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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.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Coping with Data Deluge

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    Overwhelmed by data? You’re not alone.

    Data mining has become one of the most critical research processes in this era of data-intensive science. There are, however, many areas of science where the usefulness of data mining is limited by the massive nature of the datasets. Consequently, scientists are desperately looking for new tools that can dig into the data faster and deeper. In the rapidly developing field of synoptic sky surveys, for example, transient signals from a variety of interesting astrophysical phenomena must be detected and characterized in (near) real-time. The resulting wealth of data is invaluable to researchers seeking new discoveries, but they need better computational methods to help them manage and analyze so much data.

    Coping with Data Deluge

    It was in response to such needs that Caltech’s Keck Institute for Space Studies sponsored a workshop, Digging Faster and Deeper:  Algorithms for Computationally Limited Problems in Time-Domain Astronomy, from December 12 to 13. Bringing together more than 50 distinguished participants, the workshop focused on some of the unresolved data mining issues for future studies in time-domain astronomy and related fields.

    I was privileged to give two talks during day two of the workshop. In “Discovery of Hidden Patterns in Data through Interactive Search,” I presented the Environmental Informatics Framework (EIF), a strategy and technology platform that the Microsoft Research Connections Earth, Energy, and Environment group developed to help advance data exploration in environmental research. I demonstrated Microsoft PivotViewer, a faceted search technology included in EIF that enables users to visually and interactively search and discover hidden patterns in massive data or image sets.

    I was pleased to receive positive feedback from attendees about the work that Microsoft Research is doing for data-intensive sciences. As one participant noted to me in email, “I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of the work that Microsoft Research was doing, but I was very impressed with what I saw yesterday. The work you’ve been doing on data visualization can only be described as stunning!”

    In “Building a Better Scientist,” my second talk of the day, I discussed how the fourth paradigm for data-intensive scientific discovery is changing the way scientists conduct research, and is, therefore, creating a need for a new generation of scientists with advanced computational mindsets. The presentation stimulated passionate discussions, and, as event chair George Djorgovski pointed out, it is a topic closely related to how fast and deep we can go with our data.

    Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    No CS Student Left Behind

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    Students try out TouchDevelopComputer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), which took place this year from December 4 to 10 in the United States, is a celebration of computer science education. And while it’s a great idea to devote a week to recognizing the importance of this field, it’s a topic that demands year-round attention all over the world. That’s why we at Microsoft Research Connections have partnered with the Kent (Washington) School District to provide ongoing support for students and teachers at the district’s tech academies.

    Together, we are working to generate enthusiasm among Kent students for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We chose the Friday before the beginning of CSEdWeek to kick off the partnership with a daylong event designed to reach every seventh- through twelfth-grader at Kent’s two tech academy campuses. Microsoft Research participants included an expert on interaction, media, and visualization browsing; an earth systems scientist (and former NASA employee); as well as a software engineer, a mechanical engineer, and the author of books about quantum mechanics and relativity. These dedicated researchers spent the day teaching how to use Microsoft technology tools (including TouchDevelop and WorldWide Telescope), tutoring on math and science topics, and presenting information about careers in research. Our overarching goal was to help students understand that many of the most difficult problems in the world can be solved by computer science and to excite them about the great career opportunities in STEM.

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    We strongly encouraged the students to continue their computer science education when they attend college. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that between 2008 and 2018, 1.4 million computing jobs will have opened in the United States. If current graduation rates continue, only 61 percent of these jobs could be filled by U.S. computing degree-earners—a figure that drops to 29 percent when only computing bachelor’s degrees are included (source: NCWIT). This is why CSEdWeek is important on a national level in the United States.

    At the personal level, CSEdWeek and projects like our partnership with the Kent Technology Academy expose students to critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to success in the digital age. Through our efforts to reach K-12 students, we are striving to generate enthusiasm for computing careers, which are not only exciting, plentiful, and financially rewarding, but most importantly, provide an opportunity to tackle some of the world's greatest challenges.

    The classroom visits on December 2 were just the beginning of our partnership with the Kent School District, the fourth largest and one of the most diverse in the state of Washington. Throughout the year, various team members from Microsoft Research will conduct presentations to help the students better understand careers in research and technology. And this spring, the academy’s seventh- and ninth-graders will visit Microsoft Research to see the researchers in their “native habitat.” Additionally, some students will work on using TouchDevelop to create applications for the Windows Phone 7, while others will learn about game programming via a visual object-oriented programming tool called Kodu.

    We look forward to celebrating computer science education year round!

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science at Microsoft Research Connections, and Rane Johnson, Director of Education and Scholarly Communication at Microsoft Research Connections

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    RFP on Using Technology to Combat Human Trafficking

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    Human trafficking of minors—including the illegal trade of children and teens for commercial sexual exploitation—is a crime so vile that it makes most people shudder. But unfortunately, not everyone recoils: pedophiles and procurers have made the commercial sexual exploitation of children an international business, and there is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in their criminal practices. Which is why today I am pleased to announce that Microsoft Research Connections is partnering with danah boyd, one of the top social media researchers from the Microsoft New England Research and Development Lab, and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to investigate the implications of technology in this heinous crime.

    According to Shared Hope International, at least 100,000 juveniles are the victims of child sex exploitation in the United States each year. (photo courtesy of iStockphoto)
    According to Shared Hope International, at least 100,000 juveniles are the victims of child sex exploitation in the United States each year. (photo courtesy of iStockphoto)

    Technology is a tool, and like any tool, it can be put to good or evil purposes. Currently, there is a paucity of information regarding technology’s role in human trafficking. We don’t know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators more readily from the digital traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Yet focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay, and it is imperative that we understand its part in human trafficking. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of this crime.

    Over the last several months, I have spent significant time talking with organizations, victims, and researchers who are working on this problem. It has become a passion for me, in part because at age 14 I ran away from home. I was put in a group home, then into foster care, and finally emancipated. Back then, I was fortunate that no one targeted me or trapped me into the human trade; living on the street and working in the human trade never crossed my mind. And luckily, I found teachers who helped me understand my potential and the opportunities available to me. Now, in partnership with the anti-trafficking community, I want to do all I can to develop innovative ways of using technology to combat human trafficking and help minors in the United States understand there are other options.

    To do so, we must untangle technology’s role in different aspects of the human trafficking ecosystem. This is our hope with this RFP, and we look forward to hearing your responses.

    Rane Johnson, Director of Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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