UW News

October 1, 2021

Three UW teams awarded NSF Convergence Accelerator grants for misinformation, ocean projects

Three separate University of Washington research teams have been awarded $750,000 each by the National Science Foundation to advance studies in misinformation and the ocean economy.

The NSF pledged $21 million to 28 multidisciplinary teams for phase 1 of the Convergence Accelerator program’s 2021 cohort. The federal agency hopes to build upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions in two critical areas: the “Networked Blue Economy” and “Trust and Authenticity in Communications.”

One team, from the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, was selected for the “Networked Blue Economy” track topic, and two UW teams — one from the UW Information School and another from the APL — were selected for the “Trust and Authenticity in Communications Systems” track.

Designed to transition basic research and discovery into practice, the Convergence Accelerator uses innovation processes like human-centered design, user discovery, team science, and integration of multidisciplinary research and partnerships. The Convergence Accelerator, now in its third year, aims to solve high-risk societal challenges through use-inspired convergence research, according to NSF.

The three projects that teams from the UW will lead include:

  • The “Verified Information Exchange” project, from the APL and industry partners, will produce a flexible proof-of-concept technology to help people evaluate the source of information and its reliability. Drawing on the fields of technology development, law, business, policy, curriculum development, community management, interdisciplinary research and finance, the team will develop tools and components to generate and communicate digital “trust signals” in various settings. The result will be a proof-of-concept for a verified information exchange that would support tools that users can deploy to assess the trustworthiness and authenticity of digital information. Workstreams are anticipated to include food system safety and security, bank and financial information systems, public health information systems, academic publication and supply chains. Scott David, a principal research scientist at the APL, is the lead investigator.
  • The “Co-designing for Trust: Reimagining Online Literacies With Underserved Communities” project team, composed of a multidisciplinary set of researchers from the UW, the University of Texas at Austin, Washington State University, Seattle Central College and Black Brilliance Research, will plan, facilitate and assess a series of seven workshops focusing on critical reasoning skills, the psychological and emotional aspects of information, and broader sociocultural dimensions of trust in information ecosystems. The workshop series will be hosted in collaboration with a diverse group of local stakeholders in Washington state and Texas, including urban and rural libraries, news outlets, civic organizations, and underrepresented communities. Jevin West, an Information School associate professor and UW Center for an Informed Public co-founder, is the principal investigator on the project.
  • In the “Equipping Underserved Communities with Ocean Intelligence Platforms” project, three new community-run ocean sensors will provide Indigenous coastal communities with real-time data on the changing ocean environment. The floating systems, anchored to the seafloor, will be deployed in collaboration with coastal communities in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific Islands. Sofar Ocean’s existing buoy systems — designed to be affordable and convenient — can measure waves, sea surface temperature, cloudiness of the water, and water depth, and come equipped with solar power, satellite communication and potential for expansion. The project housed under EarthLab will be done through the UW-based Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems as well as its counterparts in Alaska and the Pacific Islands, which have long-standing, trusted relationships with Indigenous and coastal communities. Jan Newton, an oceanographer at the APL and the director of NANOOS, is the lead investigator.

Additionally, Assistant Professor Amy Zhang and Associate Professor Franziska Roesner, both in the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, are co-principal investigators on a team, led by the international grassroots community Hacks/Hackers. That team aims to develop practical interventions to help individuals and community moderators analyze information quality, including misinformation, to build trust and address vaccine hesitancy. Zhang also is on another team, based at the University of Michigan, that will help media platforms determine how to flag articles that contain misinformation.

During phase 1, each UW team will engage with the other members of their cohort in a fast-paced, nine-month hands-on journey, which includes the program’s innovation curriculum, formal pitch and phase 2 proposal evaluation. The program’s team-based approach creates a “co-opetition” environment, stimulating the sharing of innovative ideas toward solving complex challenges together, while in a competitive environment to try and progress to phase 2.

At the end of phase 1, each team participates in a formal pitch and proposal evaluation. Selected teams from phase 1 will proceed to phase 2, with potential funding up to $5 million for 24 months. Phase 2 teams will continue to apply Convergence Accelerator fundamentals to develop solution prototypes and to build a sustainability model to continue impact beyond NSF support.  By the end of phase 2, teams are expected to provide high-impact solutions that address societal needs at scale.

Launched in 2019, the NSF Convergence Accelerator program builds upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact. Using convergence research fundamentals and integration of innovation processes, it brings together multiple disciplines, expertise and cross-cutting partnerships to solve national-scale societal challenges.