Carnegie Mellon University
March 10, 2020

ISR Researchers to Receive Google Faculty Research Awards

By Josh Quicksall

ISR researchers Mayank Goel, Christian Kästner, and Bogdan Vasilescu were among those recently tapped to receive two coveted Google Faculty Research Awards.

The award by the tech juggernaut seeks to identify and strengthen long-term collaborative relationships with faculty working on problems that will impact how future generations use technology. Structured as seed funding to support one graduate student for one year and awarded as an unrestricted gift, the award is highly competitive with only 15% of applicants receiving funding after a rigorous Google-wide review process.

Goel’s submission, “Teaching Old Sensors New Tricks to Enable Plug-and-Play Activity Recognition for Opportunistic Health Sensing”, aims to address the coarseness of health data collected by wearables. Goel plans to build an easily-trainable and general-purpose activity recognition system using sensors on wearables and smart speech assistants. Goel notes that this approach is designed to have a rapid, notable impact on health sensing. “Our approach combines sensing from smart speakers and smartwatches, which are two technologies quickly becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives,” he explains. “And by focusing deploying our work to end-users in the health domain, we can not only assure our approach works for actual users in the real world, but we can position this work to be useful and relevant in solving real problems that will have an immediate, significant impact.”

Kästner and Vasilescu’s submission, “Understanding (Un)Healthy Interactions in Open-Source”, looks at the emerging issue of stress and burnout among open-source contributors. “Open-source plays a crucial role in modern software development, providing important digital infrastructure and contributing to economic growth and almost every facet of modern life,” the researchers note. “A lack of continued contributions can render critical open-source infrastructure unsustainable and can seriously harm dependent projects and innovation overall.”

As a part of a multi-year research project, the pair aims to begin to investigate whether and how an overwhelming amount of requests (for support, bug fixes, new features) and the tone of such communication, especially when entitled and aggressive, can shorten and weaken developer engagement. Drawing from social science theory to understand how the tone of communications can impact engagement, Kästner and Vasilescu plan to mine public data for hundreds of thousands of active contributors and millions of open-source projects and automatically identify toxic interaction using machine-learning classifiers. In doing so, the group hopes to understand what drives and stops toxic interactions with an eye toward interventions that could make open source a more welcoming and sustainable place.

Projects such as these - projects with the potential for real, near-term impact - are the hallmark of ISR. “ISR has always taken great pride in tackling real problems and finding practical solutions,” notes ISR Director, Jim Herbsleb. “The Google Faculty Research Awards are a great way to interact with a leading tech firm, cement our close relationships with an important industry partner, and try out our ideas in the real world.”

As much an honor as it is for one of these awards to come home to a department, Herbsleb notes that two in a single year is remarkable. “The competition for these awards is pretty stiff. So, you can imagine that having two Google awards in ISR is not just an honor but also a strong indication of the quality and importance of the work underway right here.”