Software researcher aims to serve

November 27, 2012  |  
Tracey Hughes

Tracey Hughes

Tracey Hughes ’03, ’08

Tracey Hughes has a 100-piece-and-growing robot collection that lives on her office desk at home. She has two computer science degrees from YSU, is chief executive officer of CTEST Laboratories, a non-profit software research facility she founded with her husband, and a prolific co-author of computer programming and robotics books.

But according to Hughes, she’s not a typical “computer person.”

“I’m not the kind who lives for computers and considers nothing else,” she said. “I think we all have the responsibility to be involved with changing society no matter what our work is.”

That’s the philosophy driving Hughes’ professional aspirations to better her community with her groundbreaking software research.

She began her research in the 1990s when she and her husband, Cameron – now a professional software developer and staff programmer/analyst at YSU – moved here to begin working toward undergraduate degrees at YSU. Former high school sweethearts from Detroit, they had both earned associate degrees from Community College of Philadelphia and were already making plans to publish their first book on the computer programming language C++. Seven more books would follow.

Unlike their writing material, though, their research was focused less on programming practice and more on theory. For the past 20 years, Hughes and her husband have continued their work designing and implementing a knowledge representation scheme they call “knowledge spaces.”

“Our research at CTEST Labs, and even when we were students at YSU, has been on computational epistemology—or representing knowledge in the computer,” said Hughes. “We investigate techniques in acquiring knowledge from different sources, representing it in software, and then analyzing the quality of the knowledge.”

She and Cameron create software that can reach conclusions about whether or not a proposition in a specific context is true – or, if it can be considered “knowledge.” Hughes explained that much of today’s software extracts information, or facts, from text or documents rather than the supported knowledge she is attempting to represent with her software.

Much of the data the couple gathers for their research comes from interrogative documents, such as court trial transcripts.

“Say there’s a trial transcript of a civil case against a cigarette manufacturer where the plaintiff claims cigarettes cause cancer,” said Hughes. “Both sides bring in experts who present arguments to prove their side. We take the transcripts and extract the propositions. Our software can analyze the quality of each argument and determine which argument was supported.”

It’s a concept that could have a major future impact on how documents can be analyzed and interpreted, but Hughes and her husband would like to use their software in the future to help non-profit organizations in the Youngstown area and beyond. “I’m not interested in making a billion bucks,” she said. “I’m more interested in solving problems for the greater good.”

Right now, for example, they’re applying data mining techniques and their epistemic structures to data they acquired from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, working to determine the relationship between fracking, a process used in oil and gas drilling, and earthquakes. Eventually, they want to create a website that would process data generated by Ohio government agencies for public use, and they can envision many applications stemming from their research.

Hughes and Cameron live in Youngstown and have three children – two daughters and a son – and five grandchildren.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Fall 2012.)

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