Tech Tuesday: The Internet, Diapers, and Access to the 1940 Census (What they have in common)

The following is a post by Rita Cacas from NARA’s Applied Research Division, who attended the NITRD Symposium.

It wasn’t so intimidating after all.

We ended our last blog, announcing the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program Symposium held on February 17 at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  The purpose of the symposium was to reflect on what the NITRD Program has accomplished over the past 20 years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, wandering into the Knight Conference Center, an humble archivist – a fish-out-of-water, feeling lost in a sea of black suits and aging baby-boomers. Every now and then, I’d spot an important face or two, who I’d recognized  from huge posters of computer pioneers at the Microcenter computer store in Rockville.

It was kind of like a red carpet event for science, academic, and computer geeks, or probably more appropriately, spotting rock stars of the computer world.

My first thoughts were, “Oh, no, what if the panels will be way over my head?” Should I take a seat by the door for a quick escape just in case?” then, “Is that who I think it is sitting across from our table? Would I embarrass myself if I asked for an autograph?”

Here’s why I’m glad I stayed…

In a spirit of true collaboration, the two Symposium organizers were the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), a private sector group that “catalyzes and empowers the computing research community to pursue audacious, high impact research” and the Executive Office of the Presidents’ Networking and IT Research and Development (NITRD) National Coordination Office, which supports the planning, budget, and assessment of federal government IT research activities.

Through their efforts and contributions towards one of the best investments that our country has ever made, the two organizations focus on research and professional collaborations that have a high impact on transforming simple tasks and products that we use in our lives today – everything from the development and growth of the Internet to improving the consumer products we use everyday to improving the way we access digitized information.

What are some of the things that have been developed or improved because of the NITRD Program?

One of the most compelling presentations in the first panel “Information Technology and People” was given by Tom Lange, a technical product engineer from Proctor and Gamble.  His presentation called, “The  Modeling and Simulation Behind Improving Everyday Life,” started with a “busy slide” of brand logos such as Pampers, Tide, Charmin, Duracell, Crest, Braun, and yes, even Dolce & Gabbana.

Mr. Lange describe how engagements with NITRD’s federally funded research agencies were instrumental in developing and ensuring the safety and use of these everyday products; and how, thanks to breakthroughs in IT research, we have better toilet paper, better fitting diapers, and longer-lasting batteries.

Uh, seriously?  My immediate thought was that this was some marketing guy who was sent here by Proctor & Gamble.

But in his 34-year career in Modeling and Simulation research, Mr. Lange described complex engineering drawings and studies understanding how diapers fit on a baby; and he showed slow motion simulation videos that illustrate – long before costly mistakes are made – what happens to expensively-made components inside an electric razor that has just dropped on the bathroom floor.

Other fascinating panels covered “Human Technology: What Machines do with Text and Speech,” and my personal favorite, “This Research Made Watson Possible.”

Did you happen to watch the TV quiz show, Jeopardy! on Valentine’s Day last year, when two of the show’s recent champions competed against a computer named “Watson?”

Designed by IBM using custom algorithms, terabytes of storage, and massive computing power focusing on the science of natural language processing, the Watson computer ultimately prevailed over two days of play –- winning $77,147 over Brad Rutter, who won $21,600, and Ken Jennings, who won $24,000.  Due to the huge success behind this computing power, the IBM research team is currently working to deploy the technology research across  healthcare, finance, and customer service industries.  More information about Watson is on the IBMWatson web site:

So, even through the afternoon breaks, running out of the room in sheer confusion (or boredom) was the last thing that was on my mind. It was clear that through years and years of thoughtful and bold research – supported by our tax dollars – our lives are made easier and safer, and in the case of Watson, can also be entertaining – all due to these successful and creative private and public sector Technology research collaborations.

And, yes, I was brave enough to score an autograph.

Former Vice President, Al Gore, gives the NITRD Luncheon Keynote Address (photo by Rita Cacas)

The luncheon keynote featured former vice president, Al Gore who, if you read the last blog post, was one of the early Internet pioneers; He delivered his speech clearly to a friendly audience of supporters and former IT colleagues of the last four decades.

I pondered being brave enough to go up after his talk, to get him to sign my program book, when my colleague Bob Chadduck excused himself from the table.  Bob returned a few minutes later, and whispered to me, “It’s done. When you see Al Gore leave the stage, you have been approved to follow the entourage of handlers who will escort him to the lobby.”

Next thing I know, Al Gore is signing my book, and I tell him about my cousin, Josefino Comiso who was (and still is) on the team of NASA scientists whose research efforts and results contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was awarded half of the 1997 Nobel Prize – the other half, awarded to the former Vice President.  He listened sincerely and, before he was whisked away, he asks me to please thank my cousin for all of his work.


We continue to feel honored that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been involved with the NITRD Program for many years now. From 2004 through 2006 NARA was a “participating” agency; and from 2006 forward NARA was designated a “member” agency.

The Symposium Reception featured demonstrations and poster presentations by researchers whose work has been supported by NITRD.  One of the most notable presentations was by NARA’s own Applied Research partner, Dr. Kenton McHenry, at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications.   Dr. McHenry’s presentation, “Searching Raw Handwritten Data – The 1930 and 1940 Census” demonstrated tools developed by his research team, that may help researchers quickly search for names and other handwritten information on the soon-to-be-released 1940 Census (bookmark it now!) – months before genealogy companies such as or Family Search  complete their indexes of the records.

You can find a copy of Dr. McHenry’s research poster here.

So, the day was not as intimidating as I’d thought, in fact it was a day to sit back, relax, and enjoy hearing about how technology and computers have changed and improved our world through creative public and private sector collaborations over the last twenty years.

The NITRD symposium panels were videotaped and are now available on the web:

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