are able to increase knowledge and efficiency for underrepresented populations and overburdened workers. 

Staff Researchers: Melissa Densmore, Brian DeRenzi

Research Highlight: The Bophelo Haeso project seeks to empower nurses and low-literate community health workers (CHWs) in Lesotho by enabling nurses to create videos tailored to needs within their own communities. The project focuses on increasing interactivity and enabling digital participation between nurses, CHWs and patients using a mobile application developed through a series of participatory co-design workshops.

Service Delivery

The UCT iCOMMS team forms the basis of our Service Delivery research group. The team is dedicated to developing context-relevant tools to assist governments and decision-makers in the collection of the information they require to deliver better services and to monitor policy implementations. The team aims to identify and help develop low-cost and sustainable tools appropriate to rural communities, Some focus areas include improving water quality, health care and conservation; developing useful applications for mobile devices; promoting the use of open source software for the development of spatial data and attracting funding for and promoting future research in the fields above. Our iCOMMS team is uniquely positioned to experiment with various technologies, recommend the most appropriate options to governments and local authorities and to facilitate between the various stakeholders.

Staff Researchers: Ulrike Rivett, Edwin Blake

Research Highlight: Cell-Life was started in 2000 to investigate the use of ICTs as a method to collect real-time data on HIV/AIDS. Little or no data existed to allow appropriate planning and decision making with regards to the availability of basic amenities, health services and other support mechanisms for HIV+ people in South Africa. The system is based on mobile phone data capture technology developed by the OpenROSA consortium, of which Cell-Life was a founding partner. To help improve ARV dispensing, the iDart system (Intelligent Dispensing of Antiretroviral Treatment) was later developed and is used today throughout South Africa in more than 100 rural community clinics. In 2007, the Cellphone for HIV project was added to explore the range of applications for information, communication and interactive services to support the HIV sector. 

Rural Networking and Cloudlets

The Rural Networking and Cloudlets group focuses on the design of innovative architectures that are equipped to make communication systems more flexible and accessible in developing regions. Part of this work involves tackling network performance and service provision issues, which involves coming up with innovative ways to make the most out of the limited network infrastructure and expensive bandwidth that is commonplace in developing regions, while also tracking new opportunities associated with television white spaces and digital migration of broadcasting.  Inverting the dominant model of cloud-first communication, the group also investigates the importance of creating local content, local devices, local communities and local networks. Not only are cloudlets ad-hoc, hyper-local instantiations of the cloud that are independent of cloud infrastructure but they also interweave physical and digital trajectories that are produced as people move through and between sites of engagement.

Staff Researchers: Melissa Densmore, Marion Walton, David Johnson