Get to know a Sri Lankan HCI Researcher — Primal Wijesekera
Name: Primal Wijesekera
Affiliation: University of California, Berkeley & ICSI (a UC Berkeley affiliated independent research institute)
Tell us a bit of your background, how did you know about HCI and where did you start?
I graduated from the University of Colombo School of Computing in 2008 with a keen interest in Systems research. I completed an MSc from the University of British Columbia, Canada, on Distributed Sytems.
While I love systems research, I wanted to do something that gets me to work with people so that I can learn real-world issues. So I started a Ph.D. in Computer Security. That is when I got to work closely on Privacy, an intersection between computer security and HCI. There are many sub-specializations in computer security. Privacy is a major sub-category where the primary focus is on the user: how do they use security features (tools, systems), how do they expect their data to be used in the wild?
Can you share some of your research work?
My central research theme is to understand user issues (HCI related problems) and provide systematic solutions. Most of my work is on informing users about prevalent privacy violations in the mobile ecosystem and building tools to increase transparency and help users audit mobile apps.
I recently started researching security professionals, including hackers and security testers, to understand the challenges they face. The primary goal behind this is to understand how to fix human factors to make the security posture more robust in organizational levels.
I also work on misinformation. I am more interested in understanding the funding sources behind these misinformation campaigns. So I work on understanding the intersection between AdTech and fake news.
UC Berkeley lab: https://blues.cs.berkeley.edu/
What motivates you to be in the field of HCI?
I am a systems researcher, I write code and build system. HCI gives me the directions that I should follow. We build in our isolated research labs and will never make a difference in the world if the actual users who are meant to use them can not use those systems or understand them. HCI provides a mechanism to get those users involved, talk to them, interview them, and listen to their stories, listen to the daily challenges users face. Understand how cultures affect them, how economic status affects their privacy/security decisions, and the list goes on.
A significant portion of current problems exists because people provide solutions to the problems of their imaginations. Researchers/developers have their persona of an expected user. More often than not, those imaginary personas do not exist in the real world, and the expectation gap will create further chaos and disappointment. HCI gives you tools and techniques to fix that and make your research or system more relevant to the current society.
If any student would be interested in HCI in Sri Lanka, what is your advice for them to navigate their path?
I think reading is probably the best approach or being receptive to your world. From a practical perspective, learn how to watch out for research problems in your backyard: problems you face daily or your family and friends face day-to-day. Can you formalize those problems to an academically sound research problem?
Most of the challenging technical problems we have today are affecting everyone: fake news, online harassment, cyberbullying. You do not need to read top tier conferences to have a real-world story on these issues. You see them every day and everywhere, and you need to be receptive and observant.
From an academic perspective, there are top HCI conferences like ACM CHI, CSCW which have a host of different ideas and techniques. They have excellent research papers. When you read papers, you should focus on how did they formalize a research question? What is their methodology? How did they design the study? Etc. Pay attention to those, and you will gradually become a good researcher. If you want to niche areas such as privacy, there are PETS, SOUPS (or any top tier security venue such as CCS, Oakland, and Usenix Security,).
How would anyone reach to collaborate on research projects?
You can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
My primary research interests are privacy on mobile ecosystem, adtech, fake news, understanding hackers, understanding online scams such as Ponzi schemes, and celebrity scams.