AImpower’s First Year in Review

By Shaomei Wu

(This post contains 2100 words and takes 5 to 7 minutes to read.)

AImpower just turned one year old! 🎂🥳

It has been a busy and exciting first year for AImpower! When I left Meta at the end of 2021, I could not picture how and where I could build my vision and beliefs in equitable and empowering technologies. Yet here we are, one year after, surrounded by friends and communities who believe in and support us, starting a brand-new nonprofit organization that is dedicated to research and co-create technologies for and with those who have been marginalized and silenced by technologies. 

Here is a look at some of the highlights of AImpower.org since its inception in February 2022.

1. Establish the organization

One of the biggest milestones this year is to have AImpower formally recognized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization by the IRS. The process was tedious, but actually less complicated than I had expected, thanks to the guidance of our board of directors and our pro-bono legal counsels.

The hardest (and most exciting) part, turned out to be finding a group of people who share the vision and are willing to stand behind it as AImpower’s initial board of directors. And I am so fortunate to find Karin, Niranjan, Lindsay, and Ben, who have possessed such a diverse set of expertise and backgrounds that constantly inspire and enlighten me. I can not thank our board enough for their wisdom, commitment, and companionship – they are the true cornerstones of AImpower!

Big kudos also go to the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco, who connected us to our amazing pro bono legal team from Cooley. Katie and Samantha, thank you for your patience, knowledge, and responsiveness!

I also want to thank everyone I have talked to and learned from in the process of starting AImpower, especially, our incredible board of advisors. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and time with me. Your advice and support is the biggest asset for AImpower!

2. Build our vision

While I always knew that I wanted to explore a new paradigm for researching and building technologies, that is respectful, equitable, and empowering, it turned out to be much more challenging than I expected to articulate and describe it. 

Together with the board and our advisors, we worked hard to define our vision and approaches. We knew what we didn’t want to be, but it took us a lot of discussions (and healthy debates!) to define what we want to be in the tech/nonprofit ecosystem. 

We are happy to share our mission below, together with the key principles we implement to approach our mission. You can also find them at the front page of our website.

We also did a lot of self-reflections and identity exploration to define who we are and how we can effectively contribute to the existing efforts on technology ethics, social justice, and empowerment of marginalized communities. At the end of the day, we see ourselves in this unique position that intersects community, research, and intervention, with the expertise, the willingness, and the flexibility to directly partner with marginalized communities and produce high quality research as well as promising technical interventions.

3. Do our work

While starting up our organization, we have also been busy kicking off our first case study with the stuttering community! 

Stuttering impacts 1% to 4% of the world population, and people who stutter have been marginalized socially and structurally. A lot of that marginalization has been implemented through technologies, for example, job interviews over the phone tend to be much more stressful for people who stutter to communicate and perform well, compared to in-person ones. New communication technologies such as videoconferencing and automated phone menus are often adopted without considering the full spectrum of human speech diversity, and, as a result, pose new challenges for people who stutter (or with other types of atypical speech patterns). After all, current speech recognition models tend to be built under the ableist assumption about fluent speech, introduced by the datasets used to train those models and the design decisions such as the amount of time the model waits before assuming the speech is over. 

Guided by our mission of empowering marginalized groups into technology research and development, our work with the stuttering community spanned across three areas:

  1. Community-oriented research on the experiences and challenges of people who stutter with videoconferencing technologies;
  2. Technical advisory and contribution to other stuttering community organizations on their technical programs and technology development;
  3. Advocacy and support for community-led, grassroots efforts to collect, govern, and utilize stuttering speech data.

We will summarize what we did in each of the areas below.

1) Research: Stuttering in the age of telecommunication

Inspired by stories we heard from stuttering communities (and my personal experiences), we have been working closely with people who stutter to understand and improve their videoconferencing experience. Between February 2022 and August 2022, Shaomei, Ben, and Yijing (our wonderful volunteer researcher) interviewed 13 people who stutter about their use of, and challenges with, videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. Our research uncovered both opportunities and barriers with videoconferencing for people who stutter, pointing out several places where the design of current videoconferencing platforms are NOT stutter-friendly. 

The methodology and the findings of our research has been summarized in our research paper, “The World is Designed for Fluent People”: Benefits and Challenges of Videoconferencing Technologies for People Who Stutter, that was recently accepted by CHI 2023 – one of the top conferences for Human Computer Interaction research. Please read our previous blog post and the full paper if you want to learn more.

This research is just the beginning of our investigation on telecommunication technologies for people with speech diversity. We will run follow-up co-design workshops with the stuttering community to explore the design space for inclusive videoconferencing and produce tangible interventions in the coming months. If you are a person who stutter and are interested to participate in the co-design workshop, please sign up! For those who have already signed up, thank you and you will hear from us soon, I promise ☺️!

We are also in desperate need for volunteer designers with user-centered design and rapid prototyping experience, contact us if you are interested!

Subscribe to our blogs to receive the latest updates about this project!

2) Technical advisory and contribution to other community organizations

We are proud to share our technical expertise and experiences with other organizations to expand their impact and service for the stuttering community. I was honored to serve MySpeech, a non-profit organization and a digital community for people who stutter, as their first CTO. Through my role, I was able to support MySpeech by defining its technical vision and roadmap, architecturing its product infrastructure, and formalizing its engineering process. When I handed off my responsibilities in October, I was extremely proud for the structure and technical foundation that was in place and very confident about MySpeech’s ability to grow their technical talents and sustain technology development. And I was not disappointed: the key technical product the team were developing – MySpeech App – was launched in November 2023, serving the stuttering community as the one-stop information hub for everything stuttering-related. This is a huge milestone for MySpeech and I am so grateful to be included in MySpeech’s journey. 

3) Community-led data collection and governance

At the core of AImpower’s mission is “community”. We believe in the agency of the marginalized communities, and are always excited to see communities taking charge of their technological experience. One important aspect of technological experience is the data collected and used by technologies. We are honored to support 口吃说(StammerTalk) – a bilingual podcast and online community for Mandarin/English speaking people who stutter – on their effort to collect and govern one of the first open-sourced stuttering speech dataset in Mandarin-Chinese

The idea of a Mandarin-Chinese stuttering speech dataset by people who stutter for people who stutter emerged from the video interview I did with the StammerTalk community in October 2022, in which I talked about how the lack of diverse speech data might have contributed to the degraded performance of speech recognition models for people who stutter. While there have been some similar datasets (e.g. FluencyBank, UCLASS, and Sep-28k), none of them are in Mandarin, and they were never collected and managed by people who stutter themselves. 

After an initial discussion with us on the technical requirements of the data collection, the community got together and started recording each other right away. We are so impressed by the 口吃说 (StammerTalk) community’s drive and capacity, and find it deeply satisfying and reaffirming to work side-by-side with them. We are committed to continue supporting community-led grassroot efforts like this and exploring multiple fronts (legal, organizational, technical) with 口吃说 (StammerTalk). We will share more about this project and our learnings in our blog, stay tuned!

4. Gather support

As a new organization, one of our top priorities at the current stage is to gather the resources we need to implement and grow our program. Beyond the selfless support from our board, advisors, and friends, we have also made a series of outreach and campaigns to share our mission and connect with a broader audience with shared goals and interests. 

You can find me speaking about AImpower’s vision and ongoing work in different places, including:

We also opened up our donation channels at DonorBox, Benevity, and PayPal Giving Fund, and had a successful grassroot campaign on social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, WeChat) and through word-of-mouth. Big thank you to Bin Fu and Ben Lickly for the campaigns you led to support us in December 2022! 

We were able to raise over $20,000 by the end of 2022 to cover our basic operations – all from small, individual donations. Deep gratitude to all our donors for your support! Your trust in us is truly motivating and invigorating. We are committed to being transparent and accountable in how to use your donations. Feel free to request our 2022 balance sheet and 2023 budget plan.

5. Look ahead to 2023

In the second year of AImpower, we plan to continue the progress and momentum we had this year, grow our team, and potentially expand our program to new problem areas.

In terms of our research and program, we will build on our existing partnerships with the stuttering community to work towards tangible sociotechnical solutions and advocate for broader acceptance for stuttering and stuttering speech by technologies and in the workplace. 

Projects that are already on our roadmap include:

  • Exploring the design space for telecommunication technologies and tinker out a few socio-technical solutions with people who stutter;
  • Supporting 口吃说 (StammarTalk) community to collect and manage the very first open-sourced Mandarin-Chinese stuttered speech dataset. 

Besides our collaboration with the stuttering community, we are also actively engaged with different accessibility and disability advocacy projects, and generally interested in reaching and empowering marginalized groups facing technological challenges. 

As a small organization, we have the luxury of being nimble and flexible, and are always open to ideas and collaboration opportunities with communities and other similar-minded organizations. If you want to work with us, let’s talk!

Another priority for us in the second year is to grow our team and streamline our operations. We are kicking off our first remote internship program in late February with University of Ottawa, and I am super excited to mentor two Master students and provide them with hand-on experience in building technologies with social impact. We also hope to recruit more volunteers and take advantage of the talents of our volunteers through a smoother onboarding process and a better support mechanism. Lastly, we would really love to hire for a few roles (e.g. research, eng, design) and compensate them fairly, we see this as the biggest investment on AImpower and a crucial step to carry our mission in the long-term.

We will continue our outreach and public advocacy efforts, contributing our knowledge and practice to the public discourse on technology justice, gender and racial equity, and disability rights. We already have a series of engagements lined up in the next few months, from guest lectures, conference presentations, art exhibitions, to media campaigns. We will share more as they come out.

We anticipate the need to spend a good amount of energy fundraising. We have submitted some grant proposals and funding applications in 2022, learned a lot in this process, and will continue these efforts to keep us financially sustainable. We are also looking for academic/industry/community partners with shared interest to fund/support our work. 

Last but not least, we will go to more places to physically meet people and talk about AImpower. You will see us in Hamburg Germany for CHI in the last week of April and Austin for the W4A conference right after. Come say hi if you are nearby 👋🏼 !

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