Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 7, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


The STEM Enrollment Boom
Inside Higher Ed (04/07/14) Scott Jaschik

Undergraduates at four-year institutions have become much more likely to study science and technology fields, especially engineering and biology, according to a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The study found that although science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) enrollments are growing, professional-field enrollments such as business and education are shrinking. The study is based largely on the "freshman survey" conducted annually by UCLA on a national pool of freshmen at four-year institutions. The researchers found the percentage of freshmen planning to major in STEM increased from 21.1 percent in 2007 to 28.2 percent in 2011. The data also shows the STEM gains were present for both male and female students, so gender gaps that remain in some STEM fields were not significantly changed. Engineering saw a 57.1-percent increase, while biology, the physical sciences, and mathematics had gains of 28.2, 11.1, and 12.6 percent, respectively. Pennsylvania professor Jerry A. Jacobs says people who want more STEM students should focus on attracting more female students rather than offering criticism of the humanities, which he says offers important critical thinking skills that all students need.


'Hackathons' Aim to Solve Health Care's Ills
The Wall Street Journal (04/06/14) Amy Dockser Marcus

Hackathons are increasingly popular in the healthcare field as a tool for tackling major challenges. For example, Hacking Medicine's recent Grand Hackfest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) drew more than 450 people to spend a weekend working on possible solutions to problems involving diabetes, rare diseases, global health, and information technology used at hospitals. "We are not trying to replace the medical culture with Facebook culture," says MIT Hacking Medicine co-founder Elliot Cohen. "But we want to try to blend them more." One of the event's winners was emergency room physician Nupur Garg, who presented a method for capturing images of patients' ears and throats that can be shared with specialists to help make diagnoses, and whose team worked on and tested a prototype device. Another researcher whose work benefited from the hackathon is physician Sharon Moalem, who created a mobile app that takes pictures of faces to help diagnose rare genetic conditions, but was stumped as to how to give the images a standard scale to make comparisons. A solution was suggested by an MIT student at the Hackfest, and Moalem's team went on to write code to help standardize facial measurements based on the dimensions of a coin and a credit card.


Wanna Build a Rocket? NASA's About to Give Away a Mountain of Its Code
Wired News (04/03/14) Robert McMillan

On April 10, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will publish a master list of more than 1,000 software projects it has developed in years past, with instructions on how users can acquire the software code they specifically want without paying royalties or copyright fees. Shortly after that, the agency will offer a searchable database of projects, and by 2015 it will host the actual software code in its own online database. "About a third of everything we invent ends up being software these days," notes NASA's David Lockney. This effort is part of a White House directive to accelerate federal technology transfer programs. NASA software has already been utilized in innovative initiatives outside the agency, such as marine biologists' adaptation of the Hubble Space Telescope's star-mapping algorithm to track and identify imperiled whale sharks. "Our design software has been used to make everything from guitars to roller coasters to Cadillacs," Lockney says. "Scheduling software that keeps the Hubble Space Telescope operations straight has been used for scheduling MRIs at busy hospitals and as control algorithms for online dating services." Lockney expects NASA's open source code catalog to experience substantial growth following its release.


Orienteering for Robots
MIT News (04/04/14) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an algorithm they say could make re-identifying landmarks much easier for computer-vision systems. The researchers note the algorithm also could simplify the problem of scene understanding, one of the central challenges in computer-vision research. The algorithm works by identifying the dominant orientations in a given scene, which it represents as sets of axes embedded in a sphere. As a computer-vision system moves, it would observe the sphere rotating in the opposite direction, and could gauge its orientation relative to the axes. First, the algorithm estimates the orientations of a large number of individual points in the scene, which are then represented as points on the surface of a sphere, with each point defining a unique angle relative to the sphere's center. Georgia Institute of Technology professor Frank Dellaert says the research is interesting, and it "generalizes to non-vertical frames, which is important in a manipulation context, and it works with depth images, which have become very popular with the rise of Kinect and other depth sensors."


Big Data Reaches to the Stratosphere
HPC Wire (04/03/14) Tiffany Trader

A position paper by Berlin Technical University professor Volker Markl developed at the recent Big Data and Extreme-scale Computing workshop emphasizes the goals and challenges of big data analytics. "Today's existing technologies have reached their limits due to big data requirements, which involve data volume, data rate and heterogeneity, and the complexity of the analysis algorithms, which go beyond relational algebra, employing complex user-defined functions, iterations, and distributed state," Markl writes. To correct this requires deploying declarative language concepts for big data systems. However, the effort presents several challenges, including designing a programming language specification that does not demand systems programming skills; plotting out programs expressed in this language to a computing platform of their own choosing, and performing them in a scalable fashion. Markl says next-generation big data analytics frameworks such as Stratosphere can enable deeper data analysis. Stratosphere integrates the advantages of MapReduce/Hadoop with programming abstractions in Java and Scala and a high-performance runtime to facilitate massively parallel in-situ data analytics. Markl says Stratosphere is so far the only system for big data analytics featuring a query optimizer for advanced data analysis programs that transcend relational algebra, and the goal is to enable data scientists to concentrate on the main task without spending too much time on instilling scalability.


UW Gesture Technology Increases Efficiency of Hands-Free Use
The Daily (04/02/14) Matt Spaw

University of Washington (UW) researchers have developed AllSee, a gesture-recognition system that brings the technology to mobile devices for the first time. AllSee uses existing signals emitted by other electronic devices to read the users' hand movements, and uses up to 10,000 times less power than conventional systems. "AllSee is the first gesture-recognition system that can work on devices that harvest energy from TV signals around us," says UW professor Shyam Gollakota. The AllSee device receives and interprets changes in the wireless signals that are reflected off the user. Using a combination of finger and hand movements, an AllSee user can perform eight gestures, which the system can identify with an average accuracy of more than 94 percent, according to the researchers. AllSee also can run on much less power than similar systems because it harnesses the signals put out by other devices, rather than using energy to create its own signal. The researchers say AllSee could make it easier and more energy efficient to communicate with home appliances such as alarm systems.


Inside the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program
Federal News Radio (04/01/14) Shefali Kapadia

In an interview, the White House Office of Science and Technology's Jennifer Pahlka discusses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which she helps oversee. She says the program was established to accelerate problem-solving from years to months by bringing in people who could offer a fresh perspective, and fellows are diverse in terms of background, age, and expertise. "A Presidential Innovation Fellow is someone who wants to serve his or her country and has the skills that we need to bring government along to be truly a 21st century government," Pahlka notes. She says both public- and private-sector veterans fill out the ranks of fellows, although there are generally more fellows from the private sector. Among the many successful projects stemming from the program that Pahlka cites is the Blue Button Initiative, which provides U.S. citizens with secure, electronic access to their own health information. Meanwhile, she says the followup Green Button Initiative provides electric utility customers with simple, secure access to their energy consumption information. Pahlka points out that many of the program's initiatives benefit the public after they make an impact within government. The program's third round of applications, which is accepting applications until today, will include an emphasis on data innovation.


Google Glass Hackathon Spawns Bizarre No-Touch Apps
New Scientist (04/02/14) Hal Hodson

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently hosted a Google Glass hackathon in which developers used a new language called Wearscript to create a wide range of new applications for the wearable technology. One project, called Love Performs, uses an eye tracker, mounted on the Glass frame, to measure the pupil dilation of the wearer. The idea is to measure someone's arousal, giving an instant measure of how attracted they are to the person they are looking at; when it identifies attraction, the project leader's Glass says, "oh my." One of the most popular projects came from two MIT computer science undergraduates, Edwin Zhang and Jin Pan, who have rewritten the popular Pokemon game so it can be played using Glass and other wearable devices. Players move through the game on a smartwatch and control the battles with Glass. The program enables two players to spar against each other, battling within a virtual environment displayed in Glass. Tufts University researcher Dan Afergan says this type of hackathon is important because it is essential that Glass and other wearables talk to each other so they can provide users with information in the right way.


Harnessing the Power of Hashtags to Tackle Climate Change
The Wall Street Journal (04/03/14) Evelyn M. Rusli

The ClimateX nonprofit's recent public release of its first project, the #Climate mobile app, is designed to help build momentum for climate change policies by connecting influential persons to nonprofit efforts via a social network model. The app's underlying concept is to make it simple for such influencers to identify climate-change campaigns, to promote them on social media, and then to monitor the scope of those messages. Any consumer can download and use #Climate to find new campaigns, but only vetted influencers can use the platform to post messages and track their reach. In an interview, ClimateX co-founder Josh Felser says the nonprofit is founded on the idea of using technology to make a difference in climate change. "We decided that what we really needed was a place to aggregate all the actions in one place--a smartphone app--and build in an analytics engine to show influencers how they are doing," he notes. Felser says the #Climate app will be offered for free to the public, but other nonprofits have requested a white label version for their campaigns and for their own networks of influencers, which could be provided for a fee. Felser describes an app that provides direct messaging for influencers as a next step.


Microsoft Open Sources Windows Library for JavaScript
IDG News Service (04/02/14) Joab Jackson

Microsoft is releasing its WinJS JavaScript library for building Windows-style controls as open source. Developers will be able to use the library to build and design Windows-like Web applications for other browsers and platforms, including Chrome, Firefox, Android, and iOS. Such cross-platform capability could save developers time by eliminating the need to code the same app multiple times for non-Windows platforms and browsers other than Internet Explorer. WinJS is not a Microsoft version of JavaScript, but a collection of JavaScript tools for enabling advanced components and user interface controls, which minimize the changes developers have to make to use these features across different devices. The library has components that can help build the infrastructure of a Web app, such as data binding. In addition, it offers advanced user interface controls and designs such as ListView, FlipView, animations, and semantic zoom. "Our goal is to contribute something new, to solve actual problems people have," says Microsoft's Paul Gusmorino. The library is now under an Apache 2.0 license, and the code base is maintained on GitHub.


How Your Location Data Is Being Used to Predict the Events You Will Want to Attend
Technology Review (04/02/14)

University of Cambridge researchers led by Petko Georgiev are tapping data from location-based social media network Foursquare to learn what makes people more likely to attend one event rather than another. The team says when the most critical factors are accounted for, they can accurately predict event attendance. The effort involved the collection of Foursquare data on the movements of about 190,000 people in London, New York, and Chicago over an eight-month period in 2010 and 2011, and the researchers also leveraged data on networks of friends, home locations, and the date and times of the movements supplied by the social network. They mined the data initially to find events, and also estimated the events' social attraction by tallying the number of friends who show up at the same places. To determine how these variables correlate with whether an individual turns up for an event, the researchers used 90 percent of the data as a training set and then employed the remaining 10 percent as a test data set. The presence of friends at an event turned out to be the major factor that influenced attendance, while other vital indicators included distance from home, the time people are active, and previous behavioral patterns.


11 University Teams to Compete in HPCAC-ISC 2014 Student Cluster Competition
Scientific Computing (04/01/14)

The HPC Advisory Council (HPCAC) and the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) have selected the participants for the HPCAC-ISC 2014 Student Cluster Competition. The student teams are from the Center for HPC in South Africa, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, EPCC at the University of Edinburgh, University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, University of Science and Technology of China, Chemnitz University of Technology and University of Hamburg in Germany, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bentley University, Northeastern University, and University of Colorado at Boulder in the United States. The university teams will participate in a real-time challenge to demonstrate the capabilities of state-of-the-art high-performance computing systems. They will build a small cluster of their own design on the exhibit floor, and race to demonstrate the greatest performance across a series of benchmarks and applications. "This exciting challenge is an excellent educational opportunity for students around the world to showcase their knowledge and skillsets and to engage with leading commercial vendors," says HPCAC chairman Gilad Shainer. The competition will take place during the ISC'14 Conference and Exhibition, June 22-26. Awards will be given to the top teams in several categories, and all participants will be honored in the award ceremony.


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