Friday, December 30, 2011

2012 Is Looking Good For Interdisciplinary Computing

All signs are that 2012 is going to be a banner year for interdisciplinary computing. You don't  have to look far to see evidence that more and more people are actively engaging in and publicizing interdisciplinary computing work.

On the computing education front: At the upcoming SIGCSE 2012 conference there will be sessions on studio based learning (several), digital humanities, interdisciplinary database applications, knitting patterns and program tracing, science fiction in computer science education. There will be presentations on healthcare and computing (several), and interdisciplinary travel. There will also be a special session devoted to the role of interdisciplinary computing in academia, research and industry. This session will be run by Ursula Wolz and Boots Cassel, the same people who organized the interdisciplinary computing meetings I attended and wrote about this past year. Interdisciplinary is becoming a hot topic in computing education.

In the private sector: Volumes of online and print text are dissecting everything that might have led to Steve Jobs repeated successes. Analyses of Jobs and the innovations he drove have repeated his comments about how Apple existed at the intersection of liberal arts and technology.  A repercussion of these discussions is going to be (I predict) even greater corporate emphasis on how a meeting of minds between computing and traditionally non-technical fields can lead to innovation.

The term "social intelligence" is becoming more common as we look at what we can learn, intuit, predict, and know from analyzing social media. If we are to really understand what social media has to tell us about people, or, conversely, if we are to really use social media intelligently for business purposes (two sides of the same coin), we will have to do more to integrate our understandings from psychology, anthropology and sociology into our computing development work. There is huge potential here for intelligent forward thinking collaborations.

Most telling: If you pick up any computing / technology magazine off the supermarket rack and flip through it, you will find advertisements from organizations that tout their interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary achievements. Energy, water, biomedical, transportation, communication, disaster prediction and management, interactive literature.

One can focus on the exaggeration and hype inherent to much advertising, but that would be missing the bigger picture. The important thing to note is that the whole notion of promoting interdisciplinary computing has entered the mainstream. When large and small organizations jockey to convince potential customers and clients that *they* are on the forefront of interdisciplinary computing, then interdisciplinary computing is no longer on the fringe. Funding follows, and smart funding has the potential to nurture environments that drive technological innovation.

People will make the final decisions and determine the directions interdisciplinary computing takes. I am optimistic and excited about where we can go..

Happy Healthy Interdisciplinary New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Computers and Society: Computing For Good Arrives Without a Flourish

I am pleased to announce that my book "Computers and Society: Computing For Good" arrived on my doorstep yesterday, and is now officially out.

Many of the people I profiled in this book about computing and computers being used for social and environmental good, are both passionate about what they do and humble. As fate would have it, the arrival itself occurred in such a way as to reinforce the importance of being humble and remembering to value balance in life.

The guy from Fedex sprinted up the stairs and handed me a box while I was having a conversation with a guy trying to (at the very least) scam me for several hundred dollars. I suspect he was high on something as he kept hopping around and babbling. So busy trying to figure out what was going on with this guy that I set the box inside the door and forgot about it. Much later, after the growing evidence made me realize I had been dealing with a potentially dangerous criminal and I had called the police, I noticed the box from my publisher partially wedged behind a footstool. So much for the big moment of arrival!

I pried open the box and pulled out the book, not quite sure whether I was still upset with myself for having turned my back on the crazy guy when my computer chose the wrong moment to make a lot of noise. (This is how people get killed, I thought - don't turn your back on crazy people no matter what your computer does).

However, here it was in my hands - my first book. A book about people who are making the world a better place. Lots of people. The hundred or so people who shared their time and stories with me far outweigh the one crazy guy in my doorway. Whether working to save endangered sea turtles, helping kids in the neonatal intensive care unit, or modeling earthquakes, these people "rock" as they say. Life is short and precious and I'm honored beyond words to be able to share their work with you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Challenges to STEM Education: Is it About Sex?

I am disturbed by what I read today in the book "Nerds - How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies and Trekkies Can Save America* and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope". If you have a background in education, or simply opinions about the current state of STEM education (who doesn't?) the author's beliefs about where "reform" is needed are eye opening. (Hint: we need to pay attention to kids thinking about sex)

Anderegg (the author) builds a convincing argument that kids start learning at a very young age that "nerds" are social misfits, unattractive and bound to be sexual failures. Agreeing with this thesis leads to the conclusion that all the emphasis in the world on testing and assessment, all the attempts to show the economic benefits (good job, high pay) of a career in STEM will fall on mostly deaf ears, because: kids aren't making their decisions based on our adult logic. Kids make their decisions about what to study and feel proud of based upon social cues and a driving desire to fit in. By the time they are old enough to realize the innacurracies of the nerd stereotype it is too late.

Unless we are heaping criticism on a public figure, we don't like talking publicly about things like sex. (Does the idea of discussing sex and computing education bother you at all?) 

American cultural anti-intellectualism  is looking very guilty right now with regard to our problem attracting students into, and into doing well in, STEM classes. 

If you buy this argument, it is no wonder we have such difficulty making computing careers attractive. Worse, because computing is everywhere we have a looming national crisis when large numbers of students turn away from computing education.

Although Anderegg does not (so far; I am still reading) separate computing out from science and math, I think we should do so for purposes of problem solving. For example,  he writes that biology is as shunned as other sciences. He bases his arguments in great part on his clinicial practice as a developmental psychologist. 

Computing educators and researchers see another set of data. Computing educators have amassed significant evidence that certain populations of students (e.g. women) are frequently drawn to biology. Showcasing the role of computer science in biological  careers can put CS in a better light (from a student's perspective).  I have written in the past about educators who are making connections between computing and the arts, music, social sciences (and other sciences) too. Students like these connections and revise their perceptions of computing because of them.

So on the one hand I am incredibly disturbed to see the evidence pile-up in "Nerds" telling us that we are approaching STEM education with blinders on.

On the other hand, and you really should read the book "Nerds" yourself to decide, I am incredibly relieved to read something that not only sheds new light on how serious the computing education challenge is, but provides a way forward.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rainbow Simulation - Water Droplets

Researchers at UC San Diego have been working on creating simulations that accurately model the formation of rainbows. In their news releases and presentations they talk about the physics behind rainbow creation and in particular the new discoveries that have been made about rainbows as a result of their work. Here is a quote from a press release:

"Computer scientists at UC San Diego, who set out to simulate all rainbows found in nature, wound up answering  questions about the physics of rainbows as well. The scientists recreated a wide variety of rainbows – primary rainbows, secondary rainbows, redbows that form at sunset and cloudbows that form on foggy days – by using an improved method for simulating how light interacts with water drops of various shapes and sizes. Their new approach even yielded realistic simulations of difficult-to-replicate “twinned” rainbows that split their primary bow in two."


"Until now, most simulations of rainbows had assumed that water drops are spherical, which isn’t true for large rain drops, ... researchers have  adopted a completely different approach and developed a more realistic model to recreate rainbows...offer the prospect of a better understanding of real rainbows,”

Stemming from a study of rainbow formation, there is an almost infinite set of topics we can learn more about from looking closely at the  behavior of variously shaped water droplets. Here are a few ideas:

  • Weather modeling and forecasting
  • Animations in feature films
  • Atmospheric behavior on other planets that are found to contain water
  • Inspiration for new forms of studio art
  • Educational STEM software development
  • Frozen food storage behaviors over time

I could go further with my imagination but I'd like to know: What other ideas do you have?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts - you can comment here.

(UCSD Press release)

Friday, December 9, 2011

User Experience is ...

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of people who all work in some way in the realm of user experience (UX). The word "realm" is so very appropriate. What is UX anyway? There are ongoing discussions on LinkedIn groups about what UX means, what is means to work in UX, what one needs to work in UX... Does one need to have a degree in HCI? In graphic arts? In Cognitive Science? Does one need to be able to program? Does one have to have a visual portfolio? etc.

Yes. No. It depends.

From what I could tell everyone at this meeting had a background and experience that ranged into the technical. Notice how I used another one of those broad words: "ranged". At least one person, I would call a "developer" - he talked a lot about the latest advances in HTML5 and the pros and cons of creating Native applications. Not so much about how users felt (affect) and what that means. There were several people with a graphic design background, who, I intuit, came out of the arts. They could probably create some very slick looking designs. There was a bit of eye glazing at that end of the table when CSS and HTML came up. There was someone who said that computer science and software engineering were the same thing (ouch); there were people who work in hardware-driven companies.

We were discussing the book "Mobile First" by Luke Wroblewski. Very nice little book (about 75 pages, I was able to read it in one sitting) that focuses on principles of design and their effect on the user experience in the world of mobile technology.  Wroblewski made some very good points about how useful it can be to pare down online features to those that are most important to the end user and lose the rest. At least that was my take on it. I am all about finding out what the user's needs and goals are and what is and isn't working for them (and why!).

In addition, when I talk in a broader sense about "users" I include the organization that creates the page or app. After all, there are end users and there are the people who have something in mind when they develop an online presence. If there isn't a bridge between both groups, however different their worlds may be, then no one will be productive or happy. From my point of view trying to bridge that gap, everyone who has a stake in the success of a digital experience is a user.

Around our table, depending upon who was talking, we agreed or disagreed with the premise of "Mobile First", and our supporting evidence came with very different foci. Was it all about what the latest HTML would let you do? Was it about graphics on itty bitty screens? Was it about research methodologies such as Heuristic Evaluation? Was the whole idea of bottom up (mobile and then laptop and desktop) analysis and design the way to go? Wait a minute...wasn't it first about the user? (that was me).

I think, had anyone asked, that everyone around the table would have agreed that "it" was ultimately all about the end user and their experience with an application or web site. Occasionally I felt like we were all over the place in our discussions - and in fact we were. At first unsettling, I then became really excited, because I was experiencing, in a new setting, the broad nature of this field! 

For example, in my own work I place a lot of focus on figuring out how to get at and experience a digital situation (web page, application, classroom situation) from the user's perspective - and backing that understanding up with rigorous research data. That reflects my background in cognitive science and educational research as well as in computer science. I am not likely to talk about HTML (5 or any other version) until after a lot of other leg work has been done.

Conversely, others in the room started from the technical constraints and worked up from there. If new technology permits new creative innovations, explore them. My geeky side appreciates this perspective. Sitting there, it was fascinating to be a bit schizophrenic by both taking part in the conversation and acting as a fly on the wall watching and listening to what everyone was saying and observing how it reflects their prior experience. No question about it, user experience work is not only an evolving discipline but one that has no fixed definition, no matter how much it might be nice to have one.

In fact I prefer a flexible definition of user experience. After all, the very words "user experience" tell you that the "experience" with a web app or software program is going to vary from user to user. There will be floating technical issues, front end and back end issues, psychological issues, sociological issues, software and hardware issues. People can be unpredictable and their interactions with technology can be revealing of so many things! The perspective viewed from each of these is different. That is what makes UX work so interesting. You have the opportunity to draw upon many different fields when you take on a UX project. And it is all about people - helping people.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Considering Collaboration with the Social Sciences?

Psychology and computing have an interesting historical relationship. With the onslaught of All Things Digital, that relationship is becoming more complex. It should go without saying (although experience indicates periodic reminders are needed) that computing's relationship with psychology and other social sciences are as important as with any "hard" science - or should be. There are exciting questions to be considered and challenges to pounce on.

Historically, we tended to think of psychology as intersecting  with computing via Human Computer Interaction (HCI), or in Artificial Intelligence. Yet, in both fields the emphasis has almost always been on the cognitive - efficiency and effectiveness in the former, data discover and interpretation in the latter.

But psychology is also about affect.  As related in a recent article in UX Magazine about "Understanding Social Computing", the whole online user experience is more and more about personal interaction. Online educators know this. Marketing professionals know this - what marketing these days is not heavily digital? But there is so much more to talk about.

There is enormous opportunity for computing professionals who have a background in psychology (cognitive and affective). In the affective domain, we have opportunities well beyond the arena of sales and marketing. We have opportunities with educational software development to really maximize learning through sophisticated understanding of the interplay between the emotional and cognitive self. No doubt computer science can contribute to a greater ability to put that understanding into action. I wonder how often computer scientists work directly with educational psychologists?

Then there is anthropology and sociology. A friend, who is interested in the intersection of physics and anthropology got me thinking about this as we were joking around about her ideal future career in the search for extra-terrestrials. Where do computing and anthropology/sociology weave together?

Throwing a few thoughts out for your consideration: consider the context in which globally divergent groups perceive and interact with computing as cultural artifacts. Books and articles have been written by non-computing professionals on this topic. But how much has been written from within the computing disciplines?  How do different ethnic, religious, urban, agrarian groups perceive and appreciate the potential of computing? If you think this isn't something for a computing professional to focus on, think again.

Or... ponder the different, surprisingly different, cultures that exist between traditional institutions of higher learning and non-traditional computing education organizations (private for-profits for example). Before you dismiss this subject for whatever reason (e.g. media reports of all the problems with for-profits) remember that just because something may not be palatable doesn't mean ignoring it is a good idea.

The more we think about it, the more I think we'll realize that culture is huge in terms of how computing "works" or "doesn't work"; collaboration with anthropologists and sociologists has enormous potential for benefiting the users, clients, customers, the public in general and for the field of computer science. And I'm talking about computer science here - the science of computation. Something to percolate on: What is the contribution that computer science can make to the study of culture?

So, I put these out there as questions: computing professionals, do you have working relationships with professionals in psychology - beyond the somewhat already trodden cognitive domain?

Computing professionals out there, do you have a working relationship with someone coming from anthropology? Sociology? 

If this sounds at all appealing, and you don't have such a relationship, how could you form one?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Computer Sand Society

This week begins the holiday season for many people and often with it, unfortunately, way too much stress. Maybe that is why this week (Thanksgiving week in the US) brings out some strangeness. There was the blog post forwarded by a friend about stuffing a turkey with twinkies. It is hard not to feel fondness for something that springs back into shape when you step on it, but ... make a meat glaze out of the so-called "creme filling"? Yuck.

I also received an advertisement in the mail addressed to me at "The Computer Sand Society". Walking back from the mailbox, I thought: this could be a new interdisciplinary application! In response to this inspiration, a friend sent a lovely video link about sand animation; another friend suggested that, nice as it sounds, poolside would be much better than beachside because sand is hard on laptops. Could it be worse than three bouts of sick video cards?  Perhaps, yes it could. Although I once told a cell carrier that my phone had mysteriously died when it had in fact fallen in the toilet (would you want to explain that one?), I'm not sure the computer manufacturer would buy into the notion that a gritty substance floating around the motherboard stemmed from disintegrating integrated circuits.

However, as I do believe in the power of creative thinking to spur innovation, I suspect there is opportunity for The Computer Sand Society to come into its own.

Modeling and simulation of sand castles. Has anyone developed a system, similar to those used by architectural design firms, to analyze the possibilities for ever more complex creations, factoring in the properties of sand - fineness of particles, distribution of various well crumbled crustacean shells, positioning relative to the high tide mark, mineral components?

Sand castle building is serious business for some people. The U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition bit the dust this year and its demise has many people very upset. I wonder if profits from my envisioned application might have helped hold it together? We could have perhaps drawn on the nearby expertise of the famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography, NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and the local surfers who are out every morning, afternoon and evening rain or shine, 365 days a year. Who understands the interactions between sand and surf better than these subject matter experts?

I have always wanted to combine my love of the outdoors with the potential of computing. A typo by some overworked marketing employee has given me the inspiration for a new hi-tech startup. All that is needed now is a really dedicated team to get it off its feet - and an angel investor.

Any takers?

Happy Thanksgiving - have some fun and forget the stressful stuff for a few days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing in a Big Way: The Center for Science of Information

If you followed the 3 earlier posts on An Interdisciplinary Puzzle, the Wireless Car, and finally Banana Trucks and Stock Traders, then you know that information theory was at the heart of the discussion. And if you were really curious, and followed the link hint I provided in the last of the posts, then you figured out that there is an exciting body of work in this area going on at: The Center for Science of Information. Their mission is "to advance science and technology through a new quantitative understanding of the representation, communication, and processing of information in biological, social and engineered systems". A mouthful, but a mouthful that hopefully makes sense after reading the other posts.

The Center's web pages contain an incredible amount of information about their interdisciplinary research, teaching and outreach activities. No one institution or discipline could do their work alone; through bringing experts together from across disciplines, they hope to develop new cross-cutting principles governing the storage, compression and transmission of information (examples in the earlier posts!). Nine universities participate in the Center as well as collaborators from a wide range of corporations and industries. In addition, students, undergraduate and graduate, and post-doctoral researchers have the opportunity to become immersed in this cutting edge research. 

I had a fascinating conversation about the Center with Deepak Kumar of Bryn Mawr College. Deepak is the Associate Director of Diversity and Education for the Center, as well as a professor of Computer Science. Even prior to the creation of the Center, he has been teaching interesting interdisciplinary computing courses. One example is an undergraduate course on emergence. Emergent behavior appears everywhere in the natural world and is a perfect topic for demonstrating the utility of computational modeling.

For example, here in Southern California it is amazing to watch a group of Brown Pelicans cruise along in formation just over your head and then almost as one swoop down, realign into a row and ride the wind currents of ocean waves in the surf. They never touch each other or the ocean, although they can be inches from both.

Have you ever watched a flock of birds and wondered why they never crash into one another? I wonder: How do the Pelicans all know when to turn sharply, descend in unison, line up exactly the same distance from each other, and at some point, without apparent reason, rise up together again into the sky? If I watch any one bird, I can identify how it behaves. But somehow, and this is the puzzle, a group behavior emerges. Flocking birds are a classic example of emergent behavior which can be studied through computational modeling and Deepak uses this example in his course.

If birds don't suit your fancy, there are emergent behaviors to be studied computationally in linguistics, social networks, epidemiology (just for starters). Bryn Mawr is a perfect institution to be part of the Center for Information Science team not only because of courses like this, but because they have a  minor in Computational Methods that actively collaborates with departments across the college.

I asked Deepak to tell me more about the role computer scientists play in advancing information theory. He obliged; here are a few things he shared. [I'm going somewhat technical for the rest of this paragraph] For starters, computer scientists understand algorithms and complexity. They know that how a problem is modeled will lead to various algorithms with different complexities. Which one(s) best fit the constraints and goals of the subject matter? A computer scientist can help determine what kind of processor to use, what algorithms to use, all the ins and outs of dynamic problems and dynamic programming. Computer scientists have an expertise in the classification of problems; they can identify a set of problems as of a certain type (e.g. NP-hard) and the relationship between how a problem is modeled and the resultant effect on the model. There is more, but you get the idea.

Next year Deepak will be teaching a course in the Science of Information. This class will bring the work and ideas behind the Center for Science of Information directly to his undergraduate population. The course, and related activities such as internships and mentoring, will provide opportunities for his students to interact with other institutions and personnel on the Center team. Deepak is very excited about running this course; in fact he told me that the most inspiring aspect of his role in Center activities is the opportunity to bring new superstar research to his computing students and to make it outward looking.

It is going to be very interesting to watch how all of this work develops over the next few years. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting 3: Day 2

My computer screen is still on an acid trip - perhaps more so. Tonight it is purple and orange with green swirls and oozing deep amoeba-like dripping drooling things. But the keys work, so I can continue to talk about the meeting. The same caveats apply as yesterday, about typos, lack of links and copy editing. My notes from today are doubly challenged as I not only took them half blind but am now reading them back to myself more blind. However, I consider this an interesting cognitive challenge.


We started the morning with a faculty panel that seeded a discussion of challenges to Interdisciplinary Computing (IC) as well as interesting experiences. One particularly interesting speaker was Teresa Nakra from the Music Department at The College of New Jersey. She conducted an opera as part of her early music studies and later went to the MIT media lab where she worked with Rosalind Picard (of Affective Computing fame) on digital opera. Teresa spoke about designing a jacket for the conductor to wear which took readings of a variety of activities that were going on during the performance of the opera. Teresa spoke about the interdisciplinary nature of opera, which is probably not something many people in computing think of. This subject matter rang some bells for me, as one of my undergraduate degrees was in Drama, which field led me indirectly into the computing field. At that time everything was analog (certainly not the case now) but there were these interesting engineers in the lighting booth and one thing led to another and...

We spoke in more depth today about the various constituencies that are involved in the success or failure of IC and discussed ways to engage with them and foster a climate conducive to IC. A particularly interesting question came up:

Would it be preferable, in an ideal world, to have a greater preponderance of dual (or multi) subject matter experts or to have a greater number of computing professionals who are fluent enough in another field to hold serious conversations in that (those) field(s) without being a SME (pronounced "SMEE")? 

We as a group had varied views on the matter and this led to a very productive discussion of the implications of each. What do you think? What scenario would be better for the fostering and ongoing success of Interdisciplinary Computing?

In another breakout session that I sat in on we discussed obstacles faced by industry. Interestingly enough, one of the topics that came out without my initiating it, was the very interdisciplinary nature of UX work in industry - short for User Experience if you aren't familiar with the term. Interesting to me, because I have been working on UX , and have written about UX a few times in this blog. It is clearly an interdisciplinary  area of work - computing, psychology, art, design, development - depending upon one's emphasis, these and other disciplines can be central. UX is a clear point of connection between academic interdisciplinary computing work and industry. Much of Computer Science Education research work can or does fall under the UX umbrella.

In discussing the challenges faced by industry it became clear that there is no universal set of challenges and it is hard to make any generalizations that stick. Large companies may have more time to allow people to come up to speed and may have time and resources for some cross training; small companies may have to get something delivered yesterday. Traditional hi-tech companies may have one set of IC needs whereas the health care IT industry may have a vastly different set of requirements (must one have medical background? someone suggested this might well be the case). Non-profits, for-profit companies - different types of missions, thus different challenges. These discussions also led to a brief conversation about how to prepare students in very concrete ways - such as providing advice on developing resumes. Does one want to be a generalist or a specialist within the IC world? If one is working in an IC area, in other words, to what extent should one narrowly niche and to what extent should one be broad? These questions relate back to the question about whether it would be preferable to have dual SMEs or single area SMEs with a solid working knowledge in other areas.

So you see, we were beginning to pick up on patterns of issues that have to be carefully considered and addressed (and we did have discussions on these subjects). I wish I had room to delve deeply into it, but there will eventually be a formal report from the organizers  of these meetings (Ursula Wolz and Boots Cassel) and some of the ideas I mention will no doubt be part of the discussion there.

Another theme that came up again and again, yesterday and today, was the need for communication strategies among people who are involved in IC. Support mechanisms to facilitate communication, formal (workshops, meetings, regional structures to support ongoing conversations) and informal (funded lunches as one idea. A little pizza can go a long way), in-service activities specifically targeted at IC collaborations, mentoring opportunities to bring in and support new colleagues.

Publicity, outreach, and awareness raising came up a lot today. If we are to affect Hearts, Minds and Culture, (a phrase from yesterday) then we must start putting the whole notion, appeal and benefits of Interdisciplinary Computing into people's minds in many different ways. If the general citizenry and youth perceive IC as interesting, and a part of the fabric of society, then we will go a long way towards achieving a major shift towards accomplishing many of the more discrete goals of IC.

Along these lines, I will conclude this once again longish post (and one that is killing my eyes!) with another amusing moment from today. Someone brought up the information that when the original Chuck E Cheese was developed it incorporated a model of exposing entire families to the "product" and thus gaining buy-in from families, and that, get this, Chuck E Cheese was THE premier place for showcasing technology to children through robotics. A member of our group personally remembered this. According to one perspective, the robotic approach didn't quite work out because it scared children (oops).

However, overall the "engage the entire family" model was successful and has continued, spreading to many other companies. Some highly creative soul in our group suggested "CyberCheese" as a name for an Interdisciplinary Computing marketing campaign. Engage the entire family in computational interaction. If the entire family is engaged, parents, kids, extended family, friends - things could take off.

After I about died laughing at the name, I realized...hey...this idea isn't so bad is it?

This post was updated on 11/10/11 to fix typos and add links.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting 3: Day 1

This is quite the post for several reasons. I am in Washington DC attending the third Interdisciplinary Computing meeting. I posted about the previous two earlier this year [the January meeting, the April meeting] . When we were at dinner, I was sitting next to someone who is in the arts and telling him how I was very interested in finding an interesting project that crossed over computer science and the arts for a chapter in a future edition of my book. Well, I got back to my hotel room and discovered that the video card on my motherboard has gone out. So I am writing this post on a psychedelic smeary LSD reminiscent screen - and I can't really read what I'm writing. This is not exactly what I had in mind when I asked for a convergence of art and computing. Beware what you ask for! For the next two days I'll be writing this way, as a replacement part will be meeting me back in San Diego later this week. Meanwhile...have patience with the typos and lack of editing because I can't see beyond the pulsating purple and lime green.

So on to the meeting report.  As always, all of the comments in this post are my interpretations and reflect my perspective on what occurred. They are not any "official" pronouncement and there may be others at the meeting who have a different set of thoughts. If that is you, please chime in!

Today was the most incredible example of synergistic conversations that can come out of putting passionate widely divergent thinkers together. 

Two of our meeting goals (as laid out by our trusty leaders Boots Cassel and Ursula Wolz) are to identify the breadth that is Interdisciplinary Computing (IC) and how to Facilitate Interdisciplinary Computing. Lynn Andrea Stein from Olin College talked about the interdisciplinary nature of Olin, an engineering school that was able to design interdisciplinarity into itself in a holistic way in part because they were able to start from the ground up approximately 10 years ago. Valerie Barr from Union College, founded in 1795 and the first college in the United States to offer engineering programs, provided an interesting contrast as she spoke about her work with a large range of successful IC programs.

A common theme was the infusion of computing into courses outside the traditional curriculum as well as a major rethinking of CS coursework - both institutions are having great success, attracting more students into the CS courses and increasing diversity.

With the audience of CS faculty, arts faculty, education, math (and more) faculty chiming in and asking many questions the phrase came up: Hearts, Minds and Culture. All three must be addressed. Further discussions delved into what that means. At the faculty level, student level, institutional level.

We had two breakout sessions and in both I was extremely priviledged to sit with some of the most interesting and engaged people. We wrestled with tough questions such as:

Outcomes are important (we all agreed) as are Goals - should Goals come first, followed by Outcomes followed by metrics for assessing them, or perhaps should desired Outcomes be the starting point with the other items emerging from there? It turns out to be a fascinating way to turn your thinking on its head.

Verbs vs. Nouns. Several breakout groups  (including ours) independently came up with this terminology to describe how we must stop thinking in terms of Nouns (e.g. "content") and think in terms of Verbs (what do we want to DO, to have students DO). And if we make the mistake of framing Goals in terms of Nouns instead of Verbs, we will undercut the whole purpose of trying to be innovative and creative and flexible in our approaches among different departments. Noun (content) orientation can lead to "content wars" in many cases and a lose-lose situation, as opposed to a win-win situation in which everyone can find common ground.

Very interesting idea. Think in terms of Verbs - it makes sense that this orientation would lead to a greater chance of finding mutually beneficial modern ground among widely diverse faculty. Gets us away from the dreaded "coverage debates" many of you no doubt know too well.

I'm going to short change some of the day's activities a bit in order to keep this to a reasonable length for a post, but there is one last item that energized me so much I must mention it. One participant, during a full group discussion, asked the question: should we think of Interdisciplinary Computing as "corrosive"? Corrosive in that it breaks down institutional boundaries and structures? And if so, is it corrosive by its very nature or is it something that those involved would want to specifically focus on? Corrosive. Fascinating. That is such a vivid word. Think about that will you? 

The same person followed up with this thought: if Interdisciplinary Computing is indeed corrosive, then the theoretical ground of doing IC work changes. 

IC is rhizomatic he posited. I know what a rhizome is (in a general sense), but I had to ask for an explanation in the context of this conversation. He explained, (and I try to closely paraphrase) – you can’t teach what you want to teach from any one source. You break something and it will find its way around via  a different route.Wow... think on that one too won't you? This is what you get when you work with interdisicplinary minded people from different disciplines. 

Finally, my vocabulary was expanded even further in the context of IC when in a breakout session we were discussing the topic of forming and sustaining IC community. One member of our group brought up this idea, which we all latched onto: the notion of the Interpersonal as equally important to the notion of the Interdisciplinary. The importance of realizing that it is relationships between people that will make or break IC and that a strong focus on developing, supporting and maintaining interpersonal relationships among *people*, not just "disciplines" is vital. 
Interdisciplinary vs. Interpersonal. Put another way: There is interdisciplinary work but there are interpersonal relationships b/w faculty and we need to find ways to facilitate and support those relationships. Equally or possibly even more important. 

And finally, the most mind blowing IC vocabulary expansion  for my afternoon came with someone in our group suggesting we think about IC this way: as Inter-Epistemological.

Inter-epistemological – theories and ways of knowing. The interconnectedness of different models of ways of working. 

In digging around for some definitions of "inter-epistemological" someone found a previously published paper with an eerily provocative title: 

“Moving beyond interdisciplinarity: Academic Reflexivity in an inter-epistemological research program, celebrating indigeneous knowledges: Peoples, Lands and Cultures” 

 Think about Interdisciplinary Computing (corrosive and rhizomatic) in terms of that phrase. 

From purple smeary-land, over and out for the evening. 

This post was updated on 11/10/11 to fix typos and add links.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Banana Trucks, Stock Traders, iPods and More...

Information interchange is an activity shared by biological, chemical, physical, economic and social systems. As science and technology have accelerated in recent decades, we now routinely deal with enormous amounts of data that we try to model accurately in order to understand. When you think about it, these systems have a lot in common. 

For example, my rudimentary understanding of how stock market trading works, leads me to understand that market traders need to get certain complex data right at the beginning of the market day. Within the first few minutes in fact. Any later, and that data is useless to them.  Incomplete or inaccurate and that data is useless to them. This is essentially the same challenge faced by our wireless car which must receive all its varied sensor data properly.

Information theory provides the starting point for addressing these challenges and those of even more complex natural and artificial information interchange systems alluded to above. Claude Shannon's theorems (greatly simplified and hopefully not misrepresented as a result) assumed that data can be encoded as a string of 1s and 0s and transmitted from one point to another. Shannon's ideas enabled us to understand and address data degradation over distance traveled, effects of interference ("noise") and the recognition that when we encode, store and transmit data we can compress it to save space and reduce latency (i.e. speed things up).

An entire communications industry was spawned as a result of information theory. Among other things, we have been able to leverage our detailed understanding of the costs associated with data compression. For example, have you ever compared the sound of a song played on an iPod with a song played from a professionally mastered CD? Which has better quality? The CD of course. On the other hand, you can store far more songs on an iPod than on a CD. This difference has little to do with "old" or "new" storage media technology. If a 1 hour CD can hold approximately 12 songs, whereas your iPod can hold far more than that, it is because, in order to squeeze additional music on the iPod, you lose some digital bits that supply the greater dynamic range heard on the CD.

You probably don't care though, right? You don't expect professional quality music reproduction coming through those little ear buds. Cycling down the road, jogging along the trail, or wherever you are tearing around dangling your iPod, your primary concern is access to reasonably decent portable music. Conversely, you expect a CD playing on a multi-speaker Surround Sound home theatre system to produce pretty darned nice music, right? I certainly do. Personally, I don't know if I could handle hearing Bohemian Rhapsody in its super compressed format on an iPod. But I could definitely rock to the original Hawaii 5-O Theme Song.

How do we know how to produce just the right fidelity for MP3s, CDs, DVDs, etc? Because information theory has led to a highly accurate understanding of the tradeoffs inherent in different types and amounts of data compression as well as a host of other factors that come into play when deciding the optimal way to transmit data point to point. So we know how to model different audio/video systems and choose the compression, transmission and storage methods most appropriate for a given context. The digital data comprising a Dixie Chicks song will be treated much differently if it is to find its way onto a CD vs. an iPod or the movie theatre. Yet each scenario will be optimal and we understand how to make it so.

If only that was all there is to it. The problem is, not all data manipulation is as straightforward. This is where I want to start calling it "information" rather than "data", because much of the "data" we now study has meaning that cannot be divorced from it - hence is "information".

Consider the modeling of a system for optimal routing of commercial trucks. To keep it as simple as possible, let's say all trucks are going from Point A in San Diego, California to Point B in Chicago, Illinois. A truck full of hazardous waste and a truck full of bananas are definitely not the same animal. The optimal routing of those trucks is not the same. The hazardous waste truck must avoid certain roads and population areas, perhaps certain times of day, even if it takes longer to get from San Diego to Chicago. The bananas on the other hand, must arrive as quickly as possible or else rotten mush will show up at the grocery store. A dynamic traffic routing system must understand the semantics of the data, i.e. what is in each truck en route. In this case, semantics also affects temporal issues - timeliness of arrival. The system must be able to adjust on the fly to all the unexpected things that could happen along the way: snow storm, sink hole, holiday parade, incorrect satellite map of the road! Plus, let's complicate matters even more: if our grocery store in downtown Chicago is deluged at the same time by 50 trucks of perishable produce coming from ports on both coasts, there will be Chaos in The Loop (downtown Chicago). And more likely than not, rotten mush on the shelves and in the dumpsters.

Do you see how our wireless car system design has a lot in common with our commercial truck routing system? This is the same class of challenges that exist within a myriad of natural and human-made systems.  Even if you aren't a professional in any of the fields listed in the opening paragraph, you may begin to see the commonalities within complex information interchange systems. To understand these systems we first have to try and model them, taking into consideration all the relevant variables and their interactions: syntactically, semantically, temporally.

Information theory has to be taken to the next level, to incorporate additional factors. Do you want to hear more about all this from an expert? As you wait for the next installment in these posts, consider tuning in October 31st to an interesting talk on the history and philosophy of information

Not to mention, by doing so, you will get a head's up on the people who are working on "Shannon 2.0".

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Wireless Car Considered

In order to answer the question(s) posed in my previous post, let's go back to the automobile. Your car. Unless you are into antiques, chances are that your current car is a computer on wheels (thinking from a layman's perspective). You probably know this if you ever have taken your car in for what seems like a small repair and get hit with a gigantic bill because "the chip needed to be replaced". Or, you take your car in and they tell you they will "plug it in and run diagnostics". They download some data, study it, and presto, tweak just the right part of your vehicle. You save money.

The heart of modern automobile engines is a CPU in the engine control unit which serves as a data collection hub. Approximately 150lbs of wiring runs through your car between various sensors and the engine control unit. So when something goes wrong, it might be one of the sensors, it might be a wire, or it might be the CPU. Of course, there are many many advantages to having a CPU in your car as compared to the older technology, but this isn't the right place to go into that. What is relevant however, is the fact that all those wires are MESSY. And HEAVY. And ... complex.

Imagine the advantages that could be gained if those wires could be removed and replaced with wireless broadcasting of sensor signals to the CPU.

150lbs less weight: that's about one adult, or a few kids, or many pets, or a lot of gear. Lighter car, better gas mileage.

No wires: less mess in the cars innards (think like a mechanic to fully appreciate that one).

No wires: less complexity and cost in the manufacturing process - consider the domino effect of not having to figure out placement, routing, materials use, secondary waste generation. The car should cost less to build, thus cost less to the consumer. Economies of scale can be gained if the elimination of wires in favor of wireless becomes standard.

Store the data, compress the data, transmit the data. This is where Shannon (my final hint in the last post) comes in. Claude Shannon, whose seminal work approximately 60 years ago founded what we now know of as Information Theory. Theorems about optimal point to point communication of bits. Your cell phone calls rely on application of information theory as do your Skype calls, iPod and CD storage and other applications too numerous to count. I'll come back to that later because with our automobile scenario

There Are Challenges.

For starters, we would need to make sure that my Subaru, sitting at the stoplight next to your Lexus, doesn't tell your Lexus what to do (in theory this might be fun, but I digress). Non negotiable requirement: my car's wireless transmitters need to be picked up only by my car's CPU.

In addition, my car's CPU would have to juggle incoming signals from many sensors. There are N (meaning I have no idea how many) sensors in my car, each of them likely has a different sampling rate, transmission distances vary point to point, noise is inevitable, delay is inevitable, and there are definitely other parameters that I am not thinking of. To function properly, my wireless car's CPU must receive all the encoded data in sufficiently robust form in a timely fashion.

If you are familiar with classic information theory, you know where I am going. If you aren't, then I'll point out: Shannon's seminal work on data storage, compression and transmission didn't anticipate the kind of requirements involved in developing a functional wireless network automobile.

But there is a group of people working on this exact problem and the larger class of problems of which it is a part. And the results they come up with will effect Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Social Sciences, Engineering, and more.

To Be Continued...

 (I won't make you wait a week)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

An Interdisciplinary Puzzle For You To Figure Out

Today I am going to give you something to ponder for a few days - see if you can figure it out. Then, next week I'll tell you all about an exciting project I learned about this week.

What do biological, physical, social, engineering and financial systems have in common?

Toss in Computer Science. Computing is key to solving the puzzle of what this mystery project is.

A concrete example of where it all comes together involves one of the most prevalent objects in the developed and developing world: the automobile.

Think about how many feet of wiring runs through your car. How many feet do you think there are on average, front to back? Have you ever thought about that?

What does the wiring in your car accomplish and what are the critical factors in its proper functioning (don't forget about temporal issues)?

Wiring: kind of Old School technology don't you think?

Let's say you remove the wiring (or most of it) from your car. What advantages might you get from eliminating the wiring?

WHY DO WE CARE? (hint: economic productivity is one answer)

Hopefully some ideas are popping into your head - crazy ideas are fine. Crazy ideas are very good. Innovation comes from so-called crazy ideas and that is rarely a bad thing.

I leave you with a parting final hint: Claude Shannon.

If you come up with the solution before I post about it you gain enormous brownie points and public acknowledgement of having a highly productive brain. All ideas welcome.

Enjoy your mental percolations.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Puzzling Phone Algorithm; Virtual Reality Consumer Product Research

Recently I had a conversation with Franz Dill, who maintains one of the most prolific blogs I have run into. The name of his blog is The Eponymous Pickle, and you might want to think about that name. Once you figure out what that title is all about, you'll have a window into what a conversation with Franz is like. Without letting the cat completely out of the bag I'll just say...really interesting and loaded with ideas.

Before we even got into "the real conversation" something interesting happened. We were discussing the fact that I was on Skype from my computer and he was on Skype from a mobile phone. In comparing our reception quality (which was fine) I noted that if he had another call come through that the Skype call would be dropped. The first time it happened to me it was quite puzzling. One moment the person I was talking to was there, the next moment he was gone. poof. No warning for either of us, just - gone. Franz suggested this was probably the result of call prioritization.

Hmm? Now, looking back on it I'm wondering - that seems like an odd arrangement. Who wrote the software that made the decision that a current call should drop if a new one comes in? Did anyone test that out on users? It doesn't follow usual phone protocol. It also doesn't lead to a positive interaction moment, and in the case of a critical negotiation for example, could be quite disruptive. Why do you think they (whoever "they" is) wrote the algorithm that way?

Moving of the interesting things Franz and I discussed was his role in creating the first Innovation Center at Proctor & Gamble. The Center was (and still is) used to creatively experiment with the impact on consumers of various home and store environments. They took over a warehouse in the middle of a cornfield and built a house inside it (yes, you read that right) and later built a store next to the house - inside the warehouse. Apparently one reason to build a house inside a warehouse was so they could make constructive adjustments to the facility (such as punching holes in the wall :)  for the purpose of improved experimentation and monitoring. Presumably, having your own house in a warehouse meant that the house could be recreated and repurposed over and over again as needed.

Franz and his colleagues performed all sorts of experiments with real consumer/users and these experiments eventually moved into the realm of virtual reality. For example, they created wall size displays that people could interact with (you can see a picture of one and read about it in detail in the Eponymous Pickle).

I wonder if the current development team is working on a 3-D virtual store yet. Imagine what it would be like not only to look at and touch the wall display but to reach out and pick up items items off a virtual shelf and put them in a virtual shopping cart. Or perhaps pick up virtual items and put them in a physical shopping cart. The technology to do this exists. I didn't ask Franz about 3-D virtual consumer experimentation and I wish I had.

What do you think the consumers/users reaction to virtual 3-D shopping would be? (That!)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace Day: Thank You Nell Dale

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and there was a call put out to write about someone who has made a difference in your life. After thinking it over, I decided that I want to write about someone who through a act of kindness, trust and a willingness to take a risk completely changed the course of my career.

I'm speaking of Nell Dale, who is well known to almost everyone in the ACM SIGCSE community and many people beyond it.

In the 1990s I was working full time as a computer science instructor at a wonderful community college - Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. I was in charge of all aspects of the transfer program. The position was wonderful, exciting and stimulating, with significant responsibilities - in some ways a dream job.  I was developing all the transfer courses and teaching all of them, I was running around the state of Oregon creating articulation agreements with the Universities, I was doing....many things. I could see the direct results of my work on students' lives. I had an inkling that I was interested in research so I just started doing it by the seat of my pants. I certainly had no formal training in it at that time. It was exciting.

However, as not only the only woman in the department, but the only CS faculty member who had a formal computing background (I'm pretty sure) and the only one interested in research as well as in teaching, it was sometimes a bit lonely.

Along the way I heard about the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) and I joined the listserv and conversations. It was wonderful to have others to exchange ideas with.

Somehow, through that channel Nell, who was on the computer science faculty at The University of Texas at Austin, learned of my existence. One day I received an invitation to be a member of a panel she was putting together for the next SIGCSE conference. I had no idea Nell was so well known and highly regarded or that she was right smack in the center of everything SIGCSE. I had no idea that SIGCSE was a conference loaded with people who I would eventually come to think of as family. All I knew was that I received this invitation from a complete stranger, asking if I'd like to be on a conference panel and I said Yes. The panel was accepted, and the next thing you know I went to San Jose and met Nell Dale in person shortly before we gave our presentation!

I was in the "wow wow wow" stage, and showing my newbieness by trying to get my hands on every free textbook that I could and stuff them into my exploding suitcase. During one of the conference lunches, Nell and I were talking and I said something about my interest in conducting research. Nell said: "You should come to Austin. The University of Texas at Austin has a computer science education research group". I didn't know much about UT and I knew nothing about Austin - or Texas for that matter. Both are now places very dear to my heart. During and after that lunch I thought about Nell's comment. Long story short, a few years later I picked up and went back to school for my doctorate, where Nell indeed was leading a wonderful group of people all interested in computer science education. Participating in that group was a wonderful experience, full of synergy, exciting ideas, passion. I had found a home. One thing led to another and I eventually created an interdisciplinary dissertation and coursework that spanned computer science, psychology, science education and math education. My education and the supportive relationships I formed in those almost-7 years were incredible.

None of this would have happened, the snowball would never have started rolling, if Nell hadn't reached out one day over a listserv to a complete stranger and asked if she wanted to join a panel. I have always remembered those acts of generosity to a newbie and have tried to emulate her actions in my own.

Thanks Nell.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Design Studios, Studying Design

Back in August, while attending the ICER conference, I discussed some work being done to incorporate the studio model into the computing classroom. Several people replied, sharing their own work in this area or knowledge of others' work. At least one person I spoke with believed the studio model was impractical. Interestingly enough, there is a discussion about the use of Design Studios within the UX (User Experience) community. In late August, the first of two articles in UX Magazine discussed the basics of Design Studio. The rationale for using Design Studios included the following:

"The reality of designing modern digital solutions is that no individual can solely capture all the complexity of creating a truly vibrant product with various customer engagement points, different usage patterns, and behaviors based on complex needs, goals, and customer backgrounds, all interwoven into an emergent, ubiquitous engagement tapestry. This is why innovation really is, and should be, a team sport."

The above quote reflects a key feature of UX work: obtaining a holistic view of the interactions, perceptions and ramifications of users interacting with digital artifacts. Beyond traditional user interface and graphical design issues (although those are relevant), to include all the complexities that people, as people, bring to the table and what that complexity means for their "experience" (hence the name User Experience). Cognition, affect, behavior, environmental and social factors.

The second of the articles, which came out today, provides resources and guidelines for how you can put Design Studios into action. Very interdisciplinary:

"Teams should be designed to have some balance representing various disciplines. Mix up key stakeholders representing various functions within the company. I have found that it’s crucial to include participants from sales and customer support. They bring a unique vision of the customer and the market to a process. Ideally, Design Studio should cut across executives, sales, customer support, product management, development, marketing, and experience design."

These articles are a great resource if you are interested in the implementation of design studios - either in the classroom or in your workplace.

If you follow the guidelines shared in these articles, ... what has your experience been?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Commonalities Among Computing Professionals Who Work for Good

I am performing a final review of the the production text of my book on socially beneficial uses of computing (officially: Computers and Society: Computing For Good).  The computing topics range all across the discipline of computer science (high performance computing to social media) and the non-computing topics are as diverse as saving endangered sea turtles, medical informatics and educational software for children with disabilities.  Several years in the writing, I met on this journey either virtually or in person, dozens and dozens of people. Looking back on all these wonderful encounters I am struck once again by the commonalities among them. 

1. Passion. More than anything else, the people who shared their stories (and those of their organizations) with me felt that their work was more than a job. Again and again I heard about how the cause they worked towards (earthquake prediction, identifying best practices recommendations for infant care, poverty alleviation) gave a sense of purpose above and beyond a paycheck. When things got tough, their passion for helping people or the environment supported them.

2. Risk Takers. As many books on innovation in business have documented, a willingness to take risks, experience setbacks or even failures, is absolutely necessary. Some people I met had abandoned secure positions to follow their dreams, or within their current careers they strategically stuck their necks out to convince others that their ideas were sound and worthy of support. Again and again. Technically and non-technically. Risk taking, dealing with the inevitable setbacks by getting up and moving forward are an ingrained trait in many of the people who are doing the greatest good with computing.

3. Curious and Open Minded. A common reaction to being a risk taker (whether in the world of computing innovation or elsewhere) is to face and go beyond those who say "it can't be done" or "this is not the time". In fact, as the interdisciplinary computing pioneers I met demonstrated, you need to let these critiques roll off. Instead, keep asking questions, gathering information and recognize there is rarely only one way to solve a problem. In fact, the more that conventional wisdom says this is so, the less likely it is to be true.

4. Keep Technically Current and Constantly Learn. Just as I had the privilege and necessity of diving deep into the world of mobile devices, computer security and other areas of computing, the people who are highly effective and innovative with their socially beneficial projects are continuously studying. Not necessarily (or usually) through formal education, but through reading, experimenting, sharing, and just plain digging into material further than they "had to".

Perhaps more than anything else, the computing and non-computing professionals knew themselves well, and knew what their dreams were. They made a personal commitment to pursue those dreams.

If you are reading this, it is likely you have a desire to "do good" with computing. Do you know what your dreams are and are you pursuing them?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lacking an Understanding of Psychology Can Doom Your Efforts

Mobile devices are inherently interdisciplinary and one would hope that the design and development of them would include a solid understanding of psychology by their creators. But it may not always be so. A few days ago I was in a car with a friend, trying to use her Android to obtain GPS coordinates to a place we wanted to go up in the mountains. If you read my earlier post that included a venture to a Verizon store, you recall that I had a fairly dismal experience trying to investigate the Android. So this was my first experience trying to use an Android in a live situation under some mild pressure (we needed to figure out where we were going before we reached the limits of cell and satellite coverage). I had a heck of a time trying to figure out the UI (User Interface) on the device. All these cool apps covering a wide range of useful tasks and I finally put down the phone in frustration and we headed up the canyon using old fashioned biological GPS (Guidance via Perceptual Sense-making)

My user experience with the Android was terrible. I wondered how the designers and developers had conducted their user research prior to developing the interface. Case in Point: The little magnifying glass on the Android does not Zoom in and out. With a magnifying glass right there in front of you, and used for zooming on other applications, who would intuitively think to do that funny expanded swooping maneuver with your fingers? Who came up with that idea? I'd be willing to bet it wasn't the potential users (someone please, correct me if you have evidence otherwise, as I'd love to hear about the origin of that particular feature of smart phones). Did the product team conduct live interviews and focus groups for example? If so, how did they pose their questions and / or perform their observations?

You have to apply some psychology to the process if you want to produce effective products. Understanding the psychology of human interaction dynamics is important when conducting any type of user, client or student interview, observation or research. It is all too easy to unintentionally lead the conversation or activities and thus bias the information you are gathering. At that point you see what you want to see, and it filters into your end product.

If you want to collect data that is as free as possible from your own perspectives, you have to be on the ball. This applies to usability work, and broader user experience investigations as well.

  • Human interaction dynamics will lead someone to want to agree with their conversational partner if they feel that person is of higher status or in a position of power in some way. This can happen on a subconscious level. You the interviewer or observer have to be alert to not letting on what your hopes are for what you see and hear or what your opinion is of what you see or hear. You say "What was hard about that?" and the other person will look for hard items even if they didn't experience any. Contrast that question with "How easy or difficult was that"? The latter provides no clue as to where you might stand on the ease or difficulty of an experience.
  • You want to appear non threatening and personable in an interview without falling into the "friend trap" of holding a conversation where you will naturally dominate the conversation because the other people view you as the dominant party. Ask their opinions and for expanded explanations and avoid sharing your own - smoothly. If asked your opinion, here is a Bad Way to do respond: "I don't want to share my opinion on the ease of use of XYZ. My opinion isn't relevant here". True, but a real put off and conversation stopper. Worse Way to Respond: "I find it easy to use." Now the user feels stupid or perhaps condescended to and is likely to change their responses to not look stupid, or change their responses by simply giving up on sharing with you on that topic. Better Way to respond and redirect: "I am still forming opinions on that subject. Could you tell me more about what you think (feel) about XYZ?" This approach is accurate (you are forming opinions as you gather data) and redirects the conversation back to them and their experience.

You can try out your use of psychology in a computing context: pick a device or system you own, give it to someone else to use and see how much information you can obtain from them without dominating the conversation or guiding their answers them with your opinions. The person doesn't have to be brand new to using the device or system. although that can make your job easier.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Creating an Interdisciplinary Profile: Interview Style and Your Written Presence

Writing a profile about someone who is interdisciplinary can be challenging but is a lot of fun and an incredible learning experience. Recently, after several people asked me how I go about it I stopped to think about the process. I write these types of profiles in several venues so there isn't a one size fits all answer. No question: there is always lot of data gathering. For every line written, many lines go unwritten and you have to decide what to put in and what to leave out. However, the starting point always includes knowing who your audience is and what their expectations are. Audience understanding leads to what questions to ask in an interview, how you ask them, and then as you write, and those all-important decisions about tone, depth, and overall profile structure. Compare the approach in two very different outlets: a blog post and a book.

Blog Profile Guiding Principle: Be part of the process and keep the information to one, or at most two, points. When I write a blog post I assume my audience expects a fairly short, punchy profile. I have to get to the point rapidly. There will be a computing component and another field (discipline) component.  I assume a broad computing audience that may or may not have experience in the non-computing field. When I conduct the interview (and there is usually only one interview) I can share related experiences as I strive to learn about the other person's work as rapidly as possible. You can only keep someone on a Skype call for so long before everyone's brain wears out.  When I write the blog post I can share my own insights from the interview which helps the audience relate to what I am writing about. In fact, they expect to hear my voice and thoughts – both directly and indirectly. In a sense, my audience and I learn together.
Book Chapter Profile Guiding Principle: Step back and tell a story with many related topics under one major theme. The profiles in my upcoming book on socially beneficial computing are chapter length so you know there is going to be a lot of information which has to be spread out and logically tied together. As in a blog post, there will be a computing component and another field component; my audience is highly unlikely to have experience in the non-computing material. Therefore I know that unless I want to lose my readers at the starting gate I have to provide an engaging yet structured presentation with a clear set of goals. There is time to deepen and broaden the material. My readers do not expect to hear my opinions and insights. Thus when I conduct the interviews (usually there are many interviews extending over many months) I have to pay particular attention to not interjecting my experience and perspective into the conversation. If I don't stick to this interview approach, we will never get to all the complex technical and non-technical information about their work and how it has evolved. Given how often I talk to each person who is part of one of these extended profiles, and the time they make in their crammed schedules to speak with me, I must make every minute count. It's not about me, it's about them.

You can try something I periodically do to keep on my toes: read a profile someone wrote and try to figure out how they structured the interview(s).

Here are links to some of my prior profile posts. What do you think I did to prepare for each interview and what questions did I ask?