“First, a huge congratulations to the Class of 2023,” commencement keynote speaker Ken-ichi Ueda remarked. “It’s possible that I’m here to tell you about one potential direction that you all can take from this point forward. Or maybe, as one of the few people on Earth who has spent literally over a decade working on an I School final project, I’m here as some kind of cautionary tale.”
On May 15, 2023, the School of Information welcomed 350 of 608 total graduating students from the Master of Information Management and Systems (MIMS), the Master of Information and Data Science (MIDS), the Master of Information and Cybersecurity (MICS), and the Ph.D. in Information Science programs to the UC Berkeley campus. Clear skies and a cool breeze accompanied the excited graduates as they arrived. Zellerbach Hall buzzed with excitement, as over 1,250 friends and family filled the seats to celebrate their loved ones’ graduation. Head of School and Professor Marti Hearst presided over the ceremony.
“As you embark on the next phase of your careers, whether in academia, industry, or the public sector, I urge you to remember our I School values — to advance knowledge and practice wherever people interact with information and technology,” Hearst said. “Approach your work with intellectual curiosity, be mindful of the impact your work has on society, and strive to use your expertise to make a positive difference in the world.”
Ueda shares stories of responsible technology, connection with nature
Ueda, co-founder and co-director of the popular application iNaturalist, an online social network and data recording platform for biodiversity-focused naturalists, graduated from the School of Information’s MIMS program in 2008. iNaturalist, which began as Ueda’s final project, now has a community of nearly 6 million registered users and more than 125 million nature observations of over 400,000 different species on all seven continents.
“Ken-ichi embodies the values of the I School,” Hearst said in her introduction: “Creating new technology for social good, applying user-centered design, and using insights from social sciences.” These values were particularly present in his speech, as he recounted anecdotes from his fifteen-year-long career.
Ueda began with a story about the growth of iNaturalist and how technology served as a means of connecting with people. In 2010, he met Scott Loarie, an ecologist that would end up being his co-director. Despite a rocky beginning, Ueda’s views of Loarie changed after seeing his observations on iNaturalist. “It was this encoding and sharing of his behavior that let me see something I failed to see in conversation, that Scott and I share a fundamental kinship over our love of other organisms.”
He touched on the importance of responsible technology, telling a story about plant poachers in South Africa. After receiving an email about people using iNaturalist to hunt down valuable succulents for the black market, Ueda was forced to think about the application’s role in these crimes. “I want people to care about other life on Earth so that they don’t destroy it, so that they feel enough kinship with slugs and birds and tiny weird desert plants with giant flowers that they want to help them thrive and keep them alive forever,” he said.
“If iNat helps a million people value other organisms for themselves and not for how much they can sell them for, is it worth the extinction of one species?” he asked. Eventually deciding no, Ueda and his colleagues obscured all records of these rare succulents in hopes of preventing their extinction.
The ethical dilemma and question of responsibility when creating and building technology is one that all of the graduates will grapple with in their careers.
Student speakers tackle uncertainty
Student speakers from each program, nominated by their peers, then took the stage and addressed their fellow graduates.
“MIDS taught me the lesson of embracing uncertainty,” MIDS speaker Shannie Cheng said.
“In fact,” she continued, “uncertainty has always been our companion in data science. Times when we try to use historical data to predict the future, working on a project with incomplete and missing data, are all uncertainties we face; but we have learned to embrace it with resilience.” Cheng implored her peers: “Let us take the resilience and adaptability we have acquired and use them to conquer any obstacles we may face.”
Similarly, MIMS speaker Orissa Rose recounted the uncertainty she felt as she became a parent during graduate school. “As my bump became more prominent so did my fears that this life change would set me back or make it harder for me to fulfill all the ambitions I’d shown up to school with,” she said. After returning to school post-partum, she realized she had come back to a different group of people than the one she had left.
“In writing this [speech], I realized that while everyone’s evolution was impressive, it shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, our generation is no stranger to change, especially in relation to technology,” she opined. “As we set off on our own journeys, and inevitably confront moments of uncertainty or intimidation, I hope you remember this moment and our collective story of change and triumph.”
MICS speaker Daniel Wallace drew laughs from the audience as he began with a dad joke: “Where do dads store important information? In a dad-a-base!” Once the crowd settled down, he pivoted to explaining the importance of cybersecurity. “This world needs more cybersecurity professionals who not only understand technical intricacies but also have the creativity and critical thinking skills to evolve with the rapidly changing landscape… As graduates, we have a unique opportunity to forge ahead with a higher velocity and make meaningful contributions in cybersecurity,” he said.
“Do not let fear or uncertainty hold you back. Embrace the unknown and believe in yourself,” he added, ending to a standing ovation.
Lastly, Ph.D. speaker Daniel Griffin, an avid runner, likened his degree to a trail ultramarathon rather than a marathon, saying that “Not because it is harder, but it’s a little longer, it’s more complex, there’s more uncertainty, and you need much more support.”
“Here, at the finish line,” he said, “we recognize the folks who helped along the way. From those who so many years ago encouraged us to dream, to those we know will always help us find something — a citation, what we meant to write, or another trail to head down. While parts of this might have felt lonely, we didn’t do this alone. No one finishes something like this on their own.”