Posted by Rob Knies

Andrés Monroy-Hernández

Like many people his age, Andrés Monroy-Hernández of Microsoft Research’s FUSE Labs is enamored with the possibilities offered by social computing. He just applies them at a more engaged level than most. Consider some of the areas his research addresses: the lack of effective information during crises, the need to develop digital-media literacy among children, and the need to provide more access to health care in the developing world.

He doesn’t just dabble in such interests, either. He created the Scratch Online Community, an environment in which children can program interactive stories, games, and animations—and share them with others online. He is a co-founder of Sana, a mobile health-care system for the developing world. And he is among the leading scholars watching how social media functions during the ongoing drug war in his native Mexico.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Monroy-Hernández has been named one of 10 recipients of the second annual TR35 México awards, presented by MIT Technology Review. The awards recognize the work of your people under the age of 35 in research, technology, and innovation.

The winners were announced May 23 and were publicly recognized May 29-30 during EmTech México, an emerging-technologies conference held at the Santa Fe campus of Tecnológico de Monterrey.
Monroy-Hernández, also an affiliate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, acknowledges that the broad and unusual nature of his research helped him achieve the TR35 México honor.

“I think,” he says, “it’s partly because the topics I’ve worked on are particularly interesting, unique, or even controversial: the drug war in Mexico and technologies for children—and because I’ve approached these both from an angle of ‘big data,’ as well as a qualitative one through dozens of interviews.”

The citation that accompanied the announcement in MIT Technology Review referred to his work with “narcotweets” and web technologies to empower citizens living in cities amid armed conflict. That work led to the paper The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare, written by Monroy-Hernández and Microsoft Research colleagues danah boyd, Emre Kıcıman, Munmun De Choudhury, and Scott Counts, and delivered during the 16th Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer Supported Scientific Work and Social Computing, held in San Antonio from Feb. 23 to 27.

The paper discusses how people living amid war conditions use social media as an alternative, participatory news platform to complement or replace established media outlets whose contributions have been diminished during the conflict. The research behind the paper analyzed the use of Twitter by Mexican citizens during their nation’s drug war.

The TR35 México recognition pleased Monroy-Hernández, 33, for several reasons, not least because of the types of projects it represents.

“I was excited for several reasons,” he said. “It is not only recognition of the work I’ve done, but it is also about the collective actions of many others. For example, in the case of my work with the Scratch Online Community, it couldn’t have been possible without the millions of children who have contributed to the community, as well as the work of my colleagues at MIT.

“In the case of the research I’ve been doing on social media in Mexico, it is truly the work of those people on the ground that is also being recognized.”

In addition to the inclusive nature he attributes to the award, he also revels in the spotlight it shines on the causes he holds dear.

“It brings visibility to two important issues: the importance of social computing in supporting science, technology, engineering, and math education, in the case of Scratch, and to empower citizens, in the case of the Mexican user of social media,” Monroy-Hernández says. “One of the main reasons I do some of the work I do is to give more visibility to certain topics that I think need to get more attention.”

As you might guess from the convictions he displays and the sentiments he shares, Monroy-Hernández plans to remain passionately involved in his chosen spheres of research for a long time to come.

“I’m hoping to continue working on technologies that address meaningful societal issues,” he says, “from empowering collective action and civic media to understanding and supporting creative collaboration.”