Innovation, gender & ethics in Computer Science: A conversation with Dr Deirdre Lillis

What inspired you to go into computer science?

I loved maths at school, the problem solving aspects of it. As my career progressed, I have become much more interested in what technology can do to improve people's lives, rather than technology for the sake of technology. I keep asking, “Why? Why do we need this technology? Will it do more harm than good?”

Can you tell me about the HUBLinked project?

I manage HUBLinked, a research project funded by the EU Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance programme and launched in DIT in January 2017. The project brings together some of the strongest ICT (Information & Communication Technology) hubs in Europe and South Korea with the goal of strengthening Europe’s software innovation capacity. We are working on improving the effectiveness of University-Industry linkages between computer science faculty and companies, developing global software innovator graduates that can work in any sector, and upskilling academic and industry staff to engage in University-Industry linkages for software innovation. We are building a sustainable, strategic network with our 13 partners: nine higher education institutes and four industry partners. We currently have around 30 people working on the project across Europe and South Korea, which will increase as the project develops.

What inspired HUBLinked?

The idea stemmed from the European Information Polls of Excellence Report (2014) which mapped all the regions in Europe in terms of ICT strength. What bubbled up is that there are around ten very strong ICT hubs including Paris, London and Milan. Dublin is ranked 16th overall, 2nd on Foreign Direct Investment and about 200th for software innovation. We are so dependent on the big multinationals for jobs, corporate tax revenue, exports. We could be doing more in the area of developing new products and services in all industries: ICT, agriculture, tourism. I thought, “If we can bring those ICT hubs together and try to distil best practice out of them, then we are starting to get a critical mass at European level.” We want to develop lots of small links between universities and industry, so that it’s not a huge investment for the company in terms of time, money and resources. We use the analogy of a velcro interface: a light touch, low cost, low commitment model that promotes interaction between industry and higher education.

Can you tell me more about the Global Labs component?

The Global Labs are the core of the project. They will be available to SMEs who want a prototype built for their software innovations. We will give the idea to teams of students from across the ICT hubs for 12 weeks and see what they come up with. The students won’t actually meet in person, it’s all virtual. An SME owner with an idea for her business, expert knowledge of her sector but little exposure to technology can engage directly with the Global Lab teams to test out her ideas at no cost other than the time she spends mentoring students. At DIT, we pride ourselves in working closely with industry and giving our students real-world experiences. Through HUBLinked, we’re hoping that the third level sector can get more access to real-world ideas and companies can have more access to our graduates.

Can you tell me about the potential impact of HUBLinked?

By connecting some of Europe's leading and largest Computer Science faculties and identifying best practice in industry interactions, particularly with SMEs, there is potentially massive impact. For example, a single Computer Science graduate with global software innovation skills working with an SME has the potential to spark innovation within that entire sector. HUBLinked will create a network of European ICT professionals that will increase the software innovation capacity and competitiveness of Europe and help underpin education, research, innovation and economic development for years to come. Our vision of Global Labs running in every European country, breaking down barriers between SMEs with ideas and higher education staff and students with expertise, has the potential to become a powerhouse of European innovation.  

How did you choose the partners on the project?

For the universities, we wanted to partner with the DIT counterparts in the big ICT hubs: the industry-focused, professionally-oriented institutions with large computer science faculties.

Why do you think more women/girls are not going into ICT?

I think there are natural inclinations. But I think the core issue is that you have Computer Science departments staffed by males who may not even see this as an issue. We’re lucky at DIT. I’m Head of School, Professor Sarah Jane Delany is Assistant Head, two of our senior lecturers and a lot of our staff are women. Our female students typically succeed. I think that is partly because there are role models here. I think it’s great that the Athena SWAN charter has been brought in to challenge gender equality in higher education, otherwise I think it will just go on and on.

Do you feel you have faced challenges as a woman in ICT and in academia in general?

Yes! I just accepted them as extra hurdles to overcome and got on with the job. But I've opened my eyes lately, the biases are everywhere. It's not just about men and women, it’s about masculine and feminine approaches to leadership and management. The masculine approach dominates in both sectors, so many opportunities are lost because of that. In technology, I’m interested in the bigger picture, where is the human being in all of this? That’s often seen as very soft, very feminine almost. What gets valued in hardcore computer science research is the quantitative, the algorithms, the optimization.

Can you identify two key things that you feel got you to this position of leadership in academia?

A pragmatic approach to getting things done: you have to deliver. Perseverance and resilience: I'm very much a woman in a man's world in both the ICT sector and as a Head of School. I think, as a woman, you have to deliver more to be treated as an equal. That is my experience in management, you have to have your homework done for meetings, you have to be able to back up your opinions, or you will lose credibility.

What’s next on the horizon in terms of your research?

I want to address the gender imbalance in Computer Science. I also hope to map out what we need to add to a Computer Science curriculum to get students thinking about ethical issues early on. Machine learning, AI, big data, combined with the Internet of Things; in many ways, the technology has run on ahead of the debate around the privacy and whether this is a future we actually want. We need to balance the power of technology with why are we doing it.

What drives you to do research in this area?

My research motivation is to identify points of leverage that have potentially massive impact. HUBLinked has that: building an interface between Computer Science faculties and SMEs has a massive multiplier effect across Europe.

www.hublinked.eu

e: deirdre.lillis@dit.ie

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