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Empowering empathy with AI: The Moving Stories project 

Dr. Ariela Schachter and her faculty collaborators had an idea. As an associate professor of sociology, she wanted to create an app, together with Dr. Ila Sheren and Dr. Tabea Linhard, to study what happens when you connect members of the St. Louis community to their neighbors with migrant backgrounds.  

What they didn’t have were the app-development skills to make it happen.  

But the driving force behind the Digital Solutions Studio (DSS) – the app development arm of the Digital Intelligence & Innovation (DI2) Accelerator – is that lack of expertise shouldn’t stand in the way of a good idea. 

The moving stories app can be accessed by smart phone or desktop at movingstories.art.

The DSS exists to empower WashU faculty, students, and staff with professional consultation and services that bring digitally enabled research projects like the Moving Stories app to life.  

 “We thought it would take years. Instead, in the span of a few months, we went from this vague idea to a real functioning tool,” said Schachter.

The idea behind Moving Stories was simple enough: conduct in-app surveys to measure changes in sentiment before and after users engage with narratives submitted by individuals with immigrant backgrounds. Schachter saw potential to foster more inclusive attitudes towards immigrant community members, and support for more inclusive policies towards immigration more broadly. 

The DSS developers took the idea a few giant leaps further. 

Early adopter gets the worm  

“The Moving Stories app was a first in many ways,” said Saif Arif, director of digital solutions at the DI2 Accelerator.  “It was among the first projects to leverage the WashU secure instance of ChatGPT for advanced analysis, allowing the AI capabilities to transcribe voice submissions, enable automatic translation, track sentiment, tag stories, track user engagement and more.”  

We thought it would take years. Instead, in the span of a few months, we went from this vague idea to a real functioning tool.

Dr. Ariela Schtacher, professor of sociology at WashU

“It went so far beyond what I’d ever imagined,” Schachter said. “In addition to having access to people with the skills to build the app, we were able to work with this team who helped pull out what the vision was from us.” 

WashU researchers will soon be able to plug their own research projects into the same Washington University ChatGPT secure sandbox to utilize advanced AI capabilities.  

“This app was a test case for us to deliver more functionalities like this one to more teams at WashU,” Arif said. “The DI2 Accelerator is working closely with WashU IT to make this functionality available later this year. This milestone represents the beginning of a broader initiative to democratize digital capabilities across the university.” 

Technology that brings people together 

Beyond the web-based app, Moving Stories embodies a larger, interdisciplinary initiative at WashU to explore stories from St. Louis’ vibrant immigrant community through an art exhibit, workshops, and public engagements.  

Two kiosks provided access to the Moving Stories app at the Luminary art gallery on Cherokee Street, in conjunction with the Moving Stories art exhibit.

With a proof-of-concept in hand, Schachter and her team have ambitious plans for the project’s future. They are developing grant proposals to expand the number of participants by partnering with local organizations or conducting a large-scale research project. 

They’re also exploring how this tool could act as a living archive. “We’re asking people to give us a little bit of themselves. We want to make sure we honor that in the right way,” Schachter said. 

Want to chat about your project idea with the DSS team? Get in touch at di2accelerator@wustl.edu or learn more here.

This blog was written with assistance from the WashU ChatGPT secure sandbox.