From bike infrastructure to on-the-ground activism, Mariam Asad's research interests all revolve around the same key questions: Who gets to raise their voice, and who doesn’t? And how can we leverage digital technologies to make more voices heard?
Currently, Asad is exploring these questions through the lens of Cycle Atlanta, a mobile application that her Ph.D. advisor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Christopher Le Dantec, helped develop. Since 2012, cyclists have been using the app to record their trips and report problems like potholes and blocked bike lanes. City planners are consulting the app's crowdsourced data to strategically improve the city's cycling infrastructure.
But Asad's research cautions officials against relying solely on the app to determine Atlanta's needs. "Some people choose not to use the app because they don't trust where the data is going or who is collecting it," Asad says. Others don't use the app simply because they don't have a smartphone, she adds. As a result of this non-use, many demographics, including people of color and women, are notably underrepresented. "The data that the app collects echoes the socio-political challenges that already exist in the city," Asad says.
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In addition to her academic research, Asad champions inclusivity as a board member for Rise Up Georgia, a grassroots organization addressing issues of systemic oppression, and also for SOPO, a bicycle co-op striving to "create equitable access to cycling" in Atlanta. In 2013 and 2014, Asad also helped organize Different Games, the first conference on inclusivity and diversity in the gaming community. "To help create a space that felt a little bit safer, and to have folks saying that they felt like they could be themselves at Different Games—that was hugely rewarding," Asad says. (Asad herself is a lifelong gamer. "I remember being four years old and really, really wanting to play Duck Hunt," she says.)
As a teenager, Asad volunteered at a disenfranchised high school, a senior home, and even an abacus school. She says community involvement gives her a feeling of stability, something she didn't always have growing up. During the Gulf War, Asad and her parents were forced to evacuate their home country of Kuwait for Canada. "We had 20 minutes to pack two suitcases, and then we were out. There was a big sense of sudden loss," Asad says.
In her spare time, Asad enjoys cycling. "Biking is a triple-header for me: research, leisure, and exercise," she says. Sometimes, the drivers of Atlanta give Asad the opportunity to practice her life philosophy as she bikes. Asad believes in always giving people the benefit of the doubt. So when a car cuts her off, she checks herself. "I remind myself that I don't know where that person is coming from and what they're dealing with," she says. "This encourages me to ask questions before making assumptions about them and throwing a tantrum. Most times it works out."
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