Jean Yang knows her stuff

MIT researcher on internet misogyny and programming for privacy

Jean Yang is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and the creator of a language called Jeeves that automatically manages privacy policy in software programs. In 2013, she presented on Jeeves at Gigaom’s Structure conference, as one of 10 young trailblazers in cloud computing. In December, she and two other female Ph.D. students at MIT did an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit that was supposed to be about computer science but quickly devolved into a litany of misogynistic comments (the three subsequently published an opinion piece on Wired about the experience).

This week, Yang came on the Structure Show podcast to talk about her work, her future, Jeeves’ future and the unfortunate realties of sexism. Her are some highlights from a very interesting interview.

Why Jeeves matters

Essentially, Yang explained, projects like Jeeves matter because privacy policies are becoming an integral part of applications, but managing them is still a task most programmers would like to do without.

“Right now, if you change the policy or if you change the code, you have to go through and update this spaghetti of policy and code and cross your fingers and hope that everything’s happening right,” she said. “. . . If someone else wrote that code and you’re just maintaining it, well, good luck.”

She continued: “The idea is, with our model … if we’re starting from scratch, we want to be able to specify the policies here, the stuff that uses the policies over there. So if programmers want to make a change to the policies, they can just go update the policies and rely on the enforcement do do everything else, and if they want to change the code they don’t have to touch the policies.”

Speakers: Jean Yang - Ph.D. Candidate, MIT CSAIL
Jean Yang

Is it ready for primetime?

Right now, Jeeves is a fine research project and even has a Python library that rewrites code into Jeeves on the fly. There’s also an extension for the Django web framework works with both the application and database code. But it’s probably a few years from being ready, hopefully, to be pushed into industry and readied for production workloads, Yang said.

“Right now, we’ve run a small conference management system using our web framework,” she explained. “But, you know, it’s a small conference management system — we’re not building Facebook with it. I think in order to build a more realistic system using it, we’d have to really look at the scaling issues, and there are some good research issues there. … It turns out that carrying the policies around with the data is pretty expensive.”

Confronting the trolls on Reddit

Yang said she was warned about the risk of sexist comments when she told people she’d and her peers would be doing the AMA, but she wasn’t about to let fear — or the trolls — win. And beside, she still wanted to interact with the kinder community members and answer legitimate questions about computer science education.

“I think it’s kind of bogus that women are kept out of certain physical and online spaces because of the threat of harm,” Yang said. “And I think that there’s this perception that if a woman goes out into the internet she’s going to be harassed or something like that, and I really wanted to test it for myself and show people that it’s not that big of a deal.”

Jean Yang
Jean Yang

When misogyny hits home

While some warned Yang and her cohorts about sexism and against doing the AMA, however, others didn’t seem to think it would be a problem. She said they seemed surprised, after reading the piece on Wired, that people would act that way.

Certainly they had heard about “Gamergate,” she said, but “maybe they think, ‘Oh, gamers, that’s not part of our culture’ or something like that — ‘That’s a subculture.’ But to see it affect people who they didn’t see as part of some niche subculture maybe hit them differently.”