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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 13, 2012 at 10:45 AM

Kate Starbird scoring again, in tech research

Sports stars returning to their hometowns are often celebrated, giving them a chance to relive their glory days.

But it will be relatively low-key this week when one of the greatest basketball players ever produced by Washington state returns for a visit. There will be an appreciative crowd, but not many hoots and cheers.

It’s purely coincidental this visit comes as hoops fans are in a frenzy over the possible return of an NBA franchise to Seattle.

But this isn’t a sports story.

No, the star is Kate Starbird and she’s here because she’s moved onto another big league.

Starbird is speaking at a premier computer-science conference taking place in Bellevue, where she’ll be presenting research on how Twitter was used during the uprising last year in Egypt.


The work is related to the Ph.D. dissertation she’s completing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, exploring how people in “mass-convergence events” use available tools to collaborate on a massive scale. (She’s shown here in a university-provided photo taken by Glenn Asakawa)

It’s a remarkable second career that shows — more than the Michael Jordan-esque moves that helped take Lakes High School near Tacoma, then Stanford and the Seattle Storm to playoffs — how unusually talented Starbird really is.

“She’s very impressive,” said David Notkin, professor and past chairman of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

Starbird credits Notkin with helping her make the transition from sports to academia.

After playing professionally in Spain, she was thinking about returning to school when she received an email out of the blue from Notkin, inviting her to a meeting of the executive leadership of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Notkin knew she had studied computer science at Stanford and “sort of kept a vague eye on her.”

At the meeting, Starbird sat next to the head of Colorado’s technology program, who invited her to apply there.

Initially, Starbird, now 36, wanted to work on new ways to teach computer science and get more girls into the field.

“I see that as an important component — if I do go into academia, that’s something I’ll always care about,” she said.

Starbird happened upon computing as a girl. When she was around 9, her family inherited an early Osborne PC, and her brother taught her to write some Basic code. She learned to program and persuaded her parents to buy an Apple computer.

At Lakes, while dominating on the court, she talked a math teacher into letting her study computer science and she took classes in her senior year from Pierce College through the Running Start program.

Starbird then used her athletics scholarship at Stanford to earn a degree in computer science.

But basketball made her a celebrity.

While two grad students in her department were quietly building a search engine called Google, Starbird was getting national honors, being named All-America Basketball Player and the Naismith Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year.

That led to a decade in professional sports, starting with the late Seattle Reign in 1997 and ending in Europe in 2006, when she decided to head back to school.

“This stuff is fun,” she said last week. “To be studying social media, all this emerging behavior, is really interesting. I spend all day asking interesting questions and being able to go find answers to them.”

Starbird’s current research seems to be cutting through what to me is the biggest shortcoming of Twitter, which is its poor signal-to-noise ratio.

She’s analyzing patterns in that noise “to get to the signal,” she explained by phone, from a Starbucks in Boulder where she regularly goes to get work done.

The doctorate should be complete by summer, after which she plans to use her research to design better tools to support and leverage digital collaboration happening on a massive scale.

Starbird has also looked into the way this collaboration happens in disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, which was the subject of a paper on “crisis informatics” that she presented at a conference last year in Vancouver, B.C.

This week, she’s speaking at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference on computer-supported cooperative work. It runs through Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue.

It won’t be quite the same as a KeyArena homecoming, where a decade ago Starbird was a headliner, but she’s “really enjoying being in academia.”

Starbird knows of only a few computer scientists who played college basketball, much less pro.

Notkin said Starbird offers much more than a role model for girls to study computer science.

“What’s really impressive is that her technical work seems so strong,” he said. “I don’t think the field can use her only as an evangelist. We need her as a researcher and teacher, as well.”



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