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Allen School’s Samia Ibtasam receives Google Women Techmakers Scholarship

Woman in Google sweatshirt with foggy Golden Gate Bridge in background

Samia Ibtasam, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Allen School’s Information & Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) Lab, was recognized recently by Google with a Women Techmakers Scholarship. The Women Techmakers Scholars Program — formerly known as the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship Program — aims to advance gender equality in computing by encouraging women to become active role models and leaders in the field. Ibtasam, who works with Allen School professor Richard Anderson to increase financial and technological inclusion in low-resource communities, is one of only 20 women at universities across North America to receive a 2019 scholarship.

Ibtasam’s focus on research addressing issues in developing communities and her commitment to increasing diversity in computing were both shaped by her experiences in her native Pakistan. Before her arrival at the University of Washington in 2016, Ibtasam was the founding co-director of the Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab (IPAL) at the Information Technology University in Lahore. During her time at IPAL, Ibtasam focused on developing diagnostic applications and information systems to support maternal, neonatal, and child health in a country which has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. 

Working with the government of the Pakistani province of Punjab and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), Ibtasam launched Har Zindagi — Urdu for “every life,” inspired by the slogan “every life matters.” The goal of the program was to revamp the child immunization system and introduce digital health records for its citizens. One of Ibtasam’s priorities was to make the immunization card machine-readable to enable public health administrators to easily and effectively monitor child vaccinations, and to educate parents, including many with low literacy, about the recommended immunization schedule. Ibtasam also led the development of an Android-based mobile app to assist vaccinators in entering information in the field, as well as a web dashboard to track immunization coverage and retention data for policymakers. Along the way, she had to contend with a number of challenges, including lack of wireless coverage in rural areas, field workers unfamiliar with smartphone technology, family displacement, and the need to coordinate among diverse stakeholders, from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, to local government officials and app developers.

For the four years she was at ITU, Ibtasam was the only woman on the computer science faculty. She is also the first Pakistani woman to formally specialize in the field of ICTD. These early-career experiences have reinforced her belief in the need to cultivate more women as leaders and role models through programs like the Women Techmakers Scholarship.

“One thing that I did and am still continuing to work on is inspiring other young women to be technical and confident. As the only female faculty member in ITU’s CS department, I saw the need and value of being a role model and source of support for young women,” Ibtasam said. “Throughout my career, I have been in many work environments — research labs, conferences, meetings, and panels — where I was the only woman. It took courage and effort to be part of them, but it also made me resilient to stay, speak up, and represent. And while at times, there were male mentors who provided advice and support, many times doors were closed to me. So, I want to hold doors open for other women through my inspiration, my mentorship, my research, and my designed technologies.”

Ibtasam has carried this theme into her work at the Allen School, where she focuses on projects that explore the availability and adoption of digital financial services by people in developing and emerging markets — an issue that impacts more than two billion people worldwide who remain unbanked. The issue also has profound implications for women’s empowerment in societies where cultural, religious, and even legal frameworks may hinder their financial independence. 

For example, Ibtasam was the lead author of a paper exploring women’s use of mobile money in Pakistan that appeared at the 1st ACM SIGCAS Conference on Computing and Sustainable Societies (COMPASS ‘18) organized by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computers & Society. Working alongside colleagues in the ICTD Lab, the Information Technology University in Lahore, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, Ibtasam examined how gendered barriers in resource-constrained communities affect opportunities for women to improve their circumstances through the use of digital financial services. With information gleaned from more than 50 semi-structured interviews with Pakistani women and men along with data from the Financial Inclusion Insights Survey, the team identified the socioeconomic, religious, and gendered dynamics that influence the ability of women in the country to access financial services. Based on these findings, the team proposed a set of recommendations for expanding the benefits of digital financial services to more women.

The previous year, Ibtasam and co-authors presented a paper at the ACM’s 9th International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD ‘17) that evaluated how learnability and other factors beyond access can help or hinder widespread adoption of smartphone-based mobile money applications in Pakistan. In addition, Ibtasam has explored the role of mobile money in improving financial inclusion in southern Ghana, which also appeared at COMPASS ‘18, and teamed up with members of the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Lab to investigate the computer security and privacy needs and practices of refugees who had recently resettled in the United States. The latter appeared at the 2018 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (S&P ’18) co-sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society’s Technical Committee on Security and Privacy and the International Association for Cryptologic Research.

Ibtasam and her fellow Google scholars were invited to a retreat at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California in June, where they had the opportunity to engage in a variety of professional development and networking activities. Previous Allen School recipients of the Google scholarship include Ph.D. alumni Kira Goldner (2016), Eleanor O’Rourke and Irene Zhang (2015), Jennifer Abrahamson and Nicola Dell (2012), Janara Christensen and Kateryna Kuksenok (2011), and Lydia Chilton and Kristi Morton (2010).

Congratulations, Samia!