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Microsoft Research Outreach Blog

The Microsoft Research Outreach 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 Outreach Blog

    Confronting Global Grand Challenges


    Microsoft Research Connections Vice President Tony HeyOn March 12 and 13, I had the privilege of joining with more than 450 leading thinkers drawn from around the world and across disciplines at the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit in London. Organized by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the summit brought together engineers, artists, economists, designers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers, all striving to achieve the cross-discipline and international cooperation needed to solve global problems.

    The Grand Challenges were organized around six themes: sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology, and growth and resilience. The summit also included plenary addresses from Craig Venter, founder of J. Craig Venter Institute, who spoke about the promises and problems of creating synthetic life, and Bill Gates, co-founder and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who discussed challenges in global health. Among the other luminaries present were IET President and tech entrepreneur Andy Hopper, who addressed the technology and growth theme, and Dame Ann Dowling, who spoke on directions in education. The presence of David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and sciences, underscored the significance of the summit as a vehicle for innovations and learning. An additional highlight was the surprise address from—singer in the band, the Black Eyed Peas—who made a passionate plea for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for underprivileged children. Acknowledging that many of these youngsters aspire to a successful music career like his, he wants these children to realize that a much wider range of career opportunities is open to them.

    I served on the joint organizing committee for the event, representing the Royal Academy of Engineering. My best contribution was organizing the Student Day, which took place on the Monday before the beginning of the summit. Microsoft Research Connections sponsored this event that brought together 60 undergraduate and post-graduate students to collectively tackle the following six grand challenges:

    • Provide access to clean water
    • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
    • Advance health informatics
    • Secure cyberspace
    • Enhance virtual reality
    • Advance personalized learning

    Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.
    Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.

    This event bore a resemblance to the popular US and UK television shows, The Apprentice, or The Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank. The 60 participants divided up into teams based on which challenges they wished to tackle, ultimately combining two challenges: “securing cyberspace” and “enhancing virtual reality,” resulting in five teams. The teams went away and engaged in a variety of exercises to demonstrate the creativity and collaborative nature of their ideas. After debating their ideas with their peers, they worked the best into business proposals. At the end of the day, representatives from each of the five teams presented their business innovation, based on their team’s challenge, to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea. The team on health informatics won, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. I was extremely pleased to introduce the winning team as they addressed more than 400 distinguished invitees.

    The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program.
    The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. (L to R): Nikhila Ravi (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Choe (MIT), Andrew Whyte (University of Bath),  Julie Shi (University of Washington), Michael Morley (IIT), Alison Gerren (University of Toledo) and Carolyn Damo (University of Toledo).

    Grappling with grand global challenges and encouraging the development of the next generation of problem solvers—it doesn’t get much better than that!

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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  • Microsoft Research Outreach Blog

    Inviting girls to dream big


    On March 8, we celebrated International Women’s Day. Every year on this date, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate their achievements. Women's equality has made positive gains, but plenty of inequality still exists. International Women's Day commemorates the social, political, and economic achievements of women, while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action. “Inspiring Change” was the theme of the 2014 celebration, and the goal was to encourage advocacy for women's advancement everywhere in every way. Promoting women’s equality requires courageously challenging the status quo and vigilantly inspiring positive change. In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Microsoft profiled the work of five female employees—whose efforts are representative of the work of countless other Microsoft women—in empowering girls’ and women’s involvement in science, research, computing, and engineering.

    Big Dream: encouraging girls to pursue a future in science and technology

    Just two days after International Women’s Day, the fifty-eighth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) kicked off at United Nations Headquarters in New York. CSW is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is the principal global policymaking body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. This year’s CSW theme was access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science, and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work. At CSW, I had the privilege of presenting Microsoft’s Big Dream Movement—an exciting new effort to involve more girls in science and technology—on Friday, March 14, during the UN Women Session, "ICT for women’s economic empowerment and poverty alleviation."

    The Big Dream Movement connects organizations, academia, and resources to girls around the world to help them pursue a future in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The movement is anchored by Big Dream, a documentary film that follows the stories of seven young women who are breaking barriers and overcoming personal challenges to follow their passions in STEM fields. From small town Iowa to the bustling streets of the Middle East, Big Dream immerses viewers in a world designed by and for the next generation of girls. Our hope is that this inspirational film will excite young women, their families, and friends to the possibilities inherent in science and technology.

    Watch the Big Dream trailer

    Microsoft is pleased to be underwriting this film and to be partnering with the following organizations to make the Big Dream Movement a reality around the world: UN Women, ITU (the International Telecommunications Union), UNESCO, the European Commission, Zen Digital- DLI, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Girls Collaborative Project, the Girl Scouts, the National Center for Women in Technology, the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), ACM-W, IEEE-Women in Engineering, and Black Girls Code. We are pleased to have the following on our leadership team: Jennifer Breslin UN Women; Gary Fowler, ITU; Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO; Cheryl Miller, Zen Digital- DL and the EU Commission; Lucy Sanders, NCWIT; Telle Whitney, ABI; Kimberly Brant, Black Girls Code; Janice Cuny, the National Science Foundation; Karen Peterson, National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP); Kristen Grennan, Global Girls Scouts; and Valeria Barr, ACM-W.

    During the UN Women Session at CSW, on behalf of Microsoft I took part in a wide-ranging discussion of what must be done to attract more women to STEM fields. Session participants agreed that it is time to change the message and help women become producers instead of consumers of technology, and to empower women to help create the solutions for the future. We encouraged the 45 member states elected by ECOSOC to participate in the Big Dream Movement. Throughout the coming year, the movement will publicize the many “best-kept secrets”—those amazing organizations, academic institutions, researchers, professors, and companies that have programs and tools to help expose women to STEM. We will also educate young women about the career possibilities and the impact they can make by pursuing careers in STEM fields.

    This summer (northern hemisphere), our website,, will go live, providing a portal for you to learn about programs and tools that promote computing and STEM. Then, starting in the fall, we plan to show Big Dream at events all over the world. Panel discussions will follow immediately after the screening, during which local students will talk about their experiences in STEM. Local organizations will also be on hand to talk with students and parents about STEM opportunities in the community. And the aforementioned website will include a worldwide registry of organizations that provide STEM opportunities to girls, so that anyone can find local resources and programs. At the end of 2015, we will hand over all of the assets to UN Women, which will connect women around the world and keep the movement thriving through the Knowledge Gateway for Women's Economic Empowerment.

    In the meantime, we encourage you to SKYPE BigDreamMovement and leave a personal video message. If you’re a professional woman or man, describe your Big Dream and offer advice to young women wanting to pursue a future in STEM. If you’re a young woman, tell us what is your Big Dream is and how a future in STEM can help you get there.

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

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  • Microsoft Research Outreach Blog

    RFP on Using Technology to Combat Human Trafficking


    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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