On the train back from HotOS’09 Prabal Dutta and I entered into a discussion about “service to the community.” Of all the people I’ve met in the wireless sensor network community Prabal is one of the more interesting and thoughtful. I’ve always enjoyed discussing research and other things with him, and this was one of those conversations that stuck in my mind.

I think that we entered into this topic when I remarked that the research homepage of someone I had Googled listed serving on program committees under the heading “Service.” Growing up as a Boy Scout[1. Topping out as an Eagle Scout, in fact.], and having to accrue the service chits to apply to a selective east coast college, defining service on a program committee as “service” seemed a bit of a stretch to me. This is something that seems fairly clearly in the best interest of faculty members[2. And yes, by this definition some of the "service" on my college application wasn't really service either.] involved, and I’m guessing is also properly incentivized by tenure committees when the time comes.

So if program committee participation isn’t service to the community, what is? And if researchers don’t do it, is it important?

My definition of service to the (research) community would be activities or actions performed that both a) benefit other researchers directly and b) are not directly compensated or undertaken with no clear expectation of eventual reward. Of the top of my head, I can come up with a few[3. Not as many as I would like to be able to bring to mind quickly...] examples in the WSN community:

  • FTSP @ Vanderbilt: After the original FTSP Sensys’04 paper, the researchers at ISIS along with (I believe) others came through in a big way by closing the loop. FTSP is now part of the standard TinyOS 2.x distribution, and receives all of the testing attention and hardening one would expect of something canonicized in this way.
    Did the FTSP team have to do this? No, of course not. They had already had their paper published! Usually the next step is to drop the code on the floor, or dump it into contrib where you don’t need to support it and nobody can complain about it. But they took the time to close the loop, which I applaud them for.
  • The Sensor Network Museum @ ETH: I first got wind of this a few years ago when I received (and completed) the deployment survey that Jan Beutel had distributed. The museum seems to have links to a great deal of relevant WSN material, and while I’m not sure who’s maintaining it they’re definitely doing a great service for the community[4. At some point though, I am hoping that Jan uses the survey results I sent him for something useful...].
  • MoteLab @ Harvard: I can’t finish this list, unfortunately a bit short, without tooting my own horn as well as the horns of my advisor and a lot of other people at Harvard[5. In no particular order: Bor-rong Chen, Konrad Lorincz, Geoff Mainland, Pat Swieskowski, Glenn Holloway and all the EECS support staff deserve mention. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.] and elsewhere[6. Kyle Jamieson (now at University College London) and Brett Hull, both at MIT CSAIL at the time, did a significant re-factoring of one of the uglier pieces of MoteLab code I had written.]. MoteLab is a wireless sensor network testbed that currently supports over 500 researchers from around the globe[7. A few days ago I got a very nice email from Muhammad Hamad Alizai in the Distributed Systems Group at RWTH Aachen University (which I had never heard of). Their Sensys'09 paper used MoteLab extensively and he was writing to say thanks.].

I’m sure there are many additional examples — and I hope a few people will enlighten me through comments or email — but in general these sort of contributions seem a bit problematic. Speaking for myself, my own work on MoteLab started before I began the Ph.D. program, during the year I worked as a research assistant for Matt. This meant I had fewer ambitions in terms of paper submissions, and less of a research agenda (to the degree that any first- or second-year student typically has much of a coherent research agenda).

As time has passed I’ve had to moderate periodic urges to improve the MoteLab codebase against the realities against which those efforts will be measured. We had our one MoteLab paper in the SPOTS track of IPSN’05. It’s extremely unlikely we’d be able to publish anything else on MoteLab. And yet, improving the testbed — either increasing the stability, improving job scheduling and workflow, or creating a more interesting heterogeneous environment — would greatly benefit a lot of other researchers who make use of it. Just not me so much.

A great part of me hates to have to make that calculation, but those are the realities. The optimist in me wants to believe that these sort of contributions and community spirit are measured and weighed on the academic job market I’ll be venturing into next year. The cynic is less sure. My conversation with Prabal? Ammunition for the latter. When I asked him whether, during his job interview process, anyone had ever asked him “Tell me about a contribution you have made to the community that I wouldn’t know about from examining your CV, something that has benefited a great deal of other researchers and facilitated their work?” his answer: no.