Robyn Perry graduated with the BA in Linguistics in Spring 2008, earning Honors in the major and highest honors in Italian Studies. Having worked initially for Powerset, she embarked on a path of further training and education. We recently caught up with her and asked about her current projects and plans.
WHASC : What has been your career-path so far, Robyn, or where are you professionally at this point?
I’m in the second year of the Master of Information Management and Systems at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. Interestingly, the program ties together my linguistics background and my foray into nonprofit technology work quite nicely. Before this, I worked at the Progressive Technology Project, a small organization that supports grassroots organizing groups and their needs, through technology and communications. While at the School of Information, I’ve focused on getting better at data analysis in many domains. I’m particularly interested in developing tools that enable more informed civic participation, especially in urban settings.
WHASC: What’s your current project?
I’m working with a team on a final project idea to develop a storytelling mapping tool for use in contested spaces. This will rely on our abilities to organize geolocated photo and interview media in a thoughtful way that tells the stories of those who have been denied a voice in the process of their displacement. We’ll be focusing on the Albany Bulb, a former landfill that was home to a homeless community. The community was recently evicted for the development of a city park. I think it will be interesting to create a model for enabling storytelling in these kind of places, especially as the Bay Area sustains ever greater pressure in terms of place, who can afford to live there, and who can consider it belonging to them.
WHASC: What do you like most about what you’re doing at present? What’s most exciting?
In my Natural Language Processing course last semester, I met Steven Bird, an Australian linguist who was one of the developers of the Python Natural Language Toolkit, and whose primary research interest is language preservation. He has developed a mobile app for collecting stories in the field in threatened languages, as well as their translations en masse in order to eventually have enough data for machine translation. My information management skills, as well as my fierce interest in language preservation match several of the projects he is working on, so I will be supporting his projects in an independent study this semester. I’m so excited to have made this connection.
WHASC: What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I’m hoping to work with Steven Bird on his language preservation projects in the short term. Beyond that, there is a translation company in Italy that I’m in conversation with about a possible role advising about technology development in the translation sector. I’m also interested in the policy side of information technology and I’d be very interested in working on projects related to the changing law and policy landscape in the field.
I feel some sense of ease that the I School has given me some skills that are attractive to many kinds of employers, which gives me hope for the future, even if there’s a lot of uncertainty in it.
WHASC: If you were talking to a student here at UCSC who was considering a career-trajectory similar to yours, what advice would you give them? What should they be thinking about?
I think students might consider learning to code, whatever they’re interested in. I’d particularly encourage students of color and women, because the tech sector is in dire need of broader perspectives and better representation, in order to best make use of its enormous resources to take on the important issues of the moment.
However, I don’t think everyone has to want to code. What has really served me in more invisible ways is my ability to think, to write, to operate thoughtfully and tread lightly in different kinds of communities, and to get along well with many kinds of people. By ‘invisible’, I mean that I almost never get explicit feedback that I was hired or chosen to work in a group because of my ability to work comfortably with people or write well, but I know that these are very much in play in those situations. These skills are undervalued in that they’re not trumpeted in the same way that technical skills are, but they’re invaluable in practice, and they have eased my entry into the I School itself, into internships, and into the connections I’ve made that will take me into whatever I do next.