Gaetano Borriello, a University of Washington professor and leader behind the Open Data Kit, died Feb. 1. Nearly $350,000 has been raised toward a fellowship established in his honor.
Gaetano Borriello wanted to marry technology with humanity. He believed that computer science wasn’t about creating the next app, but about helping and enriching lives around the world.
Those beliefs led him to develop the Open Data Kit, an open-source mobile-data collection tool used around the world to address issues in public health, human rights and the environment.
Professor Borriello, the leader and visionary behind the Open Data Kit and professor in the University of Washington Department of Computer Science and Engineering, died Feb. 1 after a six-year battle with colon cancer. He was 56.
A month after his death, nearly $350,000 has been raised toward the Gaetano Borriello Endowed Fellowship for Change, which was established byhisUW department. The fellowship will support UW students whose work explores how technology can improve the lives of underserved populations.
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The Open Data Kit began as a way to help doctors and nurses in developing nations and is used through mobile devices, such as smartphones. The kit has since been applied in many other ways.
The International Federation of the Red Cross has used it in relief and recovery programs after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and Jane Goodall wrote in a letter to Professor Borriello’s family and colleagues that the kit has transformed her institute’s approach to African conservation.
“My colleagues who met and worked with Professor Borriello recall his kindness, thoughtfulness and desire to be of service, as well as his humble nature and unassuming way in which he was developing the next generation of computer scientists and engineers so they too can use their knowledge to improve the lives of others,” Goodall wrote. “What a great loss indeed he is to our world.”
Nicki Dell, a final-year doctoral student met Professor Borriello through Change, an interdisciplinary group of UW faculty, students and staff. She was in the first year of her doctorate program, feeling disillusioned with her work and questioning her ability to do research. Professor Borriello noticed she was struggling, she said, and offered her the chance to change her research focus and work with him in the Open Data Kit project.
“I am so grateful for the time and effort he put into helping me choose the right path,” Dell said.
At UW, Professor Borriello was known for his dedication to his students, winning universitywide teaching and mentoring awards, according to Hank Levy, chair of the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. Levy and Professor Borriello’s wife, Melissa Westbrook, said that even up to a few days before his death, he was advising his students through Skype and trying to round up grant money to support them.
“He was very much a father figure,” Westbrook said. “He would say, ‘I have to go help my other children, but I’ll always come home to you.’ He loved his work, he loved his students, and he just continued on, doing everything he could to see his work through.”
Professor Borriello was born in Naples, Italy, and immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., with his family when he was 9, according to Westbrook. He spoke no English when he started school, but was able to understand addition and subtraction lessons. And though his parents’ schooling ended in the sixth grade, both he and his brother earned doctorates.
He earned a bachelor’s of science from the Polytechnic Institute of New York in 1979, and master’s degree from Stanford in 1981. He was a member of the research staff at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center from 1980 to 1987 before earning a doctorate in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley. He joined the UW department in 1988; UW was the only school he applied to, Levy said.
“There is a huge void that is impossible to fill,” Levy said. “He was a very special, funny, dedicated person.”
In addition to his wife, Professor Borriello is survived by his sons Christopher and Nicholas, his mother Rosa, and his brother, Frank Borriello.
Remembrances can be sent to the Gaetano Borriello Endowed Fellowship for Change: www.washington.edu/giving/make-a-gift/?page=make&code=GBEDFL