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Connecting Women and Technology

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Guest blogger Valerie Barr writes about highlights of the ninth Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, including keynote speeches by Megan Smith and Francine Berman.
  1. From "Grace Hopper Conference Opening Session: Part 1"
  2. From "Grace Hopper Keynote 1: Megan Smith"
  3. From "Grace Hopper Keynote 2: Fran Berman"
  4. From "Final Thoughts About Grace Hopper Conference"
  5. Author
  6. Footnotes

The theme of the ninth Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing is "Creating Technology for Social Good." This is a theme that has clearly resonated with many people as the conference totally sold out, with 1,608 attendees! There are 178 companies represented, 23 countries, and 728 students. There were more than 100 people who volunteered for the 16 committees that helped organize different aspects of the conference. One- quarter of the attendees, 430 people, are involved in presentations of panels, papers, workshops, and Birds of a Feather sessions. In addition to the usual conference type of activities, one of the sessions on Wednesday was a resumé review—the volunteer reviewers read more than 300 resumés.

A wonderful element of GHC is the emphasis on networking. At the conference opening on Thursday, Heidi Kvinge of Intel, the conference chair, challenged attendees to make the most of this aspect of the conference by introducing themselves to at least five new people per day. For the undergraduates in particular, Heidi gave a wonderful example of an elevator speech, demonstrating how they could capture all the key details about themselves in just a few sentences.

Heidi also acknowledged the support of SAP, which sponsors videoing at the conference. She showed the "I Am A Technical Woman" video that was made at GHC last year, which you can view at This is a great way to get a sense of what GHC is like, to understand the incredible energy at the conference. As per Heidi’s request, please pass this video on to your friends and colleagues, and to anyone you know who has a daughter.

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From "Grace Hopper Keynote 1: Megan Smith"

Thursday’s keynote address was by Megan Smith, vice president of new business development and general manager of She has been at Google since 2003 and oversaw the acquisitions that resulted in Google Earth and Google Maps. In her talk Megan focused on the interconnectedness of CS, using four examples of areas that demonstrate this.

  1. Interconnectedness of people around the world: When you look at Google query traffic worldwide, you see that there is almost no query traffic from Africa, though there is increasing SMS activity. For example, M-Pesa is a service in Kenya that allows full telephony-based money transfer. But the "real" commercial Internet is coming to Africa. Google is opening five new offices in Africa, bringing its total to seven. It will be doing maps and supporting all the "usual" Google apps, working with the Grameen AppLab, working on health-related applications, building on existing SMS efforts, and working to get NGO information on the Web.
  2. Interconnectedness of data: People at Google have been generating real-time information about the spread of flu. They have used search logs to predict flu rates, based on the belief that the first thing people do when they get sick is start searching the Web. It turns out that they are 89% accurate on seasonal flu rates, based on verification with U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. The benefit of this data-mining work is that Google can actually give the CDC real-time information more quickly than the CDC gets it from doctors and hospitals. Next, Google is working to get these applications into multiple languages—it turns out that in many parts of the world it is becoming cheaper to collect data digitally than on paper, so the developing world can begin to move in this direction as well, using the data mining of digital data to gain information on trends.
  3. Civil liberties: Events in Iran and Colombia have demonstrated the use of technology to mobilize people. The Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, held last year in New York City and soon to be held again, taught people how to create youth groups, and heavily utilized Webcasts and Facebook. Megan discussed the role that technology can play for people in "extreme" situations such as how SMS alerts can be used in parts of Africa to warn women about safe travel routes. She argued that technology can help speed up the improvement of life, particularly for women, in some parts of the world where there is still great danger. She also discussed the potential for improving education, such as creating opportunities for collaboration between schools across geographic and economic divides.
  4. The environment: There are many CS opportunities in building the control systems involved for new energy-delivery approaches. For example, SolarBox is an application that will help groups of people organize to increase their buying power of solar panels in their neighborhood. Google’s Power-Meter application will help people see power usage in their home. Studies show that once people know how much energy they are using, they usually decrease usage by 5%–15%.

Megan closed by saying that the 21st century will be all about these kinds of interconnectedness, and that there are many, many opportunities for people in CS to work on exciting, interesting, and relevant projects.

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From "Grace Hopper Keynote 2: Fran Berman"

The second keynote speaker was Fran Berman, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Fran was formerly director of San Diego Supercomputer Center and has worked for years in the design and development of a national-scale cyberinfrastructure.

Fran’s talk was entitled "Creating Technology for the Social Good: A Prologue." Her basic message was that science, engineering, and technology really matter when it comes to addressing and solving the most pressing problems facing society today.

As an example of a problem, and a solution born out of technology, she briefly discussed the area of safer environments through earthquake prediction. Basically, computer models are being developed to predict seismic activity. These models are then run on supercomputers, which generate output in the form of seismic predictions, showing where seismic activity will occur and how long it will last after an initial quake. This information is being used to develop new building codes, better disaster-response plans, and targeted retrofitting of older construction. Other examples Fran cited are the OLPC project to bring computers to children in the developing world and iRobot, which is developing robots suited for dangerous situations so that humans don’t have to be exposed to danger and risk.

But Fran argues there is a major area that we have to address as the "prologue" to effectively addressing the large problems. That issue is data. We have to harness data, so that we can turn it into information and knowledge. This will help us create a strong foundation for efforts driven by science and engineering.

Electronic data is fragile. Much of it, such as wikis and Web sites, disappears quickly or is changed often. And there’s a lot of it! There is currently more than a zettabyte of data. The U.S. Library of Congress alone has more than 295 terabytes of data. We are running out of room in which to store it all, so we have to be cognizant of the data life cycle and look at ways in which computer scientists can support the data life cycle. But we also have to recognize that the CS view of data is different than a librarian’s view of data which, in turn, is different than an individual user’s view of data.

So the key questions we need to think about are: What should we save? How should we save it? Who should pay for it?

Addressing these questions now is part of the process of creating a strong foundation for the technology work we will be doing in the years to come. Fran pointed out that we have to prepare today’s students with technical skills, but that they also have to be prepared to understand international cultures, business, politics, and policy. Only then will they be ready to take on leadership roles in the years to come. Fran closed by saying that to create positive change we have to ask the hard questions, particularly about the representation of women and minorities in CS; create goals and metrics of success, and then hold people to them; publicly recognize the successes of our colleagues and students; and, when possible, use our role to create policy, set priorities, and handle resource allocation.

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From "Final Thoughts About Grace Hopper Conference"

My wrap-up from Grace Hopper—some Web sites and information about women and technology worldwide, much of it gleaned during the session "The ‘F’ Word: Feminism and Technology." The repeated message was that we have to see technology as a means to an end, not an end itself. If we want to build technology to help women, particularly in the developing world, we have to have the relevant context and involve women themselves in the development process. For example, in rural Pakistan the majority of women are illiterate, so a text-based Internet tool is useless. But an audiovisual medium, like one that is currently being used to provide information about health-care services, will be much more successful. While in the developed world we seem to always think of a computer solution, usually Web-based, to problems, these days the technology that will help women is most likely to involve mobile phones. This has been demonstrated in Africa by the Advancement through Interactive Radio project in which mobile phone technology allows women to participate in call-in programs on TV and radio, giving them a voice in community affairs which they had not previously had.

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