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February, 2013

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.

February, 2013

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Women Students Compete at Worldwide Hackathon

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    Engineers Week: it takes place every February, a celebration of accomplishments in mechanical, civil, chemical, and biomedical engineering. Why, I wonder, do we hear so little about the breakthroughs powered by computer and information sciences?  And why do we almost never hear about the importance of growing more women in these vital fields, which touch almost every aspect of modern life?

    Of the 1.4 million computing jobs between 2006-2018, only 29% will be filled by women

    Like many women in computing, I’ve known the discouragement that comes from being dismissed in a male-dominated field. I’m committed to changing this situation, which is why I’m delighted to announce that this year’s Engineering Week will feature the first annual International Women’s Hackathon, a worldwide competition sponsored by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Imagine Cup, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women in Computing, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering, and Skype.

    On February 22–24, at high schools and university campuses around the world, we will kick off this first-ever, women-only hackathon, in which teams choose to solve one of four challenges. Our primary goal is to help young women feel confident of their capabilities and excited by the opportunities to solve global problems. We will provide the event organizers with tools to help them successfully organize and lead their events the way they want. Some events will involve no more than eight women, while others will have more than 150 participants. We will connect all of the events live via Skype, which will allow participants at different locations to network with peers and discuss the challenges. I will be at the University of Southern California, and I can’t tell you how anxious I am to see the solutions that these amazing young women will create.

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    Bridging the Gap

    I’m especially grateful to be part of this event when I think about my own past and how, unfortunately, many young women today are having similar experiences. When I was in high school, I was the only girl who took the technical and computer drafting class (even though it was offered in seven different periods!), which was the closest thing to computer science education back then.

    As a mechanical engineering major in college, I was one of just a handful of women taking electrical engineering and computer engineering courses. It was here that I really learned, first-hand, the obstacles young women encounter when they to break into computer science—obstacles that continue to impede female computer science students around the world today. During team projects, I was not expected to do the hard technical work. Rather, my teammates wanted me to come up with the “big” idea, to keep the project on track, and later to present our finished work. While I enjoyed these roles, I still bristled at the assumption that “as a girl” I lacked the technical chops to shoulder the difficult computational challenges.

    As I visit campuses in the United States, Korea, and various European countries, and Skype with young women from the Middle East, India, Latin America, and Australia, I get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. Regrettably, I hear these themes again and again:

    • In most of my classes, I am one of only a few women, and during projects my male teammates always assign me project management and the presentation. Why can’t I get recognized for my technical abilities?
    • When I participate in a hackathon or any type of computer science competition, I am the last chosen. This makes me feel undervalued and very uncomfortable.
    • There are no women on my department’s faculty, so I have no role models. I often wonder if this really is a field where a woman can be successful.
    • I want to make an impact and solve big world problems. Can I really do that in computer science?

    After 20 years, it’s surprising that the challenges have not changed much for women in computing, especially since the opportunities today are so plentiful. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2018 there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the United States, but we will graduate only enough female computer and information science majors to fill about 29 percent of them. These predictions are all the more dispiriting when you realize that the latest advances in improving healthcare, protecting the environment, and upgrading manufacturing have come from technological innovations.

    I believe that no other field offers as many opportunities for students computer science does. It is to the benefit of both women and society as a whole to have a wide diversity of professionals working in a field like computer science, which has the potential to influence so many aspects of our lives.

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

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    Innovators Wanted

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    I WANT YOU Uncle Sam PosterI WANT YOU…. Anyone who grew up in the United States, as I did, is familiar with the famous World War II recruiting poster of Uncle Sam exhorting young Americans to enlist in the armed forces. (No, I wasn’t alive then, but the poster is an icon.)

    Well, Uncle Sam is calling again, not for men and women under arms, but for recent graduates, top researchers, and great innovators—in short, for creative young people who want to be agents of change in the digital world. On February 5, the White House announced round 2 of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program, a unique effort that brings incredibly talented go-getters from the private sector to work for 6 to 12 months with top government innovators to solve challenges of national importance. PIF projects are selected based on their potential to save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job growth.

    Presidential Innovation FellowsI am pleased to be working with the Office of Science and Technology Policy Team (OSTP) in helping to announce this second round of Presidential Innovation Fellowships, especially since the program complements my passion—familiar to regular readers of this blog—to grow the number of women and minorities in computing. The inaugural round of 18 Presidential Innovation Fellows worked on five projects and did a fantastic job, but, astonishingly, the group lacked diversity, even though the United States is renowned as a “melting pot” of cultural and ethnic diversity. For round 2, the OSTP wants to do a better job of reaching a diverse audience.

    This second round of the PIF program include nine projects:

    Disaster Response and Recovery: Collaboratively building and “pre-positioning" needed tech tools ahead of future emergencies or natural disasters, in order to mitigate economic damage and save lives.

    MyUSA: Simplifying the process of finding and accessing information and government services that are right for you. Helping US businesses access the information and services that will help them grow, hire US workers, and export to foreign markets.

    RFP-EZ and Innovative Contracting Tools: Making it easier for the US government to do business with small, high-growth tech companies, and enabling the government to buy better, lower-cost tech solutions from the full range of US businesses.

    Cyber-Physical Systems: Working with government and industry to create standards for a new generation of interoperable, dynamic, and efficient “smart systems”—an “industrial Internet”—that combines distributed sensing, control, and data analytics to help grow new high-value US jobs and the economy.

    Open Data Initiatives: Accelerating and expanding efforts to make government information resources more publicly accessible in “computer-readable” form and spurring the use of those data by entrepreneurs as fuel for the creation of new products, services, and jobs.

    MyData Initiatives: Empowering the people of the United States with secure access to their own personal health, energy, and education data.

    Innovation Toolkit: Developing an innovation toolkit that empowers the US federal workforce to respond to national priorities more quickly and more efficiently.

    21st Century Financial Systems: Moving financial accounting systems of US federal agencies out of the era of unwieldy agency-specific implementations to one that favors more nimble, modular, scalable, and cost-effective approaches.

    Development Innovation Ventures: Enabling the US government to identify, test, and scale breakthrough solutions to the world’s toughest problems.

    If you are looking for an opportunity to make a difference, here is a chance to influence millions of lives by thinking outside of the box and building truly innovative solutions. Presidential Innovation Fellows have a unique chance to serve their country and influence change on a truly massive scale. The White House will be accepting applications from February 5 through March 17, looking to put together dynamic, diverse, and innovative project teams that will produce tremendous results for the residents of the United States.

    PIF applicants need not have deep technical programming skills; rather, they require an ability to think creatively, be an agent for change, and to recognize opportunities where technology can solve problems. I am asking all of you in the academic community to reach out to recent graduates and alumni that you believe can influence positive change and envision innovative solutions. And don’t count yourself out, as this could be the sabbatical of a lifetime. If you are interested in learning more and applying, please visit Presidential Innovation Fellows.

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

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    On Helium and Chocolate

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    Powerful Research Tools Shared at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

    We love our jobs at Microsoft Research, and a big part of that is about how much we love physics and technology. And chocolate. Consider: if you place helium in a (well-made) bag and let it go, there is nothing to prevent it from ascending to the very edge of outer space; a free ride for a small payload using nothing more exotic than a canister of helium available for $39.95 at your local party supply store. The payload in our case is a GPS and a radio built on .NET Gadgeteer (more on this below), the purpose is atmospheric research, and the underlying technology is from Microsoft. This blog is about sharing our technology and tools with Earth scientists at their annual convention in early December in San Francisco.

    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth
    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth

    We set up our booth at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The exhibit hall is an enormous space where universities, specialized companies, non-profits, and government agencies (such as NASA) were displaying their own exhibits in parallel with the massive intellectual swap meet going on in the poster and lecture rooms—and in the hallways in between. The underlying subject: how does the Earth work and where is our ecosystem headed? This is serious business, and we at Microsoft Research are trying to help get answers by providing support on the technology front.

    Exhibits at major scientific meetings are a great way to show scientists some of the powerful tools that are available from Microsoft Research, and so that is what we did, mostly one conversation at a time. One of my favorite aspects of working in an exhibit booth is the look on people’s faces after I’ve shown them some technology we provide for open use and then tell them it’s free: a scientist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment is a great reward for years spent building these tools.

    Steven Johnston chats with visitors to the Microsoft Research booth as the weather balloon hovers above.“But where do the helium and the chocolate come in?” you might ask, a fair question. We spent a lot of time prior to the AGU Fall Meeting pondering, “What do people respond to?” because we wanted them to have a positive experience at our exhibit. Well, for me, chocolate and toys are good, and happily, our .NET Gadgeteer team sent their lead technologist and jack-of-all-trades Steven Johnston to join us from Great Britain. .NET Gadgeteer is a whole passel of rapid prototyping technology “toys” [think computer plus sensors plus radio—all modular] supported by a free software development toolkit. Steven's backpack was packed with .NET Gadgeteer devices plus a weather balloon; one quick stop at Ghirardelli and another at the local party supply store and we had chocolate for the booth visitors and helium to inflate the weather balloon. We were ready for business. (The balloon stayed safely tethered, though Steven regularly releases them into the atmosphere back home.)

    The AGU Fall Meeting ran December 3–7 with more than 22,000 attendees. Our (welcoming!) booth ran four of those days, during which we collected surveys on data challenges, handed out a metric ton of chocolate, and engaged countless stoppers-by with our ensemble of technologies. This growing ensemble today includes .NET Gadgeteer, Layerscape for data visualization, CLEO, DataUp, Bing Maps, FetchClimate, and more. On a whim, we also brought in an ersatz campfire to conjure up fireside chats, and, to our delight, these were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators (and Kris Tolle’s inspiration). Of particular note: Matthew Smith from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Computational Ecology group presented his research on improving Earth models via data integration—work that is vital to understanding and improving how our predictive models show where we are headed in coming decades.

    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators.
    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success,
    thanks to our scientist collaborators.

    To cap off the event, Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, gave a session talk on who we are and how we can help academic researchers. Tony’s presentation brought in lots of additional visitors, almost all of whom came away with a deepened appreciation of Microsoft’s collaborative work with the academic community. To get a sense of some of what we talked about, check out Getting Started with Layerscape and its many links.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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