When Rediet Abebe was slated to give a presentation on her Ph.D. dissertation, "Designing Algorithms for Social Good," at the 2020 Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (ACM SIGKDD) conference on Aug. 25, the timing couldn’t have been better--or worse.
Abebe will join the faculty of the UC Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) and the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS) in July 2021. She gave her presentation as the recipient of this year’s ACM SIGKDD Doctoral Dissertation Award for her thesis. But as she planned her talk, the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., loomed large.
“I had to step back and think about it,” said Abebe, who earned her Ph.D. in computer science from Cornell University in December 2019. “We study computer science, but people--members of various communities--inform our work.”
She revised her presentation and gave a talk entitled “Roles for Computing in Social Justice.” Her interest goes deep, as she also co-founded and co-organizes Mechanism Design for Social Good (MD4SG), an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research initiative with members from over 30 countries and 100 institutions.
“Speaking at this virtual conference was an opportunity to talk about my work and the lived experiences for many people who are near the breaking point, whether that’s due to COVID, unemployment, race, violence or economic stagnation,” Abebe said.
Using computing technologies to improve societal welfare is a worthy goal, but what will that effort look like and how will it get there?
“Algorithms and computational tools have a lot to offer the world, but we don’t have a good framework for how we think about how we can apply insights from this field to improve the lives of marginalized communities,” Abebe said. “If it’s haphazard and not coordinated, the work may not help and it could actually hurt communities.”
Even research that aims to improve societal welfare can suffer from solutionism, tinkering, and diversion. Algorithmic solutions not attuned to these pitfalls can result in changes that are, at best, incremental, create a sense of complacency, and distract from the root of these social problems.
Noting that “social change is the work of many hands,” she outlined four roles computing can play to support long-overdue and fundamental social changes: as a diagnostic by measuring and characterizing social problems, as a formalizer by helping shape how social problems are understood, as a rebuttal by clarifying the limits of technical changes, and as a synecdoche by foregrounding long-standing social problems in a new way.
In her presentation, Abebe sampled recent contributions from the research community--both her own and others--showcasing the many ways computing can, in harmony with other techniques, help tackle issues like poverty, inequality, and discrimination as well as push back against misuse of technological advances.
She closed her presentation asserting the importance of building relationships with domain experts and affected communities based on mutual trust and respect.
She also emphasized that representation in computing matters. Abebe is the first Black woman to graduate with a computer science Ph.D. from Cornell, the first Black woman to join the Berkeley EECS faculty as a professor, and the first female computer scientist to be appointed at the Harvard Society of Fellows.
“It’s important to note what the computer science community looks like and who get to call themselves computer scientists,” Abebe said. “There are over 5,000 CS faculty in PhD granting institutions across the U.S. and only about 85 of them are Black. If the discipline is taught by people from a small set of communities, then the benefits and harms of tools we build will also not be evenly distributed across society.”
Looking ahead to Berkeley
“Rediet has a remarkable constellation of talents--from intellectual depth to inspired creativity to an open and collaborative spirit, and a deep commitment to social justice. Rediet exemplifies the values and qualities to which CDSS aspires,” said Jennifer Chayes, Associate Provost for CDSS. “I am beyond thrilled that she has chosen to join us as we build partnerships across campus to positively impact biomedicine and health, climate and sustainability, and human welfare and social justice.”
Currently a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Abebe is also looking ahead to her start as an assistant professor in EECS next summer.
“I was drawn to Berkeley’s history of activism and advocacy,” she said. “With EECS, I felt like they got my work and that resonates deeply with me. Through the recruiting process, I also had conversations with people in the School of Social Welfare, the Graduate School of Education, and the Goldman School of Public Policy, and I felt that this was a place where I could do computational work grounded in equity.”
Another appeal for Abebe was that Berkeley is a public university with the mandate to serve the state and the nation, and with a commitment and history of serving first-generation, low-income, and immigrant students.
She was also drawn in part by the large Ethiopian community in Oakland. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Abebe was one of four students in the country to win a merit scholarship to attend the International Community School of Addis Ababa when she was in eighth grade. Upon graduating from this high school, she moved to the United States to study at Harvard, but she remains embedded in the broader Ethiopian community.
Abebe credits her research vision and professional goals to the culture of Ethiopia. She says that growing up in Ethiopia, she was raised to value robust social safety nets, a community-based mindset, and a mindset to serve and support. Her grandfather, she said, fought against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the early 1900s as the Fascist government strove to create an Italian empire.
“I learned to fight for the things you believe in,” Abebe said. “fighting for justice and welfare is second nature to many in our community."