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Informatics Seminar: Web Automation for Everyone

06 Feb
Wednesday, 02/06/2019 4:00pm to 5:00pm
Computer Science Building, Room 150/151
Speaker: Sarah Chasins

Abstract: Web data is revolutionizing the social sciences.  The data we can collect from webpages is huge, ecologically valid, and timely--in short, a data science gold mine.  However, collecting new datasets requires programming expertise and the ability to reverse-engineer webpage internals--DOM, JavaScript, AJAX--which most social scientists lack.  The end result: the web data revolution is off-limits to the masses, reserved for a small technological elite. Researchers have long sought to democratize web automation via Programming by Demonstration (PBD) tools.  Unfortunately, PBD web automation stalled a decade ago because (i) users found the tools confusing and (ii) the tools could not generate the robust and structurally complex programs that users needed for real, large-scale automation tasks.  

In this talk, I'll present Helena, an ecosystem of languages and tools for PBD web automation.  I'll describe how I reformulated the web PBD problem as a set of new subproblems to make Helena (i) usable and (ii) applicable to real-world tasks.  For each new subproblem, I achieved usability by first studying what information users find easy and difficult to express, then formulating new synthesis problems that require only the easy information.  I achieved real-world applicability by developing novel synthesizers, runtimes, and language constructs. The result of this approach is a highly usable programming interaction; non-coders write Helena programs in 10 minutes, while coders attempting the same tasks time out in an hour.  I'll conclude with thoughts on the bright future of web automation research and a look at why web automation is only the beginning of the effort to join PL and HCI to meet end users' diverse and expanding programming needs.

Bio:  Sarah Chasins is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, advised by Ras Bodik. Her research interests lie at the intersection of programming languages and HCI.  She works on end-user programming, program synthesis, and programming language design.  Much of her work is shaped by ongoing collaborations with social scientists, from fields ranging from Sociology to Economics to Public Policy. She believes well-designed languages and programming environments can put complicated programming tasks in range for people who consider themselves non-coders.  She has been awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship and a first place award in the ACM Student Research Competition.

A reception for attendees will be held at 3:30 p.m. in CS 150.

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