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Q&A: Grace Hopper Winner Sally Applin

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This year, TASER sponsored five recipients of the Grace Hopper scholarship, named after the programming pioneer who helped develop the earliest computers. The honor recognizes women in technology and covers their costs for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, held in Houston from Oct. 14-16. Here's part five of a five-part series of Q&As with the award winners.

Sally Applin’s experience in user experience design is wide-ranging. She has a master's degree from NYU, worked at Apple and was one of the researchers working on what became Go-Gurt. These days, she is finishing up a doctoral thesis in anthropology with a technology focus at the University of Kent, Canterbury and is shifting back into industry and industry applied research.

Her doctoral thesis examines Silicon Valley technology makers and considers the broader effects of the technology that’s being developed. This includes technology as it impacts public safety. Earlier this year, she published a paper on the way police officers are exposed to communications “heterogeneity” in the course of their daily jobs. She considered her application an amazing opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Conference and a chance to speak directly to TASER, which she said had shown careful consideration with its product development.

TASER: How did you wind up in your current field?

Sally: I come from interactive science museum exhibit design research and user experience design. My early educational background is conceptual art and within that, applying engineering principles to the process of fine art making. While working in exhibit design, I became interested in how people interacted with the content of exhibits. I interned at Apple when I was a student at the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. The internship was in Apple's 3D graphics group, where we designed one of the virtual museums using early Beta versions QuickTime and color XCMDs for HyperCard, which worked as vehicles for the graphics renderings made by the computer scientists in the group. After graduation, I was hired into Apple in the new Personal Interactive Electronics (PIE) to work on projects with a telecommunications focus.

I’m drawn to how people communicate and how messages may or may not be received. When I graduated from NYU, I had wanted to continue with a Ph.D., studying the impact of the Internet on society, but it was too early. At that time, there wasn’t much widespread commercial use of the Internet. I had to wait!

T: What are your research interests?

S: I am interested in heterogeneity and how it affects us. Heterogeneity is who we are as a species—diverse and different from each other. Heterogeneity allows for more robust organisms. However, with communications, if there is too much heterogeneity (in terms of time, space, frequency) in messaging systems, messages may not get through. PolySocial Reality (PoSR) is a theoretical framework we've developed, that we use to understand the messaging landscape. We know that people and machines are creating messages, and we know that sometimes those messages are connecting and sometimes they aren't. We are interested in these communications patterns because we are interested in group cooperation, which is an outcome of successful communication.

We can examine PoSR and its messaging structure and apply it to the messages that autonomous vehicles, drones or the Internet of Things (IoT), healthcare, or other systems generate. The way that messages connect, are part of sociability and part of how we negotiate with each other in communications.My research looks at ways that cooperation can remain in systems as we add more automation. New technologies are constantly being developed, and with them, automation. Awareness of how to maintain human cooperation within this is critical.

T: Can you describe the work you’ve done relating to public safety?

S: The piece I wrote for the EPIC blog explores the communications landscape that law enforcement are exposed to on a daily basis, particularly as they are driving. Police officers are subjected to a lot of stimulation as they drive, both related to the driving task, and also related to the communications tools, both radio and computer, that they are required to use as part of their jobs. This particular piece examined those factors, trying to understand if law enforcement could potentially be overwhelmed from outcomes from PoSR in their vehicles, and if so, does it affect their decision-making process or attention? Divided attention research suggests that people cannot focus attention on the driving task while required to have a level of conversation. I was exploring the idea that if there is communications distraction, does that result in a change of focus of perception of events?

If law enforcement is subjected to communications distractions and if they are also asked to patrol different areas than their usual areas, does this result in more heterogeneity? When law enforcement is subjected to situations of high heterogeneity, are they able to really see what is in front of them and to make the right choices, and do they have tools that can help them make a range of choices? Furthermore, if law enforcement has a required dependence on these communication tools, will they be comfortable leaving their vehicles? The article explores the implications to society if officers are overloaded. It asks the question, "If officers are unable or uncomfortable to leave their vehicles, does that action impact community policing and the officers' relationships to those they protect and serve?"

T: What is your thesis focusing on?

S: My thesis focused on Silicon Valley makers, looking at the people who make technology, the technology that they are making, how they perceive that technology, and how people actually receive and apply that technology in their lives. Primarily, I’m focused on what I call "edge case" groups: people who are playing with technologies that are not quite mainstream yet, such as the IoT. Augmented Reality is a good example as it is now a bit more mature. I was at one of the first meet-ups for augmented reality, and I’ve watched the industry grow and participated in it as it’s been developing.

Simultaneously I examine automation and people’s response to automation. We’re seeing that automation frustrates people because it doesn’t give people enough agency. I research, understand and propose solutions in automation that offer ways to continue to give humans more choice than traditional programming decision trees. Thus, automation and its relationship to people, community and cooperation is important.

TASER is honored to award Sally Applin her scholarship. Her commitment to improving technology and her research are in line with TASER's overall mission of helping society through technological innovation.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Sally Applin.