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Reflections & Lessons from a Year at Precog

Hey! I’m Ashwin, formerly a research associate at Precog from July 2021 – August 2022, and currently pursuing my MSc. in Intelligent Interactive Systems at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona. This blog contains both my reflections and gratitude for everything I’ve learnt from PK & Precog. 

From Beginnings to Crossroads: Undergraduate Days at IIIT Delhi

My interactions with PK as early as August 2019 during my third year at IIIT Delhi when he was teaching a course on Designing Human Centered Systems (DHCS). Little did I know sitting in that classroom that it would be the start of a special journey that would go on to have a profound impact on my life, both personally and professionally. 

During my undergrad, I took three courses by PK, which were undoubtedly my best learning experiences. Well… one may ask, how do you determine something as subjective as a learning experience? Personally, an important indicator for me has always been how often I’ve revisited PK’s course materials & assignments to brush up on things – their timeless nature takes me by surprise till date, as I continue to find nuggets of information that are relevant to my work. 

Taking PK’s course on Privacy and Security in Online Social Media (PSOSM) was a pivotal moment for me. Involving exploration of different data types, and teaching me how to combine methods from different areas (network analysis, NLP, ML etc.), the course influenced me to work in the domain of computational social science. It was after PSOSM, that I approached PK to be a Teaching Assistant (TA) for the course’s next offering and apply as a Research Associate (RA) at Precog. 

Personally, having never seen undergraduate TA’s in PK’s courses, I knew my chances were slim, but to my surprise, PK appointed me the Head TA of PSOSM 🙂 Designing assignments, quizzes and exams from scratch for 250+ PhD, MTech and BTech students while leading a team of 8 TAs remains one of my most challenging yet equally fulfilling experiences as an undergrad. 

Precog: Collaborations that taught me to go far and beyond 

Shortly after my graduation, I joined Precog in July, 2021. The following year would be filled with both setbacks and wins, but most importantly lessons towards converting my setbacks into wins in the long-term – this is where PK played the most important role as an advisor for me. I doubt I can squeeze all those lessons into this blogpost, but I can always leave it as an exercise for the reader to discover the remaining lessons on their own by joining Precog 🙂  

I was fortunate to lead two projects during my time, with a wonderful set of collaborators – (i) Digital Green and Prof. Kiran Garimella to improve adoption rates of agricultural practices among smallholder farmers, (See: Full Paper Accepted at ICTD 2022) and (ii) Prof. Polo Chau towards uncovering dark patterns and lockstep behaviors on Google Play. (See: Late Breaking Result accepted at ACM HyperText 2022 & Feature in the AI Ethics Brief

Both these projects involved really talented undergrads – Mallika, Anmol, Shrey, Pratyush, Arvindh, Pulak, Pooja and Ayushi, all of who I’m indebted to, for their trust in my decisions, patience with the research process and a healthy skepticism towards research outcomes. Below, I highlight my main learnings at Precog with anecdotes

“Common Ground” in Interdisciplinary Research

During my initial months, I struggled to communicate my research ideas well due to the diversity of technical expertise and research interests across my collaborators. It was PK’s feedback that helped me get to a common ground across collaborators, making research discussions a lot more productive – this remains one of the most invaluable skills I’ve developed in interdisciplinary research.

Understanding Context before Scale 

Dealing with large datasets at the scale of millions of users in both my projects, I often found myself lost during exploratory data analysis. Both PK and my collaborators taught me the importance of looking deeper at a subset of the problem for context before trying to scale a solution. This insight was instrumental in converting my projects into publications at top conferences, and also taught me different ways of looking at scale.

For example, our work on fraud in Google Play only concerned 60 apps but it was the depth of our analysis concerning their effects on over 100M users that the reviewers appreciated.

In the other work, leveraging features from adoption networks of farmers supported by Digital Green would have been computationally impossible (N ~ 106 nodes) – had we not dived deeper into the dissemination process that took place at the village level, concerning only N ~ 10-30 farmers at a time. 

Risks v/s Returns

It is slightly unusual to entirely redesign an experiment a few days before a conference’s submission deadline. However, it is also unusual that you come across a new methodology that is near-optimal to the problem you are solving. I found myself in this conundrum a few days before the deadline of ACM Hypertext, and asked PK how I should go about it. This is how it went:

PK: “Ashwin, do you think the value add of this new experiment would turn the paper into a strong accept? Over say, improving the writing or current results?

Ashwin: “Yes, I believe this will really strengthen our technical contributions.

PK: “Then go for it!

A month later, on the paper notification date, the meta review went as follows:

I enjoyed reading this paper, and I found it very interesting. The work is solid, and the contribution is significant. Moreover, the results are presented clearly: both supporting tables and figures effectively show the findings.
PS: We got accepts from all reviewers of the paper 🙂

This is but one of many examples of how PK nudged me to take risks and backed my decisions as an advisor… and it has gone a long way in building my confidence as a researcher.

Signing Off

Finally, PK’s support as an advisor was vital throughout my journey at Precog – he was always happy and patient enough to go on walks for our 1-1 chats and nudge me towards the right directions, transforming me into the researcher I am today. For this, I will always be grateful and fondly remember my time at Precog, as I start the next big chapter of my life as a master’s student at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona.


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