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Community-Based Approaches to Building Peer Support Systems for Work

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posted on 2023-03-01, 17:48 authored by Yasmine KotturiYasmine Kotturi

Independent workers—such as gig workers, online freelancers, or micro-entrepreneurs—take on heightened uncertainty in pursuit of flexible working arrangements. While workers may be independent from organizations’ directive control, a decade of ethnographic studies has highlighted how independent workers—who are digitally distributed in space and time—are in fact interdependent on each other for social, emotional, and material support. To augment workers’ quests for peer support, scholars and practitioners have designed dozens of intricate sociotechnical systems which foster large-scale, online peer support networks. Yet, solely sociotechnical approaches to building peer support systems have failed to create systems which provide inclusive support for this rapidly growing and diverse workforce. In pursuit of universal user adoption, such approaches often overlook existing peer networks which are entirely offline, and the resulting systems are rarely accessible, or desirable, to workers with limited trust in technology or technology literacy. 

This dissertation presents an approach to building community-based peer support systems for work which bridges two disparate bodies of work: sociotechnical system design and participatory action research. To do so, I followed a participatory action protocol to work with community partners who already fostered networks of peer workers to understand if technological interventions could provide supplemental support. In the case that community partners decided to explore technological supplements for peer support, I followed a co-design software protocol to build peer support systems which were driven by local community needs. The outcomes of this approach included not just peer support systems but also educational materials, in-person workshops, and a novel model of on-demand technical support for system on-boarding and maintenance. I illustrated this approach across two multi-year community partnerships with local hubs for independent workers in Pittsburgh, PA. The resulting three peer systems—Hirepeer, Peerdea and Tech Help Desk—facilitated career, professional, and skill development among independent workers. 




Degree Type



Human-Computer Interaction Institute

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chinmay Kulkarni