Rediscovering the Association for Computing Machinery

Over the last 20 years, except for a couple of gaps, I have been a professional member of the Association for Computing Machinery.  I became acquainted with the organization while working on a fellowship project to create an acid-base diagnostic expert system.   At that time, I did not know anyone in the field of computer science, and Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (CACM), the organization’s flagship publication, provided my only portal to the field.   This is a great publication.   The articles can be a challenge, but for curious outsiders, they are a great way to keep abreast of the major themes in computer science.

CACM introduced me to many important topics.  In fact, copies of this publication enjoy an honored place on my bookshelf alongside copies of Computer Language magazine, and AI Expert. The following issues were particularly helpful to me and remain within easy reach: Object-Oriented Design, September 1990; Next-Generation Database Systems, October 1991; Logic Programming, March 1992; Artificial Intelligence, March of 1994; Software Patterns, October 1996; and Data Mining, November of 1996.

For most of the time I have been a member, my use of ACM publications and resources has been limited to reading CACM.   That changed when my recent interest in workflow analysis led to my rediscovery of the ACM and all that it offered.

Digital Library
Last year, I discovered the value of the ACM Digital Library while tracking down Petri net references from Wil van der Aalst’s workflow book.   I was aware of the library, but had not looked at it because I assumed the articles were too technical for me. What I found amazed me!  The library contains everything the ACM has published since 1954. This includes 300,000+ full-text items– conference proceedings, newsletters, journal articles and magazines along with videos and audio files.   In addition, the ACM Digital Library provides access to the Guide to Computing Literature, a bibliographic database containing more than 1.6 million records.  This is the computer science equivalent of MEDLINE.    Together, these resources provide easy access to the complete computer science literature.

Books and Courses
Professional development materials were another belated discovery.   Books and courses covering a range of technical topics such as programming, security, hardware, and project management are free for professional and student members.   In just a few months, Safari Books Online has saved me hundreds of dollars in book purchases.   Access to the books and courses alone is worth the annual membership fee.

Special Interest Group on Health Informatics
Without a doubt, the biggest surprise in my rediscovery of the ACM was the Special Interest Group on Health Informatics (SIGHIT).  Last December, while renewing my membership, I browsed through the list of special interest groups to see if there was anything interesting.    I was shocked when I came across SIGHIT.   I contacted the chair and asked about volunteer opportunities. That led to my being on the program committee for the 2012 International Health Informatics Symposium (Miami, January 28-30th).

My interactions with members of the SIG have been wonderful learning experiences.   Particularly enlightening were the discussions that ensued from submission reviews.  The disparity in perception regarding the value and/or novelty of papers differed significantly between those with computer science and clinical informatics backgrounds.    It seemed that, when judging papers,   CS types focused on algorithms and systems while CI types focused on applications and outcomes.      At first, I found this irritating. Now, I see that both are equally important and complementary.   Solving healthcare problems requires new systems and algorithms as well as new ways of building applications and documenting their impact.  On a more personal note, I have new people to bounce ideas off—always a good thing when one is trying to innovate.

In all, my recent rediscovery of the ACM has proven to be a boon professionally, and I hope personally, as new colleagues become new friends.



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