Initial Personas

General Personas

– Middle school to high school students

– Educators

– People who work with trash or e-waste, people in the e-waste/waste community

Specific Personas:

During my talk with Marina Zurkow, she mentioned I should think about personas. Part of what was missing from my research and proposed scenario was the “who is this for” aspect. I realized that even if my personas are subject to change, it will be good to at least reflect on who I’m designing for. Depending on who it’s for, the design will drastically change. 

Persona 1

Name: Davin

Role: 6th grade student

Age: 12 years old

Hobbies: piano, drawing, reading science-fiction books 

Davin is interested in recycling and waste after visiting a Recycling Center for a school field trip. While at the Recycling Center, he was able to see where his and everyone’s trash goes. There was also an exhibit/ information center at the Recycling Center. This is where he was able to learn more about the subject and was taken aback by the electronic waste section. He found out where some of his electronic products come from and was disturbed to know that the toxic chemicals and mining were unsafe for the workers and bad for the environment. Since the field trip he has been pushing his parents to compost and asking more questions about where their batteries go when they are dead.

Persona 2

Name: Milly

Occupation: Software Engineer

Age: 33

Hobbies: plant keeping, volunteering at the botanical garden, hiking, taking night classes to improve her skill sets and knowledge

Milly tries to spend as much time away from the screen when not coding for her job. She loves hiking and is influenced by books such as “The Silent Spring” and “Cradle to Cradle.” From reading general public books and from keeping up with the news, she is upset at the environmental damages that humans cause. Milly recently wanted to throw away her growing pile of printer cartridges, batteries, and broken electronics (i.e. toaster, hair dryer) but doesn’t know how to do it properly. All she knew was that she can’t just toss it into the garbage, so she looks up for places to throw away her electronic waste. Upon searching she also stumbles upon a lot more information about e-waste. This leads her to go down a rabbit hole and she finds herself spending hours reading online articles on the topic.

Rough Storyboard Scenario

Scenario of an example concept:
(definitely subject to change)


Different electronic products (i.e. smartphone, laptop, blow dryer) will be taken apart. Their components (i.e. lcd screen, battery, etc) will be placed in petri dishes and organized next to a diagram that will show where each piece originally belonged. The idea is that people will be able to examine each electronic component more closely by placing it under a microscope. At first, the information shown will be focused on the material science of the element. Then the information will “zoom out” to show the socio-political, environmental, health issues associated with mining that element/material. The website/screen will also show where these electronics most likely end up when disposed and the health and environmental hazards at risk when the electronics are broken down.

The microscope is used here as a symbol of looking closer at something. While microscopes are often used in nature or science labs, they are not commonly used to examine objects that we use on a day to day basis. My intention is to set up a scene that allows people to have a closer look at the birth, life and death of an electronic product and see the invisible forces that make it what it is.

Steps of the scenario:

  1. Person approaches a table or display that has all the electronic components taken apart and organized based on the product it belongs to.
  2. Person can take one of the components, which are each put into a petri dish, to the microscope station. With the microscope people can take a closer look at each component.
  3. When a component is under the microscope, the large screen will display facts about the life-cycle of the piece. Facts will include:
    • the function that the piece provides
    • the raw materials/elements that are used in the component
    • where those materials/elements are sourced in the world
    • the environmental, socio-political, and health hazard involved with mining that material
    • the process of turning those materials into a usable piece, the labor involved
    • where the piece ends up when we dispose of it
    • the health and environmental impacts when they are disposed of and taken apart by people
  4. After examining that component, a person can choose another one to examine under the microscope


  1. A question that was asked in a thesis questionnaire was: “How does the project improve what already exists?” I really don’t know if it does? I really don’t know if a setup like this exists and whether it would be beneficial to anyone but myself. But how can this concept be better and give justice to the research and content?
  2. The topic of e-waste is very wide and deep. I’m wondering if I should cast a wide but shallow net or if I should go deep on a small slice? How would I go deep on a small portion? Do I focus in on just one product?
  3. I think it is important for me to properly explain and visualize the source and disposal of different products first. But perhaps there is a way to do a second piece that is more speculative and active? Maybe that project can be focused on alternative methods of living with electronics/ how we can better improve the situation of e-waste given the current circumstances?


5 questions to investigate with my thesis

  1. What are the chemicals and materials used in our electronic products and how are they sourced? What is the full process of obtaining all the materials used in our electronic devices?
  2. Where do our electronic products go when we dispose of them and how are they disposed of? 
  3. What are the human health, socio-political, and environmental consequences that arise from the making and discarding of an electronic item?
  4. How are governments, local organizations, communities and individuals dealing with the issue of e-waste currently and how can it be improved upon (if at all)?
  5. Obviously, society won’t be giving up our phones, laptops, and electronics, but what can we do on an individual and local level that can offset this increase in e-waste? 

3 possible venues for the work to be shown. Why?

  • Science or Natural History Museums (i.e. The Natural History Museum of LA, The Natural History Museum of NY, The Henry Ford Museum, Museum of Science and Industry)
    • I can see my project being very explanatory and fitting well with the playful yet informative spirit of science exhibit interactives. I intend to mix visuals, animations, code, fabrication, and physical computing together to create a “playful” approach towards the serious research.
  • LES Ecology Center
    • Jenny Odell displayed her “Bureau of Suspended Objects” during her artist residency at the Recology dump in San Francisco. Inspired by this project and approach, I think an approach could be to first get to know the community of LES Ecology Center. Then try to see their awareness/campaign/design needs. Hopefully this would be an extension of the LES Ecology Center’s mission and I could also ask them for their expert opinion. It’s also an excuse for me to be more involved in their community and ground my work with their cause.
  • Public Spaces/ Libraries/ Pop-ups in Different Locations (i.e. Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College Columbia University, James Gallery space at CUNY’s Center for Humanities Department)
    • It would be great to have my interactive be movable so that I can share the information with more people. I am thinking that entrances of libraries and school galleries with a humanitarian focus would work well for what I have in mind. The James Gallery at CUNY seem to promote dialogue, so it would be great to also create an event that allowed for discussion that focused on the topic of e-waste.
  • ALT: Website (as an alternative to the above)
    • All the content in this “exhibit interactive” could also be put into a website format. This way people who don’t have access to the physical form can still read the content/research.

3 experts or types of people to speak to about my thesis. Why?

  1. Kathryn Garcia, NYC Department of Sanitation Commissioner
    1. It would be amazing to have an interview with Kathryn to find out more about how e-waste is handled in the city. She would help me better understand the infrastructure that is setup in New York City to handle e-waste. 
  2. Natalie Jeremijenko, Associate Professor at NYU in the Visual Art Department + Artist + Engineer
    1. Another great recommendation by Margaret Smith. To put it broadly, her work uses technology as a way to inspire social and environmental change. She also teaches at NYU in the Visual Arts Department, so would hopefully be accessible to speak with. I am inspired by many of her pieces, specifically How Stuff is Made, Suicide Box, and her Fish Interface.  
  3. Christine Datz Romero, Co-founder and Executive Director of Lower East Side Ecology Center
    1. She is the co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Christine has also been at the forefront of the Compost Collection Program and the Ecology Center’s innovative Electronics Waste Recycling program. Dr. Robin Nagle mentioned that I look into her work and the LES Ecology Center. Christine would be helpful to ask questions about how to both gain awareness and take action in a local way.
  4. Dr. Robin Nagle, Clinical professor of anthropology and environmental studies in New York University’s School of Liberal Studies
    1. She was previously an anthropologist-in-residence for NYC’s Department of Sanitation. Her research is focused on the relationship between trash and cities. As recommended by Margaret, I reached out to Robin about the subject of e-waste. She was extremely helpful in my research process and recommended me a few books and articles to read. I plan to maintain my communication with her. 
  5. ITP Professors to be in constant communication with: Tom Igoe and Marina Zurkow as our in-house sustainability + ecology gurus; Shawn Van Every as tech expert as my end product will most likely involve web development; Genevieve Hoffman as data visualization guide

Narrowing + Reflecting

Image result for the story of stuff book


The past week, I’ve been reading “The Story of Stuff” by Anne Leonard. This book takes a closer look at the lifecycle of material products and how that ties in with our consumption habits. One of the main takeaways is that our western concept of trash is really messed up. She makes the case that the idea of trash” is a mental one. When the author visited another country, she noticed that when she put something in her garbage bin, that item would end up being used by someone else. For example, a shampoo bottle became someone’s flower vase. Although it is trash, it all needs to end up somewhere. In America, we put it away and somehow it gets put out of our site. But the truth is, trash doesn’t magically disappear. Some other takeaways were: e-waste is increasing 3x faster than other municipal waste. It is also the fastest growing and most toxic type of garbage today. According to the book the five most common reasons for e-waste are: 1.) cell phone upgrades, 2.) digital tv conversion. 3.) software upgrades, 4.) can’t change the battery on products, 5.) disposable printers. It goes without saying that all this stuff is highly toxic!

Becca, who is the most generous sharer of information, also sent me “The Environment is Not a System” by Tega Brain.

Our amazing GA, Ilana, also shared with me the article by Kate Crawford called “Anatomy of an AI.” It is a mind-blowing article that is completely spot-on for my topic. 


Conversation with George: 

On Monday, I had a phone conversation with George, the manager of ground and waste at NYU. He also manages the techno scrap (e-waste). This interview was extremely informative on many levels. From his explanation of how NYU handles it’s garbage and e-waste, I’ve gathered a few notes: 

a.) how little transparency there is in understanding what happens to our discarded electronics

b.) the whole process makes sense but requires work orders and the involvement of the facilities manager

c.) there are two types of “e-waste” at NYU: universal waste and techno scrap 

Notes from our meeting.

Conversation with Robin: 

On Thursday, I had office hours with Dr. Robin Nagle, an anthropologist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation and a Clinical Professor in NYU’s Center for Humanities Department. Upon doing more research on the topic of e-waste, several people have referred me to her and suggested that I take her course (which I will!). Upon telling her about my topic, she recommended me many sources. 

Readings she mentioned: 1.) “High Tech Trash” by E. Grossman, 2.) “Discard Studies” website – specifically their e-waste section, 3.) “Picking Up Trash” by herself 4.) “Cell phone recycling experiences in the United States and potential recycling options in Brazil” by Geraldo T.R. Silveira *, Shoou-Yuh Chang, 5.) “How are WEEE doing? A global review of the management of electrical and electronic wastes” by F.O. Ongondo, I.D. Williams, T.J. Cherrett

Names she mentioned: 1.) Josh Lepawsky who writes for the “Discard Studies”, 2.) Christine Datz-Romero of the LES Ecology Center


Ideas and Avenues: 

a.) The making of an electronic product Process of disposing/ breaking down an electronic product Current consumption habits that lead to extra waste, harmful human and environmental consequences All the people that come into contact with our electronics  Better practices/ actions we can take

a.) The making of an electronic product

b.) Process of disposing/ breaking down an electronic product

c.) Current consumption habits that lead to extra waste, harmful human and environmental consequences

d.) All the people that come into contact with our electronics 

e.) Better practices/ actions we can take

What else is out there like it?

Not sure of exactly what I will make, but here are some projects that I am inspired by and is related to what I’d like to make:

  • Anatomy of an AI System by Kate Crawford
  • Bureau of Suspended Objects – by Jenny Odell
  • Museum of Plastic Age – by Carrie Wang
  • Where Almost Everything I Used, Wore, Ate or Bought on Monday, April 1, 2013 (That Had a Label) Was Manufactured, to the Best of My Knowledge – by Jenny Odell
  • HSIM by Natalie Jeremijenko

What is the world/context/market that your project lives in?

Educational settings, public spaces, online (so accessible to anyone who has access to the internet and a computer

Library Database Research

Step 1 (Library Catalog/Classification Sheet): I first tried to do the Library Catalog/Classification worksheet using the NYU Library Database. This was extremely helpful for helping me understand the key words to use for searching.

Library Catalog sheet here.

Step 2 (Research Diary): Over the weekend, I started using the Research Diary! Before the research diary I spent countless hours reading random articles on the internet, and I would constantly feel like I had achieved nothing afterwards. I’m finding that this research diary helps me structure my time and record my findings in a more productive way.

I also watched a documentary that Becca recommended me regarding my topic called “Manufactured Wasteland.” I found it especially helpful to have the Research Diary to help me reflect on everything I was thinking and feeling after watching such a disturbing documentary.

Documenting my findings and jotting down my reflection is much more helpful then just saving links in my page. I will definitely keep adding on to this research diary  – it has now become a very therapeutic document to have in my life.

Research Diary Entries here.

Step 3 (Meeting with Margaret): On Monday, Becca, Maya and I met with Margaret to go over best practices for searching and using online databases. I found this to be extremely fruitful for understanding the nuances of a search. She also walked through how to search for each of our specific topics. For mine, she used the EBSCO database and papers in the ACM Digital library.

Here are some notes from our meeting

Step 4 (Database): 

Database Sheet here. 

Initial Concept

Every object has a story to tell. My interest is in investigating and communicating that story. I would like to take a closer look at our everyday objects by examining the invisible forces that make them possible. By invisible forces I am thinking of the people who made this product, how it was made, the materials used to make it, the science behind it, and the policies that perpetuate this system.

I also wonder about what happens to a product when it “dies.” Where do the materials go, how is it recycled (if it is). What about the parts that contain toxic chemicals, what are the environmental factors and human health hazards that come into play, where do they end up if they aren’t recycled?

The plan is to trace a product by following it from birth, life to death. By doing so, I aim to understand the efforts and conflicts involved in the making of something. Other questions that come up for me: Can simply being aware of a device’s story change how we consume and dispose of products? Is awareness enough? After awareness, what’s next?