ProperData Workshop Offers Underrepresented Undergraduates Data Privacy and IoT Research Opportunities

ProperData workshop participants gathered on the steps of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building. Pictured front row at right is Professor Athina Markopoulou, who spoke enthusiastically about what students learned about data privacy, security and ethics.

Oct. 20, 2022 – Eighteen undergraduate students from underrepresented communities spent 10 days this past summer at UC Irvine engaging in hands-on research to learn about data privacy, security and ethics. The “Privacy and IoT Research Exploration Workshop” was sponsored by UCI’s NSF-funded ProperData, an interdisciplinary multi-institution project focused on data privacy.

The outreach effort was facilitated by the Stacy Nicholas Office of Access & Inclusion (OAI) and organized by Athina Markopoulou, director of ProperData and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Marilyne Tamayo, assistant director for ProperData.

Student participants were selected from nearly 50 applicants, many from UCI or ProperData’s partner institutions (UC Davis, USC, Northeastern) and community colleges throughout southern California. The goal of the summer workshop, the second in a series, is to provide hands-on research experience to undergraduate students from underrepresented groups and to encourage them to pursue graduate studies and research careers in computing.

This year’s focus was on data collection practices of voice assistants. Attendees built their own voice assistant from scratch using Raspberry Pi microcomputers and the open source software Mycroft, and also experimented with off-the-shelf Alexa-based commercial systems.

Students networked with faculty panelists from UCI, UC Davis, Northeastern University and USC as well as industry leaders from Google, Intel and Blackberry. Students also visited local tech company Syntiant for an in-depth training and workshop on the TinyML (machine learning) boards, which have voice assistance applications.

“Overall, I’m pleased with the curriculum and the program we put together,” said Markopoulou. “It will provide the basis on which we can build and expand in the years to come.”

“I am so happy with how engaged students were,” said Tamayo. “Students were walking around the tables to ask each other questions and help each other with the different skillsets that each brought to this program – we had a range of students with different levels of programming skills, some came with zero experience – and to see that level of engagement, eagerness to learn, and desire to not let any classmate fall behind was very rewarding for us.”

Ernest Garrison, graduate student in informatics who helped develop curriculum for the workshop, spoke about how important it was to continually improve the program for the benefit of the students: “I’ve worked with the program for two years now, and this year was even better than last year. This year, we integrated changes in technology. As technology gets better, this program gets better. Everybody working on this program cares. We met so many times throughout the year to make it work – a team full of people who really wanted to help the students.”

“I was surprised at the depth of the questions and how quickly they picked up the applications of Edge AI and how privacy of data and ease of use was being enabled by our technology,” said Mallik Moturi, Syntiant’s Chief Business Officer. “Within a couple of hours, they were able to develop models and create deep learning-based speech recognition on Syntiant TinyML Boards.”

Workshop participants were mentored by faculty, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Washington and graduate students and staff of the ProperData center. In addition to the research experience, students were exposed to a wide variety of career-building opportunities, including panels on graduate school admission and undergraduate research opportunities, and public speaking and presentation skills workshops. The program concluded with students presenting their work in a poster session and oral presentation symposium.

“The students asked brilliant questions, some I wish I had asked before I started grad school. It’s incredibly encouraging to see younger students from diverse backgrounds express keen interest in privacy, security and internet ethics, and I’m looking forward to seeing these students excel in their paths and hopefully join our field!” said Johanna Gunawan, a Northeastern University graduate student who participated in the program as a mentor and graduate student panelist.

Garrison was struck by students’ dedication and effort. “The students demonstrated a great deal of self-efficacy in that they could actually build the devices and do the work of a professional data or computer scientist. I observed students staying late to continue their work, which for me is a key indicator that they’re enjoying what they’re doing. I also saw students stay after the program ended to exchange contact information. Not only did they learn something together, but they also gained new friends with similar interests.”

Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Here are a few of the comments:

“With ProperData’s workshop, I’ve been exposed to many things, like Linux command line and how to use Raspberry Pi. I’d just like to thank ProperData and the team for allowing me to participate in this program. I’m from the Bay Area, so travel and housing were a big problem for me in order to participate, and they were able to provide that for me, so I could participate. I’m really thankful.” – Victor Hernandez, returning workshop participant, UCI

“My overall experience has been amazing. I came in with minimal experience using Raspberry Pi, working with IoT devices and command line, and these are all skills I’ve picked up through this workshop. My favorite part has been developing our Mycroft speakers. I have a lot of smart speakers at home, including the Amazon Alexas that we’ve looked at and worked with, and to make one of those by ourselves, working from scratch, has been really incredible. It’s not something that I expected, so I’m very glad to have had that opportunity.” – Samiksha Yelthimar, USC

“The other day, we were calculating to see the ad bids on certain personas that we tested with the Amazon Alexa, and it was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, but the staff was really helpful. So even though it was the hardest moment within the program, I feel like it was the most rewarding for me, because afterward me and [my classmate] high-fived each other and had a sigh of relief because we were like, ‘We figured it out!’” – Jaliyah “Jila” Anthony, Northeastern University

“I really enjoyed the time in the workshop where we went and visited a company called Syntiant and they gave us a tutorial of the software they use that downloads any type of syntax from their framework and applies it and installs it on the hardware to also listen to your commands. That was a pretty interesting tutorial to go through; it was really fascinating.” – Roberto Cuestas, Ventura Community College

“After this workshop, I’m definitely interested in exploring both IoT and privacy, either individually or together. Every single day I was learning something new. I’ve learned plenty of stuff ranging from basics in Python and Linux all the way up to machine learning. I want to explore more of those options, because of how cool all of them seemed.” – Alison Iverseen, UCI

“I think my favorite part was getting to know other people in the class. I think talking to them and learning about them was fun for me, because I got to understand their experience of computer science. I think that’s how humans can move forward.” – Anh Ngo, UC Davis

– Rachel Karas