After several years of teaching about digital media as a tool for social transformation, Jessica Irish sought a way to put her ideas into practice. Collaborating with fellow artist Stephen Metts, Irish opened a nonprofit digital media arts center for youth and artists in central Los Angeles. "Opening the center seemed like a great opportunity to test theories about the democratization of digital media at the time," says Irish. "We had emerging technologies, a need for creative skills in the workplace, and kids who had no place to go after school." The high school students who came to the center worked on projects like creating a video game based on the history of Latin America and an interactive neighborhood map plotting their cross-cultural experiences. Irish reports that all the students who worked on the culminating two-year project, Tropical America, went on to attend college. The project confirmed Irish's belief in the power of technology to bring people together for creative and intellectual exploration.
Since then, Irish has moved across the country and joined the faculty of Parsons. She is currently director of Academic Affairs in Parsons' School of Art, Media, and Technology (AMT), where she is directing two research projects in collaboration with Jane Pirone, assistant professor of communication design, also in AMT. The first, Urban Research Toolkit (URT), provides a geographical resource for urban research projects through open-source mapping technologies for Web-based and mobile platforms. "This is a challenging project," Irish says, "because we have to think of all the different ways you can possibly do urban research, and then build our database and interface to allow that flexibility."
DataMyne, Irish and Pirone's other project, is another open-source platform designed to help users visualize and connect the people, courses, and projects within the New School community. DataMyne uses data mining technology—algorithms that extract and group information from databases—to give users a comprehensive overview of work being done at the university and members' research interests. The tool fosters creative interdisciplinary collaboration by helping members discover common interests, specialties, and resources. Through their mutual interests and working methods involving other faculty and students, Irish and Pirone have become a powerful team. "Working collaboratively provides you with new insights and perspectives. It also requires you to constantly reconsider your assumptions," Irish says. Student research assistants in the Design and Technology and Communications Design programs have also played critical roles in these initiatives by helping to build features and brainstorm scenarios.
Speaking of the future of design and technology, Irish, who is also a practicing visual artist, says, "It's not a tidy box. Rather, it's a powerful and creative way of thinking that is sure to transform disciplines ranging from the arts and education to mapping and public policy."