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UW researchers use electronic devices to track impact of discrimination on students

Caption: UW researchers used data from Fitbit activity trackers to compare how students’ activities change when the students experience unfair treatment. Credit: Addie Bjornson/University of Washington

 As part of the UW EXP Study led by professor Jennifer Mankoff in the Allen School’s Make4all Lab, a team of researchers set out to measure how specific incidents of discrimination can affect people’s behavior in the short-term by analyzing the experiences of college students at the University of Washington with the help of mobile and wearable devices.

In a paper presented last week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 22nd Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2019) in Austin, Texas, Mankoff and her collaborators analyzed the prevalence of discriminatory events and their association  with behaviors among UW freshmen over two academic quarters in 2018. Working with 209 student volunteers — 176 of whom completed the study — the team sought to quantify each separate experience of discrimination to learn more about the immediate reactions. The study used passive sensing data collected via Fitbit Flex 2 wearable devices that tracked participants’ daily activities like sleep and movement and AWARE, an app installed on their smartphones that tracked their location, when and how often their phone screens were unlocked, and the length of their calls. The sensing data was correlated with the results of periodic surveys in which the students self-reported instances of unfair treatment. The researchers aimed to engage female students in STEM-related fields, where gender discrimination is an ongoing problem, as well as minorities and first-generation students in engineering. 

By the end of the study, participants had reported experiencing a total of 448 discriminatory events. The researchers found that, on average, those that reported being discriminated against were more physically active, interacted with their phones more, and slept less on the day of the event. 

“It’s so hard to summarize the impact of something like this in a few statistics,” Mankoff said in a UW News release. “Some people move more, sleep more or talk on the phone more, while some people do less. Maybe one student is reacting by playing games all day and another student put down their phone and went to hang out with a friend. It’s giving us a lot of questions to follow up on.”

Mankoff said the survey didn’t capture all discrimination events, but was instead a snapshot of some of the students’ experiences. More than half of them reported undergoing at least one discrimination event; many of those experienced about five events during the six month study period. In addition to the data on sleep, physical activity, and communication, the team found that discrimination events were associated with increased depression and loneliness — though the impact appeared to be less among those who could count on better social support.

“We looked at objective measures of behavior to try to really understand how this experience changed students’ daily life,” explained Allen School Ph.D. student Yasaman Sefidgar, lead author of the paper. “The ultimate goal is to use this information to develop changes that we can make both in terms of the educational structure and individual support systems for students to help them succeed both during and after their time in college.”

The researchers hope that, by possessing a better understanding of the consequences of discrimination, this work will lead to more supportive policies focused on prevention, intervention, and student retention in higher education.

“These students are not just giving us data, which sounds like some abstract, unemotional term,” Mankoff said. “They are sharing deeply personal information with us. It’s very important to me that we honor that gift by finding ways to help that don’t place the responsibility to deal with discrimination all on the individual.”

In addition to Mankoff and Sefidgar, co-authors on the paper include Allen School Professor Tim Althoff; UW Information School Dean Anind Dey; Eve Riskin, associate dean of diversity and access for the UW College of Engineering; Paula Nurius, professor of the UW School of Social Work; Anne Browning, founding director of the UW Resilience Lab; Kevin Kuehn, a clinical psychology doctoral student at the UW; and University of Michigan doctoral student Woo Suk Seo.

To learn more, read the full publication, “Passively-sensed behavioral correlates of discrimination events in college students,” the related UW News release, and coverage by Inside Higher Ed and The College Post

The University of Washington values and honors diverse experiences and perspectives, strives to create welcoming and respectful environments and promotes access and opportunity. Students, faculty and staff that encounter or suspect incidents of bias are encouraged to report it

November 18, 2019

Allen School’s first-generation college students are breaking down barriers and building a foundation for others to succeed

For students who are among the first in their families to attend college, the experience of navigating a four-year degree can be daunting. From decoding the campus lingo to overcoming imposter syndrome, the more than 250 undergraduates currently pursuing their bachelor’s degree as first-generation students in the Allen School are breaking down barriers and carving their own paths. We caught up with a few members of our community who are either finding their footing as first-generation students, or have been there, done that, and are happy to share what they learned in honor of the National First-Generation College Celebration taking place today at the University of Washington and across the nation.

Meet undergraduates Andres Eligio and Aaron Pham, graduate student Alyssa La Fleur, and academic adviser Chelsea Navarro — each with an inspirational story to tell about where they have been and where they are going as first-generation college students.

Andres Eligio

Andres Eligio is a freshman from Des Moines, Washington whose parents immigrated from Mexico in 1996 to provide a better life for their children. He is the first in his family to pursue an education after high school. Eligio credits the College Access Now (CAN) program as an important factor in his pursuit of a college degree. CAN helped him navigate and learn about colleges and the application process, while robotics, mathematics, and computer science classes in middle and high school solidified his interest in computer science.

Allen School: What does being a first-generation student mean to you?

Andres Eligio: To me it means facing the challenge of pursuing an education without having your parents’ support. It means working towards a goal which you can’t truly see. It can be scary to try and break away from what your parents have done. But I hope to fulfill all the work they did by coming to this country and take advantage of all the opportunities I am given. 

Allen School: What is your favorite part about being an Allen School student?

AE: My favorite part by far of the Allen School is how hard they work to make sure you feel like a part of the community. The faculty are very friendly and provide countless opportunities to make connections and learn more about being a UW student. I almost didn’t go to college. It took me a very long time to decide whether to continue my education after high school or work for my father’s landscaping company. I decided to try. I didn’t think I’d feel like I belonged, but I took part in the CSE Startup, a program for direct admit students that help them get used to life and classes at the UW. Before taking this course, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Now, having completed the program, I feel as if I am a part of the UW and more importantly, meant to be here in the Allen School. I feel confident about the rest of the school year and my success academically.

Allen School: What advice do you have for future first-gen students?

AE: I would tell them that I know it can be scary trying to pursue an education after high school. You can’t necessarily look to your parents for help, and they can only try to understand the struggle of finding the right college and choosing which field to study. Even though it seems hard and confusing, if you truly want to go to college you can do it. Look into your school or programs for support. Talk to counselors and friends. There will always be people to support you. It isn’t easy to leave your parents. Personally, it was really hard for me to leave. I worked hard to support my family, both in my dad’s business and in taking care of my brother. Many of you are in a similar situation, be it helping your parents or taking care of siblings. Your parents have worked really hard to provide you opportunities they didn’t have, and you should take full advantage of it.

Aaron Pham

Aaron Pham, a junior who transferred to the University of Washington in the spring, moved to the United States with his family in February of 2016. Born in Vietnam, he is the oldest child in his family and the first to go to college. His father worked for the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam; when the U.S. government gave him the opportunity to come to the States, the whole family moved to Washington, where Pham began his college career the following year at South Seattle College.

Allen School: What does being a first-generation student mean to you?

Aaron Pham: While it is such an honor, this also comes with challenges and responsibility. I will be a good example to my nephew and my younger cousins. It is a great motivation for me to keep learning, improving and pushing myself out of my own limits to become a successful student.

Allen School: What is your favorite part about being an Allen School student?

AP: My favorite part is the opportunities I have to connect with other friends and professors who also have a great passion for computer science. Studying and working in this environment not only improves my technical coding skills, but also guides me to become a person who wants to make impacts and contribute to the community and society by applying my knowledge and my passion for computer science. Being in the Allen School allows me to reach my full potential.

Allen School: What advice do you have for future first-gen students?

AP: Get involved at school, find your community, connect with a counselor, attend orientation activities, know where to get help on campus, and embrace who you are and don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own weaknesses and strengths — so do you. No one is perfect. We are all here to learn and push ourselves out of our own limits. 

Alyssa La Fleur

Alyssa La Fleur, from Monroe, Washington, is a student in the Allen School’s full-time Ph.D. program. She fell in love with computational biology as an undergraduate and is now developing the skills to build a successful research career. La Fleur was homeschooled and attended a co-op before enrolling in Cascadia Community College through the Running Start program in high school. She graduated in the spring from Whitworth University with a triple major in math, bioinformatics and biochemistry. 

Allen School: What does being a first-generation student mean to you?

Alyssa La Fleur: It means that I will have greater job opportunities and financial security than my parents.

Allen School: What is your favorite part about being an Allen School student?

AL: So far, my favorite thing has been the friendly community and the diverse fields of study represented in it.

Allen School: What advice do you have for future first-gen students?

AL: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they might be stupid. It’s also fine if you don’t know what questions you should be asking in the first place, as you are in a new environment and probably won’t realize what the gaps are in your knowledge right away. Also, if someone ever makes you feel uncomfortable when asking for help, there are plenty of other campus resources to use instead. I particularly recommend asking senior students in your major for advice.

Chelsea Navarro

Chelsea Navarro is an academic adviser at the Allen School focused on serving undergraduate students, including students transferring to UW from two-year colleges. As a first-generation student from San Diego, California, she credits services such as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Federal TRIO Programs in helping her begin her college career at Palomar Community College before transferring to San Diego State University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in sociology. The dedicated student affairs professionals and advisers that worked with her along the way inspired her to pursue a career in higher education. Navarro subsequently earned a Master’s of Education in student affairs from the University of California, Los Angeles and is proud of being a first-generation student. 

Allen School: What does being a first-generation student mean to you?

Chelsea Navarro: Growing up, my biggest ambition was to graduate from high school since it’s an accomplishment that not many people in my family are able to fulfill. My parents met as teenagers and had me when they were teens themselves. My father is a high school graduate and my mom dropped out of school when she was in middle school. I am the eldest of two daughters. One saying that has guided my practice is “remember why you started,” as so much of what I do is rooted in my higher education experience. I got into this field to help others and to hopefully be part of the support network that makes a student successful, like many advisers and faculty were for me when I was a student.

Allen School: What is your favorite part about working at the Allen School?

CN:  Working at the Allen School is an opportunity for me to continue to give back as faculty and advisers did for me. Part of my role as an undergraduate adviser at the Allen School is to work with our transfer students, which I absolutely enjoy doing. In many ways, it feels like I’ve come full circle and working at the Allen School is an amazing opportunity for me to continue to help others. 

Allen School: What advice do you have for future first-gen students?

CN:  When I first started at community college, I was incredibly lost and had a difficult time understanding university policies and interpreting my degree requirements: What is a credit? What happens in a lab? What is an associate’s degree? Is it okay to meet with professors? I’ll never forget the first time I met with an adviser and brought a huge list of questions with me to my appointment. I learned so much in those 30 minutes. Given my experience, my advice would be to encourage first-year, first-generation college students to be up front with the questions they want to have answered. It’s okay to admit that you feel lost and that you need help. As a first-generation student, I often felt like I was the only one going through the overwhelming experience of being the first in my family to go into higher education. Plus, I was scared to talk about my problems because in my mind, an administrator would notice and tell me that my greatest fear was true — they would say that I didn’t belong in higher education. Imposter syndrome is a difficult reality for many first-year, first-generation college students, so I encourage any students going through it to talk about it so they can get the support they need. 

We are grateful for the many contributions our first-generation students, faculty and staff have made to the Allen School community! Learn more about the National First-Generation College Celebration here, and activities celebrating UW’s first-generation community here.

Check out our student profiles from last year’s celebration here.

November 8, 2019

Allen School researchers build Rome in a day, receive Helmholtz Prize at ICCV 2019

Anyone who believes the adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” hasn’t met the members of the Allen School’s Graphics and Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL). Ten years ago, postdoc Sameer Agarwal, Ph.D. student Ian Simon, alumnus Noah Snavely, professor Steve Seitz, and affiliate professor Richard Szeliski of Microsoft Research demonstrated how to digitally reconstruct the Italian capital in 3D using the large cache of photos shared on the internet. Last week, the team was one of two recipients of the Helmholtz Prize recognizing papers from a decade ago that have had a significant impact on computer vision research at the International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV 2019) held in Seoul, Korea.

At the time the paper was written, city-scale 3D reconstructions largely relied on data from structured sources such as satellite imagery from Google Earth or street-level imagery captured by a moving vehicle. These visual datasets are typically produced by cameras with consistent calibration at a regular sampling rate. They are also often accompanied by additional sensor data, such as GPS, which further simplifies the computation involved in reconstructing a location. By contrast, images from unstructured sources — those posted on Flickr and other photo sharing websites — tend to share none of those characteristics. A search for “Rome” on Flickr returned more than two million photos at the time the researchers embarked on their project, reflecting a variety of camera settings, angles, lighting conditions, and location information.

To overcome these challenges and tap into what they described as “extremely rich source of information about the world,” the researchers sought to leverage massive parallelism along with the massive redundancy found in large internet photo collections. The team employed a combination of parallel distributed matching and reconstruction algorithms to create a system that scales in line with both the size of the problem and the available computational resources. Using this approach and applying state-of-the-art techniques such as structure from motion (SfM), SIFT, vocabulary trees, bundle adjustments, and more, they reconstructed a 3D version of the Eternal City in less than a day from a trove of 150,000 images harvested from the internet — the first city-scale reconstruction produced from unstructured photo collections.

The Helmholtz Prize is awarded every other year by the IEEE Computer Society’s Technical Committee on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence. The team originally presented its winning paper at ICCV 2009 in Kyoto, Japan. Since then, Agarwal and Simon (Ph.D., ‘11) have gone on to engineering positions at Google, while Snavely (Ph.D., ‘08) is a member of the computer science faculty at Cornell Tech and a researcher at Google Research in New York City. Seitz currently splits his time between the Allen School and Google, where he serves as the director of teleportation, while Szeliski is now a research scientist and founding director of the Computational Photography Group at Facebook Research.

To learn more, read the winning research paper here, and check out the project website here.

Congratulazioni to the entire team!

November 7, 2019

Allen School accessibility researchers past and present shine at ASSETS 2019

Galen Weld (left) and Jon Froehlich

The strength and enduring impact of the Allen School and University of Washington’s contributions in accessible technology were on full display at the 21st International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, known as ASSETS, last month in Pittsburgh. Current or former Allen School researchers had a hand in three award-winning papers recognized at the conference, with a mix of current students, faculty, and alumni all represented. 

The Best Student Paper Award was granted to the paper “Deep Learning for Automatically Detecting Sidewalk Accessibility Problems Using Streetscape Imagery.” The authors,  Allen School Ph.D. students Galen Weld and Esther Jang, undergrad Aileen Zeng, professors Kurtis Heimerl, in the Information and Communication Technology for Development Lab  and Jon Froehlich, founder of the Makeability Lab and University of Maryland Ph.D. student Anthony Li, wrote about the use of deep learning to automatically assess the accessibility of sidewalks found in online imagery.

In an effort to let the public know which sidewalks in any city are accessible to people with disabilities, researchers began using smartphone-based tools to capture sidewalk accessibility problems on a large scale. Users marked accessibility on a map using their smartphones. This solution was not without flaws‒not many regions are adopting the program, the areas they cover are small and the burden on users is too much: they must download an app, take a picture, annotate it and upload it. To improve upon those issues, researchers implemented machine learning and satellite imagery to decrease manual labor and costs. However, even this work has been impacted negatively by small training sets and less than stellar machine-learning. To improve the process even more, the Allen School team used residual neural networks modified to support image and non-image features and had bigger training sets based on a dataset of 300,000+ image-based sidewalk accessibility labels collected by Project Sidewalk in the Makeability Lab. The results described in the winning paper were more accurate than previous automated methods, and in some cases exceeded the accuracy of human-generated labels.

Left to right: Shaun Kane, Jacob Wobbrock and Jeffrey Bigham

Members of the Allen School also contributed to the 2019 SIGACCESS ASSETS Paper Impact Award, granted to a paper at least 10 years old that has had a significant impact on computing and information technology addressing the needs of persons with disabilities. Allen School  alumnus Jeffrey Bigham (Ph.D., ‘09), Information School professor and Allen School adjunct professor Jacob Wobbrock, and Information School alumnus Shaun Kane (Ph.D. ‘11), earned the award for their paper, “Slide Rule: Making mobile touch screens accessible to blind people using multi-touch interaction techniques.”  

Before the iPhone popularized the touchscreen smartphone, users who were blind could rely on their sense of touch using a cell phone’s physical buttons. To enable these users to take advantage of the latest smartphone features, the team designed Slide Rule, an audio-based program that enables blind users to access touch screen applications through the use of gestures. Slide Rule was the first prototype to exhibit finger-driven screen-reading and a second-finger tap gesture, today called “split tap,” to trigger on-screen targets like links and buttons. Since the team published its paper, major manufacturers have incorporated these features into their commercial products.

Last but not least, recent Allen School graduate Danielle Bragg (Ph.D., ‘18), who worked with Allen School professor Richard Ladner as a student, was lead author of the paper that earned  this year’s ASSETS Best Paper Award. Bragg and her co-authors at Microsoft Research were recognized for their paper “Sign language recognition, generation and translation: An interdisciplinary perspective,” which presents the results of an interdisciplinary workshop where researchers discussed developing successful sign language recognition, generation and translation systems in fields such as computer vision, computer graphics, natural language processing, human-computer interaction and linguistics. 

Congratulations to all of the ASSETS 2019 award recipients! 

November 6, 2019

Allen School researchers earn Best Paper and Distinguished Artifact awards at SOSP for Serval automated verification framework

grey spotted cat logo

Researchers from the Allen School’s UNSAT group took home one of two Best Paper Awards and a Distinguished Artifact Award at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 27th Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP 2019) in Ontario, Canada last week. The winning paper, “Scaling symbolic evaluation for automated verification of systems code with Serval,” introduces a new framework for building automated verifiers for systems software.

Serval was developed by Allen School Ph.D. student and lead author Luke Nelson; alumnus James Bornholt (Ph.D., ‘19), now a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin; Allen School professors Emina Torlak and Xi Wang; Columbia University professor Ronghui Gu; and Andrew Baumann, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. Together, the researchers created a framework that overcomes several obstacles to scaling automated verification, including the developer effort required to write verifiers, the difficulty of finding and fixing performance bottlenecks, and limitations on their applicability to existing systems.

From left: Serval team members Andrew Baumann, Xi Wang, and Luke Nelson with SOSP program committee co-chair Yuanyuan Zhou. Not pictured: James Bornholt, Ronghui Gu, Emina Torlak

Unlike previous push-button verification approaches, which support automation at the expense of generality by requiring the co-design of systems and verifiers, Serval provides an extensible infrastructure that enables developers to easily retarget verifiers to new systems, including those not originally designed for automated verification. To do this, it leverages Rosette, a solver-aided programming language for synthesis and verification, to “lift” an interpreter into a verifier — that is, transform a regular program to work on symbolic values.

Verifiers created using Serval inherit a number of vital optimizations from Rosette, including constraint caching, state merging, and partial evaluation. But Serval goes a step further by introducing new capabilities for identifying and repairing performance bottlenecks. Employing recent advances in symbolic profiling, which offers a systematic approach to discovering performance bottlenecks, the researchers built a catalog of common bottlenecks for automated verifiers that includes indirect branches, memory accesses, trap dispatching, and more. They then built into Serval a set of symbolic optimizations that eliminate such bottlenecks and improve performance by exploiting domain knowledge to produce solver-friendly constraints for a class of systems.

From left: James Bornholt, Ronghui Gu, Emina Torlak

To demonstrate Serval’s utility, the team developed reusable, interoperable automated verifiers for four instruction sets — RISC-V,  X86-32, LLVM, and Berkeley Packet Filter (BPF) — and used them to uncover previously unknown bugs in existing, unverified systems such as Keystone and the Linux kernel. They also applied Serval to two systems, CertiKOS and Komodo, to demonstrate how previously verified systems can be retrofitted for automatic verification.

Read the full research paper here, and explore the Serval on the project website here.

Way to go, team!

November 4, 2019

Freshman Manoj Sarathy uses machine learning to help wildlife conservation efforts

Fall is back and so is the Allen School’s Undergrad Spotlight! This month’s student feature is Bellevue, Washington native Manoj Sarathy. Even before his arrival as part of the school’s expanded Direct to Major admissions program, the freshman computer science major was using machine learning to help environmental conservationists track and organize wildlife data. He was recently featured in the Seattle Times and on King 5 News for his work supporting wolverine recovery in Washington.  

Allen School: Why did you want to study computer science, and what made you choose the Allen School?

Manoj Sarathy: Like most high school seniors, I had a lot of interests but my work on applying machine learning to the field of environmental conservation showed me that computer science can be useful in essentially any field. I decided to study at the Allen School because of the connections the school has with all the major companies that are implementing machine learning — and I wanted to stay close to home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Allen School: What do you enjoy most about being an Allen School student?

MS: I find the resources available to the Allen School’s undergraduate students to be extremely valuable. For example, the career fairs that took place earlier this month were very useful. I learned more about companies hiring in the computer science field.

Allen School: What activities and interests do you have outside of your studies?

MS: I have attended a meeting for the Society for Economic Restoration and will be attending some of their work parties to restore the campus. I am also interested in finding out more about Students Expressing Environmental Dedication (SEED). I hope to continue playing squash, a racquet sport, during my free time. One of the opportunities I gave up by coming to UW was playing for a varsity squash team, but I hope I can be in some kind of squash club here. 

Allen School: Why did you become a member of the Conservation Northwest while you were in high school?

MS: I wish I could say it was purposeful, but it was honestly an accident. I learned about the organization while doing some online research regarding environmental conservation in the Pacific Northwest for an environmental science class I was taking in high school. I really liked the work they do, like building wildlife overpasses and underpasses across I-90 and reintroducing fishers, a species that belongs in the same family as wolverines and which were wiped out in the Pacific Northwest by hunters. I reached out to the organization to learn about volunteer opportunities, and one thing led to another. At one time, I even printed t-shirts at home to raise funds for them and through that effort, met with some international conservation organizations.

One of the projects I became involved in was their camera trap project. Teams would hike up to areas where wildlife may be located to set up camera traps to observe predators and prey in that area. Conservation organizations use camera traps, but then have to spend a lot of time and work to classify the images. Involvement in that project led me to the idea of using machine learning to speed up that effort. 

Allen School: Is that when you began to work with Woodland Park Zoo’s senior conservation scientist, Robert Long?

MS: While working on my camera trap model, I quickly realized that I needed actual camera trap images from different cameras and angles to make my machine learning model accurate. I started writing to researchers who use camera traps and he was one of the few to respond immediately and generously offered his images to me to train my model. Luckily, he was in Seattle, and invited me to meet him at the Woodland Park Zoo. I have been working with him ever since. 

Allen School: How did you use machine learning to classify all of the images?

MS: Any machine learning system learns from input data. The better and the more varied the input data, the more accurate the machine learning system can be. Initially, I naively tried to use images from Google to train my machine learning model. I tried to create a model that distinguishes between species. When I tested the model with actual camera trap images, I quickly learned that the system was nearly useless because most images on the internet show animals in nearly ideal conditions, like with the background out of focus. Next, I found an online database used by prior researchers called “Snapshot Serengeti,” which has thousands of images of animals from Africa. Again, I found the lack of variety in the animals and vegetation to not be very useful for the camera trap images American conservationists were collecting.

I started writing to researchers and only a couple responded. Fewer still offered to share their images with me. I also learned through my discussions with them, and based on my own experience with Conservation Northwest’s camera trap project, that just separating images containing animals or humans from other images containing only background foliage would be immensely useful because researchers spend countless time looking at each false positive to make sure they are not missing anything. Distinguishing between animals and humans would also be very helpful. So I started building a model that classifies images into three categories: false positive, human, and animal. This enables volunteers to be more productive and efficient by prioritizing images for analysis. 

Allen School: Did you know how to do all of this before you started on the project? 

MS: Before I started working on my project, I knew next to nothing about coding and machine learning. I read as much as I could about machine learning and Google’s TensorFlow. I also needed to learn some Python programming to get it to work. Over time and through lots of failures and crashes, I slowly built a decent model. I don’t claim to understand how TensorFlow or machine learning frameworks actually work, but I hope to learn more about these topics in the Allen School! 

Allen School: Do you want to remain working in conservation after you finish your CS degree? 

MS: I genuinely enjoy the natural environment we are fortunate to have here in the Pacific Northwest. So I will definitely stay involved in environmental conservation, but I haven’t yet decided in what way or how I can make the most impact. Ask me that question again when I’m a senior, I may have a better idea.

We’re so excited to have a dedicated conservationist like Manoj as a member of the Allen School community. We are confident his innovation will change the world!


October 31, 2019

Uncle Phil, is that really you? Allen School researchers decode vulnerabilities in online genetic genealogy services

Hand holding saliva collection tube
Marco Verch/Flickr

Genetic genealogy websites enable people to upload their results from consumer DNA testing services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe to explore their genetic makeup, familial relationships, and even discover new relatives they didn’t know they had. But how can you be sure that the person who emails you claiming to be your Uncle Phil really is a long-lost relation?

Based on what a team of Allen School researchers discovered when interacting with the largest third-party genetic genealogy service, you may want to approach plans for a reunion with caution. In their paper “Genotype Extraction and False Relative Attacks: Security Risks to Third-Party Genetic Genealogy Services Beyond Identity Inference,” they analyze how security vulnerabilities built into the GEDmatch website could allow someone to construct an imaginary relative or obtain sensitive information about people who have uploaded their personal genetic data. 

Through a series of highly-controlled experiments using information from the GEDmatch online database, Allen School alumnus and current postdoctoral researcher Peter Ney (Ph.D., ‘19) and professors Tadayoshi Kohno and Luis Ceze determined that it would be relatively straightforward for an adversary to exploit vulnerabilities in the site’s application programming interface (API) that compromise users’ privacy and expose them to potential fraud. The team demonstrated multiple ways in which they could extract highly personal, potentially sensitive genetic information about individuals on the site — and use existing familial relationships to create false new ones by uploading fake profiles that indicate a genetic match where none exists.

Part of GEDmatch’s attraction is its user-friendly graphical interface, which relies on bars and color-coding to visualize specific genetic markers and similarities between two profiles. For example, the “chromosome paintings” illustrate the differences between two profiles on each chromosome, accompanied by “segment coordinates” that indicate the precise genetic markers that the profiles share. These one-to-one comparisons, however, can be used to reveal more information than intended. It was this aspect of the service that the researchers were able to exploit in their attacks. To their surprise, they were not only able to determine the presence or absence of various genetic markers at certain segments of a hypothetical user’s profile, but to reconstruct 92% of the entire profile with 98% accuracy.

As a first step, Ney and his colleagues created a research account on GEDmatch, to which they uploaded artificial genetic profiles generated from data contained in anonymous profiles from multiple, publicly available datasets designated for research use. By assigning each of their profiles a privacy setting of “research,” the team ensured that their artificial profiles would not appear in public matching results. Once the profiles were uploaded, GEDmatch automatically assigned each one a unique ID, which enabled the team to perform comparisons between a specific profile and others in the database — in this case, a set of “extraction profiles” created for this purpose. The team then performed a series of experiments. For the total profile reconstruction, they uploaded and ran comparisons between 20 extraction profiles and five targets. Based on the GEDmatch visualizations alone, they were able to recover just over 60% of the target profiles’ data. Based on their knowledge of genetics, specifically the frequency with which possible DNA bases are found within the population at a specific position on the genome, they were able to determine another 30%. They then relied on a genetic technique known as imputation to fill in the rest. 

Once they had constructed nearly the whole of a target’s profile, the researchers used that information to create a false child for one of their targets. When they ran the comparison between the target profile and the false child profile through the system, GEDmatch confirmed that the two were a match for a parent-child relationship.

While it is true that an adversary would have to have the right combination of programming skills and knowledge of genetics and genealogy to pull it off, the process isn’t as difficult as it sounds — or, to a security expert, as it should be. To acquire a person’s entire profile, Ney and his colleagues performed the comparisons between extraction and target profiles manually. They estimate the process took 10 minutes to complete — a daunting prospect, perhaps, if an adversary wanted to compare a much greater number of targets. But if one were to write a script that automatically performs the comparisons? “That would take 10 seconds,” said Ney, who is the lead author of the paper.

Consumer-facing genetic testing and genetic genealogy are still relatively nascent industries, but they are gaining in popularity. And as the size of the database grows, so does the interest of law enforcement looking to crack criminal cases for which the trail has gone cold. In one high-profile example from last year, investigators arrested a suspect alleged to be the Golden State Killer, whose identity remained elusive for more than four decades before genetic genealogy yielded a breakthrough. Given the prospect of using genetic information for this and other purposes, the researchers’ findings yield important questions about how to ensure the security and integrity of genetic genealogy results, now and into the future.

“We’re only beginning to scratch the surface,” said Kohno, who co-directs the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Lab and previously helped expose potential security vulnerabilities in internet-connected motor vehicles, wireless medical implants, consumer robotics, mobile advertising, and more. “The responsible thing for us is to disclose our findings so that we can engage a community of scientists and policymakers in a discussion about how to mitigate this issue.”

Echoing Kohno’s concern, Ceze emphasizes that the issue is made all the more urgent by the sensitive nature of the data that people upload to a site like GEDmatch — with broad legal, medical, and psychological ramifications — in the midst of what he refers to as “the age of oversharing information.”

“Genetic information correlates to medical conditions and potentially other deeply personal traits,” noted Ceze, who co-directs the Molecular Information Systems Laboratory at the University of Washington and specializes in computer architecture research as a member of the Allen School’s Sampa and SAMPL groups. “As more genetic information goes digital, the risks increase.”

Unfortunately for those who are not prone to oversharing, the risks extend beyond the direct users of genetic genealogy services. According to Ney, GEDmatch contains the personal genetic information of a sufficient number and variety of people across the U.S. that, should someone gain illicit possession of the entire database, they could potentially link genetic information with identity for a large portion of the country. While Ney describes the decision to share one’s data on GEDmatch as a personal one, some decisions appear to be more personal — and wider reaching — than others. And once a person’s genetic data is compromised, he notes, it is compromised forever. 

So whether or not you’ve uploaded your genetic information to GEDmatch, you might want to ask Uncle Phil for an additional form of identification before rushing to make up the guest bed. 

“People think of genetic data as being personal — and it is. It’s literally part of their physical identity,” Ney said. “You can change your credit card number, but you can’t change your DNA.”

The team will present its findings at the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS 2020) in San Diego, California in February.

To learn more, read the UW News release here and an FAQ on security and privacy issues associated with genetic genealogy services here. Also check out related coverage by MIT Technology Review, OneZero, ZDNet, GeekWire, McClatchy, and Newsweek.

October 29, 2019

Manaswi Saha wins Amazon Catalyst Award to develop techniques for visualizing urban accessibility at scale

Allen School Ph.D student Manaswi Saha has won an Amazon Catalyst award to support her research on “Combining computational and visualization techniques to understand urban accessibility at scale.” The award, which comes with $10,000 of funding attached, will support Saha’s dissertation research working with Allen School professor Jon Froehlich in the Makeability Lab.

“More than 30 million people have some form of disability in the U.S. Of these, half report using mobility aids. In spite of the growing need for accessible sidewalks, many cities remain inaccessible even after 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations being in place,” Saha said. “Several cities have faced multi-million-dollar lawsuits for inaccessible sidewalks. However, there are currently no tools that can visualize and quantify this issue at scale.”

Saha’s latest endeavor is an extension of her work on Project Sidewalk, a web-based crowdsourcing tool. It gamifies the collection of data on curb ramps, obstacles and other relevant sidewalk conditions by allowing volunteers to virtually walk through online streetview imagery. The first deployment of the project in 2016 was done in Washington, D.C., where 797 online users audited 2,941 miles of streets to report on accessibility issues in the city, with subsequent deployments in Seattle and Newberg, Oregon. Saha will apply her Catalyst award towards building an interactive web visualization tool that will answer questions about accessibility for stakeholders: people with mobility disabilities, caregivers, local government officials (e.g. transportation departments), policymakers, and accessibility advocates. It will help answer questions such as: Which are the most inaccessible areas in the city? Why is my neighborhood inaccessible? Where should we prioritize for allocating resources for these repairs? 

The goals, Saha said, are to fill the informational gap between citizens and the local government in their understanding of urban accessibility, increase transparency by visualizing the current state of accessibility, and creating advocacy efforts for bringing about change.

In an 18-month deployment study of Project Sidewalk, Saha’s group collected 205,385 sidewalk accessibility labels. Pictured above is a map of the reported missing curb ramps.

“As a start, we will be utilizing data collected in D.C. from Project Sidewalk and other available data sources such as from the Department of Transportation,” Saha said. “Eventually, this work would be expanded to other cities to offer them similar support.”

Saha published “Project Sidewalk: A Web-based Crowdsourcing Tool for Collecting Sidewalk Accessibility Data at Scale” that earned a Best Paper Award at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2019) in May. The co-authors include Froehlich, research scientist Michael Saugstad and undergrad Aileen Zeng at UW, students Hanuma Teja Maddali, Steven Bower, Aditya Dash and Anthony Li at the University of Maryland, College Park, high school student Ryan Holland, from Montgomery Blair High School, undergrad student Sage Chen from the University of Michigan and professor Kotaro Hara from Singapore Management University.

The Amazon Catalyst program is a collaboration between the University of Washington’s CoMotion and Amazon that grants funds to faculty, staff and students to encourage innovation. The goal is to support those in the UW community working on solutions to solve real-world problems. So far, the program has helped to fund 50 UW projects. Saha has been working on a novel solution to a real-world problem in urban transportation, an area of research the Catalyst program was focused on this year.

Read the Amazon Catalyst press release here, and learn more information about Project Sidewalk here. Check out past coverage of Saha and the Project Sidewalk team’s work by UW News, KIRO7, Crosscut, and Seattle Met.

Congratulations, Manaswi!

October 18, 2019

Researchers create smart speaker that uses white noise to monitor sleeping infants

Breath Junior
UW researchers have developed a new smart speaker skill that lets a device use white noise to both soothe sleeping babies and monitor their breathing and movement. Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Doctors, parenting magazines and parents themselves recommend using white noise to help babies fall and stay asleep. Continuous, monotonous sounds like ocean waves, raindrops on a rooftop or the rumbling noise of an airplane can lull a newborn to sleep and help him or her rest longer. It also signals to little ones that it’s time to sleep when they hear the sound.

White noise—a mixture of different pitches and sounds—can soothe fussing and boost sleep in babies. And now it can be used to monitor their motion and respiratory patterns.

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new smart speaker, similar to the Amazon Echo or Google Home, that uses white noise to monitor infant breathing and movements. Doing so is vital because children under the age of one are susceptible to rare and devastating sleep anomalies such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), according to Allen School professor Shyam Gollakota, and his Ph.D. student Anran Wang and Dr. Jacob Sunshine in the UW School of Medicine. Respiratory failure is believed to be the main cause of SIDS.

“One of the biggest challenges new parents face is making sure their babies get enough sleep. They also want to monitor their children while they’re sleeping. With this in mind, we sought to develop a system that combines soothing white noise with the ability to unobtrusively measure an infant’s motion and breathing,” said Sunshine, who is also an adjunct professor in the Allen School.

In their paper, “Contactless Infant Monitoring using White Noise,” which they will present on Oct. 22 at the MobiCom2019 conference in Los Cabos, Mexico, the team discusses how and why they created BreathJunior, a smart speaker that plays white noise and records how the noise is reflected back to detect breathing motions of infants’ chests.

“Smart speakers are becoming more and more prevalent, and these devices already have the ability to play white noise,” said Gollakota, who is also the director of the Networks & Mobile Systems Lab. “If we could use this white noise feature as a contactless way to monitor infants’ hand and leg movements, breathing and crying, then the smart speaker becomes a device that can do it all, which is really exciting.”

The team generated novel algorithms that could help them distill the tiny motion of an infant breathing from the white noise emitted from the speakers.

Breath Junior
With this smart speaker skill, the device plays white noise and records how the noise is reflected back to detect breathing motions of infants’ tiny chests. It can track both small motions — such as the chest movement involved in breathing — and large motions — such as babies moving around in their cribs. It can also pick up the sound of a baby crying. Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

“We start out by transmitting a random white noise signal. But we are generating this random signal, so we know exactly what the randomness is,” said Wang.  “That signal goes out and reflects off the baby. Then the smart speaker’s microphones get a random signal back. Because we know the original signal, we can cancel out any randomness from that and then we’re left with only information about the motion from the baby.”

Because the breathing movement in babies is so minute, it’s hard to detect the movement of the baby’s chest, so Wang said they also scan the room to pinpoint where the baby is to maximize changes in the white noise signal.

“Our algorithm takes advantage of the fact that smart speakers have an array of microphones that can be used to focus in the direction of the infant’s chest,” he said. “It starts listening for changes in a bunch of potential directions, and then continues the search toward the direction that gives the clearest signal.”

The group used a prototype of BreatheJunior on an infant simulator, which could be set at different breathing rates. When they had success with the simulator, they tested it on five children in a local hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and the respiratory rates closely matched the rates detected by standard vital signs monitors.

Sunshine explained that infants in the NICU are more likely to have either quite high or very slow breathing rates, which is why the NICU monitors their breathing so closely. BreatheJunior was able to accurately identify the breathing rates. The babies were also connected to hospital-grade respiratory monitors.

“BreathJunior holds potential for parents who want to use white noise to help their child sleep and who also want a way to monitor their child’s breathing and motion,” said Sunshine. “It also has appeal as a tool for monitoring breathing in the subset of infants in whom home respiratory monitoring is clinically indicated, as well as in hospital environments where doctors want to use unwired respiratory monitoring.”

Sunshine said it was very important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not using a monitor that markets itself as reducing the risk of SIDS. The research he said, makes no such claim. It uses white noise to track breathing and monitor motion. It can also let parents know if the baby is crying.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation. Learn more about the researcher’s work by visiting their website, Sound Life Sciences, Inc. Read more about the speaker system at UW News, the Daily Mail, GeekWire, MIT Technology Review and Digital Trends.


October 15, 2019

Allen School celebrates diversity and inclusion

Grace Hopper attendees
Allen School representatives at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

As a community committed to diversity and inclusion, the Allen School celebrates and values differences in its members. Yesterday (Oct. 10), the School held its annual diversity in computing reception, a favorite event highlighting the School’s broadening participation in organizations that honor diversity in computing.

Students, faculty and staff that attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing  earlier in October and the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing in late September were recognized.

The Grace Hopper Celebration, held this year in Orlando, Florida, is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists and focuses on helping women grow, learn and develop to their highest potential.

Tapia conference attendees
Allen School attendees at the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing.

“I loved attending Grace Hopper this year. So many of the talks were so inspiring and gave me hands-on tools to approach challenges I face as a woman in tech. It was a big confidence booster, and I had the chance to meet so many amazing women in my field,” said Amanda Baughan, a graduate student in the Allen School. “It’s inspired me to tackle more difficult problems and reach for goals I may have second-guessed my own abilities in achieving previously.”

Aishwarya Mandyam
Jodi Tims, Chair of ACM-W; Allen School student Aishwarya Mandyam; Vidya Srinivasan and Sheila Tejada, co-chairs of the Grace Hopper Celebration.

Allen School student Aishwarya Mandyam was honored at the Hopper Celebration for her work, winning second place internationally in the ACM Student Research Competition.

The Tapia Celebration, held in San Diego this year, brings together people of all backgrounds, abilities and genders to recognize, celebrate and promote diversity in computing.

“I got to learn about thriving opportunities for a diverse workforce in tech and discovered it as a great platform for me to completely embrace distinct identities of myself–a woman of color, a first-gen college student, an immigrant with all transitioning struggles bolstered–and was able to find my own ground in this highly challenging field,” said Radia Karim, a junior in the Allen School. “I was really moved by the conference’s agenda and with the extremely bold and diverse Tapia attendees who have been consistently defining their own footprints in tech rising above all odds and making the future more welcoming.”

Recognizing those in attendance at these conferences, Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Allen School, said that the two conferences highlight the School’s core values and its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“The Allen School has been widely recognized as a leader in promoting gender diversity in computing. In addition to our strides in our student body, I want to note that over the past 9 years, our faculty has grown by 29, and 15 of these are women – an amazing record for which Hank Levy deserves a great deal of credit,” he said. “In the past few years we’ve dramatically increased the attention we devote to underrepresented minority students and students from low-income backgrounds, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

The Allen School has partnered with the College of Engineering’s STARS program and the state’s AccessCSforAll; students from both were also recognized.

Kimberly Ruth
Lisa Simonyi Prize recipient Kim Ruth and incoming Allen School Director Magda Balazinska.

During the reception, Kimberly Ruth, an Allen School senior, was awarded the Lisa Simonyi Prize. The prize was established by Lisa and Charles Simonyi, for students who exemplify the commitment to excellence, leadership, and diversity to which the School aspires. Ruth is an exceptionally talented and dedicated student. She is a member of UW’s Interdisciplinary Honors program and is a dual major in computer engineering and mathematics. Not only is she engaged in research with Allen School professors Franziska Roesner and Tadayoshi Kohno in the Security & Privacy Lab, but she has also been awarded the 2018 Goldwater Scholarship and the 2017 Washington Research Foundation Fellowship. She has served as a tutor for four years in a program that teaches math and Python programming to middle and high school students and founded Go Figure, an initiative to get middle school students excited about math. Last year, she was named a “Husky 100,” an annual program that honors UW students who are impacting the University community positively.

As professor and next director of the Allen School Magdalena Balazinska noted when she presented the award to Ruth, “In a program full of remarkable students, Kim stands out.”

Thanks to the Simonyi’s for supporting diversity and excellence, and thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate the people who are making our school and our field a more welcoming destination for all. And congratulations to Kim!

For more about our efforts to advance diversity in computing, check out the Allen School’s inclusiveness statement here.

October 11, 2019

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