Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why Keep Good Work Secret?

Recently, I wrote the following opinion piece for another venue - I thought I'd share it here with you, as you too might find it interesting. Although I refer specifically to San Diego, I think you'll see that the concept applies far more broadly. The case studies I mention are taken from my book "Computers and Society - Computing For Good".

(For fun, I'm challenging you to figure out why I'm including this particular picture)

People are cynical about the social value technology has for society. As part of my research into socially beneficial computing, I ask random people what the phrase “computers and society” means to them. Respondents invariably start referring to problems: people get hurt, people are screwed over, all types of disasters can happen. Occasionally, people provide specific examples but most of the time they say vague things about how computers dehumanize society. Prodded to think about where computing is being used to benefit society, they pause, and most commonly refer to the One Laptop Per Child initiative or perhaps make a vague reference to philanthropy in “developing countries”.  They think about large software companies that have “extra money” to spend on “side activities”. The evidence is clear: on a gut level, public perception associates computing, and technology driven business in general, with causing harm. People believe there is no business case for using computers to make the world a better place.

Yet, my research has also shown that a wide range of organizations across the country are better able to do business when they focus on the unique role computing can play in helping people or the environment. Not just hi-tech companies either. I studied several dozen organizations that achieved dramatic improvements in executing their core mission by leveraging computing for the public good.

There are many ways to both benefit the public and support your mission with computing. One approach is to take advantage of state of the art advances in computer hardware and software. For example, the Children’sHospital of Philadelphia started with an industry standard PACS for storing and managing their digital images. Unfortunately, the proprietary system did not deal effectively with the demands of modern complex healthcare data. Nurses and doctors who want to spend their time on patient care found themselves having to spend time on wasteful and expensive activities such as manually retrieving digital images.  After implementing a Vendor Neutral Archive, the hospital was able to more efficiently store and retrieve images and to achieve significant cost savings. Stakeholders such as doctors and radiologists were pleased. Most importantly, patient care was improved because imaging data became more rapidly and reliably available, greatly reducing instances of patients “getting the run-around”. The hospital’s already world-renowned reputation for excellence in children’s medical care increased even more. 

A second approach uses distributed computing such that experts can combine forces and make discoveries no single person or institution could make alone. For example, in another healthcare project, a team of interdisciplinary neonatologists, known as The Children’s Hospitals Neonatal Consortium (CHNC), is collaborating with The Child Health Corporation ofAmerica, based in Kansas City, to develop a national database to identify and share best practice recommendations for rare, life threatening conditions. Although still early in the development cycle, the CHNC initiative has already fostered important discussions between member hospitals about how to collect and study data in compliance with federal healthcare reform mandates. When fully implemented, the project will facilitate tracking and trending of individual and patient data, and establish benchmarking standards for quality care across the United States. Physicians and their patients in rural or otherwise isolated hospitals will share in the benefits of cutting edge health informatics research. 

You don’t have to be a large organization to benefit from using computers for social good. As demonstrated by the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), based in Gainesville, Florida, social networking can be a powerful way for a small organization to gain more power and influence. With a staff of fewer than 20 people, the STC is trying to reach a world-wide audience about the importance of saving sea turtles. By enhancing, and in some cases replacing, traditional labor intensive outreach methods with a strategic use of social media, they get their message out where it really counts. For example, when the Deep Horizon Oil Spill occurred, state and federal agencies asked for STC assistance, knowing the group was a source of reliable, accurate information about sea turtles and that they had an effective social media presence. The agencies kept the STC in the loop about many activities and the group subsequently played an important role in voicing the positive aspects of the disaster response. Significantly, the STC increased their membership even during the recent recession.

Surprisingly, most organizations I studied did not advertise their computing accomplishments. Yet publicizing your use of computers for the public good can be a valuable selling point. Here in San Diego, where our industry focus is heavily weighted towards biotechnology and medical care, we have a unique opportunity to be on the leading edge of social responsibility and computing. Competitive advantage will follow. San Diego businesses use cutting edge digital technology, are making life saving new discoveries all the time, and provide state of the art services. Putting the spotlight on how you use computing to benefit society will surprise your audience and cause them to see you in a whole new light.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Professional Communication & Sustainability in the CS Curriculum?

You still have a few weeks left to comment on the Computer Science Curricula 2013 (CS2013) Strawman Draft (which can be found here). If you haven't looked at it yet and have any interest in providing input on the next stage of joint ACM/IEEE curricular recommendations now is the time. Sure, there will be another version (Ironman Draft) to comment on, but things are in their most formative stage right now and there are interesting items in the Social and Professional Practice Knowledge Area.

Technical Communication Snafu
Some of what you will find in this section include Professional Ethics, Intellectual Property, Privacy and Civil Liberties. Also included are two of my favorites, and not because some people have surprisingly strong opinions on them: Professional Communication (p. 169) and Sustainability (p. 170).

Professional Communication has to do with, well, you might guess: writing, making presentations, human to human interaction, and collaboration (for starters). Critical soft skills that employers often say are so important. In my former role as a faculty member and in my current participation on the ACM Education Council I have heard this need brought up so many times; it seems as if no one could possibly dispute the importance of including communication skills in curricular guidelines for any computing program. Nevertheless, the issue is more complex than at first seems because some people believe these particular skills do not belong in the computing curriculum at all; some people believe they should be taught outside computing departments; some people think they should be required and some people think they should be optional.

Sustainability. Oh la la (I still have one foot in France). When I was part of the ITiCSE 2008 Working Group on Sustainability and Computing, I learned firsthand how controversial this topic can be. The strength of the flames from some of my colleagues in computing education was enough to stand my hair on end as if I had sprayed it with tight-hold super gel. One anonymous survey respondent talked about not wanting to have sustainability shoved down his throat. With multiple exclamation points (!!!!!) and underlines. On the other hand, there were colleagues who practically hugged the working group members for "finally" bringing this topic into a serious discussion forum. Thank you, thank you, some said, for encouraging us to think about the environmental effects of our professional work.

Do you have an opinion about Professional Communication or Sustainability in the computer science curriculum? Yes, no, not sure... You have until September 15 to submit comments on any aspect of the Strawman Draft. If you have been meaning to do so and haven't, now is the time.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dressing As You Please in Silicon Valley - or Not?

I have been off the Internet, and by that I mean really off, for the past several weeks. It took a few days of withdrawal symptoms before I realized that leaving it all aside for a while can be a good thing - in fact, unglueing from email opens up mental space for other things in the world of computing (as well as for eating a lot of cheese).

While enjoying the French countryside I also read a giant stack of research papers and interspersed them with reading the newspapers, scouring for articles about technology and computing.

I don't make a practice of reading the Style section. As a result, I almost missed a most interesting article hidden away in the International Herald Tribune. On my third pass through the paper I caught sight of this title "Sweeping aside fashion taboos in Silicon Valley". The subtitle: "Skirt or gravitas? Women gain confidence to dress as they please".

Several women Silicon Valley executives were interviewed about how they dress (one cannot help but wonder if it would be considered newsworthy to interview male executives about how they dress). The pervasive theme was that these women felt that they could, wanted to, and would, dress anyway they pleased, and that way often meant more traditionally feminine.

Although the claim was that the culture is changing, and less traditionally (20-something nerdy) male dress was becoming acceptable, there was still, even among these power women, a seeming need to justify themselves. One (Marissa Mayer) pointed out the similarities between fashion design and software/product design. Another (Gouw Ranzetta) "is quick to add" that ideas and skills matter more than a nice outfit.

On the flip side, why not talk about the relationship between software design and fashion design? Does this only seem odd because it is so traditionally *not* a topic of professional conversation in the  hi-tech world? I'm sure the fashion industry is becoming as computing-dependent as any other field and there could be interesting career paths for an up and coming computing professional. Does anyone out there know more about this?

The one thing that really nagged at me however, was the fact that virtually all of the executives interviewed for the article pointed out in one way or another that they had reached the point in their career where they could choose to dress as they want. So...what about all the women who are just starting out? Can they choose to dress as they please when that means not like the prototypical nerd or in a power-suit?