A meandering journey: introducing Greg Rolan

As is sometimes customary, I’ll open with a joke.  Well, actually, my wife’s joke. She and I used to watch ‘The Big Bang Theory’. She would say that, while most people viewed it as a sitcom, she considered it a documentary, and I would watch it as a lifestyle show. Ba-dum-ch.

Anyway… I was somewhat late coming to the academia party.

A stethoscope

Children’s toys?

From a very young age I was going to be a doctor like my grandpa. I played with his hand-me-down stethoscopes and sphygmomanometers, squirted at my sister with water-filled syringes, and read, with eager fascination, his text books with their graphic portrayals of disease and injury. Unfortunately in high school, I found much more fun in drama and music, while coasting through maths and physics – leading to insufficient marks for entry into medicine.

A year-and-a-half in an allied medicine field showed me two things: (1) I wasn’t cut out to work in health care, and (2) the wonder of working with computers (Full disclosure, it was ‘Adventure’ on a PDP11 attached to a medical imaging system that really captured my imagination; and the simultaneous realisation that I could code Sinclair zx80 machine code to perform simple tasks).

IBM 3081 Mainframe

Different kinds of toys

Skip a few years and, freshly graduated from Caulfield Tech with a Computer Science/Applied Physics double degree, I launched straight into corporate land as a systems programmer on mini and mainframe systems. I was drawn to solving the hard problems – performance tuning, patching assembler code, and trying to force interoperability between systems that were not designed to do so.

From there it was freelancing as project manager and architect, consulting in enterprise systems management and, ultimately running a start-up that we took to Silicon Valley. Motivated by the dominance of telecommunications corporate giants, we developed patents in a privacy-oriented peer-to-peer directory platform. However, the GFC put paid to that in a rapid crash-and-burn and I rejoined my old consulting firm as product lead, again, solving the hard technical problems.

Lecture theatre at Monash University Caulfield Campus

A captive audience?

In the early 2010’s feeling burnt out-from decades at the whole IT thing, I decided to return to study – choosing a Graduate Diploma in Information and Knowledge Management at Monash University. (As an aside: in a feat of continuity – astonishing, given my experience in corporate data management – I had retained my original student number from my undergrad days! My records had survived two organisational mergers Caulfield to Chisholm, and Chisholm to Monash. See, it is possible to do recordkeeping properly). So there I was, experiencing some slight deja-vu back at my old alma mater, bouncing between lectures in Societal Informatics and Organisational Knowledge systems when it struck me.

For so many years I had been consumed with how to build and deploy IT systems, but I had never stopped to ask ‘why?’.

What are systems actually built for? Who gets a say? What are the politics of information; the sociology of infrastructure; the affect of technology? Identity and agency and rights oh my!

System implementation of recordkeeping relationships

Gluing systems together

I confess that I started out as ‘that guy’ in lectures – arguing a narrow, positivist and technologically-deterministic position. However, as the lightbulb sputtered on, I found myself nodding with constructivist approaches, sympatico with postmodernism (though still finding the french school largely impenetrable), to becoming a card-carrying, exponent of critical Information Systems theory and practice. I successfully negotiated with my wife (bless her forbearance) an extension to my study – first from the Graduate Diploma to a Masters with Honours, and then to a PhD in Recordkeeping Informatics – the science of how authoritative information manifests within society.

What are records, how do we make sense of them, and how do they count in our deliberations? True to form, however, my doctoral work was in interoperability – how to link and navigate recordkeeping systems and archives even if they presented incommensurable views of the material (in the Australian context, think records of Aboriginal Welfare VS records of child stealing).

I developed a way to model the agency of record participants based on activities and actors, shifting focus from access to ‘stuff’. And, thus I became a doctor – though not the kind I originally imagined.

My first post-doc position was with the Right in Records by Design project – working with records of people who experience out-of-home-Care. Child protection is a sector that often disproportionately and egregiously disenfranchises those recorded within its various systems. My focus was how to design such information systems to maximise the agency of participants and turn these records of childhood from weapons into useful and positive instruments.

hacker in a hoodie

Obligatory crim-in-a-hoodie image

Which brings me to the AiLECS lab and the wonderful opportunity it provides for me to further this work. Yes, this role is kind of recordkeeping-adjacent, and though I dabble in AI, I am certainly no algorithm guy. I would like to think that I contribute on several fronts. Firstly, I bring a perspective on rights-based information systems that seeks to maxmise affordances for consent, privacy, and agency where possible in the data-driven systems so central to law enforcement these days. For example, the VALID Project for research datasets developed with Nina is an exemplar system inasumch as it foregrounds item-level provenance and consent through time.

I also work on transdisciplinary efforts with colleagues in other faculties and industry. For example: continued involvement in out-of-home-Care charter of rights; development of an AI ethics framework for law enforcement; and the EXPLAIN project that seeks to understand the requirements for AI explainability in legal contexts. And, I still get to flex my technical skills – developing the My Pictures Matter crowdsourcing app and working on the Data Airlock infrastructure (that will be the subject of a future blog post).

The AiLECS lab is a great example of the way a multidiscpline team can collaborate closely with front-line application of complex, information-driven systems, in an area that has direct societal impact. And I am proud to be able to be involved.

Author: Greg Rolan
July 2022

Greg is a research fellow with the AiLECS Lab. He works on data integrity, ethical practice, explainability, and technical infrastructure for collaborative data-science work.