In April, the University of Florida and the University Press of Florida launched Gatorbytes, a digital book series following the innovative research taking place at UF. Intended to pique the interests of the intellectually curious and to share the stories behind the discoveries being made at UF, the books are written by professional journalists.
“They know how to take complex material, break it down into manageable chunks and tell a story,” says Meredith Babb, director of the University Press of Florida.
We’re taking a closer look at each of the works in the Gatorbytes series to spotlight the journalists working to share these amazing projects and to offer even more behind-the-scenes information about the groundbreaking research.
In The Democracy Machine: How One Engineer Made Voting Possible for All, Jon Silman introduces readers to engineer Juan Gilbert, a specialist in human-centered computing driven to allow people with disabilities to vote like everyone else. At the TEDxUF conference, Gilbert spoke about the breakthrough technology that could make his goal of a truly equal vote possible. Take a look below:
Silman, who was able to interview Gilbert for The Democracy Machine, has worked as a freelance writer for the Gainesville Sun, the Tampa Bay Times, and the Miami Herald, covering various topics from crime to sports. We interviewed him to ask about his experience writing the piece:
UPF: Before writing this story, how much did you know about accessible polling?
Silman: My knowledge of accessible polling was pretty limited. I always assumed there were ways for persons with disabilities to vote, but I never really thought about the issue at length before. This was a learning experience for sure.
UPF: What were you most surprised to discover about the work on accessible polling taking place at UF?
Silman: The thing that really got to me was how much we take for granted when it comes to voting. Most of us vote by secret ballot, but people with disabilities—because of the lack of machinery or knowledge of the process—don’t get the same privileges. A blind woman might have to tell her vote to a poll worker. A man with intellectual disabilities may feel intimidated by the process. A woman in a wheelchair might not have access to a polling place because of the way the lines are set up.
UPF: How did you track down the stories of all the people involved?
Silman: I started this piece, like I do with most of my work, by reading and reading. I went through articles about Dr. Gilbert—just clips here and there. Names popped up, and I’d follow them. It’s like following a trail. You just collect, collect, collect. I talked to everyone I could who was involved with the Prime III and Dr. Gilbert. I made sure to spend some time with him and see him work. Everyone else, I interviewed on the phone. Most were generous with their time.
UPF: You include a powerful story about Nancy Ward, a founding member of the national organization, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE). The Prime III allowed her to vote independently for the first time, and she even changed her political party as a result of the research she did for her independent vote. What other major impacts did Gilbert’s research have?
Silman: It’s hard to measure impact on a large scale in a short amount of time, but just imagine empowering someone—giving someone a chance to do something they’ve never done before. Nancy spent her whole life voting for who her parents told her to. Then, there’s this machine that changed everything for her. That’s so huge. If you change one life, to me, that’s impact. Dr. Gilbert’s work has the potential to change millions of lives. It’s a beautiful thing he’s done.
UPF: You talk a lot about Gilbert’s efforts not just to provide equal voting opportunities but also to cultivate a diverse community at UF. Why did you choose to include his other goals in the story?
Silman: That struck me early on. Here’s this man, he grew up in a neighborhood and in a community. He’s very family oriented. Then, he goes to school and studies science, and he feels isolated. He yearns for that community—the one that had fish frys and grew community vegetables. So what does he do? He seeks out others. That’s just who he is—a man who brings people together. And when he gets to a position in his career where he can hire and recruit, he does. He says, “I’ll make my own community.” To me, that tied into his work. He was trying to bring the world closer together with this machine. Those two parallels stood out to me, and I thought they’d help illustrate why it is he does what he does. Gilbert is a good man—quiet and humble, but brilliant, and he’s using his gifts to make the world better. He deserves more credit.
UPF: What do you hope readers will take away from the digital book?
Silman: I want people to come away from this feeling the way I did—that disabled citizens are not getting the same rights and privileges as everyone else. That there could be shame and fear at a polling place, when they’re simply exercising their rights as Americans. That part really bothered me. We should be caring for these people, not disenfranchising them.
As Silman notes in his piece, Juan Gilbert is the University of Florida Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor & Chair at the University of Florida Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering. Gilbert specializes in human-centered computing and has worked on various projects, such as the one below that aims to stop gun violence in schools.
But Gilbert is best known for his role in creating the Prime III—a machine that anyone can use to vote. The video below is just one example of how the Prime III can be used to make voting accessible, but the Prime III has also been built to be language-independent, relying simply on the user blowing into a microphone to input a voting choice.
The Prime III involves much more than just making a machine accessible—it means ensuring the same vote for all, with the same level of privacy and independence. And making these kinds of changes to voting has the power to change lives, as Silman discovered when he spoke with Nancy Ward in a phone interview about using the Prime III. In the video below—one that Silman shares in the digital book—Ward speaks to a member of Gilbert’s team just moments after voting independently for the first time.
But Gilbert’s work isn’t solely centered on voting rights, but on empowering a more diverse community in general—and his success in doing so has been acknowledged. In recognition of his acoomplishments, Gilbert received the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mentor Award for “dramatically increasing the number of African Americans pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science.”
Gilbert hopes that by acting as a mentor to those who need guidance, he can inspire diversity. He believes that diversity is key to solving problems. “You need diverse thought,” Gilbert says in The Democracy Machine. “You need diverse backgrounds. To solve problems you need diverse ideas.”
And through computing, Gilbert believes that we can make a difference. He talks more about it in the video below: