UNHCR’s newest Artificial Intelligence Engineer on bias, coding, and representation
When Sofia Kyriazi was around ten years old, she loved spending hours at her friend’s house — the one whose parents had a large box of floppy disks.
She remembers browsing through the rows of thin plastic squares, stopping when one would catch her eye. She’d pick it out, slide it into the floppy disk reader and wait for it to reveal its contents on the screen. She preferred the ones that weren’t labelled; discovering what they did was like opening a gift. Some contained games or images; others simply didn’t run, but all of them intrigued her.
It was her first experience with a computer; the first time she peered into an application’s raw format, with a poor interface and encountered the terminal window’s beckoning cursor. Although she would go on to become UNHCR’s first known Artificial Intelligence (AI) Engineer, that terminal window would remain foreign until her first day at the University of Athens.
In 2009, when computers no longer resembled small television sets, Kyriazi began her computer science degree. Looking around the room during her first introductory programming lab, she noticed that everyone around her had already opened the terminal window, created a file, and started typing code.
The Assistant Professor gave quick directions and offered little help, assuming the students were already advanced. Kyriazi turned to the boy beside her to ask if she had missed any instructions. He said they were just basic steps everyone knew. Except, she didn’t know them, and the only other girl in the 20-person class didn’t either. They were both caught off guard by the fact that their introductory course was not actually geared toward beginners.
Kyriazi had pursued the technology track in high school, excelled in her math classes and taken a pseudo-algorithms course, where she learned logic and basic commands. But up until that point, she had been required to write all her if-then statements by hand — on paper. She hadn’t been taught how the concepts she understood on a theoretical level translated onto a computer, much less how to program. If all the students had received similar basic training in high school, why did they all seem to know what to do?
She later discovered that the advanced coders in her class were also skilled computer gamers, who had been encouraged from an early age to experiment with computers in ways that she had not been.
Growing up in Athens, Greece, where the Mediterranean air is warm and fresh, Kyriazi prefered spending time outdoors, reading books and going to music events with friends. Gaming was an indoor activity, which didn’t appeal to her, but it’s likely that the gaming industry itself also played a role in shaping her opinion. The industry has historically marketed products exclusively to male audiences. Capitalising on gender stereotypes to drive sales, they create stories and characters that appeal mostly to males, overlooking females in the process and consequently gendering the activity. Take the “Game Boy,” for example. It was given its name for a reason. With the industry primarily targeting boys and men, it’s not surprising Kyriazi didn’t take up gaming at the time. Still, she had the mind of a coder and found joy in puzzle games like chess and Tetris.
At university, Kyriazi quickly caught up with her gamer classmates. Fuelled by her curious disposition, she absorbed information from the web and taught herself what she was missing. The internet had provided a means for anyone to advance their technical curiosity through building their skills. Yet even in this space when access to information was equal, her talent and skills were met with scepticism.
She remembers taking a pass-or-fail exam in which students were given ten minutes to type a piece of code without accessing the web. She finished in less than two minutes. The Assistant Professor checked her work. It was a pass. “When the rest of the guys finished, they were like, ‘Why did you leave? Were you not feeling okay? Why weren’t you able to solve it?’ I didn’t understand why they thought that,” she said. “I had just finished early — and passed.”
If there were 100 students in her program, Kyriazi estimates that only ten of them were female. The imbalance left too much room for stereotypes to impose on reality. Kyriazi recalls the time she did an entire project for her group. “I knew they were busy, and I didn’t mind doing it because I knew I was going to learn, but the guys ended up getting a better grade than me,” she said, chuckling at the incongruency of her words.
The Assistant Professor assumed she hadn’t written much of the code and graded her based on that assumption. Her teammates wouldn’t stand for it. They admitted to taking credit for Kyriazi’s work, and she was given proper credit.
This dynamic followed her to Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research where she worked as a technical student for about a year. She was the only woman in many rooms and felt tension from her male colleagues who dominated the environment. “I think my supervisor didn’t even realise I was a girl,” she said. “I honestly don’t think it crossed his mind that I could be feeling uncomfortable as the only girl in the room, or that the other students there were behaving very dominantly, because that is what he was used to.”
Cern Scientist Alessandro Strumia’s recent statements claiming that “physics was invented and built by men, not by invitation” hit close to home for Kyriazi. She says that too often people are so focused on perfecting their practice, whether it is physics or computer science, that they lose sight of social issues and the context in which their work plays out.
“Most [scientists] usually forget that there is a difference between the genders. They approach everyone as an equal, given the same opportunities through life so that the only thing that separates people is intelligence, and not the space to be intelligent…[Prof Strumia] completely forgot to look at how the men and the women are shaped.”
To tune out those who question her abilities, Kyriazi relies on code itself. She explains that the nature of programming, meaning the process of defining a problem and coding her way to a solution, allows her to constantly see her own progress and empowers her to keep going.
“It makes you feel like you can actually do anything,” she said. “That’s the power of the nerds.”
Kyriazi began to think about technology in a humanitarian context while pursuing her master’s degree in human media interaction at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. It was an interdisciplinary cocktail that brought together individuals from various academic fields including psychology, cognitive science and design — many of who were closely studying human behaviour. They added new dimensions to her work, gave her perspective and a longing to make technology more accessible, especially for minority groups. That summer, she landed a User Experience Design internship with an interdisciplinary team at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), that was led by one of the founders of UNHCR’s Innovation Service in Geneva, Switzerland.
Kyriazi was exposed to a new way of working in what she had imagined to be an overly bureaucratic institution, with little room for the flexibility and creativity she craved. The Innovation Service challenged Kyriazi’s idea of a workplace, which had been previously coloured by homogeneity and misconceptions. “The team is really diverse,” she said. “Not only based on backgrounds and ethnicities, but all their personalities are completely different as well.”
She fit in well at UNHCR. The problem-solving mindset she had been cultivating from a young age married beautifully with the team’s cornerstone philosophy of failing fast and forward. Similar to Kyriazi’s outlook on programming, the team sees failure as part of the process, as an opportunity to reflect and make adjustments, as a necessary step to achieving the end goal. Kyriazi started showing up to work uncharacteristically early. She was eager to watch the day unfold, as no two were ever the same. It was the first time she had seen people outside of the technology field attempt to develop technology-based solutions. She had entered an environment where ideas flowed freely and experimentation was encouraged.
“There is an authenticity to what they do,” she said. “They have a need to keep learning, to keep progressing, and you don’t see that often.” Kyriazi noted that the team would also listen quite carefully and try to understand, what her approach to the challenges looked like.
The end of her brief internship at UNHCR was only the beginning. The Innovation team kept in touch, frequently asking her about the latest technology trends, developments in academia, and ways to incorporate Artificial Intelligence into their practise. Eventually, while on holiday in Geneva, Kyriazi was introduced to Project Jetson, an experiment that explores how Artificial Intelligence can be used to predict the displacement of persons in Somalia. A few months later, she joined the project as a remote-working consultant, bringing with her a fresh set of eyes and valuable AI expertise. It would be her most challenging project to date.
Kyriazi looks at the organisation and sees a lot of untapped potential. “Other markets have fully adapted to AI,” she said. “They are using it to meet their needs. UNHCR has not fully adapted. People here are familiar that these technologies exist, but they haven’t mainstreamed them through a strategic approach.”
Now, as the organisation’s first known Artificial Intelligence Engineer, she strives to help other departments reap the benefits of AI Her latest project tackles a recurring force in her life: bias.
She is working with the Division of Human Resources to build an Artificial-Intelligence based web application that is programmed to remove sources of bias from the candidate-selection process. For example, given that applications are submitted in English, people with diverse profiles, who would add valuable perspective to the organisation, could be screened out if English is not their strongest language. The team’s new solution would use natural language processing to screen applicants based on their past duties and motivational letter, not their language abilities. Information on language proficiency would be stored but not used during the screening process.
The web application would also save the department time. “Once they have those extra hours, they can start being more philosophical and reflect on ways they can improve their practise and find more suitable people for each position,” she said.
However, people can begin addressing these issues in simpler ways, starting by seeking candidates outside of their established networks. One way to do this is by exploring non-traditional avenues, such as Twitter. “Women in the field might not necessarily have a strong social media presence, but the projects they work on generally do,” Kyriazi said. “We just have to make sure everyone who worked on the project is given recognition, not just the head of the team who is usually male. This way they are traceable, and we can find them.”
Recalling those multicoloured floppy disks from her childhood, Kyriazi hopes her efforts are paving a smoother path for the ten-year-old girls who spend their time on Codecademy — aspiring toward a future in the realm of technology.
This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: firstname.lastname@example.org.