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Month: February 2019

Creating social impact through research

Creating social impact through research

Over the years, our lab has done some really groundbreaking work in the fields of information seeking, interactive information retrieval, social and collaborative search, social media, and human-computer interaction. Almost all of it had been geared toward scholarly communities. It makes sense. After all, we are operating in an academic research setting.

But lately at least I have been pondering about how what we do could and should benefit the society. And I don’t mean it in subtle, indirect, or some hypothetical ways. Sure, everything we do has a positive impact on people, starting with people doing that work. It earns them class credits, diplomas, and salaries. It also helps educate students and train professionals in certain skills. But that’s still a very small sample of population. Beyond that, some of our research and technologies developed through that work have impacted various government, educational, research, for-profit, and non-profit organizations in furthering their agendas.

And yes, from time to time we have helped out the United Nations (UN) and a few other organizations more directly with their data problems.

That is still not enough. There are many important issues in the world to address and those of us in privileged positions should do more.

And that is where we launched a new effort called Science for Social Good (S4SG). Under this umbrella, we started rethinking some of our existing works and how they could help address one of the issues of societal importance. Since we already had ties with the UN, and I regularly participate in some of their activities, it made logical sense to start with what the UN considers as a set of important issues. As it happens, the UN has a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which they hope will be met by year 2030. And we decided to be a part of the solution.

The UN’s list seemed comprehensive enough, and so, we started from that list and first identified a few organizations who aim to address at least some of those SDGs. And then, we looked inward — to see what activities that we do could help with these SDGs. The result was a pleasant surprise. Several of our projects do actually directly connect to one or more of these SDGs. In other words, by solving those research and development problems, we are directly or indirectly helping the UN (and the world) meet those SDGs. Some of the most common SDGs that our projects are addressing include Good Health and Well-being (SDG-3), Education (SDG-4), and Reduced Inequality (SDG-10).

More importantly, creating the S4SG platform has allowed us to rethink some of our future research activities and see if we could better align them with the societal impact in mind. This is not always easy, but it’s almost always worth doing.

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