By Fran Broderick
Whether saving time or saving lives, the programs developed by professor Steve Zilora, his colleagues, and students at the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences are applying computer technology in extraordinary new ways. Two of Zilora's most recent projects - a tool for emergency first responders and a database for analyzing trends in toddler ear infections - represent his desire to impact social good via his work. And while many would not think the fields of database construction and analysis are an especially exciting playground for new ideas and applications, professor Zilora’s steady use of the word “fun” suggests the programming performed at Golisano College is downright exhilarating.
A Better Way to Track Infections
Professor Zilora is the chair of the Department of Information Sciences and Technologies (IST) at the Golisano College, where he specializes in programming and databases. He is quick to distinguish IST’s work from his colleagues in the computer sciences: “We like to think that they build tools, and that we use those tools to build solutions for problems. But we really can’t do our work without them.” Most recently, professor Zilora and his colleague professor Dan Bogaard were approached by a doctor from the Rochester General Hospital who was looking for innovative ways to increase the effectiveness of the study of ear infections in toddlers. Professors Zilora and Bogaard split the workload, with Zilora developing back-end tools to sort and analyze data and Bogaard building a front-end platform for the web that physicians could easily use.
Once implemented, doctors found the system could be a vital tool for identifying trends in their data, helping them better analyze treatment approaches. “They were very happy,” explained Zilora. They weren’t the only ones. Pharmaceutical companies have approached the research team to discuss using the software for similar studies. However, with each iteration would come unique development needs such as more robust security features. Nevertheless, Zilora finds “fun” in these challenges. “We had our program audited to determine what types of security features it would need. Now that we’ve determined what updates are needed my colleague and I are working on building them into the program. It’s actually a lot of fun.” Developing back-end security protocols may not sound like fun to you, but sitting with Zilora and witnessing his enthusiasm you tend to become a believer.
A More Effective Emergency Response
“What if Hurricane Katrina happened here?” Zilora asks, referring to RIT’s base in Rochester, New York. “We don’t have a Superdome for displaced residents.” Since his first job as a chemical engineer at Exxon, Zilora has been building things to enhance the future, and the Emergency Services Directory (emergencyservicesdirectory.org) is perhaps his most important project yet. As an application developer Zilora takes a methodical approach to analyzing problems. He explains that effective developers “need to have analytical reasoning skills; they need to behave like a doctor who uses the symptoms as clues to the larger problem. You don’t simply address the symptoms.” Nowhere has that approach been displayed more impressively than in the directory giving emergency response professionals and the public at large the ability to find critical data during an emergency. “One of the things we needed to determine was which audiences need what information. So there are private sections where say an Emergency Services Coordinator can get the phone number of a hospital administrator, but our public section can point residents to the nearest shelter.”
Zilora worked with Project Manager Jeffrey Lasky, as well as Bogaard and professor Sean Boyle to develop the directory. Yet one of the most exciting aspects of the project for Zilora was involving students in the process: “A software engineering student actually did the Proof of Concept which was the initial program that we show parties that we know this can work, and one of my IST students worked during their summer to help program parts of the project. They did a really great job.” Having a hands-on role on a program as critical as the Emergency Services Directory is giving students vital real-world experience while they are still in school. Moreover, it’s making a substantial impact in their community. Kevin Niedermayer, the Director of Emergency Management Services in Livingston County believes the directory is an invaluable tool, explaining “[it] provides so much vital information to individuals who need it at a moment’s notice; it’s a critical resource I use any time an emergency occurs.” According to the Directory’s web site, more than 4,700 organizations have been entered into the website database as of June 2012.
Hands-On the Future
The opportunity to work on real-world projects is just part of the reason Zilora feels some of the country’s most brilliant programming minds are attracted to the Golisano College. Perhaps the most critical appeal for prospective students is superb job placement statistics and the opportunity to work with a breadth of the most state-of-the-art equipment available.
“When students see our facilities they are just in awe,” Zilora explains. “When you study at RIT you have access to just about any type of equipment you can think of. We’re doing development for all platforms –IPhones, Droids, Tablets – and teaching the widest variety of coding languages, as well as how to pull information from different databases.” Access to cutting-edge equipment and faculty that “truly love to teach”, are making a difference in the future prospects of RIT students as well. “Job placement rates for our graduates are always very high because [those graduates] are simply better prepared to jump into the professional [programming and information technology] world.”
As we wrap our conversation, another solvable problem presents itself: the Android application I am using to record our conversation is interrupted by an incoming message. “Perhaps you can develop a fix to my app so that it knows not to let incoming messages interrupt while it’s recording,” I offer. Always finding fun in his work, professor Zilora’s face immediately lights up. “You know what?” he responds. “We can.”
Portait of a Programmer: Professor Zilora's Greatest Hits
• EmergencyServicesDirectory.org: Professor Zilora‘s innovative approach to emergency response database managament helps for faster and more effective work between first responders.
• The AOM Database: Zilora and a colleague have developed a new system to track data trends and help doctors better analyze and treat ear infections in toddlers.
• Nursing Home Pandora: As a side project, Zilora built a Pandora-style system to run a nursing home radio station. The system analyzes factors such as artist, number of times a song has been played, tempo and mood to provide a diverse stream of music from patients’ childhoods; an activity doctors have found to have therapeutic benefits.
For more information on professor Zilora’s work please visit www.ist.rit.edu or follow @RITGolisanoCCIS on Twitter and facebook.com/ritgolisanoccis to see more research stories.