News List for Export – Posts

CCIS Welcomes Three New Outstanding Faculty Members

July 17, 2009 6:07 pm

Dr. Lazer joins Northeastern University as a tenured associate professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Science with a half-time appointment in the College. David’s research interests focus on the role that social networks play in the functioning of groups. His recent work has focused on the potential of studying the digital traces of human interaction to reveal underlying social structures. Examples of this research include the use of mobile phone data to detect friendship patterns, as well as Federal Election Commission Data to examine the structure of the party system in the United States.

Dr. Mislove joins the College as assistant professor. Alan just received his PhD from Rice University, and he spent the last four years finishing his degree while at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Saarbruecken, Germany. Alan’s primary research interests lie in distributed systems and networking, with a recent focus on using properties of social networks to solve systems problems. He is also interested in Internet measurement and analysis, wireless networks, and decentralized systems and applications.

Dr. Vona joins the College as an assistant professor. Marty is currently finishing his PhD at MIT, and while a graduate student, he took a two year leave of absence to work at JPL on the science operations software for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, for which he won the NASA Software of the Year Award in 2004. Marty’s primary research interests lie in computation that interacts with the physical world, including robotics, user interfaces, geometric design systems, and data visualization. He also has interests in real-time and embedded systems, multi-core and GPGPU software, and compact UI’s for personal electronics.

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit

Professor Timothy Bickmore receives grant for using Communication Technology to Improve the Health of Young African American Women

July 19, 2009 6:07 pm

Prof. Timothy Bickmore, in collaboration with researchers at Boston Medical Center, was awarded a $400,000 grant from the Agency for Health Research and Quality, entitled “Using Innovative Communication Technology to Improve the Health of Young African American Women.” The objective of this two year project is to develop a “preconception care” health behavior change intervention for African American women ranging from 15 to 21 years old, engaging them before they become pregnant to address disparities in infant mortality and low birth weight. This intervention covers twelve domains of health behavior known to affect the health of mothers and infants, spanning healthcare access, family planning, nutrition and diet, mental health, alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse, infectious disease, immunizations and medical conditions. The intervention will be delivered by a web-based relational agent, an animated counselor that delivers tailored health messages to patients at home. The system will have social networking capabilities enabling patients to contribute personal change narratives that may be helpful to others in similar situations.

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit

Making Sense of Health-Care Change

July 20, 2009 6:06 pm

Dan Feinberg Photo by Craig Bailey

As the U.S. government struggles to decide how to fix the country’s health-care systems, Dan Feinberg, director of Northeastern’s health informatics program, has a unique view of the road ahead.

Health informatics experts create ways to integrate innovative technology into the day-to-day care of individual patients. Regardless of the health-care approach that emerges, such experts will be in high demand.

Here, Feinberg offers his assessment of the reform landscape.

What are some of the reasons health-care reform measures are being slow to move through Congress?

There is fundamental disagreement over how much reform is necessary and how fast it should take effect, as well as disagreement over how much government should be involved in the solution.

When we talk about a public health plan, what are the most important things to focus on?

Universal primary care brings value. Coordinated care brings value. Paying for quality rather than procedures encourages value. Improving efficiency of care brings value.

But cutting costs by broadly cutting payments does not bring value. Nor does limiting care.

When we talk of public plans, people look north or overseas and talk about universal care and government-paid care as if they were the same thing. They should also look at the Veterans Administration, which is both government-paid, universal (within a certain population), and integrated.

How will the large investment in electronic medical records (EMR), which is part of the stimulus bill, help health care?

An EMR is a tool. Most of the real value will come from how we use the tool. If we can integrate delivery systems, coordinate care, and improve disease management using tools like this, then we will see real value and real savings.

For example, an EMR serves as a base for disease management systems, which keep disease in control before an expensive hospital visit is needed. This is an important part of what students learn in the health informatics program at Northeastern: the implementation of the technology, not just the technology itself.

Why are many well-regarded groups, like the American Medical Association, rejecting a proposed public health-care option?

Government, especially via Medicare and Medicaid, has historically tried to control costs by broadly cutting payments. New rules inspired by certain abuses were often so broad that even good utilization was financially penalized. This leaves doctors very wary of government involvement.

President Obama has faced criticism because his plan might give individuals with severe medical problems little to no coverage. How might these patients be better served?

We need to face the fact that a large number of people need a small bit of care and a small number of people need a large amount of care. That is how insurance works. But that makes people hear “socialism” and reject such coverage.

Better measurements—partly from electronic records—will confront us with the truth of what we spend, and this might create a political opening.

What do you predict will ultimately come of Obama’s health-care reform and push for universal health care?

With luck, the whole country will look like Massachusetts. As a state, we lead the nation in payment reform. We lead the nation in adoption of medical records and building coordinated-care systems around them. The major health-care providers in this area are a model of improving preventative care and disease management.

Symposium in Honor of Mitchell Wand

September 1, 2009 6:04 pm

In cooperation with ACM SIGPLAN

Co-located with Scheme and Functional Programming 2009

On August 23rd and 24th, Northeastern University hosted a special Symposium in celebration of Dr. Mitchell Wand‘s 60th birthday and honoring his pioneering work in the field of programming languages. For over 30 years Mitch has made important contributions to many areas of programming languages, including semantics, continuations, type theory, hygienic macros, compiler correctness, static analysis and formal verification.

After receiving his PhD from MIT in 1973, Mitch taught at Indiana University where he and colleague Daniel P. Friedman wrote the first edition of their seminal text, Essentials of Programming Languages. Described by a reviewer as “so influential that the initials EOPL are a widely understood shorthand,” the text is now in its third edition from MIT Press. Mitch joined the faculty of Northeastern University in 1985 and has been a leader in the College of Computer and Information Science. In 2007, Mitch was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.

The program of the Symposium consisted of 19 presentations of original research as well as two keystone talks, celebrating this personal milestone and paying tribute to a great computer scientist, researcher, teacher and colleague, Dr. Mitchell (Mitch) Wand.


  • Schedule and program (slides and videos as they become available)
  • Follow the Mitchfest blog for news on the latest updates!


Northeastern University
Curry Student Center Ballroom (Building 50)
346 Huntington Ave
Boston, MA 02115

Important Dates

August 1, 2009 – Registration deadline
August 22, 2009 – Scheme Workshop
August 23 – 24, 2009 – Symposium in Honor of Mitchell Wand

Steering Committee

  • Olivier Danvy (Aarhus University)
  • David Herman (Northeastern University)
  • Dino Oliva (Bloomberg LP)
  • Olin Shivers (Northeastern University)

Sponsors and Partners


Mozilla Firefix


No Language Barrier Here

September 2, 2009 6:04 pm

Student Brad Osgood poses with a family in China. Courtesy photo

Working in the software development division of IBM’s Beijing office, Northeastern computer science major Brad Osgood found his linguistic focus shift from the computer language of ones and zeros to a new, human language: Mandarin Chinese.

Osgood’s experience, working just blocks from Olympic Park, enabled him to discover an unexpected passion for China’s culture and language—and an unexpected path after graduation.

“I just fell in love with it there,” he says. “My goal is to learn Chinese and go back and get a job there.”

So determined is Osgood to return to China after he graduates in 2010 that he has continued to pursue his Mandarin studies at the Boston Language Institute, determined to become fluent in another year, he says.

Osgood landed his position at IBM, which ended in July, after deciding to seek an international experience to round out his college education.

Soon after he arrived in January, Osgood made friends with colleagues who took him on trips, and participated in weekly cultural-exchange exercises at the office. On Fridays, Osgood and colleagues would make presentations to one another highlighting a cultural detail of their country, or hometown.

Early on, Osgood noticed without having it spelled out in a presentation that Beijing was brimming with opportunity for Westerners, and filled with a positive, upbeat energy, he says.

“Everywhere you look in China, it seems like there is construction going on. The atmosphere is so positive,” Osgood says. “Most people in Beijing just seem so happy, as though they finally have this chance in the world.”

He adds, “Westerners are in great demand because the country wants so badly to connect with the West, and the business world.”

Just before he returned to Boston, Osgood traveled with a coworker to Hunan and Hubei provinces, and as he grew more confident in his conversational Chinese, and his ability to navigate the continent, he promised himself a return trip.

“I can’t wait to go back.”

Network Scientist Analyzes Life’s ‘Digital Breadcrumbs’

October 5, 2009 6:03 pm

Social networks expert David Lazer joins Northeastern University. Photo courtesy of Harvard University

David Lazer, an expert in social networks and their effects on politics and organizations and one of the 42 tenured and tenure-track professors to join Northeastern this fall, has shown how cell phone usage patterns can predict friendship. Lazer joins the university from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a joint appointment in political science and computer science.

The proof appears in his article on cell phone usage that recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article examines how patterns of cell phone use and the proximity of one cell phone to the next can demonstrate levels of friendship among people. Researchers were able to deduce the degree of a friendship by analyzing these patterns—patterns Lazer refers to as “digital breadcrumbs.”

“Friendship is something that is hard to observe because, in a deep sense, it exists in someone’s head,” he says. “People can be friends with someone they haven’t seen for years or rarely talk with.”

The study, conducted with Nathan Eagle of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and colleague Sandy Pentland of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, documented cell phone use patterns, or “behavioral signatures,” by tracking the number of calls between phones and how far apart the cell-phone users were from one another. The study concluded, with 95 percent accuracy, that patterns of use and proximity could predict which of the study volunteers would identify themselves as friends.

At Northeastern Lazer plans to use this finding to expand his analysis of data on everything from human interactions during political elections to behavioral patterns during flu season. He also plans to work with Northeastern’s media lab researching telephone data to better understand the structures of society and who talks with whom.

Lazer will continue to direct Harvard’s Program on Networked Governance, which fosters research on the interconnectedness of governmental units and provides a forum to discuss the challenges of hierarchical, top-down government.

He’ll now also work with Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research, considered the world’s leading research center in network science. Lazer has already worked with the Center’s director, Albert-László Barabási, a distinguished physics professor and leading network scientist. Their coauthored article, “Computational Social Science,”  appeared in the February issue of Science.

The article notes that the capacity to collect and analyze tremendous amounts of data has transformed fields such as physics and biology, but that computational social science fields, such as economics, sociology, and political science, have only begun to leverage this capacity “with an unprecedented breadth, depth, and scale.”

“We’re trying to build a bridge between old methods [of data collection] and new,” Lazer says. “The social sciences need to change in reaction to the availability of data.”

CCIS Welcomes Three New Outstanding Faculty Members

November 9, 2009 6:03 pm

Excellence in Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs Recognized by Leading Industry Magazine

The College of Computer and Information Science is pleased to announce the addition of three new outstanding faculty members, Peter Desnoyers, Mirek Riedewald and Emanuele Viola.

Dr. Desnoyers received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2008 and joins the College as an assistant professor. His work focuses on operating systems and storage with concentration on storage needs of new and evolving applications. He is currently employed with VMware, Inc. where he is investigating methods of optimizing storage and network transfer of virtual machines.

Dr. Riedewald joins the College as associate professor beginning in the winter semester of 2009. Dr. Riedewald received his PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2002. His research interests lie in databases and data mining with emphasis on designing scalable techniques for data-driven science. He is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University.

Dr. Viola received his PhD from Harvard University in 2006 and will serve as an assistant professor. Dr. Viola works in theoretical computer science, particularly computational complexity and pseudorandomness. He has previously served as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as at Columbia University.

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit

Discovering Northeastern with new iPhone App

November 10, 2009 6:02 pm

The new “Discover Northeastern” app is available for free download. Photo by Craig Bailey

Want to use your iPhone to get around the Northeastern University campus? Now, there’s an app for that. The University has launched “Discover Northeastern,” a new iPhone and iPod Touch application that will enable users to navigate the campus and get the latest information on events around the school. Developed by a Northeastern undergraduate, the innovative app uses a GPS-enabled campus map, powered by Google Maps.

“This application is ideal for prospective students interested in Northeastern because it puts information right at their fingertips, literally,” said Ronne Turner, associated vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions and marketing. “Northeastern prides itself on using cutting-edge technology to enhance the experience of our student and guests.”

“Discover Northeastern” also provides users with unique views into campus life through a photo gallery, and includes direct links to various admissions social networking resources, including Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and several blogs.

The application was developed by College of Computer and Information Science student Ken McGrady in conjunction with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and is available for free download from Apple’s App Store.

“Northeastern already has a strong campaign in social media, so the iPhone application is just an added bonus for potential students,” said McGrady. “I think it says a lot when the University hires their own students to do work like this. It shows that Northeastern believes in the education it provides.”

McGrady is currently on co-op in California working for Intuit on its product development team. The company creates technology solutions for personal finance and small businesses.

Together with a small team of developers, designers and project managers, McGrady works on developing new and exciting products specifically for the iPhone market, although he developed “Discover Northeastern” on his own, and not on co-op.

“I pretty much get to work with the cool technology and help Intuit modernize,” said McGrady. “I am an equal on the team, often posing ideas, questions, problems, and solutions in the overall product development.”

Virtual Nurse Developed by Professor Tim Bickmore Undergoes Testing At Boston Medical Center

February 13, 2010 6:02 pm

A recent Mass High Tech article describes plans by Boston Medical Center to test the virtual nurse technology developed by Professor Tim Bickmore as a means of reducing costs and improving patient care during patient discharges.

New Release Six Faculty Researchers DVD

February 15, 2010 6:01 pm

New release of video that reflects why our faculty have chosen Northeastern University, as well as presents undergraduate research opportunities and interdisciplinary education that a CCIS degree will provide.

Being Safe in Cyber World

February 16, 2010 6:00 pm

Papageorge is the Director of Northeastern's information assurance program. Photo by Lauren McFalls.

Cyber attacks, identity theft, credit card breaches, and computer viruses are some of the hazards associated with travel along the information superhighway. Information security is an urgent and ongoing concern for businesses and individuals alike. Themis Papageorge, director of Northeastern University’s information assurance program, assesses the real risk associated with cyber threats, and offers advice on how to make our virtual journeys a little safer and more secure.

A recent survey of 600 information technology (IT) executives in 14 countries found that many believe that Internet security is a growing threat to society. Why is this the case?
The number of cyber attacks has been increasing very quickly over the past 10 years due to the growing number of wireless and digital devices that people use in their daily lives. The impact of these attacks, from credit card theft to banking fraud, now affects the general public as well as large companies and government agencies. This accounts for annual losses totaling hundreds of millions dollars and threatens national security.

Since so many critical and highly sensitive industries, such as energy and banking, are using Web-based technologies, what infrastructure is necessary to keep proprietary information safe?
The infrastructure must combine cyber defense technology with societal awareness and education. People are behind these attacks. We need to educate and train IT professionals to use the best practices and technologies that are available to defend against cyber attacks.  The general public also needs to be alert to potential attacks.
Since this is an international phenomenon, we need to collaborate and create a more comprehensive technical and legal framework to counter Internet security threats.

How extensive were the cyber attacks on Google in China?
Based on Google’s public statements, the cyber attacks were deep and widespread. The attackers were able to penetrate Google’s sophisticated defenses, resulting in the theft of Google’s intellectual property and hundreds of thousands compromised e-mail accounts. In addition, Google identified at least 20 other companies that suffered Internet security breaches as a result of the same cyber attack.

If Google decides to leave China, how would that affect how information is shared to and from China over the Internet?
I think the impact will be significant, at least in the short term. From a business perspective it will take some time replace the service that Google provides, quoted at $600 million each year. From a technical point of view, Chinese and international companies that would step in to provide this service will have to put additional cyber defenses in place to thwart the next attack. In terms of U.S.-China relations, both governments have expressed very different views on this incident, which if not resolved, could restrict information sharing.

How will students enrolled in Northeastern’s Information Assurance (IA) program be prepared to solve these problems?
The program trains students to become effective IA professionals and future chief security officers. Our students have technical or social science backgrounds that enable them to identify vulnerabilities and put technical countermeasures and policies in place to protect and defend organizations from Internet security threats. In addition, IA students graduate with both academic and business experience through experiential opportunities, better preparing them to meet real-world challenges.

How can the general public help protect information shared over the World Wide Web and other interactive communications channels?
The general public can help protect their proprietary information by learning more about Internet security threats and using the available tools to make Internet access more secure.
If you have access to a virtual private network, which adds an extra layer of security, I would suggest using it. If you are accessing your bank account online, look for the URL to read “https,” not “http,” as the “https” designates that the information is secured by encryption. For e-mail communication, it is better not to open an e-mail or an attachment if you do not know the sender. Above all, educate yourself and be aware that “bad guys” are trying to breach Internet security measures every day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

CCIS Wins 1st Place in the Northeast Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

March 9, 2010 5:59 pm

Team Members (Left to Right):
Top Row:
Shawn Smith – Undergrad Junior Captain
Marc Held – Undergrad Middler
Alagu Irulappan M G – First year grad
Channing Conger – Undergrad Senior
Bottom Row:
Will Nowak – Undergrad Senior
Weiwei Hu – Second year Grad
Kevin Amorin – Team adviser/Coach

Northeastern University has won the championship in the Northeast Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, held last weekend at University of Maine.  A total of 9 teams competed in the Northeast Regional this year, including Harvard University, Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Maine.   The team from the College of Computer and Information Science, led by Information Assurance faculty member, Kevin Amorin, consists of 4 undergraduates in Computer Science and 2 graduate students from the Information Assurance program, and has been in training since late December. The 20-hour competition stresses students’ ability to handle the task of securing a real world corporate environment over a three-day period.  Each team had to maintain the functionality of its network while it was under attacks by a professional Red Team, at the same time, they had to produce policy documents describing server configuration, accessibility, email, password and other requirements.

This is the second year in a row that Northeastern University has won first place in the Northeast Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. They will now move onto the National Competition to be held in San Antonio, Texas, April 16-18, 2010.   This is the largest college-level cyber defense competition in the world.  There are more than one hundred teams from around the nation competing for the 8 final spots in the National Competition.  Last year, Northeastern University came in second in this competition.  Let’s go, Northeastern!

Virtual Nurse Technology on Path to Commercial Use

March 18, 2010 5:58 pm

Patient interacts with virtual nurse. Photo by Glenn Kulbako.

Northeastern University, the Boston Medical Center and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have entered into a licensing agreement with Engineered Care, a San Francisco-area healthcare software company, to pursue commercialization of virtual nursing software developed by Northeastern computer science professor Timothy Bickmore.

The software features a computer-animated nurse, “Louise,” who talks patients though the hospital discharge process and assesses their understanding of medical instructions.

“Post-discharge self-care regimens are typically complex, with the average patient going away with 10 medications and multiple follow-up appointments,” said Bickmore. “The discharge is even more hazardous for patients who have difficulty reading and following basic written medical instructions.” Despite this level of complexity, he said, the average pre-discharge conversation outlining care instructions lasts fewer than eight minutes.

According to Dr. Brian Jack, a physician at the Boston Medical Center, nearly 20 percent of discharged patients are eventually readmitted to the hospital within a month due to low health literacy and insufficient knowledge of self-care medical instructions. Nearly 30 percent of these readmissions are preventable with a more complete reinforcement of discharge directions, said Jack. Reducing these preventable readmissions not only means healthier patients, but also lower health-care costs.

Louise is Bickmore’s solution to the discharge issues that contribute to the hospital readmission rate. Using a touch screen, a patient interacts with Louise through an 11-step discharge process that takes an average of 52 minutes, a pace that can be controlled by the patient. Louise asks about medication regimens and follow-up visits. She also tailors her facial expressions and responses to the patient based upon the input and quizzes patients on their comprehension of the discharge material.

In a pilot program at Boston Medical Center, nearly 450 patients used Louise, and the results were encouraging, said Bickmore. “Patients in the trial group weren’t afraid to repeatedly ask Louise for instructions and didn’t feel rushed to move though the discharge process,” he said.

This technology is one of many research projects at Northeastern moving towards commercialization, said Jeffrey Kosiba, intellectual property manager in Northeastern’s Office of Technology Innovation and Commercialization.

Engineered Care has been granted exclusive rights to implement the technology for patient discharge. The firm’s goal is to market the product both domestically and globally within the next three years.

Professor Alan Mislove has received an NSF Grant to research Enhancing User Privacy in the Next-Generation Internet

April 6, 2010 5:58 pm

The next-generation Internet must connect not only machines, but also users: families, friends, representatives, and rights advocates.  There are immense technical challenges in facilitating communication while protecting user privacy and guarding user security.  Online social networks today forge ahead on this path, providing users with new protocols and applications, but often without putting the privacy of their users first.  This research will lay the foundation for decentralized online social networks: no third parties will necessarily be trusted with personal information, users will be able to craft detailed access policies for their social data, users will have assurance that their friends are not impostors, and users will continue to access functionality similar to current social networking applications.  This work is being done with colleagues at the University of Maryland.

Professor Guevara Noubir leads a multi-disciplinary team to develop a new generation of application-driven wireless sensor networks

April 7, 2010 5:57 pm

Professor Guevara Noubir is leading a multi-disciplinary team to develop a new generation of application-driven wireless sensor networks. Recognizing the importance of building energy-efficient wireless sensor networks for applications such as secure rescue mission, reliable building structure and health monitoring, Professor Noubir gathered a team of researchers spanning over the College of Computer and Information Science (Professor Peter Desnoyers and Professor Marty Vona), Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (Professor Stefano Basagni), Department of Civil Engineering (Professor Dennis Bernal), and the Bouve College of Health Sciences (Professor Maureen Holden) to work towards the goal. The team has just been awarded an NSF Major Research Instrumentation grant to develop a multi-purpose wireless sensor networking instrument that will support the specific experimental research needs of cross-layer protocols for heterogeneous sensor networks and key applications such as search and rescue by swarms of robots, building structures, health monitoring, and patient motion tracking. The instrument will enable (1) research and education for developing and experimenting with protocols and algorithms for a future generation of wireless sensor networks, (2) cross-cutting research and education in application areas of key interest to our society in general and Northeastern University in particular.

This work enhances the support of existing mechanisms of today’s wireless sensor networks such as security, energy efficiency, and reliability by using a more capable new generation of systems on chips at an order of magnitude lower in cost and within a significantly smaller package than today’s solution. Additionally, novel capabilities that enable research are designed and integrated into the target multi-disciplinary application areas; these include:

– Directional antennas for localization, and interference-cancellation, using a combination of low-cost mechanical and electronic beam-forming techniques (outperforming purely electronic smart antennas). This improves communication capacity and robustness against unintentional and malicious interference. It will be fitted on mobile robots and combined with ultra-sound transceivers for faster localization of transmission sources in search and rescue missions.

– Ultralow-power with multi-radio support including wakeup-radios, enabling asymmetric communication architectures, and allowing deployed sensor nodes to last for over a decade without battery changes.

– Nodes hardware, software, and network design architected for ease of composability to quickly integrate specific hardware components of new applications such as wideband reduces personnel in the development microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS) ultrasound transceivers, MEMS accelerometers, flash storage, and also interfaces with a variety of robots and off-the-shelf components (e.g., miniSD GPS).

Expanding possibilities to lunar exploration

April 8, 2010 5:57 pm

Northeastern professor Marty Vona collaborated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to design a software interface for a lunar robot. Photo by Lauren McFalls

Expanding possibilities to lunar exploration, experimental roboticist Marty Vona won’t be flying to the moon.

But his National Science Foundation-funded work on a robotic rover could help astronauts explore the big rock in the sky on a lunar mission within the next decade.

Vona, an assistant professor of computer and information science, collaborated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, California to design a software interface for the research and development center’s ATHLETE, or All Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra Terrestrial Explorer.

The six-legged vehicle can carry heavy payloads on its hexagonal surface; dig trenches and pick up objects using tools that can attach to its wheels; take stereoscopic video of its surroundings using cameras imbedded in the face of the frame; and navigate rough terrain. A half-sized prototype of the robot, which travels 10 kilometers per hour, is more than 6 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter.

But as originally developed, the robot had its limitations. That’s where Vona came in. He used algorithms to virtually modify the robot by adding joints and links to a graphical representation of the vehicle. The joints function like elbows, while the links work like forearms.

Through Vona’s computer interface, users can interconnect these “virtual articulations” with a model of the actual robot, enabling it to execute a variety of previously challenging coordinated motion tasks, as if the virtual components actually existed- saving NASA time and money.

“Robots are large and expensive,” said Vona, whose scholarship focuses on robotics operations and control, “so you want to be sure you know how they’re going to perform under certain conditions.”

In a perfect world, “astronauts and the lunar robot will be roving around the moon as a team.”

Before joining the Northeastern faculty, Vona spent two years at the Jet Propulsion Lab, where he created the science operations software for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. Vona earned the 2004 NASA Software of the Year Award for his work.

He’s had a passion for building robots for as long as he can remember.

At around age 6, he wrote a letter outlining his wishes for humankind. “I wish that anyone could do anything if they tried,” the note said. “For example, anyone could make a robot to do all the housework . . . life would be a lot easier.”

CCIS Wins 1st Place in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

April 20, 2010 5:56 pm


A team of Northeastern students took the top prize at the 2010 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Art Conklin-University of Houston

A team of Northeastern University computer science and information assurance students has bested seven other teams from institutions around the United States to earn top honors in the 2010 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

Northeastern’s team consisted of graduate students Weiwei Hu and Alagu Irulappan, and undergraduate students Marc Held, Shawn Smith, William Nowak and Channing Conger. Kevin Amorin, a lecturer in the College of Computer and Information Science, coached the team.
Now in its fifth year, the Cyber Defense Competition was held from April 16 to 18 in San Antonio, Texas. To win the top prize, known as the Alamo Cup, participants have to figure out ways to manage and protect a fictional company’s network infrastructure. Each team quickly assesses its network’s current protection level, then tries to fend off a series of cyber attacks.

Teams are judged on how well they detect and respond to outside threats, maintain their business’s operational needs, stay responsive to user demands, and meet service-level agreements for all critical Internet operations.

The Northeastern team started training in December for this year’s event. Smith, the Northeastern team captain, says the experiential-learning opportunities he and his teammates received at their various co-op jobs—which included working at Google and Microsoft—paid huge dividends during the competition.

“We can talk with one another about what we know,” Smith says. “I might not know how to do something, but, instead of having to search online for a few minutes, I can get a straight answer from one of my friends.”

The competition, the world’s largest college-level cyber-defense contest, provides students with practical experience and the opportunity to meet and interact with industry professionals. Universities use the event to evaluate the efficacy of their cyber-security curriculum. Even Howard Schmidt, the White House’s cybersecurity coordinator, attended the event to observe the teams at work.

Northeastern’s team has shown remarkable growth over the three years it has competed. In 2008, the team finished second in the Northeast regional contest. Last year, the team won the Northeast regional and took second in the national competition. This year, Northeastern defeated eight other teams in the regional in March before winning the national competition.

“We were kind of coming back with a vengeance, I guess,” says Smith, who has competed each of the last three years. “It felt really good to win.”

A networking opportunity

May 18, 2010 5:55 pm

Professor Noubir is working with an interdisciplinary team to develop new wireless sensor networks. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

Guevara Noubir, associate professor of computer and information science, is leading an interdisciplinary team to develop a new generation of application-driven wireless sensor networks.

These energy efficient wireless sensor networks would offer significant advantages in applications as diverse as search and rescue, building inspection and health monitoring and motion tracking.

In order to undertake a project of such magnitude, Noubir assembled a team of researchers from various disciplines including professors Peter Desnoyers and Marty Vona from his own college, Stefano Basagni, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, Dennis Bernal, associate professor of civil engineering, and Maureen Holden, associate professor of physical therapy.

“The interdisciplinary effort is integral to the research,” said Noubir. “By bringing together researchers with expertise that spans such areas of engineering and health sciences in conjunction with computer science, we are better able to explore the many possibilities for wireless sensor networks.”

The team has just been awarded a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant to develop a multi-purpose wireless sensor-networking instrument—a key first step to support continuing research and development.

The instrument will enable experimentation with protocols and algorithms for a future generation of wireless sensor networks and exploration of their numerous interdisciplinary uses.

Noubir’s work seeks to enhance the security, energy efficiency and reliability of wireless sensor networks by creating a more capable generation of systems that are lower in cost and significantly smaller than existing systems.

Data-mining technique known as familial searching

July 10, 2010 5:55 pm

By David Lazer and Frederick R. Bieber of the Los Angeles Times

It was an unfinished slice of pizza that led to the identification of Lonnie David Franklin Jr. as the prime suspect in the Grim Sleeper murder investigation. But the pizza was just the final clue leading to his arrest.

The key break in the investigation, intermittently conducted over 25 years, came when investigators found a close — but not perfect — match between the DNA recovered at multiple crime scenes and a man being held in a California prison. Such a near-match strongly indicated that the person wanted by police was a close relative of the man in prison, and police soon focused on the man’s father, Lonnie Franklin. They put him under surveillance, obtained his discarded pizza and found that his DNA matched that recovered at a Grim Sleeper crime scene.

Four years ago, in the journal Science, we described how a data-mining technique known as “familial searching” could be used for efficient identification of possible crime suspects when traditional investigative efforts fail. The paper (which we wrote along with UC Berkeley mathematician Charles Brenner) explained how crime laboratories might benefit from searching not just for perfect matches, but also for close ones, when trying to connect DNA from unsolved crimes to the DNA of known offenders whose genetic profiles are held in local, state and national databases. Because relatives share common DNA profiles, close matches can implicate family members as possible crime suspects.

The importance of this technique was clearly demonstrated this week in Los Angeles. Yet currently in the U.S., familial searching is allowed only in California and parts of Colorado. As experience with familial searching increases, other states will probably embrace the technique. And as they do, it is imperative that policies be carefully crafted to ensure both efficiency and accuracy in case selection, statistical thresholds and follow-up testing and investigation.

Familial searching extends the size and reach of the nation’s DNA databases to effectively include the parents, children and siblings of the 8 million offenders and arrestees whose DNA profiles are already stored in databases. Additional technologies, including Y-chromosome genotyping and examination of mitochondrial DNA, can provide analyses even further out on the family tree. Extending the reach of databases to possibly tens of millions of additional individuals brings great opportunities for solving crimes. But it also raises concerns.

By utilizing these techniques, officials have the ability to reach far beyond the pool of those mandated to provide DNA samples. This sparks legitimate privacy considerations. It also magnifies concerns that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented in offender databases, although this also can mean that the benefits of familial searching will accrue to these overrepresented groups. This case demonstrates that point, as Franklin and all of the Grim Sleeper’s known victims are African American.

Because of the chance that someone unconnected to a crime might appear to be related to the perpetrator, extra laboratory testing steps are always needed to narrow the list of potential suspects to avoid intrusions and conserve investigative time and resources.

But California has demonstrated how these concerns can be addressed in a way that limits the potential for intruding in the privacy of uninvolved parties, yet allows investigators to utilize an important crime-solving technique. The state limits familial searching to high-priority cases when other investigative methods have failed, requires additional Y-chromosome typing and makes use, if available, of non-forensic information in order to identify additional evidence bearing on relatedness.

The Grim Sleeper case will undoubtedly become the poster child case for proponents of familial searching around the country, and indeed, those who oppose any use of familial searching must justify not using these methods when there is lingering ongoing danger to the public. Still, states should put safeguards in place as California has done before embracing the technique.

The collection of DNA by law enforcement officials has expanded over the last decade. Initially, databases included only the DNA of those convicted of a narrow array of violent crimes. Then it was expanded to all convicted felons, and then, in California and many other states, to those arrested — but not necessarily convicted — of qualifying crimes.

Familial searching is a quantum leap because it expands the potential for DNA scrutiny to millions who have not even been suspected of a crime. And it demands a question: If it is just the capricious hand of fate that separates those of us under surveillance from those who are not, what is the justification for not creating a universal database as the only equitable solution?

Although there are many inside and outside the United States who have made cogent arguments supporting creation of a universal database, we would not support such an extension of state authority.

These are issues our system will grapple with over time. But in the interim, it is essential that states tread deliberately and carefully as they expand DNA analysis to include familial searches. Only in doing so can our public institutions both protect our individual rights while at the same time bring to justice dangerous criminals.

David Lazer is an associate professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University and the editor of the book, “DNA and the Criminal Justice System.” Frederick Bieber is a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

David Lazer (

Congressional websites muddy stands on issues

September 14, 2010 5:54 pm

Congressional websites obscure lawmakers’ policy preferences, and lack input from constituents, according to professor David Lazer. Photo by Lauren McFalls.

Congressional websites obscure lawmakers’ policy preferences, and lack input from constituents, according to a new study on the Internet’s impact on politics conducted by Northeastern University professor David Lazer and his colleagues.

The researchers interviewed 100 congressional staff members who oversaw their office’s websites in 2006, and analyzed all House and Senate websites based on criteria developed in collaboration with the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to improving Congress. Read the study here.

The National Science Foundation funded the research, as part of its “Connecting to Congress” project.

Lazer and his colleagues found that many congressional websites don’t identify where a politician stands on hot button issues such as abortion, gay marriage and health care, and go so far as to exclude lawmakers’ party affiliations.

It’s a tactic that promotes political survival, but fails to uphold democratic values, said Lazer. Lazer, an associate professor of political science and computer science, noted that voters often end up electing candidates without knowing their true positions on critical issues.

He acknowledged that legislators might tailor their messages to particular audiences on Facebook or Twitter, but explained, “The Internet often does not allow for targeting messages to micro segments of your audience. So, if you’re going to post stuff that wins more votes, rather than loses votes, it has to be bland.”

The study also found that the general public is rarely asked what features they like to see on their representatives’ websites, whether through online surveys or focus groups. It’s a troubling sign for Lazer, who said communication between legislators and constituents is key to the health of our democracy.

“One would hope that the Internet would facilitate a robust discourse between representatives and citizens, and that the official websites would be an opportunity for representatives to spur and engage in that discussion,” said Lazer. “But we’re not really seeing that.”

Lazer’s coauthors on the paper, titled “Improving Congressional Websites,” included Kevin Esterling, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside, and Michael Neblo, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

Doing the math on where people go

September 14, 2010 5:54 pm

Chaoming Song helped create a mathematical model that can simulate human mobility over
the course of years. Photo by Mary Knox Merill.

Network scientists at Northeastern University have created a mathematical model that can simulate human mobility over the course of several months or even years.

The results of the study were reported this week in the online edition of Nature Physics magazine.

Distinguished Professor of Physics Albert-László Barabási and his team uncovered the patterns characterizing human mobility by analyzing the real-time movements of three million anonymous cell-phone users and the anonymized positional records of one thousand users whose location was recorded every hour for a two-week period.

A previous study conducted by Barabási’s team found that human mobility is 93 percent predictable in the short-term, a result that could be applied to revamping our system of traffic control.

The team’s newest research findings could be applied to solving much larger problems in fields as diverse as public health, city planning and economic forecasting, says Barabási, who is also director of Northeastern’s world-leading Center for Complex Network Research.

Using the new model, network scientists could accurately predict the spread of biological pathogens in a human population or track the proliferation of mobile-phone viruses.

“Our model captures the universal properties of human mobility,” said Chaoming Song, research associate for the Center for Complex Network Research and lead author of the paper. “That is, if the model generates huge amounts of trajectories, it raises quite similar patterns as the real ones across a population.”

Conventional models for human mobility have relied unsuccessfully on tracking the mobility patterns of animals, said Song. That hasn’t worked because humans generally travel short distances and follow simple reproducible patterns, whereas animals regularly move over hundreds or even thousands of miles.

The team found that people only move across about 12 miles of their neighborhoods each year, Song said, adding that the number of distinct places that humans visit decreases rapidly over time. Migrating animals explore as much as 6,000 miles.

Additional coauthors on the paper, titled “Modeling the Scaling Properties of Human Mobility,” are Tal Koren, a research associate in the Center for Complex Network Research, and Pu Wang, a postdoctoral research associate in civil and environmental engineering at MIT and a former research assistant at the Center for Complex Network Research.

Professor Bickmore receives NSF grant

November 1, 2010 5:53 pm

Prof. Timothy Bickmore, in collaboration with researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has just received a 4-year, $1.8M grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a computer agent that will provide social support for older adults living alone. Social isolation has significant negative effects on health and well-being in the elderly, with one study showing that 5-year mortality is three times higher for elders with extreme isolation.

In addition to providing companionship, the agent will motivate elders to perform a range of healthy behaviors, such as exercise, building on several health counseling agents Prof. Bickmore has already developed for older adults.

The research will be performed with the participation of elders living in urban neighborhoods around Northeastern University, and evaluated in the final two years of the effort in participants’ homes using both animated (“virtual”) and robotic agent embodiments.

The agent design will be based on an established theoretical model of collaboration extended to encompass long-term social relationships as collaborations between humans and agents. The project, entitled “Always-On Relational Agents for Social Support of Older Adults” is in collaboration with Drs. Candace Sidner and Charles Rich at WPI.

Tweeting the elections

November 2, 2010 5:53 pm

Northeastern researchers created a “wordcloud,” in which the font sizes and colors of keywords reflect the relative popularity of words mentioned at least once on a Web site for a political candidate. Courtesy photo.

Do tweeters in Texas care about taxes more than tweeters in Tennessee?

Over the last two days, a team of researchers from Northeastern University, Harvard Medical School and the Technical University of Denmark tracked the language of more than 20 million tweets to capture the political mood of the Twitterverse before today’s midterm elections.

“It’s well known that the state you live in plays a role in deciding what issues you care about,” said Alan Mislove, an assistant professor of computer and information science at Northeastern University who contributed to the study. “Because conversations on Twitter are public, we can geocode individual tweets and study where Americans are talking about specific issues.”

Earlier this year, the team analyzed the language of 300 million tweets to measure the collective happiness of people across the country. They found that tweeters on the West Coast are considerably happier than those on the East Coast.

For this project, researchers built a system to scan tweets in real-time for politically charged keywords, such as “unemployment,” “climate” and “terrorism.” They chose words by mining about 2,140 websites for all 1,152 candidates for governor and Congress.

Researchers geographically represented the data using a density-equalizing map, in which each region is scaled to represent its number of tweets as opposed to its land area.

Twitter Nation appeared most interested in job- and gay rights-related issues, and least interested in abortion- and veterans-related issues, according to a crude visual analysis of the map on Monday afternoon.

But, as Mislove put it, “We can’t say that we see any particular trends just yet.”

In another study, the same group of researchers found a large gap between the most popular political topics among Democratic and Republican candidates, according to a daily word analysis of their websites.

Researchers said Democrats expended more text on education and jobs, while Republicans devoted more attention to taxes and immigration. Neither Democratic nor Republican candidates talked about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq or gay marriage, they said.

Researchers mapped their findings using a so-called “campaign wordcloud,” in which the font sizes and colors of keywords such as “house,” “Washington” and “country” reflect the relative popularity of words mentioned at least once on a website.

“Digital traces are a powerful, yet simple approach to providing news to a mass audience in the same way that public opinion polls are useful for gauging voters’ interest in a particular candidate,” said David Lazer, an associate professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University who contributed to the study. “These interactive tools are quite useful for consumers of news who want to understand the dynamics of elections in both temporal and geographic ways.”

Other collaborators on both projects include Yong-Yeol Ahn and Yu-Ru Lin, postdoctoral research associates at Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research; Jukka-Pekka Onnela and J. Niels Rosenquist, both of Harvard Medical School; and Sune Lehman, an assistant professor of informatics and mathematical modeling, at the Technical University of Denmark.

View selected publications of David Lazer in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

The engines of change

November 4, 2010 5:52 pm

Jay Aslam explains how search engines have evolved. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

In today’s wired world, search engines have changed the way people find data, and social searches are making it even easier to find exactly what you’re looking for, with a little help from your friends. For example, a recent partnership between Facebook and Microsoft enables Facebook users searching on Microsoft’s Bing to see their friends’ faces in the search results next to web pages their friends have “liked” and shared online.

Jay Aslam, professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University, explains how search engines have evolved from simple databases into the speedy, sophisticated and personalized recommendation systems we rely on today.

How have search engines evolved since their inception?

Information retrieval systems have been around for quite some time, predating the web itself by decades. However, the earliest information retrieval systems relied almost entirely on “on page” information — that is, the words and other features present within a document itself — to determine the relevance of that document to a user query. Modern web search engines, on the other hand, leverage a great deal of “off page” information as well, such as the hyperlink structure of the web graph, the “anchor text” information associated with the link from one web page to another, and “click through” data that search engines collect about the web pages that users actually visit when presented with a list of web pages in response to a query, to name but a few important examples.

How will the new form of personalized social search affect the way we interact and retrieve information? Will other search engines adopt the social search function, and what future trends can we expect to see in search engines?

Many search engines are now leveraging context to help determine the results returned to users. That context may be temporal — a search for “holiday recipes” may well return different results at Thanksgiving than at Christmas — and/or spatial — a search for “movie showtimes” may well return different results in San Francisco than in Boston. Personalization is another form of context: search results may depend on the identity of the user, such as her past search and browsing behavior.

Personalized social search is yet another example, where search results may depend on one’s social circle. This may well have an impact, especially for searches related to recommendations: products, restaurants, movies and so forth. Recommendation systems such as those employed by Netflix and Amazon have proven quite successful, and these systems effectively make recommendations based on the tastes of anonymous users whose profiles “match” the given customer. Recommendations effectively made from known friends may well be more trusted, if not more accurate.

Was a social network partnership with a major search engine inevitable?

Certainly the partnership between Facebook and Bing makes sense, and was perhaps inevitable given their mutual competition with Google.

What is your take on any potential privacy or security issues that might arise?

Understanding and controlling one’s privacy on the web is difficult. The recent controversy with Facebook’s privacy policy is but one example, as are personalized retargeted ads that “follow” one through cyberspace. Having one’s recommendations “pushed” to others only adds to this mix.

View selected publications of Jay Aslam in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

A wrist-worn, automatic music-maker

November 8, 2010 5:51 pm

Prototypes A true artist can make music out of anything. It’s been said that Brian Eno sometimes picked up junk on Canal Street in New York to use in his recordings if he liked the sound the found objects made when banged together.

Other artists, such as Robby Grodin and Lindsey Mysse, also like to make instruments out of computer hardware: in this case, a $50 watch with an accelerometer, purchased from Texas Instruments and wirelessly connected to a PC.

The system, called the Toscanini Interface, is one of a number of wireless “gestural interfaces’’ that use Bluetooth or RFID (one actually works with chips implanted in the hands of the performer) to trigger computer-generated sounds and other events.

Toscanini uses freeware created by Grodin, a Northeastern University music technology and computer science undergrad, and Mysse, a Boston-based freelance developer, to convert the X, Y, Z movements of the motion-detecting watch into sound.

Streams of data from the interaction between the watch and the PC control the volume, pitch, and the types of sound that the artist can play and record.

Grodin and Mysse are creating their software in part with Max/MSP, which musicians can use to create their own electronic music instruments. (The software, Grodin said, is designed to make it easier for musicians who are not coders to develop new tools.)

Created first for Music Hack Day Boston ( last month, Grodin and Mysse are mulling a commercial version of Toscanini, with original hardware and software. Grodin says he and Mysse are also working on a refined version of Toscanini that would provide an automated accompaniment for a pianist wearing the accelerometer.

DJs using the interface will also be able to remix music samples automatically, “like scratching with three turntables, instead of just two,’’ said Grodin.

Article by Mark Baard of

Northeastern researchers made the call on “zombie virus”

November 16, 2010 5:51 pm

A new virus has struck Smartphones in China, an event Northeastern University researchers predicted last year in a paper. istockphoto

Northeastern University researchers predicted last year that major Smartphone viruses will become a real threat to devices such as Blackberrys and iPhones once a particular operating system approaches a 10 percent market share. Based on news reports indicating that more than one million Smartphones in China have been hit with such a virus, it appears their predictions have been realized.

“This was exactly the type of thing that we described in our study,” said László Barabási, Distinguished Professor of Physics and director of the Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR)at Northeastern University.

Barabási, a pioneer in network science, coauthored a paper with other Northeastern researchers entitled, “Understanding the Spreading Patterns of Mobile Phone Viruses,” published in Science magazine in April 2009. The team wrote that Smartphones present fertile ground for viruses since they can share programs and data with each other, unlike traditional cell phones that lack a standardized operating system. The researchers predicted that a virus would run on the leading operating system on the market, and warned that the virus threat would rise as those devices’ popularity grew worldwide.

In the study, the team modeled cell phone users’ mobility to analyze the potential spread of both Bluetooth and multimedia messaging service (MMS) viruses. They found Bluetooth viruses would spread slowly because users must be in close physical proximity, while MMS viruses could infect users much faster since they share networks, such as contact lists and e-mail. Thus, they predicted a MMS virus was far more likely.

Now, the “zombie virus” has infiltrated more than one million Smartphones in China since September, according to news reports. Through this virus, hackers obtain users’ Smartphone information and contact lists, and the contacts have reportedly received text messages that also contain viruses and have collectively caused up to $300,000 per day in false texting charges.

Barabási said the virus is running on Symbian, the world’s most-used the operating system on mobile devices. He said preliminary data indicates Symbian has reached 6.4 percent of the market—sufficiently close to the figure predicted by his research team to trigger a viral process. The team included CCNR colleagues Pu Wang and César Hidalgo, at that time both PhD candidates, and postdoctoral researcher Marta González.

Barabási said that while anti-virus software for mobile phones is available, many users are unaware of its existence, while providers often take reactive measures to viruses rather than actively thinking of preventative steps.

“I do think the world is truly unprepared for this,” Barabási said.

But, he added, “Many of these advances happen through crisis.”

CCNR is considered the leading university-based center for network science research in the world. The center focuses on how networks emerge, what they look like, and how they evolve, and how networks affect our understanding of complex systems.

Battling Cyber Threats

December 3, 2010 5:48 pm

Agnes Chan (Courtesy of Agnes Chan)

Today, virtually every area of life depends on a cyber infrastructure that is vulnerable to attack. According to a recent report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, sensitive U.S. military and civilian networks have been “deeply penetrated, multiple times, by other nation-states,” and hackers employed by terrorist and criminal organizations are a constant and serious menace. In an August 2010 survey by Symantec, of 1580 private businesses in industries such as energy, banking, health care, and other areas of critical infrastructure, more than half reported politically motivated cyber attacks, averaging 10 attacks in the past 5 years.

Computer security experts say the United States faces a radical shortage of highly skilled cybersecurity professionals who can prevent and combat such attacks. One federal official has estimated that there are only 1000 cybersecurity experts in the United States who have the deep technical knowledge required to safeguard national security; tens of thousands are needed, he believes.

“This is a scourge that is going to kill us,” says Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and a leading expert on computer security workforce issues. “It would be like going into World War II and having no pilots. It’s actually a very bad problem. The bad guys are spending tens of billions of dollars developing these attack tools. They get through our defenses, carried along on e-mail and on other traffic, and we have to have people who can find them.”

Content and context

The need for cybersecurity professionals has grown rapidly, along with the growth in data networks in banking, telecommunications, health care, transportation, law enforcement, energy, emergency response systems, and national defense, among other areas. Meanwhile, the number of American students entering science and engineering has declined. In most fields of science, that decline has been offset by an influx of foreign scientists. But the decline is especially troublesome in cybersecurity because so many high-level cybersecurity jobs require American citizenship and an ability to obtain security clearance.

What’s needed most, Paller says, is people with sophisticated technical skills and experience in areas such as system design, software security, digital forensics, computer engineering, and cryptography. “We have way too many people who call themselves cybersecurity people, people who might have written a report about cybersecurity, or done a risk assessment, or passed a test,” he says. “We need the people who can actually reset the firewall settings so that they block attacks; the people who can configure software safely; the people who can find errors in software; people who can do the forensics to find evidence of malicious activity. It’s like the difference between a hospital administrator and a doctor: they’re all in health care, but they’re not all doctors.”

Agnes Chan, co-director of Northeastern University’s Institute for Information Assurance, says there is an equally strong need for people who combine technical expertise with training in risk management and policy. She notes that many cybersecurity positions, especially those that involve risk analysis and policy work, require both a computer scientist’s technical proficiency and a social scientist’s understanding of human behavior and how it can affect security. “It is not easy to find students that are strong in both,” Chan says.

Others echo that emphasis on cybersecurity’s human component. “You can think about cybersecurity as being like the lock on the door,” says Eugene Spafford, director of Purdue University’s Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security in West Lafayette, Indiana. “If I use a cheap lock, somebody’s going to be able to get into the office real quickly. But if I forget to lock the door regularly or I leave the key sitting on the desk, that’s just as bad. So training people is critically important. It’s just as important as technology. The field is larger than simply understanding the bits and the wires.”

Ample jobs

Such shortages translate into abundant opportunity for computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other scientists who pursue a career in cybersecurity. The National Security Agency (NSA) plans to hire 1000 cybersecurity professionals in the next year. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has more than tripled its cybersecurity workforce in the past 2 years. TheDepartment of Defense (DOD), which employs more cybersecurity professionals than any other federal body, is hiring aggressively, as are many other federal and state agencies.

There is at least as much demand for high-level cybersecurity professionals in the private sector, which controls almost 85% of the United States’s critical infrastructure. “There’s a bubble that’s going to hit, and the need for cybersecurity people is going to really escalate in the future,” says Richard “Dickie” George, technical director of NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate. “More and more, industry is going to realize that the long-term viability of the country depends on this protection.”

“If you’re good, you’re going to have dozens of job offers,” says Sujeet Shenoi, director of the University of Tulsa’s Cyber Corps Program, which is widely regarded as one of the strongest and most intense in the United States. “I can’t produce the students fast enough. I graduate about 35 students a year, and even if I were to quadruple it, I wouldn’t be able to fill the demand.” Lance Hoffman, director of George Washington University’s (GW’s) Partnership in Securing Cyberspace through Education and Service (PISCES) program, says students there have fared equally well, enjoying 100% job placement since 2002.

Cybersecurity professionals who work in operational settings — that is, who actually battle cyber attacks — spend their days writing secure software and designing networks. Some do “penetration testing,” hacking into their own organization’s defenses to expose weaknesses an enemy might exploit. Others specialize in digital forensics, deconstructing cyber attacks to understand their origins and purpose. Still others create educational programs or work on policy questions, such as how to balance security and privacy, and how to address security breaches in the context of international law.

Research opportunities, too, are growing. All the federal security agencies and many large companies have research arms devoted to developing cybersecurity technologies and finding more effective ways to educate users so that they don’t compromise computer systems. Appreciation — and funding — for basic research on information security is expanding, says Benjamin Cook, cyber-enterprise capabilities manager at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He notes, however, that blue-sky research positions are “few and far between.”

In recent meetings, cybersecurity experts identified a number of research priorities. One is the development of mathematically rigorous ways of establishing that hardware or software, or a computer system, is trustworthy. “In the industrialized world, we’ve kind of bet the bank on this technology,” Cook says. “If we can’t develop a rigorous and fundamental ability to establish trust in these systems, we’re inching out onto thin ice.” Other priorities include understanding phenomena of complex networks such as malware propagation and new models of cybersecurity based on biological concepts such as biodiversity and immunity. Some promising areas of research, Cook notes, may be especially suited to scientists with a multidisciplinary bent.

Getting your hands dirty

The main routes into high-level operational and research positions in cybersecurity are the 125 university-based cybersecurity training programs designated by NSA and DHS as Centers of Academic Excellence (CAEs) in information assurance education and research. These programs are eligible to apply for scholarship funding for undergraduates and graduate students through two federal programs: the National Science Foundation’s Federal Cyber Service: Scholarship for Service (SFS) program and DOD’s Information Assurance Scholarship Program (IASP). The SFS and IASP programs fund students for up to 2 years of undergraduate or graduate training in cybersecurity in return for an equivalent period of government service, either to DOD (for IASP awardees) or to other federal agencies (for SFS awardees). “It’s like ROTC for geeks,” says Hoffman.

Like other cybersecurity training programs around the country, the CAE programs draw students from computer science, engineering, math, statistics, forensic sciences, criminal justice, business administration, public policy, law, education, and the social sciences. Although computer science is fundamental to cybersecurity research and practice, there is plenty of opportunity for scientists in other fields to apply their interests to cybersecurity issues — and no need to start over. Graduate students or postdocs in fields such as math, physics, and biology tend to be competitive applicants to CAE programs, although they may have to spend some time developing their computer science knowledge. To understand whether their career goals require taking a couple of courses or spending a few years getting more training, scientists should first figure out what aspect of cybersecurity they’re interested in, says Diana Burley, a professor of human and organizational learning who teaches in GW’s PISCES program.

“It may be a matter of figuring out how what you already know fits in,” Purdue’s Spafford suggests. A math degree, for example, provides an excellent grounding for work in cryptography. A mechanical engineer’s systems-oriented thinking is an asset for designing and analyzing network defenses. A biologist might study the use of biometric technologies for computer security. A cognitive scientist might use aspects of artificial intelligence to develop protocols for recognizing who is at a keyboard.

Different cybersecurity training programs have different emphases, as a listing of SFS-funded programs reveals. Some concentrate on policy and risk management, some on forensic investigation, others on behavioral aspects of cybersecurity, and still others on research and interdisciplinary training. The best programs combine deep training in core subjects such as computer security, network protocols, or cryptography with significant hands-on experience. “Just being able to solve today’s problem isn’t enough,” says NSA’s George. “You need to be able to train yourself to solve the problems that will come 5 or 10 years from now. Then you also need enough hands-on laboratory work doing things like reverse engineering, forensic investigation, and penetration testing that will enable you to solve today’s problems. That’s a very difficult balancing act.”

“This stuff can’t be done completely in an abstract setting,” agrees Ernest McDuffie, who leads theNational Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, a multiagency effort coordinated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “You can’t do it with a chalkboard — you need to get your hands dirty.”

For those with useful skills but without the specific degree, Paller suggests a “back door” into the field: Volunteer or get a part-time job with your university’s computer support service; then, after a semester or two, migrate to doing security support. “That’s where you’ll learn the skills that will put you in line for the jobs that most need filling,” Paller says. Doing cutting-edge work in cybersecurity requires knowing three things: programming, networks and protocols, and operating systems. Academic credentials aren’t what’s needed, he says. What’s needed are people with the skills the best scientists possess: “It’s people who are extraordinarily good at taking things apart and seeing how they’re made. It takes being hungry to get to the bottom of things.”

Credit: Article by Siri Carpenter of

For software developers, more speed and mobility

December 14, 2010 5:49 pm

Software developed by Prof. Gene Cooperman and his students will help developers work with greater speed and mobility. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Across the globe, technology and innovation are becoming increasingly more reliant on mobility and accessibility. For software developers working on highly complex projects, that means being able to save their work quickly and instantly re-launch at the same point from another computer — a significant step developed by Northeastern University professor Gene Cooperman and a team of students in the College of Computer and Information Science.

The innovation grew out of work being done in Cooperman’s High-Performance Computing Laboratory to build and improve free, open-source software.

The software incorporates “checkpointing,” the method of saving work progress at regular intervals. Cooperman’s software—called “Distributed multi-threaded checkpointing,” or DMTCP—allows developers working in the Linux operating system to save their work to a USB drive. Later, they can pop the drive back into another computer and continue the work within seconds.

Cooperman sees parallels in this software to the issues everyday Internet users face when they need to close numerous Web browser tabs they are viewing, but don’t want to waste time and break their concentration later by searching for them all over again.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could take (the web browser) Firefox, save your tabs, put it all on a USB key, carry it all to another computer, bring Firefox all up again and see all same tabs? That’s roughly the same benefit a software developer” will get from DMTCP, he said.

Cooperman acknowledged that software developers already are able to save their work over the Internet, while “virtual machines” can save developers’ complex work at any particular moment. But his team’s software takes checkpointing to the next level by saving only the programs necessary to the project at hand—rather than the entire operating system—thereby taking only one second to save and later reopen, compared to the couple of minutes a virtual machine may take.

“People don’t want to wait,” he explained. “They just want to do it immediately.”

Cooperman said this software also highlights the aggressive push in the technology industry to make software readily available to users on almost every medium, no matter where they are located. He pointed to the burgeoning e-commerce market, including Google’s recent announcement about launching an e-bookstore to compete with other digital platforms and devices, as an example of this trend.

His team included third-year student Greg Kerr, junior Tyler Denniston, and PhD students Ana-Maria Visan, Xin Dong and Kapil Arya. PhD students from MIT and universities in Russia and Australia also contributed to the project.

View selected publications of Gene Cooperman in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

A cellular roadmap for medical researchers

January 6, 2011 5:47 pm

A new paper from Northeastern researcher Albert-Laszlo Barabasi reviews network medicine and its potential to help cure disease. iStock photo

Advances in network science to map the complexity of human cells promises to offer significant new resources for health professionals striving to cure disease, according to a new paper coauthored by Albert-László Barabási, a world-renowned network scientist at Northeastern University.

The paper, published in the January issue of Nature Reviews Genetics, presents the first major overview of the current state of network medicine and what lies ahead in taking a network-based approach to identifying and battling disease.

“I really think the future of medicine will, to a certain degree, depend on obtaining and understanding the diagram that controls the interactions between the molecules in the cell,” said Barabási, Distinguished Professor of Physics and director of Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR). The study advances Northeastern’s research mission to solve societal issues, with a focus on global challenges in health, security, and sustainability.

Understanding cellular networks could help identify new disease genes and pathways, and reveal the biological significance of mutations associated with disease, according to the paper. As a result, better disease-targeting drugs could be developed, while biomarkers could improve how diseases are classified and how cellular networks ravaged by disease are monitored.

Barabási said this network-based approach compares to how a mechanic fixes a car. For instance, a car’s power failure could stem from a faulty battery, a broken cable or a blown fuse. So the mechanic first turns to the wiring diagram of the car to identify the cause of the problem.

“In order to fix a car problem, you need to have a map of the network, and in a way, this is not different for diseases,” Barabási said. “You need to find and understand the underlying network behind the disease, and that will eventually lead to a cure.”

The paper follows up on a 2004 article Barabási coauthored for the same journal, which explored network biology and the inner workings of human cells. That paper is the second-most cited article in the history of the journal. Since then, network scientists have improved their grasp on the laws that govern networks and started applying that knowledge in significant ways, such as facilitating new treatments for disease.

However, Barabási said it would take time for medical advances to catch up.

“The thinking behind it is this: the cell is like a map of Boston,” Barabási explained. “What is happening now is that we’ve started to simply find the neighborhood where individual diseases are, so we are starting to be able to associate certain regions of the cell with particular diseases.”

Barabási, the lead author, collaborated on the paper with Natali Gulbahce, a former postdoctoral research fellow at CCNR, and Joseph Loscalzo, chair of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Department of Medicine and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

View selected publications of Albert-László Barabási in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

Smarter rules for the Smart Grid

January 21, 2011 5:47 pm

Dean Larry Finkelstein expresses Northeastern’s commitment to security-based research Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

Federal officials have been working with partners in the private and public sectors to develop an advanced digital Smart Grid infrastructure for the U.S. electric power system, making it more reliable, energy-efficient, and better able to serve new technologies, such as electric vehicles.

But the new intelligent infrastructure comes with greater complexity, which increases exposure to cyber-security threats such as deliberate attacks and even natural phenomena like hurricanes and earthquakes — which is where Northeastern University’s commitment and capabilities enter the picture.

Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science hosted a session this week for local officials, regulatory organizations, industry and academia to review the 2011 Smart Grid Guidelines for Cyber Security, which were released in August. The guidelines were developed by federal regulators and more than 450 industry leaders specifically to address security concerns that would arise from the transformation to a Smart Grid.

“We are so pleased to participate in this critical effort and to support the important work of the leaders who collaborated on the project,” said Larry Finkelstein, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, which includes federally supported research and education programs in information and cyber security.

Today’s grid relies heavily on coal and oil, has limited automation, and fails to provide consumers with the data necessary to manage their energy usage. A Smart Grid would utilize digital technology to provide two-way communication between suppliers and consumers’ home electronics through the use of smart meters. Using the new system, for example, consumers could program their air conditioning while out running errands, monitor energy consumption and even save enough local power to sell back to the grid.

“The shift from the old grid to the Smart Grid will enhance reliability and security of the electric system as well as support the growing use of electronics, including plug-in vehicles,” said Alan Greenberg, technical director of the Cyber Business Unit at the Boeing Company, and vice chair of the Smart Grid Cyber Security team.

Northeastern has made a major commitment to protecting information networks. Security, along with health and sustainability, is a major research focus for the University. It is something Finkelstein noted is reflected in “the important security-related research projects undertaken by our faculty.”

In addition to research, Northeastern offers academic programs in information security, including a longstanding professional master’s program and a new interdisciplinary PhD.

“Our programs address the demand for the next generation of leaders who understand not only the technical but also the legal, policy and social requirements of cyber security,” said Finkelstein.

These collective efforts have led to Northeastern’s designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Research and a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Cloud computing” risks and rewards

January 25, 2011 4:48 pm

Martin Schedlbauer says the rewards have outweighed the risks in the year since switching to cloud computing. Photo by Lauren McFalls.

Tired of trying to keep all his files backed up and synchronized between his personal, work and travel computers, Martin Schedlbauer, an assistant clinical professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, switched to “cloud computing” — using web-based programs, applications and file storage. One year later, he offers his assessment.

What impact has moving to the cloud had on your work?

It’s just gotten a lot easier. I thought the web had matured enough where online applications are as safe as, if not better than, a desktop. I ultimately stumbled onto (the provider) Zoho, which allows me to do almost everything online — email, note taking, video calls, scheduling. I don’t have to install applications locally. When I go home, I don’t have to think, “Did I bring that file on a USB stick?” I use a file synchronization program that automatically updates local files. If I go to someone’s house, I can check my email or calendar. If I have a thought, I can enter it in my cell phone. As long as I have a browser, I can get to it.

Are there any drawbacks?

All of this works when Internet is readily available. It is the biggest drawback and the biggest fear that your documents are now with somebody else. So it was important to me that any program I used allowed a local backup, for sensitive documents. It’s a risk-reward kind of thing. The benefit is I can travel lightly. But there is a risk: What if this all goes away? There’s also the danger of someone breaking in and stealing your files, so I rotate passwords frequently. I think anytime you log onto the Internet, you are vulnerable. But from the other perspective, if I travel with a laptop, someone could steal it.

Where does “cloud computing” currently stand in a society trending more digital?

It’s catching on slowly. Everything relies on the availability and reliability of a network connection. People are getting used to having 24/7 access to the web. Once people accept that this has the same level of reliability as other utilities, such as electricity, they are more likely to adopt those cloud services. But it might not make sense for everyone. Companies might be hesitant to store sensitive information online. For students, it can work really well. In the future, I see students really looking at the laptop as an information access device rather than as a computer with a hard drive.

Professor Alan Mislove receives a CAREER Award

March 6, 2011 4:46 pm

The CAREER award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award in support of the development activities of new scholars who most effectively integrate the research and education missions of their universities. Limited to junior faculty, CAREER awards provide scholars with the support needed to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education. Professor Mislove’s grant will provide $450,000 in funding over five years, and is described by the following project summary:

Project Summary:

We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how content is created and exchanged over the Internet. While content was previously created primarily by a small minority of organizations, now, individual users–empowered by the popularity of digital devices and social networks, as well as the ubiquity of Internet access–are creating content that represents a significant fraction of Internet traffic. Unfortunately, existing techniques and infrastructure are ill-suited for the new patterns of content creation and exchange, resulting in a mismatch of infrastructure and workload that is evident in places ranging from the ways in which content is distributed to the ways in users are able to express access control. To make matters worse, existing providers have been slow to develop new techniques, as their current business models are often heavily reliant on existing approaches.

Motivated by these trends, this project is developing systems, networks, and distribution architectures that are tailored to the changing patterns of content creation and exchange, enabling users to freely exchange content and express meaningful privacy policies for end user-generated content. Fully delegating the responsibility for addressing these challenges to industry risks entrenching the providers of today into a position of ensuring that content can only be shared in ways that are in-line with their business interests. Thus, the impact of the proposed research will be potentially felt by all users of online social networks, and will thus have significant public impact.

Creating a trusty virtual guide

March 9, 2011 4:45 pm

Timothy Bickmore (seen here with his virtual nurse system) will use a new grant to develop agents that help cancer patients. Photo by Lauren McFalls.

Northeastern University researcher Timothy Bickmore has been awarded a five-year, $3.5 million National Cancer Institute grant to develop computer-animated conversational agents that guide cancer patients through the oncology clinical trial process.

Bickmore, an assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, said descriptions of clinical trials can be complex, and that health complications often arise from patients not understanding written medical instructions. Bickmore will collaborate with Dr. Michael Paasche-Orlow at Boston Medical Center (BMC), a national expert on health literacy. The project will target BMC patients with limited health knowledge.

“At the core of what we’re doing is trying to make those study protocols more understandable and easy to follow for patients,” Bickmore said.

Under the proposal, patients sitting at a hospital kiosk or their home computer will interact first with an animated conversational agent, who will appear on a touch-screen to ask them about their condition and background. The agent will present the patients with a list of active trials they qualify for, and describe what each study entails.

When patients arrive at the hospital for their trials, an animated agent will walk them through informed- consent documents and assess their level of comprehension. Later, patients will interact with the system through their home computers or smart phones provided by the hospital to receive reminders about follow-up appointments and medication schedules, and to report any health concerns or illnesses.

Over the last decade, Bickmore has been developing and studying innovative conversational computer agents that build strong relationships with patients and counsel them on various health-related topics, including a novel “virtual nurse” system to guide patients through the hospital discharge process and help them follow health care instructions, which has been licensed for possible commercial use.

Bickmore said in past studies, patients with low health literacy have reported the use of conversational agents to be helpful.

The National Cancer Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, and the grant was funded through NIH’s Ethical Issues In Human Subjects Research program.

Ultimately, Bickmore said he envisions this type of research leading to patients being able to use their personal smart phones as “health buddies” that will help them monitor all aspects of their health. He said this could involve preventative measures with reminders to take medications, exercise, and stay on a diet. It could also help people communicate with health care providers.

The project advances Northeastern’s research mission to develop innovative, use-inspired solutions to global challenges, with a focus on health, security, and sustainability.

A ‘good run’ in marathon three-day cyber competition

March 9, 2011 4:46 pm

iStock image

It’s not every day that a team of students manages a network of computers while under attack for three days straight by a team of professional hackers.

That’s what Michael Coppola, freshman and team captain of Northeastern’s cyber defense team said as he and six other computer science students put their skills to work against peers from 11 universities at the 2011 Northeast Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

The three-day annual event is designed to help students sharpen their skills and boost their knowledge about administering and protecting a large computer network.

As last year’s champions of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in Texas, Northeastern’s team and the College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS) hosted the event at the EMC Training Center in Franklin, Mass., from March 4 to 6.

Teams were scored based on their ability to detect and respond to outside threats, maintain availability of existing services such as mail servers and web servers, respond to business requests such as the addition or removal of services, and balance security needs against business needs.

The Rochester Institute of Technology went on to win and will represent the region at the National Cyber Defense Competition April 8 to 10.

Themis Papageorge, director of Northeastern’s graduate program in information assurance, said the event was the largest to date, and that Northeastern’s team competed well. “They demonstrated knowledge, skill and professionalism throughout the competition,” he said.

“Northeastern has had a good run,” said Kevin Amorin, the team’s coach and a lecturer in CCIS. “For two years in a row, we were this region’s champion. We were essentially a whole new team this year, but there was a good group dynamic.”

The team started preparing for the event in January, meeting regularly and volunteering anywhere from five to 10 hours a week, and covering a year’s worth of course material in about nine weeks.

“This year we learned a lot in a short time,” said Amorin. “We have a very bright future.”

Team captain Coppola, who has received academic recognition and professional accolades from the likes of Google for his work in cyber security, added, “We learned about the value of real-world experience and will be prepared with more ideas for next year.”

Matthias Felleisen, 2011 SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education TeachScheme!

March 10, 2011 4:44 pm

“In 1995, my research team and I decided to create TeachScheme!, an educational outreach project, with the hope that our work on programming languages could effect a dramatic change in K-12 computer science. Specifically, we envisioned a virtuous cycle of two mutually reinforcing ideas. On the one hand, we would create a design-oriented curriculum path from middle school through college. On the other hand, our approach would help kids with learning school mathematics. Hence a course on programming would benefit every student, not just those who end up choosing computer science as a college major. At this point, we have a new design-oriented curriculum; a pedagogic program development environment to make it fun; and a series of matching programming languages. After focusing at the overlap between high schools and colleges at first, we now use after-school programs to move upstream, and we are working on two major downstream courses for the second semester in college: one on object-oriented design and another on logic in program design.”

Bio: Matthias Felleisen obtained his PhD (’87) from Daniel P. Friedman who also pointed him in the direction of a professorial career. He then spent the next 15 years at Rice University in Houston, including long and short sabbaticals at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) and Ecole Normale Superieure (Paris). In 2001, he took on a position at Northeastern University in Boston and moved his entire team there. Felleisen and his distributed PLT team conduct research on all aspects of programming languages: design, implementations, and applications. On the side, they also run TeachScheme!, an educational outreach project. Over his 25-year career, Felleisen co-authored six books. As a PhD student, he revised his adviser’s “Little LISPer” (MIT Press), which is still in print in its 35th year of existence. The two of them also wrote “A Little Java, A Few Patterns”. With some of his own PhD students, Felleisen produced “How to Design Programs” (MITP, 2001) and “Semantics Engineering” (MITP, 2009).

Smart phones; smart users?

March 30, 2011 4:43 pm

Associate professor Guevara Noubir weighs in on mobile phone security, and how much attention users pay to the risks they may face.

According to a recent survey conducted by AVG Technologies, a global consumer security software provider, and the Ponemon Institute, an independent research group, many smart phone users are complacent about the security risks that exist from using these mobile devices. Computer science professor Guevara Noubir, an expert in wireless security, analyzes this finding and assesses the potential risks that stem from using smart phones.

Do you agree that Americans are lax in their mobile phone security?

My feeling is that a portion of the population is lax, not everyone. People might download hundreds of applications to iPhones or Android phones, and I think some people aren’t careful enough about it. But the risks will keep increasing as phones become more ubiquitous and more sophisticated applications emerge, and because phones are with us all the time and we tend to trust them.

What are the greatest risks for cell phone users when it comes to security threats?

One potential threat relates to the fact that people carry mobile phones with them all the time, so their location can be tracked. Some applications people use, such as apps that enable them to access their bank accounts, could be damaging if that information is compromised.

These threats are related to many other aspects, including the fact that some of the protocols behind Wi-Fi and connectivity still have security issues. Others are related to the specific user. Many apps will ask you to accept its terms, which could include sharing the user’s location. Many people don’t read these terms and just click, “Yes.”

A couple of weeks ago, several applications were taken off the Android market because they included malware — meaning someone repackaged them to include harmful software that reports user information.

Has mobile phone security software kept pace with the cell phone technology, and how do you see this trend continuing in the future?

I think smart phone security is still just emerging, because cell phone technology has evolved so quickly over the last few years. Manufacturers put security mechanisms in their systems that are quite good, but beyond that, many threats haven’t been realized yet. We haven’t heard about a really large number of people being compromised, so if and when that happens, we’ll see more work done to solve these problems. I think most people now are ignoring it because there is no imminent threat. It’s hard to predict future threats, but overall, I feel if people are careful about what applications they install, their threat level is reasonable.

Computer classes offer new links for Roxbury residents

April 28, 2011 4:42 pm

A class learns computer skills at the Action for Boston Community Development. Jake Rozin photo for

Who knows what eventually pushed Deborah Morgan Thawes of Roxbury to sign up for computer classes last month?

It might have had something to do with her 83-year-old mother buying and learning to use a new computer. Or it might have had something to do with her son, a senior in high school, telling her, quite plainly, “Mom, you need to learn computers.”

One thing is for sure: She is learning now.

“If [my mother] can do it, I can do it,” said a determined Thawes.

She is among dozens of city residents enrolled in computer classes held at the Action for Boston Community Development Parker Hill/Fenway location in Roxbury. ABCD is a neighborhood service center that focuses on families below 125 percent of the poverty level. The center holds programs for adults, youths, and the elderly, including career development, health services, food pantries, and the computer classes.

The classes are funded by a grant from the Mission Hill Fenway Trust Fund. ABCD Parker Hill/Fenway applied for the grant because its computer lab was not being used and it lacked funding to pay for an instructor.

Milagros Arbaje-Thomas, the director of ABCD Parker Hill/Fenway, said the funding “has allowed us to take an educational perspective to how we fight poverty.”

“It is grants such as this one that allow us to keep teaching these classes,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “We take for granted how easy it is for us to use our phones to send pictures or emails.” But for low-income residents, she added, “it is a huge barrier to overcome.”

Diego Rodriguez of Dorchester has a 14-year-old daughter who has learned to use computers at school. He is taking the class not only for himself, but for her.

“As a parent, it is a good idea to know what my daughter is doing and if she is safe,” he said.

Others in the class want to connect with family overseas.

Michele Lagene said she hoped to learn how to send pictures from her camera to her family and friends at home in Haiti. “In Haiti, I worked for 10 years on a computer,” she said. “Now, I am here for more experience.”

The classes cover the basics: a brief history of computers and their parts; navigating the operating system; and some software, including Microsoft Office. Because of interest from the students, the rest of the curriculum is spent on navigating the Internet.

Students learn how to be safe online as they search and book airline flights, pay bills, apply for jobs, and send and receive e-mails.

Rafael Feliciano Cumbas, a junior at Northeastern University, teaches the classes. He grew up in Mission Hill, only blocks from the community center.

“I’ve been doing ABCD since I was four or five years old,” said Cumbas, who attended the summer youth program and later taught at the Phillip Brooks summer camp, funded by ABCD.

“I have benefited greatly from ABCD,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to give back.”

The classes meet three times a week, for three hours each. This is the fourth cycle of classes, which run for five weeks and are offered in Spanish and English.

The skill base of the students varies widely.

“Some students are very advanced,” said Cumbas. “Others are at zero. They help each other, though. It’s nice to see that.”

Prospective students are screened based on several guidelines. They must be Boston residents and meet the income limits, and are asked about motivation and barriers to attendance.

“There is a lot of excitement about this program,” Arbaje-Thomas said. “The wait list is very long. Each day, more people come in asking for spots.”

Each student goes through a pre- and post- course assessment to gauge improvement. They have tests, assignments and evaluations, culminating in a graduation ceremony.

“We take this seriously,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “It is like a college class.”

Thawes also takes the classes seriously – although she jokes about the possibilities that come with being Internet-savvy.

Learning to navigate the Web will make it easier “to spend my husband’s money” shopping online, she said with a smile.

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Jake Rozin, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

By Jake Rozin, Globe Correspondent

Understanding the social side of cyber-security issues

May 2, 2011 4:41 pm

Associate professor Engin Kirda’s research involves studying Web security and creating better virus-protection techniques. Photo by Michael Mazzanti.

When Engin Kirda started focusing on cyber-security research 10 years ago, those primarily responsible for launching Internet attacks were teenagers out for kicks, he said. But the scope of threats existing through the Web has dramatically changed since then.

Now security breaches are often financially motivated and highly organized — which presents intriguing challenges for the new associate professor with joint appointments in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science andDepartment of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“We’ve seen a shift from attacks for fun to attacks for profit,” said Kirda, who joined the faculty in January. “That’s why it’s fascinating for me to see how these bad guys are operating, and to try to come up with solutions to combat them.”

Kirda studies Internet security issues and how to discover vulnerabilities in websites and Internet applications to create more secure applications. He is also working on creating better virus-detection techniques. He previously taught at research institutions in Vienna and Sophia Antipolis, France, and he is the cofounder and codirector of the International Secure Systems Lab — a collaborative effort of European and U.S. researchers focused on analyzing and designing tools for computer security.

Kirda plans to take a closer look at why some users’ computers get infected with malware, a software designed to harm or secretly access a computer system, and how well those people are able to identify cyber attacks. As part of this project, users would be given online tests to determine the scope of their understanding of cyber threats.

“One thing I have learned over the years is that security problems are not only technical problems. There is a very social aspect to all these issues,” he says. “For example, someone can come up with technical solutions, but they might still fail because we don’t exactly understand how well users are actually able to accept these technical solutions.”

Kirda was drawn to Northeastern in part because of the new Information Assurance doctoral program, and he hopes to explore interdisciplinary collaborations here to develop more robust systems and better solutions.

He says one small virus released in a network or system, for a bank or nuclear reactor, can cause major damage. Given the number of people and companies depending on Internet reliability and security on a daily basis, he is excited to work in an ever-evolving field of significant societal importance.

“The problems are very real,” Kirda says, “so there is an opportunity to make quite a large impact.”?

Hackers turn PlayStation into pay station

May 9, 2011 4:41 pm

Professor Engin Kirda assesses the impact of an attack he said represents the “largest loss of private information to date.” Photo by Mike Mazzanti

In late April, a hacker crippled Sony’s PlayStation Network by stealing the names, home addresses and perhaps even the credit card numbers of some 70 million subscribers, who play and download games through the online service.

Engin Kirda, an associate professor with joint appointments in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, assesses the impact of the attack he said represents the “largest loss of private information to date.”

How easy is it to hack into a network, like Sony’s, and steal personal information? How difficult is it to combat?

Although we have recently seen very sophisticated attacks against security companies such as RSA, Comodo, and HBGary, most of the successful attacks are still quite simple in nature. In many cases, a simple programming mistake on a company’s website can lead to complete compromise over time.

Attackers typically proceed step by step. For example, they might first compromise the web server and then move on to attack other critical components, such as databases and mail servers. Many attacks today also use so-called “social engineering” techniques. Like phishing attacks, a user might be tricked into downloading and installing malicious software, which can then help the attackers gain access to sensitive data.

To my knowledge, it is not very clear what vulnerability or technique the attackers used to break into Sony’s systems. In any case, we have witnessed the largest loss of private information to date.? At Northeastern, my security group is working on techniques to automatically detect vulnerabilities in software systems in order to prevent attacks. We are also looking at how social engineering attacks work effectively in practice, and why users often fall for such attacks.

The PlayStation Network has been down for almost three weeks after Sony promised that it would be back online within a day or two. Why is it taking so much longer than expected?

It is not easy to say why things are taking time to fix without having knowledge of the internal discussions at Sony. My guess would be that Sony is trying to make sure that its systems are secure so that something like this does not happen again. Suffering a similar attack after the network goes back online would be very embarrassing for them.

It could also be that their systems are so complex that a quick fix is impossible. Often, bad design decisions are the hardest to fix. Some of my colleagues at Northeastern are working on the problem of designing systems in a secure way from the start.

Should users who play or download games on the PlayStation Network be hesitant to log back on? What type of impact can hackers have on the bottom line of a company like Sony?

Once the systems go back online, I would not be hesitant to log back on. Having said that, I would advise all users to change their passwords and also make sure that they have not used the same password that they used on Sony on other sites, such as Gmail or Yahoo. It has been reported that many passwords have been stolen and attackers often use stolen passwords to log on to other websites to send spam.

I would also advise Sony users to be wary of phishing attacks. The attackers are probably going to use the information they have stolen to craft authentic looking phishing e-mails. I would not be surprised if such phishing e-mail will be designed to look as if Sony has sent it. There are also reports that credit card information has been stolen. If you had your credit card information stored on the Sony site, then it would be wise to regularly check your credit card statements.

Network scientist awarded international prize for research

June 22, 2011 4:40 pm

Professor Albert-László Barabási received the 2011 Lagrange-CRT Foundation Prize.

Albert-László Barabási, a world-renowned network scientist at Northeastern University, has received the 2011 Lagrange-CRT Foundation Prize for his body of research on complex networks in natural, technological and social systems.

The prize, which includes a $71,800 cash award, is given by the Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation, in Turin, Italy.

“Winning the award was pleasantly surprising,” said Barabási, a Distinguished Professor of Physics with joint appointments in biology and the College of Computer and Information Science, and the founding director of Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR).

CCNR is considered the leading university-based center for network science research in the world. The center focuses on how networks emerge, what they look like, how they evolve and how networks affect our understanding of complex systems.

In 1999, Barabási’s groundbreaking research led to the discovery of scale-free networks, which can be found in human cells and online communities, such as Facebook. Taking a network-based approach to identifying and battling disease, he said, could help reveal the biological significance of mutations associated with life-threatening illnesses.

As he put it, “Network theory provides a set of tools to understand and solve problems in our society that revolve around complex systems.”

Earlier this year, Barabási and Yang-Yu Liu, a postdoctoral research associate in Barabási’s lab, coauthored a study on the ways in which greater control of complex systems, such as cellular networks or social media, can be achieved by merging the tools of network science and control theory. The research findings were featured as the cover story in the May 12 issue of the journal Nature.

The research could have a variety of applications, said Barabási, from developing cures to metabolic diseases, to offering new insights into the design of better organizations.

He may use his prize-winnings to take his family on a vacation around the world. “I have a long-term dream of visiting Africa,” he said, “but with a 2-and 3-year-old, it could be many years away.”

View selected publications of Albert-László Barabási in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

Student pursues breakthrough in supercomputing

June 28, 2011 4:40 pm

Junior computer science major Greg Kerr (left) worked with Prof. Gene Cooperman (right) to develop a system to save progress on supercomputer computations. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

A Northeastern University undergraduate is leading the development of a new process that will make it possible for certain supercomputers to save their data midway through a computation, preventing the loss of progress due to a computer crash or bug that would otherwise require the machine to be restarted from the beginning.

“Computers are like a car engine — the more complicated they are, the more likely they are to break,” said Greg Kerr, a sophomore computer science major.  Kerr said that his protocol applies to high-performance machines known as InfiniBand supercomputers.

Next month, he will present his research at REcon, a computer science conference held annually in Montreal, Canada. He has been selected to give an hour-long talk on the first day of the conference, an honor, for an undergraduate, said Gene Cooperman, a professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, where Kerr is a research assistant.

“If you give your talk on the first day, it means everyone who is there for the conference knows who you are and can talk about your work in the later days,” said Kerr. “It shows that the organizers believe this work is very important and will generate a lot of interest among the attendees.”

InfiniBand is a relatively new computer system that has made high-performance computing more open and accessible since it was developed and released in the early 2000s.  Because the system is scalable, it can be used on systems ranging from small computer clusters to some of the world’s largest and most advanced supercomputers.

“This is the networking technology behind some of the worlds largest computers, and yet the number of people who understand the internals of the InfiniBand technology is very small, largely because it is relatively new,” said Cooperman, who urged Kerr to reach out to some of the top InfiniBand experts in the world as he began developing his new process.

No one has been able restart an InfiniBand process midstream. This new work would allow scientists to more efficiently complete massive calculations on expensive computers in high demand.

This summer, Cooperman and several of his doctoral students are working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where some of the nation’s most advanced supercomputers are located, and Kerr believes his work will soon be ready to be applied to those computations.

“I think we’re close,” Kerr said. “We’ve got the main points proven and now we need the summer to iron everything out and work out the bugs.”

Roving robot to the rescue

June 30, 2011 4:39 pm

Whelan (left), Williams (center) and Bottiglieri (right) created a robot that can find disaster victims through their mobile phones Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

Northeastern University student-researchers have created a roving robot named WiLU that may be able to locate and rescue victims of natural disasters or participate in military missions that are too dangerous for soldiers.

The innovative technology was developed for a senior capstone project under the direction of electrical and computer engineering professor Charles DiMarzio and associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, Guevara Noubir. The team members includedelectrical and computer engineering students Tom Bottiglieri, Spiros Mantzavinos, Travis Taylor, Ryan Whelan and Eric Williams.

WiLU—which looks like a Tonka truck—could help save the lives of victims of catastrophic disasters, such as the massive 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan in March, said Whelan.

As he put it, “You could send this robot into a search and rescue scenario where you don’t want humans to go.”

Noubir sponsored the students and funded the project with a portion of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Major Research Instrumentation grant awarded to him and an interdisciplinary team of professors from Northeastern to develop wireless sensor networks that support key applications such as search and rescue by swarms of robots.

He praised the student’s innovative robot. “It’s a great example of an effective research platform that integrates multi-disciplinary expertise spanning mechanical engineering, RF communications, embedded software development, and algorithms designs.”

Students created a complex algorithm that would enable the robot to locate people—or even bombs that are detonated through mobile phones.

Here’s how it works: a smart antenna mounted atop WiLU measures the signal strength of a mobile phone that is connected to a wireless network. Then, the robot autonomously determines the location of the object by adaptively forming beams to pinpoint the direction and location of the wireless signal source.

Students, who say humans could also control the robot from remote locations, hope to create a subscription service whereby mobile phone users could automatically join the WiFi network.

“Incorporating so many different creative and technical skills on a single project is the goal of our Capstone Design course,” DiMarzio said.

Exceptional Students are Awarded

August 28, 2011 4:38 pm

Ken McGrady stands between Aileen Yates and Melissa Perkin after receiving the William Jefferson Alcott, Jr. Award

The 40th annual Cooperative Education Awards were held on March 31st. The College of Computer and Information Science was proud that two of our senior students were recognized by such a competitive and prestigious honor.

Kenneth McGrady, a combined major in computer science and mathematics, received the William Jefferson Alcott, Jr. Award, which is presented to one senior within the university who utilizes his or her academic training in a creative way to make a positive contribution to society, and who has demonstrated exceptional achievement in cooperative education. It also recognizes the student’s accomplished goals beyond the requirements of the University curriculum. Between Ken’s co-op experiences at MITRE, Intuit and Pixar Animation Studios, his role as a research assistant in providing faster parsing technologies in compilers, and key player in the creation of Northeastern’s iPhone App “Discover Northeastern,” Ken is an individual who has made a significant impact to the college, university, and to all of the companies he has worked with on co-op. In addition, Ken’s involvement with ACM, CISters, NUEats, along with his role as Orientation Leader, RA and tutor, clearly demonstrate how he has gone above and beyond to make a lasting mark on the College of Computer and Information Science.

Alex Brick received the Outstanding Co-op Award for the college

Alex Brick, a combined Bachelor of Science and Master of Science candidate in Computer Science, with a minor in mathematics, received the Outstanding Co-op Award for the college. With Alex’s two co-ops at Amazon, one of CCIS’s most sought after co-op positions, his demanding course of study, his research within the college and his study abroad in Japan, Alex has taken full advantage of everything Northeastern University has to offer. Additionally, Alex is a tour guide for the Admission Office and participates in the CCIS Fellow program where he mentors freshmen students and assists in the Overview 2 class. Alex embodies the ethic, spirit and can-do personality of a student who seizes all opportunity to make the most of his education.

It has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with both Ken and Alex over the last five years, and they truly will be missed. We look forward to hearing of their successes in the years to come, as they both head to Seattle, Ken to work at Hulu and Alex to work at Amazon.

3Qs: 140,000 ways to code what ails you

September 26, 2011 12:42 pm

Dan Feinberg explains how the new medical-billing system will impact health care delivery. Photo by Christopher Huang.

Beginning on Oct. 1, 2013, a new federally mandated medical billing system would require doctors to use a bank of more than 140,000 alphanumeric codes to describe injuries and medical services in bills sent to insurers. We asked Dan Feinberg, the director of the health informatics program — a joint program in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University — to explain how the new coding system will affect health- care delivery.

How will the new medical-billing system change the way physicians, health insurers and information specialists deal with patients and patient data?

The new system — which is formally called the International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision (ICD-10) — changes how data is represented, but it doesn’t really change the data that is collected. ICD-10 will be able to represent that data in a way that computers can understand. There is research on finding a way for computers to understand free text that doctors put into their notes, but a formalized coding system is far better for computer interpretation.

Under the new system, your provider and your insurance company will know that you were bitten by a rat and not by a dog. If we discover that there is an outbreak of a disease being spread by rats, you might get a letter or a phone call. That will be new. It also works the other way. By having this detailed data in a structured format, we’ll be able to find patterns of problems that occur after rat bites and discover that, for example, outbreaks of a flu-like illness occurred in people who were bitten by rats.

What are health-care information specialists doing to prepare for the billing code changes?

Systems are being upgraded at a time when we are already making a push toward electronic records. Not everyone will make it in time, but people are still trying to maintain a sense of urgency. Europe has been running on a slightly different version of the U.S. version of ICD-10 for quite a while, so this feels more like finally catching up than blazing a new trail.

Under the new system, suffering an injury in a chicken coop, walking into a lamppost and being struck by a turtle will all be describable by code. How can this type of information help health-care providers deliver higher-quality care to patients? What else may this information be used for?

We will be much better at detecting outbreaks, and we will be much better at identifying how to keep people healthy. A broken arm, an animal bite and severe flu may not seem to go together until we find out that they are all chicken-related, so the computer can flag you for a phone call from a nurse with special training in chicken-handling education. In reality, chicken-related injuries are not overwhelming the health-care system, and we don’t train nurses specifically to address this problem. Having said that, the finer data in ICD-10 will allow us to identify patients with problems and pair them with nurses who can address them.

People may laugh at codes for poor personal hygiene, but these are very significant red flags for mental health issues that will benefit from early intervention. Whatever the information is, having it in a structured format vastly improves our ability to look for patterns in the data.

Co-op takes senior beyond his starstruck dreams

October 5, 2011 12:41 pm

Matthew Strax-Haber, a senior at Northeastern University. Photo by Christopher Huang.

A Northeastern student who came to Boston dreaming of a career with NASA discovered a new passion when a variety of work experiences with companies in the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates gave him an unexpected appreciation for developing efficient solutions and strategies for business and government.

Matthew Strax-Haber, a senior business and computer science dual major, did achieve his goal of working at NASA, on a research computer-engineering co-op at the agency’s Langley facility in Virginia. Though it was rewarding and challenging, he found that he preferred using his computer know-how and problem-solving skills to find new ways of innovating in businesses and government, a discovery that was reinforced on his subsequent co-op jobs.

For example, he spent this past summer in Dubai working as a consulting intern for McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s top management consulting firms.

“When I got there, the focused environment and great mentorship provided an amazing learning experience,” Strax-Haber said of the highly competitive job overseas.

Against the odds, Strax-Haber was part of the tiny number of interns hired outside a tight circle of the Ivy League and other elite universities, something he credits to his experiences on co-op, help from career counselors at Northeastern and coaching from fraternity brothers in Beta Theta Pi

“What Northeastern provides more than anything is an opportunity to get out in the real world and apply what you learn,” said Strax-Haber.

In addition to his summer in Dubai, Strax-Haber spent time in China on a Dialogue of Civilizationsprogram and later worked in legal compliance and investor relations as an intern for YGSoft.

“China was a totally new experience for me,” Strax-Haber said, saying his time in Asia pushed him to further develop his Chinese language skills, which he was using to translate corporate documents from Chinese to English.

In recognition of his global business work, last month Strax-Haber was named one of Northeastern’s first Presidential Global Entrepreneurs.

Before his experiences abroad, Strax-Haber worked co-op jobs in San Diego, where he was a software engineer for Intuit, and in Boston at IBM, where he got a first-hand look at how a major multinational corporation works to best serve its customers’ needs.

His experiential-learning opportunities “really taught me that I wanted to do something in government or business where I could really help people,” Strax-Haber said.

Understanding complex networks

October 25, 2011 12:40 pm

Network scientists David Lazer and Alessandro Vespignani may decide to explore the relationship between natural disasters and Facebook use. Photo illustration by Christopher Huang.

Northeastern University network scientists David Lazer and Alessandro Vespignani have been awarded $1.1 million as part of a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to analyze the interdependence between complex networks in natural, social and technological systems.

Understanding how an issue may spread through the nation’s transportation infrastructure, for example, could shed light on mitigation strategies designed to keep people safe.

“Knowledge of these dynamical processes would allow us to anticipate and possibly minimize systemic risk in a variety of contexts that affect our daily life,” said Vespignani, the newly appointed Sternberg Distinguished Professor of Physics, Computer Science and Health Sciences, with appointments in the College of Science, College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The results of the study, which includes Boston University physics professor Eugene Stanley, may also inform the design of telecommunication devices, such as smart phones and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Our hope is that we can inform how to structure our technological systems to better enable our social relationships and make them more robust so we don’t have catastrophic reverberations across networks,” noted Lazer, an associate professor of political science and computer science with joint appointments in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the College of Computer and Information Science.

The research team may decide to explore the relationship between natural disasters and Facebook use, traffic and mobile phone use, or telecommunication patterns and employee camaraderie.

For example, a close analysis of traffic patterns and historical transporation data could lead to the design of a mobile phone-operated system that helps drivers navigate through congested roads, Lazer said. As he put it, “The system would inform drivers where the traffic is so they can use road networks more efficiently.”

The study also includes an educational component. The research team plans to design a museum exhibit on network science and collaborate with students in the Boston Public Schools.

“We hope to inspire the next generation of scientists at an early age,” Lazer said.

Northeastern University to establish system of regional campuses across the U.S.

October 31, 2011 12:27 pm

Today, Northeastern is opening its first regional campus in Charlotte, N.C. Photo: Patrick Schneider

Advancing a model of higher education that moves “beyond the traditional boundaries of place,” Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun announced today that the university will launch a system of regional campuses in selected American cities. The first regional campus opens its doors today in Charlotte, N.C., and university leaders expect to open a second in Seattle, Wash., next year. The university is also actively evaluating opportunities in other cities throughout the U.S.

“The American system of higher education is going to change dramatically in the 21st century,” said Aoun. “Our existing college campuses are based on a model that we imported from England in the 17th century. This model cannot meet the full demands of contemporary society. We need to develop truly modern campuses—regional platforms for graduate education and collaborations between higher education and industry.”

Today’s launch follows two years of extensive planning and research by Northeastern officials, including a strategic decision not to offer undergraduate education at the regional campuses. Site selection of the new campuses is driven by regional demand for graduate education, and opportunities for research partnerships. In a global, knowledge-based economy, many employers require more professionals with graduate-level education, particularly in science and technology fields.

Graduate degree programs at the regional campuses will be based on a “hybrid delivery” model, which involves the integration of online and classroom learning. Existing Northeastern faculty members will teach courses both at the regional campuses and online. The hybrid learning approach is ideal for working professionals because it combines the traditional benefits of face-to-face instruction with the flexibility of online learning.

A broad range of Northeastern’s degree programs—including those in business, engineering, health sciences and computer science—will be offered in the regions. Degrees will be tailored to the demands of the local economy. In Charlotte, for example, the university will offer a master’s degree in health informatics, which aligns with the growing heath-care sector in the region. In Seattle, a master’s degree in information assurance will align with needs of the area’s many technology companies.

Similar opportunities will emerge in the sphere of research. The university is actively discussing a research collaboration with Duke Energy and Center City Partners, a Charlotte-based civic organization. The collaboration will focus on the impact of sustainability efforts within the local labor market.

Northeastern’s leadership in experiential learning—the integration of classroom study with professional experience—provides a strong foundation for the university’s expansion to new regions. Northeastern has relationships with more than 2,500 employers, including Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and global NGOs.

“These regional campuses are completely consistent with who we are as an institution,” said Aoun.

Although undergraduate education will not be offered at the regional campuses, the sites will still strengthen Northeastern’s undergraduate program, which is built on placing students in co-op positions with employers. The regional campuses will deepen relationships with current co-op employers and help to develop relationships with new employers. The sites will also serve as a local resource for undergraduates on co-op placements in a selected region.

Aoun foreshadowed Northeastern’s move in a May 2011 piece published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. “While educational models and offerings have always been diverse, the identities of institutions have typically been tightly coupled with their traditional campuses,” Aoun wrote. “Now the confluence of new technologies, changing student demands, and the emergence of a global higher-education market are quickly loosening the bonds between campus and brand.”

Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a comprehensive, global research university with more than 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It offers more than 90 undergraduate majors and more than 165 graduate programs, ranging from professional master’s degrees to interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs. The university’s research enterprise is aligned with three national imperatives: health, security and sustainability. Northeastern students participate in co-op and other forms of experiential learning in 85 countries on all seven continents.

The Virtual Nurse Will See You Now

November 1, 2011 12:09 pm

A few pointers: A patient interacts with a virtual nurse. Photo by Glenn Kulbako

Researchers at Northeastern University have developed a virtual nurse and exercise coach that are surprisingly likable and effective—even if they’re not quite as affable as the medical hologram on Star Trek. In fact, patients who interacted with a virtual nurse named Elizabeth said they preferred the computer simulation to an actual doctor or nurse because they didn’t feel rushed or talked down to.

A recent clinical trial of the technology found that Elizabeth also appears to have a beneficial effect on care. A month after discharge, people who interacted with the virtual nurse were more likely to know their diagnosis and to make a follow-up appointment with their primary-care doctor. The results of the study are currently under review for publication.

“We try to present something that is not just an information exchange but is a social exchange,” says Timothy Bickmore, associate professor in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science. Bickmore led the research. “It expresses empathy if the patient is having problems, and patients seem to resonate with that.”

Bickmore first became interested in working on “virtual agents” after seeing demonstrations of very early interactive animated characters. “I was amazed at how people were instantly mesmerized by them, and how quickly this effect vanished when the characters did something stupid,” he says. “I was interested in seeing how they could be engineered to maintain the enchantment over long periods of time and be used for practical purposes beyond entertainment.”

He adds that patients with little or no computer experience seem to prefer the virtual person to more standard computer interactions, because it feels more natural.

“Most people get frightened when they hear they are going to get care from a computer, so to hear so clearly that we are not short-changing patients is gratifying,” says Joseph Kvedar, a physician and founder and director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare. Kvedar has collaborated with Bickmore in the past.

To develop the computer-controlled avatars, researchers first recorded interactions between patients and nurses. They then tried to emulate the nurses’ nonverbal communication by endowing the virtual character with hand gestures and facial expressions. (The resulting animation is, however, much simpler than today’s sophisticated video games.)

Researchers also add small talk, asking users about local sports teams and the weather, which real nurses and coaches often do to put patients at ease. The verbal interactions are fairly basic; the nurse or trainer has a set repertoire of questions, and users choose from a selection of possible answers. For anything beyond that repertoire, the virtual agent will refer the patient to a human health-care provider.

Article by Emily Singer of the MIT technology review. The original article can be found here

Researchers Find Amazon Cloud Servers Teeming With Backdoors And Other People’s Data

November 8, 2011 12:08 pm

Eurecom’s researchers (from the left) Jonas Zaddach, Davide Balzarotti, and Marco Balduzzi Photo by Andy Greenberg, Forbes Staff

Renting a server from Amazon Web Services promises all the advantages of the Cloud: ephemeral, convenient computing without the nuisance of owning hardware. In fact, it may be more like renting a house where the last tenant left his junk in the closets and hasn’t changed the locks.

Researchers at France’s Eurecom technology institute, Northeastern University and the security firm SecludIT ran automated scanning tools on more than 5,000 of the virtual machines images published on Amazon’s catalog of virtual machines set up with preset software and configurations and ready to run on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service. They looked for security and privacy issues like malware, software vulnerabilities, and leftover data and user accounts from the administrator who set up the server’s software.

The results, which the team plans to present a paper at the Symposium on Applied Computing next March, aren’t pretty: 22% of the machines were still set up to allow a login by whoever set up the virtual machine’s software–either Amazon or one of the many other third party companies like Turnkey and Jumpbox that sell preset machine images running on Amazon’s cloud. Almost all of the machines ran outdated software with critical security vulnerabilities, and 98% contained data that the company or individual who set up the machine for users had intended to delete but could still be extracted from the machine.

“If the guy who set up the machine forgot to erase his credentials or left them there on purpose, everyone who has the credential can log into the server,” says Marco Balduzzi, one of the Eurecom researchers on the team. “You rent this machine for personal use, and someone else has a kind of a backdoor to it already.”

Balduzzi points out that it would be possible to publish a server image in Amazon’s catalog with the intent of infecting the user with malware or exploiting a backdoor to steal information. But in some cases it was the creator of the machine image who was put at risk by leaving private keys on the server or failing to completely erase his or her own data before publishing it for customers to use, Balduzzi says.

The research team notified Amazon about the issues last summer, and the company responded by posting a notice to its customers and partners about the problem. “We have received no reports that these vulnerabilities have been actively exploited,” the company wrote at the time. “The purpose of this document is to remind users that it is extremely important to thoroughly search for and remove any important credentials from an [Amazon Machine Image (AMIs)] before making it publicly available.”

Amazon spokesperson Kay Kinton sent me a statement, noting that “Customers have complete control over what information they include, or not, within the AMIs they choose to make publicly available,” and pointing to a couple Amazon pages on using AMI’s securely.

Balduzzi says that an Amazon representative similarly told him that the company considers the issue to be one between users and the third party companies that offer software on Amazon’s platform. “They told me it’s not their concern, they just provide computing power,” Balduzzi says. “It’s like if you upload naked pictures to Facebook. It’s not a good practice, but it’s not Facebook’s problem.”

The Eurecom team’s research isn’t the first to point out security issues in Amazon’s cloud services. Just earlier this week, a team of German researchers revealed a collection of vulnerabilities in Amazon’s web interface that allowed potential data theft from the company’s cloud platform. Amazon has now patched those flaws.

Here’s the full paper from the Eurecom researchers.

This article was written by Andy Greenberg for Forbes Magazine. The original copy can be foundhere.

Adding the flavor to food science

December 16, 2011 12:01 pm

Northeastern University network scientists debunked the food-pairing hypothesis, which is based on the principle that foods sharing flavor compounds taste better together.

North American and Western European cuisines tend to use ingredients that share flavor compounds, while East Asian and Southern European cuisines tend to avoid ingredients that share flavor compounds, according to a study by Northeastern University network scientists.

The findings — which were reported in the December edition of the online journal Scientific Reports — appear to debunk the food-pairing hypothesis, which is based on the principle that foods that share flavor compounds taste better together.

“Some scientists in the molecular gastronomy community think foods with similar compositions taste well together, but we found that it really depends on the region,” said coauthor Albert-László Barabási, a Distinguished Professor of Physicswith joint appointments in biology and the College of Computer and Information Science.

Barabási — who recently received an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Madrid for his contributions to the fields of science and engineering — is the founding director of Northeastern’s world-renowned Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR).

The team of researchers, including former CCNR postdoctoral research associates James Bagrow, Sebastian Ahnert and Yong-Yeol Ahn, took a network-based approach to explore the impact of flavor compounds on ingredient combinations. They designed and analyzed the bipartite network of links between ingredients and flavor compounds found in more than 56,000 recipes from three online repositories, including, and

Two ingredients were connected if they shared at least one flavor compound. On average, a pair of ingredients in North American cuisine shared 11.7 flavor compounds. By contrast, a pair of ingredients in East Asian cuisine shared an average of 6.2 flavor compounds.

Compared to a randomized recipe dataset, North American dishes tended to use ingredients with more shared compounds than expected by chance, while East Asia dishes tended to use ingredients with fewer than shared compounds than expected.

The researchers found that a small number of ingredients contributed to the food paring effect in each region. Some 13 ingredients in North American cuisine, including milk, eggs and butter, appeared in roughly 74 percent of all recipes.

“These ingredients played a disproportionate role in the cuisine and contributed to the shared compound effect,” Barabási explained.

What’s his favorite food? “I like Hungarian ethnic food, but I won’t reject a good steak or a good burger,” Barabási quipped.

Undergraduate Earns National Recognition for Outstanding Research

January 4, 2012 12:00 pm

Northeastern computer science senior Tyler Denniston.

Northeastern computer science senior Tyler Denniston is among just 60 students nationwide recognized with a 2012 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award from the Computing Research Association (CRA). The recipient of an honorable mention, he became the fifth College of Computer and Information Science undergraduate the CRA has commended for exemplary research. The others were overall award winner Andrea Grimes in 2005, finalist Jason Ansel in 2007, and honorable mention recipients Jennifer McDonald in 2002 and Tanya Cashorali in 2008.

Denniston has been a member of Professor Gene Cooperman’s research group for the past three years and further honed his research skills through a co-op with VMware, the global leader in virtualization and cloud infrastructure. He also co-authored a peer-reviewed paper included in the PLOS 2011 Workshop on Programming Languages and Operating Systems, a prestigious computing conference.

Denniston’s research has focused on “checkpointing,” or saving the state of a computer program. He contributed to Cooperman’s large Distributed MultiThreaded CheckPointing (DMTCP) research project and to the development of a universal reversible, or “time-traveling,” debugger known as FReD (Fast Reversible Debugger) that uses a novel form of checkpoint restart.

By the time he was a junior, Denniston had developed the first version of a determinism module integrated into the team’s research software. He also acquired what Cooperman has described as “the same research skills as a first- or second-year PhD student.”

The research team recently completed the FReD project, and their open-source software is ready for release to the public. Denniston says, “As an undergraduate, I’ve been able to make very significant contributions to this research. The determinism model turned out to be a very critical piece of the software. I also wrote the whole user interface for the software.”

Now that his research has earned the CRA’s recognition, Denniston says, “It’s good for everyone. It’s good for the college because it shows we have strong students coming out of Northeastern in terms of research. For me personally, it’s really going to help in getting into graduate school. My target is a PhD program, and this is evidence that I know how to do research.”

Although this is the first time Denniston has gained national attention for his research, his potential was apparent several years ago. As a freshman, he was awarded the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship, which enabled him to work with Cooperman as a sophomore.

“After that, I continued on my own initiative,” Denniston says. “The scholarship started all of this for me.”

Forecasting the spread of emerging diseases

February 2, 2012 12:00 pm

President Joseph E. Aoun greets Alessandro Vespignani, who was installed as Northeastern University’s Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics on Tuesday.

If we can forecast the path of a hurricane or even the trajectory of a subatomic particle, why shouldn’t we also be able to forecast the spread of an emerging disease? That is the question Alessandro Vespignani, who was installed as Northeastern University’s Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics on Tuesday in the Raytheon Amphitheater, began asking 10 years ago.

The answer, he explained, is twofold: our ability to predict disease transmission is limited by both the complexity of human social networks and by the fact that understanding that complexity requires enormous amounts of data and thus extremely sophisticated technology.

Vespignani – who holds joint appointments in the College of Science, the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Science and is one of the leading network scientists in Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research – said the mobility patterns of individuals around the world determine how quickly and vastly a contagion will spread.

During the Black Plague, for example, which killed half of the European population, people could travel only a few miles a day on average. But nearly 700 years later, with the aid of airplanes, automobiles and an exponentially larger population, people are now traveling many thousands of miles each day.

As a result, today’s social network is much more closely linked, according to Vespignani: A germ picked up in Vietnam could travel to Boston in just a few hours. To understand the macroscopic structure of human systems, Vespignani said, we must look not just at individual behavior, but also at the system as a whole. “With just two molecules of water,” he explained, “we won’t see how water behaves as a liquid or ice. We need millions of molecules to do that.”

In human networks, Vespignani said, the individual is the social atom and groups are considered social molecules. When we examine millions of social molecules, a picture emerges depicting our collective behavior. The image is complex, because human social networks don’t respond as we might expect from external forces such as disease. Computer models, Vespignani noted, can help untangle that complexity.

With information constantly flowing from satellite traceable devices such as mobile phones and flight trackers, Vespignani said, we are in the midst of a “data deluge.” For the first time, our computer infrastructure is powerful enough to analyze that data. Vespignani, for example, can map thousands of individuals’ movements across spaces to generate mobility patterns for the whole system.

Two years ago, his team used their model to project the activity peaks of the H1N1 pandemic for various regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Eventually the researchers were able to validate those projections with actual data and found that their “simulations were spot on.”

Vespignani hopes that with other forms of data, like those generated by Internet and social network use, it will be possible to project “not just the spread of disease, but also ideas, knowledge, or the evolution of languages,” he explained.

Northeastern researchers, Vespignani noted, “are keen to create new results now…to see those systems in completely different ways.” His disease model, he said, is a prototype for potentially limitless applications.

Vespignani was elected to the physics and engineering sciences branch of the Academy of Europe last year for his research on the spread of epidemics.

President Joseph E. Aoun said the world-renowned statistical physicist “epitomizes what we’ve been doing” in terms of interdisciplinary collaborations.

Murray Gibson, dean of the College of Science, introduced Vespignani, saying he caps off Northeastern’s team of network scientists, which is made up of world leaders in the field.

Provost Stephen W. Director, who oversaw the formal installation of the new Sternberg Chair, made one last prediction toward the close of the event, noting that we “will be seeing many more installations of Northeastern faculty chairs, creating their own interconnected network of interdisciplinary work.”

The future of health care: living rooms and wristbands

February 13, 2012 11:59 am

Assistant professor Matthew Goodwin is developing a new way to diagnose and treat patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders using. Photo by Christopher Huang for Northeastern.

Most people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders suffer from severe forms of the disability, and find it difficult to perform unfamiliar tasks for undefined periods of time, according to Matthew Goodwin, an assistant professor of health informatics at Northeastern University.

Goodwin — who joined the Northeastern faculty in the fall with joint appointments in the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences — has studied autism for more than a decade. He says severely affected patients are “the most prevalent in the population, but they’re the ones we understand the least, and the ones we really need to help the most.”

Recognizing that results from studying higher-functioning individuals with autism may not apply to individuals with more severe cases of the disability, Goodwin came up with a novel idea: “Instead of bringing people into the lab, why don’t we consider taking the lab to people?”

To put this idea into practice, Goodwin draws on two forms of computer science. The first, called “ubiquitous computing,” tracks a person’s natural behavior in his home using embedded sensory devices such as cameras or microphones. The second approach, dubbed “wearable computing,” measures physical activity and physiological reactivity using embedded sensors on shoes, clothing and wristbands.

Goodwin notes the effectiveness of combining each approach: “We can have built environments where we know something about overt human behavior, and then with wearable devices we can say something about the internal state of the individual.”

Goodwin began testing this tactic as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where he later became a research scientist and forged a collaboration with five top-tier research institutions. The partnership culminated in a five-year National Science Foundation Expeditions in Computing grant to develop novel personal health technologies.

Joining Northeastern, Goodwin says, will help him take this work to the next level through interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty members in both the computer and health sciences to address several of the nation’s current health-care challenges.

“Northeastern is willing to be innovative and interdisciplinary,” he explains. “Here, the focus is on applying research, putting it out into the world, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and bringing successes to the masses. This applied focus could really impact public health.”

3Qs: Understanding the potential impact of the H5N1 virus

February 15, 2012 11:59 am

Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor Alessandro Vespignani of the department of physics discusses the recent controversial research with avian flu virus, H5N1. Photo by Christopher Huang

Last year, in an effort to understand the biology of H5N1, two independent research groups successfully engineered the lethal avian flu virus to be transmissible between mammals, and perhaps among humans. At the end of January, the research community, including the authors of the two studies, agreed to a 60-day moratorium on sensitive H5N1 experiments. In the meantime, the World Health Organization will hold international discussions regarding the future of such research and its availability in the community. We talked to network scientist Alessandro Vespignani, the Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics, to discuss the motivations for and implications of research in this area.

What is the H5N1 virus, where did it come from, and why is it being investigated?

Influenza viruses are found in the wild among animal populations like swine, birds or horses. Occasionally they jump between species, and a virus well adapted to spread in the animal population becomes well adapted to spread in the human population.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 is currently only able to spread quickly within the avian populations, periodically infecting humans in vulnerable conditions — for example someone who has a compromised immune system or is overexposed to the virus because he lives in close proximity to poultry farms. H5N1 has not yet acquired human-to-human transmission capabilities.

When it does infect humans, it is currently very lethal, with a mortality rate close to 50 percent, although that number may be skewed due to mild, unreported cases. To put that into perspective, the disastrous 1918 pandemic resulted from a virus whose lethality was somewhere between 2 and 10 percent.

As soon as H5N1 is able to spread between humans we will have a new pandemic. In some cases, when a virus acquires transmission capabilities its lethality diminishes, but it is still unclear why or how this happens. It is also unclear what makes a virus highly transmissible in the first place.

Several scientific groups are studying the H5N1 virus to address questions such as these. Two groups in particular, based in The Netherlands, Japan and University of Wisconsin, recently published results from experiments in which they engineered the virus to have high transmission capabilities between ferrets. Ferrets are good biological models for humans so it is believed that if the virus is highly transmissible among ferrets, it will also be so in the human population.

What are the safety concerns raised by this research?

Many people oppose the idea that scientists are trying to manipulate in the lab a virus that is very dangerous. These kinds of narratives reaffirm the fictional public idea of the evil scientist in the lab.

But the scientists involved in this work really are driven by truly scientific questions that are for the good of society. They are highly trained experts working in highly safe environments. I’m not scared of the virus spontaneously going out of the lab due to negligence — I’m more concerned about people getting a hold of it because they want to do things like bioterrorism.

People are questioning whether it is even pertinent to do this type of research or not. It all depends on what they were able to achieve. If this research really is a breakthrough and it allows us to better understand viral transmissibility and lethality, it may be great research. Along with close monitoring of real-world viruses, it could allow us to see if a pandemic is approaching.

If those questions are not answered, all we’ve done is engineered a dangerous virus — it’s reminiscent of the dark times of the Cold War when biologists were working to cook up the ultimate biological weapon. You don’t want to be in that position, especially in today’s world.

How is the community responding?

The results of the two research efforts have been submitted for publication in the journals Science and Nature. However the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has recommended that the details of the studies (the methods sections) should be restricted.

Last week, one of the investigators published a letter in Nature arguing against the recommendation because making the methods available to the community would allow the research community to work on the problem simultaneously, which would be much more efficient and a conduit to new discoveries. Also, simply knowing the results means that sooner or later people will figure out one way or another how to reach the end product, even without the published methods.

So the debate is about whether we can hamper science by restraining publications or restricting certain experiments. But to some extent, this is already happening with other viruses. For instance, small pox has been eradicated for many, many years but there are still two places in the world where it is kept. If you want to work with small pox, you have to submit a very complicated application, because you’re managing one of the most dangerous things in the world.

3Qs: Taking a patient-facing approach to health care

February 23, 2012 11:58 am

Associate professor Timothy Bickmore highlights the unique focus and approach to health care that encompasses the new health informatics PhD program — set to launch in fall 2012.

The United States spends $2 trillion in health care annually. New technologies and approaches to health care have led to a growing field in health informatics, which has a focus on both the clinical and personal aspects of the industry. We asked Timothy Bickmore, an associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, to discuss the impact this field can have on the health care industry as a whole, as well as Northeastern’s new PhD program in health informatics.

As one of the first in the nation to have this program, what are some different approaches we can expect from Northeastern’s new health informatics PhD program this fall?

The program was designed primarily by four faculty members in the College of Computer and Information Science and Bouvé College of Health Sciences — myself, Stephen Intille, Rupal Patel and Matthew Goodwin — all researchers doing interdisciplinary research in “patient-facing” health informatics.

The focus on patient- and consumer-facing health informatics is unique. There are several graduate programs in medical and health informatics in the United States, but they all focus on clinical informatics — that is, information systems used by doctors and nurses.

The key issues that our program will address are designing systems that can be used by laypeople with varying degrees of computer and health literacy, with various educational and cultural backgrounds; and creating systems that are intended to change health behavior as much as to inform, and are designed to be integrated into peoples’ everyday lives over long periods of time.

What is the impact of health informatics on health care, and how will it shape people’s relationship with health-care providers and the industry?

Poor health behavior — including everything from physical inactivity and poor diet, smoking, not getting recommended vaccinations and screening tests — is a direct cause of a significant portion of the $2 trillion the United States spends on health care annually.

One focus of personal health informatics is designing new technologies that can have a significant positive impact on these behaviors; another is designing assistive technologies to increase the quality of life for individuals with a variety of disabilities. Some of the significant design challenges we face are creating systems that can facilitate provider-patient communication, and designing systems to communicate health data that is measured and reported outside of the clinical environment in a way that providers trust and will use.

What are some instances of health informatics adoption by health-care professionals that people can already interact with and utilize as the field continues to grow?

There is an exploding market for consumer-health technologies, ranging from pedometers to digital bathroom scales to sleep monitors. These technologies are becoming increasingly intelligent and networked to reporting and feedback functions aimed at improving health behavior.

There is also a growing market in telemedicine devices that monitor and communicate with patients at home, then report status and alerts to health-care providers. The health informatics program is designed not only to teach students how to design these devices, but how to use them in theory-driven interventions and evaluate them in rigorously controlled clinical trials, which are required to gain credibility with health care providers.

How we move: a better predictive model for human mobility patterns

February 27, 2012 11:58 am

Post-doctorate researcher Filippo Simini is part of a team that has developed a new model for mapping human mobility patterns to help answer questions ranging from the spread of infectious disease and to the spread of ideas. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

“It’s human nature to want the greatest outcome for the least amount of work,” says Filippo Simini a post-doctorate researcher in Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research, directed by Albert-László Barabási.

Simini is quoting the American linguist George Kingsley Zipf who, in the early 1940s, introduced a model based on this “principle of least effort” to predict individuals’ inter-city movements.

Later variations of Zipf’s original model are based on an analogy with Newton’s law of gravitation: larger and closer cities attract people more than smaller and more distant cities. The so-called “Gravity Law” of mobility, which accounts for the size and distance between a commuter’s origin and destination, help contemporary network scientists build larger mobility maps, which can help them predict the spread of disease.

But the Gravity Law has several limitations: It depends on parameters that are not universal to all regions of the globe, its predictions are sometimes flat out wrong and, perhaps most importantly, it cannot be used in regions without sufficient traffic data, which often correlate to areas most affected by infectious diseases.

“The Gravity Law works,” says Simini, “But maybe it’s not the best we can do.” In research published online Sunday in the journal Nature, Simini and Barábasi, along with collaborators Marta González from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amos Maritan from University of Padua in Italy, present a more accurate approach, which they call the “Radiation Model.”

Instead of looking only at origin and destination populations, it also takes into account the population density throughout the entire region in which a commuter may find work. Since it depends only on population density data, which is widely available across the globe, it is more versatile than the Gravity Law.

To illustrate the difference between the two models, the team analyzed census data from two pairs of counties with similar populations in Utah and Alabama, respectively. Because the Gravity Law looks only at origin and destination populations, it predicts identical commuting patterns in the two regions. But census data reports 10 times more trips between the two counties in Utah than in Alabama.

“If you live in a city that lies in a densely populated region” says Simini, “then you will probably find good employment close to home. If your city is surrounded by a desert, you’ll have to travel farther to find comparable job opportunities.” Predictions from the Radiation Model come much closer to the actual data.

The team applied their equation to other data sets, such as hourly trips detected by mobile phone use, migration data from the IRS and freight shipment data. The equation accurately predicts the number of trips made between two places using any of these sets.

Network scientists have already put the equation to use in current studies modeling the spread of disease and report that it can give more accurate results than their current methods.

“We enter an era in which predicting the large-scale mobility of individuals is essential for epidemic prediction and transportation planning,” says Barabási, the principal investigator on the work. “The results obtained in the paper offer a rational tool to quantify these movements.”

Building a better robot

February 29, 2012 11:55 am

Backed by an NSF CAREER Award, Marsette Vona plans to design a robot that can adapt to an uncertain environment. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Today’s robots can vacuum floors, build cars and even perform surgery. While not quite on the intelligence level of the Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie, they are rather smart. Nonetheless, modern robots struggle to handle the common problem of uncertainty in the environment: Move a wrench from a Ford robot’s tool tray, for example, and you risk ruining the whole car. Get a new rug with tassels and your Roomba may as well go back in the closet with the broom.

Marsette Vona, an assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern, wants to change all that. Backed by a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Vona plans to merge the two areas of research he has pursued throughout his academic career: 3-D perception and compliant contact.

The goal, he said, is to develop software through which a robot can acquire 3-D information about its surroundings, process the data and then approach the environment with a certain amount of “intelligence.”

As a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, Vona designed a climbing robot that could grab onto uneven surfaces and adjust its grip based on the dynamics of its initial contact. “It’s helpful for a robot to be ‘soft’— to adjust appropriately based on response,” Vona explained. “Humans do it intrinsically.”

But Vona’s climbing robot and more recent compliant machines are “blind.” In another project, Vona uses cameras to give robots “sight.”

Earlier iterations of this technique use 2-D cameras to extract information about the surroundings. Using the Microsoft Kinnect 3-D camera, however, Vona’s team can analyze the geometry of an environment with the hope of one day coupling that information with compliant contact. By recognizing uneven terrain, for example, robots may soon be able to make a decision about how to approach and touch that surface.

Vona envisions robots that could help amputees traverse rocky trails, perform hazardous tasks in a compromised nuclear reactor surrounded by debris, or move along the sea floor — or even the surface of another planet — with ease.

“We need robots today that can work in hazardous locations with very rough terrain,” Vona said. “In the future we may want robots that can walk with us over stairs, curbs and rocks.

“Understanding how to combine 3-D perception with compliant contact,” he added, “will be a major step towards these goals.”

The research component of Vona’s CAREER award will intersect with his teaching program. He currently teaches Robotic Science and Systems, in which both undergraduate and graduate students team up to write software for and build practical robots that can lift objects off the floor. In the future, Vona hopes to introduce students to the problem of uncertainty in this class.

National Cancer Institute Awards Grant

March 4, 2012 4:47 pm

Prof. Timothy Bickmore, in collaboration with co-PI Michael Paasche-Orlow, MD, at Boston Medical Center (BMC), was just awarded a 5-year, $4 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop animated conversational agents to help patients navigate oncology clinical trials.

The “Research Ethics and Safety Promoted by Embodied Conversational Technology” (RESPECT) project was funded through NIH’s Ethical Issues In Human Subjects Research program to help ensure ethical treatment of participants in oncology trials, by ensuring that all patients understand informed consent documents and study protocols, irrespective of their health, reading or computer literacy abilities.

Prof. Bickmore has spent the last decade developing conversational agents that counsel patients about health-related topics and Dr. Paasche-Orlow is a national expert on health literacy, especially related to patient understanding of research informed consent documents. The current effort builds on a five-year collaboration between them to develop agent-enhanced explanation of informed consent and other healthcare documents for patients with limited health literacy.

The project will involve the development of conversational agents that: 1) help candidates find clinical trials they are eligible for and interested in among the 1,000 active trials at BMC; 2) explain research informed consent documents to participants and assess their comprehension; and 3) monitor participants during oncology trials to promote adherence to study protocols and automatically report adverse events to the research staff, the Data Safety and Monitoring Board and the Institutional Review Board (IRB), as appropriate. The advisory committee for the effort involves members of the BMC IRB and national experts on clinical trials and ethics.

What is Network Science? (video)

March 20, 2012 11:49 am

Shaping an interdisciplinary leader

March 21, 2012 11:48 am

Fourth-year information sciences major Shay McDonough continues to work part time for Novartis after completing two co-ops with its IT group. Photo by Casey Bayer.

In high school, Shay McDonough developed an interest in both biology and computer science. At Northeastern, McDonough — now a fourth-year information sciences major — combined her love for both fields on two co-ops for the information technology (IT) group at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“It was a beautiful integration of biology and computer science,” she said.

On her first co-op, McDonough updated a management system to comply with the research organization’s design and IT standards. Her work made it easier for researchers on the cardiovascular and metabolic diseases team to share information with data analysts.

McDonough’s familiarity with team projects helped her land a second co-op as a program manager, a role that enabled her to work on the design of a bigger program that connects users within each of the company’s research areas.

McDonough’s manager, Arturo Morales, global lead at the Novartis Data Federation Initiative, praised her contribution. “As much as this was a learning experience for her, she has made a significant impact in the team and helped us move forward,” he said.

Soon after beginning the project, however, McDonough realized that it would take at least a year to complete. “Co-ops in general are really interested in getting things done and having something you can say you really accomplished in your six months there,” she explained.

But that turned out to be impossible for the hardworking student. Instead of saying goodbye to the project at the end of her co-op, McDonough chose to continue working at Novartis as a part-time employee to see her work through to a later stage of development.

McDonough said the Novartis experience served as a launching pad for a future career, and in her third co-op, she hopes to continue challenging herself even more in the area of user interface.

Learning to Breast-Feed From an Avatar

March 27, 2012 11:44 am

Tim Bickmore of the College of Computer and Information Science and Roger Edwards of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences are using computer technology to improve breastfeeding education for expecting mothers. Courtesy image.

When two Northeastern University professors, one in health sciences and the other in computer and information science, came together to try to develop a system to help women breast-feed more successfully, their project joined their common interest and their two worlds. They created a lactation avatar: Tanya.

Tanya is knowledgeable. She can demonstrate techniques. She doesn’t mind repeating herself, and if she gets impatient with a mother who’s slow to master the football hold, she’ll never, ever show it. Plus, notes Tim Bickmore, who helped create the “computerized lactation-education consultant,” she’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and she doesn’t charge by the hour. “We wanted to create a tool that would be there when mothers needed it,” he said.

You can’t download a Tanya yet — this is a project in the very early development stages. But in a small pilot study, the two men found that their strategy, when made available to women during their hospital stay, “significantly increased both breast-feeding knowledge and the intent to breast-feed.”

Increasing knowledge and intent is a long way from a rousing success, but this is a technology with promise — and without, Professor Bickmore assured me, any intention to substitute for human lactation support. “Tanya isn’t a replacement,” he said. “She’s an additional resource.”

In the future, Professor Bickmore and his colleague, Prof. Roger Edwards, hope to offer an avatar that coaches women who are holding baby dolls containing embedded sensors on their technique, and a 3-D version of Tanya, and, of course, smartphone apps.

Could you have used an online lactation consultant at 4 a.m. in your first nights home with your infant? I’d have to see her in action to be convinced — but if she was available, I’d certainly have been willing to try.

By KJ DELL’ANTONIA, NYTimes writer. The original copy can be found here.

3Qs: How hacking will affect credit-card holders

April 4, 2012 11:43 am

William Robertson (left), assistant professor in the College of Engineering and the College of Computer and Information Science, is seen here at a congressional briefing on cybersecurity last month in Washington that was led by a Northeastern University team of experts. Photo by Paul Morigi.

Last Friday, a major Atlanta-based payment card processor, Global Payments, announced a server security breach that could affect more than 1 million accounts. We asked William Robertson, a cybersecurity expert and professor in both the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Engineering, to explain how hackers penetrated the company and the impact this will have on credit-card holders.

How did the Global Payments security breach occur?

The breach was only made public on Friday, and the story is still developing. Nevertheless, it seems clear that cybercriminals have had illicit access to the internal networks of Global Payments since January 2012, and possibly as far back as January 2011. The company has stated that at most 1.5 million accounts have been breached, although this number may increase as the investigation proceeds and more details become public.

From what we do know, it appears that hackers successfully penetrated a subset of the servers that comprise Global Payments’ card processing system. From this vantage point inside the company’s internal networks, the hackers were able to exfiltrate sensitive credit-card data, including sufficient information to clone new, illegitimate credit cards. The intrusions themselves could have been a result of poor password selection, exploitable network services or even targeted attacks against highly privileged employees. At this point, however, there is no way to be sure what the exact vector was.

Can hacks like this be prevented? If so, what measures is the cybersecurity industry or even government putting in place?

While we do not yet know the specifics of this case, it is clear that our current computer systems and networks are fundamentally insecure in the sense that we have little assurance that they are free of security vulnerabilities. And, even if they were perfectly secure, cybercriminals could still attack the human elements of the system, for instance through social engineering. The Systems Security Group at Northeastern is actively researching ways to detect and prevent attacks against existing systems, as well as designing new systems that are invulnerable or resilient to classes of attacks. But there is still much work to be done.

For their part, industry and government are not idle. In particular, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard establishes a set of requirements that must be followed by companies that handle cardholder information. This standard includes measures for attack prevention and detection, as well as guidelines for security incident response. It is important to recognize, however, that adopting these measures is in no way a guarantee that your credit-card information will not be stolen by cybercriminals. Rather, their purpose is to reduce liability when breaches do occur. Incidentally, Visa has removed Global Payments from the list of the Security Standard-compliant service providers as a response to the reported breach.

What does this incident mean for the average credit-card holder? Do you have any tips for how cardholders can protect themselves from fraud?

Most cardholders will probably not be affected in any way. For those whose card information was accessed as part of the breach, you will receive a notification from the bank that issued your card with instructions that you should follow immediately. Of course, you should not be held liable for the security failures at Global Payments.

The unfortunate reality is that no level of vigilance on your part can fully protect your card information from attacks such as the one that occurred at Global Payments. Regardless, it is very important to: a) regularly monitor your bank and credit-card statements and report irregularities; b) scan your computers and watch for signs of malware; and c) be careful how and to whom you divulge sensitive information. Best practices such as these will help to reduce the risk and keep your sensitive information safe.

Favorite 5: Video games for interdisciplinary research

April 12, 2012 11:36 am

Magy Seif El-Nasr, associate professor of creative industires, teaches courses in the game-design and interactive media program. Photo by Mike Mazzanti.

Associate professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, who holds joint positions in the College of Computer and Information Science and College of Arts, Media and Design, teaches game design and interactive media — one of Northeastern’s fastest-growing interdisciplinary programs. But to design games, you need to be able to play them. And when El-Nasr does, she opts for ones with the most highly visual 3-D worlds and challenging quests. Her favorite? “Assassin’s Creed,” she said, “and that’s the one I’m best at.”

Assassin’s Creed Series
In this historical-fiction action-adventure game, modern-day Desmond Miles, who is descended from a line of assassins, uses a machine to relive memories of his ancestors — one assassin who lived during the Crusades; the other, in Renaissance Italy in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Combat, mayhem and love ensue.

Civilization Series
You are the leader of a civilization competing with other civilizations, starting from 4000 BC all the way to the near future. You strategically build and manage cities, work the land for food, trade, choose which technologies will benefit your empire, keep citizens happy and occasionally deal with marauding barbarians.

Prince of Persia Series
The games, which spawned a 2010 Disney movie, follow the adventures of an acrobatic prince as he travels through time combating evil forces, saving Persia and rescuing the princess, all the while completing difficult quests and solving puzzles to gain more power.

Children of Eden
The object of this musically and visually stunning game is to save the first child born in deep space from being destroyed by a virus. The young girl is asleep, and when a parasite is destroyed in each of the five levels, her memories are awakened one by one.

Enter the Nordic world of Skyrim, a massive landscape filled with forests, countrysides, mountains and creatures. The king has been assassinated and civil war threatens. In the fifth chapter of the Elder Scrolls, the evil dragon-god and his minions have returned, and the kingdom awaits the savior (that would be the player) who will fight for mankind.

In a small-device world, bigger may still be better

April 17, 2012 11:34 am

Peter Desnoyers of the College of Computer and Information Sciences received a CAREER award to pursue his work with solid-state storage devices. Photo by Kristie Gillooly.

In the early days, standard computers could be as large as a single story house. Over the last several decades, many development efforts have focused on shrinking them for use in the home and eventually anywhere in the world — on the train, in a cave, you name it.

That is, if you want to use standard computer-based tools, like the Internet or iTunes. Today’s tiny devices are capable of crunching lots of data pretty quickly, but what if “lots of data” means tens or hundreds of terabytes or more, amounts that would take a typical PC days or weeks to process? For that we need supercomputers, which are still big and expensive.

Peter Desnoyers, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, recently received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to explore solid-state drives, which are data-storage devices that use flash memory, as new computational tools. If successful, these devices could revolutionize the industry by making large-scale computation possible for the masses.

Flash was originally designed to replace hard drives as a faster data-storage method. “It is somewhat faster for large files than hard drives,” Desnoyers said. But more important, it is “far more nimble, able to switch from one small file to another at electronic speeds while a hard drive must wait for mechanical parts to move.”

The only problem is flash came too late. Over the last several decades, computer scientists have optimized software to run on hard drives. Anything that would run better on flash has not yet been designed. “We’ve stopped trying to do anything that involves complex data structures outside of the computer’s memory,” Desnoyers said. “We’ve stopped trying to do the things that flash is best at.”

Before computer scientists can start designing new uses for flash they must first understand how it behaves. In particular, Desnoyers’ team is looking at fragmentation, in which creating and deleting files over time causes a storage system to become randomly arranged.

Hard drives, Desnoyers explained, slow down but continue to work as they become fragmented. But flash must constantly defragment in order to work at all. It must constantly rearrange blocks of data like a sliding tiles puzzle, shuffling it between unoccupied areas in order to clear more space. This process causes the drive to run slower and eventually reduces its lifetime.

“We’re trying to understand it so we can design better algorithms to deal with it,” Desnoyers said.

In addition to making personal computers more powerful, solid-state storage devices could also extend the power of supercomputers beyond their current capacity. Desnoyers’ team is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratories to explore ways of making that possible.

Still, Desnoyers isn’t convinced that flash is the future of computing. “Disk is getting bigger and cheaper faster than flash is,” he said. “For flash to become really widespread, we need to develop new approaches to make it worth the price — it has to enable us to do things with computers that we couldn’t do before.”

Celebrating an “influential” senior class

April 17, 2012 11:35 am

President Joseph E. Aoun greeted seniors last week at a reception for those selected as “most influential” from the Class of 2012. Photo by Mike Mazzanti.

Most years, Northeastern honors 100 students deemed most influential on campus at a reception in the spring. However, the Class of 2012 supplied such a bumper crop of influential students that the university deemed 100 simply wasn’t enough.

At this year’s reception, held last week, a total of 118 were honored for their achievements in everything from academics and experiential-learning opportunities to athletics and student organizations.

President Joseph E. Aoun said some students joked about the reasons they were invited — saying they knew the right people or had left favorable impressions on top administrators. Those reasons, he said, were far from true.

“Some of you said, ‘I have been doing the right thing.’ And that’s why you are all here,” Aoun said. “But the right thing is not the same for each one of you. Some of you have been involved in leading various clubs, some of you have been involved in various aspects of university life and community service. Whatever it is, you’re right: You did the right thing.”

The students honored included athletes, club leaders and key figures in campus life and community service — and many had multiple distinctions and leadership roles to their names.

“As the person responsible for the academic programs here at Northeastern, I’m really pleased to see all of you doing so well,” said Provost Stephen Director. “You should feel good about the education you received and know that we’re really proud of everything you’ve done.”

For many students, the reception provided an opportunity to reflect upon their Northeastern experiences and the lessons they learned.

“I learned you have to try a lot of things to figure out what you want to do, and it’s OK to do that,” said Katherine Hayden, a sociology major who used a study-abroad semester in Scotland to further her knowledge in political science.

Computer science major Daniel Bostwick, a leader in the university’s chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, said his initiative helped him succeed in class, clubs and entrepreneurial endeavors.

“I learned of the importance of starting something and being able to follow through, whether it’s for schoolwork or a start-up,” Bostwick said.

Aoun said the group of influential students would leave Northeastern as models for future students looking to succeed in their endeavors, whatever they may be.

“It’s obviously the case that you are the role models for us, for the students and for the future,” he said.

Professor returns to her roots

April 23, 2012 11:34 am

Computer sciences professor Viera Proulx traveled to the Slovak Republic for a Fulbright funded sabbatical, reconnecting with old friends along the way.

Last fall Viera Proulx returned to her home country, the Slovak Republic, to begin a Fulbright-funded sab­bat­ical at Come­nius Uni­ver­sity in Bratislava.

Proulx’s journey forged impor­tant aca­d­emic col­lab­o­ra­tions, but it also had the unex­pected effect of recon­necting her with friends she had not seen since since the Warsaw Pact coun­tries invaded Czecho­slo­vakia in 1968.

Proulx, a pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, said the work taking place at Come­nius dove­tailed with her research, which focuses on devel­oping methods for teaching com­puter pro­gram­ming to begin­ners in a sys­tem­atic way.

“I was intrigued by what they do with chil­dren in the Slovak Republic,” she said. “Every kinder­garten class­room has a com­puter in it.”

But, she explained, the edu­ca­tional system is strug­gling and math­e­matics has been elim­i­nated from the high-school grad­u­a­tion exam. “The depart­ment has had a hard time attracting stu­dents,” Proulx said. “But they are retraining teachers and offering nice projects to improve per­for­mance among stu­dents in fifth grade through high school.” Proulx helped design ques­tions for a nation­wide infor­matics com­pe­ti­tion for middle– and high-school stu­dents. In exchange, she received ideas for improving her own teaching cur­ricula at Northeastern. She also deliv­ered sem­inar talks at uni­ver­si­ties in Bratislava, Kosice and Prague and was a keynote speaker at the Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Infor­matics in Sec­ondary Schools: Evo­lu­tion and Per­spec­tives, which was held in Bratislava in October.

The last time Proulx lived in the country, she was 21 years old. She spent a summer working in Eng­land and had no plans to leave Czecho­slo­vakia. “I was in London with two suit­cases when the Rus­sians came in and my aunt said, ‘you can come to the United States now.’”

The Czecho­slo­va­kian gov­ern­ment allowed Proulx to study in the U.S. for two years, but that didn’t give her enough time to earn a degree. “I didn’t think if I went back I could finish the school there or they would give me any decent job to work on because I’d been in the U.S. for too long,” she said. “And so,” she added, “I didn’t go back.”

For 10 years, until she became a U.S. cit­izen, Proulx evaded a 15-month jail sen­tence for aban­doning her country. The Czecho­slo­va­kian gov­ern­ment kept close watch on incoming let­ters from over­seas, Proulx said, so she cut ties with all her friends.

“You are a polit­i­cally sus­pi­cious person if you have a friend in a cap­i­talist country,” she explained. “It can cost you jobs, cost you pro­mo­tion, cause harassment.”

After so many years, Proulx believed she would never see her friends again. But a high-school class­mate who had learned of Proulx’s sab­bat­ical tracked her down and invited her on a day hike in the Carpathian Mountains.

“It was just spec­tac­ular all day,” Proulx said. “But recon­necting with someone I hadn’t talked to in 43 years was amazing.”

3Qs: The driverless car

May 14, 2012 11:32 am

Marty Vona, an assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, is developing robots that can detect uncertainty in their environment, a particular concern for driverless cars on a road full of unpredictable people. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Nevada recently issued Google the first-ever offi­cial license to operate its self-driven car. Cur­rent laws in other states tech­ni­cally pre­vent cars from dri­ving themselves. We asked Marty Vona, an assis­tant pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, to explain the tech­nical chal­lenges of dri­ver­less cars and how these vehi­cles may change the traffic landscape.

From a robotics perspective, how does the self-driving car work?

To my knowl­edge, Google has released few tech­nical details of its imple­men­ta­tion — its project was a com­pany secret until fall of 2010. Google’s approach is said to com­bine sensor inputs from cam­eras, radar, wheel rota­tion and lasers that have been added to the car, along with pre­vi­ously stored maps and images from the Google Street View data­base. Pre­sum­ably Google also uses GPS to get a rough idea of the car’s loca­tion. Exactly how it is using that infor­ma­tion has not been dis­closed, but it is likely both a com­bi­na­tion of high-level plan­ning and lower-level control.

For plan­ning, the car is prob­ably given a des­ti­na­tion and then plans a route based on its cur­rent loca­tion and map data. The plan could also be revised along the way, should road clo­sures or heavy traffic pro­vide impediments.

For con­trol, which is likely the more chal­lenging task, it would be nec­es­sary to rapidly process data from the onboard sen­sors both to mea­sure nom­inal aspects of the envi­ron­ment, such as road mark­ings, and off-nominal events, such as unex­pected pedestrians. The soft­ware would then need to quickly decide how to modify the car’s dri­ving inputs (steering, throttle, brakes) to react safely.

The legal and eth­ical ques­tions of dri­ver­less cars are very sig­nif­i­cant: Who will be respon­sible —and liable — if a dri­ver­less car is involved in an accident?

Though Google’s car has been making head­lines since it was revealed, self-driving cars have been studied world­wide since the 1980s; some projects had already com­pleted thou­sands of self-driven miles as early as 1995. The pace of advance­ment picked up over the last decade, in part because the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spon­sored sev­eral high-profile competitions.

What technical challenges does Google face in designing its driverless car?

The main chal­lenges are sen­sors that can sub­sti­tute for human eyes and ears and soft­ware that can reli­ably process that data to drive safely.

The soft­ware would nom­i­nally need to under­stand the cur­rent loca­tion of the car and fun­da­mental aspects of the dri­ving envi­ron­ment, including road bound­aries as well as the posi­tions and speeds of nearby cars and pedestrians. It would also need to under­stand how the car would react to changes in the dri­ving inputs. How far, for example, would the car travel before coming to a stop when a cer­tain level of braking is applied?

A fun­da­mental and deep chal­lenge would be to pre­dict the behavior of sur­rounding vehi­cles, espe­cially when humans may be dri­ving, but there are also a number of more subtle off-nominal sit­u­a­tions that are likely huge chal­lenges to handle auto­mat­i­cally. These chal­lenges include road damage, weather con­di­tions, nearby acci­dents, unusual sig­nage and sudden engine, wheel and break malfunctions

What are the benefits and drawbacks to introducing a self-driving car into the current traffic pattern?

One of the ben­e­fits that has been sug­gested is the pos­si­bility that self-driving cars could reduce acci­dents, many of which are attrib­uted to human error or inattentiveness. Another ben­efit could be reduced traffic delays, since self-driving cars could poten­tially coor­di­nate road use by acquiring and using larger-scale infor­ma­tion about other cars on the road via wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This would likely require that at least a sig­nif­i­cant frac­tion of all cars be self-driven and par­tic­i­pate in such coordination.

The main draw­backs are safety, lia­bility and cost. Can the cur­rent soft­ware respond as well — and as rapidly — to off-nominal sit­u­a­tions as an expe­ri­enced human? When a self-driven car is involved in an acci­dent, could the maker of the dri­ving system be liable, just as a human driver could be? How much can the cost for the req­ui­site advanced sen­sors and com­puters, which is cur­rently in the tens of thou­sands of dollars,be reduced?

Cybersecurity and the new digital threats

May 15, 2012 11:32 am

Associate professor Engin Kirda (center) was installed as the Sternberg Interdisciplinary Associate Professor of Information Assurance. President Joseph E. Aoun (right) and Provost Stephen Director (left) awarded Kirda with a medal. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Our rising depen­dence on net­worked sys­tems makes it increas­ingly ben­e­fi­cial for hackers to exploit it, Engin Kirda said on Monday after­noon in a lec­ture enti­tled “Taming the Mali­cious Internet.”

The event marked Kirda’s instal­la­tion as the inau­gural Sy and Laurie Stern­berg Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Asso­ciate Pro­fessor for Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance. Kirda is the director of Northeastern’s Insti­tute for Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance, and has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering’s Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering.

His work crosses a spec­trum of dis­ci­plines and has a major impact on research vital to society, Larry Finkel­stein, dean of the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, said in his intro­duc­tion of Kirda.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, pre­sented Kirda with a medal­lion rec­og­nizing his accom­plish­ments in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research addressing an area of con­cern to society.

Fif­teen years ago, Kirda said, “the cyber­se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion was not bad. We could keep every­thing in check.” Today, how­ever, our tech­nolo­gies are not evolving as quickly as the mali­cious soft­ware they are trying to pro­tect against. A problem that began with simple viruses attacking indi­vidual com­puters has mor­phed into a threat that could lead to an inter­na­tional cyberwar, a reality that, Kirda said, has not quite been real­ized but would cer­tainly be foreseeable.

Kirda believes that in order to tame the Internet — that is, “to keep it in check” —vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties need to be addressed through a variety of prac­tical solutions.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said.

But in order to design the right solu­tions, we need to iden­tify the bad guys. These days the common “bank robber” doesn’t look the way he used to, Kirda said. Today he sits behind a com­puter often sev­eral thou­sand miles from the entity he is attacking. He is prob­ably young and smart — and under­standing the world through his eyes is crit­ical to defending against him.

Kirda has devel­oped a variety of secu­rity tools, including two that help unravel the attacker’s mindset. The first, Anubis, allows users to iden­tify mal­ware and send infor­ma­tion to a so-called “prison,” where it is dis­abled and ana­lyzed, gen­er­ating mal­ware reports. The second, FIRE, or FInding Rogue nEt­works, ana­lyzes the body of mal­ware reports coming from Anubis to expose orga­ni­za­tions and ISPs that exhibit mali­cious behavior, Kirda explained.

The soft­ware is useful for detecting mali­cious behavior and, more impor­tantly, for locating the com­mand and con­trol servers orches­trating that behavior. Destroying the com­mand center shuts down activity across a net­work of infected machines instead of trying to address indi­vidual attacks, Kirda said.

But these, he stressed, are just the tech­nical solu­tions. And they are only one part of the equa­tion. We also need to under­stand the human factor. Why, for example, do people get infected? Why do we click on links that could jeop­ar­dize our security?

Kirda believes the psy­chology behind user behavior can help cyber secu­rity devel­opers create more appro­priate mal­ware detec­tion and enable more tar­geted edu­ca­tional campaigns.

Cyber­se­cu­rity as a research field isn’t going any­where. The chal­lenge, Kirda explained, will be devel­oping cre­ative, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary solu­tions to a net­work of increas­ingly com­plex attacks.

‘App’lying her talents to the mobile marketplace

May 21, 2012 11:31 am

Elise Murray (right), CIS’12, received her award at the Cooperative Education Award ceremony last month from co-op coordinator Melissa Peikin (right). Photo by Craig Bailey.

Working both as an Android and iOS devel­oper on co-op gave Elise Murray, CIS’12, more than just the tech­nical know-how to say, “There’s an app for that.” Now she can say, “I have a job doing that.”

Murray, who grad­u­ated in May as a com­bined major in com­puter sci­ence and busi­ness with a con­cen­tra­tion in entre­pre­neur­ship, spent two summer co-ops working for Boston-based mobile com­merce com­pany Where, Inc., per­forming upgrades to the company’s smart­phone apps and fixing bugs.

The expe­ri­ence helped her land a full-time job with PayPal — a busi­ness unit of Ebay, the ecom­merce giant that acquired Where, Inc., last year. Murray will become an offi­cial member of PayPal’s Android devel­oper team this week.

“It was incred­ible to work in such a growing industry before I’d even grad­u­ated,” said Murray, who worked part time this spring to help develop PayPay Here, which allows mer­chants to use smart­phones to take pay­ments from customers.

All her life, Murray has been fas­ci­nated with elec­tronics and eager to get her hands on the latest gad­gets. “I remember hearing about the first iPod being released, and knowing I had to have it,” she admitted.

At North­eastern, this pas­sion fueled Murray’s desire to pursue her co-op expe­ri­ences, which she credits with pro­viding her the flex­i­bility to embrace new chal­lenges and tackle the ever-evolving pro­gram­ming world early in her career.

She even released two smart­phone apps as a stu­dent — Airhorn­Plus, which allows users to unleash the blis­tering sound of an air horn at a moment’s notice, and His­tori­cise, which acts as a dig­ital memory book for users to record their most sig­nif­i­cant life­time moments.

This spring, Murray was hon­ored at the Coop­er­a­tive Edu­ca­tion Awards cer­e­mony and was named one of Northeastern’s Most Influ­en­tial Seniors.

Melissa Peikin, Murray’s co-op coor­di­nator, said that while Murray didn’t have a com­puter sci­ence back­ground when she came to North­eastern, her enthu­siasm to fear­lessly dive into co-op and absorb as much knowl­edge as pos­sible pro­pelled her to success.

“I think Elise defines what the co-op pro­gram can actu­ally do for a stu­dent,” Peikin said. “Every­thing was new for her freshman year. She wasn’t quite sure where she saw her­self in this field, but co-op changed that for her. That’s where she got a chance to shine.”

Northeastern designated by the NSA as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations

May 25, 2012 11:30 am

Through a new partnership with the NSA, Northeastern’s cybersecurity curriculum will prepare select students for highly specialized jobs in federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies that investigate cybercrimes. istockphoto.

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has been des­ig­nated as a National Center of Aca­d­emic Excel­lence in Cyber Oper­a­tions by the National Secu­rity Agency. The pro­gram, in which stu­dents can pursue a new spe­cialty in cyber oper­a­tions, aims to pro­vide them with the advanced tech­nical training and skills to tackle emerging cyber threats in their pro­fes­sional careers.

After a rig­orous appli­ca­tion and screening process, North­eastern is only one of four uni­ver­si­ties nation­wide to earn this esteemed dis­tinc­tion in the newly launched pro­gram, which is part of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s National Ini­tia­tive for Cyber­se­cu­rity Education.

In selecting North­eastern, Agnes Chan, asso­ciate dean and director of grad­uate edu­ca­tion in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, said the NSA was par­tic­u­larly impressed with the university’s experiential-education model and overall strength in cyber­se­cu­rity research and education.

“In cyber oper­a­tions, you can’t just be a the­o­reti­cian,” Chan said. “The inte­gra­tion of co-op and class­room learning, com­bined with oppor­tu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate in research, pro­vide our stu­dents with a very practice-oriented experience.”

Through this part­ner­ship, under­grad­uate com­puter sci­ence stu­dents at North­eastern can work toward a newly cre­ated con­cen­tra­tion in cyber oper­a­tions by taking existing high-level courses in areas like soft­ware vul­ner­a­bility and net­work security.

In addi­tion, stu­dents as well as fac­ulty will par­tic­i­pate in sem­i­nars run by the NSA, in which they will be faced with solving real cyber­se­cu­rity chal­lenges. As par­tic­i­pants, stu­dents and fac­ulty will be hired as tem­po­rary NSA employees and will undergo back­ground checks and obtain secu­rity clearances.

For par­tic­i­pating fac­ulty, the sem­i­nars will present the oppor­tu­nity to strengthen their exper­tise in cyber­se­cu­rity and trans­late that knowl­edge in the classroom.

Chan said that while this pro­gram is ini­tially only open to under­grad­uate computer-science stu­dents, she hopes it will expand into a master’s pro­gram, as well as to the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engineering.

Along with strength­ening its aca­d­emic part­ner­ships, the NSA said the pri­mary goal is to expose stu­dents to the sci­en­tific and intel­lec­tual foun­da­tions of cyber oper­a­tions, pro­viding a glimpse into how that knowl­edge can be applied to cyber-related careers in the government.

The NSA pro­gram also requires the uni­ver­si­ties to include an aca­d­emic com­po­nent about the legal and eth­ical issues sur­rounding cyber­se­cu­rity. North­eastern meets this require­ment with its Fun­da­men­tals of Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance course offered in the Master of Sci­ence in Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance pro­gram, Chan said.

The NSA, along with the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity, had des­ig­nated North­eastern a National Center of Aca­d­emic Excel­lence in Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance Research in 2008.

The des­ig­na­tion builds on Northeastern’s ongoing com­mit­ment to secu­rity research. The uni­ver­sity opened its George J. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity in Sep­tember 2011. In March,a team of North­eastern experts led a con­gres­sional briefing in Wash­ington on evolving cyber­se­cu­rity threats, and in April, Kostas Insti­tute co-director Stephen Flynn tes­ti­fied at a con­gres­sional hearing on the chal­lenges posed by cyber­se­cu­rity threats.

3Qs: Analyzing the cybersecurity threat posed by hackers

May 31, 2012 11:27 am

Themis Papageorge, Associate Clinical Professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, examines the cybersecurity threat posed by al-Qaida and Anonymous, a global group of hackers. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Last week, Anony­mous, a global group of hackers, suc­cess­fully infil­trated the Depart­ment of Justice’s system and released stolen data. At the same time, al-Qaida, the inter­na­tional ter­rorist orga­ni­za­tion, released a video calling for an “elec­tronic jihad” on the United States. We asked Themis Papa­george, an asso­ciate clin­ical pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the director of the college’s infor­ma­tion assur­ance pro­gram, to ana­lyze the threat posed by rogue hacker groups and what the U.S. gov­ern­ment can do to pro­tect itself against future attacks.

This isn’t the first time the Department of Justice was hacked. What do groups such as Anonymous accomplish by hacking into these networks and releasing data? What is the motivation behind their attacks?

Groups like Anony­mous are becoming a crit­ical threat to society and national secu­rity: They attack gov­ern­ment, public and pri­vate com­pa­nies, and indi­vid­uals’ net­works and com­puter sys­tems mul­tiple times every day. When they breach a com­puter system they steal data and many times install mali­cious soft­ware pro­grams that, unbe­knownst to the sys­tems’ owners, allow for future access by the hackers and con­tin­uous leaking of con­fi­den­tial data.

Stolen data can vary from pro­pri­etary product infor­ma­tion and other intel­lec­tual prop­erty to national-security data. Anony­mous and sim­ilar groups can embar­rass a gov­ern­ment or a com­pany by breaching its net­works and com­puter sys­tems and can also gain finan­cially by selling the stolen data.

The moti­va­tion of hacker groups such as Anony­mous is a key com­po­nent of the threat analysis that we teach in infor­ma­tion assur­ance courses at North­eastern. Threat agents, such as Anony­mous group mem­bers, are moti­vated by many fac­tors, ranging from per­sonal gain to revenge, peer recog­ni­tion, curiosity, and crime; to polit­ical, reli­gious and sec­ular influ­ence; and poten­tially to ter­rorism and national mil­i­tary objec­tives. We train our stu­dents to assess the cyber­se­cu­rity risk posed by each group by ranking these moti­va­tion factors.

What can government do to thwart future breaches? What challenges do federal entities face in protecting themselves from hackers?

We need to defend more effec­tively against such groups, both from a tech­nical capa­bil­i­ties per­spec­tive as well from a con­tex­tual per­spec­tive. Gov­ern­ment and public orga­ni­za­tions need to con­sis­tently imple­ment risk-based tech­nical coun­ter­mea­sures and con­trols for net­works and com­puter sys­tems, along with poli­cies and user awareness.

Many times a cyber­se­cu­rity con­trol, such as a soft­ware patch, may be avail­able for months before it is imple­mented. People can be our most capable fire­wall by training employees to defend against social engi­neering. It is impor­tant to know not to click on a mali­cious attach­ment in an email and not to pro­vide con­fi­den­tial infor­ma­tion to an uniden­ti­fied tele­phone caller. User training and aware­ness are some of the valu­able com­po­nents in secu­rity risk management.

The greatest chal­lenges facing fed­eral enti­ties come from a lim­ited knowl­edge of the threat agents’ modus operandi.

Since the attackers have the advan­tage of choosing the method and time of attack, fed­eral agen­cies could make risk-based deci­sions by defending against the most dam­aging attacks only by having access to a com­pre­hen­sive and cur­rent data set of attacks and methods. This can be accom­plished by sharing attack and method data and sce­narios across fed­eral agen­cies and public com­pa­nies. This strategy would help build effec­tive net­work and com­puter system secu­rity con­trols, coun­ter­mea­sures, poli­cies and inci­dent response strategies.

Al-Qaida has called for an “electronic jihad,” promoting attacks on a range of online targets. Is there evidence that a network of al-Qaida operatives could plan coordinated attacks?

Al-Qaida has a well-documented record as a ter­rorist group with mul­tiple phys­ical attacks. In terms of orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture, hacker groups have been a col­lec­tion of indi­vidual threat agents with net­working abil­i­ties (ini­tially using the Internet and also later tech­nolo­gies such as Peer-to-Peer and Bit­Tor­rent) to talk about their exploits and share mali­cious tools. Al-Qaida is reported to have a hier­archy but seems to operate as a net­work of semi­au­tonomous cells of threat agents whose actions are thus even more dif­fi­cult to pre­dict and stop.

There­fore, if al-Qaida were to acquire the tech­nical capa­bil­i­ties of a hacker group such as Anony­mous, they would be a very cred­ible and high-risk cyber­se­cu­rity threat. Plan­ning and exe­cuting coor­di­nated attacks in the cyber­se­cu­rity domain is very dif­ferent from exe­cuting attacks in the phys­ical secu­rity domain, because the space and time con­straints of phys­ical attacks are con­sid­er­ably reduced in the cyber domain. It may take weeks or months to plan a cyber­se­cu­rity attack, but it could only take a few min­utes to launch a denial-of-service attack, using a botnet of com­puters belonging to unsus­pecting com­pa­nies and indi­vid­uals, and poten­tially bring down a com­po­nent of crit­ical infrastructure.

Tracking America’s physical activity, via smartphone

June 18, 2012 11:23 am

Northeastern University faculty are available to provide expertise, analysis and commentary on a wide variety of news and research topics.

“We know that most Amer­i­cans are too seden­tary,” said North­eastern asso­ciate pro­fessor Stephen Intille, a founding fac­ulty member of the university’s new Per­sonal Health Infor­matics grad­uate pro­gram with dual appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. “What we need is high quality infor­ma­tion about what drives deci­sions about phys­ical activity so we can design the next gen­er­a­tion of health interventions.”

Toward that end, Intille has teamed up with Genevieve Dunton, an assis­tant pro­fessor of pre­ven­tive med­i­cine at the Uni­ver­sity of Southern Cal­i­fornia, to gather infor­ma­tion about where, when, why and how teenagers get their phys­ical activity.

Tra­di­tional studies ask par­tic­i­pants to place an activity mon­itor on their hip, which uses an accelerom­eter to mea­sure motion. “What you get are data recording roughly how active a person is throughout the day, but you don’t get any infor­ma­tion other than this motion pat­tern,” Intille explained. But in order to develop informed inter­ven­tions, public health pro­fes­sionals also need to know things like where people are when they’re exer­cising or seden­tary, if they’re with other people and what they’re doing.

That’s why Intille and Dunton, with the sup­port of a two-year, $450,000 grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health, will develop and eval­uate a mobile phone app that sup­ple­ments the activity-monitor data. Using the loca­tion and motion tech­nolo­gies already embedded in mobile devices, Intille’s app will deter­mine appro­priate times throughout the day to ask study par­tic­i­pants about the con­texts that are influ­encing their activity.

“The fun­da­mental idea is there is a rela­tion­ship between the motion of your phone and the activity that you do and the use of the activity mon­itor.” The phone will rec­og­nize periods of increased or reduced phys­ical activity (for example, if you take it off while playing a high-impact sport or take a nap) and present ques­tions about what a par­tic­i­pant is doing during the “inter­esting” periods.

“It’s about cre­ating and eval­u­ating a tool that would help us aug­ment the type of infor­ma­tion that we get from stan­dard research tools so that researchers get that addi­tional con­tex­tual info about where and why teens are doing the activity,” said Intille. Dunton explained that the higher quality data will allow researchers to better under­stand the rela­tion­ship between phys­ical activity, seden­tary behav­iors, and the risk of meta­bolic, car­dio­vas­cular and other chronic diseases.

Intille’s lab at North­eastern focuses on sensor-driven mobile health tech­nology. Other studies to come out of it have used a sim­ilar approach, but this is the first time the app will be pro­grammed to rec­og­nize major activity changes.

“Pre­vious studies would ask ques­tions ran­domly throughout the day, but that’s not a very effi­cient way to do it,” Intille said. This is the first time the app will be pro­gramed to aug­ment an existing research tool by rec­og­nizing major activity changes and using a game-like inter­face that makes it easy for teens to fill in gaps by answering carefully-timed questions.

He hopes that the app will pro­vide a valu­able, low-cost tool for future studies that also inves­ti­gate phys­ical activity patterns.

“In the long term, we could poten­tially use this same type of tech­nology as an inter­ven­tion,” said Intille, who explained, for example, that users would receive pos­i­tive feed­back mes­sages through the phone when the app detects that they are being phys­i­cally active.

NSF Workshop on Biologically-Enabled Wireless Networks Design and Modeling

July 23, 2012 4:45 pm

CCIS Professor Guevara Noubir organized a recent NSF workshop in Arlington, Virginia to address the question of biologically-enabled wireless networks. While wireless networks have achieved great successes in the past decade, challenges such as energy efficiency remain. At the same time, bio-organisms such as the brain carry out complex tasks with only a few tens of watts. The clear superiority of biological systems’ efficiency begs the question:  could we one day build biologically -enabled networks?

This conference brought together experts from research, biophysics and biomedical communities to articulate a vision for biologically-enabled wireless networks, define a clear set of challenges to be solved, and make recommendations for future inter-disciplinary collaborations. Presentation topics included:

  • Enabling mechanisms for bio-networks, such as electromagnetic energy harvesting and transduction into biological signals, and magnetic control of biological systems
  • Molecular computation and communication networks considering both the fundamental information and computation theoretic issues and system design
  • Synthetic biology as a way to engineer biologically enabled wireless devices and how biologically enabled devices can be made less sensitive to their environment

Read more at the conference website.






A natural born leader, in the classroom and in the community

July 27, 2012 10:44 am

Incoming freshman Kaila Corrington honed her leadership skills as president of her high school’s chapter of Key Club International. Courtesy photo.

Building a web­site for her high school’s chapter of Key Club Inter­na­tional sold incoming freshman Kaila Cor­rington on studying com­puter sci­ence at North­eastern University.

“I didn’t have any expe­ri­ence writing code for a web­site,” Cor­rington recalls, noting her love of math, logic and the pur­suit of defin­i­tive answers, “but watching a string of char­ac­ters come to life con­vinced me.”

Cor­rington, who will enroll this fall in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, has been accepted into the inau­gural class of the Uni­ver­sity Scholars Pro­gram. The full-tuition pro­gram sup­ports highly accom­plished future thought leaders, inno­va­tors and entre­pre­neurs who have excelled both in and out of the classroom.

Corrington’s laundry list of accom­plish­ments makes her an ideal fit for the pro­gram. She honed her lead­er­ship skills, for example, by serving as pres­i­dent of her high school’s chapter of Key Club and editor-in-chief of its year­book. As a freshman, sopho­more and junior, she demon­strated her love of learning by pro­ducing 10-minute doc­u­men­taries on Albert Ein­stein, the Cuban Mis­sile Crisis and the double-helical struc­ture of DNA, all of which reached statewide competition.

A National Merit Scholar who fin­ished at the top of her class in eight dif­ferent courses, Cor­rington pro­claims that the trick to bal­ancing course­work with extracur­ric­ular activ­i­ties is time man­age­ment. As she puts it, “If you let your­self fall behind on things, you won’t be able to bal­ance anything.” The Upland, Calif., native, looks for­ward to working with her fellow Uni­ver­sity Scholars, many of whom grew up out­side of the United States, in coun­tries such as India, Bolivia and Japan. Stu­dents in the accom­plished group have recorded albums, cre­ated iPhone appli­ca­tions and raised money for orphaned chil­dren in Africa.

“I’m going to be sur­rounded by a great group of stu­dents at North­eastern,” Cor­rington explains. “It’s going to be fun to work with new people in an exciting environment.”

Cor­rington expressed interest in trying out for Northeastern’s intra­mural soft­ball team, for which she would like to play third base or center field, and joining the University’s chapter of Circle K, Key Club’s col­le­giate version.

Her long-term career plans include cre­ating mobile appli­ca­tions for smart­phones and building web­sites for non­profit orga­ni­za­tions. Par­tic­i­pating in Northeastern’s flag­ship experiential-learning pro­gram, she says, would help her reach her goals.

“I’m inter­ested in doing a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram and studying abroad in Europe,” Cor­rington says. “I might want to go to Italy, because of its his­tory, but I am sure I will be immersed in the cul­ture and have an amazing expe­ri­ence no matter where I go.”

Northeastern professor talks video games at White House

August 2, 2012 10:54 am

Magy Seif El-Nasr, an associate professor of game design and interactive media, discussed the importance of creating video games in a White House meeting last week. Photo courtesy of Susan Gold, Global Game Jam.

In a White House con­fer­ence last week, Magy Seif El-Nasr, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of game design and inter­ac­tive media at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, dis­cussed the impor­tance of cre­ating edu­ca­tional video games through inter­dis­ci­pli­nary collaboration.

The meeting, which included industry leaders, pol­i­cy­makers and about 20 aca­d­e­mics from insti­tu­tions nation­wide, was part of the Aca­d­emic Con­sor­tium on Games for Impact and orga­nized by the White House Office of Sci­ence and Tech­nology Policy. The experts exam­ined ways to leverage their indi­vidual areas of exper­tise, share resources and build net­works aimed at sparking inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion among acad­emia and industry in the area of “games for impact” — video games that yield sig­nif­i­cant soci­etal ben­e­fits in areas such as as edu­ca­tion and health.

“We’re trying to advance basic research in game design and advance the cur­rent appli­ca­tion of games in areas like edu­ca­tion, health and sus­tain­ability,” said Seif El-Nasr, whose research focuses on enhancing game designs by devel­oping tools and methods for eval­u­ating and adapting game experiences.

In recent years, mil­lions of people have devel­oped a strong reliance on mobile tech­nology. Many people — par­tic­u­larly youth — reg­u­larly plug away on their smart­phones or portable video game con­soles while eating, waiting for the bus or walking down the street, Seif El-Nasr explained; she added that it’s crit­ical to cap­ture the atten­tion of the tech-savvy public through the most pop­ular media.

The bulk of last week’s meeting focused on the impor­tance of pushing the video game field for­ward by fos­tering col­lab­o­ra­tions between aca­d­emic researchers and industry part­ners and by designing strate­gies aimed at improving the chances of receiving gov­ern­ment funding for these projects.

Since 2004, Seif El-Nasr has con­ducted research on using game design as a medium for edu­ca­tion, including the devel­op­ment of a series of engi­neering and tech­nology work­shops for middle– and high-school students.

Seif El-Nasr, who holds dual appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, is also working with a Vancouver-based com­pany called IgnitePlay on a project that uses games and social net­works to foster behav­ioral changes that pro­mote healthy lifestyle habits. The project uses real-time behavior tracking and selec­tive infor­ma­tion visu­al­iza­tion as moti­va­tional tac­tics to encourage behav­ioral changes and sus­tain long-term healthy living.

The com­pany, she said, is expected to launch the product within the next month.

Seif El-Nasr’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the White House meeting built upon her inter­na­tional promi­nence as an authority on dig­ital game research. In May, she chaired the Foun­da­tion of Dig­ital Games 2012 con­fer­ence, which took place in North Car­olina. Then in June, she deliv­ered a keynote address in Greece at the 5th Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Per­va­sive Tech­nolo­gies Related to Assis­tive Envi­ron­ments, which explored how social and coop­er­a­tive games can be lever­aged to enhance quality of life.

3Qs: Fortifying the country’s mainframe

August 15, 2012 10:55 am

Assistant professor and cybersecurity expert Wil Robertson explains the growing threat of hackers targeting American military and infrastructure. Photo by Dreamstime.

Last week, The Wash­ington Post reported the Pen­tagon has pro­posed that mil­i­tary cyber­spe­cial­ists be per­mitted to take action out­side of its net­works to defend crit­ical U.S. com­puter sys­tems that con­trol such resources as power sta­tions and water-treatment plants. The report indi­cated the pro­posal was under review as part of a revi­sion of the military’s standing rules of engage­ment. We asked Wil Robertson, an assis­tant pro­fessor with dual appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering, to explain the new and evolving chal­lenges in cyberde­fense and what this pro­posal, if adopted, could mean for national cybersecurity.

What would the adoption of this Pentagon proposal mean for national security, and is there any precedent for this?

The Depart­ment of Defense cre­ated the U.S. Cyber Com­mand (CYBERCOM) in 2009 to orga­nize the defense of the nation’s mil­i­tary com­puter net­works, and addi­tion­ally to con­duct so-called “full-spectrum mil­i­tary cyber­space oper­a­tions” — in other words, to attack adver­saries on the Internet and else­where in order to achieve spe­cific mil­i­tary goals. So, CYBERCOM has had from its begin­ning a man­date to develop offen­sive capa­bil­i­ties. But these capa­bil­i­ties have hereto­fore been restricted to lim­ited instances where their use has been autho­rized in sup­port of spe­cific mis­sion objectives.

What is novel about this latest devel­op­ment is the Pentagon’s push to modify the standing rules of engage­ment — which serve as guide­lines for how CYBERCOM can inde­pen­dently react to sce­narios such as attacks by for­eign powers or inde­pen­dent actors on mil­i­tary assets — to allow for an offen­sive response to neu­tralize a per­ceived threat. While it is accepted that the major powers already unof­fi­cially engage in cyber­op­er­a­tions against each other to one degree or another, this pro­posal would set a sig­nif­i­cant new prece­dent in making offen­sive counter-operations a part of offi­cial standing U.S. policy.

How much of a threat do cyberattacks pose against the United States? What areas are targeted the most and which are the most vulnerable to attack?

Cyber­at­tacks against mil­i­tary assets have been an unfor­tu­nate reality for some time. The DoD doesn’t pub­licly dis­close sta­tis­tics on the number or severity of breaches, but it is known that for­eign actors have con­ducted long-running, tar­geted cam­paigns to pen­e­trate both U.S. mil­i­tary net­works and net­works belonging to U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors in order to gain access to clas­si­fied information.

But there has also been rising con­cern in the past few years sur­rounding the vul­ner­a­bility of indus­trial con­trol sys­tems for national crit­ical infra­struc­ture, including tar­gets such as the power-generation and –dis­tri­b­u­tion grid, water supply, transit sys­tems and more. An increasing body of aca­d­emic research has demon­strated the poten­tial for cat­a­strophic attacks against sys­tems that were never meant to be exposed to the Internet and, as such, do not include basic, nec­es­sary safe­guards that pro­tect other net­worked sys­tems from attack.

And actual attacks — such as the pen­e­tra­tion of a Spring­field, Ill., water plant last fall that lead to a crit­ical equip­ment failure — hint at the dev­as­ta­tion that could ensue from a well-executed, large-scale oper­a­tion against our nation’s infra­struc­ture. At the CCIS Sys­tems Secu­rity Lab at North­eastern, part of our focus involves researching prac­tical methods for securing our crit­ical systems.

How have the duties of CYBERCOM expanded in the past, and in what way could this division of the military continue to grow?

CYBERCOM is a rel­a­tively new orga­ni­za­tion, and its role in the national defense is still evolving. While it is cur­rently tasked with oper­ating solely in the mil­i­tary domain, there is con­cern that it could even­tu­ally eclipse orga­ni­za­tions such as the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity and FBI, which are cur­rently respon­sible for the civilian sphere.

It is very likely that the organization’s size and man­date will expand. The devel­op­ment and recruit­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion of cyber­se­cu­rity experts is a top pri­ority at both DoD and DHS. And com­ments by senior Pen­tagon offi­cials indi­cate that the pro­posed amend­ments to CYBERCOM’s rules of engage­ment are but part of a larger, long-term ini­tia­tive to increase CYBERCOM’s ability to better respond to evolving, future threats.

3Qs: Controlling a robot from another planet

August 21, 2012 10:40 am

Marsette Vona, an assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, explains the challenges of controlling a Martian rover. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Prior to joining the North­eastern fac­ulty as an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, Marsette Vona worked for NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory as part of the teams that put both the Spirit and Oppor­tu­nity rovers on the sur­face of Mars. We asked Vona, who is devel­oping robots that can detect uncer­tainty in their envi­ron­ment, to explain how Curiosity, the newest and most advanced rover on the red planet, and its crew on Earth handle the logis­tical chal­lenges of space exploration.

The vast distance between Earth and Mars makes it impossible for NASA scientists to communicate or control Curiosity without a time delay. To compensate for this time delay, what did engineers and programmers need to consider when designing the rover and planning the mission?

The Earth to Mars radio delay, which ranges from about three to 20 min­utes, adds sig­nif­i­cant com­plexity to robotic mis­sions on Mars. Another chal­lenge is the logis­tics of sched­uling the Deep Space Net­work radio dishes, which are shared with other dis­tant space mis­sions and which are our only means to com­mu­ni­cate at inter­plan­e­tary dis­tances. Yet another issue is that each Mars day is about 40 min­utes longer than an Earth day, making it dif­fi­cult to syn­chro­nize human oper­a­tors living on Earth time with rover activity in day­light on Mars.

So in order to get much done, the robots we send to Mars must be fairly intel­li­gent: They must be able to operate autonomously for some amount of time. We cannot “remote con­trol” them as we can do, for example, with sub-sea explo­ration robots on Earth. Instead, we typ­i­cally send them com­mands before dawn on each Mar­tian day. They exe­cute those com­mands autonomously, pos­sibly making some deci­sions on their own, and radio back results and status infor­ma­tion during the fol­lowing Mar­tian night.

Your expertise lies in understanding how robots handle uncertainty, such as uneven terrain or unexpected surroundings. How does Curiosity handle similar challenges and how can those technical advances be used on Earth?

Curiosity uses a com­bi­na­tion of tech­niques to reli­ably move around in the sand and rock envi­ron­ment of the Mar­tian sur­face. First, its mobility system, com­posed of six wheels and a sus­pen­sion called a rocker-bogey, enable it to roll right over rocks up to 50 cen­time­ters (about 20 inches) tall. Second, it will auto­mat­i­cally attempt to drive around larger obsta­cles, which it looks for using com­puter vision algo­rithms in live video feeds from front– and rear-facing cam­eras called “haz­cams.” Third, it can use other com­puter vision algo­rithms to ana­lyze longer-distance images from mast-mounted “nav­cams” for sev­eral pur­poses, including “visual odom­etry” to esti­mate how far it has actu­ally trav­eled (which may differ from wheel rota­tion data because of slip­page in the sand), and target tracking to mon­itor progress toward a vis­ible goal such as an inter­esting rock.

A mobility system like that on Curiosity could be used on Earth for robots that must travel over rubble after, say, an earth­quake or other dis­aster. Its com­puter vision algo­rithms for autonomous nav­i­ga­tion and obstacle avoid­ance are also extremely useful; related sys­tems are used on Earth for autonomous cars. Some of my own cur­rent research focuses on adapting algo­rithms like this for walking robots, which could help humans travel over very uneven ground, or which could even­tu­ally replace us in under­taking haz­ardous tasks.

How is Curiosity’s ability to explore Mars different from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers?

Over the last 15 years we have suc­cess­fully landed four rovers on Mars. New tech­nolo­gies suc­cess­fully tested in each mis­sion are incor­po­rated into later ones. Also, each mis­sion has approx­i­mately dou­bled the rover size, which is impor­tant because larger rovers can carry more sci­en­tific instru­ments and can travel far­ther and faster.

Spirit and Oppor­tu­nity tested pre­cur­sors to the auto­matic nav­i­ga­tion, obstacle avoid­ance and visual odom­etry algo­rithms on Curiosity. Curiosity, how­ever, is twice their size (about 3 meters long) and has addi­tional autonomous nav­i­ga­tion capa­bil­i­ties that should enable it to travel far­ther on its own. Curiosity also used a new “sky crane” landing system instead of airbags, and it is pow­ered by a radioiso­tope thermal gen­er­ator, unlike Sojourner, Spirit, and Oppor­tu­nity, which were solar pow­ered. This should enable it to operate over a full Mar­tian year, whereas the pre­vious mis­sions were typ­i­cally only active in the plen­tiful sun­light of the Mar­tian summer. Finally, and pos­sibly most sig­nif­i­cantly, Curiosity car­ries sev­eral new instru­ments that will be used to ana­lyze sam­ples of the Mar­tian rock to detect water, carbon com­pounds and other bio­log­i­cally impor­tant mate­rials. This will both help us under­stand whether life ever existed on Mars and also the extent to which we will be able to use mate­rials on Mars to help sup­port future human explorers.

A New Kind of Pub Crawl

August 23, 2012 4:39 pm


Web­sites like Face­book, LinkedIn and other social-​​media net­works con­tain mas­sive amounts of valu­able public infor­ma­tion. Auto­mated web tools called web crawlers sift through these sites, pulling out infor­ma­tion on mil­lions of people in order to tailor search results and create tar­geted ads or other mar­ketable content.

But what hap­pens when “the bad guys” employ web crawlers? For Engin Kirda, Sy and Laurie Stern­berg Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Asso­ciate Pro­fessor for Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering, they then become tools for spam­ming, phishing or tar­geted Internet attacks.

“You want to pro­tect the infor­ma­tion,” Kirda said. “You want people to be able to use it, but you don’t want people to be able to auto­mat­i­cally down­load con­tent and abuse it.”

Kirda and his col­leagues at the Uni­ver­sity of California–Santa Bar­bara have devel­oped a new soft­ware call Pub­Crawl to solve this problem. Pub­Crawl both detects and con­tains mali­cious web crawlers without lim­iting normal browsing capac­i­ties. The team joined forces with one of the major social-​​networking sites to test Pub­Crawl, which is now being used in the field to pro­tect users’ information.

Kirda and his col­lab­o­ra­tors pre­sented a paper on their novel approach at the 21st USENIX Secu­rity Sym­po­sium in early August. The article will be pub­lished in the pro­ceed­ings of the con­fer­ence this fall.

In the cyber­se­cu­rity arms race, Kirda explained, mali­cious web crawlers have become increas­ingly sophis­ti­cated in response to stronger pro­tec­tion strate­gies. In par­tic­ular, they have become more coor­di­nated: Instead of uti­lizing a single com­puter or IP address to crawl the web for valu­able infor­ma­tion, efforts are dis­trib­uted across thou­sands of machines.

“That becomes a tougher problem to solve because it looks sim­ilar to benign user traffic,” Kirda said. “It’s not as straightforward.”

Tra­di­tional pro­tec­tion mech­a­nisms, like a CAPTCHA, which oper­ates on an indi­vidual basis, are still useful, but their deploy­ment comes at a cost: Users may be annoyed if too many CAPTCHAs are shown. As an alter­na­tive, non­in­tru­sive approach, Pub­Crawl was specif­i­cally designed with dis­trib­uted crawling in mind. By iden­ti­fying IP addresses with sim­ilar behavior pat­terns, such as con­necting at sim­ilar inter­vals and fre­quen­cies, Pub­Crawl detects what it expects to be dis­trib­uted web-​​crawling activity.

Once a crawler is detected, the ques­tion is whether it is mali­cious or benign. “You don’t want to block it com­pletely until you know for sure it is mali­cious,” Kirda explained. “Instead, Pub­Crawl essen­tially keeps an eye on it.”

Poten­tially mali­cious con­nec­tions can be rate-​​limited and a human oper­ator can take a closer look. If the oper­a­tors decide that the activity is mali­cious, IPs can also be blocked.

In order to eval­uate the approach, Kirda and his col­leagues used it to scan logs from a large-​​scale social net­work, which then pro­vided feed­back on its suc­cess. Then, the social net­work deployed it in real time, for a more robust eval­u­a­tion. Cur­rently, the social net­work is using the tool as a part of its pro­duc­tion system. Going for­ward, the team expects to iden­tify areas where the soft­ware could be evaded and make it even stronger.

Northeastern receives $4.5M award to train future cybersecurity workforce

August 28, 2012 10:47 am

From left, David R. Kaeli, associate dean of undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering, Agnes Chan, associate dean and director of graduate programs at the College of Computer and Information Science, and assistant professor Will Robertson, a systems security researcher in the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Engineering. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Thou­sands of open cyber­se­cu­rity posi­tions in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment under­score the fact that our nation suf­fers from a sig­nif­i­cant lack of pro­fes­sional exper­tise in this field.

“Training for human resources is a major issue right now,” said Agnes Chan, asso­ciate dean of grad­uate studies in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences.

Chan is prin­cipal inves­ti­gator on a recent $4.5 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion that will extend the university’s schol­ar­ship pro­gram in infor­ma­tion assur­ance. William Robertson, assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering and David Kaeli, asso­ciate dean of under­grad­uate pro­grams in the Col­lege of Engi­neering, will serve as the grant’s co-principal investigators.

The Cyber­Corps: Schol­ar­ship for Ser­vice pro­gram pro­vides both under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents full tuition, fees and a stipend for the final two or three years of their studies. In return, stu­dents agree to serve for two or three years in infor­ma­tion assur­ance posi­tions in the fed­eral, state or local gov­ern­ment or at a fed­er­ally funded research and devel­op­ment center.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Robertson noted, is having a hard time keeping pace with the cur­rent scale of attacks against national assets. As a result, he explained, “Recruiting and devel­oping this talent is a top pri­ority at the gov­ern­ment agen­cies respon­sible for civilian and mil­i­tary cybersecurity.”

The stu­dents in the pro­gram, Roberts explained, will also have the oppor­tu­nity to work on con­crete topics related to broad areas like mobile secu­rity and secure system design. He noted that Northeastern’s secu­rity researchers have active projects in a number of these areas.

Through their intern­ships and co-op posi­tions, stu­dents also have access to broad research oppor­tu­ni­ties. Ryan Whelan, for example, a com­puter engi­neering doc­toral can­di­date in the pro­gram, interned with a cyber­se­cu­rity group at MIT Lin­coln Lab­o­ra­tory. The lab is now spon­soring his research in dynamic-software analysis and the expe­ri­ence, he said, con­firmed his interest in the field.

“The SFS pro­gram helped focus my studies and inter­ests on cyber­se­cu­rity,” Whelan said.

But, Chan said, skills in the tech­nical and com­puter sci­ences alone will not pre­pare a stu­dent for a suc­cessful career as a cyber defender. “Our pro­gram is diverse in every respect — we’re able to train stu­dents whose back­ground is not tech­nical to under­stand what cyber­se­cu­rity is all about and to use the tools,” she explained.

“Human­i­ties stu­dents are ideal can­di­dates for infor­ma­tion assur­ance posi­tions,” added Samuel Jenkins, who enrolled in the master’s pro­gram with an under­grad­uate degree in polit­ical science.

Jenkins recently accepted a posi­tion with the Exec­u­tive Office of the Pres­i­dent, and will pro­vide infor­ma­tion tech­nology and other infra­struc­ture ser­vices to the White House. While the job will require the soft com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills he honed in his under­grad­uate training, Jenkins said he was hired for the tech­nical skills he acquired in the SFS program.

The award fol­lows on the heels of Northeastern’s recent des­ig­na­tion as one of four National Center of Aca­d­emic Excel­lence in Cyber Oper­a­tions. The project, Kaeli said, is “per­fectly aligned with the university’s mis­sion to become an inter­na­tional leader in the field of cybersecurity.”

Across the world, student gets glimpse into health research

August 29, 2012 10:52 am

Working at a research center in Ghana this summer gave senior David Glidden a chance to delve into a global health issue at the community level. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

David Glidden began many days this summer bal­anced pre­car­i­ously as the second rider on a one-person motor­cycle, buzzing through Navrongo in northern Ghana. His des­ti­na­tion: the homes of new mothers, where he helped admin­ister sur­veys for an ongoing health study focused on malaria risk in infants.

Glidden, a senior biology and com­puter sci­ence com­bined major at North­eastern, spent two months working at the Navrongo Health Research Centre. In his role, he and a field worker reg­u­larly made home visits to new mothers who had malaria during preg­nancy, asking the women sev­eral ques­tions about a range of health issues. The survey was part of an ongoing research project to eval­uate the risks of malaria in infants born to mothers who received inter­mit­tent pre­ven­tive treat­ments as com­pared to those born to mothers who received inter­mit­tent screening and treatment.

“We asked the mothers about a range of health issues, like their breast-feeding habits, whether their babies reg­u­larly slept under insecticide-treated bed nets and about their babies’ health his­tory and most recent hos­pital visits,” Glidden said. The visits, he added, also included taking infants’ blood samples.

For Glidden, the experiential-learning oppor­tu­nity proved to be a fas­ci­nating glimpse into a global health issue at the com­mu­nity level. At North­eastern, he’s sought ways to com­bine his inter­ests in health, sci­ence and soft­ware devel­op­ment. On co-op with the Beth Israel Dea­coness Med­ical Center’s Divi­sion of Clin­ical Infor­matics in Brook­line, Mass., for example, he helped develop a web-based med­ical records system for a Kuwaiti health institute.

The project, he explained, opened his eyes to the pos­si­bility of combing his inter­ests in a ful­filling way. “That expe­ri­ence made me realize I could be a pro­grammer but still get into med­i­cine,” said Glidden, who noted the increasing need for tech-savvy physicians.

This month, Glidden began his final co-op working as a devel­oper with Meraki, a San Francisco-based wire­less net­working firm. Glidden’s pro­fi­ciency in Scala, a pro­gram­ming lan­guage, helped him nab the posi­tion, he said. He honed his pro­gram­ming skills working on co-op with Firefly Bioworks Inc., a Cam­bridge, Mass.-based devel­oper of next-generation mul­ti­plexed assays for bio­marker detection.

Glidden has also worked in chem­istry and chem­ical biology pro­fessor John Engen’s lab, con­tributing to a col­lab­o­ra­tive project studying a pro­tein called Nef, which is expressed in HIV.

“At North­eastern, I’ve tried to take advan­tage of every oppor­tu­nity, learn as much as pos­sible and try many new things,” he said. “I think that’s the point of college.”

Computers for crafting?

September 13, 2012 10:43 am

Gillian Smith joins the College of Arts, Media and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science as an assistant professor this fall. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Com­puters were designed to do com­plex math­e­mat­ical cal­cu­la­tions, like map­ping the tra­jec­tory of a bullet. But according to new fac­ulty member Gillian Smith, it’s not so easy for a com­puter to under­stand con­cepts like fun, friend­ship and love.

“We don’t find games that are about those topics because we don’t know how to model them,” she explains.

Smith, an assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, hopes to change that. “I am inter­ested in fig­uring out how com­puters can help people be a little bit more cre­ative and how com­puters could be cre­ative them­selves,” she says.

Smith is exploring ways to bring crafting and com­puters together with both dig­ital tools and games. A startup com­pany called Play Crafts, which Smith co-founded with two friends she met at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, Santa Cruz, gives tech-based design tools to quil­ters, sewers and other crafters.

One tool, for example, auto­mat­i­cally gen­er­ates a color palette from a user-uploaded photo. “Dif­ferent people love doing dif­ferent parts of craft,” Smith says. “We want to make it so a com­puter can help with the parts you’re less expe­ri­enced with or find less enjoy­able, so we can make it more fun.”

In her aca­d­emic work, Smith is also pur­suing plat­forms where com­puters and crafts inter­sect. She is inter­ested in designing games, or “playable expe­ri­ences,” which present users with tasks and design lim­i­ta­tions to guide their actual quilting, embroi­dering or sewing.

The idea calls to mind an impor­tant ques­tion regarding the nature of gaming and cre­ativity: What, exactly, is a game? And more specif­i­cally, if a user is required to sew a button where he wouldn’t have oth­er­wise planned to, would that inhibit his own nat­ural cre­ative process?

“I find that where I feel the most cre­ative comes from a con­straint I’ve been given that I may not nec­es­sarily know about ahead of time,” Smith says.

Per­haps unsur­pris­ingly, Smith uses con­straints to teach game design, which, she says, “forces you to think in a direc­tion you might not have thought before.”

If all of this sounds rel­a­tively out of the box, that’s because it is. The com­puter sci­ence field is still dom­i­nated by men, whereas the crafting pop­u­la­tion is mainly made up of women. It’s no wonder, then, that the two areas haven’t tra­di­tion­ally over­lapped much, but, as Smith explained, “I’m inter­ested in finding ways to use com­puters to diver­sify com­puter science.”

Data mining in the social-​​media ecosystem

September 17, 2012 10:56 am

Raymond Fu designs algorithms capable of rapidly analyzing photos and videos on Facebook. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Ray­mond Fu, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering, wants to build a better social-media ecosystem, one in which Face­book makes expert friend rec­om­men­da­tions and consumer-product suggestions.

“My goal is to bring the cur­rent social-networking system to the next level,” said Fu, a machine-learning expert who will hold joint appoint­ments in both the Col­lege of Engi­neering and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. “Users,” he added, “will def­i­nitely have access to a higher-quality ser­vice in the near future.”

At the begin­ning of the year, Fu received funding from both a sci­en­tific research orga­ni­za­tion and a coali­tion of gov­ern­ment agen­cies to design algo­rithms capable of rapidly ana­lyzing con­tent on social-networking and video-sharing web­sites. In Jan­uary, for instance, he received a two-year, $360,000 post­doc­toral research fel­low­ship award from the U.S. Intel­li­gence Com­mu­nity, and in Feb­ruary he received a three-year, $483,500 grant from the Air Force Office of Sci­en­tific Research.

One algo­rithm in progress, Fu explained, will be capable of pre­dicting the demo­graphics, behav­ioral ten­den­cies and rela­tion­ships between people who appear in photos and videos on Face­book or YouTube. The other algo­rithm will be capable of pin­pointing their geo­graphic location.

“Social-media users are sharing a lot of infor­ma­tion every single day,” Fu explained. “Our goal is to develop an auto­matic method that could process this data very fast.”

Face­book adver­tisers will have the ability to pur­chase the data for the pur­poses of tar­geting ads to par­tic­ular users. But, Fu explained, “Users would have to allow this con­tent to be deliv­ered to them.” Issues of pri­vacy, he added, “would have to be resolved.”

Both social-media projects dove­tail with the university’s focus on con­ducting use-inspired research that solves global chal­lenges in cyber­se­cu­rity. As Fu put it, “This research con­siders secu­rity issues such as data com­mu­ni­ca­tion, sharing and pri­vacy in cyber­phys­ical networks.”

Prior to joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Fu served as an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­puter sci­ence and engi­neering at State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Buf­falo and was the founding director of its Syn­er­getic Media Learning Lab.

Fu hopes to set an ambi­tious research agenda in his first year at North­eastern. He looks for­ward to col­lab­o­rating on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research projects with sev­eral fac­ulty mem­bers, including Deniz Erdogmus, an elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering pro­fessor, and Marty Vona, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­puter and infor­ma­tion science.

“North­eastern has a very strong engi­neering pro­gram,” Fu said, adding that five grad­uate stu­dents and three post­doc­toral researchers under his watch at SUNY Buf­falo have trans­ferred to the uni­ver­sity. “There are many col­leagues who share sim­ilar research inter­ests who I look for­ward to col­lab­o­rating with.”

3Q’s: Facial Recognition is the New Fingerprint

September 20, 2012 4:41 pm

Raymond FuEar­lier this month, the FBI began rolling out a $1 bil­lion update to the national fin­ger­printing data­base. Facial-​​recognition sys­tems, DNA analysis, voice iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and iris scan­ning will all con­tribute to the government’s arsenal of Next Gen­er­a­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (NGI) data. We asked Ray­mond Fu, a new assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Engi­neering and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, to explain the sci­ence behind one of these new tech­nolo­gies: facial-​​recognition software.

How does facial recognition work, and where is the state of the art now?

Face- ​​recognition research has been pop­ular for more than two decades. Great advances have been made from researchers from a broad com­mu­nity, such as bio­met­rics, com­puter vision and machine learning. The state-​​of-​​the-​​art tech­niques have been applied to real-​​world sys­tems for appli­ca­tions in sur­veil­lance, secu­rity and foren­sics. Face recog­ni­tion is a tech­nology that requires high accu­racy, espe­cially when secu­rity and foren­sics fac­tors are con­sid­ered. The cur­rent chal­lenges are scal­a­bility of data­bases; large vari­a­tion fac­tors in dif­ferent envi­ron­ments; aging, makeup and pose fac­tors of faces; and faces in social-​​media spaces.

Face-​​recognition sys­tems start with face detec­tion and tracking. Com­pu­ta­tional algo­rithms detect face posi­tions and poses in an image and then extract them for pro­cessing and analysis. During this pipeline, a couple of major chal­lenges create bot­tle­necks for the per­for­mance of real-​​world sys­tems. Facial expres­sions, aging and makeup are key vari­a­tions that cannot be easily removed. Tech­niques of 3-​​D mor­phable mod­eling and local fea­tures have been devel­oped to mit­i­gate such vari­a­tions. Lighting vari­a­tions can sig­nif­i­cantly affect the recog­ni­tion accu­racy espe­cially when a system is used out­side. Bench­mark data­bases have been col­lected from well-​​controlled lighting sources for devel­oping lighting insen­si­tive fea­ture extrac­tion and ana­lyt­ical mod­eling for such purposes.

The increasing acces­si­bility of the social-​​media space presents yet a new chal­lenge to devel­oping a large-​​scale iden­tity data­base. Con­fu­sion of sim­ilar appear­ances, over­load com­pu­ta­tions and mul­tiple data sources bring up uncer­tain­ties in modern face recog­ni­tion. Addi­tion­ally, new trends of soft-​​biometrics, big data and mul­ti­modality face recog­ni­tion have opened up new research thrusts.

What are the challenges and differences between identifying a single presented face and picking faces out of a crowd?

Face recog­ni­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion are two dif­ferent prob­lems. Face recog­ni­tion is to match a person’s face against a set of known faces and iden­tify who he or she is. For example, in a crim­inal inves­ti­ga­tion, a detec­tive may want to ID a sus­pect from a face image cap­tured on a sur­veil­lance camera.

Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is to val­i­date the match of a given face and the claimed ID. For example, if an employee wants to access a secured area in a clas­si­fied depart­ment, she shows her ID card to the sensor while a camera cap­tures her face to match it with the record retrieved from the ID card input. If the match passes, the door will open automatically.

How would you address concerns raised by privacy advocates?

Face recog­ni­tion can be either pas­sive or active. In the air­port, for example, the sur­veil­lance cam­eras are taking videos in real time. Pas­sen­gers’ faces are cap­tured in a pas­sive way. Online social-​​media spaces, like Face­book, pro­vide public domains for users to share their photos in an active way. Both may involve pri­vacy issues. How to bal­ance the pri­vacy issues and the public needs of secu­rity and human-​​computer inter­ac­tion are new research topics in this era.

In my research group, we have been funded by Air Force Office of Sci­en­tific Research, IC Postdoc Fel­low­ship and Google Research on these issues. Our research is mainly focused on under­standing social status and net­working of social-​​media users and their pri­vacy con­cerns. We are working on new com­pu­ta­tional method­olo­gies that could well ana­lyze the visual con­tent of social media and pro­vide auto­matic solu­tions for human-​​computer inter­ac­tion that could advance future social-​​network ecosystems.

Exploring the humanities with digital tools

October 2, 2012 10:48 am

David Smith (left), assistant professor of computational social science in the College of Computer and Information Science, and Ryan Cordell, assistant professor of English and digital humanities in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

In the past, a scholar would have to spend years of intense researching in order to assemble a broad humanities-based assess­ment of a topic like the role of race in 19th-century literature.

“That would require reading for years,” said Ryan Cordell, a new assis­tant pro­fessor of Eng­lish in theCol­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties at North­eastern. “And after all that time, he or she would have read 0.0001 per­cent of what was written in that era. There are limits of what you can phys­i­cally read.”

Enter the emerging field of dig­ital human­i­ties, which applies com­puter and network-science tech­niques to dig­i­tized texts, like the mas­sive vol­umes of lit­er­a­ture that have been scanned and stored over the past two decades.

“The Internet Archive has scanned more than 2 mil­lion public-domain books span­ning 500 years, so we can see how lan­guage, words and syntax change over time — or look at any broad trend that exists,” said David Smith, a new assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. He was pre­vi­ously a research assis­tant pro­fessor at the Uni­ver­sity of Massachusetts-Amherst and in 2010 received a Ph.D. from Johns Hop­kins University.

Smith and Cordell are among the fac­ulty mem­bers founding Northeastern’s new Cen­ters for Dig­ital Human­i­ties and Com­pu­ta­tional Social Sci­ence, an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary base for researchers from schools including the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Col­lege of Sci­ence.

“By turning these archives into data, we can make quan­ti­ta­tive and replica­tive analysis,” said Smith, such as looking at how infor­ma­tion spreads through a society over time or looking at lit­er­a­ture to examine issues like social mobility during a par­tic­ular era.

Cordell, who received his Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia in 2010, enters the field from a human­i­ties per­spec­tive: While working on his dis­ser­ta­tion, he began to track the (usu­ally uncred­ited) spread of a piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne through news­pa­pers and pub­li­ca­tions across the United States. Hawthorne him­self used the term “pirating” before its per­va­sive use to describe his work’s spread, and Cordell was curious if that same phe­nom­enon existed with other publications.

“If you don’t know what is going to be reprinted, you’re left com­paring every­thing to every­thing else,” said Smith, who explained how digital-humanities methods allow researchers to turn text into search­able data, which can be orga­nized and assessed with network-science tech­niques. “What you ulti­mately get are net­work maps that let us the­o­rize how these pub­li­ca­tions were talking to one another and explain how this infor­ma­tion spread.”

Both Cordell and Smith will be teaching courses for under­grad­u­ates and grad­u­ates this fall: Smith a course on infor­ma­tion retrieval, and Cordell one on tech­nolo­gies of text, which he jokes covers “a his­tory of reading from the scroll to the scroll.”

Hunting Botnets On A Bigger Scale

October 23, 2012 10:41 am

An international group of researchers has built a prototype system for detecting botnets on a large scale and that can sniff out previously undiscovered botnet command-and-control (C&C) servers.

Botnet hunters traditionally focus on inspecting individual botnets or botnet activity within organizations, for example, the researchers say. The new prototype, called Disclosure, expands the view of botnet activity to a wider scale and detects botnet C&C traffic in real-time, inspecting billions of flows of datasets each day, they say. It uses the NetFlow network protocol created by Cisco that gathers IP traffic data, plus some custom features they added that allow the tool to differentiate between C&C traffic and legitimate traffic based on flow size and behavior patterns of the clients, as well as time frames of the traffic. They also integrated it with some external reputation scoring services.

“I think the main contribution is that it’s operating at such a large scale that you could have much broader [botnet] protection of the Internet at large,” says William Robertson, assistant professor at the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University, who, along with Engin Kirda of Northeastern, Leyla Bilge of Symantec Research Labs, Davide Balzarotti of Eurecom, and Christopher Kruegel of UC Santa Barbara, built and tested Disclosure.

“It’s very efficient: It can process a day’s worth of data in less than a day,” Robertson says.

The prototype also was able to detect several botnet C&C servers that had been previously unknown, he says. “We manually verified those: We had some students probe those sites to discover if they were likely C&C servers or not.”

Today’s tools for botnet hunters provide them the ability to detect C&C channels between the botnet operator and the infected bots, or to detect botnets based on behavior among a group of machines that indicates they are bots, the researchers say.

“Once bots or, ideally, C&C servers have been identified, a number of actions can be performed, ranging from removal of infected endpoints from the network, to filtering C&C channels at edge routers, to orchestrated take-downs of the C&C servers themselves,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which they will present in December at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference in Orlando, Fla.

“Unfortunately, while previous botnet detection approaches are effective under certain circumstances, none of these approaches scales beyond a single administrative domain while retaining useful detection accuracy. This limitation restricts the application of automated botnet detection systems to those entities that are informed or motivated enough to deploy them,” they wrote. “Thus, we have the current state of botnet mitigation, where small pockets of the Internet are fairly well protected against infection while the majority of endpoints remain vulnerable.”

The prototype is not the first large-scale botnet protection approach, however: Damballa, for instance, offers DNS-based reputation filtering for protecting large customers such as ISPs.

Meanwhile, in tests of the tool in a university network and a Tier 1 ISP network, the researchers found that Disclosure spotted some 65 percent of known botnet C&C servers, with a 1 percent false-positive rate. It also caught new botnet C&C servers that weren’t previously known.

NetFlow data is valuable in botnet detection, but NetFlow analysis alone has its limitations in an enterprise environment, where network address translation and IPSes can wreak havoc on detection there, security experts say. “But even in the ISP environment, flow-based systems have problems keeping up with the traffic. Therefore, as the authors of the paper discuss, they will have to do sampling of the overall NetFlow traffic. It is clear that by sampling the traffic, a large portion of the botnet traffic will not be observed due to the sampling,” says Manos Antonakakis, principal scientist and director of academic sciences at Damballa. “Therefore, the particular flow-based botnet detection system will most likely detect quite noisy botnets” such as spam, DDoS, and peer-to-peer botnets, he says.

The researchers say their prototype is not meant to detect targeted attacks of mini-botnet C&C systems. “This approach is not for more targeted attacks. We are trying to look at characteristics of large-scale attacks,” says Kirda, who is associate professor for information assurance at the College of Computer and Information Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern University. The researchers also previously had built a tool called Exposure that detects DNS anomalies.

Damballa’s Antonakakis says Disclosure is yet another tool for botnet defenders. “New detection tools are useful in botnet research. I think research should focus more on how we can defend against emerging threats. To that extent, I consider this paper a step toward the right direction, however quite incremental, to already existing techniques,” says Antonakakis, who while at Georgia Tech co-developed Notos (PDF), a dynamic reputation system for DNS traffic that helps spot botnet activity and that is used today by Damballa.

The Disclosure research paper is available here (PDF) for download.

Article by Kelly Jackson Higgins from Dark Reading. The original article can be found here

Larry Finkelstein, dean of CCIS, to step down

October 25, 2012 10:50 am

In leading the College of Computer and Information Science for the last 18 years, Larry Finkelstein advanced Northeastern’s teaching and research mission in critical areas and expanded experiential education opportunities for students.

Larry Finkel­stein, who has served as dean of North­eastern University’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence for the last 18 years, will step down from his posi­tion before the start of the next aca­d­emic year.

“Serving as dean of our col­lege has been the high­light of my aca­d­emic career,” Finkel­stein said. “By every objec­tive mea­sure, the col­lege is in the strongest posi­tion it has ever been and is primed to take the next giant step for­ward. These accom­plish­ments are due to the efforts of our tal­ented fac­ulty, staff and stu­dents who are ded­i­cated to the con­tin­uing suc­cess of the col­lege. During this final year, I will work hard to see that our ambi­tious new ini­tia­tives are firmly established.”

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, announced the news to the North­eastern com­mu­nity on Wednesday.

“Larry’s work over the years has made a tremen­dous impact on CCIS and advanced the university’s teaching and research mis­sion in crit­ical areas, such as improving the quality of health care through inno­v­a­tive infor­ma­tion tech­nology and securing the nation’s cyber­in­fra­struc­ture,” Director said.

Finkel­stein joined the North­eastern fac­ulty in 1983, just one year after the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence was founded. During his tenure, CCIS was awarded two National Cen­ters of Aca­d­emic Excellence—one from the National Secu­rity Agency for a center in Cyber Oper­a­tions and the other from both the NSA and the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity for a center in Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance Research & Edu­ca­tion. During the last three years, research funding has increased by 180 percent.

In addi­tion to pio­neering com­bined majors at North­eastern, CCIS has also launched sev­eral ground­breaking and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary pro­grams at the under­grad­uate, grad­uate and doc­torate levels. These pro­grams include bachelor’s degrees in com­puter sci­ence with a con­cen­tra­tion in cyber­op­er­a­tions and master’s and doc­torate degrees in health infor­matics and infor­ma­tion assurance.

Under Finkelstein’s lead­er­ship, the quality of stu­dents enrolled in CCIS has increased sig­nif­i­cantly and the col­lege has expanded expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties for under­grad­u­ates and grad­uate stu­dents, including adding numerous posi­tions at For­tune 500 companies.

Finkel­stein also helped lead the devel­op­ment of online options for pro­fes­sional master’s stu­dents, including making all of these pro­grams avail­able at Northeastern’s grad­uate cam­puses in Char­lotte, N.C., and Seattle, Wash.

As dean, Finkel­stein strength­ened the college’s teaching and research enter­prise in the core dis­ci­plines of com­puting and pur­sued new fields such as net­work sci­ence, com­pu­ta­tional social sci­ence and “big data.” He has hired out­standing fac­ulty throughout his tenure who have advanced this expanded view of com­puting and sig­nif­i­cantly ele­vated the external rep­u­ta­tion of the college.

After taking a one-year sab­bat­ical, Finkel­stein plans on returning to the fac­ulty to teach and oversee a research program.

In the coming months, the uni­ver­sity will con­duct a national search for a new dean.

Money and memes in politics

October 26, 2012 10:53 am

David Lazer’s interdisciplinary team includes social scientists, graphic designers and data miners. Together they’re using computational modeling to gain insights on society. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

For the last sev­eral weeks, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers have been using com­pu­ta­tional models to dis­till mas­sive amounts of pres­i­den­tial cam­paign data into nuggets of infor­ma­tion that the human brain can comprehend.

From a “Debate Tweet Meter” to an analysis of super PAC funding, the team has tried to “illu­mi­nate processes by which money is raised and lan­guage is pro­duced,” explained David Lazer, a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence whose lab is leading the effort. “The machinery around both deeply affects our democracy.”

While Twitter is an obvious go-to source for lots of data on voter sen­ti­ment, other sources — such as the RSS feeds of main­stream media sources, the polit­ical “blo­gos­phere” and cam­paign ads — leave traces of the lin­guistic strate­gies intended to sway that sentiment.

To untangle the sources of those strate­gies, Lazer’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of social sci­en­tists, data miners and graphic designers is devel­oping visu­al­iza­tion tools that tell the story behind the lan­guage. Assis­tant research pro­fessor Yu-Ru Lin, who leads the Debate Tweet Meter project, sifts through and ana­lyzes large data sets including Tweets or finan­cial con­tri­bu­tions. Assis­tant research pro­fessor Mauro Mar­tino turns those data into dynamic visual rep­re­sen­ta­tions, while post­doc­toral researchers Drew Mar­golin and Sasha Goodman use the infor­ma­tion to make infer­ences about social processes.

“The beauty of my lab is that we have these dif­ferent types of people with dif­ferent skills and per­spec­tives,” Lazer said. “And then we shake them up and cool stuff comes out.”

The group is also probing the finan­cial struc­tures behind lan­guage. “A lot of the money sup­ports expen­di­tures on lan­guage,” Lazer said, refer­ring to the spending of polit­ical cam­paigns and polit­ical action committees.

He noted that focus groups and sur­veys, for example, could be used to help cam­paigns tailor their mes­sage to elicit a desired response. From there, the mes­sage per­co­lates through society, leading to “lin­guistic homogeneity.”

Using con­tent from tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials, var­ious types of web­sites and lan­guage used by the can­di­dates them­selves, the researchers are devel­oping what they call the Invis­ible Net­works Project. “We’re looking at the shared chunks of words that are artic­u­lated by politi­cians and the media,” Lazer said. “They are readily iden­ti­fi­able if you look at the data, because it’s exactly the same quotation.”

By iden­ti­fying these texts, the team is con­structing a visual model of the net­work of lan­guage that per­vades our world and influ­ences our everyday experience.

“A crit­ical ele­ment of a democ­racy is for people to be exposed to dif­ferent points of view,” Lazer said. “Ulti­mately we’re all sub­ject to the same laws and the same poli­cies.” Lazer’s team is working to reveal those views by laying bare the machinery of money and memes in politics.

BioCom2: NSF Workshop on Biological Computations and Communications

November 12, 2012 8:48 am

CCIS Professor Guevara Noubir organized a recent NSF workshop in Boston dedicated to bringing together researchers with broad interests in computation and communication in the bio-nano world. A mix of scientists from often polarized fields such as Computer Science, Bioengineering, Mathematics, and Physics attended to foster interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations. Specific topics of interest included:

  • Engineering synthetic biological circuits with communication interfaces
  • Microbial communication networks
  • Wireless energy transfer at the nano-scale
  • Quantum coherence in biological systems

Read more at the conference website.


2012 Fall CCIS Newsletter

November 16, 2012 4:59 pm

We are pleased to announce the 2012 Fall CCIS Newsletter. Read the CCIS Network for the latest in Cyber Operations, Programming Languages, Game Design, and Personal Health Informatics. Highlights include faculty hires and awards, alumni news, and co-op expansion.

Read Here

Technology to improve health care

November 19, 2012 9:57 am

Personal Health Informatics

This semester, professors Matthew Goodwin, Rupal Patel, Stephen Intille, and Timothy Bickmore launched the nation’s first program devoted to Personal Health Informatics.

Per­sonal health tech­nolo­gies amount to more than just your smart­phone apps. A group of North­eastern researchers, who are leading a new doc­toral pro­gram at the uni­ver­sity, hope these tech­nolo­gies will save the health-care system.

The inno­v­a­tive Per­sonal Health Infor­matics program—the first of its kind in the nation—will pre­pare stu­dents from both the health and com­puter sci­ences fields to lead research and devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies to trans­form health-care delivery around the globe.

“Sci­en­tific inno­va­tion in health care is a national imper­a­tive and one of Northeastern’s research pri­or­i­ties,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “A crit­ical piece of our efforts is devel­oping Ph.D. pro­grams that are anchored in mul­tiple dis­ci­plines and aligned with the needs of both industry and society.”

With a growing elderly pop­u­la­tion, surging obe­sity rates and younger diag­noses of con­di­tions like cancer, autism and HIV, people at all stages of life are flooding an already over­whelmed U.S. health-care system, according to Matthew Goodwin, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences. Unfor­tu­nately, he explained, that system is based on a sick-patient model with no way to reim­burse for wellness.

Along with Goodwin, the doc­toral pro­gram is being led by: Stephen Intille and Rupal Patel, both asso­ciate pro­fes­sors in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences; and Tim­othy Bick­more, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sciences.

The team says health-care tech­nolo­gies, which have tra­di­tion­ally tar­geted clin­i­cians, have a great poten­tial to pre­vent ill­ness and pro­mote well­ness when placed in the hands of patients. And they believe these so-called “per­sonal health infor­matics,” could be the key to solving the health-care crisis.

On Monday, the North­eastern com­mu­nity can get an up-close look at some of the tech­nolo­gies from uni­ver­sity labs at Northeastern’s Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion. The event, spon­sored by the Office of the Provost, will run from 4–6 p.m. in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater in the Egan Research Center, and will fea­ture inter­ac­tive demos of tech­nolo­gies from North­eastern laboratories.

Cur­rent North­eastern stu­dent Stephen Fla­herty spent a half-decade in the imaging depart­ment at Boston’s Beth Israel Med­ical Dea­coness Center and had been searching for a doc­toral pro­gram for a number of years. “Nothing fit my inter­ests the way the PHI pro­gram does,” he said.

“Nearly all existing doc­toral pro­grams in health or med­ical infor­matics focus on the devel­op­ment and use of tech­nolo­gies used by physi­cians and other med­ical staff,” Intille said. “Most of the tech­nolo­gies are only used once people get sick.”

The tech­nolo­gies of PHI — which range from assis­tive tech­nolo­gies for chil­dren with autism to wellness-focused mobile apps — are “focused on helping patients take care of them­selves,” Bick­more said.

The pro­gram includes fac­ulty from six of the university’s nine col­leges and schools, whose exper­tise includes human-computer inter­ac­tions, data pro­cessing and mea­suring emo­tion, to name a few. These strengths, cou­pled with a com­mit­ment to training skilled health-care pro­fes­sionals, will enable the new program’s suc­cess, Patel said.

Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to trans­dis­ci­pli­nary teaching and research,” Intille said, “make it an ideal envi­ron­ment in which to con­duct research on the design and rig­orous field eval­u­a­tion of inno­v­a­tive per­sonal health tech­nolo­gies that may lead to dra­matic, pos­i­tive changes in how people receive and manage their care.”

‘Popping in’ on the latest research

November 20, 2012 12:51 pm

A young man’s hand move­ments and body tem­per­a­ture are being tracked as he ges­tic­u­lates while dis­cussing his research with another stu­dent. Else­where in the room, someone stares at a com­puter screen while wearing a cap con­nected to dozens of elec­trodes. Next to him, someone else han­dles a cup out­fitted with an internal gyroscope.

This was the scene in Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Monday evening at Northeastern’s third Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence & Recep­tion, where the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity had the oppor­tu­nity to put some of the per­sonal and inter­ac­tive health devices being devel­oped in North­eastern labs to the test.

The open labs, spon­sored by the Office of the Provost, bring the North­eastern com­mu­nity together to learn about col­leagues’ research in an informal and inter­ac­tive set­ting. The events can also spark new, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary edu­ca­tion and research ini­tia­tives and collaborations.

Mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering asso­ciate pro­fes­sors Andrew Gould­stone and Rifat Sipahi dis­played a device that aims to help patients with Parkinson’s dis­ease handle a cup full of liquid with more ease and con­trol. The pro­to­type cup con­tains a gyro­scope in its base that off­sets the direc­tional force of the tremor in a patient’s hand. The team is also working on other devices to help Parkinson’s patients, including var­ious tech­nolo­gies to improve their ability to write, Sipahi explained.

Maciej Pietrusinski, a post­doc­toral researcher in mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering pro­fessor Dinos Mavroidis’ lab, is devel­oping a much larger device to help stroke patients regain their ability to walk with a normal gait. The cur­rent therapy is very labor and resource inten­sive and requires at least two phys­ical ther­a­pists, he said. Yet his treadmill-based robotic gait reha­bil­i­ta­tion system allows patients to get the ben­e­fits of a therapy ses­sion in their own homes, any time of day.

Phys­ical impair­ments, though, aren’t the only areas where health tech­nolo­gies are valu­able. Per­sonal health infor­matics PhD can­di­date Miriam Zisook is working with Matthew Goodwin, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences, to under­stand the non­verbal cues gen­er­ated by autistic chil­dren. Zisook explained that these patients’ frus­trated attempts at com­mu­ni­ca­tion are often mis­taken as vio­lent mis­be­havior. So if the behav­iors an autistic child uses to get someone’s atten­tion could be iden­ti­fied ear­lier, per­haps they’d be less likely to esca­late into “acting out.”

Goodwin’s lab uses sen­sors to mon­itor repet­i­tive motion, body tem­per­a­ture and other non­verbal indi­ca­tors of stress, which can be used for both research pur­poses and in the devel­op­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools like those Zisook envisions.

Deniz Erdogmus’ lab develops brain com­puter inter­faces to help locked-in patients com­mu­ni­cate with the power of their minds. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering pro­fessor Deniz Erdogmus’ lab is also inter­ested in com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices. His group develops brain com­puter inter­faces to help locked-in patients spell out sen­tences and interact with the world, a task that would oth­er­wise be impossible.

This new era of health­care tech­nology also has the unique capacity to pro­mote well­ness among the healthy. Com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences pro­fessor Tim­othy Bick­more develops vir­tual health advo­cates to pro­mote pos­i­tive behavior across demo­graphics, with a par­tic­ular eye toward those with lim­ited health and com­puter lit­eracy. Stephen Intille, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences, uses real-time sen­sors and hand­held mobile devices to build appli­ca­tions that pro­mote exer­cise and healthy eating.

From helping a Parkinson’s dis­ease patient who is strug­gling with tremors to making it easier for those hoping to lose weight after the hol­i­days, the event made it clear there is much to gain from the next gen­er­a­tion of health­care technology.

Northeastern researcher elected president of the Complex Systems Society

December 4, 2012 9:40 am

Alex Vespignani

Alessandro Vespignani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physics, computer science and health sciences, was elected president of the Complex Systems Society. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The sci­ence of com­plex sys­tems was born in the mid-20th cen­tury, but it has only recently begun to mature into a research field with real-world rel­e­vance. The devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies that stamp data points on nearly all of our activ­i­ties is allowing us to quan­tifi­ably study society — the ulti­mate com­plex system.

“Com­plex sys­tems is really now get­ting into a dif­ferent stage of its life in which it can start to have an impact through prac­tical appli­ca­tions,” said Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physics, com­puter sci­ence and health sci­ences.

It is for this reason that the Euro­pean Union sought in 2006 to sup­port the first-ever aca­d­emic society devoted to com­plex sys­tems sci­ence, which com­prises 600 mem­bers world­wide. This year, in the first renewal of the society’s lead­er­ship, Vespig­nani was elected as its president.

“This is a young field and it needs young researchers to pro­mote it, advo­cate for it and pro­vide momentum,” said Vespig­nani, whose research uses human mobility pat­terns to track the spread of dis­eases across the globe.

The society came to fruition in 2004 during the first Euro­pean Con­fer­ence for Com­plex Sys­tems, which has since grown into an annual series. Vespig­nani hopes to expand the series’ reach during his three-year term by holding meet­ings in the EU and turning both the conference’s and the society’s activ­i­ties into a global endeavor.

“The idea is to be more and more inclu­sive and more world­wide with events not just in Europe, where the society was born,” Vespig­nani said. He hopes that expanding and col­lab­o­rating with smaller insti­tu­tions devoted to the field would enable the society to more effec­tively coor­di­nate and sup­port the efforts of com­plex sys­tems sci­en­tists around the world.

Vespig­nani also noted that his appoint­ment would allow him to advo­cate for more funding for the field of com­plex sys­tems sci­ence. The advent of so-called “big data,” he said, which touches the lives of almost everyone, has forced the field to con­front a series of  unique eth­ical chal­lenges that must be addressed with careful policy measures.

“Com­plex sys­tems sci­ence is not any­more just a fancy sci­ence to look at very exotic phe­nomena,” said Vespig­nani. “It actu­ally is some­thing that might help to solve impor­tant real-world prob­lems. It has the matu­rity now to get into applied science.”

Serious Games People Play

December 19, 2012 10:20 am

It’s game on at Northeastern’s new Playable Innovative Technologies (PLAIT, “Play It”) Lab. Combining expertise in art, design, computer and social sciences, engineering, and business from every college in the university, PLAIT represents a building movement in video-game design—one that will change the way we learn, train, and educate.

And it’s a field that has the attention of Washington. Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the “Digital Promise Initiative,” a national center created by Congress to advance technologies that transform teaching and learning. In addition, the White House tapped Constance Steinkuehler Squire, noted game-design expert, to become senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Approximately 55 percent of the population plays video games, Squire says, and partnerships between academia and industry are crucial in developing games that will change the face of education.

To that end, Northeastern’s Magy Seif El-Nasr, an associate professor with dual appointments in the College of Arts, Media, and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science, was invited to the White House in July to consult at the Academic Consortium on Games for Impact. She was one of only 20 academic experts nationwide invited to do so.

Experts from industry, the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the MacArthur and other foundations discussed strategies for building interdisciplinary collaboration in the serious-game industry.

“We need more people who design entertainment games professionally to get into this market,” says Seif El-Nasr, “and we need to partner academics with funding agencies so that we can push the frontier of academic research in serious games.”

With the establishment of the PLAIT Lab, eight combined game-design and interactive-media undergraduate degree programs, and a masters and doctorate in development, the university promises to play a leading role in bridging those arenas and advancing the field.

Why Gaming?

The idea that games can teach is not a new concept. Chess and the Chinese board game Go, for instance, have been used to practice conflict strategy and tactics for thousands of years.

Today’s digital descendants have already shown promise in crisis management, improving healthcare outcomes, and military training. They’ve also been used to harness the power of crowdsourcing to solve intricate scientific problems. Northeastern’s faculty experts believe games can do even more to address national challenges in health, education, and security.

Games Making an Impact

Take Seif El-Nasr’s research and game-design efforts, which will soon bear fruit. She has partnered with Vancouver-based IgnitePlay to fight obesity using real-time behavior tracking. She is collaborating with Bardia Aghabeigi, a PhD student in the College of Computer and Information Science, and with Mariya Shiyko, assistant professor of counseling and applied educational psychology, and Carmen Sceppa, associate professor of health science, both from Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

“It’s a platform to understand nutrition and adopt healthier behavior through exercise by using games as a motivation tactic for behavior change,” Seif El-Nasr says.

Anyone can play this online social-media game, but it’s targeted to women 30 to 50 years old. Users will track food and exercise and compare their progress against friends’. Users will also be able to set goals, or “quests,” for themselves, such as walking 10 minutes every day for the next 10 days, and get rewards for achieving such quests.

In addition to helping attack the national obesity problem, Seif El-Nasr is eager to evaluate the user data that will be generated to assess how and if the research tactics have the intended impact.

She also directs the Games User Experience and Research Lab at Northeastern, which consists of multidisciplinary research teams of graduate and undergraduate students developing new interaction techniques, or game mechanics, for healthcare and education games. In addition, they research and analyze data from game-user interactions to help create games with greater impact.

“For example, if we can understand users’ behaviors and feelings with a game like the IgnitePlay one, then we can increase the value of the game on health outcomes,” she says. “‘Remission’ is one such example, which has helped young people understand their cancer and increase their adherence to treatment meds in some cases.”

Casper Harteveld, who joined Northeastern this fall from the Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) as assistant professor of art and design in the College of Arts, Media, and Design, integrates theories from organization science, psychology, and gaming into his research. He has collaborated with Dutch governing bodies responsible for levee maintenance on a game called Levee Patroller. He describes the crisis-management game as an example of “sense gaming”—games that let users prepare for disasters or situations that don’t occur often.

In his game, players deal with disastrous levee failures in The Netherlands, which occur only once every 100 years or so. Players have to make sense of the failures by first finding them and then reporting their observations, assessing and diagnosing the situation, and taking action if necessary.

“This type of serious game confronts players with certain phenomena and offers the tools to help them make sense of these phenomena,” he says. “With ‘Levee Patroller,’ it’s about failures; with another game, it might be training doctors to deal with rare diseases or unusual medical complications.”

The Right Mix

It’s not enough, though, to create a cool-looking game. Users must want to play while they’re learning a new skill or changing a behavior, and that’s what’s driving game-user research, analytics, and advances in the serious-games model. It’s also why programmers, engineers, and artists are only part of the design picture, and why it must also include experts in various subject domains. It takes an interdisciplinary village to create an effective video game.

Toward that goal, Harteveld uses a three-pillar model that he calls triadic game design. A game needs subject-matter experts to provide valid criteria (reality); storytellers or teachers to provide strategies and purpose (meaning); and programmers and artists to create an immersive, fun, engaging world (play).

Gillian Smith, assistant professor in the College of Arts, Media, and Design with a joint appointment in the College of Computer and Information Science, joined Northeastern from the University of California, Santa Cruz because of that very collaborative culture. “In game design, you need artists to be able to communicate with engineers, and engineers to be able to communicate with designers,” she says. “In the case of games for impact, we need to communicate with experts in health and education. Northeastern has that diversity of expertise.”

Seif El-Nasr, an international authority on digital-game research, embodies the multiple-discipline ethos. She earned graduate and undergraduate degrees in computer science, worked as a graphic designer, and took psychology courses to understand emotions. For other ways of expressing behavior, she took years of acting to be able to incorporate theater techniques in building better systems. She is currently working with Matthew Gray, assistant professor in the theater department, and with Derek Isaacowitz, associate psychology professor in the College of Science, to develop methodologies to evaluate emotion modulation and attention for use in game design.

In January, Northeastern will add even more firepower to its game-design movement. Two renowned international research experts will join the team as associate professors in the College of Arts, Media, and Design: Alessandro Canossa, who will focus on game design, psychology of play, and game-user research, and Anders Drachen, with expertise in game analytics and game-user research.

The PLAIT Lab gives Northeastern impressive momentum in this emerging field. “In the next several years, as a result of our interdisciplinary collaboration, we’ll be seeing innovative games addressing a variety of domains come out of the lab, as well as an improved understanding of how people learn through games and the technologies that make it easier to create games and interpret data coming from them,” says Smith.

Northeastern has built-in advantages that give the university an edge, says Harteveld: the culture of collaborative, interdisciplinary research, the graduate-campus system that’s expanding industry connections, and experiential learning, which gets students deeply involved in game design.

Above all is the need for innovative, relevant, and rigorous research, which is a principal mission of the PLAIT Lab.

“Serious-game design, once it matures a little more, could have a pervasive effect, transforming educational research and bringing new insights into how we learn. And because of our momentum, Northeastern can become a world player,” says Harteveld.

Technology at the Dinner Table

January 2, 2013 10:05 am

Andrea Grimes Parker

Andrea Parker, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor of per­sonal health infor­matics and human-computer inter­ac­tion, believes in the power of using tech­nology to pro­mote health and well­ness among low-income minority populations.

“Tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tions in health have the ability to facil­i­tate col­lec­tive mobi­liza­tion and sup­port behavior change in a great number of people,” she explained.

Parker’s exten­sive body of research bears this out: in 2009, for example, she designed a mobile game called OrderUp! in which a dozen low-income African-Americans in a south­west Atlanta com­mu­nity assumed the role of a server in a neigh­bor­hood restau­rant. The goal of the game, Parker said, was for par­tic­i­pants to serve their vir­tual cus­tomers as quickly and health­fully as possible.

In a paper on the health impact of playing mobile games, Parker revealed that OrderUP! shifted user per­cep­tion of what con­sti­tutes a healthy meal. The fun and easy-to-play game, she wrote, “helped par­tic­i­pants learn more about eating healthfully.”

Users, she added, “started to reassess their own behav­iors and began to see how they could make and eat healthier foods themselves.”

For another research project, Parker designed an appli­ca­tion that allowed some 40 mem­bers of the south­west Atlanta com­mu­nity to share text mes­sages doc­u­menting their eating habits. The mes­sages, she said, were visu­al­ized on a large touch screen dis­play appli­ca­tion installed in a local YMCA.

At the end of an exten­sive three-month study, Parker found that par­tic­i­pants had come to think of them­selves as com­mu­nity health advo­cates. “These kinds of tech­nolo­gies are not just helping people change their own habits, but they are also devel­oping par­tic­i­pants’ iden­ti­ties as advo­cates for change,” she explained. “It’s exciting to think about the influ­ence these people could have on their social networks.”

Prior to joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Parker served as a post­doc­toral fellow in the Everyday Com­puting Lab at the Georgia Insti­tute of Tech­nology. She earned her doc­torate in human-centered com­puting from Georgia Tech in 2011 and her bachelor’s degree in com­puter sci­ence from North­eastern in 2005

“I feel like I’m coming home,” Parker said. “It’s def­i­nitely an honor and a priv­i­lege to be a pro­fessor where I began my aca­d­emic career.”

Parker will hold joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. She hopes to uti­lize her inter­dis­ci­pli­nary exper­tise, she said, to tackle urban health research projects in Boston’s Rox­bury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods.

“I have a real pas­sion for helping the under­served and under­standing why these pop­u­la­tions dis­pro­por­tion­ately expe­ri­ence dis­ease,” Parker explained, noting her interest in col­lab­o­rating on long-term field studies with Elmer Freeman, director of urban health pro­grams in Bouvé.

By bringing the world of com­puter sci­ence to life through fun and engaging class­room lec­turers, on the other hand, Parker hopes to expose stu­dents to the vast pos­si­bil­i­ties of an ever-expanding field of research.

“I want to help stu­dents under­stand how to design sys­tems that can mesh with people’s values and con­nect with them on an emo­tional level,” she said.

Northeastern Algorithm Speeds Assembly of Jet’s Safety Systems

January 3, 2013 9:12 am

Pete Manolios

Asso­ciate pro­fessor Pete Mano­lios and grad­uate stu­dent Vasilis Papavasileiou of the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence have designed a constraint-based algo­rithm capable of assem­bling the safety-critical sys­tems in the Boeing 787 Dream­liner jet air­plane in less than 10 minutes.

The project—backed by a five-year, $1.5 mil­lion grant from the National Aero­nau­tics and Space Admin­is­tra­tion and a three-year, $478,000 con­tract from The Boeing Company—dovetails with Northeastern’s focus on use-inspired research that solves global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

The beauty of the algo­rithm lies in its ability to rapidly solve dif­fi­cult real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems arising from the inter­ac­tion of safety-critical com­po­nents, such as black boxes, nav­i­ga­tion sen­sors, collision-detection algo­rithms, and con­trol systems.

“Our system is quicker and more cost-effective, but it also opens up a whole new realm of pos­si­bil­i­ties in terms of building optimal and effi­cient sys­tems that prop­erly uti­lize resources,” Mano­lios explained. “One major problem with building a system man­u­ally is that you cannot deeply ana­lyze it to foresee the long-term con­se­quences of your decisions.”

Mano­lios show­cased the algo­rithm in Utah at the 23rd Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Com­puter Aided Ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Auto industry rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the con­fer­ence expressed interest in using the math­e­mat­ical tools to solve com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems within cars, whose nav­i­ga­tion and con­trol sys­tems mirror those of airplanes.

The long-term goal of the project, Mano­lios noted, is to com­mer­cialize the algo­rithm for use in the pro­duc­tion of smart grids, secure net­works, and other land, sea, and air vehicles.

“This can be used in every industry where you need to assemble some­thing,” said John Chilenski, an asso­ciate tech­nical fellow for Boeing Com­mer­cial Air­planes. “We’ve also used it for solving wiring allo­ca­tion prob­lems in the Dream­liner but I could even see it being used in nuclear chem­istry to design new materials.”

Validation for Flu Prediction

January 7, 2013 9:33 am

Alex Vespignani

In 2009, the H1N1 virus slipped into the blood­streams of more than 40 mil­lion people around the world. In just four months, it killed more than 14,000 indi­vid­uals as it trav­eled from Mexico to India on its most favored vehicle: humans. As trav­elers moved about the planet via air­planes and cars, the pathogen fol­lowed, cre­ating an epi­demic the likes of which had not been seen since the 1970s.

At the time, Alessandro Vespig­nani was at the Uni­ver­sity of Indiana, where he began tracking the dis­ease with as much atten­tion as the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol. Vespignani—now the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physics, com­puter sci­ence, and health sci­ences at North­eastern University—and his research team built a com­pu­ta­tional model called GLEAM, or Global Epi­demic and Mobility Model, which they used to pre­dict the out­breaks as they sur­faced around the globe.

In the last three years, the team has been tire­lessly working to val­i­date its pre­dic­tions. To that end, its recently pub­lished article in the journal BMC Med­i­cine offers defin­i­tive proof of a strong agree­ment between the pre­dic­tions and the real-life sur­veil­lance data col­lected in 2009.

“Although we knew the pre­dic­tion of the model were in pretty good agree­ment in sev­eral places of the world,” said Vespig­nani, “here we pro­duce a very exten­sive val­i­da­tion on more than 45 countries.”

To model dis­ease spreading, GLEAM inte­grates three data “layers.” The first uses a pop­u­la­tion data­base, which was devel­oped by a team at Columbia Uni­ver­sity and pro­vides a high-resolution pop­u­la­tion den­sity map of the entire planet. The second uses local com­muting flows and air­line trans­porta­tion data­bases to esti­mate human mobility within and between coun­tries, respec­tively. Finally, an epi­demic layer accounts for the behavior of the dis­ease itself, including infor­ma­tion such has incu­ba­tion and trans­mis­sion times.

Oper­ating from within the prover­bial eye of the storm in 2009, the team used the model to fore­cast the week of the epidemic’s peak in 48 coun­tries in the Northern Hemi­sphere. In 42 of these coun­tries, the fore­casts were directly on target; in the other five, the team’s pre­dic­tions were off by only one to two weeks.

Nor­mally, flu season peaks months after H1N1 did, making even the two-week vari­a­tion a con­sid­er­ably good result. “This is the first large-scale val­i­da­tion of a com­pu­ta­tional model that pulled out pre­dic­tions in real time,” said Vespig­nani. “It shows that com­pu­ta­tional models have acquired the matu­rity to pro­vide useful infor­ma­tion and at the same time points out the way on how to improve and develop better models and tools.”

Sinister Code-Breakers, Beware

January 23, 2013 8:54 am

Vladimir Torchilin

In the early– to mid-20th cen­tury, gov­ern­ments com­monly used cryp­tog­raphy to encrypt top-secret mes­sages or mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions. But now that the com­puter and Internet age has evolved to a point where smart­phones and tablets are readily avail­able at our fin­ger­tips, its use has become much more wide­spread to meet the chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tury, according to Daniel Wichs, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

“Cryp­tog­raphy is being used every day, but people prob­ably don’t even notice it,” Wichs said. “Whether you’re using Gmail or log­ging on to a site from your mobile phone, cryp­tog­raphy is there making sure others aren’t able to see the data you’re sending and receiving.”

His interest in the field of cryp­tog­raphy blos­somed as an under­grad­uate studying math­e­matics and com­puter sci­ence at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. The sub­ject, he said, allowed him to apply com­plex math­e­matics with seem­ingly scant prac­tical appli­ca­tions to solve real-world com­puter sci­ence prob­lems related to security.

Wichs earned his doc­torate from New York Uni­ver­sity in 2011 and later served as a Josef Raviv Memo­rial Post­doc­toral Fellow at IBM before arriving at North­eastern this fall.

Wichs has noticed major changes in the field within the last few years. The mas­sive expan­sion of cryp­tog­raphy work, for example, means researchers have to be much more focused on how out­side forces, like hackers or for­eign gov­ern­ments, try to break through encrypted sys­tems or exploit unknown weaknesses.

In par­tic­ular, his work focuses in part on what are called “side-channel attacks,” in which third par­ties try to learn about an encrypted system by mea­suring infor­ma­tion like how long a com­puter process takes or how much elec­tricity is used by a given calculation.

“You can learn a lot of infor­ma­tion just from these seemingly-meaningless details, so cryp­tog­raphy sys­tems are starting to take them into account too by securing not just the data but also the com­puting system itself,” Wichs said.

He noted that he is fas­ci­nated with cryp­tog­raphy because it merges theory and prac­tical appli­ca­tions in ways that are seldom found in many fields of research.

“It’s a really cool set of prob­lems you’re facing,” he said. “How do you make sure data—which is a key part of nearly every com­po­nent of our lives today—is secured?”

But per­haps the most impor­tant thing about cryp­tog­raphy research, Wichs said, is that the more time pro­fes­sionals spend working to pro­tect crit­ical data and sys­tems, the less time the public should spend wor­rying about per­sonal infor­ma­tion breaches.

“If cryp­tog­ra­phers do their job, you don’t have to think about it all that much,” Wichs said. “It’s our goal to make sure these crit­ical stan­dards and pro­to­cols are in place.”

Data Mining in a Complex World

January 29, 2013 9:31 am


Yizhou Sun

Gold mining requires a cer­tain amount of patience: For example, you would have to sift through about 300 tons of earth and rock to come up with enough of the pre­cious metal to make a single wed­ding ring. Data mining is sim­ilar. Every day, ter­abytes of data accu­mu­late in the tech­nology that society has come to rely on. But turning that chaotic mess of zeros and ones into mean­ingful knowl­edge can be a com­plex math­e­mat­ical challenge.

Typ­i­cally, researchers try to sim­plify this chal­lenge by lim­iting the scope of their ques­tions. But Yizhou Sun, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, believes that making useful pre­dic­tions and infer­ences with new data requires us to account for its complexity.

“My phi­los­ophy is that in the real world, objects are con­nected together but those objects belong to dif­ferent types,” she said, pointing to humans, build­ings, and dig­ital devices as exam­ples “Even with humans we can still iden­tify dif­ferent groups.”

Instead of looking at two-dimensional rela­tion­ships in an iso­lated system, her approach brings together a series of com­plex algo­rithms that simul­ta­ne­ously address objects from mul­tiple domains and their inter­ac­tions in a much bigger, real-world envi­ron­ment. She has used the method to probe social net­works like Flickr and Twitter for sim­i­lar­i­ties and patterns.

As a grad­uate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois at Urbana-Champaign, Sun took on the task of mining the Dig­ital Bib­li­og­raphy & Library Project’s dataset of com­puter sci­ence pub­li­ca­tions. Her hope was to unearth some inter­esting and unex­pected pat­terns, which she did.

She found that a researcher’s social con­nect­ed­ness was the most impor­tant factor for deter­mining whom he would col­lab­o­rate with in the future. She also found, thank­fully, that social con­nec­tions did not figure very highly in a researcher’s citations.

But per­haps most impor­tant, Sun found that her ques­tions were always more com­pli­cated than she had expected. For instance, auto­mat­i­cally iden­ti­fying the most highly ranked authors in the DBLP dataset might require exam­ining the ranking of the con­fer­ences they attended. But that requires auto­mat­i­cally iden­ti­fying con­fer­ence ranking, which depends on the ranking of the authors in attendance.

The problem was that the data in ques­tion make up a com­plex, het­ero­ge­neous net­work wherein each piece affects every other. If Sun wanted to trust the prod­ucts of her algo­rithm, she was going to have to under­stand the net­work it acted upon.

Sun made it her life’s work to under­stand and then design strate­gies for exam­ining het­ero­ge­neous net­works. Last year, she pub­lished the sem­inal book on the matter, Mining Het­ero­ge­neous Infor­ma­tion Net­works: Prin­ci­ples and Method­olo­gies.

The impli­ca­tions for Sun’s work are vast. In order to take advan­tage of the ter­abytes of data now describing our world, we must under­stand the com­plex net­works of which they are a part. “In the real world, there are so many dif­ferent types of objects that interact with each other,” said Sun. “The real world system can be viewed as gigantic het­ero­ge­neous infor­ma­tion network.”

Northeastern Researchers on the Boeing Battery Failures

February 15, 2013 9:56 am

Photo via Thinkstock.By now you’ve probably heard of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners and the problems they had in their first weeks in the air. Basically, the Dreamliner is an extremely fuel-efficient airliner. It was the first to use composite materials to reduce weight and the first to use “large format” lithium-ion batteries.

Due to fuel leaks and spontaneous fires in the batteries that exceeded the normal growing pains of any new, complex system, the entire fleet was grounded in mid January. Today, Chicago Tribune reports that the Federal Aviation Administration has permitted Boeing to perform a single “ferry flight” to relocate one of their planes so they can continue investigations. There is still no conclusion about the cause of the failures and FAA and National Transportation Safety Board officials don’t expect one for at least a couple months.

I wanted to better understand the problem so I asked Northeastern researchers K.M. Abraham and Peter Manolios for the takes on it all. Abraham is a research professor in the Northeastern University Center for Renewable Energy Technologies with 30 years of experience in the world of lithium batteries. He was quoted in two recent Wired articles about Boeing’s troubles, here and here. Manolios is an associate professor of computer and information science who has worked with Boeing and NASA for nearly a decade. The Dreamliner team commissioned Manolios to build an algorithm (dubbed CoBaSa) that can automatically integrate the various safety systems onboard the plane.

Abraham explained that lithium-ion batteries are such a hot topic (pun not intended) because they can store up to ten times more energy  than traditional batteries. This is what makes them so energy efficient but it is also precisely why they carry potential safety hazards. It’s the difference between taking a match to a couple grains of gunpowder or a hand grenade full of the stuff.

Now imagine the gunpowder is in the same vessel as a lit match, and a polymer membrane about half the thickness of a human hair is the only thing separating the two. This is akin to the situation in a lithium-ion battery, where the membrane separates two chemical reagents that are highly reactive with one another. Any failures in the system could allow the two chemicals to come into contact (internally short circuit), which would mean certain death for the battery…and a big explosion.

Lithium-ion batteries are pervasive these days. They’re in our cell phones and our computers. They’re the sole power storage devices in all electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster. All told, Abraham said there are more than 10 billion lithium-ion batteries out there, powering our digital world one chemical reaction at a time. But that’s no reason to get into a tizzy, as my mom would say. The batteries in these devices have gone through extensive optimization steps over the years. The chance of a fire in any of them is about one in 10 million.

According to the press, the Dreamliner batteries were also manufactured according to accepted specifications. It could be, Abraham speculated, that the specifications relevant in the small-format batteries in our cell phones and electric cars simply aren’t  enough at the larger scale.

The real problem may also have stemmed from how the batteries were used, said Manolios. “What seems to have happened is that there was a very large demand placed on the batteries and while they were charging they caught on fire,” he explained, pointing to a Time Magazine article on the topic.

While Manolios’ CoBaSa algorithm wasn’t designed to detect battery failures or fuel leaks, it’s possible that it could be used to prevent the former, he said. “We used my algorithm to synthesize software architectures, which involved figuring out which cabinets to place avionics code on, subject to a very large number of declarative constraints,” he said.

“It seems likely that we could use CoBaSa to express constraints saying that the power demands to the battery do not exceed a particular limit.” CoBaSa could then synthesize a system that doesn’t demand more power than the battery can provide, he explained.

Abraham is taking another approach, working on entirely new systems. He invented a battery called lithium-air, which uses oxygen from the atmosphere as the [cathode] and is significantly less hazardous than those described above. “It’s still in the early stages,” he said, “but there’s a worldwide effort in making it a practical battery.”

Ultimately, we’ll have to wait for the results of Boeing’s field tests to know exactly what happened. But I think it’s important we not put this down in the record books as a fundamental flaw in lithium battery technology. There are loads of researchers in the world, and several at Northeastern, all figuring out ways to make safe energy-efficiency a tangible goal.


Complex Systems Made Simple

February 15, 2013 9:58 am

cover-expansion_620-590x631Just as the name implies, com­plex sys­tems are dif­fi­cult to tease apart. An organism’s genome, a bio­chem­ical reac­tion, or even a social net­work all con­tain many inter­de­pen­dent components—and changing any one of them can have per­va­sive effects on all the others. In the case of a very large system, like the human genome, which con­tains 20,000 inter­con­nected genes, it’s impos­sible to mon­itor the whole system at once.

But that may not matter any­more. In a paper pub­lished in the pres­ti­gious mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary journal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sci­ence, North­eastern net­work sci­en­tists have devel­oped an algo­rithm capable of iden­ti­fying the subset of components—or nodes—that are nec­es­sary to reveal a com­plex system’s overall nature.

The approach takes advan­tage of the inter­de­pen­dent nature of com­plexity to devise a method for observing sys­tems that are oth­er­wise beyond quan­ti­ta­tive scrutiny.

“Con­nect­ed­ness is the essence of com­plex sys­tems,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, one of the paper’s authors and a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics with joint appoint­ments in biology and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. “Thanks to the links between com­po­nents, infor­ma­tion is dis­trib­uted throughout a net­work. Hence I do not need to mon­itor everyone to have a full sense of what the system does.”

Barabási’s col­lab­o­ra­tors com­prise Jean-​​Jacques Slo­tine of M.I.T. and Yang-​​Yu Liu, lead author and research asso­ciate pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research, for which Barabási is the founding director.

Using their novel approach, the researchers first iden­tify all the math­e­mat­ical equa­tions that describe the system’s dynamics. For example, in a bio­chem­ical reac­tion system, sev­eral smaller reac­tions between periph­er­ally related mol­e­cules may col­lec­tively account for the final product. By looking at how the vari­ables are affected by each of the reac­tions, the researchers can then draw a graph­ical map of the system. The nodes that form the foun­da­tion of the map reveal them­selves as indis­pen­sible to under­standing any other part of the whole.

“What sur­prised me,” said Liu, “was that the nec­es­sary nodes are also suf­fi­cient in most cases.” That is, the indis­pen­sible nodes can tell the whole story without drawing on any of the other components.

The meta­bolic system of any organism is a col­lec­tion of hun­dreds of mol­e­cules involved in thou­sands of bio­chem­ical reac­tions. The new method, which com­bines exper­tise from con­trol theory, graph theory, and net­work sci­ence, reduces large com­plex sys­tems like this to a set of essen­tial “sensor nodes.”

In the case of metab­o­lism, the researchers’ algo­rithm could sim­plify the process of iden­ti­fying bio­markers, which are mol­e­cules in the blood that tell clin­i­cians whether an indi­vidual is healthy or sick. “Most of the cur­rent bio­markers were selected almost by chance,” said Barabási. “Chemists and doc­tors found that they happen to work. Observ­ability offers a rational way to choose bio­markers, if we know the system we need to monitor.”

Meet George Jetson, M.D.

February 19, 2013 9:28 am

The virtual doctor won’t see you just yet. But that day is getting closer.

Today’s health-care industry is making increasing use of Web-based virtual agents and avatars, or computerized assistants, not only to perform clerical duties but also to dispense medical information.

In Spain, an avatar named Osane for the past year has been helping visitors navigate the website of the Basque region’s public-health system. Osane, an animated character, mainly helps users with clerical matters such as changing their physician or booking an appointment.

But she also can give basic advice on healthy living and common illnesses. Type into the chat window that you think your son has varicella, for example, and Osane will respond with a brief description of the symptoms of chickenpox and offer to help book an appointment with a pediatrician.

But Osane knows her limits. Tell her only that your son has a fever, and the avatar will say she is not a doctor.

Osane runs on software from Anboto, a Spanish start-up with offices in Boston and Silicon Valley. Its technology is also used by a Spanish health insurer, IMQ, to help customers navigate its website.

[image]Step by step Avatars helping hospital patients with discharge instructions can slash readmission rates

“Health care is a very broad sector with many potential applications for virtual agents,” says Anboto Chief Executive Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria.

Most avatars in use in health care today handle administrative tasks and website navigation. The U.S. insurer Aetna Inc. introduced an avatar from Next IT Corp., of Spokane, Wash., on its website in 2010, partly to reduce the load on its call center.

Nevertheless, some experts believe the technology is ready to be used in a clinical context—though these applications are mainly at the research stage.

Timothy Bickmore, an associate professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, used avatars in research aimed at helping hospital patients understand their discharge information. Many don’t, and so run a greater risk of being readmitted. Mr. Bickmore says his three-year trial at a Boston hospital reduced readmissions by 30%.

Craig Mundie, Microsoft Corp.’s chief research and strategy officer, last year demonstrated the use of avatars and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect technology to facilitate group therapy sessions—the theory being that patients will feel less intimidated by an avatar than by a human group leader.

Cisco Systems Inc. has also demonstrated an avatar, named Patty, that counsels hospital patients. Patty gives the patients information on their treatment and allows them to ask questions they might be too embarrassed to ask a nurse or physician.

Northeastern’s Mr. Bickmore says avatars have an attribute that health-care professionals often lack—patience.

“Many people prefer avatars to nurses for counseling because they do not feel rushed and can ask questions,” he says

As new roles are explored for avatars in health care, experts say the key is to ensure the avatar recognizes its own boundaries and doesn’t overstep them.

“You have to be particularly careful,” Mr. Bickmore says, “with anything that involves human judgment or requires common-sense reasoning about the world.”

Article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

Researchers Transcend Boundaries for Science

February 19, 2013 9:52 am

The 179th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science included several presentations from Northeastern researchers. Photo by Thinkstock.

To under­stand and over­come the com­plex­i­ties of cli­mate change, sci­en­tists, engi­neers, social sci­en­tists, and policy makers must tran­scend the bound­aries that have tra­di­tion­ally con­fined their work, according to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Matthias Ruth. He deliv­ered the state­ment on Sunday at a sym­po­sium he hosted on urban adap­ta­tion to envi­ron­mental changes.

As Con­gress races to find a solu­tion to impending cuts to research and other funding, com­mu­ni­cating across dis­ci­plines and other tra­di­tional bound­aries was a recur­ring theme at the 179th annual meeting of the Amer­ican Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, where Ruth’s ses­sion was one of hun­dreds aimed at high­lighting the “Beauty and Ben­e­fits of Sci­ence” — the summit’s theme. An esti­mated 8,000 scholars from around the globe descended on Boston’s Hynes Con­ven­tion Center between Feb. 14–18 to share their work at the meeting, which is billed as the world’s largest sci­en­tific conference.

Throughout the con­fer­ence, North­eastern fac­ulty led pre­sen­ta­tions high­lighting their work to address real-​​world chal­lenges in areas ranging from health to tech­nology to sus­tain­ability. April Gu, a civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering pro­fessor at North­eastern and one of three scholars pre­senting in Ruth’s ses­sion, noted that our cur­rent strate­gies for water resources man­age­ment may not stand the test of time. “Water quality reg­u­la­tion itself is not enough,” she said. “We need a gov­er­nance way beyond that.”

David Lazer, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, hosted a ses­sion on Friday on the sci­ence of pol­i­tics, in which he and five other scholars from around the nation argued for a more rig­orous sci­en­tific approach to under­standing and working with gov­er­nance struc­tures. “The ques­tion is can we come up with an objec­tive sci­en­tific under­standing of polit­ical processes,” Lazer said.

“Astronomers do not have to worry that when they point that tele­scope to the heavens, that the stars are going to twinkle because you’re looking at them,” said Lazer, whose work focuses on using net­work sci­ence to under­stand the spread of polit­ical memes. “But when you look at social sys­tems that’s cer­tainly a challenge.”

The same chal­lenge was dis­cussed on Sat­urday in a ses­sion on pre­dicting human behavior, which was hosted by world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics with joint appoint­ments in biology and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. In this ses­sion, Alessandro Vespig­nani, Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics, pre­sented new research using math­e­mat­ical mod­eling to map the spread of epi­demic diseases.

“As soon as you plug in some level of aware­ness of the dis­ease, you get the dis­ease spreading slower and there’s a little less impact on the pop­u­la­tion,” said Vespig­nani, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence. Nonethe­less, his work, which aims to inform dis­ease mit­i­ga­tion and con­tain­ment strate­gies, showed that travel restric­tions would need to limit human mobility around the planet by a stag­gering 99 per­cent to have any mean­ingful impact.

Throughout the con­fer­ence, it was evi­dent that Ruth’s com­ment about the com­plexity of cli­mate change could easily be extended to all of the major chal­lenges facing our planet today: Dis­ease man­age­ment, just like secure and sus­tain­able infra­struc­tures, requires a com­mit­ment to cross-​​pollination by our scholars and policy makers.

But none of this will be pos­sible without a cul­tural shift toward under­standing and appre­ci­ating the ben­e­fits of sci­ence. Christos Zahopoulos, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of engi­neering and exec­u­tive director of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion, spoke at the asso­ci­ated Inter­na­tional Teacher-​​Scientist Part­ner­ship Con­fer­ence, noting that his Retirees Enhancing Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion through Exper­i­ments and Demon­stra­tions, or RE-​​SEED pro­gram, has been inspiring the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists for more than two decades.

Researcher Gives Subjects Their Voice

February 20, 2013 9:07 am

Meirelles and Patel

Stephen Hawking and a 9-​​year-​​old girl with a speech dis­order most likely use the same syn­thetic voice. It’s called Per­fect Paul and it’s easy to under­stand, espe­cially in acousti­cally chaotic envi­ron­ments like class­rooms full of chil­dren. While new, more natural-​​sounding voices are avail­able, Per­fect Paul remains the most oft-​​used syn­thetic voice in the com­mu­nity of dis­or­dered speakers.

But Per­fect Paul con­veys none of the per­son­ality inherent in vocal iden­tity, explains Rupal Patel, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of com­puter sci­ence and speech lan­guage pathology and audi­ology.

“What we’re trying to do is improve the quality,” she said, “but also increase the per­son­al­iza­tion of those voices, by not just making it a little kid’s voice, but making it that little kid’s voice.”

Backed by a grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, Patel and her research team are devel­oping ways to create per­son­al­ized syn­thetic voices that resemble users’ vocal iden­ti­ties while remaining as under­stand­able as those of the healthy donors.

These voices have already elicited great responses from par­ents; one said, “If [my son] had been able to talk, this is what he would sound like.” How­ever, the early ver­sion of VocaliD used a difficult-​​to-​​scale  approach that is not easily repro­ducible. Patel said, “We’d like to be able to allow users to create new voices as they mature in the same way a nat­ural voice evolves.”

With the sup­port of another grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, her team is cur­rently adding phys­i­o­log­ical infor­ma­tion on top of the acoustics.  “When you hear speech, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of your source and your filter,” Patel said. The source, she explained, derives from the voice box in the larynx whereas the filter is deter­mined by the shape and length of the vocal tract.

Vocal characteristics—such as pitch, breath­i­ness, and loudness—all emerge from the vocal folds in the larynx and give rise to vocal iden­tity. Mod­u­lating those fea­tures by changing the shape of our mouths and moving our tongues gives rise to dis­tinct vowel and con­so­nant sounds, which, Patel said, are typ­i­cally impaired in dis­or­dered speech.

Using data from a set of sen­sors placed on par­tic­i­pants’ tongues and mouths, the researchers will deter­mine the most effi­cient way to approx­i­mate the phys­ical aspects of the dis­or­dered speaker’s vocal tract. They can then add this infor­ma­tion into the voice-​​synthesis soft­ware to create voices that will grow and change as the users mature.

The aca­d­emic com­mu­nity has long accepted the source-​​filter theory of speech, but more work needs to be done in order to under­stand it, according to Patel, espe­cially as researchers develop more advanced speech tech­nolo­gies for secu­rity and other applications.

Patel’s work in par­tic­ular also aims to inform basic research ques­tions such as, “How much do both the source and filter con­tribute to the iden­tity of a speaker’s output?”

Patel’s soft­ware is com­pat­ible across assis­tive tech­nology plat­forms, including main­stream touch-​​pad devices, a fea­ture she hopes will increase its adop­tion within the com­mu­nity. Patel spec­u­lates that assis­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices will even­tu­ally appeal to healthy people as a new way of learning, com­mu­ni­cating, and interacting.

“The iPad rev­o­lu­tion is helping to break down bar­riers and increasing the emphasis on user inter­face issues,” said Patel, who has been working to improve assis­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies for more than 16 years. “Lots of kids, both healthy and impaired, are using screens to interact now.”

Big Data Fuels Intelligence-Driven Security

February 28, 2013 8:55 am

In a recently published security brief, Professor Engin Kirda of Northeastern University along with experts from RSA and Booz Allen Hamilton set out the components for a Big Data-oriented security management system.

Read more here

The Rules of Cyber-​​Engagement

March 5, 2013 9:30 am

The Obama admin­is­tra­tion is close to approving the nation’s first set of rules for how the mil­i­tary can defend or retal­iate against a major cyber­at­tack, according to a report last month in The New York Times. One such new rule would report­edly give the pres­i­dent power to order a pre-​​emptive strike if the U.S. detects a cred­ible threat from a for­eign adver­sary. We asked William Robertson, an expert in detecting and pre­venting Web-​​based attacks and an assis­tant pro­fessor with dual appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Engi­neering and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, to assess this poten­tial new policy and the growing cyber­arms race.

Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has warned that a cyberattack from a foreign nation or extremist group could be equally as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11. What would a cyber-9/11 look like and how does the president’s power to order a pre-emptive cyberstrike against a foreign adversary impact the chances of such an attack?

The term “cyber-​​9/​11″ is quite clearly meant to con­jure up imagery sur­rounding the nation’s shock in reac­tion to the air­liner hijack­ings of 2001. One com­mon­ality between those attacks and an imag­ined cyber-​​9/​11 is the ele­ment of sur­prise, where the attackers might very well exe­cute an oper­a­tion against the nation without advance detec­tion. A strike against the nation’s crit­ical infrastructure—such as the power dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work or air traffic control—could have far-​​reaching effects that harm or in some other way affect mil­lions of Americans.

One can inter­pret the recent reported strate­gizing by the admin­is­tra­tion on the pre­emp­tive use of cyber­weapons as a form of deter­rence against would-​​be attackers, in much the same way that our nation’s con­ven­tional mil­i­tary serves as a deter­rent to poten­tial adver­saries. Given the his­tory of alleged attacks against Amer­ican assets by for­eign actors located in China and Russia, it is quite pos­sible that the recent deci­sion to allow for pre­emp­tive cyber­at­tacks is aimed squarely at nations such as these.

Unfor­tu­nately, deter­rence only goes so far. It’s unlikely to be effec­tive against those adver­saries that either do not antic­i­pate expe­ri­encing great harm from a pre­emp­tive cyberattack—for instance, if attack attri­bu­tion is dif­fi­cult or the attackers do not pos­sess sig­nif­i­cant tech­no­log­ical assets—or the attackers have suf­fi­cient motivations—e.g., reli­gious or political—that they are willing to risk the consequences.

The Washington Post recently reported the Pentagon is planning to significantly expand the Defense Department’s Cyber Command to counter attacks against the nation’s computer networks and execute operations on foreign adversaries. From your vantage point as a co-principal investigator of a $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to train the next generation of cyberdetectives, why is the federal government having such a difficult time finding and training qualified cyberspecialists?

One reason for the dif­fi­culty in recruiting cyber­op­er­a­tors is simply the scarcity of qual­i­fied labor. People with the nec­es­sary skills are few and far between, and this shortage is evi­dent in both gov­ern­ment and industry cir­cles. A related dif­fi­culty is that not every can­di­date who pos­sesses the req­ui­site tech­nical back­ground has the tem­pera­ment or incli­na­tion for these jobs. Both defen­sive and offen­sive roles are stressful and demanding, and as in the case of the con­ven­tional mil­i­tary, many choose career paths that do not involve these characteristics.

Another con­sid­er­a­tion is that con­vincing top talent to work in a state or fed­eral role can be an uphill battle. Gov­ern­ment is com­peting for a small pool of can­di­dates that can quite easily com­mand large salaries and ben­e­fits in the pri­vate sector, either by working for any number of estab­lished secu­rity com­pa­nies or as free­lance consultants.

According to reports, critics have suggested that contractors and consultants looking for a big payday are overstating the cyberthreats to the nation’s critical infrastructure. Where should the potential for a catastrophic cyberattack rank on the federal government’s list of security concerns?

In my opinion, prepa­ra­tion for cat­a­strophic cyber­at­tacks should be a top pri­ority for gov­ern­ment, in coop­er­a­tion with industry. Those who work in secu­rity are all too aware of the fact that our sys­tems are already being attacked, our data is already being exfil­trated, and our infra­struc­ture has already been demon­strated to be “porous” at best. When you con­sider that bol­stering our defenses against cat­a­strophic attacks will also likely trans­late to a more secure pos­ture against the low-​​intensity cyber­cold war that we are already expe­ri­encing, as well as stim­u­late the cre­ation of new jobs and tech­nolo­gies, it would seem to be the forward-​​thinking direc­tion to move.

The Evolution of Language, from Shakespeare to Present Day

March 7, 2013 9:52 am

David Smith

A gen­er­a­tion ago, stu­dents would say they “grad­u­ated from col­lege,” but now they “grad­uate col­lege.” These tiny fluc­tu­a­tions in the way we use lan­guage are ubiq­ui­tous because “chil­dren don’t learn the lan­guage their par­ents actu­ally speak,” according to David Smith, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

The dis­crep­an­cies don’t sig­nif­i­cantly impede our ability to under­stand our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, he said, “but accu­mu­la­tion of small changes over long periods of time is enough to make our Eng­lish sound a lot dif­ferent from Shake­speare, Chaucer, or Beowulf.”

Backed by a Google Fac­ulty Research Award, Smith is cur­rently studying how lan­guages have changed over the last sev­eral hun­dred years. But he’s doing it in a way only recently made pos­sible through tech­no­log­ical devel­op­ments in the dig­ital human­i­ties and nat­ural lan­guage pro­cessing. In the last few decades, libraries have been working to dig­i­tize lit­er­a­ture. Now that mil­lions of books are avail­able as search­able files, researchers are able to ask ques­tions that couldn’t be asked before.

Smith and his team will use cor­pora like the Penn Tree­bank, which includes the syn­tactic analyses of 30,000 sen­tences from The Wall Street Journal, to build sta­tis­tical models that auto­mat­i­cally detect the syntax of a sen­tence in a dig­i­tized book.

The main chal­lenge will be building models that work across a diverse range of texts over the last sev­eral hun­dred years, including news­pa­pers, blogs, and tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions. “The sta­tis­tical models pre­dict which words are con­nected to other words in a sen­tence,” Smith explained. “The problem is that over 500 years, pre­cisely because of the very phe­nom­enon we’re trying to model, words’ pat­terns of attach­ment change.”

Once the researchers have a com­pu­ta­tional pro­gram in place that doesn’t require human super­vi­sion, they will be able to visu­alize the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage. It will also have a far-​​reaching impact on cul­tural and his­tor­ical analyses, Smith said. “If we have a better model for lan­guage changes, we can recon­struct lan­guages that don’t exist any­more,” he said. Fur­ther, if we under­stand how lan­guages influ­ence each other through his­tory, we might get a better under­standing of how cul­tures connect.

Smith’s research is pri­marily focused on com­pu­ta­tional lin­guis­tics, “but texts can be evi­dence for lots of things in the human­i­ties,” he explained. “Not just lan­guage itself, but what people talk about with lan­guage.” His work, he said, can reveal what aspects of a cul­ture people find inter­esting or how texts are evi­dence for com­mu­ni­ca­tion, trans­porta­tion, and social net­works that are oth­er­wise not observable.

Healthy Choices Despite Disparities

March 13, 2013 9:57 am

Photo by Brooks Canaday.Interactive health technologies are a hot topic these days. Between Nike’s FuelBand and mobile phone apps like LoseIt!, the world has come to realize that interactive computing has a lot to offer  the layperson in the way of managing her own health.

These new platforms were just starting to emerge when professor Andrea Parker began her career as computer programmer who happened to be interested in social activism. “It was very exciting, but I noticed that it sort of was being done with this implicit assumption that the opportunity to achieve a healthy lifestyle was equal for everyone,” she said.

Researchers were taking the “if we build it, they will come” approach without accounting for barriers that might be getting in the way for some underserved populations.

For instance, it’s not always just the lack of an app that prevents people from living healthfully. “In some neighborhoods parents don’t want their kids to go play outside because it’s not safe,” said Parker. “In some neighborhoods they’re not eating a balanced diet because the access to healthy foods is lower.”

As she began carving out her niche in the field, Parker realized she could use her skills to design programs that put not only the power of health in peoples’ hands, but also the power for change.

As a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia Tech, Parker developed tools for children to critically engage with advertising or for community members to inspire each other to eat more healthfully. Having joined the faculty at Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Sciences this winter, Parker is reeling with ideas on how to apply the things she’s learned in new and bigger ways.

She has already begun to collaborate with Carmen Sceppa and Jessica Hoffman, both professors in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Sceppa and Hoffman are co-investigators on Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures (HKHF), a program aimed at preventing childhood obesity by supporting health promoting environments in the home, school, and community .

One component of HKHF is called Open Gym, and it provides a safe place for kids and their parents to engage in physical activity once a week. The idea is to encourage children to be active, but also for parents to model healthy behaviors. “But how do we encourage physical activity in that whole week in between when they come to Open Gym?” Parker asked.  As you might imagine, she thinks a solution lies in interactive technologies.

One idea she has is to give kids activity monitors to wear throughout the week which will wirelessly transmit data on how active they’ve been. The more active they’ve been, the more points they get toward unlocking games back at Open Gym.

This particular situation is uniquely complicated by the fact that there are two populations who respond to pretty different motivations, said Parker. The things that get an eight year old excited aren’t always the same things that get their parents revved. But one of the approaches that Parker has taken in previous studies is to engage the community in the development process itself. Involving users in the design of technologies can not only ensure that those technologies will have the components they are seeking, but users will also be more likely to want to engage with the technologies. “It can help provide a sense of ownership over the system,” said Parker.

“Her involvement in the Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures team is exciting to us,” said Sceppa. “Her expertise in information and communication technologies will be instrumental in creating long-lasting physical activity promotion opportunities for our families and the neighborhoods HKHF serves.”

New Voices For The Voiceless: Synthetic Speech Gets An Upgrade

March 14, 2013 8:49 am

Ever since she was a small child, Samantha Grimaldo has had to carry her voice with her.

Grimaldo was born with a rare disorder, Perisylvian syndrome, which means that though she’s physically capable in many ways, she’s never been able to speak. Instead, she’s used a device to speak. She types in what she wants to say, and the device says those words out loud. Her mother, Ruane Grimaldo, says that when Samantha was very young, the voice she used came in a heavy gray box.

“She used to have to carry this device around that was at least 4 or 5 pounds,” Ruane says, “and she was only, like, 70 pounds herself. The poor thing had to carry this back and forth to school every day on the bus.” It was miserable having to lug her voice around that way — a clunky box sitting on the seat next to her.

Today, fortunately, Samantha’s voice takes up much less space. She types into a special program on an iPhone or iPad, and a synthesized voice in the program says the words aloud. The voice, one of several types on the market, is called “Heather.” That’s a nice enough name — easygoing and accessible — but Grimaldo doesn’t like to use the voice if she can help it.

Her mother has noticed that when the family goes out to restaurants, Samantha prefers to write out her menu choices. Apparently, as she explains to her mother, this is because Samantha has some reservations about the voice itself — the cold metal sound of it.

“Because [it’s] weird,” Samantha says of the mechanical voice — speaking in the voice itself.

It’s not just that the voice is artificial and disjointed. It sounds, Samantha says, “older.” Samantha is only 17, and the sound of the voice — deep, methodical, mature — doesn’t exactly align with her sense of herself. Like any teenager, she feels self-conscious about it.

“I don’t want [people to] hear,” she says.

The Voice For The Voiceless

If you don’t have a voice, who speaks for you? Today there are more than 60 different options for people who need to use synthetic voices to communicate, but for the majority of people who use them, there is a single answer to that question: “Perfect Paul.”

Rupal Patel, a speech scientist at Northeastern University, estimates that between 50 and 60 percent of the people who use synthetic voices use the same one — the Perfect Paul voice. If you have ever heard Stephen Hawking speak, or listened to the weather radio, you have heard the voice of Perfect Paul.

Perfect Paul is used so widely because some studies have shown that his voice is easiest to understand in a variety of situations, including classrooms and public outdoor spaces. Still, some in the community of people who rely on synthetic voices have found the Perfect Paul version frustrating — not because it’s a bad voice, but because it’s limiting.

In fact, it was through confronting the clear limits of Perfect Paul that speech scientist Patel came to the conclusion that people like Samantha Grimaldo needed new options.

It happened around 10 years ago when Patel was at a conference for the makers and users of synthetic voices.

“I was watching a demonstration of a new technology, and someone came up and said something in their synthesized voice, and then someone else came up,” Patel says.

Both spoke in the same voice — Perfect Paul’s. Then a third person arrived, and another.

“It was the same voice saying different things,” says Patel. “And sometimes they were saying the same phrase, but off by a few seconds … so it felt like it was this echo going on. It was just a strange thing.”

Standing there, in the middle of all these radically different people with the exact same voice, Patel had an idea: Isn’t there something we can do to make these voices more individuated?

So, around seven years ago, Patel started working to change synthetic voices. When a person speaks, two things are happening. First, the source of speech comes from the voice box, which vibrates to produce sound. Then, the mouth shapes those sounds into speech.

In many people who have speech disorders, it’s mainly the second part of the system that doesn’t work. “In people with speech disorders, the source is pretty preserved,” Patel says. “I thought, ‘That’s where the melody is — that’s where someone’s identity is, in terms of their vocal identity.’ ”

So Patel decided to capture the melody of a voice. She primarily works with kids, and so she asked kids with speech disorders who can still make some sounds to come into her lab and do something really simple. “We just need them to say a sustained sound, like ahhhhh,” she says.

Patel can take that sound, run it through a computer and find out all kinds of things about how that person would sound if that person could speak words. “We can determine their pitch, the loudness, the breathiness of their voice, the changes in clarity,” she says.

She then takes a recording of the voice of what she calls a “healthy donor” — for example, the voice of a child who is roughly the same age as the child she’s trying to help — and gets them to say a large number of words. So she ends up with samples of the sounds they produce when they talk. She then combines that voice with the pitch, breathiness and other characteristics of the child with the voice disorder.

Patel played me examples of two different voices she’s created. If you listen, you can clearly hear different pitch and clarity in the different voices.

These voices Patel can make are unique for each individual. Which brings us back to Samantha Grimaldo.

‘You Need A Voice’

When Patel was getting started, Samantha was one of the first kids with a voice disorder who came to her lab to give a voice sample. At the time, Patel wasn’t at the stage where she was actually constructing voices. But she’s since figured it out, and recently, she created a new voice using Samantha’s ahhhhh sample.

Last week, she gave the personalized voice to Ruane and Samantha so they could hear it. The voice was constructed from a sample taken when Samantha was much younger. For a current version of Samantha’s voice, you’d need to take a new sample. Still, it was the first time that Samantha and her mother had heard anything close to Samantha’s voice.

Ruane had listened earlier in the day, when Samantha was still at school, and was clearly deeply moved by the experience. It made her realize in a fresh way, she says, how difficult it had been for her to never hear her daughter’s voice.

“When I heard it, I thought, ‘Yeah! This could be it!’ ” Ruane says through tears. To her ear, the voice had a sweetly familiar quality. “My son — my son Nicholas — I could hear some of his voice in it,” she says.

And so, when Samantha got home from school that afternoon, they sat down together to listen. Samantha’s young voice, it turns out, is clear and light.

Ruane told me that when Samantha heard the voice, her eyes lit up and a smile broke out on her face. Both thought that the voice sounded happy.

Personalized voices like these aren’t yet available to everyone. Patel has figured out how to do it, but not how to make it work on all of the different electronic devices that people use to play a synthetic voice. But Ruane Grimaldo hopes that voices like these will be available one day, very soon.

“You need a voice,” she says. “You need a voice.”

Article originally appeared on

Polling in the New Era of Italian Politics

March 15, 2013 9:32 am

In late February, something happened to the Italian government that had never happened before: a hung parliament. After 75 percent of the population turned out to vote, it took two days to tally the results. Now, almost three weeks later, the center right and center left parties remain in a steadfast gridlock. A third party–the so-called 5 Star Movement–received only marginally fewer votes. Which wouldn’t be all that exciting, except that the 5 Star Movement is just a single guy, and that guy is a comedian–Beppe Grillo–who refuses to speak on television or radio, lest his message be skewed. Instead, he blogs and he speaks in the piazzas around Italy.

The hung parliament and the comedian contender mark an odd time for Italy, which will have it’s next election in less than a year, according to people who know about Italian politics (of which I’m not one). Things are changing online and off, and the old ways of doing things are clearly not holding up. That’s even true of the polling methods that were used to predict the outcome of the election in the weeks leading up to it.

In a great article on the Daily Beast, which gives an awesomely readable and accessible account of the ever-so-complicated Italian political climate, Tim Parks recaps the final counts for the four main candidates, Luigi Bersani, Mario Monti, Silvio Berlusconi, and Grillo, respectively:

So 30 percent to grim support of the old workplace; 10 percent to the gentleman upholding the international monetary system; 30 percent to the rich, old guy inviting us all to have a good time; and 25 percent to the wild man who wants to kick ass.

How did the pollsters fair? Not great. They gave 40 percent to Bersani (the old workplace), 20 percent to Monti (the gentleman), less than 20 percent to Berlusconi (the old rich guy), and 15 percent to comedian Beppe.

Northeastern professor Alessandro Vespignani was also watching the election closely, and he and his team at the Laboratory for Modeling Biological and Socio-technical Systems made a few predictions of their own. They got all of them right except for one: Berlusconi.

How did they do it? And why were they off for the old rich guy? Well, it all goes back to that old ways thing I said earlier. Calling people on the phone seems to no longer be the easiest or most efficient way to probe society’s sentiments. In collaboration with researchers at the Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation in Italy, Vespignani’s team tracked voter’s intentions by what they said on Twitter, instead. And actually, according to one of the project coordinators, Northeastern researcher Nicola Perra, “We did not make predictions. We just studied the raw signal, and there are biases, in geography, age, et cetera.”

On their website, TweetPolitik (it’s all in Italian), the team demonstrates results from three different types of analyses, which they performed in the weeks leading up to the election.

First, they made activity maps using geo-localization data. These show where in the country people tweeting about each of the candidates reside. “Each dot in the maps is a tweet. The transparent circles represent how intense the signal was in each census area,” said Perra. So, the map of Twitter activity about Beppe Grillo looks like this:

Activity map displaying tweets mentioning 5 Start Movement candidate, Beppe Grillo. Image via TweetPolitik.

Activity map displaying tweets mentioning 5 Start Movement candidate, Beppe Grillo. 53% of the tweets came from the northern region of the country. Image via TweetPolitik.

While the one for Berlusconi looks like this:

Activity map showing tweets for Berlusconi. Image via TweetPolitik.

Activity map showing tweets for Berlusconi. Nearly 50% of these tweets came from the North. Image via TweetPolitik.

Conversation maps show the highways of conversation on Twitter for each party. These data came from hashtags associated with the various parties and represent people in different areas tweeting about the same thing:

Conversation map showing Twitter discussions using hashtags associated with Bersani's party, the center left. Image via TweetPolitik.

Conversation map showing Twitter discussions using hashtags associated with Bersani’s party, the center left. Most conversations took place between residents of large metropolitan areas, usually in the North or South of the country. Image via TweetPolitik.

Finally, (and this one is my favorite), the monitoring stream graphic shows how various discussion topics evolved over time in a ten day period surrounding the election.  On February 19th around 7 o’clock, Beppe was a popular subject:

A snapshot of twitter activity by Italian voters in the days leading up to the election on February 24. Image via TweetPolitik.

A snapshot of twitter activity by Italian voters in the days leading up to the election on February 24. Image via TweetPolitik.

All of this is just reporting the signal that they saw in the data. The “predictions” (which weren’t really predictions, but just signals) came from the global share of activity seen for each party. This stuff isn’t presented on the site.

“In summa, some numbers were really close to the final outcome, others were not,” said Perra. “The reasons of the discrepancies are biases. We could have corrected the signals considering age distribution, Twitter penetration in different areas, but we decided not to make it about prediction, at this round.”

But this still leaves the question of why Berlusconi evaded their glance, even if it wasn’t a prediction. That has to do with social phenomena, said Vespignani. Berlusconi promised to repeal an important but hefty tax put in place by the last president, Monti (who actually took over for Berlusconi when he was obviously flailing during the height of the economic crisis). Everyone knew this was a bad idea for the country, but it was also incredibly tantalizing for each individual taxpayer. So, no one in their right mind would claim to support Berlusconi, in person or on Twitter. But behind the safe shield of a voting booth? That’s another story.

Not your Grandma’s Duck Hunt

March 29, 2013 9:40 am

Photo via Thinkstock.I’ve said it here before: I’m not much of a gamer. My 9-year-old nephew gets exasperated every time he sets me up in front of the Wii and ultimately just takes the controller away from me so he can deal with both characters at once. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get excited when I heard about the next Pop Up Open Lab Experience and Reception: Play + Innovate. Northeastern students and faculty members will be gathering in the Digital Media Commons at Snell Library on Monday afternoon from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to present 11 different game-related research projects. The event will feature interactive demos from the interdisciplinary research teams.

This week, I caught up with a couple of the teams whose research will be on display, just to get a taste of what we have in store for us. Here’s one thing I learned: games are getting smarter. When I was a kid, Duck Hunt and the Oregon Trail were fairly predictable. You knew you’d have to ford a river at some point, and eventually you could learn the pattern by which the ducks entered the screen. Well…some of you could. I couldn’t. I would get deeply frustrated because I was so terrible at the whole endeavor.

Russell Pensyl, professor in the Department of Art and Design, professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, who has joint appointments in the College of Arts, Media and Design and the College of Computer Science, and PhD candidate Bardia Aghageigi are developing a system that the child-me would have appreciated quite a bit (and actually, the current version of me probably would too).

A camera on the computer or the mobile device takes regularly-timed pictures of the player’s face. The pictures are compared to a huge database of photos of facial expressions that are associated with particular emotions. If you’re smiling and giddy, the computer will know it. Then it’ll dive into the back end of the game and take a look at what’s happening there. If you’re winning by a landslide, the game will adapt itself to be a little more difficult, making the game more challenging, and thus (hopefully) more rewarding. If you’re frowning, as I almost always am when I have a controller in my hand, it might make itself a little easier, tone down the number of ducks flying across the screen, that sort of thing.

This is a form of adaptive content generation. Seif El-Nasr is interested in the technique to help promote engagement with games for health and learning. “So while you’re playing, things can change to make it more engaging or get it to be more effective at a learning or health component,” she explained.

There are other ways a game can change to handle other sorts of challenges. Automatic content generation means a game is never static, each time you start it up, you’re faced with a different kind of task or a new puzzle. Instead of responding to a player’s experience, this is completely random. You would never be able to figure out the pattern of target entry if Duck Hunt incorporated ACG.

Assistant professors Casper Harteveld and Gillian Smith are combining ACG with community gaming in an attempt to promote interest and learning in a game called Gram’s House, which aims to promote computer science interest among middle school girls.

Grandma loves her house and doesn’t want to leave for an assisted living facility, so players of Gram’s House try to equip her home with assistive technologies that can help her live there for as long as possible. This kind of story is thought to be more engaging for a young girl than, say, one that asks you to shoot all the bad guys. It uses puzzle games to teach computer science concepts like mapping or the binary number system. But it’s currently a totally static game. Players can’t interact with one another and the puzzles are always the same.

Like many researchers, Smith and Harteveld are curious whether adding a community aspect and ACG will improve the outcomes of the game. They developed GrACE, or Gram’s House Automatic Content gEnerator, named for the famous computer scientist Grace Hopper, to find out. Northeastern second-year student Gregory Loden developed a puzzle game that asks players to identify the shortest path between important points in the home. The idea is that a robot will travel along this course as it helps Gram with her daily tasks. But it’s really teaching players about the concept of “minimum spanning time.”

These are just two of the projects that’ll be strutting their stuff on Monday. Another looks at how virtual improv can promote social intelligence (this one will be on full display, actors and all!), while others explore how games can help us deal with issues like sustainability and security.

There will be other adventures that I don’t have time to get into here. You’ll just have to come to the Digital Media Commons on Monday to see for yourself.

Hurricane Sandy – Professor David Lazer Studies Cell Phone Use in Natural Disasters

April 2, 2013 3:31 pm

My lab, with the support of the NSF, is launching a crowd-sourced study of Hurricane Sandy, so as to better understand how people react in emergencies. If you were affected by Hurricane Sandy and use an Android phone, I hope you will be willing to help out. This will take 10-15 minutes of your time. And if you weren’t, then I hope you can pass this post on to someone that was affected by Sandy.

How do people respond in large-scale emergency situations, like earthquakes and hurricanes? Understanding this should inform more effective responses to save lives and reduce hardships. Getting hard behavioral data in the moment and aftermath is difficult–because people have better things to do than to participate in a study. There is quite a bit of valuable research based on interviews after the fact, but such research necessarily relies on reconstructed memories of behavior.

There is another path–which is to study the data passively collected about people by the sociotechnical systems relied upon during emergencies. An outstanding example of this is the paper by Bagrow et al that examined behavior as captured by mobile phones during a set of emergencies. The power of this approach is that it offers hard behavioral data at massive scale. The shortcoming, however, is that it cannot contextualize (beyond geography) the data. Who, exactly, are people calling? Their spouses? Friends? What are they communicating–the need for help, reassurances that they are ok?

Here we are launching a study that sits between these two approaches. Essentially, we are asking people to load an app on their Android phones (iPhone users: sorry, but for now we could only afford to develop for one platform), and the app will ask about their situations during Hurricane Sandy, and look at their calling and texting behaviors, asking them about their relationships with those individuals. We will therefore get a precise record of behaviors before/during/after Hurricane Sandy, and contextualize within personalize circumstances and particular relationships.

My motivation here is scientific and personal. I think there is the possibility to do great science here that is potentially consequential for people’s lives, that can inform interventions that will help people. And, having grown up on Long Island, and spent the early part of my career Red Bank, New Jersey –near the shore (“shaw”)– I could see a lot of suffering occur among my friends and family in the aftermath, where there was very little I could do. But this study is at least something good that I can make out of a terrible thing.

We have posted more information about the study on our newly launched crowd-sourced science website, Volunteer Science, or you could go directly to the Google Play store.

There’s a Game for That

April 3, 2013 9:48 am

With new tech­nolo­gies and inter­faces, the gaming world is pushing the bound­aries of what it means to play. Today com­puter games aim to do much more than offer players the chance to shoot the bad guy. We can now use them to learn how to read, how to make envi­ron­men­tally con­scious deci­sions, and even how to become a better actress, all without sac­ri­ficing the fun.

Playing a game inher­ently requires a cer­tain amount of learning, according to Casper Harteveld, assis­tant pro­fessor of art and design. For example, you need to learn how the game space works and how you can level up your char­acter within it. So while it was per­haps an uncon­scious devel­op­ment, games have become an ideal edu­ca­tional plat­form for teaching a broad spec­trum of topics.

At the fourth Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion, held in the Dig­ital Media Com­mons on Monday, researchers from across the uni­ver­sity came together to demon­strate how they are both uti­lizing and opti­mizing games to address a variety of prob­lems. The event was hosted by the Office of the Provost, the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

Many of the games on dis­play focus on health-​​related chal­lenges or explore back-​​end methods for making those games more engaging and effec­tive in their edu­ca­tional goals.

A cap­stone team com­prising four phys­ical therapy stu­dents and one neu­ro­science stu­dent is exploring how a robotic smart glove for stroke sur­vivors can more effec­tively help patients regain their motor skills. The team believes that if the user’s hand motions con­trol a vir­tual envi­ron­ment instead of an image of a hand on the com­puter screen, she will be more likely to return to the device repeat­edly, said team member Jacob Wat­terson. Making that vir­tual envi­ron­ment part of a game should only increase this like­li­hood, he said.

The issue of repeata­bility seemed to be on many of the researchers’ minds. For example, Gillian Smith, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the College of Computer and Information Science and College of Arts, Media and Design, is exploring how auto­matic con­tent gen­er­a­tion can expand the game space to make it more dynamic for the user. Pro­fessor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, director of the game design pro­gram with joint appointments in the College of Arts, Media and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science, and Rus­sell Pensyl, a pro­fessor of inter­ac­tive media, are working on incor­po­rating emo­tion recog­ni­tion into the gaming expe­ri­ence. The goal of the Affec­tive Media project is to allow games to respond to a user’s expe­ri­ence in order to gen­erate con­tent that will be more likely to keep them engaged.

Alessandro Canossa, asso­ciate pro­fessor of game design, is devel­oping tools for designers to help them make better games for their users. Using the Google Maps API, his G-​​Player tool maps the vir­tual space of a game and shows designers the areas players most often pop­u­late. If they see that an entire area of the game is never used, they might either expand the area’s acces­si­bility or cut it out com­pletely. This way the designers can help pro­mote greater interest and usability, he said.

Other games on dis­play explored a variety of chal­lenges. Some aim to pro­mote healthy behav­iors while others explore the use of inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling to pro­mote engage­ment. The diver­sity of projects showed that gaming has clearly reached its ten­ta­cles into a variety of dis­ci­plines. What was once a tool merely for fun is now a fun tool for edu­ca­tion and learning across a spec­trum of topics.

How New Technology Will Improve Hospital Efficiency

April 10, 2013 2:11 pm

Nate Bessa

When he took a job as a pro­grammer at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pital, fourth-​​year stu­dent Nathaniel Bessa had never devel­oped his own soft­ware appli­ca­tion. “I went there with no rel­e­vant expe­ri­ence, but with the con­fi­dence that I would figure it out,” said Bessa, who is pur­suing a com­bined degree in com­puter sci­ence and busi­ness with a con­cen­tra­tion in entre­pre­neur­ship.

And figure it out he did. In just two months, Bessa devel­oped an appli­ca­tion to mon­itor a new physi­cian pro­duc­tivity incen­tive pro­gram, which includes sev­eral layers of analysis and func­tion­ality and has already impacted the hospital’s fiscal efficiency.

Bessa’s pro­gram allows doc­tors to mon­itor their patient insur­ance bills directly through a web appli­ca­tion called the RVU Tracker. The bills, which insur­ance com­pa­nies use to deter­mine reim­burse­ments for the hos­pital, con­tain infor­ma­tion such as the date and time of a patient’s visit, the med­ical record number, and admis­sions codes. The first two help track a doctor’s activity, but it’s the admis­sions codes that Bessa’s pro­gram uses to deter­mine per­for­mance compensation.

The five-​​digit codes, devel­oped by the Amer­ican Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion, embed infor­ma­tion about the stage of a patient’s care and the dif­fi­culty of the case, both of which are trans­parent methods of deter­mining hos­pital rev­enue. If, for example, a doctor rates a case as easy when the code indi­cates that it should have been dif­fi­cult, then the hos­pital receives less money for the case. More­over, if a doctor waits months to fill out the bills, insur­ance com­pa­nies can refuse to pay.

By intro­ducing more trans­parency and a better method of tracking and visu­al­iza­tion, Bessa’s pro­gram incen­tivizes physi­cians to bill on time and as accu­rately as pos­sible. If they do these two things on a reg­ular basis, they see higher bonuses at the end of each quarter.

Tra­di­tion­ally, it has taken hos­pi­tals longer than main­stream cul­ture to adopt new tech­nolo­gies. “It is a prin­ciple mis­sion of a hos­pital to pro­vide quality patient care,” said Bessa, “not to focus their resources on designing advanced infor­ma­tion tech­nology with cool desk­tops and touch screens.

“That is where we can come in as pro­gram­mers,” he added. “Part of what the health­care industry needs is a tech-​​aware advocate—someone who can pio­neer and cham­pion the use of new tech­nolo­gies in hos­pi­tals, someone who under­stands doc­tors and also under­stands computers.”

Bessa wants to be that cham­pion. To that end, he plans to con­tinue pur­suing health­care tech­nology inno­va­tion on co-​​op at the Broad Insti­tute, a bio­med­ical research center in Cam­bridge, Mass., where he’ll be working on devel­oping metabo­lite pro­filing software.

NEH Funds Northeastern Faculty’s Digital Mapping of 19th Century Print Media

April 11, 2013 9:30 am

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will provide Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks with a $59,805 grant to develop the project Uncovering Reprinting Networks in Nineteenth Century American Newspapers. The grant is one of 23 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants, and a part of a larger announcement of 205 grants, announced by the NEH this week.

Three Northeastern faculty members are spearheading the project: Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English; Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, a professor of English; and David Smith, an assistant professor of computational social science in the College of Computer and Information Science.

“The Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants are the primary sources of funding in the digital humanities and have launched some of the most influential projects in the discipline,” Cordell explains. “Receiving this grant demonstrates to the rest of the digital humanities community that exciting work is happening here at Northeastern and it gives us the national recognition we need to secure other funding.”

The grant will help fund the development of models, using tools from computational linguistics, to help track the spread of prints and reprints of poetry and short stories throughout 19th century newspapers, using the sources found in the Chronicling America database of digitized newspapers. This project is also the topic for several fellowships Cordell will begin in fall 2013, including the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography and the Northeastern Humanities Center Faculty Resident Fellowship in Viral Culture.

The NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, launched in spring of 2013, is Northeastern’s new center for digital humanities and computational social science. NULab supports faculty research projects; trains graduate students in digital humanities and computational social science skills; sponsors talks and symposia; and provides for discussions of technology, teaching, and research at Northeastern. News@Northeastern covered the NULab startup earlier this year here.

CCIS Senior Michael May Wins Prestigious 2013 Compass Award

April 11, 2013 2:51 pm

May Compass Award Group PicCCIS Senior Michael May was the college’s unanimous choice for this year’s Compass Award, Northeastern University’s Office of Alumni Relations signature student awards program. The prestigious Compass Award goes to a senior from each undergraduate college who has shown a commitment to the core values of Northeastern: leadership, volunteerism, and academic integrity.

A natural leader from his earliest days in CCIS, Michael uses his enthusiasm and humor to bring people together and build community. As an RA in the CCIS Living Learning Community, Michael developed a variety of events, including two for charity:  “Macy’s Miracle: Letter to Santa for Charity” and “Pie Your RA.” He also initiated study and review sessions, helped with student homework, and worked to bring upper class students and freshmen closer together. Michael’s focus on assisting others in achieving their academic goals has been an offshoot of his own academic integrity and responsibility. His character has been recognized outside Northeastern as well, where Michael held two cyber security co-op positions requiring Top Secret clearance.

Michael’s volunteer work is unparalleled among CCIS students. He works extensively with prospective students, participating in panels, leading tours during the weekly CCIS Monday admissions events, and taking prospective students to lunch for one-on-one attention. A top-tier student himself, Michael has served as a CCIS Fellow, a peer mentor program for first-year students as they transition academically and personally to Northeastern University and the College of Computer and Information Science.   This prestigious student leadership position carries the passion, dedication, and innovation fostered within the college.

A true Husky, Michael is an avid Northeastern sports fan and a diehard hockey supporter. A dedicated broomball intermural sports player, the broomball team has made it to the championship game two out of the three seasons Northeastern participated.

Michael May stands out as an exceptional student, leader, and volunteer among an extraordinary peer group. The 2013 Compass Award will no doubt be the first of his many achievements as he ventures out into the life of a Northeastern alumnus.

Knowledge is a Commodity

April 18, 2013 9:35 am

The map of ranks for cities in the selected European countries in 1990. Image courtesy of Qian Zhang.

The map of ranks for cities in the selected European countries in 1990. Image courtesy of Qian Zhang.

When economists talk about producers and consumers—the people that make stuff and the people that use it—they’re usually thinking about commodities like coffee, wheat, or oil. Not knowledge.

That’s because knowledge hasn’t really been quantifiable before. But today, in this era of the “data deluge,” it is. For the first time in history, we can put numbers on what we know.

That’s what Northeastern Distinguished Professor of Physics, Computer Science, and Health Sciences Alessandro Vespignani and his team did in research published last week in the Journal Scientific Reports. They looked specifically at the “commodity” of physics and how it’s been passed around the world over the last fifty years.

First they assigned geographical locations to all of the papers published in the journals of the American Physical Society between 1960 and 2009, based on the affiliation of the authors. Papers written by Northeastern researchers would be tagged “Boston, Mass.” Papers written by Notre Dame authors would be tagged “South Bend, Indiana.” The effort took a good year to complete, and was mostly undertaken by the article’s first author, graduate student Qian Zhang.

The authors used this “geolocalization data” to understand not just the raw number of papers published in each place, but rather the number of citations to those papers exchanged among locations. They call these citations “the currency of the knowledge exchange.” Like dollars and euros, they are a proxy for knowledge production or consumption, depending on whether the final balance is positive or negative.

While the APS journals are based in the US, only 43 percent of the total publications came from US authors, but the trend was not static across the 50 years they looked at. In the sixties 86 percent were American, in the last ten years it’s down’ to about 37 percent. The team focused their analysis of all this data on the last twenty years, when the national representation among the APS journals was representative of physics around the world.

They found that while New York City was number two in physics production in the 1990s, it’s not even on the map today. Twenty years ago the east and west coasts of the US produced the majority of the nation’s physics knowledge, but today it’s scattered across the country.

Whereas two decades ago Europe was more of a consumer of physics, it’s become a major producer. And whereas China was absent from the physics conversation twenty years ago, it’s the leading consumer today. That’s because they are churning out papers faster than you can say “particle accelerator” and are citing boatloads of previous work in the process.

This gets to an important distinction, Nicola Perra, one of the authors, told me. Publishing lots of articles doesn’t make a country a top-ranking physics producer. That production needs to be valuable. It’s deemed such by other researchers who cite the work in their own papers. “Considering just the number of articles is not the real indication of position or importance,” he said. “You need to consider the entire system.”

Excellence in Teaching Award

April 22, 2013 10:04 am


Rupal Patel, Associate Professor with Bouve College of Health Sciences and the College of Computer and Information Science, received the Excellence in Teaching Award at Northeastern University’s 2013 Academic Honors Convocation. Nominations for this award are made by students. They praised Professor Patel’s enthusiasm, teaching style, and passion for linking scientific debates to real-world scenarios. They describe her classes as carefully and creatively structured to foster student success, applauding how she sustains a high level of engagement and rigor. One student said, “This was an amazing course with great application to clinical work”; another reported that “she motivates students to apply concepts to real-life clinical scenarios.”

Games That Go Beyond Entertainment

April 23, 2013 11:05 am


Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle hosted an engaging dis­cus­sion last Wednesday that brought together inno­v­a­tive thinkers in acad­emia and industry to dis­cuss the future of “games for impact” and how to scale its busi­ness model.

Tayloe Wash­burn, dean and CEO of Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle, said the city is the per­fect set­ting to tackle this chal­lenge. The videogame industry in the city is booming, he said, increasing from 150 small– to medium-​​sized com­pa­nies six or seven years ago to 350 com­pa­nies in 2011, the lot of which gen­er­ated $9.7 bil­lion in revenue.

While the lion share of games in the mar­ket­place focus on recre­ational, casual use, Wash­burn said there is enor­mous poten­tial for video games that go beyond enter­tain­ment pur­poses to create soci­etal impacts in areas like health and edu­ca­tion. Now, the ques­tion is how to get there.

“If the games are good and fun, there are unlim­ited appli­ca­tions of games for impact,” Wash­burn said. “The key is fig­uring out if there are tweaks we can make in this space so that investors and com­pa­nies will devote more atten­tion to these kinds of games. We can develop a new rep­u­ta­tion for the Puget Sound region to make it leader in that area.”

Leading that dis­cus­sion was Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, Northeastern’s director of game edu­ca­tional pro­grams and research and an asso­ciate pro­fessor with dual appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. Seif El-Nasr’s award-​​winning research focuses on enhancing game designs by devel­oping tools and methods for eval­u­ating and adapting game experiences.

In her talk, Seif El-​​Nasr dis­cussed strate­gies for how the medium can expand and pro­vided exam­ples of suc­cessful games for impact. She then con­vened a panel of inter­ac­tive game industry inno­va­tors and experts from the Seattle area: John Williamson, an inde­pen­dent pro­ducer and author with 20 years’ expe­ri­ence in the industry who has shipped a wide range of titles on nearly every plat­form, from iOS to PlaySta­tion to Xbox 360; Jeff Pobst, who was a group leader at Microsoft for the Xbox and Xbox 360 plat­forms before founding Hidden Path Enter­tain­ment and becoming its CEO; and Jason Robar, game industry edu­ca­tion and star­tups advisor for the Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Council of Seattle and King County. Robar has con­sulted for gov­ern­ment agen­cies on “serious games” and cre­ated Microsoft’s first games rela­tion­ships with Elec­tronic Arts, Sony, and Sega.

Seif El-​​Nasr posed a series of ques­tions to the pan­elists on topics including exam­ples of video game busi­ness models that explore uses beyond enter­tain­ment; the strate­gies for sus­taining long-​​term invest­ments in this space; and the emerging mar­kets where games for impact will make a splash.

During the con­ver­sa­tion, Robar said, “It’s no acci­dent that games are becoming more family friendly these days. Those cre­ating the games aren’t in their 20s any­more. We’re older, and some of us even have kids of our own. So we’re now cre­ating games that match our lifestyles.”

Northeastern’s grad­uate campus, which launched ear­lier this year, offers dynamic grad­uate degree pro­grams in high-​​demand fields such as cyber­se­cu­rity, health infor­matics, com­puter sci­ence, bioin­for­matics, and engineering.

Wednesday’s dis­cus­sion is the latest event high­lighting the grad­uate campus’ momentum. The campus hosted an open house in Jan­uary and con­vened three dozen of Washington’s leaders in research, health­care, higher edu­ca­tion, and gov­ern­ment for an event in Feb­ruary focused on cre­ating sus­tain­able part­ner­ships in the region.

R U OK?: How Mobile Phone Data Can Improve Emergency Response

April 29, 2013 10:27 am

David Lazer

“Are you okay?”

Words like these appeared on the screens of mil­lions of Boston res­i­dents’ and vis­i­tors’ mobile phones on April 15, the day two bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line. The attacks set off a cas­cade of social inter­ac­tions: par­ents called chil­dren, employees texted bosses, hus­bands called wives. Some called to make sure their loved ones were safe; others called for emer­gency help, sup­plies, information.

Each of these inter­ac­tions is now stamped with a time and a loca­tion and stored in the call logs of the phones them­selves. Pro­fessor David Lazer and his team of net­work sci­en­tists want to use these data to better under­stand how we use our social net­works during times of crisis.

The group has devel­oped an app for Android phones users to help them do exactly that. “The cen­tral idea is to see with whom people com­mu­ni­cated during the day of the bombing, and how that com­pared to their reg­ular com­mu­ni­ca­tion, to find out whether people were able to get the infor­ma­tion and resources and emo­tional sup­port they needed,” said Lazer, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

Avail­able on the Google Play store, the app will first ask par­tic­i­pants a series of mul­tiple choice ques­tions: Are you single? Do you have chil­dren? Are your par­ents living? It will want to know how you learned about the bomb­ings and when. It will want to know who you were with when you heard the news.

It will then “reach into the phone’s call logs,” as Lazer put it, to iden­tify the most fre­quently con­tacted people in the hours after the bombs went off. It will ask ques­tions about eight of them: how are you con­nected to this person? Why did you reach out them? Did you get what you needed? For each com­pleted survey, the researchers plan to donate three dol­lars to the One Fund Boston, a fund aimed to help those most affected by the attacks.

Net­work sci­en­tists have already done quite a bit of research on mobile phone logs, Lazer said. While this infor­ma­tion can reveal inter­esting patterns—for instance, in periods fol­lowing an emer­gency, the number of calls between people 20 years apart increases—but they can’t pro­vide many con­clu­sions. Common sense would say that those 20-​​year sep­a­ra­tions indi­cate parent-​​child inter­ac­tions. “But you can’t just assert things in sci­ence,” said Lazer.

He hopes the app will add impor­tant con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion to the raw data researchers are already inves­ti­gating. The effort could afford a better under­standing of how infor­ma­tion dif­fuses through society and thereby enable better emer­gency response strate­gies in the future.

Addi­tion­ally, with enough data like this and the lab’s pre­vious app sur­rounding Hur­ri­cane Sandy, they hope we’ll one day be able to use our social inter­ac­tion pat­terns on devices and media to detect and pos­sibly even pre­dict emer­gency situations.

Barabási Presents Advances in Network Medicine

May 1, 2013 8:49 am

Barabási explains the power of the diseasome map.Physicist Albert-László Barabási’s network theory merges with a fundamental need of researchers and clinicians.

Since the mapping of the human genome, the amount and structure of the data we’re getting means we have to think differently about biological systems and disease pathologies.

Enter the human diseasome. This is all the diseases of an individual or group, viewed as a whole, with special focus on genetic features.

Like its cousins genome, proteome and metabolome, the diseasome (disease + ome) is a totality, a whole field of study and a new approach. And like 17th-century explorers circumnavigating the globe, we have only a partial map, which we revise as we sail.

Barabási stands among the first NIH-funded scientists to discover a new diagnostic model using scale-free networks, a model that explains their emergence in systems from the cell, to the cell phone to the diseasome.

His recent talk in Masur Auditorium—“Network Medicine: From Cellular Interactions to Human Diseases”—drew a large audience.

Barabási, who directs the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University, holds appointments in physics, biology and computer/information sciences. He began with a simple analogy.

“A broken car with a smoking engine and dysfunctional lights has many similarities to human disease,” he said. “But there is one huge difference. It’s virtually guaranteed that if you take the car to the mechanic, he or she will be able to fix it. And that’s not something that we can say about many of our diseases. The mechanic has the spare parts…and that is about where we are in medicine. What the genome project really provided us with is the parts…the genes, the proteins, the metabolites.”

These parts in the human cell are so interdependent that disease is rarely caused by a single abnormal gene. Instead, disease reflects a disturbance in complex networks within the cells. Network medicine is a holistic approach for investigating these networks.

“The other thing the mechanic has,” Barabási continued, “that the medical doctor does not have, is the wiring diagram, the blueprint of the car. How are the different components wired together? This is what the secret of medicine has to be: to understand this wiring diagram.”

Yet Barabási and his colleagues were surprised to find that, in fact, each of these networks was not random, but rather a scale-free system of nodes—connecting points—and links.

These look like a map of U.S. airport connections, or a power grid where the nodes are generators, transformers and substations, while the links are transmission lines.

What makes such a network scale-free? Some nodes seem to have a limitless number of connections, as in the World Wide Web, or cellular metabolic networks.

“The popular nodes, called hubs, can have hundreds, thousands or even millions of links,” he said.

Such networks have other important properties as well. For example, they are robust against accidental failures—their numerous interconnections seem to compensate for them. Yet they are vulnerable to coordinated attacks.

“For the larger scale-free networks, you can remove 95 percent of the nodes and it will be okay,” said Barabási. “But if you attack big nodes, it breaks down.” If Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a major hub, went offline, the effect on air travel would be huge.

Furthermore, “rapid advances in network biology show that cellular networks are governed by universal laws,” Barabási said.

The laws of scale-free networks appear to apply equally to cells, computers and the World Wide Web, as well as human groups connected by email or by collaborations in science, art and business.

So Barabási’s “wiring diagram” would show the common genetic origin of many diseases. It would also reveal the interplay between the cell’s network organization and certain heritable diseases.

Identifying hub molecules involved in a given disease could lead to biomarkers and new drugs to target the hubs. Advances are also essential for finding new disease genes and understanding disease-associated mutations.

“Many diseases share genes,” Barabási said. “Is this meaningful? Yes. Connected diseases show significant comorbidity [co-occurrence]. All the data that we have access to indicate that disease genes are clustered in well-defined neighborhoods of the network.”

His kinetic slides of whirling networks inspire the same kick you feel at finding your own home with geo-mapping software. As you zoom to your block, then zoom out to planet Earth, you are jumping scale and can intuitively grasp how complex systems have structures that are repeated.

What Barabási does is offer convincing proof of that underlying architecture.

“It’s data-dependent. The diseasome map now is like a skeleton,” he said. “We could make it complete and it could have just as much power as the genome project has provided.”

Barabási explores both the molecular complexity within a given disease and among different phenotypes. These are individuals or groups with physical characteristics that are genetically and environmentally influenced, as in cases of asthma.

“Diseases correspond to a breakdown of a region of the network of the disease module,” said Barabási, “and we will not be able to map out those disease modules until we have a good understanding of the network as a whole.”

This is important because, for more than 40 years, scientists believed that complex networks were completely random.

Article originally appeared in the NIH Record.

Northeastern Team Puts Patients First in Health Tech

May 6, 2013 9:30 am

Dr. Johanna Lantz discussed her observations with an associate, Matt Northrup.

Sometimes without warning, one of the autistic students in a classroom at the Center for Discovery will lose control. He will scream and cry. Throw things. Bang his head against the wall.

The six adolescent boys in this Monticello, N.Y., classroom, some of the hardest-to-handle students in New York State, cannot explain what is upsetting them. Unable to talk, they seem to live in their own world.

Matthew Goodwin, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, is trying to better understand their world by carefully tracking the boys’ movements and their environment. He has the boys wear sensors on their ankles and wrists that measure arousal levels, while cameras mounted on the walls record activities in the classroom, with the goal of finding what triggers episodes in the boys.

This is one of the early projects in a new program at Northeastern University to develop personal health informatics: devices and apps to improve health.

“The goal is really to be observing what happens from a patient’s point of view,” said Stephen Intille, one of the program’s founding faculty members. “Where can we insert technology to make their experience better?”

The five core faculty members, including Goodwin and Intille, believe that technology can help people take greater control of their health while improving the delivery of care. The only way that’s possible, they argue, is if technology is designed with users in mind and is proved to be effective with rigorous research.

Successful technology, Intille­ said, needs to be easy to use, easy to interpret, and embedded in the environment, like Goodwin’s sensors. Just telling people how far they have run or how many calories are in their dinner will not be enough to change behavior.

“Most people aren’t motivated by data,” Intille said.

Many of the current projects at the Northeastern Personal Health Informatics program are aimed at giving individuals — particularly people with limited resources — more opportunities to take charge of their health.

Assistant professor Andrea Grimes Parker is launching a social media program that will allow residents in Roxbury who participate in a once-a-week gym program to share their exercise tips. She believes those tips will be more useful to participants because they are “locally grounded,” coming from people in the same community.

She tried a similar program in Atlanta and found “that small feedback loop — that ‘what I’m sharing has value’ — was very encouraging and empowering to the users.”

For example, some participants wear sensors to measure their activity levels and earn small rewards for getting extra exercise, she said.

Intille and colleague Timothy Bickmore are collaborating on a project to embed patient-focused technology in hospital rooms that would allow patients to track their pain, for example, answer basic questions for them, and remind them of their doctors’ names and specialties.

Bickmore envisions a “bedside presence with a range of sensors that can tell what’s going on in the room and what’s going on with the patient.”

In another project, a Northeastern student is developing technology to identify when a patient with a neurological disorder such as ALS subtly starts losing tongue control. This can cause swallowing problems and lead to pneumonia and hospitalization, so catching it early can be beneficial to both patients and the health care system.

“There is a huge cost-savings potential,” and it has obvious benefits for the patient, said Rupal Patel. He is an associate professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology and another founding member of the personal health informatics program.

The innovation came from a student who did not know anything about neurological problems, Patel said, but who saw a problem he could solve with his expertise in computer science.

That is another unusual hallmark of the Northeastern program: It matches a wide range of specialists, such as computer scientists, language pathologists, behavioral experts, and game designers, for example, with people who understand health challenges.

“All of these perspectives working collectively in this space — that’s how we’re going to have potential to have a substantive impact on public health,” said Lisa A. Marsch, director of the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health at Dartmouth College, who is not involved with the Northeastern program.

Goodwin said he could never have designed his project for autistic students without such collaborations.

Theresa Hamlin, associate executive director at the Center for Discovery, said that until now, nothing has worked to keep these students calm enough to be able to participate in typical classrooms, or even to live with their families.

“The entire system has tried everything there is,” she said. “You name it; they’ve tried it.”

Goodwin said that tracking the students and their environment will allow their teachers and caregivers to see the world as they do and better understand what triggers their tantrums.

“Something is driving [their] changes,” Goodwin said. “Demands in the classroom? Shifting stress? Seizures? Gastrointestinal problems? We don’t know.”

Part of what Goodwin and other faculty members will teach Northeastern students is how to design studies like this to make sure their technology is effective. It doesn’t matter how cool a technology is, he said, if it doesn’t provide health benefits to the user.

This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe

Autism Studies and Wearable Technology

May 7, 2013 9:17 am

One in 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. It is more common than childhood cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and spina bifida combined. This creates a public health problem: There will always be more people with ASD than experts to assess and teachers to assist them.

Yet much of today’s research doesn’t have a direct impact on the people who are living with ASD or their caregivers. It’s primarily focused on what causes the disorder, and we’re a long way from understanding that.

Most current research focuses on a convenience sample of high-functioning children with the mildest form of ASD; children who have normal IQs and good verbal ability. This sample is “convenient” because they can go to a lab with an unfamiliar person for some undefined period of time and perform tasks they’ve never done before—all of which requires a lot of self-regulation.

But at as many as half of children on the autism spectrum are too severely impacted to comply with current research protocols. These are the children we understand the least and the ones we need to help the most.

So we’re taking the lab to them. I work with computer scientists and electrical engineers to make that happen—experts who create sensors that can be woven into clothes, embedded into accessories, or inserted into devices that can be carried or worn. The devices continuously record physical activity patterns and autonomic nervous system sensing—that is, how a body is responding biologically.

To interpret the data, we also need context: where the person is and what he or she is doing. So we also “instrument spaces” with video cameras, microphones, and radio-frequency identification tags.

By bringing these wearable and environmental technologies together, we get powerful information in natural settings—at home, at school, and in the community—about what is happening to an individual with more challenging forms of ASD. This helps us understand them better and identify more impactful treatments.

Listen to Professor Goodwin’s podcast at WAMC.

Twitter in the City

May 7, 2013 3:32 pm

A couple weeks ago Angela Herring wrote a story about some work related to the Boston Marathon bombings that network scientists in David Lazer’s lab are working on. They’re asking Android phone users to donate a little time as well as the data from the calls and texts they made in the hours following the attacks. Researchers do have access to the anonymized call logs from cellular phone use, but without a little context about who those calls were made between and why, those data don’t say much. So they’re asking people to tell them in a brief survey in an app available at the Google Play store.

The goal is to get a better sense of how people use their social networks during emergencies. Another way the team is looking at this question is through Twitter. Yu-Ru Lin, an assistant research professor on the team, created a great interactive Google map that shows all of the Tweets using fear-related words that came out of Boston on April 15, 2013. While people were apparently a little on edge all day — 26.2 miles will do that to you — there’s a very obvious spike at 2:49pm, when the first bomb went off. In the visualization below, you see the whole city light up with red dots, representing those fearful Tweets:

Here’s a static representation of the tweets, showing that clear spike right when the bombs go off:

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.32.49 AM

If you’re interested in participating in Lazer’s Android project, you can learn more about the project on his website, VolunteerScience, which is a new platform his team developed to investigate these kinds of questions more readily. Also, it’s worth noting that the team will donate $3 to One Fund Boston for every person that participates.

Stephen Intille Turns Phones into Coaches

May 8, 2013 9:14 am

A leader in the field of personal health informatics, Intille is taking a unique approach to promoting healthy behavior—adapting a device nearly everyone owns, the smartphone, to assist with the motivating.

Intille and his team are building on the smartphone’s capabilities to help us track data related to the choices we make affecting our health. They are creating tools to help us understand our choices—about eating, exercise, even socializing—and developing mathematical models that enable computers to synthesize and respond to the information almost immediately.

One goal: an app that serves as a personal health coach, capable of sending instantaneous messages that reinforce positive health behaviors—an encouraging voice message from a spouse, for example.

The results of Intille’s trials will shape fields like exercise science, sleep science, and weight loss and nutrition—issues affecting everyone, from teenagers fighting obesity to aging baby boomers.

The Power of Co-op

May 8, 2013 9:44 am

Shay McDonoughShay McDo­nough, a senior infor­ma­tion sci­ence major, spent her first two co-​​op cycles at the phar­ma­ceu­tical giant Novartis working as a pro­grammer, ana­lyst, and project man­ager. She honed her skills and received valu­able real-​​world work expe­ri­ence at a large firm. For her third co-​​op, she went in a dif­ferent direction—working for a startup. It’s an expe­ri­ence that opened her eyes to an arena that has since become her passion.

The beauty of working at a startup is that, even as a co-​​op or an intern, there is so much to do that you have no other choice but to get involved in every­thing,” McDo­nough said. Her co-​​op posi­tion was at Boston-​​based EverTrue, which builds mobile net­working plat­forms and was the result of a new col­lab­o­ra­tion between North­eastern and the startup accel­er­ator Mass­Chal­lenge. The part­ner­ship is aimed at pairing stu­dents with star­tups for their co-​​op posi­tions. McDo­nough thrived in her role—even staying on part-​​time after her co-op—and is seeking that kind of envi­ron­ment after graduation.

I was asked to do so many things at EverTrue,” she said. “I know I have a lot to give.”

Matthew Goodwin: Bridging Disciplines for Autism Care

May 8, 2013 10:38 am

Wearable devices: Matthew Goodwin is using sensors, such as the device shown here on his wrist, to accurately monitor anxiety and repetitive behaviors in children with autism.

Here’s a scenario that Matthew Goodwin is all too familiar with. A child with autism is sitting at a desk, seemingly checked out, staring into space. A teacher asks the child to get back to work, and the child stands up, flips over the desk and runs out of room.

“One second he’s fine and the next he’s having a tantrum,” says Goodwin, assistant professor of health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston.

But looks can be deceiving: Goodwin has shown that some children sitting and looking calm may actually be deeply anxious, with a pulse racing at 120 beats per minute. And the child’s apparent ‘spacing out’ may be an attempt to self-regulate his physiology.

“If I knew the child’s internal state, I wouldn’t place a demand on that kid. I might encourage him to relax or take a walk,” says Goodwin. “I would adjust my interaction style to calm him back down.”

The problem is that many children on the more severe end of the autism spectrum are nonverbal, and even those who can talk often have difficulty identifying and expressing how they feel. Goodwin is trying to develop alternative ways to measure these children’s internal states and in turn help teachers and parents modulate their interactions with them.

Goodwin is tackling this task with myriad monitors — from ceiling cameras and microphones to wearable sensors that track heart rate, temperature and sweat — and computer algorithms. Together, these may be able to determine when a child is stressed and what triggered the episode, and to evaluate the most effective strategy for making him feel better.

Similar tools could be used to assess treatments as well — automated monitoring may provide a way to more quantitatively measure changes in hyperactivity, for example, and even irritability and aggression, which are typically measured by short questionnaires.

Researchers who have worked with Goodwin uniformly comment on his unique ability to think about how to apply technology to autism care.

“Many people are experts in the autonomic nervous system, signal processing and hardware design, but he is able to bring these roles together and think about how we can develop methodologies that can ultimately impact care,” says James Rehg, professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a collaborator.

Early entry:

Goodwin began working with children who have autism early in his career, volunteering at a school for children with autism for 20 hours a week during a year of college spent at Oxford University in the U.K.

“He’s an experimental psychologist but also really tuned in to the kids — I’ve been in this field for 30 years, and there are not a lot of people like that,” says Terry Hamlin, chief of staff at the Center for Discovery in Harris, New York, a residence facility on a farm in the Catskills for people with autism and other disabilities. “He also makes wonderful connections and brings people together.”

The children at the Oxford center had challenges making eye contact and with joint attention, classical features of autism, Goodwin recalls. “But after showing up repeatedly and just spending time together, they would start to look at me and talk to me and show some empathy toward me,” he says. “Around then, I started reading the literature, which says these kids have no theory of mind, but that didn’t match the behavior I saw.”

Goodwin returned to the U.S. for college in 1995 and began interning at the Groden Center in Rhode Island, a day and residential program that serves profoundly impaired children with autism.

He noticed that stress and anxiety often aggravated the children’s behavioral problems. The clinical staff would try to calm the children down using a variety of methods, such as deep breathing or cognitive exercises. Goodwin says he wanted to understand what triggered the anxiety in the first place, and how effective the different methods were.

“That requires some measure of how stressed or non-stressed a person is,” says Goodwin. But if children can’t identify or communicate how they feel, how can a scientist adequately measure it? Or efficiently treat it? “Most stress research is based on surveys or direct behavioral observation, and herein lies the problem,” Goodwin says.

Flapping hands:

Fortunately for Goodwin, two technology trends were then beginning to be incorporated into the study of human health.

The first was wearable computing — sensors on the body or in clothing or accessories that can measure an individual’s biology or behavior. These are especially advantageous for studying children with autism, who often have sensory and movement issues that make traditional monitoring technologies unsuitable. They can be also used in real-world settings, such as the home or classroom, and can monitor a child for hours, days or weeks, rather than in a limited lab session.

Magic wristband: The Affectiva sensor tracks stress and other measures in children with autism, wirelessly transmitting the data to a computer.

The second trend was ubiquitous computing, in which sensors built into spaces, such as classrooms, record what’s going in the environment.

One of Goodwin’s first targets was hand flapping, a repetitive behavior seen in 70 percent of children with autism. “We don’t know why kids do this. We don’t know if it’s stimulatory or self-soothing,” says Goodwin. “It’s certainly socially stigmatizing.”

Hand flapping and other repetitive behaviors are a hot-button issue among families, educators and clinicians. Some education programs try to stop children from engaging in these behaviors, but that can make the child agitated or aggressive.

Goodwin is passionate about trying to understand these behaviors. “We ignore them, restrain them or medicate them,” says Goodwin. “But before we decide what to do about it, let’s try to decide why they do it.”

Preliminary research suggests that people with autism engage in repetitive behaviors for a variety of reasons — sometimes to calm down, sometimes to excite themselves. Hand flapping may even act as form of communication, showing happiness when they get something they want or frustration when they can’t get out of a situation they don’t like.

“If this is how they communicate, regulate stress and sensation, and feel their body, the last thing I want to do is stop them from doing it or medicate them,” says Goodwin.

Most studies measuring restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism use either parent report or direct observation, both of which can be unreliable. Two observers rating repetitive behaviors in real time agree only a third of the time, says Goodwin, largely because the behaviors can start and stop so quickly. Video recording is more accurate but is slow and expensive.

For his doctoral dissertation, Goodwin analyzed data from children with autism who wore three accelerometers — small devices that detect movement — one on each wrist and one around the waist. He created algorithms that, after a short training period, can automatically detect when a child is flapping or rocking, and found that the three devices together have an accuracy of 90 percent1.

Complex sensors:

Goodwin’s latest work incorporates more complex sensors, which can track skin conductance — an indirect measure of the autonomic nervous system — as well as heart rate, movement and body temperature.

Goodwin strapped one such device around my wrist when I visited his lab, and we watched as it conveyed a stream of data to a laptop. A set of lines on the screen rose and fell throughout the conversation as my attention focused or wavered.

One of the biggest challenges of the project is to figure out how to interpret the sensor’s signals. Unlike, say, an electrocardiogram, which records electrical signals from the heart, there is no standard pattern for skin conductance.

Goodwin and his colleagues are analyzing data collected from ten children with autism wearing accelerometers and heart rate monitors in a classroom during a variety of tasks and emotional states.

Their goal is to determine whether repetitive behaviors are triggered by particular activities or internal states. The answer is unlikely to be simple: According to their preliminary findings, repetitive movements appear to be linked to physiology in some children but not in others.

Goodwin is also part of a five-year, $10 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to create automated tracking technology to help diagnose people with autism and track the outcome of therapies. The project involves bringing together a mix of sophisticated technologies, including cameras, sensors and machine learning — computational techniques that learn from data — to solve clinical problems.

He is also working with Hamlin on a pilot project at the Center for Discovery, set in a classroom outfitted with ten ceiling cameras and two microphones. The children and staff all wear wireless monitors that record their heart rate, temperature and movement.

The researchers are creating algorithms to automatically identify problem behaviors, such as wandering off or self-injury, based on data from the sensors. They can also look at the physiological data leading up to a behavioral outburst, as well as the physiological consequences of the behavior.

Hamlin says they have been recording for about a year and that the computers are now able to automatically recognize different behaviors.

The next challenge will be figuring out what to do with the enormous volume of data being collected. “We have to get it into the hands of clinicians to figure out which measures are predictive,” Goodwin says. He is also setting up instruments at his own testing center at Northeastern.

Goodwin has also helped launch a new graduate program at Northeastern that bridges technology and medicine.

“I was trained as a behavioral scientist and got interested in computer science late in life,” says Goodwin. (At 36, late is a relative term.) “The idea of the program is to train the next generation simultaneously, so they will be able to do what we can’t.”


1: Goodwin M.S. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 41, 770-782 (2011) PubMed

Article originally appeared at the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative

Timothy Bickmore Brings Technology Alive

May 9, 2013 2:55 pm

Timothy Bickmore is using technology to help patients manage their own healthcare in a way no one else has. Meet Tanya, an avatar or “relational agent” in Bickmore’s phrase, who can serve as a nurse and personal health advocate.

By studying the behavior of real nurses and then turning his observations into complex computational algorithms, Bickmore is able to create avatars that show empathy and converse naturally with patients. They can access a patient’s medical records and provide information about drug treatments.

Avatars have unlimited time to walk patients through often confusing postclinic procedures, such as when to take their medication and how to dress a wound—abilities relevant to the critical issue of hospital readmissions.

In fact, a majority of patients involved in early clinical trials—particularly those with limited health and computer literacy—reported feeling more at ease interacting with avatars like Tanya than with live nurses.

Rupal Patel Captures Voice Melodies

May 9, 2013 3:00 pm

Healthy adults with fully developed vocal systems convey more information by producing speech and changing the melody of their voice.

But children and adults with severe speech-motor disorders tend to rely more heavily on melodic cues, such as volume and duration. Patel uses her understanding of speech melody to create computational tools that can dramatically improve a disordered speaker’s ability to interact with the world.

In one project, Patel overlays meolodic fluctuations from a disordered speaker’s voice with a sentence spoken by a healthy donor of the same demographic. By merging the two signals, she creates a novel synthetic voice that conveys the user’s personal identity.

For children learning how to read, Patel also develops digital tools with visual cues—such as a rising and falling line—that signal pitch changes. Research suggests that by understanding the melody of speech earlier, children may achieve greater reading comprehension.

Wil Robertson Outthinks the Cybercriminals

May 9, 2013 3:03 pm

Among researchers focused on cleaning up the world’s black market of Internet insecurity, Robertson is a leader—in large part because he has learned to think like a cybercriminal.

This highly sophisticated set of hackers, members of a global Internet mafia, sit quietly behind backlit screens, coding their way into our sensitive data. From credit card numbers to computing power, nothing is off limits. So Robertson spends his days studying their malicious software: how it is constructed, how it works, and how it behaves. With that knowledge, he can create more robust security tools and safer systems.

For instance, Robertson uses machine-learning techniques to develop security programs that recognize the normal behavior of users and other programs. Then, when a threat presents itself and demonstrates anomalous behavior, the security program can automatically intervene to stop it. Robertson’s goal is not to catch the criminals, but rather to fatally cripple their ability to operate.


Amy Sliva Forecasts Hot Spots for Violence

May 9, 2013 3:09 pm

Amy Sliva is a pioneer in the emerging field of security informatics, taking a Big Data approach to mining the labyrinth of terrorism’s contextual markers to predict when and where violence might erupt.

It’s a method suited to the times, says Sliva, because the information stream related to violence and terrorism has never been more abundant. From smartphone activity to broadcast media reports, we have at our fingertips the perfect storm of indicators when large-scale violence is brewing. The question is, how do we sort and make sense of all the clues we have at our disposal?

By using many of the same principles that experts in bioinformatics use to map and predict disease, Sliva and her colleagues are building artificial intelligence models to analyze and forecast potential threats. Such predictions could help officials make smarter security policy, prevent bloodshed, and save lives.

Alessandro Vespignani Maps Out Pandemics

May 9, 2013 3:12 pm

Alessandro Vespignani, Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics, Computer Science, and Health Sciences is a pioneer in the emerging field of digital epidemiology, which promises to revolutionize the way we approach public health issues involving the spread of infectious diseases.

He notes that it took nearly a decade for the Black Plague to spread through Europe, while, thanks to modern transportation, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic swept across the globe in just four months.

Vespignani has developed computational modeling tools that would transform preemptive public-health efforts the next time a contagion decides to hitch a lightning–fast ride around the world.

Using data such as airline traffic and cell phone usage, Vespignani creates maps of human mobility across the planet. Combining that data and the specific dynamics of a disease, his computational models can predict epidemic outbreaks with great precision. In fact, Vespignani and his team confirmed that their model accurately predicted—with a lead time of several months—the peak of the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in 42 countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

Albert-László Barabási Maps the Disease Network

May 9, 2013 3:13 pm

One of the world’s foremost network scientists, Barabási is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers on a quest to construct the human “diseasome”—the sum of all human diseases and the ways they relate to one another.

This map of human diseases would revolutionize medicine on all levels, says Barabási, enabling researchers to understand the molecular and genetic linkages between one disease, like asthma, and other respiratory diseases.

The team has already developed a map of 70 of the most common diseases based on their protein and metabolite interactions. As the pool of knowledge about those molecular interactions expands, so will the map.

Once the diseasome is fully mapped, Barabási says, physicians could use individual genetic mutations as a predictor of future health. And pharmaceutical researchers would have a powerful tool to design drugs with greater precision and effectiveness.

3Qs: What to Know About the New Bird Flu Virus

May 13, 2013 9:44 am

Alex VespignaniEar­lier this month, the U.S. gov­ern­ment declared that the emerging H7N9 bird flu “poses a sig­nif­i­cant poten­tial for a public health emer­gency.” The virus, a rel­a­tive of other bird flus we’ve seen pre­vi­ously like H1N1 and H5N1, orig­i­nated in China and results in a severe res­pi­ra­tory infec­tion and, in some cases, death. While the virus is not, at this time, trans­mis­sible between humans, researchers believe that just a few genetic muta­tions could change that. Net­work sci­en­tist Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physics, com­puter sci­ence, and health sci­ences, is map­ping the disease’s pro­gres­sion in his lab. We asked him to dis­cuss the pan­demic poten­tial of the virus and explain how this strain dif­fers from those in the past.

How is H7N9 different from other bird flu viruses we’ve seen in the past?

The H7N9 is a novel reassortant influenza A virus, which very likely originated in birds. However, the transmission of H7 viruses to mammals has seldom been reported, and human infections with N9 subtype viruses had not been documented anywhere in the world before this outbreak. In addition, most of the observed infections are associated with severe symptoms and a high mortality rate. As of today there have been 130 human cases suggesting that the virus appears to be more infectious to people than most of the other avian influenza viruses we know. For instance, in China the feared H5N1 is at the origin of less than 50 cases in one decade. Indeed, it appears that the H7N9 virus shows several mutations that make it more adapted to mammals, and thus humans.

What would it take for H7N9 to become a pandemic threat and how concerned are officials about it reaching that point in the near future?

So far the virus does not have sustained human-to-human transmission. This means that although there have been small family clusters likely triggered by the prolonged exposure to the infectious individual, the virus cannot spread easily in the general population. At the moment it is an infection that people catch from animals, however the circulation among humans may favor further genetic adaptation increasing the transmission potential of the virus. Generally these changes are associated with mild and asymptomatic cases that signal an increased adaptation of the virus to the human host. For this reason, the identification of one asymptomatic case and a few relatively mild cases have raised concerns about the virus. There is an appreciable risk that a pandemic could start if this virus were to change to spread easily between people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as all national and international agencies, are seriously preparing for that possibility.

Based on your modeling projections, what impact do you think the H7N9 strain will have on the global population?

At the moment, the lack of human-to-human transmission makes the spreading pattern of the current outbreak not compatible with any widespread epidemic scenario. It is however possible that isolated cases will be observed in other countries because of travelers from China. If the virus acquires the capability of sustained transmission, the situation would be completely different. In that case it is very likely that the epidemic could escalate to pandemic dimensions in two to three months, as we observed for the H1N1 in 2009. Detailed projections, however, would need specific information on the adapted virus, and the initial pattern of spreading. For this reason it is extremely important to increase and enhance surveillance capabilities not just in China but worldwide. We are in the position to use new digital technologies to monitor the progression of widespread epidemics by tapping into social networks, mobile devices, and web platforms. The next pandemic will be the first one that we will fight not just on the medical frontline but also by using “information intelligence,” which will allow us to predict the moves of the biological enemy.

Know Thine Enemy

May 17, 2013 9:40 am

William Robertson got his first taste of how vulnerable the world’s cyberinfrastructure is during the 1990s, when he hacked into computer networks. He did it for the adrenaline rush, says the assistant professor, and out of sheer curiosity.

“I was interested in system penetration and doing remote reconnaissance just to see what I could find,” Robertson recalls. “I discovered that anyone with the requisite knowledge could uncover all kinds of fascinating data.”

For several years, he honed his hacking acumen, breaking into secure networks and poring over private information for fun, without any intention of doing harm. But the allure of aimless hacking eventually wore off, and he realized he could put his vast knowledge of Internet networks to use, finding ways to block people from stealing information and doing real harm.

William Robertson, assistant professor of computer and information science and electrical and computer engineering

Today, Robertson has dual appointments in the College of Engineering and the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern. A leading expert in detecting and preventing Web-based attacks, he is part of a contingent of interdisciplinary faculty uniquely qualified to train the next generation of cyberscientists to outfox even the most ruthless hackers and to build truly secure software.

A 21st Century Challenge
The urgency behind putting together these teams of cybersecurity specialists is very real. Consumer cybercrime costs the global economy $110 billion a year, according to one of the largest studies on the growing threat of hackers, online scams, “phishing” attacks, and exploitative malware. The report, issued by the security software company Symantec, also found that cybercrime affects more than 1.5 million people each day.

This threat extends well beyond the personal computer. In a speech last fall in New York, former Defense Secretary Leon S. Panetta warned of the possibility of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor,” citing the vulnerability of the nation’s water supplies, power grids, and passenger trains.

Stephen Flynn, professor and founding co-director of the university’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, echoes Panetta’s sentiment. He testified on the point at a congressional hearing on cybersecurity last spring. “Many of the software programs that support our critical infrastructure are wide open for exploitation,” he explains. “We don’t just risk a disruption of service or identity theft, but also mass sabotage and mass loss of life.”

Stepping Up the Response
In 2008, the U.S. government began to heed these warnings, establishing the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative. In 2010, the Obama administration stepped up the response with an expanded National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security followed suit not long after with the formation of a CyberSkills Task Force aimed at building a world-class cybersecurity team to combat the looming crisis.

Much work lies ahead. Some 700,000 new information security professionals will be needed by 2015, according to a 2011 study sponsored by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium.

Northeastern is helping to chip away at that ambitious workforce goal by producing top cyberscientists through its master of science in information assurance program, established in 2007. The interdisciplinary curriculum blends the latest theory on information technology, law, policy, and human behavior with Northeastern’s signature experiential-learning opportunities.

Designated by the National Security Agency as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Research and Education, Northeastern recently earned a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to train 32 additional graduate students through the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program. The grant covers students’ tuition, fees, and living expenses for two years and includes a generous
annual stipend for academic and professional pursuits. In return, students agree to complete an information assurance co-op or internship and work for a national laboratory or federal agency for two years after graduation.

The Deep End
One of the reasons the university is recognized as a hub of information assurance education is that students  learn to think on their feet. They’re immediately thrust into real-world situations—both in co-op and in the classroom—through Northeastern’s rare blend of experiential learning and academics.

The curriculum is centered around a series of complex laboratory and independent assignments, such as securing a closed-circuit server that has received 200,000 failed login attempts from a cast of fictional cybercriminals or assuming the mindset of a hacker and extracting cryptographic information from hardware. Using industry tools and commercial-grade networking equipment, students get inside the heads of these fictional hackers and come up with viable solutions.

Samuel Jenkins, MS’12, graduated in May with the second Scholarship for Service class. Jenkins, who has an undergraduate degree in German studies from Swarthmore College, returned to his childhood love of tinkering with computers and decided to pursue graduate work in cybersecurity. He now works as a security analyst with the Executive Office of the President of the United States, providing information technology services to the White House.

Jenkins liked Northeastern’s blend of technical and nontechnical courses. “When I began the program, I felt as if I had been thrown into the deep end,” he recalls. “And I wanted to be in the deep end. My professors were very responsive to my technical questions and extremely knowledgeable real-world practitioners. I applied to the program because its multidisciplinary approach to computer security fit well with my diverse interests.”

Thinking Like a Thief
Northeastern’s experiential approach also affords students a unique opportunity to understand the many scenarios cybersecurity specialists encounter every day.

One of the biggest challenges experts face in trying to shut down cybercrime is that cybercriminals continually morph their malware, making it virtually impossible to catch and prosecute them. Robertson likens the system to a global Internet mafia, with individuals sitting behind backlit screens in nondescript locations, coding their way into people’s sensitive data around the clock.

The key, says Robertson and others, is to think like the cyberthieves. He and his team spend their days studying malicious software, discovering how it is constructed, how it works, and how it behaves. With that background, they are able to cripple the criminals’ ability to operate.

Engin Kirda, Sy and Laurie Sternberg Interdisciplinary Associate Professor of Computer Science

This objective takes more than trained cyberdetectives. It requires cutting-edge technology that can detect, analyze, and prevent virtual attacks. For instance, Robertson uses machine-learning techniques to develop security programs that “know” what normal user behavior looks like. Then, when a threat presents itself by demonstrating anomalous behavior, the program can automatically intervene to end the threat.

He is also working with his colleague Engin Kirda, co-director of Northeastern’s Systems Security Lab, to make mobile phones more secure. Backed by a $2 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the duo is developing tools to identify and defend against malicious activity in Android applications.

DARPA, says Kirda, also the director of Northeastern’s Information Assurance Institute and the Sy and Laurie Sternberg Interdisciplinary Associate Professor of Computer Science, is particularly interested in blocking acts of cyberespionage. “If a mobile phone is compromised,” he points out, “then someone could potentially steal data by activating its camera or microphone.”

Agnes Chan, principal investigator on the NSF education grant, whose research expertise lies in cryptography and communication security, is developing a tool to hide information-retrieval patterns from cloud computing providers, some of which cannot be trusted. The real-world applications are many, ranging from protecting financial information to patient confidentiality.

Agnes Chan, professor of computer and information science and associate dean

Jenny Mankin, a doctoral candidate in computer engineering who conducts research in Northeastern’s Computer Architecture Research Laboratory, spent the last four years developing the infrastructure for analyzing and detecting malware, such as computer viruses, worms, and “Trojan horses,” which appear to perform desirable functions but instead facilitate unauthorized access to steal information or harm computers. Mankin hopes that computer security software companies will eventually incorporate her tool into products that ward off malware attacks.

The Chase
But even with the introduction of sophisticated technology, the human factor remains essential. “We can have all the latest technology in the world,” Chan reminds us, “but if we don’t have the people to manage it, then [our networks] will be vulnerable.”

With the backing of the Scholarship for Service grant,  Northeastern’s role in providing that human capital will continue to grow. In January, Robertson and David Kaeli, co-principal investigators on the NSF grant, attended the Scholarship for Service’s annual job fair in Washington, D.C. Students had a chance to meet with representatives of some 500 federal agencies.

“Congress talks about the Scholarship for Service program whenever it wants to fund a new cybersecurity initiative,” says Kaeli, a virtualization technology expert and professor and associate dean of electrical and computer engineering. “It receives the most credit for training the next generation of cyberexperts.”

David Kaeli, professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean

Northeastern is also designated by the NSA as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations, an honor shared by only four universities nationwide. The designation, another part of President Obama’s cybersecurity education initiative, allows undergraduate computer science students to specialize in cyberoperations by taking high-level courses in software vulnerability, network security, and the fundamentals of information assurance.

“Honors like this indicate that our research is vibrant, our faculty is well-funded, and we are working on problems that are relevant to the intelligence and security community,” says Chan.

And they’re problems that aren’t going away anytime soon. As Mankin puts it, “Security researchers and malware writers are playing a game of cat and mouse. I think it’s possible that the race will never end.”

Tech-​​Savvy Mentors Help Youth Create Video Games

May 20, 2013 10:05 am

What do the Pythagorean the­orem and car­toon char­ac­ters like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Stewie from Family Guy have in common? They were both used this spring semester to help teach local youth how to create video games, with the assis­tance from stu­dent vol­un­teers studying com­puter sci­ence and busi­ness at Northeastern.

The ini­tia­tive revolves around Boot­strap, a free cur­riculum that since 2005 has been used to teach stu­dents nationwide—primarily ages 12–16—to pro­gram their own video games using alge­braic and geo­metric con­cepts. The mis­sion is to build excite­ment and con­fi­dence around gaming and for stu­dents to apply these skills in fun projects.

Ear­lier this year, the Boot­strap pro­gram received acco­lades after sev­eral news out­lets reported a first grader in Philadel­phia became the youngest person to create a full ver­sion of a mobile video-​​game application—a feat the 7-​​year-​​old achieved using Bootstrap.

North­eastern has been a long­standing sup­porter of Boot­strap. This semester, Boot­strap part­nered with the uni­ver­sity, Tri­pAd­visor, and Cit­izen Schools to bring the cur­riculum to three Mass­a­chu­setts schools: the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, the Dever-​​McCormack Middle School in Dorch­ester, and the Orchard Gar­dens K-​​8 School in Roxbury.

On May 13, the uni­ver­sity hosted an expo in the Curry Stu­dent Center for 12 of the middle-​​school stu­dents to show­case their projects, who wore black t-​​shirts with the words, “I pro­gram my own video games.”

This semester marked the fourth time Tyler Rosini, a com­puter sci­ence and finance com­bined major, has vol­un­teered to teach through the pro­gram. “I like the idea of giving back to kids,” said Rosini, who recalled being inspired to par­tic­i­pate when Boot­strap cre­ator Emmanuel Schanzer pitched the oppor­tu­nity during one of Rosini’s first-​​year classes.

The premise of the com­puter games on dis­play is simple: The user con­trols a car­toon char­acter on the screen, and the char­acter racks up points by cap­turing a target that con­tin­u­ally moves across the screen. At the same time, the char­acter must avoid coming into con­tact with a sep­a­rate moving target, a vil­lain of sorts.

Rosini and fourth-​​year stu­dent Joe O’Neil, a com­puter sci­ence and accounting com­bined major, have vol­un­teered once a week this semester in the Edwards School. The lessons started with teaching simple con­cepts about writing code and pro­gram­ming. Over a 10-​​week span, Rosini and O’Neil added new ele­ments to their lessons, from cre­ating the char­ac­ters on screen to allowing them to move in dif­ferent directions.

After his first semester vol­un­teering, O’Neil embraced reversing his role in the class­room from stu­dent to teacher. “I was impressed with how quickly some of the kids picked up these chal­lenging con­cepts,” he said.

Co-op Now: Getting Intuit

May 22, 2013 2:29 pm

WHO Joshua Tsuji, a third-year student majoring in computer science.

WHAT A position as a developer at Intuit, a Mountain View, Calif., software company that helps small businesses and individuals manage finances.

WHEN July to December 2012.

WHAT HE DID This year, the IRS announced it would promise tax refunds only within 21 days, rather than by a specific date. Knowing how many users of Intuit’s TurboTax software count on that refund to pay their bills, Tsuji built an app that estimates a more precise delivery date based on data provided in the tax return. While Tsuji waits for his patent to come through, Intuit will release the app to approximately 26 million people this tax season.

TODAY Tsuji is working on an app that tracks arrival times for Boston’s subway trains and hopes to add more trip-based features, like what the delay will be if you miss a train. Next up, he hopes, is getting experience at a startup.

Northeastern University’s North Carolina Campus Adding Nine Programs to Curriculum

June 5, 2013 8:09 am

Northeastern’s graduate campus in Charlotte, North Carolina is adding nine degree programs to its curriculum this fall, according to university officials.

Northeastern University — Charlotte will offer seven new master’s degrees and the first two doctoral degrees, campus officials said in a statement. The campus, which opened in 2011, currently has 17 degree programs, including master of education, master of public administration, master of science in finance, and master of science in criminal justice.

“Northeastern University provides high-demand graduate programs aligned with the needs of industry in region and around the world,” Dr. Cheryl Richards, chief executive officer and regional dean of Northeastern University–Charlotte said in the statement. “We are committed to educating and empowering tomorrow’s leaders as they seek the ability to effect meaningful change in their careers.”

In a separate statement issued by Northeastern University’s main campus, the school said that the new degrees are all existing programs at Northeastern. Degree programs at Northeastern’s graduate campus follow a “hybrid delivery” model, which incorporates both online and classroom learning.

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Researchers to Explore the ‘Science of Success’

June 11, 2013 10:44 am

153669237We once thought it took a genius to be suc­cessful, but this is simply not the case. “In spite of all the claims to the con­trary, suc­cess is a col­lec­tive phe­nomena: You are only suc­cessful because many of us think that you are,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of physics and computer science, and director of Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. Hence the fin­ger­prints of suc­cess are spread around society, leaving detectable, mea­sur­able, and pre­dictable traces that sci­en­tists can now use to examine one of the most desir­able traits of the human experience.
On Monday June 17, in an inau­gural sym­po­sium on the Sci­ence of Suc­cess, Barabási and his col­leagues across a horizon of dis­ci­plines will dis­cuss the many ways this emerging field can and will impact every­thing from pol­i­tics to internet memes.
The topic of suc­cess is diverse to say the least. While sci­en­tists first began inves­ti­gating the phe­nom­enon with respect to their own field, it reaches into vir­tu­ally every other sector of society. The same methods can be used to under­stand how an Olympic ath­lete gets the gold as for how a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date becomes president.
Because of this diver­sity, the tools and per­spec­tives vary, engaging social sci­en­tists, com­puter sci­en­tists, econ­o­mists, physi­cists, and math­e­mati­cians alike. The goal of the upcoming sym­po­sium is to bring these diverse com­mu­ni­ties together to expand the con­ver­sa­tion and its impact.
The day-​​long event is orga­nized by the Center of Com­plex Net­work Research at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity and will be hosted by the Insti­tute of Quan­ti­ta­tive Social Sci­ence at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity on Monday, June 17.
The speakers come from within and out­side of the U.S. and include aca­d­emic and industry leaders in busi­ness, man­age­ment, jour­nalism, and physics to name a few, and will dis­cuss a broad range of topics. For example, Duncan Watts, prin­ciple researcher at Microsoft Research, will examine the suc­cess of “cul­tural objects,” like movies, books, and music. An orga­ni­za­tional behavior researcher from Har­vard Busi­ness School will argue that leaders are usu­ally unim­por­tant and indis­pens­able for soci­etal growth, taking a close look at the few times when they aren’t. Authors Camille Sweeney and Josh Gos­field will dis­cuss their book, “The Art of Doing,” in which they inter­viewed dozens of “super­achievers” about their strate­gies for suc­cess. Northeastern’s Chaoming Song will dis­cuss the pre­dictability of sci­en­tific dis­covery based on the under­standing of cita­tion patterns.

Babies’ Babbling Enables New Research Tool

June 17, 2013 9:50 am

The first project Harriet Fell and Linda Ferrier collaborated on was called the Baby Babble Blanket, which allowed infants to produce sounds—a mother's voice, another baby babbling, a toilet flushing—by rolling around and pushing buttons on the blanket. Photo from Thinkstock.

Thirty two years ago, computer and information science professor Harriet Fell had just given birth to her oldest child when Linda Ferrier, then a PhD student working on her thesis in speech language pathology at Boston Children’s Hospital came into her hospital room looking for infant volunteers. She was collecting recordings of infants “babbling” to better understand how they developed the capacity to produce speech over time. A young researcher herself, Fell thought this idea was great and signed her daughter up. For the next two and a half years, Ferrier visited their home each month to capture hour-long recordings of the young child cooing and chatting as babies do. After the thesis was complete, Ferrier receded into the family’s memory, until one day, when Fell was dropping Tova off at the Northeastern day care center. Opposite the day care she saw Ferrier’s name freshly minted on an office door. The doctoral student was now a professor at Fell’s own institution.

The two immediately struck up a working relationship, coming up with cool projects for their senior capstone students to collaborate over. “It was a lot of fun,” said Fell. “My students would build things, her students would test things, and everybody would make suggestions.” Over time the educational collaboration blossomed into a research partnership, with Fell designing complex software for novel speech research tools Ferrier—now retired—wanted to try out. Their first project together was called the Baby Babble Blanket, which allowed infants to produce sounds—a mother’s voice, another baby babbling, a toilet flushing—by rolling around and pushing buttons on the blanket. The tool was designed for infants with motor and neurological disorders to, as the researchers put it, “establish cause and effect skills, explore a babbling repertoire like normal infants, and use early motor movements to produce digitized sounds.” One child, Fell recalled, was particularly fond of the toilet flushing sound and would continually bop his head on the part of the blanket that produced that noise.

After this, Ferrier and Fell continued to explore ways they could use computers to explore questions about speech. “My interest was trying to detect medical problems in their speech or sounds,” said Fell. “I just had the feeling that you could tell certain things about babies that could not easily be recognized. At the time there had been research on neonatal cry, where certain features  could be recognized that indicate neurological problems. I thought that if the articulators aren’t working right, or maybe the parts of the brain that control speech, there’s a certain tension or disturbance, then maybe you could just tell this from the acoustic signal.”

She developed a software program that analyzes the structure of syllables, looking for variety, duration, that kind of thing, in the sounds people create with their mouths. It could be used for adults just as well as with infants, she said. In one project, a colleague used the software to detect fatigue in adult speech. Ferrier used it to work as an accent reduction tool with foreign language speakers.

Fell soon came to realize that what she had originally developed as a tool for very specific research questions could actually be quite useful for a variety of investigations. But back when this was all getting off the ground, computers were still the size of a broom closet and learning the software had a very high learning curve. In the last few decades, of course, the personal computer has pretty much taken over the world, so the constraints that once kept Fell from releasing her program to the masses have now vanished. About 15 years ago, she joined forces with an entrepreneur named Joel MacAuslan. A year ago they applied for and received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop the software they had been using for their own studies into something more useable and user friendly.

Now a group of alpha testers is using the software to explore a variety of speech language questions, looking at everything from early vocal signatures of autism to the speed at which adults are able to cognitively respond to auditory stimuli.

“Before our users were infants,” Fell said. “Now they are scientists.” What began as a collaboration between friends has clearly grown into a research tool that has the potential to enable a host of new investigations. The only limit now is the scientists’ imaginations.

How to Quantify Success

June 19, 2013 9:28 am


An increasing number of researchers have begun devel­oping cre­ative ways to mea­sure suc­cess from a quan­ti­ta­tive point of view, from ana­lyzing cita­tion pat­terns to number-​​crunching pres­i­den­tial elections.

More than two dozen econ­o­mists, physi­cists, math­e­mati­cians, and social sci­en­tists con­vened to dis­cuss the quan­ti­ta­tive laws and pat­terns gov­erning high achieve­ment on Monday at an all-​​day con­fer­ence. The inau­gural Sci­ence of Suc­cess Sym­posia was hosted by Harvard’s Insti­tute of Quan­ti­ta­tive Social Sci­ence and orga­nized by Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research, which cur­rently focuses on sys­tems biology and social networks.

“We’re trying to math­e­mat­i­cally describe and pre­dict what it means to have suc­cess and how to achieve it,” said net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​​​László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence and director of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.

Suc­cess, he said, is a col­lec­tive phe­nom­enon. “In a way,” he explained, “you are suc­cessful because others around you believe you are.”

Barabási will con­tinue this dis­cus­sion as the fea­tured guest on the Col­lege of Science’s weekly Twitter chat on Wednesday at noon.

The speakers at Monday’s sym­po­sium ranged from experts in net­work sci­ence to jour­nalism. Two North­eastern researchers— Chaoming Song, a research assis­tant pro­fessor of physics, and Nicola Perra, a post-​​doctoral research asso­ciate in the Lab­o­ra­tory for the Mod­eling of Bio­log­ical and Socio-​​technical Sys­tems—pre­sented their work. Perra out­lined his frame­work for map­ping and ranking sci­en­tific pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion around the world and Song dis­cussed the ability to accu­rately assess the long-​​term impact of a sci­en­tific dis­covery based on cita­tion patterns.

Brian Uzzi, a pro­fessor of lead­er­ship at North­western University’s Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, delved into the role of nov­elty in achieving suc­cess. He ana­lyzed more than 17 mil­lion papers in the Web of Sci­ence data­base to test the common claim that novel com­bi­na­tions of prior work inspire fresh thinking and inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to chal­lenging prob­lems. He found papers that inject nov­elty into oth­er­wise excep­tion­ally con­ven­tional com­bi­na­tions of prior work are twice as likely to be among the most highly cited.

“Nov­elty does lift impact but only when imbedded in high con­ven­tion­ality,” Uzzi explained. “Real inno­va­tion pushes along both fron­tiers simultaneously.”

The phe­nom­enon is not con­fined to the sci­en­tific field. Film­makers Joel and Ethan Coen injected nov­elty into their run-​​of-​​the-​​mill screen­play for Blood Simple, Uzzi said, by ran­domly rear­ranging scenes and then rewriting the script based on the unusual combinations.

“In the end,” he said, “they came up with some­thing incred­ible by adding nov­elty to convention.”

Duncan Watts, a prin­cipal researcher at Microsoft, explored the rela­tion­ship between suc­cess and social influ­ence in an arti­fi­cial music market.

In his oft-​​referenced 2006 study, Watts and a team of researchers at Columbia Uni­ver­sity asked some 14,000 sub­jects to down­load and then rank 48 songs by little-​​known indie bands. The researchers found that sub­jects who received feed­back on which songs were lis­tened to and liked the most by other par­tic­i­pants tended to favor those songs too. If a few early lis­teners liked a par­tic­ular song, it tended to suc­ceed; if they dis­liked a song, it tended to fail.

“Indi­vidual and col­lec­tive deci­sions are influ­enced by the obser­va­tions of the choices of others,” Watts explained. “The pop­ular songs become more pop­ular and the unpop­ular become more unpopular.”

“This does not mean suc­cess should not be rewarded,” he added, “but sug­gests that winner take all mar­kets are less mer­i­to­cratic than they seem.”

Josh Gos­field and Camille Sweeney played the role of con­fer­ence out­lier, taking a qual­i­ta­tive approach to elu­ci­dating the secrets to success.

For their book The Art of Doing: How Super­achievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, Gos­field and Sweeney inter­viewed dozens of high achievers, from Emmy award-​​winning actor Alec Baldwin to Major League Base­ball Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.

The most accom­plished people, they dis­cov­ered, share sev­eral traits sep­a­rating them from the rest. For example, of the super­achievers they inter­viewed for their book, all shared a ded­i­ca­tion to fol­lowing their dreams. “If you want to pursue your dream,” said Gos­field, “you shape life around your inspi­ra­tion. Not the other way around.

“Pur­suing a goal requires more time, effort, per­se­ver­ance, and dis­ap­point­ment than you can ever imagine,” he added.

Many of the super­achievers prac­ticed active lis­tening, which Gos­field defined as an “act that puts you in a recep­tive state to take in knowl­edge and learn.”

Take Erin Gruwell, the high school teacher who inspired the 2007 film Freedom Writers by encour­aging her low-​​performing stu­dents to pen journal entries detailing their struggles.

“Gruwell jet­ti­soned the tra­di­tional cur­riculum and became a stu­dent of her stu­dents,” Sweeney said. “They showed her their scars and bullet wounds,” Gos­field added. “They told her about their lives of gang related vio­lence and broken homes.”

In closing remarks, David Lazer, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence at North­eastern, chal­lenged the symposium’s speakers to design sys­tems that empha­size quality. In the after­math of the Boston Marathon bomb­ings, Lazer and his research team devel­oped an appli­ca­tion for Android phones to help better under­stand how people use social net­works during times of crisis.

“We want to iden­tify quality rather than amplify the noise,” he told them.

The Security of Every Day Things

June 25, 2013 9:36 am

Assistant professor Wil Robertson studies systems security research. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

This post was written by assistant professor Wil Robertson.

We are in the midst of an explosive proliferation of computing devices. Once confined to the domain of massive, expensive mainframes tended to by teams of specialists, technological and economic forces have pushed ever smaller and more capable devices into our work and social lives. Now, it’s commonplace to have a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet, and any number of peripheral supporting devices, each of which is likely to be networked and orders of magnitude more powerful than those dusty old mainframes. And, there’s no reason to believe that these devices won’t continue to evolve, appearing in ordinary objects that we would never have expected.

One need look no further than Glass, Google’s project to integrate computing resources into eyeglasses, to see the way the world is moving. High-profile examples aside, however, there’s a widespread movement underway to embed more powerful CPUs and network interfaces into just about every device you could imagine; think printers, security cameras, watches, and environmental controls.

With all of this convenience and power comes hidden dangers. As security researchers in the Northeastern Systems Security Lab, it’s long been clear that assuring that there isn’t any hidden malicious functionality lurking in the hardware or software running on traditional desktops and servers is a difficult problem. But, over the years we’ve developed ways to mitigate this threat through monitoring, sandboxing, and other means. The concern now is how to deal with new classes of embedded devices that can be easily transported and installed behind otherwise hardened security perimeters, and is the focus of a new $1.2M DARPA-funded project we are conducting.

Let’s consider a concrete scenario. Imagine that your IT department has installed a new set of wireless routers in your building. But, unbeknownst to them, the router firmware — i.e., the embedded code that implements the router’s functionality — contains a hidden trigger that activates after enough data has passed through the device. The trigger sends a beacon out over the corporate network to a group of hackers; because the connection originates from inside the organization, it’s allowed to traverse the company firewall. The hackers use this connection to remotely control the device, essentially giving them a foothold inside of the organization they can use to capture data passing through the device or probe other devices on the network for vulnerabilities they can exploit. Our challenge in this project is this: Can we identify the presence of this malicious behavior before the device has been deployed to the target?

To tackle this problem, we’re using a set of techniques referred to as program analysis, which — simply put — provides ways of discovering facts about how a program behaves in response to input from its environment. Program analysis has a long history, but our project is focusing on developing analyses specific to rooting out hidden malicious behaviors. One example of this is dynamic analysis, which consists of running a device in an instrumented environment that allows us to automatically observe who the device contacts, what data it sends, and much more. In some ways, the process is akin to putting a specimen under a microscope and probing it to see how it responds.

However, discovering hidden malicious behavior is no easy task. Hackers have innumerable ways to try to evade detection, from requiring extremely complex trigger conditions before executing its malicious actions, to exploiting subtle differences between a real environment and the analysis environment to determine whether it should hide its malicious behavior. Much of our research has dealt with similar problems in the traditional malware world, and we anticipate similar challenges in this context.

Despite the challenges, we’re very excited to be solving emerging problems, staying one step ahead of the attackers, and producing research that will result in a safer, more secure Internet for everyone.

Network Science at Center of Surveillance Dispute

June 26, 2013 4:17 pm

Last week, civil libertarians cried foul when press reports revealed that, in its efforts to ferret out terrorists, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting cell phone records and Internet data from companies such as Verizon, Facebook, and Skype. Some argued that the federal government is spying on its own citizens. From the nature of the data, scientists say it’s clear that NSA is performing network analysis, a type of science that aims to identify social groups from the connections among people. And NSA is hardly the only organization doing such work, researchers say. Private companies are already tracing people’s social circles.

“I can tell you that this kind of thing is extremely effective,” says Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who has studied phone networks.

Born of the social sciences decades ago, network science blossomed in the 1990s thanks to the confluence of mathematical tools developed by theoretical physicists and huge data sets produced by cell phones, the Internet, and other digital technologies. Network methods have entered the mainstream in fields such as epidemiology, in which researchers use data such as airline networks to help model the spread of disease.

NSA’s network analyses likely involve four levels of inquiry, says Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Suppose an analyst works with only phone data. The first step, Uzzi says, would be to map who calls whom—with each person represented by a point or “node” and each person-to-person link represented by a line or “edge”—to create a simple communication network. Next, the analyst would study details of calls—their frequency, duration, and timing—to determine how closely connected each pair of people is. This step breaks the communication network into smaller, overlapping social networks.

The third step would be to study the dynamics of a social network, to see how activity ebbs and wanes and the network evolves. The fourth step would be to try to correlate the dynamics of the network with external events, Uzzi says, such as terrorist bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan. In reality, of course, analysts work with data from many different sources to try to trace a social network as accurately as possible.

Given enough data from electronic and other sources, one can identify a social group, be it an al-Qaeda cell or a classic car club. But the methods have limitations. It’s unlikely that NSA is trying decipher the social networks of all 300 million people in the United States, scientists say, as such an effort would yield an impenetrable hair ball.

Instead, NSA is most likely fleshing out the social circles of suspects identified by other means. “If you have the data on everyone, then when you have reason to believe that Mr. X is someone of interest, you can go back and look at his behaviors,” says David Lazer, a political and computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston.

NSA is hardly the only organization tracing social networks. Such work is done by the companies that generate the data, researchers say, and some, such as Twitter, sell their data. Valdis Krebs, a network scientist and the founder of Orgnet LLC in Cleveland, Ohio, says he did work for a phone company that worried its most highly connected subscribers might leave and take their contacts with them. The company hired Krebs to help identify those key customers so that they might receive perks—a task not dissimilar to unmasking the leaders of terrorist networks. “It’s the same modeling, but where one group is looking for the nodes to get rid of, the other is looking for the ones to butter up,” Krebs says.

Some scientists say that concerns over the NSA program are overblown. “Why do people get upset if the government is handling the data but not if a company is handling the data?” says Alessandro Vespignani, a physicist and computer scientist at Northeastern who, with support from the National Institutes of Health, has helped predict the spread of influenza. Uzzi says the government has its hands full hunting terrorists. “With all that going on, will they come after you and me?” he says. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

But some see darker potentialities. Krebs that says his grandparents and parents lived in Latvia and suffered through the brutal repression of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. A modern-day Hitler or Stalin could use network analysis to target political opponents, he says. “People like that get this technology and it’s over,” he says. “This is the best way to find you and eliminate you.” Lazer shares that concern. “It’s not the government now, it’s the government in 20 years or 40 years that one has to worry about,” he says.

Others say that politically, the U.S. government is practically obligated to employ such techniques. If NSA didn’t use them and another major terrorist attack occurred, then people would complain that the government hadn’t done all it could to prevent the attack, Vespignani says: “We have the tools and we have the information. We have to use them. It’s as simple as that.”

Games the Key to Girls’ STEM Education

June 28, 2013 10:02 am

The gender gap in STEM fields is striking. In grades four through seven, when a lot of kids first start to think about what they might want to do as a career, just 14 per­cent of girls express an interest in sci­ence, tech­nology, edu­ca­tion, and math.

A group of industry and aca­d­emic leaders gath­ered at Northeastern’s Seattle campus with what just might be a solu­tion to that problem: video games. (Yes, par­ents and teachers, you’re reading that right.)

Girls GAMES, short for Girls Advancing in Math, Engi­neering, and Sci­ence, is a new col­lab­o­ra­tion between uni­ver­sity part­ners and gaming com­pa­nies in Seattle aimed at pro­moting STEM careers for women through the devel­op­ment of edu­ca­tional games. Though the main event is being held in Seattle, a two-​​hour event is sched­uled for 3 p.m. today in 250 West Vil­lage F.

“We know games can engage kids to learn, so let’s use games for real learning, and let’s use games to advance girls’ learning, interest, and aspi­ra­tions in STEM,” said Tayloe Wash­burn, dean and CEO of Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle.

The idea makes sense: Nearly 200 mil­lion Amer­i­cans reg­u­larly play video games, with kids playing them for an average of more than two hours a day. And research shows games can be a valu­able learning tool, encour­aging chil­dren to think crit­i­cally and solve problems.

Asso­ciate pro­fessor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, director of Northeastern’s Game Design Pro­gram whose research focuses on designing edu­ca­tional games, is a leader on the Girls GAMES initiative.

“We’ve tried every­thing from class­room pro­grams to after-​​school ini­tia­tives, yet the data sug­gests we still have a long ways to go,” Wash­burn said. “A tool that has not yet been used, with girls in par­tic­ular, is games.”

Wash­burn is heading up a team that rep­re­sents the fore­front of both gaming and STEM edu­ca­tion: asso­ciate pro­fessor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, director of Northeastern’s Game Design Pro­gram whose research focuses on designing edu­ca­tional games; Karen Anderson, CEO of the National Girls Col­lab­o­ra­tive Project; Dana Riley-​​Black, director of the Center for Inquiry Sci­ence; and Shep­herd Siegel, director of school engage­ment for Project Lead the Way. The Insti­tute for Sys­tems Biology, the National Girls Col­lab­o­ra­tive Project, and North­eastern University—Seattle are co-​​sponsoring the initiative.Working with Seattle-​​area uni­ver­si­ties and some of the 350 gaming com­pa­nies based in and around Seattle, Wash­burn believes the ini­tia­tive can make a dif­fer­ence in guiding tal­ented stu­dents into fields crit­ical to our nation’s economy but which are his­tor­i­cally male-​​dominated.

The goal, though, isn’t to develop a game that’s purely edu­ca­tional. Those, Wash­burn said, are so noto­ri­ously dull that the gaming industry has all but aban­doned them.“A really com­pelling fun game is the key, so that is our goal,” Wash­burn said.

Northeastern Launches Nation’s First Doctoral Program in Network Science

July 9, 2013 10:08 am

This fall, North­eastern will begin offering the nation’s first inter­dis­ci­pli­nary doc­toral pro­gram in net­work sci­ence, an emerging field that researches the under­lying com­plexity that gov­erns all systems—be they com­prised of atoms in a mol­e­cule or people using social media to com­mu­ni­cate across the globe.

“As the first uni­ver­sity in the nation to offer this degree, our world-​​leading research pro­gram in net­work sci­ence will allow us to train the next gen­er­a­tion of leaders in this increas­ingly impor­tant field,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs.

North­eastern will begin recruiting the doc­toral program’s first class of stu­dents this fall. The pro­gram will be housed in and over­seen by the Col­lege of Sci­ence and will be offered through a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort with sev­eral other North­eastern col­leges including the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties.

“Most dis­ci­plines, from physics to soci­ology and health sci­ences, are con­fronted from com­plex net­works,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor at North­eastern, where he directs the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research and holds appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Physics and Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. “This new PhD pro­gram is not only about fur­thering the dis­ci­pline of net­work sci­ence. It is also about training experts, who can enrich their respec­tive dis­ci­pline, helping their col­leagues to deal with the com­plex sys­tems they need to con­front. It is a pio­neering pro­gram that truly embodies inter­dis­ci­pli­nary thinking.”

Alessandro Vespig­nani is one of the program’s leading fac­ulty mem­bers and is the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor, holding joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. He explained that until now, “existing pro­grams and orga­ni­za­tions only indi­rectly train stu­dents in net­work sci­ence. Stu­dents may be involved in research projects using the tools of net­work sci­ence, but they are not being for­mally trained in aca­d­emic pro­grams focused on it.”

The field “has evolved into a full-​​bodied set of the­o­ret­ical and applied tools,” said Vespig­nani. He noted that a doc­toral pro­gram is the log­ical next step after sev­eral devel­op­ments in recent years, including the estab­lish­ment of sev­eral new jour­nals on the sub­ject and the Com­plex Sys­tems Society, an inter­na­tional aca­d­emic society for which Vespig­nani is pres­i­dent.

Vespig­nani, who uses com­pu­ta­tional mod­eling and human mobility net­works to track the spread of epi­demics around the globe, said that net­work sci­ence is inher­ently mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary. Because of this, stu­dents should be trained in a variety of dis­ci­plines and gain a foothold in the core tech­nical and the­o­ret­ical aspects of net­work sci­ence itself. All stu­dents in the pro­gram will take four core courses to learn these fun­da­men­tals, but will also spe­cialize in a par­tic­ular track such as epi­demi­ology, physics, or polit­ical science.

North­eastern is already doing ground­breaking net­work sci­ence research. For instance, in order to con­trol and pro­tect against dis­ease, Barabási is working to build the human dis­ea­some—a net­work of cel­lular and genetic inter­ac­tions that will help sci­en­tists better under­stand the causes of all kinds of ill­nesses and ail­ments. David Lazer, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter sci­ence, uses net­work sci­ence to study the polit­ical system, while asso­ciate pro­fessor of com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence Alan Mis­love is inter­ested in how social media data sets can inform these sorts of studies. In addi­tion to his research on the spread of epi­demic con­ta­gions, Vespig­nani is also looking at the spread of ideas and knowl­edge through social spaces.

Vespig­nani, Barabási, Lazer, and Mis­love will lead the pro­gram as the ini­tial core fac­ulty. Addi­tion­ally, fac­ulty across the uni­ver­sity with exper­tise in fields ranging from data mining to health sci­ence will round out the program’s offer­ings. The pro­gram will also ini­tiate a renewed hiring effort to attract more world-​​leading net­work scientists.

New Student on the Path to Discovery

July 10, 2013 10:14 am

Jacqueline Ali

About 10 years ago, Jacque­line Ali was playing an adven­ture game for PlaySta­tion 2 called Sly Cooper And The Thievius Rac­coonus when she unlocked a secret behind-​​the-​​scenes movie about the game. The expe­ri­ence offered her a glimpse into how video games are cre­ated and served as inspi­ra­tion in shaping her interest in com­puter science.

Ali recently grad­u­ated from Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, Texas, and will enroll at North­eastern in the fall. She’s excited to embrace the university’s com­puter sci­ence pro­gram and explore the field’s myriad career tracks, from secu­rity to web development.

Though she’s inter­ested in game devel­op­ment, Ali offered a thought-​​provoking com­par­ison to explain why she’s open to exploring other fields. “I like to say it’s like the dif­fer­ence between an artist cre­ating paint­ings with a brush and the person who cre­ates new tools,” she said. “The con­cept of exploring areas where the way for­ward isn’t always clear appealed to me more.”

Ali cites the university’s sig­na­ture co-​​op pro­gram as one of the top rea­sons she picked Northeastern.

“The thing I liked most about North­eastern is that it’s really inno­v­a­tive. It does things in a way that some other col­lege I looked at don’t,” she said. “Co-​​op gives you real-​​world expe­ri­ence that backs up what you’re learning in the classroom.”

Ali was born in Puerto Rico and lived in New Mexico and Louisiana before set­tling in Texas when she was in fourth grade. She excelled as a high school stu­dent, par­tic­i­pating in Aca­d­emic Decathlon and Ocathlon events and taking AP courses in physics, macro­eco­nomics, and Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and composition.

In the summer of 2012, she was accepted into the Carnegie Mellon National High School Game Academy, a six-​​week pro­gram in which high school stu­dents explore the video game industry through a blend of hands-​​on exer­cises and class­room instruction.

In Boston, Ali expects to par­tic­i­pate in hackathons with her peers. She’s also inter­ested in pur­suing global expe­ri­ences at North­eastern. In fact, the Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram has already caught her eye.

“As time passes, the world gets more con­nected and cul­tures get more con­nected,” she said. “I want to know how to interact with other people and cul­tures and adapt to places that I’m unfa­miliar with.”


Northeastern University and Duo Security Collaborate to Fix Critical “Master Key” Android Vulnerabilities

July 16, 2013 2:39 pm

Researchers from Northeastern University’s System Security Lab (NEU SecLab) and Duo Security, a cloud-based two-factor authentication company, announced today the release of a mobile application called “ReKey” that fixes the critical “Master Key” vulnerabilities in Google’s Android mobile platform that enable attackers to take full control of a user’s mobile device.

With ReKey, Android users are able to immediately protect their Android phone from the “Master Key” vulnerabilities, without waiting on security updates from their mobile carrier. The ReKey app release is the result of an ongoing research collaboration between Northeastern and Duo.

“ReKey is the latest of our research projects designed to make the Internet a safer place,” said Collin Mulliner, a postdoctoral researcher at NEU SecLab. “We hope that ReKey will provide a practical tool for users to protect themselves and, at the same time, raise awareness of the challenges in the mobile security space.”

Previous research from Duo Security’s DARPA-funded X-Ray project demonstrated that Android users may be exposed by unpatched security weaknesses for months and even years. Last year, Duo reported that over 50% of Android devices worldwide have unpatched vulnerabilities. With the recently-disclosed vulnerabilities, that number will spike to nearly 100% until carriers are able to adequately patch their subscribers’ devices.

“The security of Android devices worldwide is paralyzed by the slow patching practices of mobile carriers and other parties in the Android ecosystem,” said Jon Oberheide, CTO of Duo Security. “We are excited to bring forward innovative technology like ReKey that puts security controls back into the hands of users and enterprises.“

For more information about ReKey, visit For more information about X-Ray, visit

About Northeastern University Systems Security Lab

The Systems Security Lab at Northeastern University (NEU SecLab) has a focus on practical security research, and is active in a number of areas spanning systems and network security. Particular research interests include mobile security, web security, security applications of program analysis, botnets, and malware. SecLab researches tools and techniques for making the Internet a safer place. For more information about NEU SecLab, visit

About Duo Security

Duo Security is the easiest two-factor authentication service to deploy, administer, and use. Duo’s service can be set up in as little as 15 minutes, and used immediately by anyone with a phone. Over 1,000 organizations in over 80 countries rely upon Duo to prevent online account takeover and data theft. Backed by Google Ventures and True Ventures, Duo has been deployed by some of the most security-conscious organizations on the planet along with 3 of the top 5 social networks. Learn more and try it for free at

Article from

Local Bioterrorism as a Potential Global Threat

July 17, 2013 9:38 am

Alex Vespignani

According to a new research com­puter mod­eling study from North­eastern Uni­ver­sity net­work sci­en­tist Alessandro Vespig­nani, when it comes to bioter­rorist attacks, “dis­eases have no bor­ders.” Thus, an out­break of smallpox intended to harm a local pop­u­la­tion would ulti­mately affect the entire planet.Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics, Health Sci­ences, and Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at North­eastern, and his team mod­eled the spread of a hypo­thet­ical smallpox virus across the globe and found that even with the most con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mates, a small ini­tial attack in the city of London would likely spread to two or four coun­tries before the first cases were even diag­nosed, Vespig­nani said. The results were reported in a paper pub­lished Wednesday in the journal Sci­en­tific Reports.

Pre­vious research from other groups have claimed opti­mistic con­trol out­comes by imple­menting effec­tive con­tain­ment poli­cies and suf­fi­cient vac­cine stock­piles. While these con­di­tions may be real­istic for many western coun­tries, Vespig­nani said, the same is not true across all nations. “These papers con­sid­ered the local dimen­sion of a poten­tial attack,” Vespig­nani explained. He added that we are no longer lim­ited by local bound­aries. The modern trans­porta­tion system would allow unknow­ingly infected indi­vid­uals to travel across the globe well before any local con­tain­ment policy was con­sid­ered, he said.

The team rec­og­nized that some mem­bers of the global pop­u­la­tion might be immune to the pathogen if they received the smallpox vac­cine before it was erad­i­cated in 1977. But while accounting for immu­nity brings down the number of indi­vidual cases, the same number of coun­tries would be affected regard­less, according to the model.

Vespig­nani noted that the doc­trine of “mutu­ally assured destruc­tion” should deter even ter­rorist orga­ni­za­tions, which don’t want to bring dev­as­ta­tion to their own people. Nonethe­less, he warned, the world must still be pre­pared for such events. His team’s mod­eling exer­cise is a step in that direction

Addi­tion­ally, with exper­i­ments on increas­ingly infec­tious pathogens like H5N1 cur­rently taking place in research lab­o­ra­to­ries, the model is also rel­e­vant in the case of an acci­dental out­break. The con­di­tions are slightly dif­ferent in these sce­narios, as diag­nosis would likely happen much sooner, but at least in the case of an acci­dental smallpox out­break, the problem reaches the inter­na­tional scale just as readily as with an intended outbreak

Vespignani’s team is cur­rently adapting its model to look specif­i­cally at H5N1.

Autism Research at Home

July 18, 2013 11:43 am

Assistant professor Matthew Goodwin has joint appointments in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Computer and Information Science. Photo by Brooks Canaday.Par­ents are trea­sure troves of obser­va­tional infor­ma­tion, whether they’re watching how the behavior of their kids changes based on what they eat or how much they sleep. For par­ents of chil­dren with autism, this type of infor­ma­tion can be invalu­able to clin­i­cians and researchers alike. But, according to assis­tant pro­fessor Matthew Goodwin, there is a dif­fer­ence between knowing that your child’s behavior changes when he eats cer­tain foods, for instance, and knowing how often this occurs or how intense the behav­ioral changes can be. Goodwin said that infor­ma­tion would be an impor­tant factor in deter­mining whether those foods really are cor­re­lated to his behavior and, if so, what to do about it.For that sort of infor­ma­tion, said Goodwin, a parent’s watchful eye is simply not enough. To answer those ques­tions, he needs quan­ti­ta­tive data.

A leader in the emerging field of per­sonal health infor­matics, Goodwin recently received a $1 mil­lion grant from the Simons Foun­da­tion Autism Research Ini­tia­tive to turn par­ents into para-​​professionals, allowing them to col­lect research-​​grade data via easy-​​to-​​use, non-​​disruptive com­puter sys­tems in the home.
Over the course of two years, Goodwin and his col­leagues at the Georgia Insti­tute of Tech­nology will work with fam­i­lies in the Simons Foun­da­tions’ Vari­a­tion in Indi­vid­uals Project, or VIP. The project aims to con­nect genetic muta­tions likely asso­ci­ated with autism and other neu­rode­vel­op­mental dis­or­ders with clin­ical and behav­ioral patient profiles.

With input from the VIP fam­i­lies, the researchers hope to first iden­tify the most impor­tant types of behav­iors to col­lect, then deter­mine the best sensing sys­tems to use. They will then deploy the system—first in the researchers’ own homes with their own fam­i­lies, and then with 10 fam­i­lies with chil­dren with autism in Boston, Atlanta, and Prov­i­dence, R.I. After that, they will repeat the process with 10 fam­i­lies in New York, Florida, and Los Angeles, grad­u­ally increasing the dis­tance between fam­i­lies and researchers, and thus the amount of sup­port the researchers will be able to provide.

The second year will be devoted to data analysis, Goodwin said. Through the use of cam­eras, audio recorders, and phys­i­o­log­ical sen­sors worn and oper­ated by par­ents, the system will track a number of con­di­tions, he said, including sleep, seizures, anx­iety, socia­bility, lan­guage use, motor-​​muscle tone, and body tem­per­a­ture. In addi­tion, the researchers will be looking at gen­eral affect and devi­a­tions from a child’s typ­ical behavior.

Assis­tant pro­fessor Matthew Goodwin has joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The researchers have pre­vi­ously demon­strated that they can track these states through the use of dig­ital devices, but, said Goodwin, “This is the first time we’re going to do this with a total lay person.”

While the data col­lected will pro­vide impor­tant infor­ma­tion for researchers attempting to con­nect behav­iors to genetic, phys­i­o­log­ical, and envi­ron­mental fac­tors, it will also pro­vide a valu­able tool for fam­i­lies them­selves. Clin­i­cians can use the data to mon­itor the effi­cacy of var­ious treat­ments and changes in an individual’s con­di­tion over time.

Early diag­nosis and treat­ment have been linked to improved patient out­comes, Goodwin said. But often, because of the com­plexity of the diag­nostic pro­tocol, cases go unno­ticed or under­ap­pre­ci­ated for years. By pro­viding a low-​​impact, easy-​​to-​​use system directly to par­ents and care­givers, he hopes to one day change that.

Build a game. Learn math. Be cool.

July 22, 2013 8:15 am

On Wednesday I met a man named Bob Cassels, a software developer at Google, who told me his children’s school recently announced that all its students would learn to code before they graduate. Beaver Country Day School isn’t alone: Last month, UK education secretary Michael Gove revealed a new curriculum that will have all the nation’s five year olds learning programming in their first year of school.

While this may be a new trend in education, it’s likely to stick around. Everything—from a smart phone to a light bulb—seems to be codable now. So eventually, everyone will have to know how to do it.

As someone who knows a thing or two about programming, Cassels understands that how we teach this increasingly important skill is not a trivial matter.

When his 17-year-old son was 12, he tried to teach him how to code using a traditional textbook as a guide. But by the time they got to chapter three, he said, his son had completely lost interest. A few years later he saw him fiddling with a game on the computer and asked what he was up to. “I’m programming,” his son said. He’d taught himself.

*         *          *

I met Cassels before a workshop being held at Northeastern to train middle and high school teachers in an innovative curriculum called Bootstrap, which aims to educate students in algebra and computer programming simultaneously.

Bootstrap is the brainchild of Emmanuel Schanzer and computer and information science professor Matthias Felleisen, along with some critical help from professors Kathi Fisler of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Shriram Krishnamurthi of Brown University.

Schanzer and Felleisen met on a train from Providence to Boston a little less than a decade ago. Schanzer, who holds a computer science degree from Cornell and was familiar with Felleisen’s software, was teaching math at an after-school program in an underserved Boston neighborhood at the time.

Bootstrap is the brainchild of Matthias Felleisen, left, and Emmanuel Schanzer, right. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Bootstrap is the brainchild of Matthias Felleisen, left, and Emmanuel Schanzer, right.

This sparked Felleisen’s interest. He was helping a group of Northeastern undergraduates run a computer programming summer camp for disadvantaged middle schoolers in the area. The student group was called “Compass” and the first generation had some success at their mission, Felleisen said. But the new group was having a difficult time reaching the demographic they really wanted to work with—turns out computer programming had a reputation as something of an elite sport, reserved for the “smart kids” in the most privileged schools.

Earlier in his career, Felleisen had developed a programming language called PLT Scheme (now called Racket) that he hoped would enable all students–regardless of their background or report cards–to program.

Racket is unique in the world of programming languages because it works a lot like regular math. If you know algebra, it’s not a big leap to code a video game in Racket.

But learning algebra is hard enough on its own. Schanzer cites research into students’ struggles with algebra. This is when math itself shifts completely, he said. “Rather than solving equations, students talk about properties such as  linearity, roots, whether an image is ‘one-to-one’ or ‘onto.’ The switch from getting the answer to analyzing objects is a major leap into abstraction, one that can be extraordinarily intimidating and confusing to students.”

And to all of us: “We have a serious national fear of math,” said Emma Youndtsmith, Northeast Regional Manager for Bootstrap and a Northeastern graduate who learned to code using the same type of curriculum she’s now teaching.

Emma Youndsmith, a Northeastern graduate, learned how to program through the same curriculum  she's now teaching. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Emma Youndsmith, a Northeastern graduate, learned how to program through the same curriculum she’s now teaching.

But video games aren’t intimidating.

The Compass students, Felleisen, and now Schanzer thought that perhaps if kids could get excited about building a video game using a mathematical programming language, they could get excited about math and programming too.

So after doing some learning of his own, Schanzer developed Bootstrap. The curriculum immediately achieves that element of excitement and motivation that Bob Cassels’ son needed in order to finally learn how to write code.

Students get to make their very own video games and each time they look at what they’ve created and realize it could be a little cooler if they could just make X happen, they learn a little more mathematics to get them there.

Another brilliant thing about Bootstrap is that it can be readily adapted into any public school algebra curriculum. It’s specifically designed to teach toward the common core standards for math, which makes it a lot easier for teachers to adopt it in their classrooms.

But in the end students don’t just learn how to answer algebra test questions. They learn algebra. They also learn programming, and, perhaps most importantly, that these two seemingly nerdy activities can grant them access into one of the coolest, most rapidly growing fields around.

Cassels’ son, about to graduate with a solid understanding of computer programming, is beginning to think about college and what he might do when he gets there. He went with his dad to tour some of Harvard’s physics and astrophysics labs and found that nearly everyone there was coding in at least some part of their research: “From the guy doing data analysis on quantum physics experiments to the woman doing computer simulations of activity around a black hole,” Cassels told me.

Of course astrophysics research isn’t in everyone’s future, but things like cell phones, microwaves, and light bulbs, likely are. Since all of these things are becoming programmable, we’d better learn how to program. Why not enjoy it, too?

Blog Post by Angela Herring

Game Analytics Reveals Games’ Hidden Impact

August 2, 2013 9:23 am

Game Based Entrepreneurship Training

A decade ago, the term “game ana­lytics” would have meant little even to those well versed in the fields of tech­nology and inter­ac­tive games. Back then, the trail of dig­ital bread­crumbs left by players as they nav­i­gated through games did not play a major role in game devel­op­ment. But along­side the rapid growth of social media, hand­held devices, and big-​​data tracking and analysis, a rev­o­lu­tion in the world of inter­ac­tive games has taken shape that matches the big-​​data-​​driven par­a­digm shift in IT.

Ana­lytics has spread through the game industry like wild­fire and has pro­foundly affected game devel­op­ment at the global scale,” said Anders Drachen, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Arts, Media, and Design and lead game ana­lyst at mid­dle­ware ana­lytics provider Game Analytics.

Drachen has worked with Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the College of Compute rand Information Science and the Col­lege of Arts, Media, and Design  and director of Northeastern’s Game Design Pro­gram, and asso­ciate pro­fessor of game design Alessandro Canossa to impose some order onto the bur­geoning field with the pub­li­ca­tion of Game Ana­lytics: Max­i­mizing the Value of Player Data, the first cen­tral resource on the subject.

Drawing from more than 50 con­tributing authors and inter­view sub­jects across industry and acad­emia, the book addresses both the nuts and bolts of ana­lytics, as well as the psy­chology of game play, mon­e­ti­za­tion, and data mining and visu­al­iza­tion. According to Drachen, it serves as a foun­da­tional tool around which the field can organize.

Industry experts are using game ana­lytics to gain imme­diate feed­back about cus­tomers’ activ­i­ties, expe­ri­ences, and pref­er­ences, thus informing game devel­op­ment and man­age­ment. But the value propo­si­tion doesn’t end with com­pa­nies, Canossa explained. Players are using ana­lytics to eval­uate their own activ­i­ties and com­pare it to that of other players. Researchers are using it to answer ques­tions about topics ranging from human behavior, psy­chology, and social sys­tems to urban plan­ning, archi­tec­ture, and geog­raphy, just to name a few.

The highly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field is growing rapidly, and to help meet the need for more industry experts to keep up, North­eastern has launched a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind grad­uate pro­gram with a game ana­lytics track. While the pro­gram trains stu­dents in the impor­tance of working across tra­di­tional work­place bound­aries, it also intro­duces them to the broader value of game ana­lytics beyond its finan­cial impli­ca­tions. While game ana­lytics has many com­po­nents, the ability to ana­lyze player behavior is at the center of the field’s growth. It also hap­pens to be the dis­tin­guishing fea­ture of Northeastern’s fac­ulty exper­tise and the program’s edge.

Ulti­mately, you will want to look beyond game­play behavior and get con­tex­tual data about your players. This will allow you to get closer to the users and under­stand them better,” explained Seif El-​​Nasr. “This helps not only in enter­tain­ment games, but pro­vides a pow­erful tool for games that have a serious pur­pose, such as those for learning, health, or raising awareness.”

With the 800-​​page tome now on shelves, the trio has begun working on the next iter­a­tion. “We know there is mate­rial out there for at least a dozen more books,” said Drachen. This time around, how­ever, they plan to reg­u­larly pub­lish new con­tent online to keep up with the rapidly evolving field.

Students Author Programming Guide Featuring Comics

August 6, 2013 1:51 pm


The doodle on the back of Eric Peterson’s Fun­da­men­tals of Com­puter Sci­ence exam was a “pretty epic affair,” he recalled. The char­acter was doing a power slide while playing an elec­tric guitar; flames shot through the ground around him. A few days later his pro­fessor, David Van Horn, asked Peterson if he was the one respon­sible for the drawing.

To be honest, I was wor­ried,” Peterson said. “I thought North­eastern was secretly super serious when it came doo­dling, but instead he explained the Realm of Racket project and asked me if I wanted in.”

At that point, Realm of Racket was just an idea. Van Horn, a research assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, along with com­puter sci­ence pro­fessor Matthias Felleisen and med­ical soft­ware devel­oper Conrad Barski, wanted to foster the cre­ation of a com­puter pro­gram­ming guide written “by freshmen, for freshmen.” The book they envi­sioned would teach readers Racket, a lan­guage devel­oped by Felleisen more than a decade earlier.

In addi­tion to Peterson, Felleisen and Van Horn appealed to stu­dents across the Fun­da­men­tals classes and con­vinced another seven to join them. What they ulti­mately cre­ated isn’t just a pro­gram­ming guide; in fact, it’s more of an inter­ac­tive journey.

The book opens with Chad. He’s a curly-​​haired col­lege freshman who’s a bit lost at sea, not sure what he wants to do with his life. We are intro­duced to him through the first of sev­eral comic strips, drawn by Peterson and fellow stu­dent Feng-​​Yun Mimi Lin. “[Chad’s] good friends, Matt and Dave, sug­gested that he should check out pro­gram­ming,” says the comic narrator.

Chad goes online and down­loads “DrRacket,” the pro­gram devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment for the lan­guage. He tum­bles into another dimen­sion, trapped behind the bars of inex­pe­ri­ence. DrRacket becomes a character—Chad’s evil nemesis, trap­ping him in this other world. “The only way you can escape is by using your mind to defeat my traps and puz­zles,” DrRacket tells Chad. “Your life now depends on your thinking and cre­ativity.” (The same could be said about the book-​​writing process for the students.)

The reader jour­neys through the “Realm of Racket” along­side Chad; both learn to code and build simple games along the way. By chapter three, the reader has already coded a guess-​​the-​​number game and is moving on to bigger chal­lenges. With each of the reader’s suc­cesses, Chad over­comes another of DrRacket’s obsta­cles in the comic.

This par­allel journey embodies how many of the stu­dents involved in the project feel about pro­gram­ming: “I found that my way of thinking and rea­soning about prob­lems in life fell directly in line with solving prob­lems in pro­gram­ming,” said co-​​author Scott Lin­deman, who, along with For­rest Bice, Spencer Flo­rence, and Ryan Plessner helped code the games devel­oped for the book.

It was that love of problem solving that com­pelled most of the stu­dents to join the team, even the artists and designers: “Design, to me, is very log­ical,” said Nicole Nuss­baum, one of the layout designers. “It’s about locating prob­lems and taking steps to apply the most effec­tive solutions.”

The project, funded by a gen­erous gift from North­eastern alumnus Brian Wen­zinger, took three years to com­plete and required many long, some­times tearful, hours of writing, editing, and reading, said co-​​author Rose DeMaio. But all along the way, “Matt and Dave” were there to sup­port the stu­dents: “They are extra­or­di­nary in their field,” DeMaio said. “But even more impor­tant to a stu­dent like me, they bring pas­sion to the projects they take on.”

By the end of the book, Chad, once trapped in the realm of Racket, dis­covers that it actu­ally opens up new pos­si­bil­i­ties for him: “You’re free to explore and dis­cover!” DrRacket tells him. “Maybe you’ll even find untrodden ter­ri­tory and make it your own.”

This is pre­cisely what Peterson loves about pro­gram­ming: “What’s so exciting is how empow­ering it is, and that in a lot of ways the only limits are what you can imagine and learn,” he said. “So it’s really the freedom of pro­gram­ming that makes it so attractive.”

After the book-​​writing journey was com­plete, Lin, one of the artists, returned to her home in South Africa where she dis­cov­ered a “bucket list” she wrote at age 13. “One of the items that was listed above ‘go to the moon’ was ‘write a book that teaches people,’” she said. “I started gig­gling to myself when I read it: the 13-​​year-​​old Mimi would have been chuffed to know that her goal had materialized.”

Emergencies in the Digital Age

August 20, 2013 9:47 am

Photo via Thinkstock.On April 15 I was walking my dog in Franklin Park, a big beautiful green space just at the edge of the city. At 3:32 pm my cousin sent me a text message: “You guys good?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “Why? Are you?”

“We’re in JP — there was a bomb @ the marathon”

“Holy $h*!. Really?”

“Yes — scary”

“Are people hurt?”

“Yes. Turn on NPR.”

I was one of less than about 20 percent of Bostonians who learned about the Boston Marathon bombing via cell phone, according to a new report from Northeastern professor David Lazer. Roughly half of us learned about it on the TV, according to the study, which also included contributions from former Northeastern post-doctoral researcher Drew Margolin and visiting professor Ryan Kennedy.

After I heard the news, I opened the public radio app on my phone and listened to the coverage as Ledley and I wandered around the woods. I texted my future husband and now-mother-in-law. More people texted me and I responded. I texted my sister and other cousins, family members, and friends to make sure they were all safe. This was apparently pretty standard behavior around that time on April 15: It was the dominant means by which people inquired about their loved ones.

I was nervous and a little scared, but I felt safe buried in the forest, away from the crowds. In Massachusetts, about 30 percent of the respondents in Lazer’s study also felt “somewhat frightened.” A little more than 20 percent felt “very frightened.” The results were a bit different when the question was posed to people outside the state, where respondents were less angry, less sad, and less frightened in the aftermath of the event. According to the report, the largest location-based gaps were in the level of fear. “Those within Massachusetts felt a much stronger sense of danger than residents of other states,” write the authors.

By the time I made it back to my house, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with marathon-related posts. Rumors of other attacks around the city were bubbling up. I learned via Twitter that there was another bomb at the JFK Library (from someone outside of Massachusetts) and then later, also via Twitter, I learned that wasn’t true. According to Lazer’s study, people in general were most likely to learn of these rumors via the television. If you were located outside of the state, you were less likely to ever learn they were false.

The study is part of an ongoing effort from Lazer’s lab to understand how people communicate during and after emergencies. For more information you can find the full report here and read some of Lazer’s commentary on the findings here. These results came from a survey that his team issued between June 27 and July 5. They are also working on a project looking more deeply at our cell phone use specifically in the aftermath of the event. If you would like to volunteer for that study, visit They will donate $3 to the One Fund for each person that participates.

Article originally appeared on iNSolution Research Blog

A Social Network to Improve Community Health

August 27, 2013 9:46 am

Andrea Grimes ParkerThrough the use of mobile and web appli­ca­tions, people have more access than ever before to infor­ma­tion aimed at improving health and well­ness. But less is known about how these social tools should be designed, what deter­mines their effec­tive­ness, and how they can con­nect people with others in their com­mu­ni­ties to pro­mote nutri­tion and encourage phys­ical activity on a larger scale.

Andrea Parker, an assis­tant pro­fessor of per­sonal health infor­matics and human-​​computer inter­ac­tion at North­eastern, is focused on solving these challenges.

“We’re trying to under­stand how tech­nology can help reduce health dis­par­i­ties,” said Parker, who is among a group of fac­ulty involved in Northeastern’s first-​​in-​​the-​​nation doc­torate pro­gram in per­sonal health infor­matics. “My research takes a human cen­tered approach, which means I do a lot of community-​​based research to under­stand the needs, values, and pri­or­i­ties of a pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly people in low-​​income communities.”

Her research begins in these com­mu­ni­ties, many of which have lim­ited access to healthy food and play areas for chil­dren. She con­ducts focus groups and sur­veys to col­lect health-​​related data from indi­vid­uals and then uses that data to design mobile and ubiq­ui­tous tech­nology tools—such as touch screen appli­ca­tions and mobile phone software—that pro­mote healthy diets and phys­ical activity. It is crit­ical, she said, that these tech­nolo­gies are both engaging and sustainable.

One of her projects in the early stages, which she’s working on in col­lab­o­ra­tion with fellow Bouvé fac­ulty mem­bers Carmen Sceppa and Jes­sica Hoffman, is a mobile tool that helps con­nect fam­i­lies in Boston’s low-​​income neigh­bor­hoods. This summer, Parker con­ducted focus groups with com­mu­nity res­i­dents at the Sat­urday Open Gym, an ini­tia­tive of Northeastern’s Healthy Kids Healthy Futures pro­gram in which fam­i­lies par­tic­i­pate in fun, free activ­i­ties. Based on her com­mu­nity inter­views, Parker will develop a mobile tool that encour­ages par­tic­i­pants to con­tinue their healthy habits throughout the week and urge their neigh­bors to do the same. It may include apps that pro­vide goals and rewards for par­tic­i­pants, or a mech­a­nism to share media and per­sonal suc­cess stories.

In a way, it’s very much like a social net­work cen­tered on pro­moting and sus­taining healthy living. “Most social net­working appli­ca­tions involve users con­necting with family and friends, but far less is under­stood about how people con­nect within a neigh­bor­hood,” Parker explained. “How can we con­nect people together to engage in healthy behav­iors? What do they need to be suc­cessful? Very often, we think of how social net­works can ben­efit our­selves. But I’m inter­ested in how these tools can empower people to improve the health of others in their neighborhoods.”

In a prior study, Parker designed a com­mu­nity mosaic that lever­aged touch screen and mobile dis­plays. Com­mu­nity mem­bers uploaded photos and text mes­sages that inspired their healthy eating. The media were then dis­played at a local YMCA, where other com­mu­nity mem­bers could interact with a touch screen and read about their neigh­bors’ healthy activities.

The idea behind the project, Parker explained, was to study if and how this inter­ac­tion helped inspire action among the YMCA’s users and to what extent it shifted a person’s posi­tion as a health advo­cate in their com­mu­nity. “We found that the mosaic changed people’s ideas about the impor­tance of being health advo­cates,” she said.

From a big pic­ture point of view, Parker hopes to not only reduce com­mu­nity health dis­par­i­ties but also con­tribute to the field of com­puter sci­ence by exploring technology’s role in fos­tering healthy out­comes. By doing so, she said, “we can impact change on an even larger level.”

Big Data’s Role in Business Innovation

September 10, 2013 10:56 am

Chris Riedl

A tweet. A product review on Amazon​.com. A Face­book pic­ture with a loca­tion stamp. All of these rep­re­sent dig­ital foot­prints left behind by online users, and col­lec­tively amount to large data sets—or so called “big data”—that researchers use to ana­lyze human behavior and social trends.

New assis­tant pro­fessor Christoph Riedl will take an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to exam­ining these data to shed light on solu­tions to soci­etal chal­lenges in busi­ness and inno­va­tion. In par­tic­ular, he will apply his inter­ests in data sci­ence and com­pu­ta­tional social sci­ence to study sub­stan­tive research ques­tions in areas such as decision-​​making by indi­vid­uals and groups, online social net­works, and team­work and productivity.

I’m par­tic­u­larly drawn to how we can use modern com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools, through which large num­bers of people can work together, to solve existing prob­lems or tackle new prob­lems,” said Riedl, who joins the fac­ulty this fall with joint appoint­ments in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. Prior to North­eastern, he worked as a post-​​doctoral fellow at Har­vard Busi­ness School and Har­vard University’s Insti­tute for Quan­ti­ta­tive Social Science.

One of his ongoing projects is focused on word-​​of-​​mouth. While pos­i­tive online word of mouth is known to drive product sales, Riedl said less is known about what drives word-​​of-​​mouth itself. He exam­ined 280,000 online con­sumer reviews of more than 430 movies, focusing on the volume of and dis­agree­ment among pre­vi­ously posted film reviews. Fur­ther, he looked at how those fac­tors influ­ence whether someone new is likely to chime in and how pre­vious reviews may influ­ence the new reviewer’s take. He found that dis­agree­ment draws more people into the con­ver­sa­tion, but that people’s reviews are often influ­enced by what others have argued.

Iden­ti­fying such social influ­ence, he explained, can help researchers better under­stand the joint decision-​​making process in business.

In other research, Riedl is exploring whether social media activity can pro­vide the same rich, tan­gible social con­nec­tions formed in the real world. After sur­veying Twitter users and using data col­lected directly from Twitter to observe their online activity, Riedl and his col­leagues found that social aware­ness, social pres­ence, and usage fre­quency have a direct effect on social con­nect­ed­ness and do indeed help people build social capital.

Riedl will con­tinue to work on inno­v­a­tive projects like these as a member of the NULab for Texts, Maps and Net­works—the university’s research-​​based center for Dig­ital Human­i­ties and Com­pu­ta­tional Social Science.

To illus­trate the big-​​picture impli­ca­tions of big data, he noted that for example geo-​​location data from Twitter posts could help shed light on how indi­vid­uals and groups behave; how they migrate on a city level; and how their activity varies when they’re com­muting to work com­pared to when they’re relaxing on the weekend.

These Apps were Made for Walking

September 11, 2013 11:03 am

Personal Health InformaticsOnly one quarter of senior cit­i­zens meet the national guide­lines for reg­ular phys­ical activity, according to a report from the Amer­ican Col­lege of Sports Med­i­cine and the Amer­ican Heart Association. This is despite clear evi­dence that exer­cise is asso­ci­ated with lower risk of car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease, Type 2 dia­betes, osteo­porosis, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer, and disability—all prob­lems of increased con­cern for older adults.

In an effort to pro­mote phys­ical activity across ages, smart­phone and tablet appli­ca­tions are rapidly emerging and stand to improve a variety of health out­comes. But older adults tend to lack the com­puter skills to uti­lize these tech­nolo­gies, according to asso­ciate pro­fessor Tim­othy Bick­more in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, adding that older adults from ethnic minority groups who could ben­efit the most also tend to have lower health lit­eracy. Few, if any, of the cur­rently avail­able health-​​promotion apps are tar­geted specif­i­cally toward the needs and pref­er­ences of these communities.

Backed by a new National Insti­tutes of Health grant, Bick­more and co-​​principal inves­ti­gator Abby King of Stan­ford University’s School of Med­i­cine are seeking to bridge this gap.

In pre­vious research, Bick­more has devel­oped sys­tems that look, sound, and act more like humans than they do com­puters. These agents are actu­ally char­ac­ters with a per­sonal his­tory and the ability to sim­u­late empathy. They have names, like Carmen or Karen; they can speak a variety of lan­guages; and they con­tain mas­sive data­bases of health infor­ma­tion. Bick­more believes that Carmen and Karen could do as good a job as human exer­cise coaches, but with the added ben­e­fits of scal­a­bility, reli­a­bility, and lower cost.

Bick­more and his col­leagues put this hypoth­esis to the test in two recently com­pleted studies—one at Boston Med­ical Center out­pa­tient clinics, and another he ran with King at a Latino com­mu­nity center in Cal­i­fornia. In the BMC study, the team showed that its char­ac­ters helped older adults increase the number of steps they walked daily when they had access to them on take-​​home tablet computers.

“We wanted to see if people in an urban low lit­eracy pop­u­la­tion would be able to use a tech­nology that was designed for them that would improve their health,” said Bick­more, “and we seemed to show that it did.”

The Cal­i­fornia study also demon­strated promising results when the sys­tems were deployed in pri­vate rooms at the com­mu­nity center: The par­tic­i­pants walked eight times as much as those in the con­trol group.

Par­tic­i­pants inter­acted with the rela­tional agents for two or four months depending on the study, set­ting short– and long-​​term exer­cise goals, get­ting pos­i­tive rein­force­ment from the rela­tional agents when they met those goals, and dis­cussing bar­riers to suc­cess when they fell short.

With the $3 mil­lion NIH grant, Bick­more and King now plan to repeat the Cal­i­fornia study on a broader scale. This time around, they will deploy the sys­tems at 16 com­mu­nity cen­ters around the state and com­pare the vir­tual coach to a human coun­selor, whom they hope to show is at least on par with the human inter­ven­tion. “That’s good enough,” Bick­more said, “because this is scal­able, less expen­sive, and it’s higher fidelity so it’s the same thing every time—it doesn’t have bad days.”


Cutting-Edge Tech Gives A Synthetic Voice To The Voiceless

September 16, 2013 9:26 am

A tech breakthrough is letting people who are physically unable to speak talk out loud in their own, unique voice.

When a person can’t use audible speech to communicate, technology already exists that can allow some people to talk using a computerized voice. Generally people need to use apps or computer programs where you type in what you want to say and the phone or tablet speaks it aloud.

Until now, every person who utilized the technology has had the same voice — which sounds deep and computerized. But thanks to VocaliD, that’s changing.

“You see a 3-year-old girl using that voice, and then you see a 40-year-old male using that voice, and it’s odd. It can’t really be an extension of the individual if someone else has that same voice,” Rupal Patel, associate professor at Northeastern University and the developer behind VocaliD told The Huffington Post. “That was when we first started thinking: ‘Isn’t there a way to make these voices more personalized?”

Patel uses technology to blend a person’s unique speech with a healthy speaker’s voice to create a sound that is “understandable but unique to the person that we want to build it for.”

For Samantha Grimaldo, the teenager with whom Patel is working to develop the speech program, the information in her brain doesn’t flow to the muscles used for speech. “I don’t use my voice to talk, but I use my iPhone,” Grimaldo said. Grimaldo called the default voice she’s been using “weird.”

“Because of the way it sounds, she doesn’t want to use the phone as much, especially in public,” Grimaldo’s mother, Ruane, said. In order to create a special voice for Grimaldo, Patel took recordings of Grimaldo saying different vowels and blended them with another speaker’s voice.

Grimaldo’s mother said she was thrilled with the result, and that she could hear some of Samantha’s voice in it. “We’re just so grateful that this could happen for her,” Ruane said. “She’s going to have a full life because of people like Rupal, who really want to help.”

“There’s nothing better than seeing the person who’s actually going to use it, seeing their reaction, seeing their smile,” Patel said.

Article from The Huffington Post

3Qs: Get to know the SGA

September 25, 2013 11:15 am


Nick NaraghiStu­dent Gov­ern­ment Asso­ci­a­tion, known as SGA, serves as the voice of the under­grad­uate stu­dent body. As the offi­cial liaison between the stu­dents and admin­is­tra­tion, SGA seeks to improve the under­grad­uate expe­ri­ence by bringing stu­dent opin­ions directly to the admin­is­tra­tion. We asked SGA Pres­i­dent Nick Naraghi, a fourth-​​year com­puter sci­ence and finance com­bined major, to break down what SGA does on campus and why stu­dents should get involved.

How does the Student Government Association engage with students through its work and mission?

Our organization is primarily composed of senators, who talk to different constituencies around campus on a weekly basis. We also conduct surveys to gather feedback from the undergraduate student population; this way we can put real data behind our initiatives and ensure that student opinions are incorporated in all university decisions. Our team is broken up into five externally facing committees that represent all areas of undergraduate life: academic affairs, student affairs, student involvement, student services, and the finance board. Through the work of these groups, we are able to take on initiatives relating to every part of the Northeastern experience, including the approval of new student organizations and the allocation of the Student Activity Fee. We are given the privilege to represent the entire undergraduate student body, and it’s important to make sure that we’re accomplishing that.

What initiatives has SGA achieved in the past, and what are you working on looking forward?

In the past, SGA has successfully worked to extend the library hours to 24/7 for students, increased the number of points that can be used at Outtakes, and created the Little Things To Know guide for new students to quickly acquaint themselves with Northeastern culture. In addition, we work with the Graduate Student Government each year to administer the Budget Priorities survey, which allows students to have a direct say in how their tuition is spent.

This year we are working with all of the academic colleges to create example course sequences for each major; we’re encouraging students to register to vote and take a stand in the upcoming city of Boston mayoral race; and we’re working with Boston intercollegiate councils to find a way to better represent the student population on a level bigger than Northeastern.

How can students get involved with SGA?

Outside of our regular meetings, which run every Monday at 7 p.m. in room 333 of the Curry Student Center, students can become senators and represent a constituency, such as a student group or academic college. Students are also welcome to sit on one of our committees or boards without being a senator. These committees complete valuable work for the student body, and are always looking for additional student input. Lastly, students can get involved by simply participating in our surveys and voting for the next SGA president in April. SGA can’t operate without student involvement and feedback, and the more participation we receive, the better.

Researchers Push the Radio Rainbow’s Limits

September 30, 2013 10:21 am

Guevara Noubir

Back when walkie-​​talkies and car radios rep­re­sented the height of wire­less tech­nology, there were plenty of fre­quen­cies to go around. The spec­trum of radio waves was easily parsed into dis­crete packets: one for the oldies sta­tion, one for playing cops-​​and-​​robbers in the woods behind your house, sev­eral for real police offi­cers and for mil­i­tary communications.

But with the increasing use of wire­less devices, that spec­trum is get­ting clogged. “You cannot create more fre­quency,” explained Gue­vara Noubir, a pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. “The spec­trum is like a nat­ural resource—it has to be shared by everybody.”

The problem of wire­less inter­fer­ence isn’t lim­ited to things like dropped calls, which we might be more familiar with. Noubir said it also presents a sig­nif­i­cant secu­rity chal­lenge as adver­saries may inten­tion­ally jam communications.

The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, or FCC, announced in June that it would expand a pres­i­den­tial direc­tive to iden­tify more fre­quency band­width through policy and best prac­tices. But as quickly as band­width is freed up, new wire­less tech­nolo­gies enter the market demanding even more.

Since cre­ating new spec­trum would be as easy as gen­er­ating petro­leum fuel out of thin air, researchers like Noubir are set­ting their sights on better wire­less sys­tems that more effec­tively use the fre­quen­cies we’ve got. Toward that end, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, has rolled out a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind Spec­trum Chal­lenge to design and build a soft­ware defined radio from the ground up that address today’s challenges.

In a pre­lim­i­nary round ear­lier this year, 90 research teams from around the country watched their software-​​defined radios attempt to dom­i­nate their com­peti­tors in one sec­tion and then to coop­er­a­tively share the spec­trum in a second. In that first event, the pool was reduced to just 18 teams, which faced off again ear­lier this month.

Com­paring wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems and algo­rithms is can be dif­fi­cult, given the chal­lenge of repro­ducing the envi­ron­ment for radio wave prop­a­ga­tion. In order to create a level playing field for wire­less sys­tems com­par­ison, the tour­na­ments were phys­i­cally run on a syn­thetic testbed at Rut­gers University.

Noubir’s team, which also includes former grad­uate stu­dent Bishal Thapa and cur­rent doc­toral can­di­date Triet Vo-​​Huu, has con­sis­tently dom­i­nated the pack. Since the 1990s, when Noubir helped develop the world’s first 3G net­work, he and his col­leagues have devel­oped var­ious tech­niques for effi­ciently blocking com­mu­ni­ca­tions as well as over­coming smart attacks trans­mitted by others on the same fre­quency wave. “Our tech­niques draw from com­mu­ni­ca­tions and coding theory, algo­rithmic game theory, and soft­ware defined radio,” he explained.

Their soft­ware earned Noubir’s team first place in this month’s coop­er­a­tive sec­tion and third in the com­pet­i­tive sec­tion. Theirs was the only team to place in the top three in both sec­tions, as well as the only team to retain its high-​​level standing in the pre­lim­i­nary round. Their achieve­ments were met with a $25,000 prize from DARPA.

The next event in the chal­lenge will be held in March 2014, when the same teams will com­pete again with sim­ilar rules and toward a sim­ilar goal. “We’ll be spending the next six months making smarter tech­niques on top of the foun­da­tion we’ve already cre­ated,” Noubir said.

Researchers Push the Radio Rainbow’s Limits

September 30, 2013 10:21 am

Guevara Noubir

Back when walkie-​​talkies and car radios rep­re­sented the height of wire­less tech­nology, there were plenty of fre­quen­cies to go around. The spec­trum of radio waves was easily parsed into dis­crete packets: one for the oldies sta­tion, one for playing cops-​​and-​​robbers in the woods behind your house, sev­eral for real police offi­cers and for mil­i­tary communications.

But with the increasing use of wire­less devices, that spec­trum is get­ting clogged. “You cannot create more fre­quency,” explained Gue­vara Noubir, a pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. “The spec­trum is like a nat­ural resource—it has to be shared by everybody.”

The problem of wire­less inter­fer­ence isn’t lim­ited to things like dropped calls, which we might be more familiar with. Noubir said it also presents a sig­nif­i­cant secu­rity chal­lenge as adver­saries may inten­tion­ally jam communications.

The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, or FCC, announced in June that it would expand a pres­i­den­tial direc­tive to iden­tify more fre­quency band­width through policy and best prac­tices. But as quickly as band­width is freed up, new wire­less tech­nolo­gies enter the market demanding even more.

Since cre­ating new spec­trum would be as easy as gen­er­ating petro­leum fuel out of thin air, researchers like Noubir are set­ting their sights on better wire­less sys­tems that more effec­tively use the fre­quen­cies we’ve got. Toward that end, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, has rolled out a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind Spec­trum Chal­lenge to design and build a soft­ware defined radio from the ground up that address today’s challenges.

In a pre­lim­i­nary round ear­lier this year, 90 research teams from around the country watched their software-​​defined radios attempt to dom­i­nate their com­peti­tors in one sec­tion and then to coop­er­a­tively share the spec­trum in a second. In that first event, the pool was reduced to just 18 teams, which faced off again ear­lier this month.

Com­paring wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems and algo­rithms is can be dif­fi­cult, given the chal­lenge of repro­ducing the envi­ron­ment for radio wave prop­a­ga­tion. In order to create a level playing field for wire­less sys­tems com­par­ison, the tour­na­ments were phys­i­cally run on a syn­thetic testbed at Rut­gers University.

Noubir’s team, which also includes former grad­uate stu­dent Bishal Thapa and cur­rent doc­toral can­di­date Triet Vo-​​Huu, has con­sis­tently dom­i­nated the pack. Since the 1990s, when Noubir helped develop the world’s first 3G net­work, he and his col­leagues have devel­oped var­ious tech­niques for effi­ciently blocking com­mu­ni­ca­tions as well as over­coming smart attacks trans­mitted by others on the same fre­quency wave. “Our tech­niques draw from com­mu­ni­ca­tions and coding theory, algo­rithmic game theory, and soft­ware defined radio,” he explained.

Their soft­ware earned Noubir’s team first place in this month’s coop­er­a­tive sec­tion and third in the com­pet­i­tive sec­tion. Theirs was the only team to place in the top three in both sec­tions, as well as the only team to retain its high-​​level standing in the pre­lim­i­nary round. Their achieve­ments were met with a $25,000 prize from DARPA.

The next event in the chal­lenge will be held in March 2014, when the same teams will com­pete again with sim­ilar rules and toward a sim­ilar goal. “We’ll be spending the next six months making smarter tech­niques on top of the foun­da­tion we’ve already cre­ated,” Noubir said.

Researchers Create New Tool for Predicting Academic Success

October 4, 2013 9:42 am


We all want to know the secret to suc­cess and physi­cists are no dif­ferent. Like the rest of the aca­d­emic com­mu­nity, physi­cists rely on var­ious quan­ti­ta­tive fac­tors to deter­mine whether a researcher will enjoy long-​​term suc­cess. These fac­tors help deter­mine every­thing from grant approvals to hiring deci­sions. The only problem with this method, according to Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics Albert-​​László Barabási, is a known lack of pre­dic­tive power.

Impact factor, for example, is a mea­sure of a schol­arly journal’s impact on the field over time while the Hirsch index quan­ti­fies an indi­vidual researcher’s suc­cess. While these models do a good job of rep­re­senting past accom­plish­ments, they are not able to pre­dict the future for young researchers and new papers.

In a paper released Thursday in the journal Sci­ence, Barabási—a world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence—and his team at Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research offer a new math­e­mat­ical model for quan­ti­fying impact that goes a step fur­ther in its ability to fore­cast long-​​term success.

“Nov­elty and impor­tance depend on so many intan­gible and sub­jec­tive dimen­sions that it is impos­sible to objec­tively quan­tify them all,” write the study’s authors. “Here, we bypass the need to eval­uate a paper’s intrinsic value.”

The team exam­ined the cita­tion his­to­ries of thou­sands of schol­arly physics arti­cles pub­lished between 1893 and 2010, hoping to find some pat­terns. “At first what we saw was true chaos,” explained Barabási. Some arti­cles met with plenty of atten­tion in the first year after pub­li­ca­tion but interest quickly fell there­after, others took four or five years before nose-​​diving, while still others never expe­ri­enced a spike.

To sort through this apparent dis­order, the team iden­ti­fied three mech­a­nisms that seemed fun­da­mental to the way a paper gen­er­ates cita­tions: its orig­i­nality, its age, and the number of cita­tions it has already accrued.

The team trans­lated each of these con­cepts into a math­e­mat­ical equa­tion and then com­bined the results to create a new model for rep­re­senting cita­tion pat­terns over the course of a paper’s life­time. The new model suc­cess­fully matched the cita­tion his­tory of every one of the 463,348 papers they examined.

Unlike any of the existing impact mea­sures out there, Barabási’s new model has the added func­tion­ality of being able to pre­dict long-​​term cita­tion his­to­ries based on just the first few years of data. The findings—which the team val­i­dated in fields beyond physics, including biology, chem­istry, and the social sciences—provide a new, arguably more effec­tive, tool for quan­ti­fying aca­d­e­mi­cians’ success.

The research con­tinues Northeastern’s ground­breaking work in net­work sci­ence. For instance, Barabási is also working to build the human dis­ea­some—a net­work of cel­lular and genetic inter­ac­tions that will help sci­en­tists better under­stand the causes of all kinds of ill­nesses and ail­ments. Researchers are also using net­work sci­ence to study pol­i­tics, social media, and the spread of epi­demic con­ta­gions. And this summer, North­eastern launched the nation’s first doc­toral pro­gram in net­work science.


Student’s Autonomous Boat ‘Scouts’ the Atlantic

October 21, 2013 1:24 pm

Dave Pimentel

When a friend with an ambi­tious goal to send an autonomous boat from Rhode Island to Spain approached David Pimentel, he jumped on the oppor­tu­nity. “He needed someone to help pro­gram the idea he had, which has to send a boat across the Atlantic,” explained Pimentel. “Right away, I was very inter­ested in doing it.”

Pimentel, a fourth-​​year com­puter sci­ence major, was tasked with coding the 13-​​foot long autonomous robotic boat, nick­named Scout, to follow a spe­cific set of latitude-​​longitude points. The oppor­tu­nity to code during co-​​op place­ments for PayPal and the mobile com­pany Run­K­eeper gave Pimentel the expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary to take on such a lofty task. The boat is depending entirely on these pre-​​programmed com­mands as well as infor­ma­tion about its envi­ron­ment col­lected through sen­sors to nav­i­gate the Atlantic.

After some trial and error, Scout was suc­cess­fully launched at 1 a.m. on Aug. 24 from Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, R.I., with a crowd of spec­ta­tors and project sup­porters in attendance.

We had a couple of ini­tial launches fail due to dif­ferent rea­sons, but now this trip is going better than I expected,” Pimentel said.

The team’s other six mem­bers were respon­sible for cre­ating the web appli­ca­tion used to track the boat, pro­gram­ming com­mu­ni­ca­tions soft­ware, form con­struc­tion, and com­po­nent fab­ri­ca­tion, among other aspects. The boat’s bat­tery is pow­ered by solar panels, sim­ilar to how a motor­cycle bat­tery oper­ates. Since Scout only moves as a modest one mile per hour, on average, Pimentel and his team antic­i­pate the trip will take another six to 12 weeks.

We would like to prove that this is pos­sible, and some­thing that can be used in a research set­ting,” he said. “The ability to send a boat out to a cer­tain point in the ocean to col­lect data, without needing to send a team, would be both cost and time effective.”

Out­side of the poten­tial research impli­ca­tions of a suc­cessful trip, the team has already believed to have beaten the world record for the far­thest dis­tance trav­eled by an autonomous boat. The pre­vious record for the length of time spent on the water by an autonomous boat attempting a transat­lantic trip was set in 2010 by a vessel that trav­eled only 61 miles off the coast of Ire­land. Scout has already passed this pre­vious marker by nearly 30-​​fold.

This has been a really exciting project to be a part of,” Pimentel said. “We’ve proven that it’s pos­sible, and if we can, we’re going to do it again.”

The Social Network, Hungary-​​Style

October 28, 2013 10:06 am

Janos Ader, President of Hungary

For every Hun­garian living in Greater Boston, there are about 4,000 non-​​Hungarians.  Despite its small size, how­ever, the Hun­garian com­mu­nity has formed a tight social net­work, according to recent research from Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics Albert-​​László Barabási and Ancsa Hancsak, a doc­toral can­di­date in net­work science.

This small net­work expanded fur­ther by adding an extra­or­di­nary connection—Hungarian Pres­i­dent János Áder. Along with a del­e­ga­tion of dig­ni­taries from Boston, New York City, and Wash­ington D.C., Áder vis­ited with the local Hun­garian sci­ence and med­ical researchers on Thursday evening at Northeastern.

Hancsak and Barabási, who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, pre­sented their work to the very com­mu­nity it addressed at the biweekly meeting of the Hun­garian Society of America’s sci­ence club. The meeting was held in honor of Pres­i­dent Áder, who was joined by Gyorgy Sza­pary, the U.S. ambas­sador to Hun­gary; Karoly Dan, consul gen­eral; and Gabor Garai, hon­orary consul general.

Áder’s visit to Boston is part of an ongoing effort to strengthen human, cul­tural, com­mer­cial, and diplo­matic ties between Hungarian-​​Americans and their home country. The visit, from Oct. 22 to Oct. 30, includes stops in four other North Amer­ican cities.

“There is a lot to be learned from studying and working abroad,” Áder said, through a trans­lator, in his dis­cus­sion with Stephen W. Director, Northeastern’s provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. In their dis­cus­sion about Northeastern’s expe­ri­en­tial learning model and research and edu­ca­tional enter­prise, Áder noted that Hun­gary would ben­efit from moti­vating its stu­dents to study in for­eign coun­tries before returning to apply their skills at home. He pointed to the medieval prac­tice of sending appren­tices abroad to learn a pro­fes­sion. While the focal careers—masonry and carpentry—were dif­ferent then, the ben­efit of inter­na­tional expe­ri­ence remains of value, he said.

“Our co-​​op pro­gram builds on that idea,” Director said. Áder agreed, noting that he was very impressed with Northeastern’s expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion model, rooted in its sig­na­ture co-​​op pro­gram, and con­sid­ered an oppor­tu­nity for a sim­ilar model in Hun­gary. Áder also noted that many tal­ented and edu­cated Hun­gar­ians in a range of dis­ci­plines have left the country to pursue careers overseas—a chal­lenge he is par­tic­u­larly focused on solving.

The pri­mary goal of the president’s trip to Boston, according to Garai, was to meet mem­bers of the local com­mu­nity and exchange ideas. Along those lines, Barabási and Hancsak’s research reveals a social net­work ripe for col­lab­o­ra­tion with the homeland.

“We used the sci­ence of net­works to under­stand com­mu­ni­ties and the rela­tion­ship to Amer­ican cul­ture,” Barabási said. “There is a net­work here, of busi­ness, pro­fes­sional, and social ties.”

Hancsak is a doc­toral can­di­date in the lab run by North­eastern pro­fessor David Lazer, who has joint appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. She said the Hun­garian com­mu­nity is diverse and includes impor­tant researchers and med­ical doc­tors. “If you look at the net­work,” she explained, “you can see that researchers have strong ties with their col­leagues back home.” The work also reveals an inter­con­nect­ed­ness between Boston-​​based Hun­garian cor­po­ra­tions, which are sur­pris­ingly iso­lated from the broader community.

Hun­gary has a rep­u­ta­tion of excel­lence in math­e­matics edu­ca­tion. Some of its most notable researchers include Farkas and János Bolyai, who invented modern, non-​​Euclidian geom­etry, and Paul Erdős, who was known for pur­suing diverse math­e­mat­ical prob­lems through hun­dreds of research col­lab­o­ra­tions. It was that very spirit of col­lab­o­ra­tion that last week’s event sought to highlight.

“While many researchers emi­grate,” Hancsak said, “we can show that they’re coming to Boston to do some­thing more and that they are keeping their aca­d­emic con­nec­tions in Hungary.”

Anonymity Network Tor Needs a Tune-up to Protect Users from Surveillance

October 28, 2013 2:28 pm

When reports published earlier this month revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency could reverse the protections of Internet anonymity tool Tor, many activists and others who rely on the tool had little reason to panic. Despite the alarmist tone of some headlines, the techniques revealed relied on attacking software such as Web browsers rather than Tor itself. After reviewing the leaked NSA documents, the Tor Project declared “there’s no indication they can break the Tor protocol.”All the same, the Tor Project is trying to develop critical adjustments to how its tool works to strengthen it against potential compromise. Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory have discovered that Tor’s design is more vulnerable than previously realized to a kind of attack the NSA or government agencies in other countries might mount to deanonymize people using Tor.

Tor prevents people using the Internet from leaving many of the usual traces that can allow a government or ISP to know which websites or other services they are connecting to. Users of the tool range from people trying to evade corporate firewalls to activists, dissidents, criminals, and U.S. government workers with more sophisticated adversaries to avoid.

When people install the Tor client software, their outgoing and incoming traffic takes an indirect route around the Internet, hopping through a network of “relay” computers run by volunteers around the world. Packets of data hopping through that network are encrypted so that relays know only their previous and next destination (see “Dissent Made Safer”). This means that even if a relay is compromised, the identity of users, and details of their browsing, should not be revealed.

However, new research shows how a government agency could work out the true source and destination of Tor traffic with relative ease. Aaron Johnson of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and colleagues found that the network is vulnerable to a type of attack known as traffic analysis.

This type of attack involves observing Internet traffic data going into and out of the Tor network and looking for patterns that reveal the Internet services that a specific Internet connection, and presumably its owner,  is using Tor to access. Johnson and colleagues showed that the method could be very effective for an organization that both contributed relays to the Tor network and could monitor some Internet traffic via ISPs.

“Our analysis shows that 80 percent of all types of users may be deanonymized by a relatively moderate Tor-relay adversary within six months,” the researchers write in a paper on their findings. “These results are somewhat gloomy for the current security of the Tor network.” The work of Johnson and his colleagues will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Berlin next month.

Johnson told MIT Technology Review that people using the Tor network to protect against low-powered adversaries such as corporate firewalls aren’t likely to be affected by the problem. But he thinks people using Tor to evade the attention of national agencies have reason to be concerned. “There are many plausible cases in which someone would be in a position to control an ISP,” says Johnson.

Johnson says that the workings of Tor need to be adjusted to mitigate the problem his research has uncovered. That sentiment is shared by Roger Dingledine, one of Tor’s original developers and the project’s current director (see “TR35: Roger Dingledine”).

“It’s clear from this paper that there *do* exist realistic scenarios where Tor users are at high risk from an adversary watching the nearby Internet infrastructure,” Dingledine wrote in a blog post last week. He notes that someone using Tor to visit a service hosted in the same country—he gives the example of Syria—would be particularly at risk. In that situation traffic correlation would be easy, because authorities could monitor the Internet infrastructure serving both the Tor user and the service he or she is connecting to.

Dingledine is considering changes to the Tor protocol that might help. In the current design, the Tor client selects three entry points into the Tor network and uses them for 30 days before choosing a new set. But each time new “guards” are selected the client runs the risk of choosing one an attacker using traffic analysis can monitor or control. Setting the Tor client to select fewer guards and to change them less often would make traffic correlation attacks less effective. But more research is needed before such a change can be made to Tor’s design.

Whether the NSA or any other country’s national security agency is actively trying to use traffic analysis against Tor is unclear. This month’s reports, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, didn’t say whether the NSA was doing so. But a 2012 presentation marked as based on material from 2007, released by the Guardian, and a 2006 NSA research report on Tor, released by the Washington Post did mention such techniques.

Stevens Le Blond, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Kaiserslautern, Germany, guesses that by now the NSA and equivalent agencies likely could use traffic correlation should they want to. “Since 2006, the academic community has done much work on traffic analysis and has developed attacks that are much more sophisticated than the ones described in this report.” Le Blond calls the potential for attacks like those detailed by Johnson “a big issue.”

Le Blond is working on the design of an alternative anonymity network called Aqua, designed to protect against traffic correlation. Traffic entering and exiting an Aqua network is made to be indistinguishable through a mixture of careful timing, and blending in some fake traffic. However, Aqua’s design is yet to be implemented in usable software and can so far only protect file sharing rather than all types of Internet usage.

In fact, despite its shortcomings, Tor remains essentially the only practical tool available to people that need or want to anonymize their Internet traffic, says David Choffnes, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who helped design Aqua. “The landscape right now for privacy systems is poor because it’s incredibly hard to put out a system that works, and there’s an order of magnitude more work that looks at how to attack these systems than to build new ones.”

Article from MIT Technology Review

Tweeting Under Pressure

October 31, 2013 9:51 am

Wilson, Chen, ZhangWhen Fan Jiyue, party sec­re­tary of Lushan County in China, vis­ited the site of an earth­quake last April that claimed the lives of nearly 200 of his con­stituents, it was his wrist that drew the most atten­tion. A dis­tinct tan line sug­gested he’d removed a watch before being pho­tographed, which social media users quickly took as evi­dence of Fan’s cor­rup­tion because the watch was believed to cost well above the cus­tomary salary range for a country official.

The next day, Fan’s name was blocked from search results on Sina Weibo, the Chi­nese ver­sion of Twitter, and tweets con­taining the name were taken down within min­utes. Cen­sor­ship isn’t uncommon on the microblog­ging plat­form, which counts some 500 mil­lion users. Research sug­gests that up to 16 per­cent of all “weibos”—the Chi­nese ver­sion of tweets—are removed, often because they con­tain polit­i­cally sen­si­tive issues.

In research recently pre­sented at the inau­gural ACM Con­fer­ence on Online Social Net­works, Christo Wilson, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and his grad­uate stu­dents Le Chen and Chi Zhang sought to answer two impor­tant ques­tions about cen­sor­ship on Sina Weibo: first, does the phe­nom­enon actu­ally stifle dis­cus­sions? And second, do the site’s users change their behavior in response?

The study rep­re­sented the first look at the impact of cen­sor­ship on users’ actual activ­i­ties on the social network—and what the researchers dis­cov­ered was rather sur­prising. “We observed no chilling effect,” Le said. “Instead, cen­sored topics see more active users tweeting more frequently.”

The team used com­pu­ta­tional methods to ana­lyze more than 800 mil­lion weibos. They found that more than three-​​dozen topics gen­er­ated lots of dis­cus­sion and were rel­e­vant to real-​​world events during the period between March 30 and May 13 of this year.

For example, the watch inci­dent gen­er­ated nearly 1,000 orig­inal tweets, 10,000 retweets, and 8,000 com­ments over six days. (As on Face­book, Weibo users can com­ment on posts.) Of all that activity, how­ever, 82 per­cent was removed through var­ious cen­sor­ship mech­a­nisms, which include thou­sands of crowd­sourced workers who man­u­ally examine each tweet. The watch inci­dent still went viral, even though the North­eastern research team found it to be among the top-​​five most-​​censored topics among the 37 total it examined.

Wilson and his team found that in the most cen­sored cases, Weibo users came up with “morphs,” or alter­nate forms of pre­ex­isting words or phrases to pre­vent their dis­cus­sions from being cen­sored. For instance, instead of using Fan Jiyue’s actual name, Weibo users wrote terms such as “Lushan sec­re­tary” and “brother watch print” to evade watchful eyes.

Another case involved a fake news story about Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jingpin taking a “common” taxicab. There, Wilson’s team iden­ti­fied a series of morphs, including words that have no rel­e­vance to the topic, but which sound or look sim­ilar when written with Chi­nese char­ac­ters. The team found an ini­tial spike in dis­cus­sions sur­rounding the taxi article when it was first revealed as a hoax, but it was quickly sti­fled by cen­sor­ship. At the same time, the morphs began to take over, gen­er­ating up to four times as much activity as the ini­tial tweets by the time the orig­inal word had fallen off the map entirely.

“Weibo is fun­da­men­tally dif­ferent from other social net­working sites,” said Wilson, pointing to the cen­sor­ship users face.


Twitter’s Influence Mounts as Reach Grows

November 4, 2013 10:42 am

It is becoming the preferred social network for American teens. It is an important “second screen” for TV viewers of NFL football and “Dancing With the Stars.”

It also happens to be a tool for social activists which arguably can help topple governments.

In its brief history, Twitter has become ingrained in global politics, culture and entertainment, in addition to being a simple tool for sharing ideas.

Twitter has become a democratizing force in political life, as seen during popular movements in Arab countries, but also in the United States and other developed nations.

In Arab countries, “it is very difficult for the state to dominate public discourse anymore because of Twitter,” said Adel Iskandar, a Georgetown University professor of communication and scholar of Arab studies.

“You can have an official statement, and this can be taken to task in an instantaneous way by the public at large. This changes the dynamics and structure of power.”

Iskandar said it would be “an oversimplification” to attribute the Arab Spring uprisings to Twitter, but maintained that the one-to-many messaging service “speeded things up.”

“These protest movements could have occurred over six or seven years,” he said. “But in a couple of days people found out what was happening a thousand miles away.”

Important tool for democracy activists

Iskandar said the same is essentially true in the United States and elsewhere, because the populace on Twitter can instantly respond or debunk messages from political leaders trying to control their message.

Twitter “has a way of disrupting the status quo in an almost effortless way,” he told AFP.

Philip Howard, who heads the Digital Activism Research Project at the University of Washington, said Twitter “is still one of the most important social networking tools for democracy advocates.”

Howard told AFP that authoritarian regimes have cracked down or entrapped dissidents using Facebook but that “content flows more quickly on Twitter and it’s harder to do that.”

He said that Twitter’s speed and mobility is useful “in the heavy days of protests when you are trying to get thousands of people to the central square.”

Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina sociologist who researched recent protests in Turkey, said Twitter was “pretty much the social network that facilitated the protesters ability to break censorship.”

She said dissidents in Turkey like Twitter “because it is lightweight, it protects the users, and you can follow people without having to friend them, which is important for many forms of communication.”

Panagiotis Metaxas, who heads media arts and sciences at Wellesley College, said Twitter has some advantages over other platforms like Facebook, because each tweet is equal.

“The kind of things we broadcast on Twitter have a greater propagation life than on Facebook,” he said.

Additionally, he said Twitter harnesses the power of the crowd to effectively squelch rumors and false statements in a way Facebook cannot.

“If someone wants to say silly things on Facebook you can’t prevent that, but on Twitter it will be drowned out,” he told AFP.

Twitter’s immediacy is being used in television ratings, and for instant feedback for live programs like “Dancing With the Star,” or to vote for contestants on “American Idol.”

Twitter can measure happiness, track flu outbreaks

The more Twitter grows, the more it can be used to analyze trends, moods and other important societal data. It has been used to track outbreaks of flu and other diseases, and cases of food poisoning.

Researchers like Twitter because almost all tweets are open, and the company provides an easy way to download the data, says Northeastern University computer scientist Alan Mislove, who worked on a study measuring “the pulse of the nation” published in 2010.

“You can get a large sample of data that covers a whole country or several countries,” he said. “You can get the text to look at sentiment, to look at patterns. This kind of data is being used by researchers in psychology, sociology, political science, geography.”

Other scientists have used Twitter for a “happiness index,” while some have focused on mood swings over a day or a season.

So while Twitter is a useful organizing tool, it also measures the kinds of chatter that can be used to show who might win an election, or how popular a film might be.

Teens ‘escape their parents’

US teens are gravitating toward Twitter as their preferred social network as well, according to a recent survey by the investment firm Piper Jaffray, which found 26 percent of youngsters naming Twitter their favorite.

A Pew Research Center report this year showed Facebook remains on top, used by 90 percent of teens, but that Twitter had doubled in popularity among teens.

“Twitter is meeting a need for a sense of simplicity,” said Pew researcher Amanda Lenhart.

“It’s 140 characters and that’s kind of freeing. You don’t have to write much. And young people appreciate the privacy settings, it’s on or it’s off.”

Lenhart said teens view Twitter as requiring less maintenance than a Facebook page because the tweets are a flow and “it feels like it disappears.”

Tufekci said many young users are on Twitter “to escape their parents on Facebook.”

Article from

Five Fascinating Things Revealed by Twitter Data

November 12, 2013 10:59 am

When technology companies get floated on the stock market, it prompts all kinds of analytical soul searching. Is Facebook really worth its $135 billion valuation? Is Zynga worth anything at all? Twitter is the latest Silicon Valley darling to offer the public a slice of its financial future. It is pricing its shares at $26 each, which values the company at more than $14 billion.

The company is pinning its hopes on boosted advertising revenues from its social media platform, but it also makes about $47 million a year from licensing its data to other firms. These companies can use the information to identify trends or monitor sentiment, for example. And it is not just big businesses that have an interest in this gold mine of data. Researchers also analyse it to gain insights into the way we behave. New Scientist has written about many of these over the years – here are five of the most exciting ones.

1. Tweet for the sick
You can use tweets to track the spread of disease. Adam Sadilek at the University of Rochester in New York and his colleagues used Twitter to follow the spread of flu virus in New York City. They used machine learning algorithms to search 4.4 million tweets for signs that people were feeling unwell. The system could differentiate between actual and metaphorical sickness, so “I’m sick of this traffic”, for example, wouldn’t register as illness. Combining this with location data, the team was able to see how the flu was travelling and predict when twitter users would fall ill. It could, perhaps, one day be used to warn people when they’re about to enter an area with a high infection rate.

2. The evolution of language
Twitter isn’t just good for telling you the latest news, it can also show how words are developing and spreading. Jacob Eisenstein of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta tracked the evolution of words. “Bruh”, a variation on “bro”, rose out of the south-eastern United States and made its way to California. “CTFU”, which stands for “cracking the fuck up”, emerged in Cleveland, Ohio, before spreading into Pennsylvania.

3. Beating the stock market
Can the fickle swing of Twitter conversation predict the billion-dollar jitters of the stock market? One hedge fund, Derwent Capital Markets, thought it could, but had to close its doors in May 2012. Twitter’s data can help predict stock market movement though. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that subscribers to a company called Dataminr got an alert to take action 5 minutes before news of a shooting on Capitol Hill in Washington DC reached US TV. When the news hit the wider media it led to a 20 point drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500 financial index. Dataminr used an algorithmic assessment of Twitter to find the information fast.

4. Mapping America’s emotional stateMovie Camera
Psychiatrists aren’t running machine learning on their patients’ Twitter profiles – yet. But large volumes of tweets can be used to make assertions about the happiness of large groups of people. A sentiment analysis run by Alan Mislove of Northeastern University in Boston measured every public tweet posted between September 2006 and August 2009, using a psychological word-rating system to identify happy or sad tweets. It turns out that the US west coast is happier than the east. Happiness peaks each Sunday morning, then dives to an all-week low on Thursday evenings.

5. Track food poisoning in restaurants
Social media messages can also tell us which places to eat might give our stomachs a nasty turn. Another system developed by Sadilek, called nEmesis, gathered 3.8 million New York tweets and ranked them for relevance to food poisoning. Messages containing words like “stomach” and “ill” were some of the key indicators that things weren’t right. A crowd of online workers then fell on the suspect tweets and ranked them according to likelihood that the tweeter had food poisoning. The human-generated results were used to automatically tag suspect tweets and show which restaurants might be best avoided.

Article on

The Potential Pandemic

December 2, 2013 9:47 am

Alex Vespignani

In 2011, sci­en­tists suc­cess­fully engi­neered a lethal avian flu virus to be trans­mis­sible between birds as well as mam­mals and pos­sibly humans. The novel virus, a genet­i­cally engi­neered vari­a­tion of H5N1 avian influenza, sparked an enor­mous debate among both the research com­mu­nity and the public about how to manage such research and whether it should even be car­ried out at all.

That’s where North­eastern stepped in. “We thought it was impor­tant to pro­vide some hard num­bers to the debate,” said Alessandro Vespig­nani, a world-​​renowned sta­tis­tical physi­cist and the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Professor.

In a paper released Thursday in the journal BMC Med­i­cine, Vespig­nani and his col­lab­o­ra­tors pro­vide those hard numbers—and they aren’t ter­ribly reas­suring. “This study pro­vides a very accu­rate mod­eling approach to assess the prob­a­bility of con­tain­ment in the case of acci­dental escape,” explained Vespig­nani, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. “Unfor­tu­nately there are large chances that the out­break will not be contained.”

Vespig­nani and his research team used census data from the city of Rot­terdam in the Nether­lands to create a com­pu­ta­tional model that tracked how an exper­i­mental virus would spread if it were acci­den­tally released from a facility oper­ating at a biosafety level of 3 or 4. These labs carry out the most health haz­ardous bio­log­ical research in the world and are often located in pop­u­lous urban areas.

The team, which includes col­lab­o­ra­tors at the Bruno Kessler Foun­da­tion in Trento, Italy, looked at the effec­tive­ness of sev­eral non-​​pharmaceutical inter­ven­tions fol­lowing a release: iso­la­tion of the lab­o­ra­tory; house­hold quar­an­tine of the infected worker; and quar­an­tine of indi­vid­uals who came into con­tact with the infected worker.

They exam­ined these con­tain­ment sce­narios in the con­text of dif­ferent viruses, ranging in trans­mis­si­bility from a mild sea­sonal influenza to one sim­ilar to the Spanish flu, which killed nearly 5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion in 1918.

The results of the sim­u­la­tion sug­gest a 5–15 per­cent chance that an acci­dental escape would not be detected, espe­cially in the case of very trans­mis­sible viruses and those where symp­toms are not imme­di­ately spotted. In addi­tion, they found that con­tain­ment would depend on the struc­ture and den­sity of the local pop­u­la­tion sur­rounding a facility.

Most BSL labs are in big urban areas,” Vespig­nani explained. “In those areas we show that the prob­a­bility of not con­taining the out­break is three to five times larger than what it would be in iso­lated areas.”

While the prob­a­bility of acci­dental release is extremely low—there’s only 0.3 per­cent chance of a virus escaping one of these labs each year—even a single event can trans­late into a vast public health emer­gency, said Ste­fano Merler, one of the researchers who is based at the Kessler Foun­da­tion. More­over, the number of BSL3 and 4 lab­o­ra­to­ries is increasing, cre­ating a greater com­bined risk the world over.

As such, this type of research could prove extremely useful for pol­i­cy­makers deciding where to build facil­i­ties, Vespig­nani said. “It’s also useful in weighting the oppor­tu­nity of autho­rizing exper­i­ments and in defining pro­to­cols for con­tain­ment,” he added.

Northeastern to Build State-​​of-​​the-​​Art Science and Engineering Complex

December 5, 2013 9:55 am

ISEB day600

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has announced plans to build a state-​​of-​​the-​​art inter­dis­ci­pli­nary sci­ence and engi­neering research facility in Rox­bury on Columbus Avenue. Sched­uled for com­ple­tion in fall 2016, the new com­plex will pro­vide 220,000 square feet of research and edu­ca­tional space and is part of the university’s ongoing effort to expand its capacity to engage in path-​​breaking research across disciplines.

“This new com­plex is the canvas upon which our fac­ulty col­leagues, stu­dents, and staff will pro­duce the next gen­er­a­tion of break­throughs,” said North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun. “It will be a hub of schol­ar­ship and teaching and will sig­nif­i­cantly advance our mis­sion as a use-​​inspired research uni­ver­sity. We are also proud to create the first pri­vate research devel­op­ment in Roxbury.”

The Boston Globe reported the news Thursday morning.

The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary sci­ence and engi­neering com­plex will be located next to the expanding Rug­gles MBTA sta­tion and house wet and dry lab facil­i­ties, edu­ca­tional lab­o­ra­to­ries, class­room space, and offices for fac­ulty and grad­uate stu­dents. It will fea­ture cutting-​​edge sci­en­tific equip­ment to be shared by researchers from Northeastern’s Col­lege of Sci­ence, Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, Col­lege of Engi­neering, and Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. The project will also include a 280-​​seat audi­to­rium and a large atrium with a spiral staircase.

Courtesy of Payette.

The six-​​story facility will be designed with open shared lab­o­ra­tory space, and numerous areas that pro­mote informal serendip­i­tous dis­cus­sions will foster inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion. Through the lib­eral use of glass walls, fac­ulty, stu­dents, and vis­i­tors will be able to view a broad range of research activ­i­ties that are underway.

“Solu­tions to many of the world’s most pressing chal­lenges are cre­ated at the inter­sec­tion of dis­ci­plines,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “Our inte­grated sci­ence and engi­neering com­plex will allow North­eastern researchers to address chal­lenges across many fields, with par­tic­ular emphasis on our sig­na­ture research themes of health, secu­rity, and sustainability.”

Con­struc­tion of the new facility will pro­vide much-​​needed space for Northeastern’s ongoing faculty-​​hiring ini­tia­tive. Over the past seven years, the uni­ver­sity has recruited 387 new tenured and tenure-​​track fac­ulty mem­bers, many of whom have joint appoint­ments across aca­d­emic dis­ci­plines. The uni­ver­sity is con­tin­uing to recruit tenured and tenure-​​track fac­ulty at a record pace.

North­eastern has increased its annual research funding by more than 100 per­cent since 2006, and in the 2011–2012 aca­d­emic year the uni­ver­sity received more than $100 mil­lion in external research funding. The uni­ver­sity is also diver­si­fying its research funding by delib­er­ately increasing sup­port from phil­an­thropic and cor­po­rate sources, not just gov­ern­ment grants.

The new LEED-​​certified facility will be con­structed on a 3.5-acre parcel owned by North­eastern and cur­rently used as sur­face parking. The site’s devel­op­ment pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to strengthen the Columbus Avenue cor­ridor, improve pedes­trian con­nec­tions, and create new open space and streetscape ameni­ties to be shared with the sur­rounding com­mu­nity. The project rep­re­sents an invest­ment by the uni­ver­sity of approx­i­mately $225 million.

Designed by the archi­tec­tural firm Payette, the project also includes plans to con­struct a unique pedes­trian bridge over the MBTA Orange Line, com­muter rail, and Amtrak tracks. The bridge—similar to New York City’s “Highline”—will con­nect two dis­tinct sec­tions of Northeastern’s campus and bol­ster the university’s strong ties to its sur­rounding communities.

The new sci­ence com­plex is a key part of Northeastern’s Insti­tu­tional Master Plan, which uni­ver­sity offi­cials devel­oped over the past two years in col­lab­o­ra­tion with fac­ulty, stu­dents, staff, city plan­ners, and campus neigh­bors. The plan was approved by the Boston Rede­vel­op­ment Authority on Nov. 14.

“At the outset of this process we iden­ti­fied mutu­ality, respect, and trans­parency as our guiding prin­ci­ples,” said Ralph Martin II, senior vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral counsel, who spear­headed the Insti­tu­tional Master Plan Process. “After nearly two years of dis­cus­sion, debate, and nego­ti­a­tions with elected offi­cials and neigh­bors, and guided by the rede­vel­op­ment authority, we believe we have a plan that serves those prin­ci­ples and will have a trans­for­ma­tional effect on both North­eastern and our neighborhoods.”

ISEB night600

‘Never Heard Me Before’

December 9, 2013 9:57 am

Meirelles and Patel

Never heard me before.” That’s what William, a 9-​​year-​​old boy with a speech-​​language dis­order, said the first time he used the pros­thetic voice that North­eastern asso­ciate pro­fessor Rupal Patel made just for him.

In San Fran­cisco on Thursday, Patel, who has joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, shared William’s story with thou­sands of viewers at TED­Women, a four-​​day con­fer­ence orga­nized by the non­profit orga­ni­za­tion TED, devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” This year’s TED­Women focused on inven­tion in all its forms. Patel’s talk was livestreamed for a group of North­eastern stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff gath­ered at the Behrakis Center.

There are 2.5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans like William who are unable to speak, Patel told the audi­ence, and many of them use the same com­put­er­ized voice to com­mu­ni­cate. “That’s mil­lions of people world­wide who are using generic voices,” she said.

So much of our per­son­ality is con­tained in our voice, Patel explained. Even though people with speech-​​language dis­or­ders retain the ability to con­trol that ele­ment of speech that is crit­ical for deter­mining indi­vid­u­ality, a grown man may still have the same pros­thetic voice as a young girl.

Through a project launched simul­ta­ne­ously with her TED­Women talk, Patel is trying to change that. She and her team at Northastern’s Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Analysis and Design Lab­o­ra­tory have devel­oped a tech­nology called VocaliD that allows them to create pros­thetic voices that sound like the people with the speech impair­ments they were designed for. As William’s mother put it, “This is what William would have sounded like had he been able to speak,” Patel told the audience.

To create these voices, VocaliD extracts acoustic prop­er­ties from a target talker’s speech—whatever sounds they can still produce—and applies these fea­tures to a syn­thetic voice that was cre­ated from a sur­ro­gate voice donor who is sim­ilar in traits such as age, size, and gender. What is pro­duced is a syn­thetic voice con­taining as much of the vocal iden­tity of the target talker as pos­sible yet the speech clarity of the sur­ro­gate talker.

By mixing the person’s voice with that of a sur­ro­gate talker who has donated hours’ worth of recorded sen­tences, the team can parse these sen­tences into “small snip­pets of speech” that can be reassem­bled into any other com­bi­na­tion of words.

What hap­pens next has been described by Patel’s own daughter as “mixing colors to paint voices.” William’s vowel sound, for example, acts like a con­cen­trated drop of red food dye. This is then mixed with the recorded speech snip­pets and infuses each of them with his unique vocal identity.

So far we have a few sur­ro­gate talkers from around the U.S. who have donated their voices,” she said. “We have been using and reusing them to build our first few per­son­al­ized voices. But there’s so much more work to be done.”

With VocaliD​.org, Patel has cre­ated a crowd-​​sourced portal for people around the world to donate their voices to the voiceless.

We wouldn’t dream of fit­ting a little girl with a pros­thetic limb of a grown man,” Patel said. “So why then the same pros­thetic voice?” With VocaliD, that’s longer nec­es­sary, she said.

Volunteers Teaching Algebra Through Computer Coding

December 9, 2013 10:34 am

“How do we expect kids to succeed in a global economy when we don’t prioritize what’s basically 21st-century literacy?” said Bill Stitson, a software engineer at Trip Advisor, with student Ngan Ly.

A software engineer at Trip Advisor, Bill Stitson finds himself every Tuesday at the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester helping sixth-graders learn algebra by making video games.

No, it’s not a pushover class.

Stitson is among a number of tech industry professionals who have volunteered to help teach an innovative math curriculum called Bootstrap, which uses computer coding to help students learn algebra functions in real-life applications, rather than in abstract problem-solving. It’s being used in classrooms around Boston with the help of Citizen Schools, which places volunteers and aspiring educators in schools in low-income neighborhoods.

“I had students who were amazed that when they played Call of Duty that shooting the enemy required a programmer to use the Pythagorean theorem in the programming,” said Peter Isham, a teacher at the McKinley Middle School in Boston who has used Bootstrap in a summer program.

“The number one reason for using Bootstrap is that it answers the question all students ask, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ ” Isham added.

And now Bootstrap has become a rallying point for the tech industry, which has long complained of a shortage of skilled computer scientists and is lobbying Beacon Hill to increase the amount of coding taught in Massachusetts schools.

“There’s this push of, ‘Programming, programming, programming. If you’re not teaching programming then you’re behind the times. China’s going to eat our lunch,’ ” said Emmanuel Schanzer, a former coder for Microsoft Corp. and educator who founded the Bootstrap project and is studying for a doctorate in algebra teaching at Harvard University.

This year a group of executives from leading technology firms, including Google, and other business and education organizations formed a lobbying group, the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, to pressure Beacon Hill into requiring computer science in public schools. But state education leaders have pushed back, saying they prefer not to impose mandates on classroom courses.

Emmanuel Schanzer, Bootstrap founder and a former coder for Microsoft Corp., taught algebra to students in Boston.

So Bootstrap, with its goal of teaching a basic math curriculum — algebra — while students also learn about computer coding, would seem to offer a happy middle ground.

“We view Bootstrap as absolutely compatible with the goals of MassCAN,” said the group’s executive director, Jim Stanton.

Indeed, a who’s who of the tech industry, including Apple Inc., Cisco Systems, and Facebook, have become financial supporters of Bootstrap, and the curriculum has been used by more than 400 educators since 2005, and not just in the United States. Schools in Canada, India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia have brought Bootstrap into their classrooms.

The computer language that forms the basis of Bootstrap’s instruction was developed by Northeastern computer science professor Matthias Felleisen. He and Schanzer met by chance on a train from Providence to Boston when Schanzer recognized the computer language on Felleisen’s screen and the two hit it off.

While Felleisen calls himself the “grandfather” of the project, he said Schanzer’s evangelism cannot be overstated.

“He’s somebody who knows how to reach students and middle school teachers,” Felleisen said.

Seven Massachusetts schools use Bootstrap. Five of those classes are taught by volunteers from businesses such as Trip Advisor, while the other two are taught by full-time teachers. The curriculum is also available online for free, and Bootstrap said it has received more than 1,000 requests for materials.

Among the most enthusiastic business boosters of Bootstrap is Trip Advisor, the Newton-based travel advisory site. Through its charitable foundation, Trip Advisor donated $300,000 to Bootstrap and lends the program 15 employees, who take time out of their workday to help close the achievement gap in classrooms in Boston.

“We were looking for a way that we could support organizations that helped disadvantaged children learn more about tech,” said Jenny Rushmore, director of responsible travel at Trip Advisor.

One recent school day, Stitson worked with a group of sixth-graders at the McCormack Middle School.

As 12-year-old Ngan Ly punched through the coding process for her video game, “Alien vs. Girl,” one of the stars in the galaxy rested out of place, half off the screen. She opened a file full of numbers and other data, changed some numerical values, and clicked through a few commands. The star snapped into place.

Meanwhile, Stitson asked a group of students about phrasing an algebraic function that would show an animated rocket’s height as time passed.

“Can you write this so the computer understands?” Stitson inquired.

Sharing laptops, the students got busy editing code, and after updating the files, showed how they learned to represent height at different points in time: pressing the spacebar on their laptops launched the cartoon rocket upward across the screen.

Stitson feels he is helping launch the students into a world where technology is everywhere.

“How do we expect kids to succeed in a global economy when we don’t prioritize what’s basically 21st-century literacy?” he said.

Beyond the anecdotal enthusiasm from participants, Bootstrap said it has evidence that its curriculum is working: Students who have taken the course scored an average of 14 percentage points higher in composing functions, and 27 percentage points higher when tackling word-based math problems.

However, finding enough teachers capable of understanding the curriculum might pose a challenge.

“At the end of the day my head was spinning,” Adam Newall, a teacher at Pembroke Community Middle School, admitted after his first day of a Bootstrap training.

But by the end Bootstrap finally clicked for him — and his students. Newall said he has no doubt the curriculum belongs in his classroom.

“For me as a teacher to see kids — looking at something that they’d normally shut down with — raise their hand, is just fun to see,” Newall said.

Article from The Boston Globe

Students Raise a Google Glass to Good Health

December 11, 2013 9:53 am

Google Glass

This semester, a score of stu­dents seized upon on a rare oppor­tu­nity: to let their minds wander into uncharted ter­ri­tory and develop per­sonal health appli­ca­tions that leverage the unique capa­bil­i­ties of Google Glass, the wear­able com­puter with on optical head-​​mounted display.

Stephen Intille and Rupal Patel, asso­ciate pro­fes­sors in the Northeastern’s per­sonal health infor­matics pro­gram who each have joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, co-​​taught the class—among the first of its kind in the U.S. The class—“Health Inno­va­tion with Google Glass”—com­prised under­grad­uate, master’s, and doc­toral stu­dents across four col­leges, all of whom worked together to solve a spe­cific health­care need with the new technology.

Regina Ranstrom, CIS’14, an under­grad whose inter­ests include health sci­ences and mobile tech­nology devel­op­ment, said the class allowed her to apply this knowl­edge to an truly inno­v­a­tive project, while also honing her own skills. “Google Glass is one of the newest mobile devices out there,” said Ranstrom, who was excited to get a closer, hands-​​on look throughout the semester.

The lens-​​free “glasses” include a min­i­malist frame, one side of which acts as a touch pad to con­trol the device. A small glass cube on the user’s right side dis­plays a tiny screen in his or her field of vision that can be used to either cap­ture or project images. The device can also be con­trolled using audi­tory cues, which many of the groups used to their advantage.

Intille and Patel said that while only a handful of Google Glass apps are ded­i­cated to per­sonal health, the technology’s hands-​​free nature is fer­tile ground for devel­opers inter­ested in exploring. “One of the rea­sons I came to North­eastern was so I could teach classes like this,” said Intille, who joined the fac­ulty in 2010.

At the start of the semester, the stu­dents brain­stormed dozens of app ideas and ulti­mately nar­rowed them down to just five. Over the next three months, groups of four or five stu­dents each worked to develop a single pro­to­type, reg­u­larly pre­senting to their class­mates along the way.

Oliver Wilder-​​Smith, PhD’18, who is pur­suing a doc­torate in per­sonal health infor­matics, said that this aspect of the class proved to be invalu­able. “When you are pre­senting to fellow stu­dents who work in so many dif­ferent fields it forces you to really hone in on com­mu­ni­cating your ideas effec­tively and pro­vide a clear evidence-​​based ratio­nale for why your project would have a health impact,” he explained.

The selected app projects spanned a broad range of health­care needs. One focused on lone­li­ness older adults may face, while another sought to stream­line hos­pi­tals’ use of elec­tronic check­lists. Two others addressed the unique needs of people with autism, while the fifth helped people with speech lan­guage dis­or­ders speak more clearly.

“It was great to see stu­dents from dif­ferent pro­grams and back­grounds lever­aging the unique fea­tures of Glass to address a variety of health and well-​​being issues,” said Patel, who directs the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Analysis, and Design Lab­o­ra­tory.

Pre­senting a pos­i­tive vision of what can be done is impor­tant,” said Intille, who noted that many people have labeled the technology’s use of a point-​​of-​​view-​​camera as an inva­sion of pri­vacy. “There are a lot of things that can be done with this tech­nology that are transformative.”

As part of Northeastern’s unique PHI pro­gram, Patel and Intille will offer a follow up course this spring in which stu­dents will be able to fur­ther develop and eval­uate some of their apps.

Putting the Self in Self-Expression: Rupal Patel Creates Personalized Prosthetic Voices

December 16, 2013 9:20 am


There are 2.5 million people in the U.S. with severe speech disorders, and some 40 percent of them use speech devices to express themselves. But those devices offer an extremely limited selection of computerized voices.

“We wouldn’t dream of fitting a little girl with the limb of a grown man — so, why then, a prosthetic voice?” asked Northeastern University professor Rupal Patel in a talk at the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco last week.

Over the past six years, Patel has developed a process for morphing voices in which she combines samples of a patient’s speech — however limited it may be — with the voice of a donor who shares similar age, gender, size and location.

From the recipient, she extracts pitch, loudness and sibilance. As little as a single vowel may be enough. From the donor, she records a list of hundreds of utterances, which in the lab can be broken down to individual phonemes.

The synthesized result is a reverse-engineered voice that approximates what a person might sound like if he or she weren’t limited by speech disorders.

So far, this process has been completed three times. The results have been emotionally impactful, Patel said.

When a 9-year-old patient named William first received his prosthetic voice, his response was, “Never heard me before.”

“Imagine carrying around someone else’s voice for nine years, and then finding your own,” Patel said.

In an interview after her talk, Patel said she is currently deciding whether to turn her research into a for-profit or nonprofit endeavor, which will likely be called VocaliD (said “vocality”). She has set up a site to solicit voice donors and recipients at

After years of refining and tweaking the process, Patel said that she and her team realized it was time to get the project out the door. “It’s actually relatively easy to make a voice. It takes literally a few minutes, so it should be scalable,” she said.

The VocaliD software currently only runs on Windows, Patel noted, so she would like to port it to iOS and Android to make it more accessible. For the time being, recipients will likely still need to buy specialized devices — they are called augmentative and alternative communication systems — to output their new voices. They can cost $8,000 or more.

Coincidentally, Patel is quite familiar with the process of turning original research methods on language into startups.

In 2005, she and Deb Roy — a professor at MIT — had their first child, and the couple planted video cameras all over their home to record his first two years so they could study child language development. Dealing with massive quantities of conversational data led Roy to found Bluefin Labs to make a business around analyzing social media conversations about television. Twitter bought the company for about $90 million earlier this year.

Roy also did a TED Talk about the experience; that’s embedded here. Patel’s talk has not yet been posted online.

 Article from AllThingsDigital

3Qs: Target’s security breach

December 23, 2013 9:45 am

Engin KirdaLast week, the retail giant Target expe­ri­enced an unprece­dented data secu­rity breach and the debit and credit card infor­ma­tion of up to 40 mil­lion accounts was stolen. The cause of the secu­rity breach, one of the largest credit card breaches in U.S. his­tory, is still under inves­ti­ga­tion. Here Engin Kirda, the Sy and Laurie Stern­berg Asso­ciate Pro­fessor for Infor­ma­tion Assur­ance in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, dis­cusses the breach and how cyber­at­tacks have evolved in recent years.

How does this breach compare in size, scale, and substance to others in recent years? Is there anything unique about this particular incident?

This breach is quite unique in the sense that it’s one of the largest breaches we have heard of to date. The fact that criminals have gained access to up to 40 million credit and debit card numbers in one single security incident is something that has not been very common until now. Still, we do not exactly know all the details of the Target breach right now. If the attack was a remote compromise (i.e., the attackers managed to remotely compromise and gain access to the stored information), there does exist research work that tries to make such breaches more difficult. In fact, some of our work focuses on securing systems (i.e., automatically finding and fixing security bugs) so that such breaches become more difficult to exploit by attackers.

How have hacking schemes evolved in recent years, and what new challenges do they present?

Hacking systems have become more financially-motivated in recent years. Whereas in the past, hackers were mainly interested in breaking into systems for “fun,” most cybercrime today is actually well-organized and the cybercriminals are aiming to make money. Also, since we are networked and Internet-dependent now more than ever, we are hearing more about such incidents than in the past.

Since people are increasingly relying on the Internet to shop and store information, can we expect breaches of this magnitude to happen more often? Is security technology keeping pace with the hackers, and what steps can consumers take to protect themselves?

The short answer to the first question is yes. It is highly probable that we will be hearing more and more about cyberattacks of this magnitude. Today’s attackers remain a step ahead of the defenders, and most of the security technology we are using out there is quite outdated. Luckily, there is quite a bit of research going on in this domain, and we have started to see interesting technologies and ideas emerge that, hopefully, will be a game changer and help keep cybercrime in check. Unfortunately, whenever you use your card, you are at the mercy of the merchant for keeping your information secure. As a customer, there is not much you can do, other than check your bank account regularly and make sure there are no fraudulent charges on your card.

Three Takes on Healthcare Delivery

January 9, 2014 9:39 am

TAKE 1 Getting Mobile: Andrea Parker motivates people through gaming

As an innovator in personal health informatics, Andrea Parker is devising ways to use technology to help those in poor neighborhoods make better choices about their health.

As any teenager can tell you, technology is (a) fun and (b) one of the best ways to create a sense of community. So by creating health-related games and discussions, Parker has been able to engage her audience, create a community that supports healthy decisions, and provide the knowledge people need to make the right choices.

Parker is collaborating with her Northeastern colleagues to create mobile applications, games, and social media to convince low-income families to exercise more and eat more nutritiously. To be effective, she says the technology has to “feel authentic and connect naturally with their lives.”

She has already achieved success in Atlanta, where she designed a mobile game called OrderUp! in which low-income people assume the role of waitstaff in a neighborhood restaurant. The challenge was for participants to serve virtual customers as quickly and healthfully as possible. Parker’s research showed that the game shifted user perception of what constitutes a healthy meal.

“Users started to reassess their own behaviors and began to see how they could make and eat healthier foods themselves,” she says.

Parker also designed an application that encourages participants to share text messages documenting their eating habits. The messages were displayed on a large touch-screen display installed at the local YMCA. At the end of a three-month study, Parker found that participants had come to think of themselves as community health advocates.

“These kinds of technologies are not just helping people change their own habits, but they are also developing participants’ identities as advocates for change,” she says. “It’s exciting to think about the influence these people could have on their social networks.”

TAKE 2 Data Driven: Gary Young shapes healthcare policy

Just as the Affordable Care Act (better known as “Obamacare”) takes effect, Gary Young’s landmark study on hospital spending has fueled a national debate over the amount of money U.S. hospitals devote to community healthcare.

The study, published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine, reveals wide disparities in the free services hospitals offer for preventive care and community health.

Young and his interdisciplinary team found that some hospitals devote more than 20 percent of their operating budget to community benefits, while others contribute less than 1 percent.

Young was also surprised to find there is no correlation between need and the community services offered by the local hospital. Young’s team had hypothesized that the spending disparity would reflect the amount of poverty in a community—that hospitals in wealthy communities spent little because there was less need, and hospitals in communities that have high poverty rates spent more. But his analysis of the data showed no correlation whatsoever.

Furthermore, even among hospitals with the highest spending levels, these benefits are unlikely to include preventive medicine and wellness education, the study shows.

The implications of Young’s research are profound. It raises questions about whether hospitals are, at least in part, charitable institutions that deserve tax-exempt status, or large corporations that get richer from tax breaks they don’t deserve.

“Some believe that there should be a closer examination of the appropriateness of tax exemption for these organizations, which are often billion-dollar enterprises,” says Young.

In fact, Young will help answer that question himself. The IRS recently appointed him to a two-year term on a committee charged with rewriting the rules governing how corporations qualify for tax-exempt status.

TAKE 3 Meet Tanya: Tim Bickmore makes computerized healthcare come to life

Meet Tanya, an avatar—or “relational agent” as Tim Bickmore calls her—who functions as both a nurse and personal health advocate. If you want to know how to change your dressing after surgery, Tanya can show you. If you’re a senior citizen who’s nervous about all the medications you have to take each day, Tanya understands and can help put you at ease.

Bickmore is working on ways to use technology to help patients manage their healthcare more effectively. By studying the behavior of real doctors and nurses, and then turning his observations into complex computational algorithms, he’s able to create avatars that show empathy and converse naturally with patients.

“We’re always going back to source videos to capture the essence of the expert,” he explains. “We look a lot at non­verbal behaviors, like hand gestures, gaze cues, and head nods.”

His avatars can “remember” past interactions and build an ongoing relationship with the patient. And unlike busy healthcare professionals, avatars have unlimited time to walk patients through confusing outpatient procedures. This unlimited personalized attention can dramatically decrease hospital readmissions, according to Bickmore.

In fact, a majority of patients involved in clinical trials—particularly those with limited health and computer literacy—reported feeling more at ease interacting with avatars like Tanya than with live nurses.

Bickmore and Abby King of the Stanford University School of Medicine recently received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to compare the effectiveness of avatars to human coaches in convincing older Americans to exercise more. In 2011, Bickmore won a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop avatars that guide patients through complex clinical trials.

Ultimately, he says, all of his research is focused on helping patients take care of themselves.

3Qs: When Web Reviews Aren’t What They Seem

January 16, 2014 8:05 am

Christo Wilson

Crowd­sourced social media plat­forms are incred­ibly impor­tant for making big money deci­sions on every­thing from schools to doc­tors to which polit­ical can­di­dates to sup­port. According to one study, a single rating star on Yelp can increase a busi­ness’ rev­enue by 9 per­cent. How­ever, sub­ver­sions to those sys­tems can cause serious prob­lems. That’s exactly what hap­pens in a phe­nom­enon Christo Wilson, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, has dubbed “crowdturfing”—when crowd­sourcing goes awry. An enor­mous pool of cheap, online labor man­aged through less rep­utable ver­sions of the web­site Mechan­ical Turk allows com­pa­nies to buy opin­ions and reviews. We asked Wilson to explain the phe­nom­enon and what his team is doing in response.

What strategies have your team used to secure crowdsourced review sites?

We have very good algorithms for identifying fake content and spam, and they’re a great first line of defense, but they’re not as good as a real person. When human beings look at a Facebook profile, they take everything into context: does the photo match the linguistic style of a person’s wall posts—very subtle things.

So you can throw more advanced machine learning algorithms at the problem, or you can fight fire with fire. In other words, if you can pay someone to generate bad stuff, why can’t I pay people to find it? We actually built a system on Mechanical Turk—if you have a pile of fake accounts on Facebook that you think are suspicious, you give them to a crowdsourced group of human moderators to rate them for legitimacy.

It turns out that people are actually quite good at this. So we priced it out and it would actually be reasonable, economically speaking, for a site such as Facebook to have an entirely crowdsourced system in which you take all the suspicious stuff, give it to human moderators, and they can tell you with very high accuracy whether something is real or fake.

Will this be enough?

Even if you shut down the bad sites, it’s whack-a-mole: someone will always open up a new one. So the final goal is to increase the attackers’ costs to the point where it’s no longer economical for them. Right now it costs a fraction of a penny for a single account when you buy them in bulk. But if you can identify and ban large numbers of accounts in one go, you can actually observe the prices on the market changing. All of a sudden fake accounts become very scarce so prices go way up. If you could perpetuate that and keep getting rid of these accounts, it’s no longer economical for people to buy fake accounts at scale. Hopefully you kill the market that way.

But I’m not sure this is something that will ever be completely solved, simply because this very quickly enters a gray area between what is real and what is fake. For example, right now you could buy 1,000 low-quality fake accounts. They don’t have any followers, they don’t really do anything. Let’s say I shut all of those down and I force the attacker to the point where every fake account has to look perfectly real—it’s run by a real person, that person tweets normally ever day, they have actual followers, etc. But every once in a while they do something that looks like an advertisement. Is that legitimate promotion or is it paid?

It stops being a technical issue that can be solved with algorithms and it very quickly becomes a moral, ethical debate. For example, there are plenty of businesses on Yelp that would give you a coffee if you agree to give them a five star review. Is that review then considered spam? Should I penalize the user that gives them a five-star review for receiving discounted coffee? From Yelp’s standpoint you probably should, because it’s lowering the quality of their data. But this is a real person, and they’re not actually being paid. So where do you draw the line and start discounting people’s opinions?

What are the privacy implications of crowdsourcing the moderation process?

If you’re giving content to an external moderator—paying a bunch of people to tell you whether something’s real or fake—how do you know that these people are trustworthy? That they’re not going to take private information and leak it—especially on Facebook, where we’re talking about evaluating someone’s personal profile.

If an account is set to “friends only” and we ask the friends to evaluate it, that’s okay. But a professional force of moderators doesn’t have access to everything in the account. So what is appropriate to show them? Is it appropriate to show them anything at all?

There are some clever ways to get around this. If people are flagging things as inappropriate, you constrain the set of things you show the moderator to only things that the person who did the flagging could see. The moderators should be able to make the same evaluation based on the same information; we shouldn’t have to give them anything more.

The fact of the matter is Facebook has a billion users and YouTube has a billion users. All of those people are essentially crowdsourced sensors. If they see bad stuff they can flag it, and most of these sites already have mechanisms for doing so but most people don’t use them. We need to increase awareness and transparency—the more people who get involved, the better.

SquadHero goes for the Gold…and the Red, and the Blue, and the Green….

January 17, 2014 9:53 am

One of the overarching lessons I’ve learned since coming to Northeastern is that video games can be the foundation for some real learning — both in the playing and the making of them. So I was mighty pleased when I learned that a couple of our students won the Boston Festival of Indie Games‘ Shield Student Innovation Award. Eric Peterson, one of said students, told me that the annual celebration of Boston’s indie game scene welcomed several thousand attendees who got to peruse the halls of MIT playing new video games of all shapes and sizes. There were talks, there was art, a game jam, and even a video game concert (although you’d have to ask Peterson what that was all about).

Peterson and fellow computer science major Adam Gressen developed the first version of SquadHero:Revolver for a class assignment with game design professor Magy Seif El-Nasr in December 2012. ”She pushed the projects in the class to be innovative in their design, and so we decided to try building a game that used a guitar controller in a way it had never been used before,” said Peterson. “Specifically, we wanted to build a game that used the guitar controller, but had nothing to do with music and was not constrained to the same gameplay as Guitar Hero.”

What they came up with is an endurance-style arcade game in which players control a fleet of up to five spaceships as they battle an endless onslaught of enemy missiles, earning powerful upgrades that keep them in the fight for as long as possible. If you’re familiar with Guitar Hero, you’ll understand this next part better than me: the colored buttons allow you to fire shots from each ship, while the strum bar lets you rotate (or revolve) your squad formation. The goal is to organize your squad so you can shoot your enemies with the appropriately colored missiles.

The original design was actually called BulletHero and only involved one ship, Peterson said. “But as the team — which eventually came to include design major Nikita Filatov – continued to work on it after the class ended, they broke that one ship into five and started “playing around with it.” Their first demo of SquadHero:Revolver took place at Northeastern’s first annual Game Demo showcase, from which they walked away with two awards: Most Innovative Game and Game of Show. “It was really exciting and motivated us to keep working on the game and eventually submit it to Boston Festival of Indie Games,” said Peterson. And I assume they’re glad they did…since it turned out to be so successful.

Next up in game design shenanigans is Global Game Jam, which takes place a in three weeks and was founded by Susan Gold, Professor of the Practice in the College of Arts, Media, and Design’s game design. The event takes place over 48 straight, sleepless hours, in 63 countries around the world. Stay tune for more deets on that one!


When Healthy Habits Become Risky Business

January 21, 2014 3:06 pm


“When people take pre­cau­tionary mea­sures, their behavior often changes as a result,” said Ravi Sun­daram, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. For example, people wearing seat­belts may drive faster, people who’ve received flu shots may skip washing their hands before eating, and those who’ve been vac­ci­nated against sex­u­ally trans­mitted dis­eases may tend to engage in more risky behavior.

But how do these behav­ioral changes affect a contagion’s spread when the pre­cau­tion is not fool­proof? This is pre­cisely the ques­tion that Sun­daram and his col­league, pro­fessor Raj­mohan Rajaraman asked in research recently pub­lished in the Journal PLOS ONE.

The duo used net­work sci­ence tech­niques to look specif­i­cally at the influenza vac­cine, which has a 20 to 40 per­cent chance of failing, and the HIV/​AIDS anti­retro­viral, which is unsuc­cessful 25 to 75 per­cent of the time.

Given these sta­tis­tics, Rajaraman said, “if the level of risky behavior exceeds a cer­tain threshold, then you arrive at some strange sce­narios in which the more you inter­vene the worse you’re making it.”

The flu virus only requires that one person make a poor deci­sion before it jumps to another host. In this case, if the vac­ci­na­tion rates are low, then increased vac­ci­na­tion will tend to make the problem worse. This anomaly does not occur, how­ever, when a large frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion is vac­ci­nated, which will out­weigh the neg­a­tive impacts of risky behavior.

How­ever, things aren’t this simple with STDs, which require two par­ties’ par­tic­i­pa­tion to be trans­mitted from one host to another. Here, risky behavior is over­come by increased vaccinations—but only to a point. Using a com­pu­ta­tional model based on data from the New River Valley in Vir­ginia, the researchers found that after about 40 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion was vac­ci­nated, the tables turned. Now the risky behavior out­weighed the pos­i­tive impacts of the vaccine.

“What hap­pens in the HIV case is that since the risky behavior requires con­sent on both sides, the number of risky inter­ac­tions for low levels of vac­ci­na­tion is still very small,” said Rajaraman. “So you ben­efit with increased vac­ci­na­tion. But this may no longer hold at high levels of vac­ci­na­tion.” That is, one person’s risky inten­tion will not trans­late into risky behavior until the second party is also vaccinated.

The crit­ical take­away of the research, Sun­daram said, “is that we have to have some kind of behav­ioral inter­ven­tion that is coor­di­nated with the med­ical inter­ven­tion. So we tell people go get a flu shot, but then you also need to accom­pany it with some kind of behav­ioral inter­ven­tion in which you tell people to be aware that it isn’t perfect.”

The research is part of an ongoing col­lab­o­ra­tive study with com­puter sci­en­tists at Vir­ginia Tech and epi­demi­ol­o­gists at Penn­syl­vania State Uni­ver­sity in which the team is looking at sim­ilar prob­lems across a variety of contagions.

The results, if con­firmed in real-​​world set­tings, could have sig­nif­i­cant policy impli­ca­tions, said epi­demi­ol­o­gist Stephen Eubank, one of the team’s col­lab­o­ra­tors at Vir­ginia Tech University.


How This University is Using Video Games to Help Teenage Girls Find Careers in Science, Math Fields

January 21, 2014 3:15 pm

Tayloe Washburn is no stranger to taking the lead on massive, lucrative projects. The former lawyer helped organize teams that executed on important tasks such as the $3.1 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel and the construction of a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International.

But the national initiative that Washburn is now helping push ahead inside a four-story South Lake Union building is quite different. As CEO and dean of Northeastern University’s Seattle campus, Washburn is embarking on a plan to help more middle school girls become interested in areas of science, technology, engineering and math — or, STEM for short.

“By grade nine, a remarkable number of girls may be good at STEM subjects and interested in them,” he explained to GeekWire. “But if you study them, 80 percent or more have decided that they want to be a nurse or teacher — not a scientist.”

Enter a non-profit venture called GAMES Initiative. Northeastern — which arrived in Seattle in 2012 — partnered with its neighbor, the Institute of Systems Biology, and the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) on a long-term plan to launch three free video games that will aim to engage middle school girls in STEM-related fields.

The hope is that the games will encourage students to pursue a career as a scientist, developer or engineer, for example. It’s a project unlike any Washburn has been involved in — but that’s exactly what makes him so excited about it.
The Institute for Systems Biology and National Girls Collaborative Project are teaming up with Northeastern University for the GAMES Initiative.

“I’ve done a lot of movement stuff in my day and this is toward the top in terms of the passion and determination scale, from a variety of people,” he said.

The plan for GAMES, which will be funded by national grants, sponsorship money and charitable donations, is certainly robust. This year, the three organizations will work together with researchers and ask middle school girls for input on plot, characters, graphics, platforms and other related information.

That data will help spur the “game jam,” process, which will involve experts from the gaming community who will come up with 20 solid game ideas. Eventually, one company will be picked to develop and produce three games set for release in 2016.

If all goes according to plan, the buck won’t stop there. In addition to potentially producing even more games, the initiative calls for an online community for the girls who play the games — a place where those interested and inspired by their gaming experience can go to connect with their peers and also find more information about STEM-releated content. That way, the program ends up helping girls not only as they enter high school, but all the way through college and into the workplace.

“If the games are very popular, you can’t just stop there,” Washburn said.

There are also plans to use data from GAMES to better understand exactly what’s keeping girls from pursuing STEM-related careers. The information and analytics will help the founders — and also everyone else — figure out what strategies work.

While this is not the first time people have tried to help more girls become involved with science and math, it is certainly unique in that the gaming medium is being used. Washburn said he first thought about this idea while working with the Washington Tech Industry Association long before his time at Northeastern, but was told that a non-profit couldn’t make a big impact on girls participating in STEM-related fields.

But after inviting speakers to Northeastern — which offers several gaming-related courses — who talked about the power of the “games for good,” concept, a lightbulb went off in Washburn’s head.

“It was clear that’s where the girls are and that’s how kids spend their time — gaming, and learning by doing,” he explained.

Still, though GAMES has the support of several industry experts and there is a detailed roadmap to success, Washburn said he is a little worried about what the next few years have in store.

“We’re in territory which has not been successful,” he said. “It’s kind of like Star Trek — we are not sure what’s out there.”

The project does already have a lot going on underneath the hood. There are hundreds of volunteers in place to support the initiative, from the fundraising space to the game jam process.

“Everyone is committed to the mission,” Washburn said.

Washburn also noted that while GAMES could probably be organized in any part of the country, Seattle is certainly a nice place to do it — especially considering the budding gaming scene in the city.

“The interest and hunger in this region for a product like this is ravenous Saturn V-like,” Washburn noted.

It is definitely an ambitious project, but GAMES could end up influencing a lot of young girls who may have otherwise brushed a STEM career aside for whatever reasons. Washburn admits that it will be difficult to change attitudes on a bevy of levels — “it’s deep-seeded,” he says — but he’s confident that there is a way to do so.

“That 80 percent figure is a big deal,” he said. “If we can collectively, over the next 10 to 15 years, bring that number down to 70 or 60 — that is a game changer.”

From Jam Session to Global Phenomenon

January 24, 2014 9:34 am


In 2008, Susan Gold attended a con­fer­ence in Sweden to dis­cuss her expe­ri­ences in teaching game design and building edu­ca­tion cur­ricula. She left with an idea that has since become a world­wide phe­nom­enon and an inno­v­a­tive tool—one that she said improves stu­dents’ and pro­fes­sionals’ game devel­op­ment skills and creativity.

On this trip, Gold—now a Pro­fessor of the Prac­tice in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Arts Media and Design—learned about the Nordic Game Jam, where par­tic­i­pants came together to col­lab­o­rate and design new games based on a common theme. After hearing about cre­ativity gen­er­ated by the event, she real­ized this con­cept could help solve the chal­lenge of teaching game devel­op­ment in an aca­d­emic envi­ron­ment. As she saw it, a game jam is an incred­ible expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity to apply the skills and tools learned in class and make it real—and she wanted to make it global.

The fol­lowing Jan­uary, Gold launched the first Global Game Jam. Now at Northastern, she will once again oversee the world­wide event this weekend, when the sixth annual Global Game Jam kicks off—bigger and better than ever.

Susan Gold, Professor of the Practice and associate director of the Game Design program in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“I fell in love with the inno­va­tion that hap­pens right before your eyes,” said Gold, who is asso­ciate director of the Game Design pro­gram at North­eastern. “You don’t have anyone saying,  ‘That’s not going to sell.’ It’s about where can we go with this idea, let’s take a risk.”

The number of Global Game Jam loca­tions has grown annu­ally and vary by city and country. Since it’s a world­wide event in 73 coun­tries, the start times are stag­gered based on time zone; New Zealand will be the first to get started (that’s 10 p.m. Thursday EST).

Here’s how it works: par­tic­i­pants arrive at 5 p.m. Friday, at which time the event begins and the game jam’s theme is announced and everyone watches the annual keynote address. Next, par­tic­i­pants start brain­storming ideas and forming into small groups. From there, teams have 48 hours to develop their games, which are typ­i­cally video games but can also be board or card games, as long as they can be down­loaded from the web—you can build it. Groups can also choose to incor­po­rate optional con­straints called diver­si­fiers to fur­ther chal­lenge them­selves. For example, last year’s theme was the sound of a heart­beat, and one optional con­straint was that the game should make a pos­i­tive social impact.

The Global Game Jam is growing. Last year, par­tic­i­pants came together across 63 coun­tries cre­ated more than 3,000 games. This year the event is expected to grow by yet another 20 per­cent in par­tic­i­pa­tion and loca­tions. But over the years, Gold has seen the event pro­duce much more than a slew of wild and cre­ative new games. Par­tic­i­pants have formed con­nec­tions that have led to job oppor­tu­ni­ties and building new game stu­dios. Some lucky jam­mers have even met their sig­nif­i­cant others, and Gold recalled one coder in Israel going into labor hours after par­tic­i­pating in the jam.

North­eastern will again serve as one of the Boston area’s host sites this year—growing from 40 par­tic­i­pants in 2013 to 115 in 2014; reg­is­tra­tion for the North­eastern site is closed. The par­tic­i­pants will hole up for the weekend in Snell Library’s state-​​of-​​the-​​art Dig­ital Media Com­mons, which will host the event in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Playable Inno­v­a­tive Tech­nolo­gies Lab and the North­eastern Center for the Arts. Casper Harteveld, PLAIT Lab director and an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Game Design pro­gram, will serve as the North­eastern site’s organizer.

In addi­tion, UK musi­cian, pro­ducer and dig­ital inno­vator, Thomas Dolby, best known for his 1982 hit “She Blinded me with Sci­ence,” will be on hand at North­eastern for Global Game Jam on Sunday. On Monday morning he’ll give a lec­ture on campus to dis­cuss some of the equip­ment he’s used in his 35 years in the music business.

An artist at heart, Gold joined North­eastern in the fall and has held aca­d­emic posi­tions in fine art and game edu­ca­tion pro­grams since 1999. Her work bridges art, sci­ence, tech­nology, industry, and academia.

Global Game Jam is not just for hard­core soft­ware devel­opers, Gold said. People of all dis­ci­plines and com­puter skills are encour­aged to par­tic­i­pate. The event’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary nature is a key ele­ment to its suc­cess, she said, explaining how fas­ci­nating games can emerge when, say, stu­dents studying com­puter sci­ence, busi­ness, and psy­chology col­lab­o­rate on a project.

“Not only do you see how games are made, but you see how people think about cre­ativity,” she said. The reveal for all the games cre­ated during the Northeastern’s Global Game Jam will take place at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Raytheon Amphitheater.


Your iPhone Gets Emotional

February 4, 2014 10:05 am

New Vistas in Emotion and Technology

The 2013 film Her tells the story of a lonely man falling in love with his mobile phone’s arti­fi­cially intel­li­gent oper­ating system. It recently earned a Golden Globe for Best Screen­play and received five Oscar nom­i­na­tions, including Best Picture.

The movie isn’t a rumi­na­tion on the future but rather on the present, according to Andrew Zolli, curator and exec­u­tive director at Poptech, a global com­mu­nity of inno­va­tors working together to effect change. Speaking at North­eastern on Friday, Zolli explained that the notion of forming emo­tional rela­tion­ships through and with our tech­nolo­gies has only recently become “a plau­sible premise for a cul­tural dialogue.”

“This film could not be made at any other time. It only could be made now,” Zolli said.

Zolli’s talk to a packed audi­ence at the Raytheon Amphithe­ater kicked off “New Vistas in Emo­tion and Tech­nology,” the fourth event in a series hosted by North­eastern University’s Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute. It brought together researchers from North­eastern and beyond to engage in the broader dia­logue that Her took to the silver screen.

In a keynote address, Face­book engi­neering director Arturo Bejar dis­cussed how the multi-​​billion user online social net­work is lever­aging affec­tive sci­ence to deliver a more valu­able product. For instance, his team’s inten­sive field research yielded a new way for young users to report cyber­bul­lying and pro­vide useful resources to help deal with the problem offline.

In opening remarks, Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology and a co-​​director of the Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute, said the event would high­light “ways that we can bridge affec­tive sci­ence and tech­no­log­ical advance­ment to the bet­ter­ment of both acad­emia and sci­en­tific inter­ests in industry.” For, as speakers throughout the day explained, not only is emo­tion being injected into our oper­ating sys­tems, our oper­ating sys­tems are rec­i­p­ro­cating with new ways for human indi­vid­uals to engage with one another. Simul­ta­ne­ously, other new tech­nolo­gies are allowing researchers to probe the depths of emo­tion in novel ways.

Some of those tech­nolo­gies were on dis­play during an inter­ac­tive demo ses­sion, in which vis­i­tors could try out ambu­la­tory brain imaging caps, mobile eye-​​tracking devices, and video games that pay close atten­tion to the emo­tions and affec­tive real­i­ties of both players and vir­tual characters.

The minds behind most of these projects dis­cussed their research throughout the day during panel dis­cus­sions with experts from a range of dis­ci­plines including game design, psy­chology, and health sciences.

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Stacy Marsella, who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Sci­ence, pre­sented his work on devel­oping more real­istic vir­tual humans. His team is cre­ating algo­rithms that detect emo­tion in snip­pets of text and speech and use that infor­ma­tion to reli­ably confer facial expres­sions and hand ges­tures to com­put­er­ized characters.

Matthew Goodwin, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor of health sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, dis­cussed how his lab is embed­ding tech­nolo­gies into the homes and class­rooms of chil­dren with autism. This is of par­tic­ular impor­tance in this area of research, since the tra­di­tional exper­i­mental envi­ron­ment can be unset­tling to sub­jects and thus skew results.

North­eastern psy­chology pro­fessor David DeSteno showed how his team is using robots to delve into how humans relate to one another in ways never before pos­sible. DeSteno is also co-​​director of the ASI and helped orga­nize the conference.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, said projects such as these exem­plify Northeastern’s focus on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, use-​​inspired research that addresses soci­etal chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in the areas of health, secu­rity, and sus­tain­ability. Bringing together emo­tion sci­ence and tech­no­log­ical advance­ments, he said, “epit­o­mizes one of the things we at North­eastern like to do.”

Take 5: How to Protect your Passwords

February 7, 2014 10:05 am


North­eastern Uni­ver­sity cyber­se­cu­rity expert Wil Robertson, an asso­ciate pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering, offers some tips for Web users to ensure their pri­vate online data stays private.

1. Don’t share your passwords

Per­haps this is obvious, but because it hap­pens all the time it bears repeating: don’t share your pass­words! All of the per­sonal secu­rity tips in the world won’t help you if someone else has one of your pass­words and is able to imper­sonate you online. Per­haps you trust him, but are you sure you trust everyone he trusts? The point is that once you’ve dis­closed your pass­word, the sit­u­a­tion is no longer within your control.

2. Use strong passwords

A pass­word that is easily guess­able is not much better than nothing at all. Attackers expend con­sid­er­able effort to dis­cover new ways to make pass­word guessing more effi­cient, and so it pays off to select strong pass­words that are resis­tant to these efforts. So, make them long, and use a unique phrase instead of a single word if pos­sible. Include a few sym­bols or typos if pos­sible, just so long as your pass­word is still memorable.

3. Don’t use the same pass­word everywhere

It’s tempting to come up with a (hope­fully) strong pass­word, and then use the same one in mul­tiple places, like for log­ging into Twitter and into Gmail. But if your pass­word is broken or acci­den­tally dis­closed by one of these ser­vices, attackers can often go and try to use the pass­word at a number of other ser­vices with your public login infor­ma­tion, often an email address. So, use dif­ferent pass­words. That way, if one is broken, attackers won’t be able to com­pro­mise your other accounts and you can limit the damage.

4. Con­sider using a pass­word manager

It’s not easy to remember a large number of strong pass­words. The last time I counted, I had more than 300 accounts with dif­ferent ser­vices, and despite the value of the pre­vious tips, it’s dif­fi­cult to scale them to that many accounts. If you’re in a sim­ilar sit­u­a­tion, you might con­sider using a pass­word man­ager, such as Last­Pass or KeePass. The idea is to main­tain an encrypted data­base of your pass­words so that you only need to remember one: the master pass­word pro­tecting the data­base. They often have other ben­e­fits, such as gen­er­ating strong pass­words for you that respect pass­word poli­cies and inte­grate with your web browser.

5. Con­sider using two-​​factor authentication

A great way to pro­tect your infor­ma­tion is to take advan­tage of so-​​called two-​​factor authen­ti­ca­tion schemes when pos­sible. Google, Twitter, and Face­book all pro­vide these capa­bil­i­ties, where the idea is to require two pieces of infor­ma­tion as proof of iden­tity: your pass­word plus a chal­lenge and response via SMS, or a time-​​based code from your mobile phone, for instance. Requiring two fac­tors makes it far less likely that your account can be stolen, since, for the case above, an attacker would need to com­pro­mise both your pass­word and your mobile phone. Pass­word safety is an inte­gral part of pro­tecting your per­sonal infor­ma­tion. By fol­lowing the tips above, you’ll be ahead of the curve when it comes to staying safe online.


Give the Gift of Voice

February 14, 2014 9:43 am

Since deliv­ering a lec­ture at TED Women in December, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity asso­ciate pro­fessor Rupal Patel has had her work cut out for her. In con­junc­tion with her talk, Patel launched a web­site called VocalId​.org in an attempt to crowd-​​source the cre­ation of per­son­al­ized syn­thetic voices for indi­vid­uals with severe speech impairment.

Patel, a speech com­mu­ni­ca­tion expert who holds joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, has been cre­ating sim­ilar voices for a number of years. To do so, she takes a small sample of the dis­or­dered speaker’s voice and infuses it into a library of recorded vocal­iza­tions from a healthy speaker of a sim­ilar back­ground. But so far, the process has been much dif­ferent from what she now envisions.

For one thing, the cur­rent pro­tocol requires voice donors to visit her lab and record two to three hours of speech. Addi­tion­ally, the equip­ment used in those recording ses­sions is expen­sive and rather high technology.

“If we’re to make a real dif­fer­ence in the hun­dreds of peo­ples’ lives who want their own voice, we need to stream­line the process,” said Patel.

Enter The Human Voice­bank Ini­tia­tive. Patel’s goal is to bank 1 mil­lion voice sam­ples by 2020. Within a couple of weeks of her TED talk, she had already col­lected hun­dreds of poten­tial donors as well as requests from a slew of people inter­ested in having a voice cre­ated just for them. To meet the growing demand, which is sure to increase now that the video is avail­able to the public, Patel and her team are working to create a more user-​​friendly voice-​​banking interface.

Patel and her team plan hope that donors will be able to use the rel­a­tively high quality micro­phone on their own smart­phones and tablets to record them­selves. They plan to turn the process into some­thing of a game, where donors are encour­aged by in-​​app incen­tives to return again and again to do more recording. Addi­tion­ally, they envi­sion cre­ating a learning cur­riculum to teach young people about the sci­ence of speech as they progress through the recording process.

“There’s a lot of work to be done but we are excited about the payoff,” said Patel. “We expect this new approach to help a lot more people than we ever could have done previously.”

People inter­ested in donating their voices can sign up at VocalID​.org, where they may also donate their time, exper­tise, and finan­cial support.

Footage courtesy of TEDWomen2013.

Northeastern Breaks Ground on State-​​of-​​the-​​Art Science and Engineering Complex

February 24, 2014 9:32 am

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity and the city of Boston opened a new chapter in their long part­ner­ship on Friday morning when city offi­cials joined uni­ver­sity leaders to break ground on Northeastern’s state-​​of-​​the-​​art Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Sci­ence and Engi­neering Com­plex on Columbus Avenue.

In his remarks, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun told the hun­dreds of people in atten­dance, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston City Coun­cilor Tito Jackson, and state Rep. Jef­frey Sanchez of Jamaica Plain, that the new com­plex would ben­efit the North­eastern com­mu­nity as well as the entire city.

“You can look at this com­plex from dif­ferent per­spec­tives,” Aoun said. “Yes, it is going to serve the stu­dents. Yes, it is going to serve our fac­ulty. And yes, it is going to serve the com­mu­nity. But more impor­tantly it is going to bring every con­stituency together.”

Hundreds of members of the Northeastern University and surrounding communities gathered at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex (ISEC), on Columbus Avenue. Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun joined by new Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in the ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The 220,000-square-foot research and edu­ca­tional space is part of Northeastern’s ongoing effort to expand its capacity to engage in path-​​breaking research across dis­ci­plines. Sched­uled to open in 2016, it will include wet and dry lab facil­i­ties, edu­ca­tional lab­o­ra­to­ries, class­room space, and offices for fac­ulty and grad­uate students.

“A sci­ence com­plex of this scale has the chance to be a shining example of the best Boston has to offer,” Walsh said in his remarks. “This facility will attract some of the world’s best minds in the most cut­ting edge fields of research. The work they will do will change the world in ways we can’t even imagine yet.”

The ISEC will be the first pri­vate research devel­op­ment in Rox­bury and is expected to create more than 600 jobs during the con­struc­tion phase and an addi­tional 700 jobs after the com­plex opens.

“The future of our uni­ver­sity is immi­nently linked to the well being of the Rox­bury com­mu­nity and Boston as a whole,” Aoun said. “You need us. But more impor­tantly, we need you.”

The six-​​story, LEED-​​certified facility will fea­ture cutting-​​edge sci­en­tific equip­ment and lab space, both of which will be shared by researchers from Northeastern’s Col­lege of Sci­ence, Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, Col­lege of Engi­neering, and Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

“The most sig­nif­i­cant word in the name of this building is inter­dis­ci­pli­nary,” Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, said in his remarks. “Our research focuses on finding solu­tions to the global chal­lenges in the areas of health, sus­tain­ability, and secu­rity. Solu­tions to these chal­lenges require the col­lab­o­ra­tion of many minds working together in many fields.”

Miles Graham, a seventh-​​grader at the Match Charter Public School in Boston, said the new facility would help Boston youth realize their dreams of becoming suc­cessful sci­en­tists and engi­neers. “This new building rep­re­sents a bigger and better oppor­tu­nity for Boston’s youth,” he explained. “This is how dreams become real.”

Michael Karolewski, comp­troller for the North­eastern Stu­dent Gov­ern­ment Asso­ci­a­tion, noted that the new com­plex would offer stu­dents more research oppor­tu­ni­ties than ever before.

“It’s hard to believe, but there will be even more oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents like me to learn in their own dis­ci­plines and have the poten­tial to com­mu­ni­cate across these other dis­ci­plines,” said Karolewski, DMSB’16.

Walsh was par­tic­u­larly excited about the project’s plan to con­struct a unique pedes­trian bridge over the MBTA Orange Line, com­muter rail, and Amtrak tracks. The bridge—similar to New York City’s “Highline”—will con­nect two dis­tinct sec­tions of Northeastern’s campus and bol­ster the university’s strong ties to the Rox­bury and Fenway neighborhoods.

“Building bridges is what uni­ver­si­ties should be all about,” Walsh said.

Photo courtesy of Payette.

The site’s devel­op­ment pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to strengthen the Columbus Avenue cor­ridor, improve pedes­trian con­nec­tions, and create new open space and streetscape ameni­ties to be shared with the sur­rounding com­mu­nity. The project rep­re­sents an invest­ment by the uni­ver­sity of about $225 million.

The new sci­ence com­plex is a key part of Northeastern’s Insti­tu­tional Master Plan to strengthen ties with the local com­mu­nity and the city. Uni­ver­sity offi­cials devel­oped the plan over the past two years in col­lab­o­ra­tion with fac­ulty, stu­dents, staff, city plan­ners, and campus neigh­bors. The Boston Rede­vel­op­ment Authority approved the plan on Nov. 14, 2013.

North­eastern has increased its annual research funding by more than 100 per­cent since 2006, and it has received more than $98 mil­lion in external research funding in 2013. The uni­ver­sity is also diver­si­fying its research funding by delib­er­ately increasing sup­port from phil­an­thropic and cor­po­rate sources, not just gov­ern­ment grants.


Brilliant and Motivated, but a Good Hire?

February 25, 2014 9:17 am

The evi­dence is clear that Albert László Barabási, a world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist and Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has enjoyed a suc­cessful career. As the founding pro­fessor of Northeastern’s net­work sci­ence pro­gram, Barabási is a “bril­liant and moti­vated” scholar, in the words of his grad­uate advisor, Gene Stanley, him­self a dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of physics at Boston University.

Barabási has pub­lished four books and 142 papers, which have col­lec­tively received more than 100 thou­sand cita­tions. He’s even got a Kevin Bacon number of one, thanks to his appear­ance along­side the Hol­ly­wood actor in a movie called “Con­nected,” according to Larry Finkel­stein, dean of the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. As Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, put it, “you can’t hide from the obvious impact of his work.”

But on Monday at a cer­e­mony installing him as the inau­gural Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor of Net­work Sci­ence, Barabási asked whether all these acco­lades actu­ally made him a good hire back in 2009.

In his inau­gural lec­ture that focused on the “sci­ence of suc­cess,” Barabási noted the mea­sures are con­sis­tently used to deter­mine a researcher’s suc­cess in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity: a journal’s impact factor and a paper or researcher’s total cita­tion count. “We love to hate these num­bers,” explained Barabási, because they don’t actu­ally do a very good job of pre­dicting the future impact of a paper or suc­cess of a career.

In a new line of research for his lab, Barabási’s team is devel­oping a more math­e­mat­i­cally robust way of mea­suring suc­cess. They’ve exam­ined it in the con­text of physics research papers and are begin­ning to expand it into other broad-​​ranging areas, including the suc­cess of a Twitter feed.

Thank­fully to those in atten­dance Monday who hired him five years ago, Barabási can use these methods to pre­dict con­tinued suc­cess for his own career.

While a researcher’s single block­buster suc­cess often comes in his or her first 10 years on the job, there is actu­ally no pre­dic­tive value in that time­line for future suc­cess. Based on pro­duc­tivity, he said, “we can’t see suc­cess coming nor do we really learn from it.”

Instead, things like an individual’s “excel­lence parameter”—a mea­sure of how he com­pares to his peers in the way he addresses the world’s challenges—is much more impor­tant than their total cita­tions, the impact of the jour­nals they pub­lish in, or even their overall pro­duc­tivity. We can find an accu­rate mea­sure of suc­cess, Barabási said, “you just have to look at the right variables.”

In closing remarks, Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, noted that Robert Gray Dodge, for whom Barabási’s new pro­fes­sor­ship is named, was essen­tially the university’s first pro­fessor. “I think it’s fit­ting that he started some­thing brand new and achieved great suc­cess,” said Director, noting that is pre­cisely what Barabási has done since joining the North­eastern fac­ulty and spear­heading the nation’s first pro­gram in net­work science.

“One thing I learned through net­work sci­ence,” Barabási said, “is that a net­work is use­less as a set of nodes. It’s all about the links.” North­eastern, he said, has allowed him to pursue those links in order to main­tain the high level of work in which his lab is engaged.

Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun noted that before com­mencing his tenure at North­eastern, Barabási demanded only one thing: “an envi­ron­ment con­ducive to building the best pro­gram in the country.” When Aoun asked how he pro­posed to do that, Barabási said it was simple—just bring in the best people at all levels. “This is what has hap­pened,” Aoun said.

While suc­cess may now be accu­rately mea­sured through com­pli­cated math­e­matics thanks to Barabási’s work, what mat­ters most may still be the col­lab­o­ra­tions and links that allow a researcher to sus­tain such work.


Face Value

February 25, 2014 9:21 am

Raymond FuFace­book is home to nearly 3 bil­lion photos. Every minute, YouTube grows by another 100 hours of video. And, according to IHS Research, some 30 mil­lion sur­veil­lance cam­eras pepper our public spaces, col­lecting nearly 4 bil­lion hours of footage each week. Need­less to say, there’s a lot of image data that’s ripe for the picking.

Con­tent like this helped break crim­inal cases such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. But if we want to carry on with sim­ilar suc­cesses, we’ll need ever more sophis­ti­cated algo­rithms to parse the data deluge.

For his part, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity assis­tant pro­fessor Ray­mond Fu is working to improve the cur­rent state-​​of-​​the-​​art of bio­met­rics soft­ware, which auto­mat­i­cally dis­tin­guishes between dif­ferent cat­e­gories of people as well as between indi­vid­uals themselves.

Fu’s research recently earned him one of two Young Inves­ti­gator awards from the Inter­na­tional Neural Net­work Society in 2014. “This is a real honor and inspires me to keep up the good work,” said Fu, a machine-​​learning expert who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Engi­neering and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

Backed by funding from Sam­sung Research of America, the research and devel­op­ment arm of the inter­na­tional elec­tronics com­pany, Fu has recently begun devel­oping visual recog­ni­tion soft­ware for use on social media net­works such as Face­book and Twitter.

“When people share facial images on social net­works, those images are in the wild. So you have uncon­strained data—meaning it’s not col­lected in the lab under con­trolled con­di­tions,” said Fu. “It can be from mul­tiple cam­eras, mul­tiple resources, so the data has a lot of variables.”

To cir­cum­vent this problem, his algo­rithm ranks the infor­ma­tion in all of the images and quickly tosses out any out­liers. “If some­thing is very dif­ferent from the rest of the images, our algo­rithm can rule it out and mit­i­gate noise,” he explained.

The soft­ware can “learn” a person’s unique face and use that infor­ma­tion to leverage the vast stores of image data online to under­stand society or inform inves­ti­ga­tions. For instance, Fu’s algo­rithms could help iden­tify what types of people turn out at a protest, he said, by rec­og­nizing gen­eral char­ac­ter­is­tics rather than indi­vidual ones: Are the people pho­tographed at demon­stra­tions such as Occupy Wall Street car­rying cam­eras and note­books, and thus likely jour­nal­ists? Are there more uniform-​​donning policemen than protestors?

Of course, adver­tisers and cor­po­ra­tions could also use this data for less-​​noble pur­suits, such as tar­geting their prod­ucts at par­tic­ular groups or indi­vid­uals. “There is always a trade off between pri­vacy and ser­vices,” said Fu. “Every­thing I’m doing uses data that’s pub­li­cally avail­able. We’re trying to pro­vide the best models for ana­lyzing it.”

It’s up to the rest of us—you and me and our representatives—to deter­mine how we should use those models.


New Tools to get Your Smartphone up to Speed

February 26, 2014 9:45 am

David Choffnes

“Check the map,” says the voice in the com­mer­cial. “Verizon’s super fast 4GLTE is the most reli­able and in more places than any other 4G network.”

But is it truly the most depen­dent, the most widespread?

In fact, there’s no way of knowing: “There’s absolutely no useful quan­ti­ta­tive data for com­par­ison pur­poses,” according to mobile sys­tems expert Dave Choffnes, an assis­tant pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. And that means we have no con­trol over the per­for­mance and reli­a­bility of our mobile Internet use.

Last year, the number of people using mobile devices to access the Internet sur­passed the number of people using desktop com­puters to log online. While “most eye­ball time is on devices,” Choffnes said, mobile per­for­mance is nowhere near what we expect from our desktop expe­ri­ences. Researchers like him would need much more data to even begin bringing mobile Internet use up to speed—literally.

“Ide­ally we’d have mea­sure­ments from every­where on every net­work all the time,” he said. “And then we’d want to cor­re­late that with where we use our phones and what appli­ca­tions we use on our phones. And then you can imagine with all that infor­ma­tion we could spit out a number and say this car­rier is going to give you the best overall performance.”

But col­lecting that data is easier said than done—presumably, mobile providers would have done it by now if it weren’t. One hurdle is that users need to opt-​​in to donating their data, explained Choffnes, since doing so means giving up some of their expen­sive data-​​plan as well as pre­cious bat­tery life. As a result, he said, “we have to give an incentive.”

To that end, Choffnes has cre­ated a code that could send data to the devel­opers of a mobile app once it has been installed on a smart­phone. Devel­opers could incor­po­rate this code into what­ever apps they create, but users will only opt in to those that are the most enter­taining and useful.

For instance, Choffnes envi­sions an app that would allow two users to pit their mobile speeds against each other. Or one that pro­vides real-​​time infor­ma­tion about a phone’s per­for­mance to inform which net­work provider one should choose.

In another project, which he’s calling Meddle, Choffnes is using the same approach to incen­tivize users into donating their data for research. Along with lim­ited per­for­mance and reli­a­bility con­trol, mobile users also lack con­trol over how their apps share their data with the rest of the Internet.

Meddle is not itself an app, but rather a proxy net­work through which all of a phone’s traffic must pass before accessing a web­site or app. Tra­di­tion­ally, the pri­vacy (or lack thereof) of that journey is gov­erned by the app through which the user is trav­eling. Meddle encrypts every­thing it sends and receives, which instantly improves a user’s pri­vacy experience.

Addi­tion­ally, Meddle allows users to view their activity—and the activity of their apps—online. When we click “agree” to an app’s terms, we often give it per­mis­sion to share our data with other parts of the web. Meddle users can view a map of that activity and shut down any unwanted data sharing, pro­vided it doesn’t inter­fere with the app’s functionality.

In exchange for these improve­ments, users agree to share all their activity data with Choffnes, but only after it’s been scrubbed for anonymity. Choffnes then uses it to inves­ti­gate the per­for­mance, reli­a­bility, and pri­vacy of mobile net­work traffic. “If we can’t see what devices are doing, we can’t opti­mize them to work well all the time,” he said.


Who’s Got Your Digital Dossier

March 12, 2014 11:17 am

When users’ per­sonal infor­ma­tion is shared with a web­site or mobile appli­ca­tion, that data enters some­thing of a gray market with many unknowns about where that infor­ma­tion will end up or how it will be used. What’s more, indi­vid­uals have few options for con­trol­ling what is shared with third par­ties, says Dave Choffnes, a mobile sys­tems expert and assis­tant pro­fessor of com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. Choffnes is devel­oping soft­ware that aims to pro­vide data to researchers hoping to tackle this issue and pro­vide some level of con­trol to users. We asked him about the extent and impli­ca­tions of this third-​​party data sharing.

How are users’ data currently being shared online, and how much are they aware of and able to control?

The short answer is that we don’t know how much sharing is going on. We know that information is collected by businesses, and we know that this information is being monetized through advertising. For example, when I search a travel site for a plane ticket to a destination, I see ads related to that destination on other websites. But surely this kind of sharing is only the tip of the iceberg.

In general, I think users—average or otherwise—are aware of frighteningly little. There are two problems: we lack transparency into what is being shared and have almost no control over how it is shared. Several tools attempt to improve transparency. One, Collusion, allows you to track the trackers for desktop Web browsing. Another, called Meddle, which my team developed, can do the same for mobile app traffic.

We don’t have great tools for controlling what is being shared. There are a number of initiatives to allow consumers to opt out of advertising (e.g., Do Not Track and NAI Opt Out). However, there is no enforcement of such preferences and advertiser participation is voluntary. The problem is one of incentives: the advertisers have little reason to stop tracking if there is no downside for them. Governmental policy changes can help, but we also need better tools to allow users to take control of how they are tracked. With Meddle, we are trying to do the latter.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to having our data shared in this manner?

Data sharing and advertising can generate revenue that allows popular apps and services to be “free” for users—a large fraction of services we enjoy today would not exist without such revenue streams. Of course, this is free as in dollars, but not free as in freedom, since the users relinquish control of potentially sensitive data. The disadvantage is that once data is shared, it is nearly impossible to “unshare” it and we do not yet understand the risks. For example, once shared, this private data may be breached by malicious parties. We have seen negative implications of private data being made public. For example, see this story in Wired.

What needs to be done to improve the state of privacy in this arena, and how much is the user’s responsibility to make that happen?

It seems clear that the current state of affairs is not optimal. As a user, I would like to see more control put into our own hands and I would like it to be free to do so. Realistically, I think users, companies, and policymakers will need to share the responsibility of protecting privacy. This entails revisiting current policies for transparency, control, and pricing when it comes to decisions regarding collecting and using data gathered from users.

I think a key issue is that no one will act to improve privacy until being made aware of potential (and actual) problems that stem from today’s data gathering. To address this, we need to find ways to make such information easily accessible to average users and policymakers. Collusion took a huge leap forward in this direction, and we are trying to build upon this success in Meddle.


Does Big Data Have the Flu?

March 14, 2014 9:13 am

bigdata2These days, when people start feeling a fever and a sore throat coming on, often times their first move isn’t to the med­i­cine cab­inet. Instead, it’s to a com­puter or smart­phone to Google their symptoms.

These queries, which make up only a tiny frac­tion of the more than 7 bil­lion total queries the search engine han­dles each day, are all stored by Google. The com­pany uses this data for a variety of rea­sons; it can help Google improve its search results for users—which also boosts the company’s bottom line—and can also ben­efit the pop­u­la­tion as a whole in other ways.

One example of the latter is Google Flu Trends, a sta­tis­tical model devel­oped by engi­neers at—the company’s foun­da­tional arm—in an effort to “now-​​cast” what’s hap­pening with the flu on any given day.

But research has shown that GFT often misses its target. These results led North­eastern Uni­ver­sity net­work sci­en­tists and their col­leagues to take a closer look at how Big Data should be used to advance sci­en­tific research. Their report was pub­lished online Thursday in the journal Sci­ence.

“Big Data have enor­mous sci­en­tific pos­si­bil­i­ties,” said North­eastern pro­fessor David Lazer. “But we have to be aware that most Big Data aren’t designed for sci­en­tific pur­poses.” Fully achieving Big Data’s enthu­si­as­ti­cally lauded poten­tial, he added, requires a syn­thesis of both com­puter sci­ence approaches to data as well as tra­di­tional approaches from the social sciences.

The paper was co-​​authored by Lazer, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence; Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics at North­eastern who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­enc; North­eastern vis­iting research pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence Ryan Kennedy; and Gary King, a pro­fessor in the Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Depart­ment of Government.

“In a sense, Google Flu Trends is not bad, but it’s no better than any basic approach to time series pre­dic­tion,” Vespig­nani said. “So the issue is in the claims and the dis­re­gard of other tech­niques or data more than the actual result.”

In their paper, the researchers explain where Google Flu Trends went wrong and examine how the research com­mu­nity can best uti­lize the out­puts of Big Data com­pa­nies as well as how those com­pa­nies should par­tic­i­pate in the research effort.

By incor­po­rating lagged data from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion as well as making a few simple sta­tis­tical tweaks to the model, Lazer said, the GFT engi­neers could have sig­nif­i­cantly improved their results. But in a com­panion report also released Thursday on the Social Sci­ence Research Network—an online repos­i­tory of schol­arly research and related materials—Lazer and his col­leagues show that an updated ver­sion of GFT, which came about in response to a 2013 Nature article revealing GFT’s lim­i­ta­tions, does little better than its predecessor.

While Big Data cer­tainly holds great promise for research, Lazer said, it will only be suc­cessful if the methods and data are made—at least partially—accessible to the com­mu­nity. But that so far has not been the case with Google.

“Google wants to con­tribute to sci­ence but at the same time does not follow sci­en­tific praxis and the prin­ci­ples of repro­ducibility and data avail­ability that are cru­cial for progress,” Vespig­nani said. “In other words they want to con­tribute to sci­ence with a black box, which we cannot fully scru­ti­nize and understand.”

If sci­en­tists are to “stand on the shoul­ders of giants,” as the old adage requires for moving knowl­edge for­ward, they will need some help from the giants, Lazer said. Oth­er­wise fail­ures like that with Google Flu Trends will be ram­pant, with the poten­tial to tar­nish our under­standing of any­thing from stock market trends to the spread of disease.

Beware this Big iOS flaw — and it’s Not Alone

March 17, 2014 9:32 am

A change that Apple imposed to make iOS 7 more secure instead has dramatically weakened the security of devices running that mobile operating system, a security researcher has charged.

At the CanSecWest conference here last week, Azimuth Security researcher Tarjei Mandt said that Apple made a major mistake when it changed its random-number generator to make its kernel encryption tougher in iOS 7. The kernel is the most basic level of an operating system and controls things like security, file management, and resource allocation.

“In terms of security, it’s much worse than iOS 6,” Mandt said. Soon after his presentation Wednesday in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Wall Centre, he published his presentation slides (PDF) and supporting whitepaper (PDF) as evidence.

And in a testament to the enduring challenges of getting mobile security right, other presentations at CanSecWest also called attention to flaws in the Android and in BlackBerry 10 mobile OSes.

 How Apple left the iOS 7 kernel vulnerable

The technical and complicated change boils down to how Apple calculates randomly generated numbers used in the encryption of the kernel. If the numbers can be guessed, their randomness is irrelevant, and the kernel — key to control of the computer, or in this case the iOS phone or tablet — can be compromised.

Apple, he explained, recognized that the method of generating random numbers in iOS 6 could be improved on. Its security engineers leveraged the phone’s CPU clock counter on earlier version of iOS, Mandt said.

“That’s not very good, but still somewhat unpredictable,” he said.

The problem with the new generator in iOS 7 is that it uses a linear recursion algorithm, Mandt said, which has “more correlation” between the values it generates. That makes them easier to extrapolate and guess, he said.

“Normally, you shouldn’t be able to get any of these values in the first place,” Mandt said.

The kernel exploit is severe, although Mandt did not pair it with a vulnerability. Still, that means that anybody who can find an unpatched vulnerability in iOS 7, such as the “goto fail” vulnerability that was patched last month, can gain kernel-level access.

Apple appears to be taking the flaw seriously, but did not return a request for comment. CNET will update the story when the company responds.

“Apple [security engineers attending CanSecWest] approached me afterwards and they appeared to be kind of concerned,” he said. But he cautioned that this exploit should not be underestimated, and that left unfixed, it would effectively roll back 10 years of security-hardening techniques in iOS.

Using jiu-jitsu to fix Android fragmentation flaws

An Android presentation just after Mandt’s asserted that the one-two punch of Android fragmentation has placed Android users at risk of missing out on important security updates. That’s not going to be fixed anytime soon, they said.

The issue, argued Jon Oberheide of Duo Security and Northeastern University security researcher Collin Mulliner, lies in how Android devices receive — or more precisely, don’t receive — their updates.

 “The Chrome guys will deliver an update within 24 hours. On Android, it can take months and years,” said Oberheide. “Your carrier doesn’t have a lot of incentive to fix your ancient HTC Evo. They want you to buy the latest and greatest device.”

So, the pair said, even when Google patches Android security flaws, the handset manufacturer and the carrier effectively stop patches from reaching the people who need them.

Android security apps can’t be relied on, Mulliner said, because they’re fighting Android malware — something that he said just isn’t a big problem in most regions.

“None of the big antivirus or security companies are doing a really good job because they’re all concerned with stopping malware,” he said.

Another dead-end, he said, is that Android architecture “doesn’t allow” partial updates.

“Google should be able to update anything that’s not kernel, but to do that you have to separate everything much better in the code,” Mulliner said. “Technically, it’s possible, but I could see the manufacturers not wanting to allow that because then you lose part of the device.”

However, they did hit on a method that flips unpatched exploits into tools for patching the bugs. Starting work at the end of 2012, it uses third-party vulnerability patches, independent of both device and Android version.

“Version numbers don’t tell you anything anymore, whether you buy one device for yourself or 100 devices for your company,” Mulliner said.

“There’s one patch for many devices, with no performance problems, and the patch self-contained,” Oberheide told the crowd.

Their first app, called ReKey, delivers a fix for the MasterKey bug.

They’ve built it to require the owner to root the phone first, so that it can’t be turned into a universal malware delivery tool, and they caution that it’s not for all Android owners. People who use Nexus devices and third-party custom ROMs such as CyanogenMod generally get updates much faster than the rest of Android owners.

Afterward, Mulliner dispensed some advice to people who want to buy Android phones. From a security point of view, he said, “Buy only Nexus devices.”

New BlackBerry era brings new risks

The QNX-based BlackBerry 10 is a major change for BlackBerry for many reasons, not the least of which are its security implications. The hardened, security-focused platform of the legacy BlackBerry OS made that the ideal mobile operating system for large businesses and governments.

Security researchers Ben Nell of Accuvant and Zach Lanier of Duo Security said that BlackBerry 10 opens itself up in ways that previous versions of BlackBerry didn’t, because it was fused on top of QNX, which powers everything from space shuttles to car operating systems.

“Some of the security enhancements introduced in BlackBerry 10 might help mitigate core issues in QNX, but not in other iterations of QNX,” said Lanier. But combining QNX with legacy BlackBerry, he said, “they inherited some bugs, fixed others, and introduced some new ones.”

Lanier noted that BlackBerry is pushing for QNX to be the top “Internet of Things” platform, but by combining QNX with mobile BlackBerry, the company could be putting at risk some of the infrastructure implementations of QNX — such as power plants.

“You may not want to shut down a nuclear reactor [running QNX] for maintenance,” he said. “If QNX continues to gain popularity outside of BlackBerry 10, there will be other issues that will crop up.”

One area where BlackBerry 10 is at risk, they said, is app permissions. “There are a couple of permissions that are in there that allow sockets to be open to the Internet. Any app can do it,” they said.

“We did report things like oversights in file permissions,” said Nell, “the sorts of things that were related to legacy bugs.”

Another problem with BlackBerry 10 is that minor vulnerabilities and weaknesses, along with some of those legacy bugs, could be chained together to cause bigger problems.

“If you had corporate email on the device, we could read your corporate email. It was a series of small issues that chained together were a bigger problem,” Nell said. He was reluctant to talk further about specifics, for fear of revealing problems that haven’t yet been reported publicly.

Nell got his start on BlackBerry research when his company was hired by a potential BlackBerry client to check out how secure BlackBerry 10 actually was. He and Lanier refused to discuss specifics because of a two-year nondisclosure agreement that Nell signed, a common practice in the security world.

Other areas they thought of looking at, but wouldn’t comment on because of their nondisclosure agreement, included checking on how the processes communicate with each other, and privilege escalations of the kind that had Mandt looking into iOS. A bug of either of those types likely would apply to both BlackBerry and QNX.

In the end, Lanier said that he’d recommend BlackBerry 10 as an enterprise device, but not for “bring your own device” customers. Unfortunately for BlackBerry, the dual-use feature of BlackBerry 10 that lets owners switch between work and home modes was designed to appeal precisely to the BYOD crowd.

“To BlackBerry’s credit,” said Lanier, “they baked in all the management features, the separation of work data and user data, from the get go. Now if only they could get people to use it.”

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