“To develop information systems is more an art than science”


Nancy Russo

For more than two decades, Prof. Nancy L Russo has been researching how computing technologies can improve organizational processes and practices. Her expertise is in information system development, an area whose methods are changing with the advent of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. In the fall of 2015, Nancy Russo will team up with IOTAP.

Russo’s field of interest is Information Systems, which is about using information and computing technologies to improve the processes and practices of any organization. The distinction between individual and organizational use of technology, however, is nowadays less than clear given that we bring individual technologies into our organizations. Russo says:

We’re also seeing a blurring of boundaries between what we do at home and what we do at work, because sometimes we never even “go to work” to do our work. I think Information Systems is such an exciting field because it’s always changing.

More an art than science
Russo argues that developing information systems is more an art than science in that it is impossible to turn information system development into a controllable manufacturing process.

The end product is changed totally by how people use it or how they decide to customize it. Finding out what users really want is necessary. But, they don’t often know, or they might not be able to tell you.

User-centered design and development, then, is a way to figure out “what users want.” When Russo teaches, she asks her students to find an organizational system — computer-based or not — that has a problem. The aim is then to design a solution for that problem.

The dilemma is that the students want to jump on technology right away. My job is telling them to think about the process, the activities, the data we need — and only after that is determined, to think of what technology to use.

Serving people’s interests
Another idea Russo is working with is Systems for Human Benefit. In collaboration with other Information Systems researchers, she argues that information systems should serve human interests, not just business interests. This area of research came about when Russo worked for a university in Bosnia and she saw how technology could improve people’s lives.

I met people who were using technology to find employment, because unemployment rate in Bosnia was 43 percent at the time. People were realizing that if they could get out on the Internet and demonstrate their skills, they could find work from all over the world.

A field that in its goals, if not methods, is closely related to Systems for Human Benefit is Design for Social Innovation. But, it seems like scholars from these two fields rarely cross paths:

I think we tend to stay isolated in our fields. We don’t realize that right next door to us, the same kinds of problems are being dealt with. We use different languages and we publish in different places. I think we don’t integrate as much as we should.

Keeping both goals in mind
IoT technologies are often thought of in terms of how businesses can make more money. What’s important, Russo argues, is to develop technology that not only helps business organizations make more money but also helps people lead richer, fuller lives: “There’s opportunity to do both as long as we keep both goals in mind,” Russo says and continues:

For example, how can we make sure we keep the elderly connected? Not just to their healthcare providers or their families, but also other social connections. We know that if people are more connected, that leads to longer lives.

Privacy needs to be respected
One of the issues of being connected is privacy. To get the most out of IoT technologies, people need to trust that the data they share about themselves is being handled in a way that respects their privacy.

We see from the healthcare system in the US that we could provide better care if we had all the necessary information about people’s health. But neither patients nor healthcare organizations want to share that information. So we deliver lower-quality care to patients.

It’s not just medical data that could be used to improve healthcare services. We already now have the option to monitor and measure what we eat, how much we exercise, how well we sleep; this is all data that could be used in systems designed to improve our wellbeing. But, the problem is that most people are reluctant to share this data because they don’t know what it will be used for. There are still no good answers for how to deal with privacy in IoT systems, and this is an issue many researchers are thinking of. “Surveillance and privacy is an area I’m very interested in, and which I hope to be able to explore at IOTAP,” Russo says.

Impact of research
In the paper “Design and Diffusion of Systems for Human Benefit,” Russo et al. (2011) argue that the impact of scholarly output should be measured also according to its relevance in relation to human benefit.

Some of the ways we measure and evaluate each other, in my field of Information Systems at least, aren’t looking at how we are making an impact on our world. I think that research is more valuable when it’s conducted and shared in such a way that someone — or some organization — can make use of it. Whether if it is making money, or improving a process, or improving human life in some way.

Women in technology
Russo is also working on a research project about women in the information technology field. Although women played a larger role in the early days of computing, today the information system development area has become heavily male dominated. On the consumer side, however, more than half of the users of technology — in particular social technologies — are women. “Why are we letting men design those technologies for us?” Russo asks.

She is currently interviewing women around the world on their thoughts on the issue. “I met with two young women in Bosnia who were just starting an information technology program; they’re going to be my first two stories.”

Russo’s own experiences of being in this male-dominated field are both positive and negative:

There are always comments that are inappropriate, and there have probably been things I have been left out of because I wasn’t part of the boys’ club.

But sometimes there are advantages being part of a minority. “Every time there’s a hiring committee, you get to be on it. You become the face of diversity!” Russo says.

Supervision and project work
At IOTAP, Russo will co-supervise one of the PhD students, but she will also do project work focusing on the user-centered design areas.

I’ll be working with “how to find out” what users want, because some of the old ways of collecting information don’t really work in IoT. It’s not the same as showing somebody a webpage and saying, “Well, what do you think? Do you want a different color?” It’s very different when it’s your refrigerator collecting data and sending it to the grocery store – or your doctor.

The academic path
Nancy Russo’s academic career started with a BA in international studies. She moved on to master’s studies in business administration, which is where she got into technology and teaching:

I started taking programming classes, and I was asked to stay and teach in the Information Systems area. I realized that I enjoyed making “complex” topics easy to understand.

This was in the early 1980s when people weren’t using technology as much as we do today. “People very often didn’t have a computer in their home; it was a big deal, kind of a scary thing!”

After getting a PhD in Information Systems at Georgia State University, Russo started researching and teaching at Northern Illinois University, US. From September 2015 to June 2016, Nancy Russo will be a guest professor at IOTAP, Malmö University.

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