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Nicola Bidwell, Principal Researcher (Postdoc)

Nic in Mozambique













Nicola was with us for 3 years until the end of March 2013. She took up a position as Associate Professor at the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria in April 2013 and will take up a position as Professor in Computer Science at the University of Namibia in June 2014. Congratulations Nic!


Below you will find what Nic wrote about her time at CSIR Meraka.




Here I summarise the path that led me to join MEKE at the Meraka Institute in May 2010.

Current Research Foci

Interaction design for digital storytelling applications suited to the rich oral traditions of rural Africa
Interaction design suited to local medicine practices including herbs use, in rural Africa

A Decade of HCI for Rural Contexts

Since 2003 I have focused on HCI for rural contexts and knowledge practices that contrast with those that typify technology-design. This has enabled me to work with Aboriginal communities in Australia and in villages in South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. Most of my 65 peer-reviewed publications relate to designing interactions with mobile devices, information systems and simulated-3D environments that suit the needs of inhabitants of, and visitors to, rural and often impoverished or geographically remote places.

Designing for Envelopment

My attitude to interactions is that i seek to design for ‘envelopment’, a term coined by Michael Christie to express the use of technology to strengthen and extend local, cultural processes. This motivates my belief that technology will only be useful, and sustainable, if design responds to local ways of “being, doing and saying”. I believe, quite strongly, that designers must pursue a “located accountability". So I spend extended periods in rural places, with rural communities and use ethnographic and participatory strategies in my work. The irony is not lost on me that i can (and do) own the domain name HCI4ENVELOPMENT.


The Peripatetics of my (non-dualist) Mind-Body-Setting

Apparently Generation-X'ers are characterized by their adaptability, perhaps euphemistically. 

I have studied, researched and/or lectured at Universities of Stirling,London, Sussex and Cambridge in the UK and the Australian National, Queensland, Charles Darwin Universities in Australia and at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. 

I interleaved education and research with extensive travel and prolonged periods living in the Middle East, Cambodia, Greece and Africa. Indeed, i spent the first few years of my life in Sudan and have been a 3rd Culture Kid ever since. My epistemological pedigree is no less diverse: Honours in Biology and Psychology; PhD in neurophysiology (1992); and, Masters in IT (2001). 

At the end of the 1980s, as an experimental biologist, i made and played computer games to honeybees. Heady positivistic days in dark rooms, modeling optomotor processing as insects interacted with multi-model stimuli (well, sinusoidal gratings and air-puffs). Still, it culminated with paper in Nature. Twenty years later, and embracing ambiguity, i am more interested in what lies within people's experience as they interact in chaotic real and virtual worlds.

My interest included establishing the Games Design Programme at James Cook University, Cairns, Australia (where I was also Deputy Head of the School of IT) and to live in technology-sparse, often incredibly beautiful, 'natural' environments. There is a video on ways i drew together teaching, games and the natural world made by Microsoft.

And, so four years ago, i returned to Africa to  work.

Publications 2010 - 2012 (since at Meraka)


Nicola J Bidwell & Heike Winschiers-Theophilus (2011). Knowledge Management for Development Journal Editors. (Online 11 May 2012)

Nicola J Bidwell & Heike Winschiers-Theophilus (2011). Proceedings of Indigenous Knowledge Technology Conf., IKTC2011 Windhoek, Namibia. November 2 - 4 2011. ISBN 978-99945-72-37-3

Paula Kotze, Aurona Gerber, Alta van der Merwe & Nicola J Bidwell (2010). Proceedings of the SAICSIT 2010 Conference (Annual Research Conf. of the South African Institute for Computer Scientists and Information Technologists): Fountains of Computing Research. Bella-Bella, South Africa. October, 2010. ACM Press.




Heike Winschiers-Theophilus and Nicola J. Bidwell. 2013. Toward an Afro-Centric Indigenous HCI Paradigm. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, Volume 29, Issue 4, 2013 Special Issue: Reframing HCI Through Local and Indigenous Perspectives, 243-255.  DOI: 10.1080/10447318.2013.765763 -

Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Bidwell, NJ., Blake, E., (2012). Altering Participation through inter-actions and reflections in design. Co Design: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts Vol. 8, Nos. 2–3, June–September 2012, 163–182

Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Bidwell, NJ., Blake, E., Koch Kapuire, G. (2012). Community Consensus: Design Beyond Participation. Design Issues (in press).

Bidwell, NJ., Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Koch Kapuire, G., Rehm, M. (2011). Pushing Personhood into Place: Situating Media in the Transfer of Rural Knowledge in Africa. Int. J. Human-Computer Studies 69 (2011). 618–631. 

Bidwell, NJ, Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Koch-Kapuire, G., Chivuno-Kuria, S. (2011). Situated Interactions Between Audiovisual Media and African Herbal Lore. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 15(6):609–627. 

Reitmaier, T., Bidwell, NJ., Marsden, G. (2011). Situating Digital Storytelling within African Communities. Int. J. Human-Computer Studies 69 (2011) 283 – 286. 658?668, ISSN: 1071-5819, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2010.12.008.

Marsden, G., Ladeira, I., Reitmaier, T., Bidwell, NJ., & Blake, E. (2011 ). Digital Storytelling in Africa. Int. Journal of Computing 9(3):257-265.

Book Chapters

Bidwell, NJ., Winschiers-Theophilus, H. (2012). Extending Connections Between Land and People: Designing Digital Media with Rural Herero Communities in Namibia. In: Heritage and Social Media- Understanding and Experiencing Heritage in a Participatory Culture. (E Giaccardi, ed.). Routledge. (in press).


Nicola J Bidwell, Thomas Reitmaier, Carlos Rey-Moreno, Zukile Roro, Masbulele Jay Siya, Bongiwe Dlutu. 2013.  Timely relations in rural Africa. In: Conference Proceedings of the IFIP 9.4 12th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries. 


Carlos Rey-Moreno, Zukile Roro, William D. Tucker, Masbulele Jay Siya, Nicola J. Bidwell, Javier Simo-Reigadas . 2013. Experiences, challenges and lessons from rolling out a rural WiFi mesh network, In: Proceedings of ACM DEV '13 Annual Symposium on Computing for Development, ACM: New York, ISBN:  978-1-4503-1856-3, Article 11.


Peters, A.N, Oren, M.A, Bidwell, NJ. (2012) Namibian and American Cultural Orientations Toward Facebook. In: Proc. CHI’12 (30th Int. Conf. on Human Factors in Computing Systems). Austin, Tx, US. ACM Press.


Reitmaier, T, Bidwell, NJ., Siya, M., Marsden, G., Tucker, B., (2012). Designing an Asynchronous Oral Repository for Rural African Communities. IST-Africa 2012 Conference Proceedings (IST-Africa, May 2012 Dar es Salem, Tanzania), edited by PCunningham and M Cunningham. IIMC International Information Management Corporation, ISBN: 978-1-905824-34-2, p 1-9. 

Abdelnour-Nocera, J., Kurosu, M., Clemmensen, M., Bidwell, NJ., Vatrapu, R., Winschiers-Theophilus, H, Evers, V, Heimgärtner, R, Yeo, A. (2011). Re-Framing HCI Through Local and Indigenous Perspectives. In: Proc. INTERACT'11 (13th IFIP TC 13 Int. Conf. on Human-computer Interaction). Part IV.

Abdelnour-Nocera, J, Kurosu, M, Clemmensen, M, Bidwell, NJ., Vatrapu, R, Winschiers-Theophilus, H, Evers, V, Heimgärtner, R, Yeo, A. (2011). Workshop on Indigenous HCI. In: Proc. IWIPS11 (10th Int. Workshop on Internationalisation of Products and Systems). 

Bidwell, NJ., Lalmas M., Marsden, G, Dlutu, B., Ntlangano, S., Manjingolo, A., Tucker, W.D.,  Jones, M., Robinson, R., Vartiainen, E., Klampanos, I. (2011). Please call ME.N.U.4EVER: Designing for ‘Callback’ in Rural Africa. In: Proc. IWIPS’11 (10th Int. Workshop on Internationalisation of Products and Systems). 117 – 38.

Rodil, K., Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Bidwell, NJ., Søren, Rehm, M., Koch Kapuire, G. (2011). ‘A New Visualization Approach to Re-Contextualize Indigenous Knowledge in Rural Africa’, In: Proc. INTERACT'11 (13th IFIP TC 13 Int. Conf. on Human-computer Interaction).

Bidwell, NJ., Reitmaier, T, Marsden G & Hansen, S (2010). Designing with mobile digital storytelling in rural Africa. In: Proc. CHI’10 (28th Int. Conf. on Human Factors in Computing Systems). ACM Press. 1593-1602. 

Gitau, S, Diga, K., Bidwell, NJ., Marsden, G. (2010). Beyond being a Proxy User: A look at NGOs’ Potential Role in ICT4D Deployment. In: Proc. ICTD’10 (Information and Communication Technology and Development). ACM Press.

Light, A., Laderia, I., Roberson J., Bidwell, NJ., Sambasivan, N.,  Rangaswamy N., Gitau, S., (2010). Gender Matters: Female Perspectives in ICT4D Research. In: Proc. ICTD’10 (Information and Communication Technology and Development). ACM Press. 


Publications 2010

Gereon Koch Kapuire, Heike Winschiers Theophilus,  Shilumbe ChivunoKuria,  Nicola J Bidwell, Edwin Blake. 2010.  A revolution in ICT, the last hope for African Rural Communities' technology appropriation; Proceedings of 4th IDIA Conference 2010 Exploring Success and Failure in Development Informatics: Innovation, Research and Practice; edited by J Steyn, Monash University. ISBN: 978-0-620-47590-7.

 In this paper we present a methodological perspective on the challenge of designing products suited to rural practices and conceptualizations in Southern Africa. To create a framework compatible with rural customs of information transfer and supportive of rural priorities, we are sensitive to the way power relations between the rural and urban practises affect development and design methods. This paper argues within a theoretical perspective of Development Informatics on designing for the oral and performed knowledge that people routinely share, informally, and face-to-face. Such knowledge inherently differs from those knowledge forms that Information communication Technology (ICT) explicates and codifies and is illserved by knowledge representation and retrieval mechanisms (e.g. hierarchical structures, textbased search, technical ontologies). Uncovering the incompatibility of existing technologies with the representation of African Indigenous Knowledge systems reveals our own conceptual limitations in finding new answers without falling back on familiar ICT patterns, be they technological or methodological. Adopting a dialogical and participatory action research approach to ICT design and development is core not only to preserving culture and identity locally but nourishing local invention of ICT more generally. Thus, our discussion explores how the processes and methods, through which we understand users and their activities, can shape design and development concepts and paradigms.


Heike Winschiers-Theophilus, Nicola J Bidwell, Shilumbe Chivuno-Kuria and Gereon Koch Kapuire. 2010. Determining requirements within an indigenous knowledge system of African rural communities. Proceedings of the SAICSIT 2010 Conference - Fountains of Computing Research, edited by Paula Kotze, Aurona Gerber, Alta van der Merwe, and Nicola Bidwell. ACM Press, p. 332-340, ,978-1-60558-950-3.

Eliciting and analyzing requirements within knowledge systems, which fundamentally differ so far from technology supported systems represent particular challenges. African rural communities’ life is deeply rooted in an African Indigenous knowledge system manifested in their practices such as Traditional Medicine. We describe our endeavors to elicit requirements to design a system to support the accumulation and sharing of traditional local knowledge within two rural Herero communities in Namibia. We show how our method addressed various challenges in eliciting and depicting intangible principles arising because African communities do not dichotomize theoretical and practical know-how or privilege a science of abstraction and generalization. Ethnography provided insights into etiology, or causal interrelationships between social values, spiritual elements and everyday life. Participatory methods, involving youth and elders, revealed nuances in social relations and pedagogy pertinent to the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation. Researcher and participant-recorded audio-visual media revealed that interactions prioritize speech, gesture and bodily interaction, above visual context. Analysis of the performed and narrated structures reveal some of the ways that people tacitly transfer bodily and felt-experiences and temporal patterns in storytelling. Experiments using digital and paperbased media, in situ rurally showed the ways that people in rural settings encounter and learn within their everyday experiences of the land. These analyses also demonstrate that own ontological and representational biases can constrain  eliciting local meanings and analyzing transformations in meaning as we introduce media. Reflections on our method are of value to others who need to elicit requirements in communities whose literacy, social and spiritual logic and values profoundly differ from those in the knowledge systems that typify ICT design. A draft version of the paper is available here.

The paper received the ' Best Overall Research Paper Award'.


Gary Marsden, Ilda ladeira, Thomas Reitmaier, Nicola j Bidwell, Edwin Blake. 2010. Digital Storytelling in Africa. International Journal of Computing (ISSN 1727- 6209), Vol.9, Issue 3, 257-265.

This paper examines how digital technology can be used to inspire, record and present oral stories in an African context. In particular it explores how to create technologies that are sympathetic to the cultures of the storytellers, both in the capture of their stories and their retellling. Specifically it looks at: inspiring stories in District Six in Cape Twon; capturing digital stories from users with low literacy levels and using virtual reality to retell indigenous and personal expereience narratives.


 Thomas Reitmaier,  Nicola J. Bidwell,  Gary Marsden. 2010.  Field testing mobile digital storytelling software in rural Kenya. Proceedings of MobileHCI '10,  the 12th international conference on Human computer interaction with mobile devices and services. ISBN: 978-1-60558-835-3, p. 283 – 286.

 We describe and reflect on a method we used to evaluate usability and give insights on situated use of a mobile digital storytelling prototype. We report on rich data we gained by implementing this method and argue that we were able to learn more about our prototype, users, their needs, and their context, than we would have through other evaluation methods. We look at the usability problems we uncovered and discuss how our flexibility in fieldtesting allowed us to observe unanticipated usage, from which we were able to motivate future design directions. Finally, we reflect on the importance of spending time in-situ during all stages of design, especially when designing across cultures. Another version of the  paper is available here.


Gary Marsden, Ilda Ladeira, Thomas Reitmaier, Nicola J Bidwel, Edwin Blake. 2010. Digital Storytelling in Africa. International Journal of Computing, ISSN 1727-6209.

This paper was presented at the International Conference on Culture and Computer Science,

This paper examines how digital technology can be used to inspire, record, and present oral stories in an African context. In particular we explore how to create technologies that are sympathetic to the cultures of the storytellers, both in the capture of the stories and their retelling. Specifically, we look at: inspiring stories in District Six in Cape Town; capturing digital stories from users with low literacy levels and using virtual reality to retell indigenous and personal experience narratives.


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