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Q&A: Grace Hopper Winner Vidya Ayer

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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 four of a five-part series of Q&As with the award winners.

TASER Grace Hopper award winner Vidya Ayer hopes to change the world. A software developer and computer technologist, she finds inspiration in TASER's mission to protect life. Living in India, she knows how countless women without access to new technologies could be aided by them. Now, she wants to design an affordable open source device to protect those who travel alone in a country that has been called one of the most dangerous places for women to live in. Vidya is a graduate of the Indira Gandhi National Open University.

TASER: When you first got into computer science, was it with the goal of making the world a safer place in mind?

Vidya: I am an ardent believer that technology can improve our lives and as a 6-year-old, I dreamed of owning Sony's human-like robots that would help me carry my heavy school-bag daily. Being able to create cool robots was the motivation for learning [computer science], but an older me realized that technology that made everyday life safer for me as a woman went beyond robots and television gizmos. India was ranked the 4th most dangerous place in the world for women to live in, and women traveling alone are constantly at risk of being assaulted, so technology could keep her safe.

Science is just science until it's used to change the world, and I am constantly inspired by ideas that can bring meaningful progress — one of my ideas was for a mobile [HotKey button] application that would ping your designated contact list when you are in danger of being assaulted and help track down your location via your cell-phone. However, my idea was ahead of its time because without the support infrastructure—prompt police response and co-operation, lack of social awareness, sensitivity and gender awareness to crime among Indians, lack of prompt medical aid, etc., this idea would not work as it would in, say, the U.S.A.

T: What do you see as the potential virtues, uses, and new avenues of innovation for open source software?

V: Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) can potentially have a range of benefits and virtues, including:

  • Low costs as it does not involve paying for prohibitive license costs and limited contractual obligations.
  • User freedom to make the changes as per their requirements. This is often limited in proprietary systems.
  • The open and transparent development model (absent in closed source software) ensures that bugs and security fixes are not hidden or ignored for long.
  • Access to source code to enable integration—increasingly important when two or more systems must communicate metadata and data—say a TASER [weapon] must send the triangulated GPS location for the woman in distress.
  • Knowledge silos are not created in FOSS.

Innovation is second nature to FOSS and happens all the time—people create new libraries, or write APIs and wrappers, and even create new languages (example: the Julia language for scientific computing) which are supported by a global network of developers, and thus have access to cutting edge research and development knowledge.

T: Are people doing enough open source work right now, and if not how can we incentivize people to do more?

V: The short version: By employing and paying people to work on FOSS full-time.

The longer version: People have bills to pay in real life, so it is unfair to expect them to do unpaid work full-time, and for women, volunteering in FOSS is the third shift as they have to deal with housework in addition to full-time work, resulting in fewer women in programming roles in the FOSS community. There are many women doing important tasks like technical documentation, bug-fixing, translation, but hardly any women are the leading core-developers of a FOSS project.

A well-maintained FOSS project is one that has full-time paid developers who can concentrate on creating a product that can be commercialized under a FOSS license. Employing people to write software, maintain it, squash bugs, write technical documentation, and support users is the easiest way to incentivize smart people to do more because when a company has created a sustainable community, it can survive on the steam of its contributors.

That said, some parts of the FOSS world have toxic, hostile environments, and women have a harder time succeeding in negative environments.

T: What are some of the biggest challenges surrounding the creation of public safety technology in developing nations?

V: In random order, the lack of infrastructure, lack of support/awareness and lack of access to resources, affordability of safety gadgets and apathy towards women's safety are major challenges in creating public safety technology.

India is a country with a diverse population that ranges from people living in extreme poverty to the middle-class to rich businessmen listed on the Forbes list. Women belonging to the first two groups—middle-class and poor folks—are the ones at risk of being assaulted when traveling alone. For example, a pepper spray bottle is a useful tool to keep attackers at bay but a TASER [weapon] would be a lot more expensive for and unaffordable for the middle and [lower] classes of people.

T: Given infinite resources and time, what technology would you most like to see developed and adopted to keep women safe?

V: For a country like India, where it's very common to hear mainstream newsprints and TV reporting sexual assault cases and gang rapes on a daily basis, it's important for women to have a device that can protect them via prevention. By that I mean, a TASER-like [device] running on a raspberry-pi, with FOSS software controlling the gun and monitoring it for their GPS location—she can use it in emergency situations to temporarily overpower her attacker giving her the time needed to run and escape into safety. Additional features include an inbuilt fingerprint reader or voice recognition software that will ensure that in the unfortunate event of her attackers snatching [it] from her hands, they cannot use it to stun her and over-power her with her own TASER [weapon] and assault her.

TASER is committed to personal safety and has always championed the transformative power of technology. For this reason, Vidya was named one of our Grace Hopper winners.

This interview was conducted via email and has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Vidya Ayer.