Beki Grinter

Snowbird: Local Global Development

In academia, C@tM, computer science, discipline, ICT4D on July 22, 2010 at 3:43 pm

I was one of three invited panelists in a session on Global Development.

I presented the case for Computing at the Margins and the results of an NSF sponsored workshop. The key point I made was to argue that Global Development has a domestic component focused on those who have been at the margins of technological innovation. The solutions won’t be identical of course, but there are classes of problems that span underserved parts of Industrialized nations as exist in Emerging nations. And from a scientific perspective, sharing knowledge across these boundaries ensures that we understand what’s generalizable and what is locally specific.

I also used my talk to connect this effort to other problems discussed. For example, DARPA and the NSF both have an interest in socio-computational systems (think wikipedia, North Korea Uncovered, wikipedia). So does Computing at the Margins: what would happen if more people could participate and benefit from these collaborative content creation experiences, what new ones would they create? How would it change or reveal the edges that DARPA seeks to understand? Nomadicity, the reflection that the global population is increasingly migratory, may also contribute to understanding why the edges no longer conform to national borders.

My two co-presenters, Lakshminarayanan Subramanian and Tapan Parikh talked about a variety of the technical challenges in Global Development and about the role it can play in education, as well as for the future of Computing. I was delighted to be in such good company. In this post I want to make notes about the things that got me thinking some more.

Tapan mentioned an article by Ammon Eden that articulated three paradigms of Computer Science research. I saw lots of people writing down the title of the paper, and I have previously blogged about it myself (it includes a link to the paper). Global Development he argued fits into the Science definition. I’m inclined to agree. But, as I’ve written about before I think global development exposes an interesting set of assumptions in Computing, so even if it fits paradigmatically, it’s not without challenges (or more optimistically, game changers that will productively extend the field of Computer Science). One other that now springs to mind, is the co-evolution of Computer Science the discipline with the National Science Foundation. Given how central the NSF is to Computing, and how long the two have co-evolved, it makes it even clearer to me that the NSF’s support is crucial in advancing this field. Now I understand this, the question I have is what to do about it. I’ll take answers from readers please.

Solving the right problem is important. It’s always important. But, in much of Computer Science the problem discovery phase takes far less time than the problem solution phase. Global Development, rather like HCI and Software Engineering I think, requires attention on problem discovery.

We talked about whether industry could make progress on these problems. We varied somewhat in how much we thought that industry was engaged in this space, but it is clear that corporate America is paying attention to emerging nations, as emerging markets. We also discussed the role that basic research, unfettered by the need to begin with existing platforms and solutions, could contribute.

The phrase end-to-end came up in two distinct way. First, there was agreement that this area of research requires solutions that span the distinct sub-fields of computer science. Simply put you need people who understanding networking, operating systems, and hci (and much more) in order to create a workable solution. That was dubbed end-to-end systems. Then there was also an end-to-end methodological discussion, about how both problem discovery requires and evaluation requires empirical research that wraps around the system development.

I’ve wondered this before, but I’ll wonder out loud on my blog, is HCI style research rather uniquely positioned to take advantage of these end-to-end requirements. Methodologically, HCI already has practices in place (I think some of these practices will not work in these settings and that innovation is required there, but that’s a different problem from not having any practices in place). And while this may be controversial, perhaps it’s a good time to let people know that HCI doesn’t just concern the interface and nor do HCI researchers limit themselves to toolkits for that. HCI researchers partner with or engage directly in a variety of technical concerns that go down the stack. When I’m being uncharitable I tend to think that sometimes CS think that HCI is rather superficial and afraid of the machine, I disagree intensely. (Which also reminds me that I heard someone talk about the field of database usability for the first time. Is there any part of CS to which HCI doesn’t have something to offer. No of course not!)

Colorado has just started a Masters Program in ICT4D.

We heard from a number of people about how working in this space had been a personally life changing event. The rewards of this research space are very significant. While agreeing I also observed that the broader impacts of this work are so blinding that they overwhelm the question of what the science is in this space. I feel strongly that the Computing Community is going to have to work together to make the scientific case for this space, to ensure funding and also tenure and promotion reward for people who engage in this space.

We were invited to create a layered diagram that illustrates the types of challenges for Computer Science across the spectrum when pursuing global development. And another person asked us whether you could create an introductory course on Computer Science using problems from global development as the examples. That’s a fascinating question.

And then the name discussion came up. The name for this field is extremely complicated and loaded. I suggested Computing for Normal People, a riff on Gary Marsden’s observation that computing has largely served the hyper-developed world, and that the next 5 billion constitute what is normal.

I heard of “the last electrical engineer” phenomenon. The idea is that once everything is known you only need one person who knows it to ensure that the knowledge is not lost.

Oh one other thing. There was a session on HealthIT. Health and wellness is a significant target for investment, including technological investment. People who seek to stay well and who have health issues come from all walks of life. Health is also a global issue, what starts in one place and easily spread to many. And what it means to be well, what it means to treat someone, also varies culturally. Development confronts and deals with issues of cultural variance and its implications for technological relevance all the time. There are also more technological-centric challenges such as getting care to everyone that needs it, where ever they are and whatever access to bandwidth and health care they may have. Access and empowerment through technologies seems like a crucial part, a domain, for Development. Conversely, dealing with underserved groups is a target domain for HealthIT.


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