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Communications of the ACM


Grace Hopper Keynote 2: Fran Berman

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Valerie Barr

Valerie Barr, Professor of Computer Science, Union College

The second keynote speaker at Grace Hopper was Fran Berman, currently Vice President of Research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Fran was formerly director of San Diego Supercomputer Center and has worked for years in the design and development of national scale cyberinfrastructure.

Fran's talk was entitled “Creating Technology for the Social Good: A Prologue.”  Her basic message was that science, engineering, and technology really matter when it come sto addressing and solving the most pressing problems facing society today. 

As an example of a problem, and a solution born out of technology, she briefly discussed the area of safer environments through earthquake prediction.  Basically, computer models are being developed to predict seismic activity.  These models are then run on supercomputers, which generate output in the form of seismic predictions, showing where seismic activity will occur, and how long it will last after an initial quake.  This information is being used to develop new building codes, better disaster response plans, and targetted retrofitting of older construction.  Other examples Fran cited are the OLPC project to bring computers to children in the developing world and iRobot which is developing robots suited for dangerous situations so that people don't have to be exposed to danger and risk. 

But Fran argues that there is a major area that we have to address as the “prologue” to effectively addressing the large problems.  That issue is data.  We have to harness data, so that we can turn it into information and knowledge.  This will help us create a strong foundation for efforts driven by science and engineering. 

Electronic data is fragile.  Much of it (wikis, web sites) disappear quickly or are changed often.  And there's a lot of it!  There is currently over a zettabyte of data.  The Library of Congress along has over 295 terabytes of data.  We are running out of room in which to store it all.  So we have to be cognizant of the data life cycle, and look at ways in which computer scientists can support the data life cycle.  But we also have to recognize that the CS view of data is different than a librarian's view of data which, in turn, is different than an individual user's view of data.

So the key questions we need to think about are

  • what should we save?
  • How should we save it?
  • Who should pay for it?

Addressing these questions now is part of the process of creating a strong foundation for the technology work we will be doing in the years to come.  Fran pointed out that we have to prepare today's students with technical skills, but that they also have to be prepared to understand international cultures, business, politics, and policy.  Only then will they be ready to take on leadership roles in the years to come.  Fran closed by saying that to create positive change we have to

  • ask the hard questions, particularly about representation of women and minorities in CS
  • create goals and metrics of success, and then hold people to it
  • publicly recognize the successes of our colleagues and students
  • when possible, use our role to create policy, set priorities, and handle resource allocation.



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