Amy Ko part of $3M NSF-funded project to make programmers’ lives easier

Everyone has experienced an application error or wished for the next great feature. Software developers get frustrated, too. They want the users of their software to have a great experience and achieve exactly the results they envision – or better.

Unfortunately, the tools and methods developers use to improve their applications make it difficult to experiment and compare with alternative designs. For the sake of efficiency, developers often use what they know works rather than exploring a variety of options and finding the best solution.

A new $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation will fund six principal investigators from four universities to tackle these problems. UW Information School Assistant Professor Amy Ko is one of the six involved in the four-year effort.

“Through this project, we really have the opportunity to transform developers’ ability to explore, envision, and manage change in software projects at an unprecedented granularity. By empowering developers to easily explore alternative designs, we can indirectly improve the software experiences of everyone, said Ko.”

The goal of the project is to invent development strategies, algorithms, visualizations and tools for software developers to more easily explore different variations of the applications they are creating to find the best ways to deliver their intended results.

The researchers also plan to create a theory of ‘Variation Foraging’ that will be used as a basis for further research and education.

To get there, testing will take place in college classrooms and high-school summer camps. Informatics undergraduates in Ko’s courses will take part in both the evaluation and the conducting of the research, and educators affiliated with the National Girls Collaborative Project will help test the programming methods on high-school girls in programming summer camps.

“I’m particularly interested in integrating this research into the iSchool curriculum and the work I’m doing to interest girls in computing education," added Ko.  

Ko also has an NSF CAREER grant which uses data about software use to measure the frequency and severity of software problems and an NSF CE21 grant to investigate game-based instructional tools for computing education. Ko’s NSF-funded work has resulted in a cumulative 6 best paper awards and 2 patents.