Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: UW’s new iSchool dean Anind Dey completely satisfied to be ‘residence’ after 13 years in Pittsburgh

Anind Dey
Anind Dey, a sprinter in his earlier days, teaches his daughter Nisha how to sprint on the track at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Glenn Brookes Photo for Carnegie Mellon University)

After 13 years in Pittsburgh, Anind Dey grew to love many things about the Steel City, including the people, his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, the Penguins hockey team and the cost of housing, to name a few.

But the Pacific Northwest native, who grew up in a small town in southern British Columbia, is thrilled to be back “home,” as the new dean of the Information School at the University of Washington. Dey, who moved to Seattle three weeks ago, comes to the position after 3 1/2 years as the Charles M. Geschke (founder of Adobe) Professor and Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at CMU.

It’s a busy month for UW’s iSchool, which also announced this week that Mark Mader, CEO of Smartsheet, has been appointed to its Founding Board.

With Seattle-based GeekWire working out of its own temporary HQ2 in Pittsburgh this month, the timing couldn’t be better to feature Dey as a Geek of the Week who has left one city for the other.

“Pittsburgh is on an amazing growth curve right now, but Seattle is a few years ahead on that curve,” Dey said. And while he credits Pittsburgh’s leadership, along with its world class institutes of higher education, strong research and clinical medical center, and CMU’s School of Computer Science as an innovation leader, he said he’s excited about being at a large pubic university, “with the opportunity to lead a wonderful interdisciplinary college.”

“It’s wonderful to be in a place that combines a focus on innovation with values of social justice, enabling the solving of real-world problems,” Dey said of Seattle. “On one hand, it’s an incredibly exciting time to come to Seattle, but, on the other, it seems like there are multiple Seattles to get to know, and a concern that some parts are being left behind. I’m still wrapping my head around what that means for me and my family, our values, and the mandate of the Information School.”

The speed of the change in Seattle also makes Dey cast a concerned eye back toward Pittsburgh, as he worries about the potential impact that Amazon’s HQ2 (Pittsburgh is a final-20 contender) could have on the city of 300,000 people.

Dey holds a PhD in Computer Science from Georgia Tech, and two Masters degrees from the institution — Computer Science and Aerospace Engineering — as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. He met his computer science professor wife when they were in grad school together.

“We have two lovely children, our son Kavi (14) and our daughter Nisha (12), along with a dog (Gryffin), a cat (Skywalker), and until the recent move, seven chickens,” Dey said. “It’s amazing how hard it is to move (live) chickens across the country.”

Dey is excited about the mountains and water that he gets to enjoy seeing everyday — “it already feels like home” — but he’s on the lookout for something else.

“I look forward to investigating the city with my kids, he said. “But my favorite thing to eat might be harder to replace: ice cream from Dave and Andy’s! I’m looking forward to finding a replacement (and finding a good gym to go along with that!).”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Anind Dey:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I’m part administrator, being Dean of the iSchool, and part researcher, in my professor role. In both roles, I love helping to establish a vision and solve really hard problems. My research is all about how to leverage passively sensed information about people and their behaviors and actions, and to use models of those behaviors to understand people better. In the past couple of years, we have used these models to detect when a college student is binge drinking, just from their mobile phone, and to predict which surgical patients are likely to be readmitted to a hospital within a month of being discharged. We are working on using these models to identify interventions that are likely to be effective based on a person’s routines, and are applying this to help people sleep better, and reduce dependence on opioids.

“I applied for the Dean’s role at the UW iSchool for a few reasons — the people there are one big family and having that in a work environment is really important to me. It is hugely interdisciplinary — information science, data science, human-computer interaction, library science, information management — with artists, philosophers, social scientists, librarians, technologists and more. The world’s hardest problems require interdisciplinary approaches. There’s nowhere else I know that combines this range of disciplines. I also am excited to be back at a public university, where I feel the opportunities are greater for giving back to the local community.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Information science is not the poor man’s computer science, it’s the future. Where computer science is about inventing technology, information science is about wielding those technologies to solve important problems, and then feeding that back to improve the development of future technology.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “My inspiration comes from two different sources. I’ve been really lucky throughout my career to be surrounded by some very intelligent people (friends, family, co-workers), and I get inspired talking through problems with them, hearing about what drives them, and using those conversations to drive new projects/visions. I also get a lot of inspiration from observing people, whether directly or through the news (I’m a huge news junkie!). I think of new problems to solve and new ways to solve problems.”

Anind Dey
Anind Dey’s advice for fellow geeks? “Figure out what drives you personally — what gets you mad, what gets you excited, and what you can’t stop working on because you just can’t put it down.” (University of Washington Photo)

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Can’t live without the internet. It’s my source of news, entertainment, connection to friends and family. I spend way too much time on it everyday, but it is my drug of choice.”

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Don’t have a picture as I don’t have a workspace set up yet. But, I’m happiest sitting on a couch with a couple of pillows, a footrest, and my laptop. I love a good couch that I can curl up on to take a nap, and that is just as comfortable lying down on, as sitting on. A favorite drink (Diet Coke, cup of tea, glass of wine) is nearby, and the room is dimly lit — no overhead lights, just some soft lighting from lamps, or even better, sunlight streaming in through the windows. I like a lot of floor space as I like to sit down on the floor and place information or data around me, to try and organize it and understand it better.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “A great assistant! I’ve tried all sorts of to-do managers and email tools to help stay organized. The only thing that has ever worked for me is having a really good assistant. I worked with my assistant at Carnegie Mellon for several years, and she knew what I was going to forget to do, what I was trying to avoid, and she would call me on it, so I was hugely effective and just got stuff done. I tried to convince her to move to Seattle with me, but no such luck!”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac! Easy to use, with just enough access to Unix to keep the developer side of me happy.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Kirk — the impulsiveness, the humor, the fighter — you just didn’t know what you were going to get.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time machine — could answer so many questions we have about our history!”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “pass on the money. It would take a lot more to convince me to leave what I think is the best job in the world.”

I once waited in line for … “the elevator up the Eiffel Tower in Paris. One of the two elevators was broken, so the line was really long. Eventually, we gave up, and my kids convinced me to walk up the stairs. Worse, the next day, they insisted we walk up the stairs at the Tower again, not long after climbing up the 300+ stairs of the towers of Notre Dame. I don’t think I could walk the next day.”

Your role models: “My role models have always been the mentors in my life: my parents, my (3rd and final) PhD advisor in grad school, Gregory Abowd, and my wife. They all have shown me how I can be a better person, and how I can take the skills I have to make a better world. It’s such a cliché but they have all made me want to be a better person.”

Greatest game in history: “I’m sure this was supposed to be a video game or board game, but I’m going to say NHL Hockey — no better sport in the world. Hockey in the Olympics coming in second. I’m fortunate to have just moved here from Pittsburgh, home of the back-to-back Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins. A day where you get to watch Crosby, Malkin, Murray and the rest play is always a good day. I’ll always be a Penguins fan, but I can’t wait to see if Seattle gets an NHL team!”

Best gadget ever: “Newton MessagePad — first device that I thought was truly smart. Was too big for my hands, but it had good handwriting recognition, a set of useful apps, and was pretty easy to program. It was the beginning of my love affair with mobile and wearable gadgets. A close second, my Tesla Model X — who knew a car could be this much fun?!”

First computer: “TRS-80.”

Current phone: “Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. It is cracked to pieces — I’m amazed it still runs. The glass cover is literally shards of glass, so I have to be careful that I don’t cut myself when I use it, or end up with small pieces of glass in my hand. No idea why I haven’t replaced it yet. Maybe I’ll wait for the S9.”

Favorite app: “None. I have a love/hate relationship with apps. I love all of them when I first get them, but then the user experience person in me comes out, and I start critiquing them — nothing ever lives up to the promise.”

Favorite cause: “Going to cop out a bit and not name one. There are so many groups and causes under attack right now, from a woman’s right to choose, workplace equity, to civil rights, to immigrants and refugees and DREAMers, to climate change and the environment, and the list goes on. These are all important to me.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Self-driving electric cars. Electric for the hopefully beneficial impact it will have on the planet. Self-driving, of course, partly because of the potential impact on society: less need to own a car, fewer accidents … but really because it’s so freaking cool. I miss seeing the self-driving Ubers all over Pittsburgh.”

Most important technology of 2018: “My son would say quantum computing — he built his own quantum computer simulator. My daughter would say everyone having access to 3-D printing — she’s built her own 3-D printer to experiment. For me, not so much a technology, but our understanding of a technology. 2018 will be the year where we start to really understand the ethics of artificial intelligence and computer algorithms in general. We’ll understand the implicit and explicit biases that we build into these systems, and learn how to correct them to have equitable outcomes.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “I give my students this advice all the time. Figure out what drives you personally — what gets you mad, what gets you excited, and what you can’t stop working on because you just can’t put it down. Find careers and projects where you get to focus on those. Those are where the most fulfilling experiences come from.

“Also, don’t be afraid to take a risk and try something completely out of your comfort zone. If you had told me, a kid from a tiny town in British Columbia, that I was going to travel the world, live most of my life in the U.S., attempt to get a PhD three times in three different fields, I would have said that you’re crazy. I am lucky enough to have been willing to take some pretty big leaps of faith and/or stumble blindly onto the right path for me. Everyone should be so lucky!”

Website: UW iSchool profile

Twitter: @aninddey

LinkedIn: Anind Dey

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