UW News

May 31, 2007

Kevin Desouza: Small office, big impact

UW News

Clearly, Kevin Desouza is not much on décor. His small office in Mary Gates Hall is mostly undecorated, the walls fairly glowing with wide expanses of white.

The plainness of those walls is misleading, however. Desouza, an assistant professor in the Information School with an adjunct appointment in the Electrical Engineering Department, is a busy and highly accomplished man whose interdisciplinary work at the UW has national, even global ramifications.

Born in India and raised in the State of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor to the south, Desouza earned his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s of Business Administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He’s the author of seven books on information management with an eighth on the way, consults with major corporations, has written dozens of journal articles and blogs on issues of information management, innovation and security. Oh, and he’s 27 years old.

Desouza came to the UW in December of 2005 and formed the new Institute for National Security Education and Research, of which he serves as director, in October 2006, with a grant from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a post in the Bush administration created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Discussing the institute, he said its main goal is “to raise the level of interest in national security issues among students, faculty and the community at large.” Ever ready with talking points, he breaks that overall goal down into five parts. To bring speakers to campus to discuss national security issues, to provide money to faculty who create courses relating to national security, to give scholarships to students traveling abroad for language and cultural experience, to foster the development of and coordinate interdisciplinary research groups that bring together faculty from multiple disciplines across campus to study complex national security problems, and, finally, to place qualified students in government jobs.

Desouza said his institute supports students who travel abroad because it makes them more aware of global concerns such as national security. They must learn a new language or experience new cultures through immersion programs in their travels, but they are otherwise not restricted in their movements. It’s money well spent to widen their horizons, he said. “National security or global security questions have to be solved by being more educated about our globe,” he said. “It’s not important where the students go.”

A scholar in the areas of information management, innovation and knowledge management, his expertise is sought by audiences in both corporate and government worlds. Desouza said his research is not classified, but does involve sensitive material such as the world of information-sharing and cooperation among terrorist groups. He says he works on complex information problems such as “the study of agile networks — terrorist networks, how they operate, from an interdisciplinary perspective. And also how to build information-sharing models for organizations that need to operate in highly complex environments, and share different levels of expertise and intelligence.”

Desouza wins praise from colleagues asked to talk about him and his work. “He’s quite exceptional and talented,” said Harry Bruce, dean of the Information School. “I think Kevin’s work here is really centered on information management — it’s taking the principal that information is a competitive asset, the asset of entrepreneurship and innovation, and certainly the instrument for managing complexity.”

Such work has a special place in the post-Sept. 11 world.

“Information security is about actually avoiding breaches of security,” Bruce said, “Analyzing information and risk management and decision-making — all those outcomes are about using the informational data at hand and analyzing it in effective ways that will allow your predictions … to avoid disaster, attack and breaches of security.”

Bruce added, “If you can predict it, you can avoid it.” In the case of natural disaster, for instance, one can’t stop a Hurricane Katrina from landing, but figuring out how best to coordinate a response to such events can minimize suffering, confusion and mismanagement.

Interdisciplinarity and connecting those who haven’t historically communicated are among the key points of Desouza’s work. Dean Bruce added, “What he’s doing here is connecting up a number of different areas … he has the capacity to analyze what might at first appear to be disconnected data points, and connect them in a way that begins to reveal a set of scenarios, or likely events.”

Sumit Roy, professor of electrical engineering, who works with Desouza, said his colleague’s work is “truly transformative,” in helping the Information School, still a relatively new entity, become a new meeting ground for different interdisciplinary pursuits. “The Information School holds an important place where they are able to bring together both the hard science and the underlying soft sciences,” Roy said.

Roy said that he, Desouza and Joaquin Herranz, an assistant professor of public affairs in the Evans School, are “kindred spirits,” often working in unison, “writing a lot of proposals and smashing ideas together, and it all has to do with knowledge management.” Desouza acts as a sort of mediator, Roy said, and occupies a sort of “center point” because of his blend of technical skill and intellectual background.

For his part, Desouza said he continues to look for new funding opportunities and research challenges for the Institute for National Security and Research. He wants to see it continue its collaboration with other UW departments to find creative solutions for complex national security and government intelligence problems.

He argued that complex problems can only be solved by working in an interdisciplinary manner. “Narrow, one-sided or unilateral thinking contributes very little to the study of these problems. The challenge faced by many institutions is to build spaces to promote interdisciplinary research, rather than simply giving lip-service to it.” His institute, he said, is a prototype for such collaborative work.

And in the meantime, if his institute can support students as they learn about other cultures and languages, so much the better, he said. Currently, he said, about 20 traveling students receive support from the institute.

“At the end of the day, if a student joins IBM or the World Bank, they are still better, and will be able to contribute more to global society, than students without global experiences,” he said.

For more information about the Institute for National Security Education and Research, visit online at http://cluster.ischool.washington.edu/caenser/. To read Desouza’s personal blog, visit http://kevinDesouza.blogspot.com/