People of ACM - Wendy Hall

April 11, 2013

Wendy Hall, DBE, FRS, FREng, is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK, and Dean of the Faculty of Physical and Applied Sciences. She was Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) from 2002 to 2007. One of the first computer scientists to undertake serious research in multimedia and hypermedia, she has been at its forefront ever since. The influence of her work has been significant in many areas including digital libraries, the development of the Semantic Web, and the emerging research discipline of Web Science. She has published over 400 papers and is frequently invited to speak at high-profile conferences and events.

With Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt she co-founded the Web Science Research Initiative in 2006 and she is currently a director of the Web Science Trust, which has a global mission to support the development of research, education and thought leadership in Web Science.

In addition to playing a prominent role in the development of her subject, she also helps shape science and engineering policy and education. She became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the 2009 UK New Year's Honours list, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 2009. She was president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) from 2008-2010, the first person from outside North America to hold this position. Other significant posts she has held include senior vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, founding member of the European Research Council, member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), president of the British Computer Society and EPSRC Senior Research Fellow. She was chair of the European Commission’s IST Advisory Group from 2010-2012. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Council on Robotics and Smart Devices.

What should we be doing to help people understand the impact that computers have on the world?

This is an interesting dichotomy. When I tell people I'm a Professor of Computer Science, they quickly tell me, either embarrassed or intimidated, that they know nothing about computers. But of course they have a smart phone in their hand and will be using it to check on Facebook or text their kids or play a game. There is absolutely no connection in their mind between these activities and the world of computers.

People use computers to book holidays, read books, take photos and watch movies. At work or play they are immersed in our world, but they don't realise it.

We are at our most successful when we use computers to enhance our daily lives without realising it. Should this bother us? I think not. Like emergency services—we are at our most successful when nobody realises we were involved. We need to make sure we get recognition from government, policy and decision makers so that our industry gets the investment and recognition it deserves. This is where I focus my effort.

What can we expect over the next decade in the development of the Semantic Web and the discipline of Web Science?

At its heart the Semantic Web is all about data. It was always Tim Berners-Lee's original vision, as described in his book Weaving the Web, that the Web would not only give us a digital world of linked documents but an integrated world of linked data as well. Machines can help us find relevant documents amongst the trillions that compose the Web these days, but they can only help us interpret those documents as long as the data is well described via metadata.

This is the fundamental premise of the Semantic Web. As with the Web of documents, when the Web of data is sparsely populated, interpretations are meaningless. As more data—linked or otherwise— emerges on the Web, we can create tools that bring the data to life and give us answers to questions in meaningful ways rather than as lists of documents.

How the Semantic Web and other novel Web technologies impact on society, and how as a society we help shape these emerging technologies are integral to the new discipline we call Web Science. This new science enables us to study how computers (Turing machines) and human beings are working collectively to create new types of social machines whose existence was not possible before the Web and the Internet existed. Understanding the principles under which social machines succeed or fail is of major importance to organisations and businesses as well as governments and policy makers as the digital world forms an increasingly significant part of our lives.

How has your prominent role in national and international bodies like the ACM helped shape science and engineering policy and education?

I find science and education policy very rewarding, which is one reason I have always enjoyed being active in ACM. The global reach and status of ACM make my work more impactful for the entire computing community.

My time as ACM President was one of my most fulfilling career roles. I worked closely with the HQ team in New York on policy issues, and I enjoyed travelling the world to represent ACM and establish regional councils in Europe, India and China. I hope I have helped increase ACM’s reputation as an international organisation of relevance to everyone in computing wherever they live and whatever they do.

I cut my teeth as an ACM volunteer on the Publications Board during the heady days of the shift to digital publication and the Digital Library's ongoing development. This invaluable experience served me well when I became a Board member of the British Library during its transition to a digital institution.

It also helped shape my contribution to the many heated open access debates currently raging through the research community. The issues are so complicated and opinions become quickly polarised. Policy makers need reliable experts who can provide objective advice. My time in organisations like ACM has taught me that a few wise words delivered in a timely fashion can be more influential than thousands of words written in the heat of the moment.

What advice would you give to women who are considering careers in computing?

While I was ACM President, the recognition and representation of women in our community was at the top of my agenda. I helped restructure ACM-W to have a permanent voice at the top table through the ACM Council and on all the regional councils.

Women are still under-represented in our community, and sometimes it feels like pushing vast quantities of water up hill to make a difference. In the age of networks and mobile computing, women make up over 50% of computer users, so it is really, really important that we influence the design and development of the technology that is driving that revolution.

On a recent trip to attend the ACM India conference in Chennai, I was privileged to meet many young women who see computing as a career path of choice (as do so many young people in India). They were clamouring for information about degree courses and careers in a way that we don't see in the US and Europe.

In the UK we will see a new CS curriculum in our schools this September. I hope this leads to more young people seeking computing careers. But this time, we must gear this new curriculum to appeal across the board to both men and women. As someone who has enjoyed a fulfilling and rewarding career as a computer scientist and now a web scientist, I encourage all young people to consider this career path very carefully. Young women in particular can really make a difference to society by becoming expert in the digital technology that is increasingly integral to our lives.