iConference showcases iSchools' strength

A 90-person poster session, keynote from Susan Dumais, two industry panels, a Microsoft tour and more than 50 other sessions with 325 presenters were just a few of the highlights from this year's iConference, a gathering of scholars and practitioners in the information field spanning the public, private and non-profit sectors in eight countries.

More than 530 attendees made this the largest iConference to date. Hosted in Seattle by the University of Washington Information School for the first time, the goal of the conference was to show Seattle the strong contributions 29 Information School Caucus (iCaucus) members are making in areas such as collaboration, e-government, health informatics, human-computer interaction, information security, information management, and library science. In addition, the conference was an opportunity for attendee scholars and professionals to engage with industry leaders with a strong Seattle presence, such as Presenting Sponsors Microsoft Research, Intelius, and Serials Solutions, as well as Google, Intel and Survey Analytics.

Strong Turnout for Workshops

Conference programming included more than 50 sessions and an entire day of workshops. Workshops were help the first day of the conference, Feb. 8, and were among the best-attended sessions. More than 340 people attended workshops on topics such as information and communication technologies for development, access to the justice system, education, and socio-technical research.

Access Focus for Legal Community
The goal of this workshop was to give participants a better understanding and stimulate them to think carefully and deeply about how to infuse information systems and processes with values that respect and include all of the diverse people and stakeholders that are subject to the law. Special consideration was given to providing meaningful access to justice, a quality of justice that is worth accessing and working toward, and ensuring fairness the justice process and system.

Presenters included The Honorable Donald J Horowitz, Ret., Former Superior Court Judge, King County, Washington; Mike Katell, IT Manager, Columbia Legal Services, and Chair of the Access to Justice Technology Committee; Brian Rowe, Professor of Information Privacy Law, Seattle University School of Law, and the University of Washington Information School; James A. Bamberger, Director, State of Washington Office of Civil Legal Aid; David Keyes (City of Seattle); Daniel Olmos (U.S. Dept. of Justice); Mark Niles (Seattle University School of Law); John McKay (Seattle University School of Law); Margaret Chon (Seattle University School of Law); Kellye Testy (University of Washington Law School); Sean O'Conner (University of Washington Law School); Mike Crandall (University of Washington Information School); Barbara Endicott-Popovsky (University of Washington Information School); and Barbara A. Madsen, Chief Justice, Washington Supreme Court.

Daniel Olmos, Senior Counsel at the Access to Justice Initiative at the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., spoke with the UW iSchool in a separate interview about his participation:

"The Access to Justice Initiative was started in March of 2010," explained Olmos in an interview.

"President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder appointed Laurence Tribe, a famed Constitutional Law professor at Harvard, to address what the President and the Attorney General realize is a crisis in the criminal and civil justice systems in the United States.

"Poor people don't have access to the same justice that people with means do. They can't as easily access quality legal representation, but they also can't access justice in the broader sense - they can't access the services and procedures this country has in place to allow people to live healthy and productive lives.

"We are working with local and state officials, across the branches of government - in the state legislatures and courts and in the executive branches - to encourage and promote access to justice. We are also working with advocacy groups and non-profits, trade associations, groups of people who have a stake in the justice system.

"We came across very early in our initiative the Communities Connect Network and JusticeNet, which at the time had a grant application with the Department of Commerce to put public computing centers in the communities where poor people live," said Justice Olmos. Communities Connect Network was formed in 2006 by a consortium of community technology experts from the UW iSchool, Washington State's non-profit sector, public universities and local government, with initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "[Those places include] low income housing, public libraries, tribal courts. In the state of Washington, approximately 85 percent of poor folks don't have broadband in their homes. More than 60 percent don't have any Internet connection at all.

"[Communities Connect Network and JusticeNet] were bringing together stakeholders, including law enforcement, public defender agencies and legal aid, the courts, and other organizations that were working on bringing the things that you and I take for granted to where people without means live.

"For any functioning society, there has to be a faith and a confidence that the justice system works for everybody. The technology, right now, is playing an important a role in making courts more responsive to people. If there isn't strong leadership and direction, that technology can exacerbate the problems that already exist.

"People in Washington, D.C., are tightening their belts. It means something that they decided to send someone from the Justice Department and this new initiative out to Seattle for this conference. It is a recognition of the importance, not only of technology and information innovation, but also of the need for collaborative work and leadership that is going to be found in iSchools and law schools, working with other elements of the justice system to make sure that the access to justice crisis we have right now doesn't get worse, and in fact gets better."

Socio-technical Research: Connecting disciplines
By far the most well-attended individual workshop, this meeting of researchers included over 100 participants, including UW iSchool PhD student Natascha Karlova.

"Socio-technical research is hard to define," said Karlova. "We talked about whether a common thread exists among all of us. Within a specific domain, such as online communities, some people might investigate technical issues like how to build tools for collaboration. Within the same domain, some researchers might look at the social aspect of online communities -- such as how users share information.

"To inadequately quote Andrea Tapia [of Penn State University], some of us are SOCIO-technical, while others are socio-TECHNICAL. It's a spectrum and most researchers find themselves moving along that spectrum throughout their careers, depending on their projects and collaborators.

"For the workshop, we were divided into groups. My group included Howard Rosenbaum [of Indiana University] and Cliff Lampe [of Michigan State]. I learned from them the importance of understanding when to emphasize either the social or the technical aspects of my work. They described how socio-technical research is sometimes met with resistance because it is hard to classify.

"As socio-technical researchers, we have a unique opportunity within academia to challenge departmental divisions because we are interested in both the social and the technical simultaneously. The fact that there were more than 100 people at this workshop, out of 500 attendees, is an indication of the strength of interdisciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity within the iSchools."

Industry Well-represented

As part of the conference's intent to engage the Seattle business and industry communities, two industry panels were held.

Big Data
The Big Data panel brought together academics, researchers, industry scientists and business people to discuss current issues in working with large data sets to bring about information, understanding, meaning and value. The panel touched upon many areas, including databases, sensors, networks, security, privacy, visualization, analytics, search, perceptual and cognitive psychology, and business strategy, to name a few.

Jacob O. Wobbrock, an assistant professor at the UW information School, moderated the Big Data panel. The six panelists were Magdalena Balazinska, from the department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington; Vivek Bhaskaran of Survey Analytics; Cecilia Aragon, whose primary appointment is with the UW Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering; Andrew Borthwick of Intelius; Danyel Fisher of Microsoft Research; and Jock Mackinlay of Tableau Software.

A portion of the panel is available for viewing on the iSchool YouTube channel.

Privacy in the Cloud
The Privacy in the Cloud panel was organized to closely investigate the significant implications of the rush toward to the cloud for personal privacy and the confidentiality of sensitive business and government data. Proponents of the cloud point to advantages of cost savings in the current economic environment, but the panel set out to conduct a more careful analysis of the unintended consequences to privacy and confidentiality.

Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, director of the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at the UW iSchool, moderated the panel, which defined the cloud in terms of the discussion, and featured panelists speaking about key considerations for privacy, cryptoresearch and academic research. John Christiansen, a faculty member at the UW iSchool, spoke to the complex legal challenges involved in the movement to the cloud, while Kirsten Anne Ferguson of Aberystwyth University in Wales, United Kingdom described the rapid movement of computing into the cloud in the U.K. Other panelists included Deborah Frincke of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Ed Lazowska of the UW Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Steve Riley of Amazon, Kristin Lauter of Microsoft Research, and Jim Adler from Intelius.

Video from this panel can be found in its entirety on YouTube.

A High Level of Virtual Activity

In addition to the face-to-face conversations, this year's iConference featured conversations happening in parallel on the iConference blogs and the iCaucus Twitter feed.

Volunteer bloggers, mostly students from host UW ISchool's four degree programs, captured some of the excitement generated by 538 engaged scholars and practitioners. Topics included coverage of the "Information, Values, and the Justice System" and "Cultivating Creative Information Practices" workshops, the experience of volunteers, during the four days, the opening night reception at Seattle Public Library's Central Branch, sessions on "Homelessness and Information Systems," "Assessing the Practical Impact of Healthcare Research," a recap of the Design and Social Inclusion sessions, and William Jones' work in personal information management. Bloggers also were able to document some of the questions emerging from the Privacy in the Cloud panel discussion.

The work of the 2011 iConference bloggers can be found on the iSchools.org website.

Through a specific iConference hashtag, #iConf11, Twitter conversations and back-channel chatter added to the presentations and discussions happening in the conference rooms, poster halls and sessions. Particularly robust conversations were happening in conjunction with the presentations by Cliff Lampe of Michigan State University and Karine Nahon of the UW iSchool.

At the 2011 iConference, Excellence in No Short Supply

The conference concluded with an awards banquet for the most outstanding posters and papers during the four days. Voted on by an awards committee, the goal was to acknowledge the creativity and insight that went into making this year's program the strongest iConference program ever. Awards were presented to the following individuals and teams:

Best Papers

"Preferences for Health Information and Decision-making: Development of the Health Information Wants (HIW) questionnaire" by Bo Xie (University of Maryland), Mo Wang (Maryland), Robert Feldman (Maryland)

"Dusting for Science: Motivation and participation of digital citizen science volunteers" by Oded Nov (NYU-Poly), Ofer Arazy (University of Alberta), David Anderson (University of California, Berkeley)

"Finding Social Roles in Wikipedia" by Howard T. Welser (Ohio University), Dan Cosley (Cornell University), Gueorgi Kossinets (Cornell), Austin Lin (Cornell; Microsoft), Fedor Dokshin (Cornell), Geri Gay (Cornell), Marc Smith (Connected Action)

"A Vision for Information Visualization in Information Science" by Marilyn Ostergren (University of Washington), Jeff Hemsley (Washington), Miranda Belarde-Lewis (Washington), Shawn Walker (Washington)

"Things Fall Apart: Maintenance, repair, and technology for education Initiatives in rural Namibia" by Steven J. Jackson (University of Michigan), Alex Pompe (Michigan), Gabriel Krieshok (Michigan)

Best Posters

"eBirding: Technology Adoption and the Transformation of Leisure into Science" by Andrea Wiggins (Syracuse University)

"Annotation evolution: how Web 2.0 technologies are enabling a change in annotation practices" by Simone Sacchi (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

"Building Values into the Design of Pervasive Mobile Technologies" by Katie Shilton (University of California, Los Angeles)

Conference Captivated by Susan Dumais Keynote

For many, the highlight of the conference was a keynote by Susan Dumais, whose bio can be found on the iSchools.org website. Dumais is an information science visionary, with formal connections to Microsoft Research and the UW iSchool, and has published more than 200 articles in the fields of information science, human-computer interaction, and cognitive science, and holds several patents on novel retrieval algorithms and interfaces. She was elected to the CHI Academy in 2005, an ACM Fellow in 2006, and received the SIGIR Gerard Salton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2009.

Dumais elegantly laid out part of the coherent research program she has followed for well over a decade, starting when search and information retrieval were the focus of a relatively small set of researchers and concluding with current work and an interesting, freely-downloadable tool. The full transcript of Dumais' keynote is available on ischools.org.

All of this activity contributed to making this what many consider the most impressive showcase for its work the information school movement has held. For those that could not attend, proceedings were archived in the ACM Digital Library. We can expect great things next year when next year's conference takes place in Toronto, February 7--10, hosted by the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Microsoft Research has already announced its intention of supporting the event as a presenting sponsor. Visit the official iConference 2012 website for more information.