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Faculty of Information Newsletter
September 2, 2020

Welcome to the new academic year

The Informed newsletter is back for an academic year unlike any we've ever experienced before. In this first issue of 2020/21, we will fill you in on Covid-19-related news, the new professors we've hired, and much more starting with an important new grant.

Faculty launches matched grant for Black or Indigenous students

In response to the events of earlier this summer and the anti-Black racism movement, the Faculty of Information has accelerated its efforts to provide grants to students who are members of certain groups that have traditionally faced discrimination and oppression. As a first step, the Faculty has introduced a new grant for students who self-identify as Black or Indigenous with all donations up to $25,000 matched dollar for dollar by the Faculty.

Thanks to the generosity of its donor community, the Faculty has already been able to begin accepting applications and awarding funds to deserving students. "I couldn’t be prouder that we were able to accomplish this so quickly at a time of unusual duress," said Dean Wendy Duff.

This award , which is made based on financial need, can go to full-time, part-time, undergraduate and graduate students. 

If you are able and would like to contribute to this timely initiative, you can donate here. Just scroll down and click on the tab marked "Grant for Black or Indigenous Students Fund".

Thank you in advance for any donation you can make to this very important fund.

Fighting Covid-19

Since in-person classes were suspended last March, Faculty of Information professors, students and alumni have been deeply involved in helping fight the virus that has caused a global pandemic. Here are some examples:

Mobilizing UofT resources to produce emergency PPE

                                                                                                                                          Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn

In the early months of the pandemic, Profs Matt Ratto (above) and Nadia Caidi were part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers who launched a project to co-ordinate and deploy equipment from across the University of Toronto to produce medical supplies like masks, face shields and ventilators for health-care workers on the front lines of Covid-19.

The Toronto Emergency Device Accelerator (TEDA) initiative, as it was named, drew on the resources of U of T and affiliate hospitals to: identify the greatest areas of need; co-ordinate equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters and water jets; and produce equipment that met health and safety standards and could be used by health-care facilities in the fight against the novel coronavirus. Read more

Ratto recently testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology where he emphasized that community-based science and technology innovation — some of which TEDA drew on — should be supported in the same ways Canada and universities support innovation focused on private enterprise. Read the transcript of Ratto’s full testimony or watch the video starting at 14:11:20.

Mining social media data to see reactions to Covid-19

From the moment news broke of an unknown, potentially deadly virus, the topic lit up social media channels. Assistant Professor Jia Xue, who uses computational approaches to study social justice issues, immediately began mining rich social media data — including Twitter, Weibo and YouTube users’ discussions and sentiments — to help policymakers and clinical practitioners better understand the public response to Covid-19 and the psychological consequences of the pandemic. Read more

Helping hospitals co-ordinate Covid-19 care efficiently and securely

Covid-19 is forcing health-care providers around the world to adapt old methods and invent new ones to care for people sickened by the novel coronavirus. 

This is very much the case at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) in Toronto’s east end, where a digital app called Hypercare – developed by Faculty of Information alumnus Albert Tai – is helping health-care staff inside and outside the hospital communicate faster and more effectively. Read more


Co-op in the time of Covid


While almost everyone’s life has changed as a result of COVID-19, many Faculty of Information students were still able to go ahead with their co-op placements this summer and get valuable real-world work experience in their chosen fields. 

True, that real world turned out to be a virtual one and the students worked from bedrooms and kitchen tables rather than offices and cubicles, but they still got the chance to put their classroom-acquired skills to the professional test during some very unusual times. Here's just some of what they did:
  • HCDS student Mounica Thanam worked at QuadReal Property Group, where she tackled machine learning and risk analysis projects
  • UXD student Abigael Pamintuan (shown above) began her job at Autodesk by analyzing her own user experience while learning the company’s Maya software, a 3D computer graphics program used by animation and gaming studios to create models  
  • UXD student Eric Hanson worked at Rotman Commerce on tasks ranging from re-imagining online events to redesigning course modules for campus activities. 
You can read more about these three students' experiences here

Staying in-house

Recognizing that the pandemic made it difficult for some employers to hire co-op students, the Faculty of Information created a number of co-op positions in-house so to speak. Some were directly covid-related, like helping to prepare for a remote fall term, while others were tangentially related.

Working remotely under the supervision of Professor Dan Ryan, three MI students (shown above in one of their regular meetings) became experts in UofT's online learning tools so that profs, busy planning their courses, wouldn't have to. They used summer instructors as research fodder and kept Prof Ryan's mantra – “adapt the technological tool to what the teacher wants to do as opposed to the dominant paradigm of telling the teacher to adapt their practice to the educational technology" – top of mind. Read more
Digital Archives Lab

For many organizations, Covid-19 has accelerated their digital transformation and emphasized the importance of digital infrastructure. Here at the Faculty, two co-op students, working under the supervision of Professor Karen Suurtaam, spent the summer setting up a Digital Archives Lab.

One of the goals of the lab is to create a space where students can have free and easy access a variety of digital records to support teaching and learning. As it evolves, the space will include more of everything including exercises and opportunities to interact with records and play with digital records software. Read more

News Briefs

Faculty hires six new professors

The Faculty of Information is welcoming six new professors on board. They are:
  • Rohan Alexander, Assistant Professor (with Statistics)
  • Stacy Alisson-Cassin, Assistant Professor (CLTA), Teaching Stream, LIS 
  • Claire Battershill, Assistant Professor (with English)
  • Priyank Chandra, Assistant Professor, UXD
  • Shion Guha, Assistant Professor, HCCD
  • Anastasia Kuzminykh, Assistant Professor, UXD  
In addition,Thy Phu, who has been appointed Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at UTSc, has a graduate appointment at the Faculty of Information.

Congratulations to all the new faculty members, who we look forward to seeing in the classroom – eventually. Read longer bios

Eric Yu works to make AI more accessible

As data and artificial intelligence come to play an ever larger and more important role in business and society, many non-tech companies and organizations are asking how they might be able to put AI and machine learning technologies to use in their line of work. Professor Eric Yu (left) and his team of researchers, newly funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), are working to help provide some answers.

Their research focuses on allowing organizations, ranging from for-profit companies to government departments, to understand how AI and ML technologies could fit into their processes and improve their operations. The latter could include better understanding of clients and consumers leading to improved interactions, developing more effective equipment maintenance systems to minimize failures, and analyzing data to make predictions about the future. Read more

Colin Furness: Covid explainer

Ever since Covid-19 began making headlines, Assistant Professor Colin Furness, who is cross appointed to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has been a frequent commentator in the media on everything Covid. Even if you don't see him in the Bissell Buiding anymore, chances are good you can see or hear him on the news.

What's more, in a new workshop on Pandemics and Information (INF1005/1006) to be offered during the upcoming winter semester, Furness will take a deeper dive into the issues he’s been talking about in the media. “We’ll look at the role of information in decision making and the outcomes we’re seeing in different jurisdictions,” he says. Read more

'Following the Science'

The Guardian's Kenan Malik cited Faculty of Information Professor Brian Cantwell Smith as he questioned the idea of what "following the science' means in the context of a pandemic. Smith's latest book, The Promise of Artificial Intelligence: Reckoning and Judgment, argues that while AI can "reckon" well, it is nowhere near developing systems that are genuinely intelligent in the human sense and capable of making judgements. 

Wrote Malik: "The 'we’re following the science' line suggests that policymaking is a matter merely of reckoning – of making calculations from the given data – rather than also of judgment. It suggests, too, that a computer, rather than a human, would be best placed to lead the fight against Covid-19." Read more

Mark your calendars


Toronto Data Workshop 

The Toronto Data Workshop – which is now almost a year old – has proven something of an accidental beneficiary of the pandemic. Attendance at the workshop grew dramatically when it moved online for its weekly sessions featuring data scientists from industry and academia. What's more, it is now attracting speakers and guests from Montreal, Warsaw and Berkeley, California among other locations. Read more

When: Fall schedule
Where: Online, get an invitation

Dog Days Exhibition

Visit this online exhibition/art book launch curated by Prof Matt Brower as an experiment in producing an online exhibition in response to covid. The catalogue was designed by Rachel Wong, an alum of the MMSt program, and the exhibition was juried by David Liss. 'Orange Ball' (above) is by Julie Glick.

When: Until September 8th
Where: Online
The Greatest

MMSt grad rediscovers slice of Black History

Before Covid-19 struck, the city of Windsor, Ont. was looking forward to its biggest Emancipation Day celebrations in recent years on Aug. 1. Thanks to the efforts of local history buffs, the city was well on its way to bringing back an event that recalled the days when Windsor attracted famous civil rights activists and Motown stars to celebrate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in most of the British colonies in 1834.

That history – and the recent revival – of Windsor’s Emancipation Day is being closely followed by Tonya Sutherland, who graduated with her MMSt this year. Building on research for her capstone project, Sutherland and two other women from the Toronto area – retired teacher Catherine MacDonald and actor and producer Audra Gray – are seeking  to bring this chapter of Black Canadian history to a wider audience. Read more

Happy 110th birthday to the Faculty's oldest alumna

Marjorie Douglas (Class of 1932) will be celebrating her 110th birthday – yes, you read that right, 110 – in Toronto on September 13th. Dean Wendy Duff has sent her best wishes on behalf of the Faculty, alumni and our broader community. Watch for a longer story in the next issue of the Informed newsletter.

If you have news you would like to see featured in the Informed newsletter please let us know at
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