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Magazine: INIT Tech for crises

Tech for crises

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Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Computing / technology policy, Electronic commerce, Networks, World Wide Web

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Globalization has been wonderful for the human race but has also sometimes resulted in human conflicts and crises affecting not only individual countries and communities but even the world as a whole. Recent examples include cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee in the U.S., political upheaval in Egypt, emigration from Syria, demonetization in India, and climate change worldwide. As we endeavor to make sense of them, we should also look to understand the role technology plays and can play. For example, how does it mitigate, and potentially resolve, the related challenges? The flood of breaking news can play with our minds. Some of us might feel it is the worst time to be alive on planet Earth, even as others feel the world has never been better [1]. This is possible only because technologists, sociologists, privacy experts, governments, and many other well-intentioned officials, scientists, and engineers have sought to ameliorate the worst effects on life and death.


Deriving meaningful insights quickly in a way that makes them actionable is not only a computational challenge but a challenge for user interaction.


In this issue, we delve into some of today's most notable crises by learning from thought leaders, engineers, and scientists. We explore the past, present, and future of technology's multifaceted role in addressing them. We learn how some are being harnessed to respond to immediate crisis situations even as they help prepare us for those in the future. We also present opinions from experts in a number of vertical categories of science and technology, giving a holistic view on our theme "tech for crises."

The environment is a major concern. Though industrialization continues to help meet the demands of a rapidly growing human population, the flip side is often ignored. Consider the pollution of the municipal water supply in Hoosick Falls, NY. The contamination was a mystery, its presence unknown until one resident's effort to identify the cause of his father's death from kidney cancer finally yielded some answers. Laura Rabinow and Lindsay Poirier explore how data collection and reporting standards helped bring to light these issues and the ways we might be able to address them.

Though collecting data can lead to solutions, massive amounts of data can also introduce complications. Deriving meaningful insights quickly in a way that makes them actionable is not only a computational challenge but a challenge for user interaction. Massive amounts of information presented to a user can cause cognitive overload leading to suboptimal decisions. Hui Su, head of the Cognitive Immersive Systems Lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and previously head of IBM's Research Lab in Cambridge, MA, addresses this process in his article highlighting the role of artificial intelligence agents in collective decision making and overall crisis management.

Su takes an optimistic view of technology and the process of building it. In an example of tables being turned, that process can sometimes draw inspiration from the crisis situation at hand, even as it improves existing technology. The use of the Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository by the Los Angeles Police Department, as covered by Joan Donovan in her article, is an example of consequential refactoring of software made to suit the needs of one of the largest municipal police departments in the U.S.

Computer scientists and engineers often develop solutions with far-reaching impact, touching multiple fields and delivering meaningful contributions. Bio-medical science is one such field explored here by Ketaki Katdare, showing how software covers a range of science and engineering applications, from computing multiple permutations of chemical structures to aiding drug discovery.

Leadership changes in the political arena can potentially lead to crises—political, economic, and military. Examples include the 2016 U.S. presidential election and U.K. Brexit vote that both stirred disagreement over information propagating through social media and its effect on the lives of ordinary citizens. Dominic DiFranzo and Kristine Gloria-Garcia explore the subtleties of these situations. Considering that mainstream media like newspapers and TV are often regarded as the most credible sources of information, what can ordinary citizens, as well as computer scientists, do to ensure journalists leverage their positions of access and public trust?


What can ordinary citizens, as well as computer scientists, do to ensure journalists leverage their positions of access and public trust?


While the idea of crisis is analyzed at the macro scale in these articles, the focus remains the individual, including you and me. Shifting to the level of the individual human and learning to deal with crisis is the subject of the interview with Jason Bennett, whose company, CrisisTextOnline, uses texting to counsel people facing their own personal crises. Bennett offers a behind-the-scenes view of the technologies that power this U.S. nationwide non-profit service.

Not all those who wish to serve people in need have the resources and expertise they would need. The interview with Dan Keyserling looks into Jigsaw, an Alphabet subsidiary that serves as a project incubator. Jigsaw is pursuing several promising projects that aim to ensure freedom of speech, especially for independent journalists, analyze acts of extremism in order to prevent more of them, and investigate financial records to expose government corruption.

Finally, financial support is a key ingredient in all such efforts. Carolin Silbernagl addresses questions about betterplace. org, an online platform designed to help smaller organizations attract donors. The lesson is that technology need not always be so sophisticated; anyone who wants to make a difference can do so in his or her own way, as we learn here from Bennett, Keyserling, and Silbernagl.

Rahul R. Divekar and Nidhi Rastogi, Issue Editors

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[1] Grenoble, R. The world is actually becoming a better place. This finance expert explains why. The Huffington Post (Jan. 20, 2016); http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/world-gets-better-davos-2016_us_569fd75ae4b0875553c2aa88

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