Microsoft and Google visionaries look ahead together

The future may be unwritten, but that doesn't stop visionaries from Microsoft, Google and Twitter from imagining it. On November 14th, they'll be gathering at the University of Maryland to share ideas and talk to students about what the future holds for information, MSNBC reports.

Attendees will include Mary Czerwinski, who leads research on human-computer interaction and information visualization at Microsoft, Dan Russel, Google's 'director of user happiness,' behind efforts to make search more effective, and Abdur Chowdhury, Twitter's former chief scientist. The trio will be appearing on Maryland Public TV, and a radio appearance, in addition to four on-campus programs.

The event marks the launch of the Future of Information Alliance (FIA) at the University of Maryland, which the University created as “a catalyst for trans disciplinary networking and research,” in their own words. In layman's terms, they'll be bringing in futurists from leading tech companies to discuss what they envision for the future, offering grants to faculty, staff and students, and creating an online community where people from all walks of life can come together and work to figure out better ways of finding, using, and sharing information.


This will ideally involve tight integration with social media platforms, particularly Twitter, which steals the spotlight on their website. They've set up their own Twitter feed to share diverse information on... information. To them, information entails everything from textbooks to Xbox.


Although they have managed to get speakers from three of the titans of computing, it isn't exactly clear just what the FIA is supposed to be. They don't say how they intend to find better ways of tackling information, or how people from different industries are supposed to work together to get there. While it's certainly possible for a group of people to get together and discuss how the software that they use every day could be made better, it's hard to say exactly how the FIA plans to actually do anything with the results of their brainstorming sessions.


Image courtesy of FIA

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I am writing as one of the two directors of the Future of Information Alliance at the University of Maryland. As Tyler Holman has reported here, the Alliance launches on Nov. 14 with a week of programs featuring three innovators from Google, Microsoft and Twitter. As he has also reported, the goal of the Alliance is to serve as a catalyst -- to bring together students, faculty and staff from diverse disciplines in order to identify the kinds of information-related questions that might best be addressed through collaborative research cutting across disciplines. Tyler's article raises some excellent questions that I would like to address here.

In a precursor to this initiative, the University of Maryland held a forum last November open to faculty, staff and doctoral students from any field who might want to brainstorm the kinds of information-related issues they might share. Dan Russell from Google (who is coming to campus again this week) was the keynote speaker, and about 200 individuals can from across the university took part in the subsequent large and small-scale discussions. Teachers and students from fields as diverse as computer science, education, history, information studies, engineering, journalism, kinesiology, art, and so forrth found themselves at tables together comparing notes around specific information-related questions. The challenge was met with great enthusiasm, and the issues deemed worthy of pursuit included such themes as privacy, the gap between the information “haves” and “have nots,” the possibilities on the web for translation not just of languages but of cultures, evolving definitions of “local” and “global,” very varied notions of “user happiness,” and questions about how, in a rapidly changing information landscape, individuals can become life-long learners in how to identify and make use of ia growing number of nformation resources and constantly changing information tools. The outcome of this forum was a call by the participants for the development of a way to continue the conversation and the endeavor. The Future of Information Allliance, many months in the planning, is the result.

So the first step, and one of the big goals for the next week, is to identify what might be called the “grand challenges” around information that are of the type best addressed not within a single discipline or related disciplines, where great research is already underway at the university, but broadly across disciplines. Tyler raises an important question himself when he asks how this can be done. Among the programs of the coming week -- -- are several panels featuring Dan Russell, Mary Czerwinski, and Abdur Chowdhury -- but also a number of faculty and focused around specific s themes -- Creativity and Culture, Transparency and Boundaries, and Science in our Lives. And one of the questions that will be on the table is how research which cuts across disciplines can be carried out effectively and what the challenges are. in doing that. So, for example, the last of these panels will explore the exchange of information between various realms of expertise and also between the world of science and the realm of daily life,. Each of the faculty panelists -on that day - -- runs an acclaimed center focused on interdisciplinary collaboration in areas as health literacy, communication, food safety, and the environment.

In addition to addressing questions of how to collaborate across disciplines, one of the aims of the Alliance is then to serve as a catalyst for the generation actionable research. The Alliance will be making available seed grants that will stress collaboration across disciiplines and that might be used, for example, as “proof of concept” efforts -- which in turn might be used in an effort to leverage additional resources from outside funders.

The Alliance also has a number of external partners to date who share an interest in the sort of endeavor outlined here -- the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, the U.S. National Parks Service, Sesame Workshop, the Newseum, the Barrie School, the Online Academy, and WAMU 88.5,radio.. We will continue to explore with them the opportunities for collaboration around the pressing information-related issues of our time.

We cannot predict at this point what particular results might lie ahead. But what is starting here is a conversation with a great many interested participants -- at a very busy time of the school year, about 500 students, faculty and staff have already signed up to attend these programs, for which the number of registrations already stands at about 1,200. There is clearly an appetite for this sort of endeavor, and we will be reporting as we go along on the outcomes.

Ira Chinoy
Co-Director, The Future of Information Alliance
Associate Professor, The Philip Merrill College of Journalism
University of Maryland, College Park