My Famous Academic

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"Famous" is funny word in an academic context. Are you famous because your theories changed the views of entire field of study? Are you famous because your students all became highly influential in the field? Are you famous because you often cross the line into the territory of journalism and get asked by CNN or NPR to comment on social issues in your field, and therefore a lot of people outside your field now know your name and see you as an authority? If the last one is true, it seems like a good time to try to be a famous economist. Winning a Noble Prize probably helps here, too.

With all that in mind, I chose Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Stanford and founder of the Center for Internet and Society, which is focused on law and public policy as it relates to emerging technology. He is the author of several books like Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Creativity (2004) (available h here for free from the author), Code v2, and Other Laws of Cyberspace (2006), and his most recent, Remix (2008). The most consistent theme that I am aware of in his work is his position that digital technology has made greater levels of creativity possible but our current copyright laws are a bit broken with regard to digital technology in a way that is profoundly bad for our culture. He played a key part in Creative Commons licensing as a development of an alternative to current copyright. And he has done many other important things that you can read about on his blog, which you can find here .

 He has authored more than 60 articles in law journals, and has published over 90 essays in places like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. He is also a regular columnist for Wired Magazine, which is probably the closest thing that one could find in the popular press that represents the kind of issues we look at in IST. My point with such a list is simply that his words and ideas are out there in both the academic and popular press.

In the current age of the Internet and multimedia, perhaps the current best measure of fame is YouTube and my very rough estimate is that there are around 90 videos featuring him, including this one from his recent visit to Penn State:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHBSNNYbyvg

So he's really out there with his ideas. He is well known for his ideas, and well known for his unique presentation style, where single words often appear in an impressive synchronization with his speaking. In my estimation, he has had a great impact on policy and culture and is fighting the good fight for the good of society and the democratization of the power of technology. I could live with that kind of "famous".

My Communities of Interest

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As someone who started out long ago with an interest in academic philosophy, I've been interested in academic work that actually makes it to the real world in some form. Philosophy is certainly not considered the most practically applicable major and I eventually lost interest because I wasn't sure that we were talking to anyone but ourselves (as academic philosophers). Thus I eventually found myself in IST, a place that was looking at real-world issues and solutions. And there is a wide range of issues being studied in IST. Two areas of practical importance that interest me right now are the application of technology to humanitarian issues and the area of information policy in general. And two of communities that reflect that are ISCRAM and TPRC.

Most of my research so far within IST has been focused on the issues of the not-for-profit communities and how they use technology to improve their effectiveness. This includes local organizations as well as international organizations, whose missions might include anything from delivering meals to the homebound in the US to providing relief supplies in an international crisis area after a major earthquake. The most interesting community that I have found that is related to this work is the International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM ). This community includes academics from a range of information-related areas, as well as people that actually work as practitioners in the field. Areas of interest include a range of issues related to the use of ICTs for humanitarian relief and disaster assistance. ISCRAM started in 2004 with a conference in Brussels and 400 members, and have alternated between the US and Europe, with the 2008 event taking place in China. The next is scheduled for May 2009 in Göteborg, Sweden. Several IST faculty have participated, including Carleen Maitland, Andrea Tapia, Jack Carroll and Rosalie Ocker.

While I can't say that I am actively focusing on it lately, I think policy really matters for the future of technology. We ignore technology policy issues at our own peril. Thus, another conference that I am interested in is Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC). The conference covers a range of policy issues, including the legal, social and economic consequences of policies that affect the use of IT and ICTs. This includes topics like Fair Use and copyright issues to policies that inhibit municipal Municipal WiFi projects, as well as a wide range of other issues. TPRC started in 1972 and the last conference was just held at The National Center for Technology & Law, George Mason University School of Law, Arlington, VA in September, 2008. Carleen Maitland, Andrea Tapia and John Bagby are regular participants from IST.

Oct 15th is Blog Action Day!

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I just came across this over my morning coffee so I can't say I've processed it all yet, but it looks like an interesting follow up to my last post on if/how the Web can support social change. The theme this year is poverty and the idea is that a wide range of bloggers will unite to focus on a single theme which needs more attention and awareness. My favorite so far is 88 Ways You Can DO Somthing About Poverty Right Now. Check it all out here. Then write a blog post on poverty, I guess.

poverty_map.gif



Save a life for $10!

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If you've never seen the Colbert Report then you are missing out on the really funny part of the sad state of American politics. But there are also some really smart, interesting guests on the show - it's not just all for laughs. One such recent guest was Rick Reilly from the web site Nothing But Nets. For $10 they will send one malaria net to a family who needs it in Africa. And malaria nets save lives.



I first got interested in malaria nets when I took a class with Dr Carleen Maitland where we studied global issues like poverty, trade and the impact of China's economic growth. Turns out that malaria nets really work to save lives, but the US (and other's) foreign aid budgets aren't high enough to provide them for all who could benefit. At the time it was frustrating to feel like there was little that I could do about the situation outside of voting for who I thought was the most likely to address these issues. Now I can do something directly.

But this does raise questions for me about the ultimate value of such efforts on the web. I assume this organization is legitimate and that my money will indeed provide a net for someone  who will benefit from having it. Presumably, if enough people go to this site, their awareness of the issue of malaria will be raised and they will buy at least one net and eventually we will collectively make a dent in the issue. All good. But would this actually work for other issues? Certainly, the web is a great source of news and information - especially if you want to escape the questionable content of mainstream media news sources. But how do you get people to a site to read about an issue they might not be aware of and then get them to take action, even a small action like donating $10? I guess you still need to make sure you get the word out on television.

 I hear there are many groups on social networking sites like Facebook that are focused on issues like hunger or poverty. Do they make any difference? Do they actually do anything? Or are they just a way to associate our digital identities with something that makes us feel good? It would be great to think that there are large networks of individuals who could be efficiently mobilized to address an issue like poverty using the tools made available on the web. And maybe it is already happening and I am just out of the loop. Certainly there has been a lot of discussion about how effective the Obama Campaign has been at mobilizing voters using the Web. Maybe I'll be more optimistic about the power of the Web to create positive change after he wins in November. ;-)

A fellow advisee, Louis-Marie

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A fellow advisee of mine under Dr Maitland, Louis-Marie is a third year PhD student in the College of IST. He is comes from Cameroon, where he worked both for the United Nations and the University of Dschang (here's a link if you can read French). Though he has not yet chosen an exact dissertation topic, his interests are in the area of deploying ICT for humanitarian/NGO work and he has had five publications in areas related to human rights and humanitarian relief, and coordination. He has attended a few conferences like TPRC and ISCRAM, and his goal conferences include ICT for Development and ICT Africa. Louis-Marie has already spent some time in academia so his long term goal is again working for the United Nations after earning his PhD. He currently lives in State College with his wife and daughter.

 

In many ways, my own interests are very similar to Louis-Marie's and I would not mind doing much of the same kind of academic work. I'm interested in how ICTs can support humanitarian work and how ICTs can support development and poverty reduction. He is just a little bit older than me and certainly has more interesting experience to draw upon for that kind of work. In comparison, I feel like an idealistic American (who has travelled little outside of the US) with some techno-utopian goals. And at times I am unsure whether it is the local or the global that is more interesting to address; it seems that if we could fix deliberative democracy at the local level (at least in the US), we might do much better as a nation addressing all the very important international issues that seem largely ignored in my country. My long term goal has been an academic career, but his goal of working with the UN certainly has its appeal. I have wondered at times whether academia is the best place to have an effect on global issues like poverty. It is certainly an area where we need to do something better than what we are currently doing. I just hope that ICT and IT can really have the kind of impact that can make a difference in those areas.

My Advisor (better late than never)

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My advisor is Dr. Carleen Maitland and she is one of the faculty that epitomizes what is so different about IST when compared to purely technology-oriented schools. On the ITP triangle that we like to talk about in IST, she seems strongly the Information and People sides. Her doctoral work was in Institutional Economics at Delft University of Technology. I've known her long enough that I should be able to explain what exactly that is, but I'll save my readers a long, rambling attempt. I'll just say it is related to the academic area that I would consider Macroeconomics, but is more interested in the role of human institutions than in many of the broad generalizations you find in much of economics. (There is a Wikipedia post here, but I can't vouch for its veracity.) She earned a Master's degree from Stanford in California and a Bachelor's degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.She spend some time in the Peace Corps (very cool!) and shecurrently lives in State College with her husband and daughter.

 

Dr. Maitland's work here at IST has been focused on international telecommunications policy (cell/wireless issues in particular, information and technology issues for humanitarian organizations (often referred to as NGOs) () and issues of inter-organizational coordination issues (like supply chain management). Some of the classes she has taught at IST include: Information Technology in an International Context, Globalization Trends and World Issues, and Information and the Organization. She has published work in journals like The Journal of Information Technology in Social Change (link), and Telecommunications Policy (link) and has presented at conferences like International Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM)  and the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD).

What is IST, exactly?

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IST is interesting in that it seems to have started out as a perception of a need or gap, rather than as an extension of an exiting program in Comp Sci or Library Science. I'd like to think that is a good thing, that we didn't start as something else and then become what we are trying to be. We didn't come into the iSchool thing with much bagage; we are something novel. Of course, the downside may be a bit of a challenge at times explaining who we are supposed to be.

I spent 3 years as an undergrad in IST, so my view might be a bit different from that of a 'new' grad student. But the story I heard as an undergrad was that the (undergraduate) program was meant to address an unfilled need in industry for people who could understand more than just technology, for people that could understand the importance of people and information in the technology mix. As an undergrad, it seemed like this meant that most people were destined for the corporate world. And it seems that most IST undergards did very well if that was there goal. But I was focused on this whole other part of IST that seemed a bit less practical, a bit more focused on social or philosophical issues realated to technology. The thread was there so I followed it, but I often felt like I was a bit out of step with my seemingly more pragmatic peers.

IST is organizanized around centers rather than departments, and that is a large part of its appeal for me. If I had to pick a department, I don't think I would be nearly as interested in IST. And my observation has been that there us a great deal of interaction across centers, where faculty from seperate disciplines are working together on research that niether would do as well alone. Whether there could or should be more intereaction across centers and faculty is another question, but it seems common enough so far in my experience.

Right now, I can see myself somewhere between the Center for HCI and the Center for the Information Society. And I ultimately don't see them as seperate things, there is a lot of overlap there and, ideally, I would pull elelents from both of those Centers together to be the kind of reasearcher that I want to be. If they were distinct departments, I think that I would feel a little differently. The message I have gotten from several faculty is that we (as grad students) should be understanding the 'big picture' of IST better than they do, each coming form their own academic background, that we (as grad students) are to be a synthesis of some sort that embodies what IST is. Perhaps this is a bit idealisrtic. But IST stands out to me as a place you could explore almost anything related to techology and find faculty to guide your interest, while also getting a bigger picture than just that particular interest.

"So, do you guys study the Internet, or what?"

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I'm attending an iSchool, though a few years ago I had no idea what that meant. What seems to make the iSchools movement different from other disciplines is that it arose in response to a new challenge, based on the insight that no existing discipline completely addressed the phenomenon of the Information Age. It is different in that its approach is interdisciplinary (my chosen definition: "A curriculum organization that cuts across subject-matter lines to focus upon comprehensive life problems or broad-based areas of study that bring together the various segments of the curriculum into meaningful association." - found here ) and takes its area of study to be information. Other disciplines seem to have long histories and established programs which are usually well known. It is different than other disciplines in that it still defining itself as a science. It includes many established sciences like computer science, psychology, and sociology. But as a science and discipline in itself, it seems to be evolving and not-yet-final - in a good way.

One conception that seems common to the iSchools is the focus on the triangle of information-technology-people. In order to address the phenomenon of the Information Age, all three sides of the triangle need to be included. Other disciplines seem to focus on one of the three sides, or two of the three sides - understanding how people use technology form a sociological perspective, for example. While we wouldn't say the sociologist is wrong, in an iSchool we might say that there is another way to look at, that there might be more to gain from an interdisciplinary understanding of all three sides of the triangle.That we bring something unique and new and valuable to what we study.

With information as our area of study, some iSchools emerged out of the tradition of Library Science, which is focused on themes like classification, organization, and searching of physical information sources. It seems natural that as information moves toward digital forms that they would extend their study to digital information. Other iSchools seem to have developed out of Computer Science or Business Schools, and while they all likely have their own flavor, they all seem to have moved toward the same conceptual triangle as their common theme.

My own choice of an iSchool was something of an accident of circumstance. I moved near Penn State to get away from the Philadelphia suburbs, with the thought of returning to college as something far in the back of my mind. When I did decide to return to school, I had a conversation with an advisor about my interest in "something with technology" and, since I didn't think I wanted to be programmer, she suggested IST. I was interested from my first class (IST 110) and thought there was something unique here. But I also thought that I was going to get in, get a B.S., and get out - to start a job that paid well. But over the three years of my undergraduate classes, I realized I wasn't that excited by some of the jobs that my fellow undergraduates were getting. Most of them were very good jobs in the usual sense, but none of them quite fit the passion I had for the things that made IST unique, that made it an iSchool rather than a Business school or a Computer Science school. For me, it is the interdisciplinary approach to a compelling set of issues raised by our 'Information Age' world that brought me to this graduate school. And though I have moments of doubt, there really isn't anything else that I can imagine doing right now that could be more interesting.

Here's an interesting thought:

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"Humans are being trapped in a high-tech cycle that is freezing their minds away from living in the moment, looking at life and taking in what's around them," writes Celente. "While technology has radically altered the externals of life, it has done nothing demonstrable to enhance the internals: moral, emotional, philosophical and spiritual values."

- Taken from "Technoslave" essay posted at Adbusters.org, which was referenced by an Alternet.org essay on "How cell phones hurt communities".

Having a definite Buddhist influence in my thinking, this seems to me to be a fairly obvious observation. But it isn't just technology, it seems like it is our whole consumer/entertainment culture that seems to support us in avoiding ourselves and each other. And while I usually avoid SMS and IM, I am as caught up in my technology use as anyone. I sometimes feel like a wanna-be Luddite who is studying technology. But what else can we do? The world has gone down a certain path.

Cool new tool for disaster relief!

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UNICEF has released information on a cool new communication tool for use in disaster relief. It provides WiFi, SMS, and FM radio for use in the field, provides a satellite uplink to connect to the rest of the world, and runs off of solar power or a car batteries. In situations where infrastructure is destroyed or non-existent, it seems to fill a need that nobody has really addressed. The best part is that it uses off-the-shelf components and open source software so any organization could build one and customize it to fit their own needs without need of any licensing. It's exciting to see these kinds of non-proprietary technology efforts for humanitarian relief. I don't know when the plans/software will be released, but I'm hoping that maybe we can put one together as part of our research on NGO/military coordination. Full story from UNICEF here.


UNICEF video on the "Bee" System:

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