Saturday, January 21, 2012

Brian Butler: Seeing the Unseen through Online Social Systems

Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research, iSchool
With the start of a new spring semester, the iSchool not only welcomes our students back to campus, but we also get to welcome new faculty to our college. Next week Associate Professor Brian Butler joins the iSchool to lead research on policy formation and application in Wikipedia, technology use in local food systems, and the design of social networking systems for supporting health science research and healthcare provision. Previously, he was an Associate Professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at University of Pittsburgh.

I recently had the good fortune to enjoy some virtual interview time with Brian before this semester began.

Associate Professor, Brian Butler

 [Allison] Since you just moved to Maryland, can you tell us what most surprises you about becoming a faculty member here?

[Brian] The high level of intellectual energy and activity.  A lot is going on. People are engaged and proud of what they are doing. This is something I had hoped for, but I wasn't sure what to expect -- so it is a pleasant "surprise".

[Allison] What do you most look forward to doing when you are officially here at the University of Maryland full time?

[Brian] Driving less.  More substantively, I'm looking forward to starting research projects, teaching courses, and developing programs that build on (and expand) my knowledge how organizations, technology, and information interact to shape individuals' experiences and opportunities.  mmm...  That sounds very pretentious -- I'm really looking forward to investigating complicated problems with smart people.

[Allison] As far as your research goes, can you tell me why you study people in Wikipedia?

[Brian] Well, first it's worth noting that I'm not particularly interested in the "people" in Wikipedia. What I find fascinating about Wikipedia is the way that policies, structures, and technology have evolved.  What triggers change (and what doesn't)?  When does conflict and debate result in useful improvements (and when does it result in a jumbled mess)? How does the highly distributed socio-technical system learn and adapt (and what are the limits of that adaptation)?

[Brian] More generally, Wikipedia and other online social systems are interesting to study because they allow us to see things about organizations and organizing which are often invisible (either because they are transient or deliberately hidden).  Ironically, Wikipedia is a more "tangible" organization than most traditional organizations.   This allows us to consider questions about how it works which would be almost impossible to consider in "real" organizations.

[Allison] How would you define what an "organization" is?

[Brian] Although it isn't a formal definition, I think about organizations as entities composed of resources, structures, processes, systems and symbols that we build to enable long-term, large-scale action.  Organizations are like sustainable scaffolding.  People create them, use them, adapt them, and destroy them. They can facilitate actions or constrain choices.  How you see the world (and the organization itself) is often colored by where you sit in the ‘scaffolding’.

[Brian] While people are involved in many ways, organizations are legally, socially, and operationally distinct from the particular individuals involved -- so assuming that we can understand organizations just by studying individuals is rarely true.  

[Brian] The same is true about organizations and networks.   While much is being learned from studying networks, there is more to organizational infrastructure around us than can be captured by dyadic representations of relations. "Networks are neat...but networks aren't enough".

[Allison] How does your research explain why organizations change?

[Brian] Organizations are always changing -- like any organism; a static organization is by definition dead. What we tend to notice are ‘unexpected’ changes.
So the question isn't so much "explaining why they change" as it is explaining why organizations change in particular ways.

In my research I focus on fundamental forces that underlie organizational changes, but yet often fade into the background and are forgotten.  Power and politics; selection and competition; communication costs; role structures and expectations; identity, identification and commitment -- these are all forces which have significant effects on how organizations develop and function and yet are often overlooked, dismissed, or underestimated.

 [Allison] How can your research help us in making better organizations in the future?

[Brian] Most people underestimate the malleability of organizations -- except for technologists and managers who tend to overestimate it. By providing a better understanding of how organizations work, my research seeks to empower those who are accustomed to seeing organizations as immutable structures and to mitigate the significant damage done (to both organizations and the people dependent on them) by those who underestimate their intricacies and impact.

[Allison] Thanks Brian! Your research has much to teach us all!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sparking Discussion and Questions on the Future of Information

Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research, iSchool

Recently, The Future of Information Alliance (FIA) was launched with a week of events, meetings, and talks.  Hundreds of participants from every College at the University of Maryland came together with three innovators we call “Visiting Future-ists” from Google, Microsoft and Twitter,  which were joined by 10 faculty speakers with backgrounds ranging from theatre to computer science to business, and 10 Founding Partners which included, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the U.S. National Park Service, National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian, the Newseum, WAMU 88.5, and more!  This equation offered energizing discussions and some important questions for the future.  It’s been hard for me to share my thoughts about the Alliance, perhaps because I helped to launch this alliance (with Ira Chinoy, Journalism Associate Professor) and I’ve seen so much and so little of what happened. 

However, without my asking or realizing it, many of our FIA participants were summarizing the many talks they experienced throughout the week in their own blog postings and tweets.  One excellent summary comes from the iSchool’s Alexandra Moses, a part-time Master’s student in the School Library Media Program.  As it happens before coming to the iSchool she was journalist for 15 years, 6 of which she worked for the Associate Press.  She now works as a graduate assistant on Dr. Ann Week’s IMLS funded project which studies the current roles and responsibilities of district library supervision offices in U.S. school districts.  She took time out of her busy research activities to be a part of the Future of Information Alliance Launch Week.  Below is Alexandra’s summary in which she used Storyify to select a variety of tweets from the #FIAumd twitter feed:

UMD's iSchool and journalism school tackled the future of information, with prominent guests Dan Russell (Google), Marcy Czerwinski (Microsoft) and Abdur Chowdhury (formerly of Twitter). Turned out the future sparks a lot of debate.
Central to the week's discussions – which included privacy, access, transparency, politics and health – was the overarching theme of information literacy: 
RT @justgrimes: So good to hear someone from Google (@dmrussell) really hammer home the importance of "information literacy" #fiaumd

Improving Web search skills critical, information experts say... and interaction research group at Microsoft. But widespread adoption of those tools could be hindered by privacy concerns, she said. ...

Your best internet connection is a librarian" #DanRussell -- Can we get Google to engrave that in stone? #FIAumd

But information literacy is complicated and covers a lot of ground:
Underlying search technology and content is constantly evolving; what you know now will go stale rapidly. #fiaumd

Russell's point, I think, is that we're in the perpetual position of being novice users--what we know today is obsolete tomorrow. #fiaumd

A troubling image of how little we know about the food that we consume. Faith in the industry or just lack of food-info literacy? #fiaumd
Dana Rotman <!/danarotman>

RT @alexandram: Global food chain is highly segmented & little information flows between the segments (Buchanan). Eek, that's scary. #FIAumd

Of course, it's hard to get information if it's not there: 
Want your information out there? Start a blog, use social media says @Abdur #FIAumd

Or is the problem really that there's too much information?
"A major part of the problem is it's too easy to publish" says Google's Dan Russell on the quality of information on the web. #FIAumd

Then there's those sticky issues of access... 
Jaeger emphasizing that access isn't just about selling the hard line, it involves literacy, power, bodies, and political context. #fiaumd

RT @ebonsign: Lopsided participation/access ex.: 70% of Latinos who speak English use the Web. Only 30% who doNOT speak English use it. #FIAumd

RT @LibrariansFTW: RT @stineeckert: #FIAumd Just teaching digital literacy won't do if people don't have Internet access to begin with or can't afford it...

The 800 lbs gorilla is should we trust private corporations to provide "access. #PaulJaeger #FIAumd

... and privacy:
The futurists at #FIAumd are talking about educating the public about privacy issues -- how are we doing this with our kids in schools?

RT @harveyonline: Czerwinski: Dark side of research: Corporations and governments know a lot about you! How will consumers protect their privacy? #FIAumd

RT @pjrey: Dan Russell - Real anonymity requires high tech literacy. Ability to cloak IP, etc. #FIAumd
what are the privacy implications of using things like galvanic skin response sensors in the classroom environment? #fiaumd

Transparency and neutrality of information and technology were hot topics. Some questioned whether they were really a goal:

Dan Russell says Google and other companies try to provide as much transparency as possible. #eyeroll #FIAumd

Afraid that the folks who say tech=neutral come out on top, and say race doesn't matter, or pull yourself up by the damn bootstraps #fiaumd

Information has value when it is controlled. Corporations have vest interest in controlling info as much as possible to max value. #FIAumd

Users should have more control over their user experiences online rather than corporations deciding what it should be. But how? #FIAumd

RT @dynamicsymmetry: We often talk about protesters/dissidents using tech while forgetting that tech is also tool of state power. Sometimes both at once. #FIAumd

And some also pondered technology's impact on information and culture:
 “Does culture ever really 'die'? That seems to presuppose culture as an external construct beyond its own component people. #fiaumd

RT @LibrariansFTW: @dmrussell: School librarians under increased pressure to go away. Who's going to teach our kids abt tech & implications? #FIAumd

Abdur Chowdhury: Technology is not killing culture. It has no agenda. If culture is dying, it's people who are responsible. #FIAumd

But most agreed that technology has powerful potential to change lives:
Improving education, and alleviating poverty. What is the role of information and technology in this endeavor? #fiaUMD

.@abdur last Q to audience: "how are we all working together to make the world a better place?" #FIAumd

RT @FIAumd: #FIAumd @abdur Chowdhury mentions Foldit, game for the public to help figure out AIDS/HIV by University of Washington

RT @ebonsign: .@abdur Asks us to think about ways to use our phones to bring human beings together. Humans are sensors + sharers. #FIAumd

RT @LibrariansFTW: #PaulJaeger: Social media becoming central to political participation, central to human rights, education, voice, representation #FIAumd

It all came down to this: The future of information relies on the people who create, use it and rely on it. 

"If information is not indexed by anyone, then we're kinda stuck" -- even Google needs the "human element" says @dmrussell #FIAumd

#FIAumd is excellent example of potential collaborators for school librarians, need to reevaluate perceptions of who our stakeholders are

@abdur @dmrussell - How do we keep the love of learning? It's not about technology, but about the people. #fiaumd

ooooh. RT @james3neal A NodeXL event graph from #FIAumd (HT @adruin | @smilex3md). #UMD

Already, the conversation is exploding. So what next?

A Post-Script, Allison Druin:
It is apropos that the Future of Information Alliance was summarized by many people from many points of tweeting views.  We know our technologies are supporting a future for users that is distributed yet collaborative.  Therefore, let me thank the many tweeters that Alexandra points to: @researchwell, @lkexlibris, @danarotman, @bethcron, @Maddie_Marshall, @vanirvinmorris, @mmsubram, @DrewGrossman12, @dynamicsymmetry, @karikraus, @Greene_DM, @pjrey, @alexandram, @wyndeth, @faeshale, @tedknight85, @ahnjune, @mereastew, @HartDanger, @AnnieSeiler, @sdmoeller, @LibrariansFTW, @jasoncyip, @stephestellar

To continue to follow the Future of Information Alliance discussions, events, and activities, you can follow at #FIAumd

Monday, October 17, 2011

Researching Trust and Distrust

Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research, iSchool

This past week, Assistant Professor and HCIL Director, Jen Golbeck, received a best paper award from the 2011 IEEEInternational Conference on Social Computing (#socialcom).  Her award-winning paper was co-authored with ThomasDuBois, University of Maryland computer science alumni and now a post-doc at  Virginia Tech, and Aravind Srinivasan, a Professor in Computer Science and UMIACS.  Their work focused on some important questions surrounding trust and distrust by examining social networks.

 Assistant Professor and HCIL Director, Jen Golbeck,

Recently, I sat down with Jen for a “virtual interview” to better understand this important research area:

[Allison] When you study “trust” are you looking at how people trust each other on social networks or if they trust the social network?

[Jen] I'm looking at trust between people. There is work on people trusting systems (sometimes called trust in automation), but I'm more interested in finding ways to compute how much one person trusts another person.

[Allison] How can you make predictions about people from how much they trust each other?

[Jen] There are a lot of ways. Some of my earlier work looked at paths that connected people through the social network and the trust that their intermediate friends had for one another. More recently, I have been working on analyzing traits of each individual in the relationship and using that, along with structural social network features, to predict trust relationships. It's more exciting because it's more realistic - we don't often know how much all the intermediate friends trust each other, so working from more commonly available data is important.

[Allison] What’s the most surprising result you’ve found from your most recent work?

[Jen] Lately we have been trying to predict people's personality traits by analyzing their Facebook and Twitter profiles. It turns out we can do that quite accurately, even with very limited information from the users. We hope this is something we can eventually use to help understand people's relationships.

[Allison] Should people be concerned with what they put out on the web?

[Jen] Of course, always. A lot of that is independent of the work I'm doing. There is some very sophisticated data mining taking place on the web. That can be used to improve users' online experience, which is good, but we don't get to control who uses it and for what. If the idea of people analyzing you is bothersome, it is best to really turn up privacy settings. However, that doesn't necessarily protect your data. For example, on Facebook, if your friends install an app, that app can access some of your data, even if you don't consent to it. Thus, it's safe to assume that anything you share online is accessible to companies with any variety of intentions. If you don't want them to know something, it's better to keep it off the web.

[Allison] What’s next for you in this area of research?

[Jen] I'm going to be pushing in the direction of understanding users. The personality research has been very fruitful, but we are in the very early stages of that work. I hope to find more individual features to profile and new techniques to predict them.

[Allison] If doctoral students or new faculty are trying to get into this area of research what advice do you have for them?

[Jen] The most important thing is to try to find a problem in a space that is untouched. There is so much that can be done in studying social networks, analyzing users, and improving systems with that information. If you do the next steps on existing research, all of your results will be incremental and boring. Find a problem that has hardly been touched but where you see great potential. That sets you up to be the thought leader on an important problem, and it means you will have an exciting time discovering new things.

[Allison] Thanks, Jen.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Recognizing Records Management Research

Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research, iSchool

 “… whether the government remains stuck in a print to paper paradigm for purposes of official record-keeping, or chooses to spend millions in adopting electronic record-keeping software that highly depends on end-users performing manual record keeping functions – those approaches are all a legacy of late 20th century thinking that we need to shake off and move away from. I am calling for workers of the world to unite (especially in the public sector), in opposing efforts to enslave them in record-keeping responsibilities when there are new and better automated ways to perform this vitally important function. Especially in a time of fiscal scarcity, it is all the more important that we be lean, smart and agile on the record-keeping front. We need to understand that there are the technological means to accomplish record-keeping in 2011, if institutions have the will to convert to them.”

His call to action was shared just a few weeks ago at the Awards Ceremony in the Archivist's Reception Room in the Washington D.C. building of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). There is no higher honor in records management than to receive the Emmet Leahy Award, considered to be the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes of the profession.  To understand how important Jason’s call to action is and the importance of his work, you need only to hear the words of John Phillips, the recipient of the 2001 Emmett Leahy Award and an Emmett Leahy Award Committee Member: 

“The Profession of Records Management, or Records and Information Management as we often call it today, is in turmoil. Records Managers, their customers, IT professionals, legal counsels, and executive management are all overwhelmed with the volume and variety of information management dilemmas facing us today. Business models change daily. E-mail, Office documents, Web pages, digital images and incentives to use remotely hosted cloud based architectures can put business records, evidence for court proceedings and historical treasures at grave risk. Records Management is becoming a challenge for everyone…  [for the complete awards presentations see:

Given these challenging times, the Archivist of the United States,David S. Ferriero explained, “Jason R. Baron, an Adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, Maryland’s iSchool, has been named the 2011 recipient of the prestigious international Emmett Leahy Award for Outstanding Contributions and Accomplishments in the Records and Information Management Profession.  Mr. Baron, who serves as Director of Litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration, is the first federal lawyer to receive the award.  Established in 1967, the Emmett Leahy Award honors the spirit of innovation, dedication, and excellence in records and information management of Emmett Leahy, an icon in the development of the life cycle approach to managing records and information.

The award was presented to Mr. Baron based on his many outstanding achievements in the area of information law over three decades of public service, including his groundbreaking work on White House email litigation (Armstrong v Executive Office of thePresident) and his professional service as editor of various commentaries issued by The Sedona Conference®, a leading legal think tank.  Notably, the Emmett Leahy Award committee specifically singled out two ongoing scholarly activities in which Mr. Baron has collaborated with Maryland iSchool Professor Douglas Oard founding the Legal Track of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Text Retrieval Conference, and creating a series of international workshops on the Discovery of Electronically Stored Information(DESI)Both efforts bring together researchers and practitioners from academia, industry and government to help lawyers apply the most effective search and categorization techniques when seeking evidence in a litigation context…”

At the iSchool, we are always proud of the work our faculty and students do.  And of course we are excited when this work is recognized at the highest levels of the profession.  But what makes this honor so wonderful is that it recognizes the collaborative work of diverse professionals to bring about important and profound impact on some very difficult problems. As Jason himself noted in his acceptance speech, “…we all need to be more creative and interdisciplinary in our professional lives. My life and career has consisted of rowing between islands of excellence, including bringing “good news” from the world of information retrieval and artificial intelligence to the world of lawyers. I strongly believe that the legal community has been too insular in its approach to e-discovery, and needs to partner with academia and industry – including in insisting on optimization in e-discovery searches through the adoption of best practice standards, some of which may yet end up as recognized international standards…”

What is fascinating to consider is Jason’s first academic work, “I confess I couldn’t really have imagined what my professional career would consist of when in 1977 I wrote an honors thesis in college on the privacy implications of a vast electronic database maintained by the FBI and accessible by the international organization Interpol…”  It is from those beginning academic experiences that brought Jason to the important work he does now.  That is why it is so important to have him a part of the very fabric of our college.  As Dean Preece has pointed out, “Mr. Baron's dynamic contributions to the intellectual life of our college have significantly enhanced both the education of our students and the breadth and depth of our research."  

Perhaps someday there may be another Emmett Leahy Award Winner in our midst.  Perhaps the future may show it to be a student of this year’s award winner.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

When Research Matters

Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research, iSchool

Ten years ago, I wrote an article questioning if doing my research was really all that critical to the world given the events of 9/11. I wrote, “…so much felt unimportant... All I could think about were my family and friends in New York City and at the Pentagon, my parents stuck in the Midwest without a plane ride home, and my graduate student…on his way back from Europe exactly at the moment this all happened.”

On that horrible day that will forever been known as 9/11, I wondered why I wasn’t a fire-fighter, an FBI agent, or even a school teacher who could explain to children what was happening to our world.  Instead, I wrote papers, submitted grant proposals, gave talks, and graded my class’s papers.  It took the words of a child in my lab to remind me research can make a difference.  At the time we were working on our first designs of the International Children’s Digital Library.  With books in languages from around the world, we were trying to tackle the question of why would kids care if there’s lots of languages of books online. Our 10-year old design partner said, “When there’s lots of languages there’s lots of people who understand (sic.).”

It dawned on me that if our research can help us understand one new thing in this world, then it can be more than just another academic paper.  Helping people to understand their world or other people’s lives might lead to better new tools, better new methods for learning, and better relationships between diverse people. Research can matter.

Since 9/11/01, it’s been 10 years of research for me and my colleagues at the iSchool. This type of research which can lead to a social impact in the real world is not only the norm, but is the central part of our college’s values mission for research. Today Associate Professor Ken Fleischmann collaborates with Ph.D. student Clay Templeton and Assistant Professor Jordan Boyd-Graber on computational social science research using crowd-sourcing and techniques from natural language processing to detect the relationship between people’s values and their attitudes toward the Park51 project (which has also been described as the “Ground Zero mosque”).

In addition, today Professor Doug Oard does research which helps us access information no matter what the language.  Then there’s Assistant Professors Paul Jaeger and Mega Subramaniam, and Professor John Bertot who (based on their center’s research) started a whole new concentration in our Masters of Library Science Program on“Diversity” so that we can truly support information users that are traditionally underserved and disadvantaged.  There’s also our Dean, Jenny Preece whose passion (besides the iSchool) is creating new technologies that can support awareness and learning on issues concerning biodiversity.

As you can see, I can go on endlessly about our faculty (and usually do), but I’ll stop here to say, I’ve learned over the last 10 years that research too can be important in changing our world.  I’m not so sure I would have made a great fire-fighter or FBI agent, but the lessons of 9/11 have taught me that it’s critical to do something that helps change our world for the better.  After a decade I still work on the International Children’s Digital Library with Professor Ben Bederson and Associate Dean, Anne Weeks.  Together, we have been creating an online library for the world’s children that we hope will promote tolerance and respect for diverse cultures through sharing the best of children’s literature. 

That horrible day of 9/11 a decade ago helped me to see it’s important to keep questioning, to keep exploring ideas, and to keep sharing what is possible. That horrible day of 9/11 helped me to see that research really does matter.