Women in Big Data Global



International Women’s Day – Dovan Rai

Women in Big Data

By Dovan Rai,

March 24, 2021

Dovan Rai

I was born in a village in the eastern plains of Nepal, Bashaha-Beltar, and grew up there until I moved to Kathmandu to attend Bhanubhakta Memorial School in Panipokhari. Our family was one of the very few to have migrated to the capital city. Our household was a hub for the relatives visiting the town from the village, from going to the hospital, attending colleges, sightseeing and many more. These prior experiences gave me a deep sense of rootedness in my community that I cherish a lot.

Besides my commitment to my community and ideals of egalitarian inter-dependent collectivism, another enormous driving force for me is my love and hope for computer technology.

My technology journey has been a convoluted path—a pattern of finding a point of passion, diverging into several other passions, and my struggle to combine those various threads into a unified goal. In my school days, maths and physics were my most cherished curricular subjects, and I loved arts and crafts as extracurriculars. Though computer science was a curricular subject from grade seven, it was only in grade nine that I got introduced to computer programming, which I ultimately decided was the field I want to pursue. I was ecstatic that I could finally have a creative medium for my love for maths. I could write the logic codes as inputs and have images animated on the screen. I made a special request to my computer science teacher and school administration to open the lab after school that I could continue with codes.

In 2001, I joined Pulchowk Campus, Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University in Electronics Engineering on a full scholarship. Continually excelling in my studies, until in the third year; I felt disillusioned with technology education. Nepal was going through a civil war and anti-monarchy movement, where I felt that our engineering education was not providing any explanations or solutions to these broader problems.

In my final year project, I created a medical diagnosis expert system. As a prototype of how computer technology, artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, can make medical expertise accessible to villages in Nepal. I was still exploring socio-political readings and started blogging and contributing op-ed articles on national publications of Nepal.

After I graduated in 2005, I started working as a software engineer in D2Hawkeye Services, where I shifted to graphics design exercising a new role as a creative engineer in 2006. Correspondingly, I did a Masters in Sociology from Patan Campus, Tribhuvan University, including a thesis titled “Gender Role Influence and Impact on Academic Performance of Adolescent Girls”.

While I was juggling my various interests, I stood at a crossroads concerning further studies: AI, graphics design or humanities. There I acknowledge the emerging domain of education technology, which would combine these multiple interests of mine. With some process and efforts, I received the Fulbright Science and Technology PhD Scholarship and proceeded to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for my PhD studies in 2008. I collaborated with a lab at Umass Amherst and conducted my research at the intersection of educational psychology, game design, data mining and artificial intelligence. I designed and developed three game-like learning environments, conducted randomized controlled studies, and created graphical causal models to understand students’ engagement and learning.

I took a gap year in 2014 and worked at OLE Nepal, a non-profit working in public education in Nepal, as a Content designer and Reviewer. I finally completed my PhD (Dissertation titled “Modes and Mechanisms of Game-like Interventions in Intelligent Tutoring Systems”) and returned to Nepal for good in 2016 and continued working at OLE Nepal.

While working at OLE Nepal, I realized we need to work on our technology ecosystem to merge quality with accessibility. I, therefore, worked towards contributing to this ecosystem through youth education. Also, Co-founded Sujhaab Chautaari, a career counselling platform for the youth in Nepal. Further joined NAAMII, a research institute working to democratize AI and Machine Learning. There I worked as a scientist and education coordinator, co-organizing workshops and winter schools in 2018 and 2019. I taught courses such as python programming, statistics, graphical models, causal models, AI and Society and AI in Education.

Working at NAAMII, I realized that technology education and practice should not be within silos. As technology is being hugely decisive about setting the trajectory of humanity and the entire planet, technology workers require a more holistic understanding, including people from other disciplines to have a better perception of technology, that we can all come together to find sustainable solutions. I then joined the Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (GIIS) in 2020 and started a research group ‘AI and Emerging Technologies for Sustainable Future’. We aim to conduct research, development, education, and public discourse on emerging technologies to generate knowledge, innovate, support, and catalyze sustainable development. With our new research group, we work to create a space for individuals seeking to traverse various aspects of technology and people from varied fields who want to integrate technology.

As a woman from a deeply patriarchal country and as a woman in technology, I have endured sexism throughout my personal and professional life. I had identified myself as a feminist early on and tried to shake-off offences of various forms trying to hold together my self-esteem. But apparently, individual resilience is not enough to counter the systemic sexism that continues day in and day out. The endless need to prove myself takes a toll on not only my productivity but my psychology as well. The need to keep an assertive front all the time can take away the natural playfulness inside of us, which can be detrimental to our creativity and well-being. Therefore, we need to make our fights a collective struggle and work on multiple fronts, creating supportive communities and making the perception and envisioning of technology a more holistic and humane one.

For me, the fundamental truth of the interdependence of our existence is spiritual and philosophical guidance, which gets captured by the following quote: “This is because that is”.

The message that I’d like to share with our awesome WIBD community of 17000+ women worldwide is:

The world is dynamic with invariably evolving ideas. With the advent of technology, there’s an abundance in terms of resources and opportunities. The technology itself is evolving and requires diverse skills and approaches. It’s prime time for more women from diverse backgrounds to take the space of technology and contribute. As more women join, there will be a paradigm shift.

As women, we often get taught to be risk-aversive. But the very essence of technology is taking risks, experimenting and improvising. We need to bring our playful, experimental selves. We also need to harness our reflective, thoughtful selves. The world now does not just need logic, invention, and disruption. It needs holistic solutions with creativity, inclusivity, thoughtfulness and collaborative spirit. I think women should be leading the new paradigm of technology.