An Open Tool to Fight Harassment

Squadbox | An Open Project Spotlight

Kaitlin Mahar (@k__mahar) is a software engineer at MongoDB, and recent master’s in CS grad from MIT where she studied online harassment and building technical solutions for it. Kaitlin was selected to join our current round of Mozilla Open Leaders with their project Squadbox.

I interviewed Kaitlin to learn more about Squadbox and how you can help.

What is Squadbox?

Squadbox is a tool that allows people facing online harassment to have their friends moderate their messages. It allows users to combine automated filtering features (such as blocked senders and words) with human moderators in order to shield themselves from harassment. Currently, it works with email and we’re working to expand to other communication platforms.

How did Squadbox start?

Squadbox started out as a research project in The Haystack Group at MIT CSAIL. I worked on it for my master’s thesis along with Amy and our advisor David. We interviewed ~15 people who have experienced online harassment and found that most already seek help from their friends, family, and colleagues to deal with their harassment. In particular, many of them ask friends to log in and read messages for them, delete unwanted messages, etc. This inspired building Squadbox to automate that workflow. The research behind this work will be presented at CHI 2018, the premier conference for Human-Computer Interaction research.

We developed a prototype of Squadbox, and when we received positive feedback on it from people who have experienced harassment, we were motivated to work on converting it to a reliable and secure tool that people actually use. Turning Squadbox into an open source project with the help of Open Leaders seemed like a great way to work toward that.

What are you most proud of accomplishing at MozFest?

I am most proud of the number of people we connected with! We were able to meet a lot of people interested in the project and similar issues when we demoed at the science fair and led a session, and gain insights and ideas. We’ve now got a mailing list and more active community of people following the project.

What challenges have you faced working on this project?

As people who have not experienced online harassment ourselves, we’ve placed a strong focus on making sure we listen to the needs and desires of people who actually have experienced it. However, one challenge has been getting in contact with these people — many of them shut themselves off from communication with strangers as a result of harassment. We’ve found that connecting with people through our networks has been more effective than just reaching out directly.

Another challenge has been prioritizing striking a balance between working on making Squadbox an open project and actually building it. My excitement about getting the tool ready for real users made me want to actually do that, but ultimately it was more important to get Squadbox ready for contributors first — now we’re in a position to build a much better tool with the help of a larger community.

How has your project been impacted by Mozilla Open Leaders?

If it weren’t for Open Leaders, we wouldn’t have gone to MozFest, which was such a great experience and has helped us build a network of people interested in Squadbox.

At the start of Open Leaders, our project was not very accessible to anyone who was interested in it. The code was living in a shared Git repository with another project, and it was unclear that we wanted to collaborate with other people. Now, our repository is way better — it’s clear what the project is, what we’re working on, and how people can get involved. We learned a ton in Open Leaders about how to best utilize GitHub to share that kind of information!

Overall, I think Open Leaders really helped us transition from a small research project to an open source project with a community.

How can others help you continue the work on Squadbox?

We’re working on making Squadbox more featureful, secure, and reliable, and integrating it with communication platforms besides email. The tool is currently in beta, but we’d like to release it widely to the public. Additionally, we’re working on writing documentation and gathering resources for people experiencing harassment, and for the people who might serve as their moderators.

We’re looking for anyone who is passionate about this issue to help us build and improve Squadbox! We need programmers to help us code, designers to improve the interface and user experience, and people with experience and knowledge about online harassment and moderation to help guide our design choices, create resources for owners and moderators, etc.

If you’re interested in helping out in any way, we’d love to work with you! Our GitHub page is a good place to start getting an idea of our current tasks and priorities (repo, issues, our current milestone). Also please feel free to contact us at squadbox@mit.edu.

What meme or gif best represents your project?

#squadgoals


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