Category: Information Systems

Thomas Receives Two Microsoft Research Awards

Manoj ThomasManoj A. Thomas, Ph.D.
Assistant professor and director of technology Department of Information Systems
School of Business

Microsoft recently granted Manoj Thomas two $20,000 Microsoft Azure research awards. The first award is to assess consumer sentiment about medical marijuana in social media. He will collaborate with VCU doctoral student Dapeng Liu. The second award is for a Continuing Medical Education capacity building, on which he will work with Mahabir Pun, winner of the renowned Magsaysay Award, a prize that celebrates transformative leadership in Asia. Both projects will use different Microsoft Azure-based technologies.

Thomas has been involved in information and communication technology projects around the world and his research has been published and presented internationally.

In Memoriam: Richard T. Redmond, D.B.A.

Richard T. Redmond, Ph.D.The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business mourns the loss of a beloved professor and leader, Richard T. Redmond, D.B.A., who served the school for more than thirty years.

After earning his bachelor’s degree from Shippensburg University and his doctor of business administration in decision science from Kent State University, Redmond joined the school in 1983 as a faculty member in the Informations Systems department. From the beginning, his gentle manner, humor and ability to inspire the best in others earned him the gratitude and respect of students and colleagues alike.

He served as chair of the Department of Information Systems from 2001-2012. He proved to be an able leader with a kind heart and earned a reputation as “the best guy you’ll ever work for.” Under Redmond’s leadership, the VCU School of Business became the first business school in the country to achieve accreditation by the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET for the undergraduate program in information systems.

Redmond could not have been prouder when in 2005, a student team garnered national attention by winning the Microsoft Imagine Cup, and he made sure that the company executives in Redmond, Wa., took note and started recruiting at VCU. That same year, Redmond led the department to launch the very successful Executive MS in Information Systems program, which is known for its effectiveness in preparing students to take on top leadership roles.

Redmond was a valued mentor to the doctoral students following in his footsteps. Chandrashekar “Shekar” Dutt Challa, Ph.D. recalled, “He was not just a friend but also my big brother, philosopher and guide. I spent two years of weekends with him at his house working on my dissertation. It is a devastating loss to his family, his friends at the school and to the universe.”

Prior to his recent retirement, Redmond served as interim senior associate dean of the School of Business. Working closely with Dean Ed Grier, Redmond effectively engaged faculty, staff, administration, alumni, students and community in developing an exciting new vision and strategic plan, EPIC, which will guide and inspire the school’s progress for years to come.

Upon learning of his late stage cancer diagnosis, the VCU Business community responded with an outpouring of support. Longtime colleague Jean Gasen, Ph.D., set up a CaringBridge website for people to share their words of appreciation and remembrances. Daniel P. Salandro, Ph.D, chair of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate, and Lemuria Carter, Ph.D, current chair of Information Systems established a scholarship fund in his honor, and contributions started coming in quickly.

On CaringBridge, Gasen spoke for many when she wrote, “I owe him so much and am forever grateful for the impact he has had on my life, and on the lives of so many others. He spent most of his life helping others and was cut way short of the time he so deserved to spend on himself.”

Like many, Carol Scotese, Ph.D, chair of Economics, recognized the example Redmond set, “Your selfless contributions and caring leadership style gave me an aspirational goal – for this, I will be forever grateful.”

“We will miss the presence of a truly kind and giving person,” said Dean Ed Grier in an April 15 email notifying faculty and staff of the passing of “our great friend and spectacular colleague” earlier that morning.

Redmond was preceded in death by his mother, Roseann; his first wife Jean; his brother John P. Redmond and a sister, Rosemarie Redmond. He is survived by his wife, Connie; six children, Marc Redmond (Joseph Whitfield), Brian Redmond (Ashley), Laura Ramirez (John), Gregory Redmond (Amber), Steven Fish (Madison Sternberg) and Jamie Nash (Gage); seven grandchildren, Tristan, Oliver, Grant, Hattie, Grady, Lacey and Hazel; father, Dr. John P. “Jack” Redmond; three sisters, Regina McCarren, Cecile Logsdail (David) and Marybeth Redmond (Greg Beckmann); and many nieces and nephews.

A Celebration of Life will be held at Bliley’s – Central, 3801 Augusta Avenue, on Tuesday, 6:00 pm, April 19, 2016.

Memorial donations may be made to the Rich Redmond Fund (select “other” and designate Rich Redmond Fund.) Make checks payable to the VCU School of Business Foundation, 301 W. Main Street, Richmond, Va. 23284-4000. VCU employees may also give by payroll deduction. If you have questions regarding the fund, please contact Joey Broussard, director of development, at 804-827-7408.

VCU Business Student, Michael G. Kiflezghi earns Black History in the Making award

Michael G. Kiflezghi, Black History in the Making award recipient, says “VCU has literally changed the course of my life.”

Congratulations to our very own Michael G. Kiflezghi, a VCU School of Business student pursuing a dual-degree in Information Systems and Bioinformatics. Michael received the Black History in the Making award from the Department of African American Studies at VCU and is currently a semifinalist for a Fulbright scholarship.

Michael shared, “I transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to matriculate into the Information Systems (IS) degree at VCU. After a year in the IS department, I discovered another passion: molecular biology. I decided that I’d pursue both fields in the form of a dual degree in IS and Bioinformatics.

I was subsequently accepted into the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development research training program (IMSD). During my time at VCU, I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students three times and the Gerontological Society of America’s Annual Scientific Meeting once. I also spent a summer at the University of Oregon conducting research as part of an undergraduate research training program.

Through the help and guidance of the Honors College I applied for and became a semifinalist for a Fulbright to spend a year working under Dame Linda Partridge at the Max Planck Institute for the Biology of Aging. It’s my goal to research the biology of aging after undergrad in the form of a Ph.D. Being at VCU has literally changed the course of my life and opened so many doors for me allowing me to gain valuable research experience and business/IT knowledge through Bioinformatics and IS.”

Current student and alumnus team up on web portal for doctors

Congratulations to alumnus Fadi Muhsen and current student Umair Awan for their achievements abroad and recognition by The pair created Doxunity, a web portal dedicated to doctors. The portal currently has close to 130 users from the GCC, North African nations, Iran and Lebanon. During their years at VCU Business, the duo paid close attention to the tech and startup spaces, attended events, and even reached out to CEOs for guidance and tips. Muhsen completed a BS in Applied Economics with a concentration in Business and Finance, while Awan is currently pursuing his BS in Information Technology. Read more 

VCU Professor Allen S. Lee, Ph.D. Receives LEO Award for Lifetime Achievement

Allen S. Lee, Ph.D. LEO Award Recipient
Allen S. Lee, Ph.D.
LEO Award Recipient

Congratulations to Allen S. Lee, Ph.D. on receiving the prestigious LEO Award for Lifetime Achievement presented by the Association for Information Systems at the 35th International Conference on Information Systems.

Lee has been a full professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business since 1998 and, in 2012, was named a Dean’s Scholar Professor. He has served as associate dean at both VCU and McGill University, as editor-in-chief of MIS Quarterly, and as a founding senior editor of MIS Quarterly Executive. His research program over three decades has involved identifying lessons from the philosophy and history of science and applying them, in the information systems discipline, to show not only how qualitative research can be done rigorously, but also how quantitative research equally needs to live up to the requirements of science. Recently he has taught doctoral seminars on systems theory, social theory, and qualitative research methods, as well as undergraduate database courses.

About the LEO Award

Dr. Lee's LEO Award
Dr. Lee’s LEO Award

The purpose of the LEO Award for Lifetime Exceptional Achievement in information systems, named after one of the world’s first commercial applications of computing (The Lyons Electronic Office), is to recognize truly outstanding individuals in the information systems community, both academics and practitioners, who have made exceptional contributions to research in and/or the practice of information systems.

Established in 1999 by the AIS Council and the ICIS Executive Committee, the LEO Award is a singular honor to recognize seminal work by the award recipient.

As the title of the award implies, the contributions of award recipients will have been sustained throughout their careers. They will be truly outstanding scholars or practitioners who have made exceptional global contributions in the field of information systems. In addition, they will be regarded as a preeminent representative of their national or regional information systems community.

LEO Award recipients are expected to be a role model and an inspiration to colleagues and students within the information systems field. In addition, they should be capable of garnering the respect of individuals from outside the field, because their contributions will have had an impact in fields other than information systems. LEO Award recipients are highly esteemed for their exemplary professional and personal integrity.

Lee is the first Asian American to receive the award. Also recognized this year were Kwok Kee Wei, Ph.D., City University of Hong Kong and Dov Te’eni, Ph.D., Tel Aviv University.

Lee’s acceptance remarks:

“I certainly appreciate the honor of being named a LEO Award recipient. It’s not only an honor, but a call to responsibility for all the work that I still have to finish.

“In the past, I have taken lessons from the philosophy of science, the philosophy of social science, the philosophy of statistics, and the philosophy of technology – where I’ve applied these lessons to information systems.

“And the intention has been to liberate how we do research in the ways that we do.

“But guess what? I’ve touched on maybe only 10% of the lessons that tell us what we’ve been doing is wrong and what we can do instead to get it right. You can be sure I’ll bring the rest of the lessons to information systems, in the time I have left in the rest of my life.

“I thank my mother and my father for passing on to me the traditional values of a China that I fear is rapidly disappearing. I am thankful that I was born and raised in the United States so that I could learn and practice the values of equality and social justice. And finally I thank certain angels in academe who gave me big breaks:

  • Drs. Len Buckle, Suzann Thomas Buckle, and Phyllis Wallace, all of MIT;
  • Dr. Gary Dickson, of the AACSB Faculty Development Institute;
  • Dr. Ray Aldag, of the Academy of Management; and
  • Dr. M. Lynne Markus, who has been a great friend to me since I met her 29 years ago.

“I thank you all.”

Congratulations, Dr. Lee, on this well-deserved honor!

Professor Lee’s HONY post sparks discussion

VCU School of Business Information Systems Professor Allen Lee‘s recent comment on a Humans of New York Facebook post garnered 24,000 likes and sparked a discussion nearly 400 replies long. In response to a young Asian woman trying to be more assertive at work, Lee wrote:

Humans of New York post from September 18“As a teacher who is Asian American and who has Asian students and Asian American students, I tell them this: Someday, here in America, you will find that you are just as assertive as any white American, just as I did. However, it took me years to get to this point. All those intervening years, I could have been saying things, but I let my politeness get the best of me. Finally, I just learned to say: “Excuse me, I’ve been trying to say something for the last 20 minutes, but people keep on interrupting me, sometimes by simply talking louder than me after I’ve already started talking. I would like to say something. May I speak?” And it always works. I tell my students that they can wait 20 years to give this a try, like I did, or they can do it right now. It’s a shame that we Asians and Asian Americans are treated as if we are invisible (and inaudible!), but we cannot change other people. However, we can change how we respond to them. I am a full professor, I just had to do this in a meeting two weeks ago!”

Here’s more from Professor Lee reflecting on the discussion and his experience:

Q: Why do you think your post resonated with so many people?

A: The problem of not being allowed to speak or, to be blunt, the problem of being silenced, is common to so many people — not just Asians and Asian Americans, but also other people of color in Western societies and to women across the board. In identifying with my story and seeing a solution, members of all of these affected groups responded with “likes” as well as their own rich commentary. And because I could see photos of who “liked” my post, I saw that many white women and white men liked my post too. It is a great feeling when people understand.

Then, there are the people that my post did not resonate with, but irritated. Many appeared offended that I explained the problem in terms of race and they said so in their comments. At one point, I responded: “It is more likely for people of privilege to feel this way – people who are so privileged that they don’t have to think about race as a factor because, for them, it isn’t. This is exactly why white privilege is called a privilege. (However, they enjoy this privilege not because they are white, but because they are the majority.)”

When I posted my original comment, I was only thinking about saying something to the Asian woman featured in this episode of Humans of New York. I never gave any thought to the possibility that my words would be interesting to anyone else, much less read by 24,000 people. A good question is: If I had realized that, would I have talked about race as candidly? Yes, and I would have emphasized it more so as to encourage people to take responsibility and not just exercise privilege.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from the discussion?

A: Taking exception to my singling out white values and expectations, one commenter responded: “White values and expectations? What about American values and expectations? Pardon me, professor, but your statement just struck ME as being quite ethnocentric and racist.” I hope people will take away my answer to him: “Not all white values and white expectations are American values and American expectations. The United Stares is a diverse society. We become American by respecting each other’s different values and expectations, not by imposing our own on others.” Over 50 people have “liked” this reply, including white people.

Q: How did it feel to have this whole conversation online? Do you view social media any differently now?

A: It is exhilarating that I have been able to share my lesson with so many people, so quickly, and so costlessly. I said this in one of my replies: “As a teacher, I want students to learn from my mistakes so that they don’t have to repeat them, and so that they don’t have to waste so many years of their own precious lives to relearn the lessons I’ve learned. Just take the lesson — and apply it NOW. That’s how every generation of people can become better than the previous generation.”

Q: What will you take away from this experience?

A: It makes me reflect on the fact that VCU has provided a conducive environment for me to hone my philosophy of diversity and equality. What I am taking away from this experience is the encouragement that, because my voice is being heard, I can and will continue to speak out, at and beyond VCU.

And with over 24,000 Facebook “likes” vastly outnumbering my Google Scholar citation count of just over 8,000, I will take away the lesson that I should not limit my outreach efforts to just my research.

Trio of VCU Business alumni take their tenant-matching startup to Silicon Valley

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From left to right, Brandon Anderson, James Barrett and Chris Stewart.

Two years ago, James BarrettBrandon Anderson and Chris Stewart each took the day off from their respective jobs to meet in Barrett’s Richmond-area garage and discuss their future. That day, Tenant Turner — a website that matches rental property managers with quality tenants — was born.

Almost exactly two years later, the trio of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business graduates found themselves in Mountain View, California, having been accepted into Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, one of the world’s best business accelerators, which has helped launch a number of successful companies such as Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit.

“It’s an honor for Tenant Turner to be selected into the program,” Barrett said. “In addition to the investment, they also provide specialized mentorship and access to the entire YC network, which includes vendors, YC [alumni] and investors. With access to new investors, we hope to be able to raise more money faster the next time we open a fundraising round.”

Since 2005, Y Combinator has funded more than 800 startups valued at more than $30 billion.

Twice a year, YC operates a three-month session in which it invites selected startups to Silicon Valley to get their companies into the best shape possible and refine their investor pitches. At the end of each session, the entrepreneurs present their plans to an audience of specially selected prestigious investors.

Tenant Turner met with about two dozen investors, some of whom have already committed to invest. Perhaps more valuable than the monetary investments is access to an elite network of mentors and YC alumni.

“There’s really no better place to be for a new company trying to get jump-started,” Stewart said. “It’s somewhat surreal to be going through that process. The advice is direct, useful and comes from people who have been there before. … YC is also amazing from the perspective of the network effect. Hundreds of companies have gone through YC and even as a current batch company, you feel the sense of camaraderie and know that even in the future there’s an amazing network you can tap into.”

While most startups spend several weeks preparing their application for YC, the process for Tenant Turner was more of a whirlwind. After making a quick pitch to the Rise of the Rest investment group when it came through Richmond this spring, the trio was encouraged to apply to the YC.

“Joining for us was a really quick process,” Stewart said. “Thousands of companies apply for every batch — nearly 7,000 for this summer — and only 106 were accepted. We were a late application, as it really wasn’t on our radar, but it was suggested we apply. So we did, and were flown out to have a second interview in person a few weeks later. We found out maybe an hour or two later that we were accepted and that effectively the program began the next day.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 12.10.30 PM“We very quickly needed to … simply restart our lives 3,000 miles away from home. It’s been a challenging experience, mostly being away from our families and our home, but one we’re determined to make worthwhile,” Stewart said.

Making the experience easier is the comfort the partners have with one another. More than a decade ago, high school friends Anderson and Barrett both studied information systems at VCU, where Stewart tutored them in Java. They became friends outside of school, years later serving as groomsmen in each other’s weddings.

“A lot of our bond was created during our time together at VCU,” Barrett said. “Our long friendship and the respect that we have for each other has made this journey incredibly enjoyable.”

Similarities abound between the three. Each knew at relatively early ages that they wanted to go into business for themselves. Anderson, in particular, seemed destined for an entrepreneurship career.

“At a young age I had a talent for drawing, which I used to draw logos of fictitious companies I pretended I had,” he said. “I created ‘business cards’ and wrote company newsletters. I made and sold friendship bracelets at day care. And I regret to admit there was a period of time in fifth grade where I carried not a backpack but a briefcase.”

Their shared interests endured well past their school days. After graduating from VCU, each alumnus owned rental properties, an experience that often proved frustrating.

“There are plenty of sites to list a rental like Craigslist and Zillow but no tools that truly solved our No. 1 problem: finding quality tenants quickly,” Barrett said. They all experienced the pain involved in going from a tenant moving out to another moving in, Stewart said, adding that everything that needs to happen in between can be very time consuming. With careers, families and children, taking time away to focus on turning over a property was inconvenient. With their software backgrounds and experience in the tech industry, they knew they could create a better process. That conviction led to the creation of Tenant Turner.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 12.10.20 PM

“We shared a passion for the problem and had the complementary skills to build the leasing software of our dreams,” Barrett said.

Tenant Turner adds rentals to its site and then resubmits them to dozens of rental websites, pre-qualifying all tenant leads online or by phone before scheduling showings for the best prospects. Before Tenant Turner, Barrett said, property owners and managers would have to input listings into multiple sites, field all of the phone calls and emails, and track showings in a spreadsheet. With Tenant Turner, they now have one central hub for all of their leasing activity.

“We’re in growth mode right now and expect to raise more money, hire more employees and acquire more customers,” he said. “Our mission is to make happier, more confident renters, owners and property managers by improving the leasing experience. We’re off to a good start but have so much we can do to live that mission.”

With 43 million rental properties in the United States alone, Anderson said, there is plenty of opportunity for growth.


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School of Business graduate students help government agencies with data management

Monday, Aug. 3, 2015In some circles, statistics have a bad reputation. Mark Twain implied statistics are the worst kind of lie, while humorist Evan Esar defined statistics as “the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.” Why the mistrust in statistics? Because understanding data can be difficult.

“Many misunderstand data’s role in decision-making – leading to confusion between cause and effect,” said Peter Aiken, Ph.D., associate professor of information systems in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. “It’s light outside and it’s daytime. That’s a correlation, right? Well that’s interesting, but in this case, just because we passed 12 hours, doesn’t mean it caused the light to come back on. What caused it was the earth revolving. It is only through better management of the data surrounding these questions of light and dark that we can begin to understand various causes and effects.”

As an authority on data, Aiken teaches his students how data management can help organizations to better approach various decisions, including separating reality from randomness. The exercises are so effective the state has taken note, tasking Virginia Deputy Secretary of Technology Anthony Fung — known informally as “Deputy Secretary Data” — with overseeing the state’s data re-engineering internships among his other duties.

Last fall, Gov. Terry McAuliffe established the program through VCU to explore additional uses of data to improve citizen benefits and state government effectiveness and efficiency. Based on Aiken’s curriculum, the internships provide a unique opportunity for graduate students to collaborate with chief information officers of participating states agencies. The students work in teams of two or three to evaluate available data and identify specific business cases in which data can be used to improve decision-making.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 3.18.17 PMWhy is this so important? Well, “big data” is more than just jargon.

“Data is the only resource we have that is a nondepletable, nondegrading, durable, strategic asset,” Aiken said. “We spend or invest fiscal resources, we wear out as human beings, capital assets degrade over time. … All organizations maintain data assets and if you put in place a program to treat them with the respect they deserve, they will grow in value over time and more importantly the organization will mature in its ability to employ them productively in operations.”

About 20 state agencies and 45 students have participated in the internship since its launch last fall. Class participants gain practical experience using data to drive re-engineering. At the end of the semester, participating CIOs have concrete examples of how to make better use of data to provide innovative and less costly services to citizens.

For example, Aiken cites one agency that works with endangered children. Agency workers would go to homes with an 80-point checklist to evaluate specific cases. The VCU interns tested the variables to see how much impact each had.

“This team did a phenomenal job, determining [which] data collected had little or no impact on the cases,” Aiken said. “By getting rid of the data that’s in the way, we can concentrate on those aspects of the case that are really important. Separating correlation from causality. In the future, it will be easier to separate urgent from routine cases, permitting this agency to better allocate resources according to its mission.

“Once we have that type of a result, we can now package these results for other classes permitting increased analysis,” Aiken said. “The hope is that we can expand this program to other universities.”

Certainly the program benefits both the state and its students.

“We estimate that total agency benefits [include] permitting specialists to process more cases, focus more time on investigative work or reduce the paperwork requirements,” Fung said.

Benjamin Siegel has gotten so much out of the internship that he is now in his third semester of the program.

“Supplementing my textbook learning has increased my ability to meet prospective employer requirements,” said Siegel, an Army veteran who is pursuing a master’s degree in information systems. “I’ve grown by working on a real-world problem. I’m working with real-world people, with real-world problems and real-world deadlines. It motivates me to find the best possible solution because the outcome isn’t only a grade but the implementation of a solution I helped to create.”

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While typically information systems students apply for the internship course, it’s open to any graduate student in the School of Business. The course does not require students to have an information systems background, but it does require a background in data. Aiken said the program has attracted students from just about every School of Business department, such as accounting, finance and logistics. Moreover, he sees such a future for data analysis that he’s proposing a data course for all business undergraduates and collaborating with Jeff South, associate professor in the Robertson School of Media and Culture, on a possible interdisciplinary project with students from both schools.

“Our thinking is that Peter’s students would focus on compiling and analyzing large data sets and that my students might focus on putting a human face to the data — by using the data as the foundation for news stories,” South said. “In data journalism, reporters analyze data, find trends and anecdotes to support those trends, and then write news stories that combine statistical analysis and compelling narrative.

“It’s hard to make people care about numbers, statistics and data. But if we show how the data connect to ‘real people,’ then we can get the information across.”

If people understood numbers, statistics and data, they might care more. It’s challenging to teach statistics well, but worth it, Aiken said. Because if statistics are not properly understood, you are in danger of focusing on bizarre connections, such as the divorce rate in Maine correlating with the per capita consumption of margarine.

Graphs demonstrate how correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Chart courtesy
Graphs demonstrate how correlation does not necessarily equal causation.
Chart courtesy

“If you looked at that, you’d say, ‘There must be a relationship,’ right?” Aiken said. “This is why we need the additional grounding to go in and say, ‘Is that coincidence or is that, in fact, causation?’”

Utilizing existing data to its fullest potential is a risk-free route to better efficiency.

“In a time when government is expected to do more with less,” Fung said, “data is a resource that we can turn into actionable information in order to get greater [return on investment] and improving programs and outcomes for our citizens. In government, we need to move toward a much more data-driven culture where we can measure the value we create.”

For more information on the governor’s data internship, contact Peter Aiken, Ph.D.,


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Governor McAuliffe Announces 2015-16 Data Internships

*This release was originally published on July 23, 2015 by the Office of the Governor. Click here to view on


RICHMOND – Governor Terry McAuliffe today announced that Virginia state government and the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business will again work together on data re-engineering internships to explore the use of data to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of state government.

In the 2014-2015 school year, the data internship program’s first, 45 graduate students and more than 20 state agencies participated. Those internships have resulted in tangible dollar savings and improved agency processes. Student/agency teams have worked on successful projects, such as improving how the state prices and sells its goods and services, and more efficiently matching citizens to benefits when they enroll.

“The first year of our data internship partnership has been a success,” said Governor McAuliffe. “The program has helped the state save time and money by making some of our internal processes more efficient and modern. And it has given students valuable real-world experience. I look forward to seeing what the second year of the program can accomplish.”

“Data is an important resource that becomes even more critical as technology progresses,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “VCU is uniquely positioned, both in its location and through the wealth of talent at the School of Business, to help state agencies run their data-centric systems more efficiently, while giving our students hands-on practice in the development of data systems.”

During their internships, pairs of VCU students work closely with state agency CIOs to identify specific business cases in which data can be used. Participants gain practical experience in using data to drive re-engineering, while participating CIOs have concrete examples of how to make better use of data to provide innovative and less costly services to citizens.

“Working with the talented VCU students gave us a different perspective on what the data was telling us,” said Dave Burhop,Deputy Commissioner/CIO of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The VCU interns provided an invaluable resource to the Governor’s Coordinating Council on Homelessness,” said Pamela Kestner,Special Advisor on Families, Children and Poverty. “They very effectively reviewed the data assets available in the participating state agencies and identified analytic content that can be used to better serve the homeless population.”

“It’s always useful to have ‘fresh eyes’ on data that we are used to seeing,” said Jim Rothrock, Commissioner of the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. “Our interns challenged us and the way we interpret data.  It was a refreshing and useful, and we cannot wait for new experiences with new students.”

The data internships support Governor McAuliffe’s ongoing initiative to provide easier access to open data in Virginia. The internships also support treating data as an enterprise asset, one of four strategic goals of the enterprise information architecture strategy adopted by the Commonwealth in August 2013. Better use of data allows the Commonwealth to identify opportunities to avoid duplicative costs in collecting, maintaining and using information; and to integrate services across agencies and localities to improve responses to constituent needs and optimize government resources.

Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson and CIO of the Commonwealth Nelson Moe are leading the effort on behalf of the state. Students who want to apply for internships should contact Peter Aiken ( for additional information.

Information Systems Professor and Students Build and Install Computers at Haiti Schools

Computer and Internet access has become the cornerstone of education in the developed world in the last twenty years. But as schools and universities in privileged first and second-world countries are putting together sleek and efficient computer labs, third world countries are being left behind.

Despite insufficient funding and infrastructure in those developing countries, Information Systems assistant professor Manoj Thomas, Ph.D, wants to give Haitian schools that same power to educate the youth who can change the destiny of their country.

Less than two months ago, Thomas and Information Systems students, Siobhan Gray and Courtney Bell travelled to Haiti to install approximately 50 sustainable and easy to maintain computers in Haitian schools. During their week long trip, the trio also taught students and educators how to use their new computers donated from the Northern Virginia school system.

Bell and Grey are on schedule to graduate May 2015
Bell and Gray are on schedule to graduate May 2015

“Eighty percent of the people in Haiti live in poverty, 50 percent in abject poverty,” Thomas said, citing statistics from the United Nations index on world poverty.

According to the UN, Haiti is among the world’s most impoverished countries multidimensionally, ranking 161 out of 187 in the 2012 United Nations Human Development Index. Only 20 percent of Haiti’s population has access to electricity. The few residences and businesses fortunate enough to have it often experience regular rolling blackouts.

“Our objective was to provide the younger Haitian generations the ability to move forward and to participate in the new global economy which they have been missing out on,” Thomas said. “To do that, it takes access to technology, computers and computer literacy.”

Organized in conjunction with the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and the Haiti Education Fund, Thomas said he was encouraged by retired Information Systems faculty member and diocese director Paul Fuhs to organize Thomas’ established breadth of information systems experience into a research and development trip to Haiti.

Thomas said he’s done similar developmental projects abroad throughout his career, calling those experiences rewarding and meaningful. When asked by Fuhs to formulate a trip to Haiti, Thomas said he was eager to take on the challenge. 

Volunteering to support Thomas, Gray and Bell joined the project citing altruistic motivations and an opportunity to independently design a developmental computer literacy project.

Starting last spring, the group began to outline their goals and lobbied for support from the university and outside sources.

“I was interested because it was about something I enjoy in my field,” Bell said. “It was about making our own solution for the Haitians and not about doing something already outlined for us.”

“It was very collaborative,” Gray added. “It wasn’t just about a class, it was actual tangible work we got to do.”

Gray programs one of the hundreds of computers donated to schools in Haiti
Gray programs one of the hundreds of computers donated to schools in Haiti

Using the donated computers, the team rebuilt them from the ground up. The computers are configured to prevent intentional or unintentional damage to the operating system and software. Educational software are bundled for specific age groups and grade
levels; including programs to help develop keyboard and mouse dexterity, basic computing skills, or even advanced skills such as website development.

Once the computers were installed in their new schools, Haitian students were taught how to use the computers, could practice typing and engage in interactive tutorials for the Office suite to make documents and slideshows.

Over one hundred students were also given special, “Computer on a Stick” thumb drives they could save personal settings and data on and use at any computer they come across.

Thomas said among their mission’s three-tiered agenda was giving greater access to information. While this solution normally means providing internet access, much of Haiti still lacks the proper infrastructure for reliable internet. Determined to still provide access, the team built eight “Internet in a Box” devices, an open source project which includes Wikipedia in 35 different languages, over 5000 hours of instructional Khan Academy videos, interactive maps and over 35,000 books from the Project Gutenberg archives.

“We’d show them one thing then they wanted more,” Gray said. “They didn’t want to stop learning,” adding that many of the educators were excited to learn how to use new applications to implement in their lessons.

Over the course of the five-day trip, the trio visited two to three different sites per day. Traveling with a native Creole interpreter, the team was met with generous hospitality from their host schools each day. Two schools greeted the team with a special theater performance and a cultural dance recital.

Thomas said that each site visit was fairly different, with some schools having a higher degree of access to computers and Internet. Others however, had administrators with limited knowledge and proficiency using their existing computers and technology.

“Some schools didn’t have anyone to teach them,” Thomas said. “They had a few computers that would never be turned on because no one knew how to use them.”

Despite the degree of poverty and lack of certain amenities briefly experienced by the group, Bell said she noticed a culture that did not dwell on their lack of.

“It was really different, but it was an eye opening experience seeing how we have a lot more and we take it for granted,” Bell said. “They’re still a really happy people even without much.”

As the semester winds down, Thomas said he is waiting to hear back for detailed
responses from the schools and trip directors for his research. After preliminary reports are returned, Thomas said he would like to return to Haiti during the spring semester to collect more research data to assess how educational outcomes in Haiti are influenced by improving the availability of information and communication technologies.

Thomas said he has already received more computers to put together for a possible return trip with another potential group that could build and install more computers in Haitian schools.

“It’s an idea,” Thomas said with a smile. “We’ll see what comes of it.”


-Article by Chris Suarez, student journalist

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