DataGals Hosts an International Women

Posted March 9, 2017 by Soniya Shah, Information Developer

white cloud in vault type room representing cloud computing
This blog post was authored by Soniya Shah.

This week, the DataGals hosted an event in celebration of International Women’s Day. This year’s campaign asked supporters around the world to #BeBoldForChange to encourage a more inclusive, gender equal world. You can read more about the campaign and influencers on the International Women’s Day site.

International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women globally, in all forms. As part of our internal celebration here at Vertica, we ordered pizza and decided to watch the talk Dr. Latanya Sweeney delivered at the Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston, Texas this past fall. Members of the Vertica team, both men and women, gathered to watch the talk and discuss the implications of technology and computer science in today’s world.

Vertica employees enjoying their pizza and discussing the Latanya Sweeney presentation

Dr. Sweeney is a professor at Harvard University who previously worked for the Federal Trade Commission as the Chief Technologist. She began her talk by discussing the impact of technology and how it has transformed over the years. Her story started with the Sony camcorder, and how a mother sent her daughter off to school on the bus, with the camcorder attached. It was then that her daughter was able to record the abuse she encountered with the school bus driver, because there was no mute button on the camcorder. When the mother turned up at the school to complain, she was arrested. She shared a similar story of a Boston police officer who arrested a man recording the arrest of another person. In today’s world, we record public spaces all the time, using Snapchat or Facebook Live, or as part of our day to day interactions with our smart-phones.

By sharing these stories and pointing to how our interactions have changed, Dr. Sweeney explained that we live in a technocracy. Then, she shared several personal stories about how her love for computers and computer science evolved to make real-world change.

An important moment for Dr. Sweeney was when an ethicist came to visit her office and said that she thought computers were evil. Dr. Sweeney was taken aback, and immediately wanted to change the ethicist’s thinking. Computers are good – what possible evil could she be talking about?

The ethicist was concerned about the vulnerability of medical data being given out without patient consent. She was worried that the data was not truly anonymous. And so, Dr. Sweeney began an investigation into the data. William Weld was the Governor of Massachusetts at the time and he had medical information that was part of the data set. Dr. Sweeney knew Weld lived in Cambridge. So she obtained the voter list, and ended up linking his name to his medical information because he was unique in his zip code, age, gender, and race. Because of that investigation, HIPAA now cites her work in its regulations.

Dr. Sweeney believes that computer science has changed the world and that people working in technology have the power to as well. She has seen the potential in her students, who have created programs that range from detecting fraudulent websites to investigating insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act.

You can listen to her full talk on YouTube.

At Vertica, we care a lot about inclusion and representation. Women like Latanya Sweeney inspire us to keep solving problems and to remain engaged in our work. She was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has used her to degree to solve real-world problems involving security and privacy.