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October, 2012

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

October, 2012

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    Finding Truths in Chicago

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    I have just returned from the ninth annual Microsoft eScience Workshop, held in conjunction with the 2012 IEEE International Conference on eScience, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. As in previous years, the Microsoft workshop focused on exploring where we are now and what future progress we can anticipate in extending science through computing. True to the conference theme, eScience in Action, computer science and scientific discovery merged into a lively discussion of results.

    eScience in Action: Learn about the recent eScience Workshop

    The keynotes supported the theme: Drew Purves of Microsoft Research Cambridge shared computer-based environmental models. We saw geographical visualizations of continent-wide temperature variations, measured and modeled. David Heckerman of Microsoft Research described the trend in computational biology, providing examples from genomics to vaccines. Antony Williams, the 2012 Jim Gray eScience Award winner, used his work on ChemSpider to show us how scientists can stand on the shoulders of others through easy access to scientific knowledge through the web. ChemSpider, an Internet-based chemical database, provides access to data on the profusion of new chemical compounds that are being identified and explored in the growing community of chemistry researchers.

    The workshop breakout sessions covered a breadth of topics, ranging from the contributions that citizen scientists can offer to the knowledge that new generations of data scientists will need. Perspectives were diverse, and I came away impressed by the maturity of the community and the richness of the discussion.

    As I look back over the two days of the workshop, I remember being taught as a child—by my grandmother, who possessed timeless wisdom—that I must always assess truth for myself, and not necessarily trust what the media present in such beauty. In many ways, this lesson, drummed into me when knowledge was mainly passed on in unsearchable print, was the underlying theme of this eScience Workshop. Web designers certainly know how to package information and make it beautiful, but to discover the truth the seeker must look more deeply. Drew Purves’s presentation showed results, but the challenge he posed was the “defensibility” of models: how can we know that they are predicting accurately? David Heckerman shared how pharmacists of the future will check prescriptions against an individual’s genome to help identify which prescription will be most effective—yet another discovery of what’s true. Antony Williams opened our eyes to the challenge of determining the accuracy of chemical data already on the Internet.

    Looked at in one way, every presentation was about truth, whether a citizen scientist’s contribution to her community was accurate, whether the scientific results in a publication could be replicated, or whether we can trace the code and data that together generated a result. You can view the keynotes and session presentations and see for yourself if what I am saying is true.

    —Harold Javid, Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking Honored by White House

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    On Monday, September 24, I got the thrill of a lifetime. I was a guest of the White House at the UN Head of State Reception, where I had the great honor of meeting President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I was also excited about the exceptional opportunity to discuss efforts against human trafficking—and my passion to grow the number of women in the field of computing—with interested heads of state from 150 countries and leaders of the top advocacy organizations fighting human trafficking in the United States today. The invitation was the result of my participation in efforts to use technology to combat the modern-day scourge of sex trafficking.

    President Barack Obama, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, announced his administration’s latest efforts to combat human trafficking
    President Barack Obama, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, announced his administration’s latest efforts to combat human trafficking

    In previous blog posts, I’ve talked about how danah boyd of Microsoft Research New England, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, and I are passionate about the possibilities of employing technology to disrupt this heinous crime. It was exciting to see the enthusiastic support for the work we’re doing, which was evident the following day, when the president announced his administration’s latest efforts to combat human trafficking in the United States and abroad.

    I was particularly moved by his saying that human trafficking “…ought to concern every person, because it’s a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name—modern slavery.”

    As part of his announcement, the president outlined several initiatives that his administration will undertake in the fight against human trafficking. These actions include providing new tools and training to help law enforcement and other government agencies identify and assist the victims of human trafficking, and increased social services and legal assistance for these victims. The announcement also directed the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to develop the first-ever federal strategic action plan to strengthen services for trafficking victims.

    For my part, I’ve been active in the efforts of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Women and Girls, serving on two committees and leading a third. As a group, we’ve brought together victims’ advocates, law enforcement leaders, technology companies, and researchers to brainstorm on three key issues: (1) how to share information more effectively with law enforcement; (2) how to harness the power of the Internet to reach victims; and (3) how to best provide victims of child sex trafficking with the help they need.

    I’m cautiously optimistic that we will make real progress in this area over the next few years. We know that it will take a partnership of experts, a foundation of policies, and effective technology to be successful.

    We’re seeing the right partnerships forming under the leadership of the White House. We are working to engage a multi-discipline group of experts to conduct the rigorous research needed to better understand the problem. In addition, with the president’s announcement and the work being done by attorneys general across the United States, policies are being put in place to help support survivors and more effectively prosecute perpetrators. Moreover, we’re making progress in the quest to understand technology’s role in trafficking and to determine what policies should be enacted to ensure that our children are safe online. Together, these developments should enable us to create technologies to deter and, better yet, help prevent human trafficking.

    As you know, I believe taking on social issues like human trafficking will inspire this next generation of girls to want to be computer scientists and help us solve these challenges through technology. I am already seeing young women's eyes light up as I discuss this work in middle schools and summer programs for girls. Although we are just in the early stages of our work, I’m very excited about the research we are supporting and the projects I am working on in this area. This week, I will share some of the work we are doing at Microsoft and Microsoft Research at the 2012 Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking in Lincoln, Nebraska. I'm pleased to be an active participant, speaker, and moderator at this gathering of researchers and organizations doing great work to combat human trafficking. In the coming months, I'll be back to provide more details about our projects and to report on the progress we are making.

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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    2012 Jim Gray Award Honors Antony John Williams

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    It seems like only yesterday that the eScience team at Microsoft Research came up with the idea of recognizing outstanding contributions to the field of data-intensive computing with an award named in memory of Jim Gray. Jim was a man of vision. The breadth and clarity of the agenda he set forth has provided a roadmap that extends beyond traditional data-intensive research to the maturing field of eScience.

    Last night, October 9, our annual Jim Gray Award banquet brought the 2012 Microsoft eScience Workshop to a close. As I stood on stage, presenting the Jim Gray eScience Award to Antony John Williams, I remembered Jim and thought to myself, “Jim would be pleased with this choice.”

    Jim Gray eScience Award Winner Antony John Williams

    Antony is leading the charge to show how experience, knowledge, insight, and crowd-sourced contributions can build a platform to facilitate a semantic web for chemistry. ChemSpider provides the means by which that can be realized now. Jim valued doers, and, with his pioneering spirit and energy, Antony is exactly that: a doer.

    Jim Gray himself was the ultimate doer, a man with far-ranging interests—from astronomy to zoology, literally A to Z—but none was dearer to him than the idea of using computers to make scientists more productive. Jim had the clarity to see the revolutionary impact of what’s come to be known as Big Data—how data-intensive science had ushered in a new era, which he ccalled the Fourth Paradigm. At the time of his loss at sea (while sailing, another of his myriad interests), Jim was working with the science community to build a worldwide digital library to integrate all scientific literature and its underlying data in one easily-accessible collection.

    Which is why the selection of Antony is so very apt. Antony’s work on ChemSpider aligns precisely with Jim’s vision of a global digital library of science. Jim would also have appreciated the diversity of Antony’s many endeavors. Currently vice president of strategic development and head of Chemoinformatics for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Antony has pursued a career built on rich experience in experimental techniques, implementation of new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technologies, research and development, and teaching, as well as analytical laboratory management.

    His selection as the 2012 winner of the Jim Gray eScience Award acknowledges Antony’s leadership in making chemistry publically available through collective action. ChemSpider provides fast text and structure search access to data and links on more than 28 million chemicals, and this marvelous resource is freely available to the scientific community and the general public. Like the previous five winners of the Jim Gray award, Antony’s contributions to eScience have led to the advancement of science through the use of computing. As I said, I am sure that Jim would be pleased with this year’s choice.

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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