Shrinking data

"Girls and boys are
equally interested in
maths, physics, and
how things work."
Shrinking data

If it were up to data researcher Susanna Pirttikangas, IT would play a smaller role in our lives. Her research unit is developing smoother and more reliable ways of communicating with devices.

Piles of papers cover the office table and sofa, and a card on the wall reads 'Happy Valentine's Day Mum!' A powerful desktop computer surrounded by several monitors commands a prominent position on the desk.

This office belongs to Susanna Pirttikangas. She's a researcher in the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Oulu, and her research unit is called Ubiquitous Computing.

This unit collects and processes massive volumes of data on infrastructure, weather, people and traffic in the city of Oulu. Susanna leads her unit's data analysis team, which is studying how to harness this data, and also how to process it quickly and reliably.

But first, we really have to find out how Susanna first got her hands on some data.

The source code saboteur

It's 1984 and we're in Kemi, where little Susanna is feeling very pleased with herself. Her cousin is in fits of giggles over a computer game, and all because of Susanna's cunning trick. She's been able to alter the source code that controls the text that appears on screen during the game. The original texts have been replaced with dirty words – which is, of course, the funniest thing in the world to an elementary school kid.

Susanna is ten years old and has been learning BASIC programming off her own bat, using her big brother's computer magazine, Mikrobitti. Her family has a Spectravideo SVI-328 computer with some simple games – as games were in the 1980s. But they were also great targets for coding enthusiasts. Susanna's curiosity leads her to learn new things by testing them out.

She's always been interested in the innards and inner workings of machines. Mathematics has always been close to her heart as well. However, it was by no means a given that she would study it at university. She could have been a biologist, or even an archaeologist in the wake of the iconic Indiana Jones movies.

When Susanna eventually chose maths, it was a decision based on both reason and emotion. She couldn't imagine being happy without challenging problems to solve.

"I wanted something puzzling, something that would really force me to think. I didn't think I could find that anywhere else. In retrospect, I've often thought I could have gotten off a bit easier. I wouldn't have had to fill my head with difficult things the whole time!"

But she doesn't regret her decision – quite the opposite. Her work is so varied that there's no chance of getting bored. Recently, Susanna has been helping companies find new business ideas in various areas of transportation through the Hilla project. She's also teaching, supervising theses, and preparing new projects for her unit. Susanna is actively involved in the international research community and helps to develop teaching and research within the faculty. When she has the time, her evenings are taken up with pedagogical studies.

"Constant personal development and life-long learning are important to me."

Understanding city data

Susanna curls up in the corner of her office sofa and expands on what her research unit does in Oulu. Her team collaborates with a variety of companies and research institutes to, for example, develop situational awareness analyses of driver behaviour; create models to predict road surface friction; and study how and where massive data should be analysed and managed.

Information is collated from a variety of different sources. For example, thanks to the City of Oulu's recently updated traffic light system, it's possible to know what colour each and every light is at any time. In Merikoskenkatu street – a busy hub for Oulu's local buses – laser sensors have been installed to measure distances between vehicles and the amount of snow on the road. Optical sensors fixed to the sides of buses can collect valuable data about friction directly from the road surface.

This data can then be analysed to improve public transportation, road safety, or traffic network efficiency.

Along the corridor from Susanna's office, there's a demo room where you can find further examples of the fruits of her unit's work. Games that use IT to teach waste sorting or activate memory functions in elderly people. The unit's spin-off company has AI-based search algorithms that can help you find the name of a film you've forgotten from the bowels of the Internet. There's even a crowdsourcing game that makes decisions by collecting opinions from a large group of people. Virtual reality headsets enable you to visit a 3D model of Oulu and check out what's happening on the Rotuaari main stage.

Effortless technology

If it were up to Susanna, IT would play a smaller role in our lives. By that, she means smoother communications between people and computers. Ubiquitous computing also means that, although IT is everywhere, it blends into its surroundings and works unnoticed in the background.

The Ubiquitous Computing research unit is developing smoother and more reliable ways of communicating with devices. They're trying to make IT invisible. But they still have a long way to go.

Data-based services depend on the quality and reliability of the data they use. Legislation does not necessarily support the current trend of collecting data about everyone, from childhood onwards. Data-based decision-making requires special software knowledge, innovative ideas, and people to develop new methods and ways of working. Cabinets are creaking at the hinges under swelling volumes of data.

The right attitude

As a post doc student, Susanna visited Tokyo and Beijing to gain new perspectives on her research. While abroad, she picked up not only new things in her own field but also an understanding that equality is not yet a given throughout the world – that women have far fewer opportunities to influence their lives.

That's why Susanna wants to be a role model. She gets serious – and somewhat excited – when the conversation turns to this topic.

"A woman can be independent and handle her own finances. She can provide for herself and her family, and make a contribution to society. She's allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. She can stay at home if she wants, but she doesn't have to."

Someone's choice of profession is not primarily a question of gender. Yet cultural factors do affect some people's attitudes. Susanna remembers an incident from her university days, when the mathematics department introduced LaTeX, a word processor that was significantly better at handling mathematical texts than other software. Susanna wanted to learn to use it, and so asked the department assistant how it worked.

"The assistant told me that it wasn't worth my while learning how to use it. That seemed rather an odd comment to me. I went home and tested it out. I got to grips with it in under fifteen minutes – it was really straightforward and easy to use, like most researchers know. Did the assistant think that the programme was difficult to use? Or that I wouldn't be able to learn it, because I was a pretty blonde? Why was I spoken to like that?"

Equality still has a long way to go, even in Finland. Susanna also views equality through her daughter – the one who made the Valentine's Day card at kindergarten. Mother and daughter may discuss similar things, such as logic and paradoxes, which Susanna learnt about during her maths studies at university. Things that are inherently interesting to children.

"Girls and boys are equally interested in maths, physics, and how things work. It's worth considering whether you want to reinforce or weaken that interest."

Susanna is raising her daughter to have the courage to do whatever she wants. To dream about whatever she wants. She doesn't want to put too much emphasis on gender. Everyone deserves to be treated equally, and equality should not come at the expense of either gender.

"I work in a male-dominated field, but I think of myself as a woman, one hundred per cent – I don't display any male characteristics. I think like a woman. That enables me to do this kind of work."