Laura Edelson: Bridging Social Implications and Humanitarian Efforts

edelson_300x200Laura Edelson, 2016 Chair of the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee, and former President of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, has found her dream volunteer role, combining her experience in Computer Science with a desire to use technology to make the world a better place. Below, Edelson discusses.

For those interested in further information about the social implications of technology and IEEE’s commitment to humanitarian activities,  visit IEEE SSIT’s website and the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee’s home page.

Can you please describe your education and career thus far? Why did you pursue engineering?

My family couldn’t afford to send me to college right after high school. I had always been good with computers, and I knew that one of the best jobs you can get without a college degree is as an IT Technician. I got a couple of Microsoft certifications, and started working as “your company’s computer guy.” I eventually found a job at a company that had tuition reimbursement, and started working on more and more complicated IT infrastructure projects until I was mostly working as a DBA. My company encouraged me to go to college, and I started attending classes at the University of Connecticut, which thankfully were paid for by my company. I was extremely lucky that there was a campus of UConn in the town where I was working, and my company allowed me to work flexible hours so if there was a class I needed to take that was during the workday, I could attend that class and then just work late that day. I worked full time and went to school full time, and graduated with a degree in Computer Science 5 years later, in 2008. By that point I was working as a software engineer. I’ve mostly worked in the financial world, which is dominant in the New York area. I’d wanted to do graduate work basically since I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, and I finally took the plunge this year. I will be starting a PH.D. program in Computer Science at NYU in September. I initially pursued a career in technology because it was the best way for me to help support my family. I realized very quickly however, that more than perhaps any other field, it is engineers who change the world. If I wanted to have a real impact on the world around me, software engineering was the way to do it. That is actually my primary motivation for pursuing a Ph.D. There are some pretty serious problems facing us as a society, and I hope to be able to contribute to some of the solutions.

How did you become involved with the IEEE, how and why did your involvement evolve, and in what capacity are you involved with the organization now?

While at University of Connecticut, one of my professors was Gerald Engel. He knew I was interested in issues at the intersection of society and technology, and encouraged me to get involved with SSIT after I graduated. My first volunteer role was as the SSIT representative to IEEE Women in Engineering. Later I was elected to SSIT’s Board of Governors and eventually was elected twice as SSIT’s president. I still serve as SSIT’s past president, and on a couple of committees for TAB and the IEEE Foundation, but currently my primary involvement with the IEEE is as chair of the Humanitarian Activities Committee.

How can the concepts learned throughout your education and career be applied to your leadership within the IEEE?

In the tech industry, you very quickly get used to working with people whose expertise is deep, but narrow. We are all experts in our own small area, and we come together to get something larger than any of us done. Working like that requires that you trust other people and that you delegate. Taking that same approach has worked well for me within the IEEE. As a leader, I do my best to find amazing volunteers, give them opportunities to do great work, and do my best to make sure they get the recognition they deserve.

What initially drew you to SSIT?

Fundamentally, I believe that everyone has a responsibility to consider the impact of their actions on the world around them. For engineers, this means that we have a responsibility to think about how what we build will affect society. It’s not possible to see the future of course, but technology is changing so quickly that it’s virtually impossible for there to be a public discussion of a new technology before it’s adopted. That means that if engineers don’t think about the social implications of their work, there simply isn’t anyone else to do so. SSIT was founded by engineers who worked on weapons systems for the United States during the Korean War, and later in their careers had serious qualms about the work that they had done. I didn’t want to look back on my career and worry that my work had made the world a worse place, and I thought that getting involved with SSIT was the best way to make sure that didn’t happen.

What led to your interest in, involvement in, and desire to chair the Humanitarian Activities Committee (HAC)? What is the committee’s current focus?

Many volunteers within the IEEE have been working on humanitarian projects for years. EPICS and Smart Village, to name just two examples, have been active for a while now. The IEEE Board of Directors recognized that this was a growing member interest, and formed a Humanitarian Activities Ad Hoc, to explore how the IEEE could expand and make permanent its involvement in this area. I was asked to serve on that Ad Hoc because of my background with SSIT. We spent a couple of years working to figure out what it would be possible to do, and then what kind of organization would be necessary to support the IEEE Board’s vision for Humanitarian Activities. My work with the Ad Hoc led to my nomination to chair the HAC this year. Chairing the HAC is my dream (volunteer) job, so I was thrilled with the appointment. I believe IEEE volunteers working together in their local communities have tremendous potential to change the lives of many. I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish.

Can you give some examples of social implications prevalent to technologists today?

There are so many that it’s hard to choose only a couple! Data privacy and strong encryption has been in the news a lot lately. It’s such an important issue that it’s bubbled up to be a topic of discussion not only in congress but also in bars and living rooms. While the debate is the same safety vs. liberty debate we’ve been having for hundreds of years, this time engineers are right in the center of it. I also think the biomedical revolution we seem to be on the cusp of is going to throw up some really important issues. There are some interesting outstanding questions about the ownership of genetic material. How will ‘orphan diseases’ be handled in the upcoming, even more expensive, future?

How can a global organization like the IEEE influence social and humanitarian issues? Does a large, global organization have a responsibility to do this?

Obviously, I believe the IEEE can have an important, positive impact on social and humanitarian issues. I think any large, global non-profit has a responsibility to the world at large, but I think that the IEEE has a particularly serious obligation here. I know it’s just a tagline, but I take ‘Advancing Technology for Humanity’ seriously. The IEEE is a unique organization of global professionals who change the world every day. I hope that over the next several years, we will continue to lead by doing. So many volunteers within IEEE are active in the Humanitarian or Social Impact space, and I’m glad to see the IEEE is beginning to put more of the organization’s weight behind these efforts. I do think there is a role for public advocacy by the IEEE, but obviously it would have to be in a fairly limited way.

How do the social implications of technology connect to humanitarian issues, both in regard to the greater public, as well as IEEE’s humanitarian activities efforts?

I think Humanitarian and Development engineering is a Technology area with a lot of Social Implications, as well as being an important engineering discipline in its own right. Many of the questions of Social Implications that interest me have an outsized presence in the humanitarian space. Questions like – who owns this data? In a given transaction, who is the customer and what (or who) is the product? Does this technology have a positive impact on people’s lives? Is information being presented in a way that is honest and allows people to make informed decisions? These may seem like trivial issues compared to the problems that humanitarian engineering is trying to solve, but if it’s worth our time to think about what should be included in the Terms of Use of Instagram, a service that no one needs to use, it’s almost certainly also worth our time to think about how customers for far more necessary products should be treated. With regard to how an awareness of the social impact of our work is handled by the HAC, I’d say the biggest thing would be the importance we place on community involvement in projects we support. Any project we support must show strong community involvement, not just community support. Also, we only support projects that are driven by volunteers in the same country as the target community. This isn’t foolproof of course, but it’s our way of ensuring that the people working on the project have an understanding of the social context they are working in.  

How can we bring current social and humanitarian issues into dialogue between both practitioners and the general public?

I think that the very first step that needs to happen is a strong initiative to improve the education of the general public on technical topics. The fact that the vast majority of Americans simply do not understand the way data encryption works meant that it was impossible to have a public discussion about the attempts by the U.S. Government to force Apple to compromise their own security a few months ago. I personally find it quite frightening that apparently the majority of our lawmakers don’t understand how data encryption works, and they are writing laws about how it is used. We need to have a concept of technical literacy, and educational efforts need to be made to ensure that everyone is familiar with basic topics. Beyond basic educational efforts, I believe that scientists and engineers do have a role to play in public advocacy. Sticking with the data encryption topic, who is better placed than engineers to talk to the public about what the potential consequences are if efforts to legislate a ‘backdoor’ in commonly used encryption are successful?

 

Comments

  • I agree with the idea that our lawmakers are generally ignorant about technical issues. How about imposing the requirement that before they propose or pass any law, they have to be briefed by technical experts to assure they understand the implications of the law they are considering.

  • Inspirational IEEE vision in SSIT and HAC, Chair Edelson is compelling! This direction and approach can be far reaching socially and ethically imo makes my membership more relevant for engagement/betterment all around …

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