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Arab World special section: Hot topics

Building a Preeminent Research Lab in the Arab Region: The Case of QCRI


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QCRI at Hamad Bin Khalifa University

Credit: Medium

The Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) is one of three national research institutes established in 2010 by Qatar Foundation (QF) for education, science and community development. It operates under the umbrella of Hamad Bin Khalifa University and is steered operationally by the Research, Development, and Innovation (RDI) division, which was established within QF to oversee the three national research institutes' day-to-day operations. In this capacity, RDI provides high-level planning, coordination, and oversight to further the institutes' research priorities.

QCRI was created with a mandate to support Qatar's transformation from a carbon economy to a knowledge-based economy. In doing so, it fulfills Qatar Foundation's overarching objectives of enabling national and regional change. QCRI's mission is to conduct innovative, multidisciplinary applied computing research that addresses national priorities that enhance citizens' quality of life, enables broader scientific discoveries, and makes local businesses more competitive globally. The Institute is focused on tackling large-scale computing challenges for growth and development relevant to Qatar, the wider Arab region, and the world. The cutting-edge research that QCRI conducts is AI-based in Arabic language technologies, social computing, data analytics, and cybersecurity.

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Figure. Education City, where offices for Qatar Computing Research Institute are housed.

In the Foundation's early days, Qatar and QF leadership invited Arab expat scientists (AES) from the diaspora to be part of Qatar's burgeoning scientific renaissance. AES membership increased from a handful to almost 1,000 in a matter of years. Scientists across various fields were invited to Qatar to spend a few days as guests to learn about the country's vision. In 2006, what became known as the "Arab Expat Scientists Forum" began conducting a series of annual events that explored technical tracks within scientific disciplines. The events were intended to be broad and inclusive, and there were no attempts to formalize the meetings beyond facilitating the exchange between local scientists and expats.

Another important undertaking was the AES's push in 2008 to create an informal organization to connect, network, and expand the reach of the group's activities in Qatar. A steering committee stemmed from the larger group, and a framework was formed to shepherd the steps required to achieve the initiative's goals. The committee spent a considerable amount of time identifying areas of urgent importance to Qatar. The process was consultative and deliberative and eventually resulted in the decision to focus on three areas: Life Sciences, Energy and Environment, and Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Within ICT, the focus shifted to the science and engineering of computing and information. Two members of the steering committee were selected to lead the development of this area's plans—Karem Sakallah from the University of Michigan (USA) and Ahmed Elmagarmid who, at the time, was at Purdue University (USA). They worked tirelessly to draft detailed strategic documents that were constantly discussed, reviewed, and revised based on input from AES group members in the computing science field. In parallel, Qatar-based institutions conducted surveys related to computing and consulted potential users of select technologies. Sakallah and Elmagarmid also conferred with academic organizations, including Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar and Qatar University, industry leaders like Qatar Petroleum (QP), and relevant Qatar ministries. Ironically, Abdellatif Saoudi, who worked for QP and served as the focal point for local stakeholders, became the then soon-to-be-formed institute's managing director. He remains in that position today.

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Inception of QCRI

In November 2009, Elmagarmid was selected as the inaugural executive director of Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and subsequently resigned his tenured position at Purdue University. To determine the areas in which QCRI would concentrate, he continued to seek the advice of Sakallah and guided the laborious process that began years earlier with AES and local stakeholders to identify the Institute's key research thrusts. Developing the science and tools needed to advance the Arabic language's standing in the world was one of the Institute's primary objectives. This effort began with projects related to Arabic search engines and handwriting recognition, especially for historical documents. The Institute eventually established four groups: Arabic Language Technologies, Social Computing, Data Analytics (later becoming Artificial Intelligence), and Cyber Security (http://www.hbku.edu.qa/en/qci).


QCRI was created with a mandate to support Qatar's transformation from a carbon economy to a knowledge-based economy.


Foundation and challenges. A robust series of discussions that began in 2010 and extended into 2011 helped shape QCRI's four research areas. Management employed study panels for each topic, and renowned computer scientists from around the globe were invited to Doha to participate in roundtable discussions. The panels gathered at least twice for each of the four areas.

The formation of QCRI was not without challenges. The most significant among them was convincing the local community of our relevance and likelihood of success without an existing ecosystem. When the seed for the Institute was planted in 2006, there was no IT industry in Qatar and no computing research to speak of, except for two teaching programs at Qatar University and Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, both in their nascent stages.

There were other challenges, however. In particular was the recruitment of computer science leaders from top universities and industry, including Carnegie Mellon University, University of California-Berkeley, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University, University of Waterloo, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, IBM, Microsoft, and Yahoo, among others. In a nutshell, we had to build leaders' trust, ease their concerns about the uncertainties, and ask them to take a leap of faith. Their recruitment had to be handled with care and thoughtfulness. An example of one of our many resourceful approaches was when Yahoo decided to close its research division globally. On the same day of the announcement, we had a team on the phone with their offices in Barcelona, London, California, and New York. We also dispatched a senior scientist to meet with researchers at the Yahoo Barcelona office to explain what we were trying to do. We gained several employees as a result of that visit and continued to mobilize. Hiring the first 10 staff members was an arduous and exhausting process, but we kept one overarching strategy front of mind—identify top people with visibility, recruit and hire them, and then repeat. The emphasis was on track record, pedigree, and reputation.

We also faced the difficult task of convincing top-notch researchers with tenure that we were focused on longevity. That is, we had the right infrastructure, funding, and leadership to ensure QCRI would exist 10, 25, and 50 years from now. For those who wanted to play it safe and test the waters, we offered them a two-year appointment. Fortunately, most of them stayed, leaving permanent positions in the U.S. and Europe.

Considering QCRI was not a degree-granting institution, attracting research interns and post doctorates proved to be an uphill battle. We had to be innovative in recruiting these positions, opting to form substantive collaborations with as many top-ranked universities as possible and then leveraging those partnerships. We dedicated one-third of our headcount to interns and post doctorates and sought to recruit the best and the brightest annually. This pressure eased as Hamad Bin Khalifa University established graduate programs in computer science, providing us with the opportunity to recruit some of our interns locally.

The challenges were varied, and the solutions were sometimes unorthodox. The primary takeaway was that one should never compromise on hiring. If you lay the foundation by hiring a smart, creative, and successful team, the rest will fall into place.

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Figure. QCRI staff in 2019.

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Maturation of QCRI

In 2015, QCRI became part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University and continued its mission to help build Qatar's innovation and technological capacity. With a rich mix of academic and industry experts, our 136 scientists and software engineers remain focused on collaboratively tackling large-scale computing challenges through a multidisciplinary approach. Importantly, QCRI created roles to drive translational academic research and the development of industry-caliber systems.


Hiring the first 10 staff members was an arduous and exhausting process, but we kept one overarching strategy front of mind—identify top people with visibility, recruit and hire them, and then repeat.


Guiding the Institute's strategic aims, QCRI also formed an experienced and prominent scientific advisory committee (SAC) that meets twice a year. Today's SAC membership includes: Ruzena Bajcsy, Farnam Jahanian, Hessa Al-Jaber, Yousef Khalidi, Wendy Hall, Michael Wooldridge, Lew Tucker, and Saif Al-Kuwari.

QCRI has matured and is now widely regarded as a formidable organization with highly productive research programs in:

  • Arabic Language Technologies focused on machine translation and transcription, natural language processing (NLP), and fake news.
  • Social Computing focused on humanitarian action and social good, mobility studies, and automatic persona generation.
  • Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence focused on data discovery and cleaning, transportation and traffic, bioinformatics, and distributed systems.
  • Cyber Security focused on serving the needs of government and industry, data analysis, digital forensics, blockchain analytics, and malicious domain detection.

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Innovation and Commercialization

Recognizing the importance of translating research in the lab into new or improved products or services in the marketplace, QCRI researchers have created several start-ups based on our technologies. These include Tamr for data cleaning, Kanari AI for speech recognition, Tarantula AI for 2D- to 3D-video conversion, and Vorainsight for automatic persona generation. Our free-access systems have been widely used around the world. This includes Rayyan, a tool used for systematic reviews. It currently has approximately 70K active users, most of whom are medical institutions in the U.S. and Europe. Our Farasa system for Arabic NLP also supports millions of Application Program Interface (API) calls monthly, and QCRI's Shaheen system has translated more than one billion words between Arabic (with various dialects) and English.

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Figure. QCRI innovation and commercialization.

Importantly, our Arabic speech recognition tool is licensed and used within various media outlets, including BBC, DW, and Aljazeera. In addition, QCRI's QARTA mapping services have replaced Google Maps in all taxis in Qatar, providing more accurate routing services through thousands of daily API calls. We have also made a concerted effort to identify needs and develop solutions that promote the widespread adoption of next-generation technical solutions related to humanitarian action and response. As such, QCRI technologies, Artificial Intelligence for Digital Response (AIDR) and MicroMappers, have been deployed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) during hundreds of the world's natural disasters and emergencies. In sum, we are keen to ensure the utility of our research is measured by the impact it has on real-world challenges.

Other QCRI technologies have been deployed in local industry and government, including Qatar Airways and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. Internationally, our technologies have been developed with and used by Boeing, Nokia, and Facebook, among others.

QCRI's contributions are not only documented through our tools and systems but also by virtue of our scholarship, professional service, and the many awards, honors, appointments, and boards for which our researchers are frequently chosen (see accompanying figure). As a testament to this productivity, QCRI researchers in the database community actively publish in ACM SIGMOD, VLDB, and IEEE ICDE conferences, with a recent ACM SIGMOD Contribution Award and PC Vice Chair role at ACM SIGMOD and program chair at SIGKDD. In the NLP community, our researchers consistently publish and receive special recognition in ACL and EMNLP conferences. Moreover, we regularly publish in ACM SIGKDD, AAAI, and ICWSM conferences; and have been chosen for the top leadership role in SIGSPATIAL.

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Figure. The cyber range within QCRI's National Cyber Security Research Lab is where cybersecurity experts are trained to respond to real-world cyberattacks and assess the cyber resilience of digital infrastructure.

QCRI has undergone a metamorphosis. Its transformation from a passing idea to a thriving institute has not been easy, but it has been one of progress. Though filled with ups and downs and sometimes difficult decisions, the journey has also brought great joy originating from a shared commitment to strengthening our community's scientific merits. QCRI's trajectory is bright, and our capacity to make continued meaningful impacts for Qatar, the wider Arab region, and the world is infinite. We invite you all to join us on this journey to recreate the future of the Arab world.

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Authors

Ahmed Elmagarmid, QCRI, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar.

Abdellatif Saoudi, QCRI, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar.


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