matterBot is a research and development work-in-progress by Early Career Researcher (ECR) Judith Ricketts, working at the Centre for Inclusive Digital Futures. Based on the chatbot aesthetic, MatterBot is an expansive, immersive digital application, that seeks to educate and promote social change through augmented reality and interactive learning on a mobile device.

A new take on chatbot technology

We’re used to seeing and using chatbots within our regular digital activity. The animation in the corner of your screen that answers questions when you’re online shopping, for example. Chatbots are commonly used as tools of commerce – to encourage us to buy.

Judith Ricketts is developing new ways of using chatbot technology – to instigate social change and to educate. Her work builds on rAInbow, a chatbot aimed at turning the tide of sexual violence against women in South Africa, and Walk with Yeshi, which tackles the global water crisis from the perspective of an Ethiopian.

Through matterBot, Judith is seeking to expand existing historical archives to record and explicitly tell the stories of those who have previously been ignored – slaves and their descendants, the colonised, and the wider African and Caribbean diaspora. matterBot is also a tool to create social change, through expanding knowledge of racial injustice over many centuries and suggesting actions for transformation.

matterBot – the process

Building on Judith’s earlier work, MatterBot was originally designed to tell the story of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, while creating multiple threads between current day racial injustice, Black History and the slave trade.

‘When I first saw the shocking news footage of the killing of George Floyd, my first instinct was to start gathering data, from the media and social media,’ says Judith. ‘I wanted to tell the story of what I had just witnessed within a framework of the following 31 days. I wanted to analyse the data and then use it to build understanding of Floyd’s death in the wider context of the slave trade and Black History. It is through this understanding that we can create change.

‘I was interested in the idea of using my digital skills – coding, animation, data analysis – to subvert the conversational model of the chatbot. Instead of using it for commercial interest, I want to develop the chatbot aesthetic into a tool to empower individuals and to promote positive social change and wellbeing. A chatbot seemed an ideal way of not only gathering together the previously hidden histories of the black African and Caribbean diaspora, but of making those histories visible and impactful to previously unreached audiences through a medium that invites conversation and action.

‘matterBot is a narrative, conversational tool, tool designed to pose difficult questions and scenarios in a format that will bring them into open discussion with new audiences. This digital conversation then leads to real-life actions and change.

‘matterBot does this through having questions and answers coded into it which lead the user to hashtag headings. Each hashtag contains a call to action, which could be learning something new or doing something differently in the real-world.

‘While the subject matter and aims of matterBot are deadly serious and deal with difficult and traumatic topics and histories, the user-format of matterBot is playful and encouraging. As the user plays with matterBot, they build their understanding of previously hidden stories, growing connections through history and between historical and current events. This in turn can shape attitudes and social change while also re-shaping archives and historical narratives to include previously unheard voices and untold but historically important stories.

What next for matterBot?

‘The original plan was to gather media and social media data for 31 days after the death of George Floyd as a foundation for the content of matterBot. However, two things happened to necessitate the extension of the research phase.

‘Firstly, I found that I was suffering from revisited racial trauma, caused by engaging with research containing racially motivated acts of violence. To then, evaluate the material and procedures for formulating cohesive narratives, on an hourly basis for an extended period, was both mentally and emotionally exhausting.

‘The second factor that led to extending the research phase for matterBot beyond 31 days, was that the consequences arising out of George Floyd’s killing continued to expand. There was individual introspection, which then broadened into corporate and institutional confession. There were questions and statements from the Black Lives Matter movement, becoming wider in remit, which in turn linked to my own area of research of racial injustice built on the legacy of the slave trade.

‘I’m continuing to grow the range and depth of matterBot’s content in order to create a valuable and practical tool. I now have a team of researchers working with me to evaluate the data. This will be qualitative analysis, with more stories evolving from the process. This, in turn, will give a voice to more people that have previously been unheard or ignored.

‘Alongside the development of the factual, historical and educational content, I am also continuing to develop the user experience. For the content of matterBot to have impact, it’s vital that it’s presented in a way that is always playful and active, drawing in hard-to-reach, uninterested or anxious users through the appeal of augmented and virtual realities and gaming.

‘By matching gaming technologies with current and historical events through a creative and interactive medium, matterBot has a real-world, practical application for breaking down prejudices, building understanding and giving a voice to the unheard.’


Judith Ricketts: matterBot:

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