Karahalios named university scholar, hopes honor will propel work on autism, algorithm awareness


David Mercer, Computer Science

Professor Karrie Karahalios has been selected for one of the University of Illinois’ most prestigious faculty honors, being chosen as a 2019 University Scholar.

The University Scholars program recognizes faculty excellence and the university’s commitment to helping its people do outstanding work. University Scholars are chosen from across the University of Illinois System.

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Karahalios, an expert in human-computer interaction (HCI) and social computing, said the honor reflects a commitment by the university to the work she and her students do.

“It’s exciting and it makes me happy that the University of Illinois cares about public engagement and that they care about society as a whole and the impact we have,” she said.

The University Scholars program, administered by the University System’s Office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs, provides the recipients with $15,000 a year for three years to be used at their discretion to support their teaching and research.

The full 2019 class of University Scholars will be announced this fall by the University System.

Karahalios said she hopes to use the funding in part to advance her work related to autism.

That includes interactive visualizations that assess communicative behavior and can help parents whose children have received an autism diagnosis, providing more information than the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) score that parents get.

Karahalios hopes to explore the possibility to making the visualizations part of the pediatric diagnosis process.

“One of the biggest problems parents face with kids who have autism is the inability get answers from clinicians, and even sometimes to start a conversation,” she said. “Looking at the visualization, which is interactive, you get a sense of what leads to a diagnosis. You also get something that’s concrete and you can ask, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Karahalios has a decade of work related to autism, collaborating with speech and education professors on campus to create tools to help children who have been diagnosed with ASD learn to speak.

Elsewhere, Karahalios also wants to use the University Scholar support to focus on her already extensive research with algorithm auditing, a term she and co-authors coined as part of their push for better access to and greater public awareness of the algorithms that determine what the people see in their social media feeds – news, advertisements, and more. More and more, the ability to understand the impact of algorithmic intervention is creating a new digital divide in society, she said.

A 2016 White House report on Big Data and Civil Rights listed “algorithmic auditing” as one of a short list of national priorities. Most algorithms, however, are privately owned. Karahalios has joined other researchers in collaborating with the American Civil Liberties Union on a lawsuit challenging legal barriers to public knowledge about those privately controlled algorithms.

“Get the public involved, letting them run their own audits,” she said. “Everyone should be able assess algorithms themselves.”

In addition to her research, Karahalios has a strong record as both a public servant in her field and as an educator.

She is a member of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Information Science and Technology study group, has helped to organize 13 international conferences and workshops in HCI, and has been an associate editor of three journals.

On campus, Karahalios has been part of the Illinois Data Science Initiative Steering Committee, Institute Review Board, and the Integrated Arts Council’s Scholarship in the Arts Working Group. She and collaborators on campus have recently been awarded $150,000 from President Timothy Killeen’s Initiative to Celebrate the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities, and plan to create a new class on University of Illinois innovations that brought artists and humanists into collaboration with scientists and engineers.

Karahalios also has been part of the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students five times.

“All I can say is we have amazing students. No professor works alone,” she said. “Some of my students have overcome major obstacles to do their work. HCI requires a lot of running around—it’s multiple people engaging with each other.”