Blog Review: Doctoral Symposium on Social-Computational Systems by N. Kamal
Posted by GRAND NCE, June 16, 2011

Four GRAND PhD students from across Canada were awarded the opportunity to participate in a National Science Foundation (NSF) Funded Doctoral Symposium on Social-Computational Systems, held June 9-11 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

They will share their experience in a series of blog-style entries. This article is brought to you by Noreen Kamal, University of British Columbia and member of GRAND's NGAIA project team.

Link to Noreen's blog and/or find her on Twitter at @noreenkamal

I quite honestly did not know what to expect when I was accepted to be a part of the NSF (National Science Foundation) Doctoral Symposium on Social Computational Systems or SoCS (pronounced “socks”).  

The opportunity was made available through the GRAND network, and four Canadian doctoral students, in addition to one faculty member, had the opportunity to attend. I prepared my poster and presentation incorporating recommendations from my supervisor, Dr. Sidney Fels.  As suggested, I focused on the areas in my research where I wanted feedback.  

With my presentation and poster prepared, off I went to the University of Minnesota to attend the symposium and workshop. I had a rewarding experience  Through the feedback I received during the Doctoral Symposium, and the high calibre of researchers at the workshop, I gained an amazing amount of knowledge.

Dr. Joseph Konstan, who previously sent us information on how best to present our work, organized the symposium.  He greeted all 29 of us doctoral students in the lobby of the hotel on the first night, and he was very approachable and jovial.  

To my surprise, he had selected himself to be my mentor for the doctoral symposium presentations because his research is closely related to mine.  I am studying how online social networks can be designed to motivate health behaviour change, which is part of the NGAIA (Next Generation Information Appliance) project at GRAND. 

I also presented to Dr. Erin Krupka, an experimental behavioural economist and Dr. Dan Cosley from Cornell University. What a wonderful group!  I asked for feedback on how best to evaluate a social system in the medium, fidelity prototype phase, and I also asked for suggestions on my field evaluations.  

Dr. Konstan had some wonderful groundings for me to consider: 1) in designing a social network, am I designing a computer system or am I designing a set of relationships that serve the social network of people; and 2) am I hoping to design a system for people to gain intention to change behaviour or am I thinking that it is for people who already have intention to change one’s behaviour.  

This was followed by the amazing feedback from Dr. Krupka, who was able to list two evaluation methods: the helping games and in and out groups.  Finally, Dr. Cosley was fantastic in providing me with the affirmation that I can use feedback on my designs to “tweak” the conceptual framework that I am developing. I am grateful for these suggestions, which would only be possible from an interdisciplinary group. 

The day after the doctoral symposium, the full workshop started.  Between 30 to 40 invited researchers joined us, the majority of whom were principle investigators on projects from the NSF- funded SoCS program.

Quote: N. KamalAs I looked around the room, my jaw dropped when I saw many of my research idols: Dr. Jenny Preece, Dr. Cliff Lampe, Dr. David McDonald, Dr. Loren Terveen, Dr. Anind Dey, Dr. Paul Resnick, Dr. Ashwin Ram, and many more.   They were the most helpful and friendly group of people that I have come across since I stared my doctoral studies.  The calibre of the presentations and panel discussions was also tops.  

My favourite keynote presentation was by Dr. Luis von Ang, who like me is an engineer. He prefaced his talk by saying, “I am an engineer and I like to build things”; my thoughts exactly. 

He is the person that developed “CAPTCHAS”, those strange words that appear in online forms, which ensures that a computer is not automatically completing the forms.  Yes, they are annoying. But did you know that he is using the “work” that we are doing when we type in those words to digitize books! On top of this, he is also developing a way to “translate the entire web” by creating a free online language learning game, duolingo ( Now, that is engineering! 

I learned a great deal from the various panel discussions as well. The panels on working across disciplinary boundaries, which is vital for my research, showed me the importance and challenges with interdisciplinary work. The panel on research ethics and human subjects issues was focused on IRB, (Institutional Review Boards), US University ethics boards, but the discussion generalized very well to our own BREB’s (Behavioural Research Ethics Boards) north of the 49th at UBC. 

I will end my “report” with the same discussion that ended the SoCS workshop. It was about the role engineering plays in SoCS. Currently, the SoCS community tends to focus on evaluating large systems.  Dr. Konstan and Dr. Ed Chi left us to ponder this question, “How can engineers contribute to SoCS research at the design stage, and build social computations systems with smaller datasets in mind?” 

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