Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An artist, a doctor, and a computational scientist walk into a pub...

The bartender (a retired cop) says...

"You guys are together!?”

Let’s face it. In real life, this seldom happens. If we went out for a drink after work, we would most likely be accompanied by friends who think the way we do, vote for the same candidates, and share the same or a related occupation. 

Most of us gravitate toward careers that align with our aptitude (arguably, opportunity and environment are key factors). While there are many gifted people who possess a wide range of skills and abilities, most of us are best suited for a specific occupation. We tend to be left or right-brained individuals who exist day-to-day in disciplinary silos where we become well-versed with the set of tools that were created specifically for our needs. Familial relationships aside (you might be wed to a right-brainer since opposites are known to attract), the people we associate with at work, and even those who share the same hobbies, tend to be like us. Our native culture, physical make-up, and life experiences shape who we become, the work we pursue, and the people we choose to associate with. Besides, what do artists, doctors and computational scientists have in common?


The global economic crisis affects everyone, albeit some more than others. Our population is exploding and agricultural progress has resulted in a migration from rural to urban areas. Many cities will double in size in the coming decades, while others will shrink. An unpredictable tax base makes it difficult to plan for the future. Since our world is more interconnected and mobile, an economic downturn in one city or region eventually impacts all others. People are more likely to move to another country when they can’t find work. For those who remain, a jobless culture is fundamentally linked to crime and a host of physical and mental health problems—all quality of life concerns for urban planners.

These were themes during a recent interdisciplinary workshop I had the pleasure of attending at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). The meeting was hosted by UrbanCCD (Urban Center for Computational Data), in collaboration with the city of Chicago and a wide variety of local and national organizations.

UrbanCCD Director, Charlie Catlett
The meeting was first of a series of interdisciplinary urban sciences workshops that UrbanCCD is supporting through a $600,000 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to create the Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network (USRCN).USRCN will unite multinational social, economic, health, and computational scientists to develop a research roadmap for data-driven urban sciences.

UrbanCCD Director Charlie Catlett is a senior fellow with the Computation Institute, a joint initiative of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory (and one of Argonne's senior scientists). He also collaborates frequently with SAIC faculty and is co-investigator with Doug Pancoast (SAIC) on the USRCN grant work.    

Although I've worked for technology organizations for more than ten years, I am inherently right-brained and have an Arts and Humanities academic background. As TeraGrid's external relations coordinator, which was also a CI project, I noticed that the CI embraces diversity in ways that few technology organizations do. When they invited a visual artist to join their computational think-tank, it demonstrated their appreciation for varied thinking styles. Their philosophy spread organically to one of the nation's premier art and design academies with Catlett's influence. During the kick-off lunch, a display of SAIC student posters provided evidence of the cross-pollination that has taken place. I didn't realize it, but SAIC is one of the few fine arts schools in the nation that offers a sound program where students are encouraged to explore hybrid practices, such as hardware hacking, software development, and instrument building. They also design concepts that consider sound outside of the traditional (music) context. One poster featured the use of sonar for an assistive technology application to help people who are blind navigate urban environments. 

Brett Goldstein
Chicago's Chief Data Officer
The keynote was presented by Brett Goldstein, Chicago’s chief data officer and a former Chicago police officer. Because Goldstein is one of those rare individuals whose aptitude and life experience have bridged disciplines (criminal justice and computational science), he was well positioned to mobilize Chicago’s data effort, and began the process years ago. 

Because urban data is completely heterogeneous with multiple geospatial levels that change with time, Goldstein knew that effective data stewardship must involve access to and thoughtful analysis of records from the past, present, and projected future—very useful to economists, social scientists, and urban planners. Everyone knows that healthy urban infrastructure attracts commerce which makes cities more competitive in a global marketplace. Industry brings jobs and technology brings industry. Meaningfully employed residents of a thriving city are healthier, happier, and less likely to flee.

STEM-Trek Adviser Jiayuan Meng (Argonne assistant computer scientist) also attended the workshop and was eager to learn how social scientists plan to use Chicago’s urban data. 

Group photo, USRCN kick-off, Chicago

“Each attendee holds a piece of the puzzle. With efficient access, social scientists can identify trends and forecast conditions—but they have encountered physical (paper vs. data) and policy barriers that they can’t control." said Meng. "Policy makers are empowered to affect change, but they may not know what barriers exist. Computational scientists can build the framework and tools, but they must first understand the need, barriers, and policies involved.” 

Many of the brilliant people who solve grand technology challenges aren’t outgoing by nature, whereas social scientists, as a group, are naturally social. I noticed more women and minorities than are typically found at technology events, and a broader range of ages. In addition to scientists, the group included artists, economists, funding agents, engineers, architects, policy-makers (legislators?), urban planners, media representatives, and at least one physician and one lawyer. Everyone opened up during happy hour, whether or not they consumed alcohol--even the ones who had been quiet all day. 

The only problem with the event was that the day was too short. When it drew to a close, many were just starting to navigate the mixed culture, talk freely about ways they plan to use Chicago's data, and swap business cards. I had hoped to at least say hi to each of the participants--more than 80 had come and gone throughout the day--but President Obama was in town and some had been invited to greet him. From a public relations standpoint, it was so much fun (and interesting) that I didn’t want it to end. It's good to know that UrbanCCD plans to reconvene subcommittees that will focus on topics identified during the kick-off.

I covered some of the technical aspects of Chicago’s effort and the USRCN kick-off meeting on the STEM-Trek site. Future meetings and updates will be announced by UrbanCCD.  

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek with photography by Lloyd DeGrane.

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