By Anna Wassermann, Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK)

Prof. Rozita Dara
Prof. Rozita Dara. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

Life in the 21st century means a heavy reliance on technologies that collect data about every aspect of our personal, social and professional lives, as well as our surrounding environment. The Internet and personal devices such as smartphones and many other types of instruments are collecting data at an increasing rate.

As data collection continues to grow, it’s becoming harder to identify and utilize relevant information. Data integrity, privacy and security are just some of the challenges that need to be addressed.

Prof. Rozita Dara, School of Computer Science, aims to build novel methodologies to enhance data management and accessibility and to improve the way technologies use data.

“Despite cheaper storage, increased computer capacity and the variety of new tools that enable us to collect data, using data effectively is still a challenge for most of the disciplines,” says Dara. “My research attempts to put forward best practices and methodologies to manage data and extract information from it.” She believes that her research will have an impact on real-world applications.

Her diverse research and practical background on data mining, software engineering and information privacy has enabled her to establish a multidisciplinary research program focused on data liberalization — making data more accessible to those who need it.

Dara says people want to acquire data, but they can’t because they either don’t have the right tools or they are worried about data integrity and privacy.

Her research focuses on developing software platforms for data management and for a variety of applications such as health care, citizen engagement, social enterprises and agriculture. She’s currently collaborating with researchers to build better tools that collect data more effectively, store it securely and make it available when needed.

Her program’s focus is not only on the technology — she also aims to improve existing practices and procedures and to work closely with policymakers on issues related to information privacy.

Dara supervises graduate students and also gives undergrads an opportunity to play a significant role in her research. Last fall, for example, three teams of her undergraduate students developed mobile apps and data management platforms to improve citizen engagement. One of the teams built a mobile survey tool that enables anonymous data collection and usage in real-time.

Another team developed an animal-tracker app that allows users to upload a photograph and information about an animal they see outside. The app allows users to share information about the animals and their locations. As an educational tool, the app can create a map to help others track animals using data that is collected, shared and visualized anonymously.

Another team of students developed a mental health research tool that allows patients to communicate with researchers using audio- and text-based messages. Mental health data is highly sensitive, so the data management system needs to be secure. The students developed the app with a faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

Dara believes privacy will be a major challenge in the future. “Just consider our toasters, fridge, cars, smartphones, cable TVs, Internet and many other devices are collecting personal data. The existing data management systems are not capable of processing and protecting our sensitive data properly,” she says. “There will a huge demand for novel tools to improve data accessibility in various domains and applications.”