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Henry K. Dambanemuya

PhD Candidate in Technology and Social Behavior

Henry K. Dambanemuya

My work is deeply inspired by my upbringing in Zimbabwe against a backdrop of economic collapse, persistent epidemics, political instability, and a constant yearning for peace and prosperity.”

Henry K. Dambanemuya is a PhD candidate in Technology and Social Behavior, a dual program in Computer Science and Communication. He works in the Lab on Innovation, Networks, and Knowledge (LINK) to understand and predict group behavior in networks and socio-technical systems. Henry is a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern.  

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

My work devises innovative ways to harness collective intelligence for social good. Concepts of collective intelligence (aka the “wisdom of crowds”) play increasingly fundamental roles in understanding and modeling collective decision-making and evaluation scenarios. However, predicting collective decision-making outcomes is difficult because they often violate two conditions that classic collective intelligence theories have regarded as necessary for the emergence of group evaluations that are superior to individual judgment. Namely, the diversity of information among group members and their independence when forming opinions. In social situations, these conditions are hard to achieve due to systemic difficulties in including minority groups in decision-making and the pervasiveness of social influence within our professional, organizational, and personal networks. My work, therefore, investigates how people’s social networks and people’s opinion diversity impact group judgements. The core premise of my work is to enhance collective intelligence and detect misconceptions ahead of time by developing algorithmic tools that elicit relevant crowd wisdom in high-stake real-world challenges. Examples include improving access to capital for groups underserved by traditional financial institutions and helping design better strategies for implementing peace agreements after civil wars.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

My work is deeply inspired by my upbringing in Zimbabwe against a backdrop of economic collapse, persistent epidemics, political instability, and a constant yearning for peace and prosperity. While volunteering with peacebuilding organizations in East and Central Africa, I have witnessed many failed attempts at peaceful resolutions from top-down approaches. Inspired by these experiences, my work on collective intelligence for social good helps to promote bottom-up approaches to problem-solving by local communities.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?

One of the biggest challenges in computational social science is the appropriate use of machine learning algorithms in network settings. Many approaches fail to provide accurate predictions because they fail to incorporate temporal aspects of network ties in social interactions or conditions when network structures and interactions change the most. My work promises to address these methodological challenges by developing network-aware machine-learning tools that capture complex dependencies imposed by social interactions. My work also has broad societal impacts in helping to improve the efficiency of capital allocation in society, reducing inequality, and promoting bottom-up approaches to peacebuilding. 

Why Northwestern?

I chose Northwestern for the Technology and Social Behavior program, which allows me to pursue my passion for social justice work while making scientific progress in advancing computational methods for understanding complex social issues. I am grateful to be surrounded by colleagues who embrace our program’s integrative and interdisciplinary ethos. They are doing outstanding work at the intersection of human behavior and new technology.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?

Growing up in Zimbabwe with both parents in the medical field, my family expected me to follow a similar path. As an undergraduate, I took pre-medicine courses and completed EMT training. During my sophomore year, I also traveled to Zimbabwe to conduct an independent study developing an electronic medical records prototype for rural hospitals. Dismayed by the systemic failures of my country’s healthcare system rooted in years of political instability, economic meltdown, and inauspicious reforms, I chose to double major in computer science and conflict studies to equip myself with the skills to serve my country. 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.

An exciting project that I have been working on is helping to bring essential medical services to Nyanga District, where I grew up in Zimbabwe. With no healthcare facility that offers diagnostic imaging, many patients must travel more than 100 miles to access these essential services. The lack of diagnostic imaging, locally, often leads to missed and delayed diagnoses as well as increased risk of morbidity and mortality. Through my family’s clinic and the help of a few friends, we recently have been able to secure ultrasound imaging and other essential health services. I am now fundraising to acquire a portable and easy-to-use X-Ray machine for HIV, tuberculosis, and trauma patients because they require diagnostic imaging for early treatment and effective evaluations.

Published: September 28, 2021

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