Faces of UMSI: Edward L. Platt

Edward Platt at i3 Detroit Hackerspace, which he co-founded.

Anyone familiar with the vast wealth of knowledge available on the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia would find Edward L. Platt’s doctoral research at the University of Michigan School of Information interesting.

Platt is studying the way editors of Wikipedia work together as a computer-supported cooperative. They work on a special type of website, called a wiki, designed to make collaboration easy; the site is constantly updated. Specifically, Platt is studying the social network of “who collaborates with whom on a given article, and how that relates to their success in improving articles.”

Such a research project might seem daunting, but Platt has some experience with Wikipedia. The Royal Oak, Mich., native has been editing Wikipedia for about 10 years. His involvement occurred by mere happenstance.

“I was looking up some research and found it lacking on the site,” he recalls. “When I found what I was looking for elsewhere, I went back and added it to Wikipedia.”

It’s not Platt’s first involvement in community governance or computer-supported cooperative work. Platt co-founded and served on the board of i3 Detroit hackerspace, which he describes as a self-organized and member-run group.

“It was fascinating to watch it grow from a few people to a couple hundred without any top-down leadership,” says Platt, whose interests outside academia include science fiction, swing dancing and ham radio operations. “I came away with an understanding of how groups like that function.”

Platt applied to a few universities before deciding on the University of Michigan School of Information. He had been particularly interested in his undergrad alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Northeastern University in Boston.

“SI appealed to me because it covers a broad set of disciplines, and because there is a culture of collaboration,” Platt says. “I also appreciated that UMich has a strong GSI union that safeguards the quality of life for grad students.”

He arrived at his academic discipline by way of physics and computer science. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and physics from MIT. He earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario.

“I was always excited by the idea that anyone could write computer software,” Platt says. "When I was younger, computers were a very visible way that I could change the way part of the world works.”

Studying physics made him realize he “wanted something more relevant to a wider group of people.”

Before pursuing his doctorate at UMSI, Platt spent several years in Boston, where he was a staff researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media, and in Metro Detroit as a web developer and civic technologist. He’s also worked at places like Apple, CERN, and Zimride (now Lyft).

At UMSI, he’s appreciative of the enthusiasm and encouragement of his advisor, Daniel Romero, UMSI assistant professor of information and assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering. Romero shares similar interests.

“It’s been nice to work on something I’m excited about,” Platt says. “It’s really helped me translate interests and my experience in the world into an academic setting and how to look at things academically.”