Bus monitors in Cairo empowered as computer whizzes

Egyptian women help track human emotions

By Magdi Abdelhadi

Amira, a school bus monitor in Cairo, has been enlisted by a technology company, Affectiva, to input data on human emotions. (Magdi Abdelhadi)

Call it their own, small Arab Spring.

Marwa and Amira, two school bus monitors in Cairo, were not happy. They had complained to their manager that they were making so little money — 300 Egyptian pounds, or $49, per month — that they could barely manage. They got nowhere.

So they spoke out — something unimaginable just a year ago, before the uprising that ended in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The two women complained at a school board meeting about their circumstances. Marwa, the mother of two, was one of them. “It all started with us learning to speak up, especially after the revolution,” she told Latitude News. “Before, people were stumm (silent); they were afraid they could be sacked if they spoke up.”

Serendipity, technically

Marwa, one of the women who has teamed up with Rana el Kaliouby, at her laptop computer in Cairo. (Magdi Abdelhadi)

They complained in the right place at the right time, as it turns out. A pioneering and successful Egyptian computer scientist who studied at  American University in Cairo and went on to study at the University of Cambridge and M.I.T. just happened to be a member of the school board and attended the meeting where the complaints were aired. (Her two children ride the school bus, coincidentally.) These women could work for me, she thought as she listened to them.

These underpaid women spend many hours every day with nothing to do, scientist Rana el Kaliouby realized, as they waited in between the buses picking up the kids in the morning and returning them home at the end of the school day. She could employ them to help train computers to recognize human emotion, she thought.

A top innovation

Kaliouby has developed a computer system that can recognize facial expressions along with American scientist Rosalind Picard, a pioneer in the field known as Affective Computing. The two women founded Affectiva, a company that specializes in bringing emotion measurement and communication techniques to the general public, including facial expression recognition technology, which Kaliouby invented. The New York Times, in fact, ranked Kaliouby’s work as one of the top innovations of the year in 2006.

Kaliouby’s basic concept is simple. A webcam captures facial expressions and translates them into various emotions — happy, angry or dissatisfied, for example, about a particular idea or product — vital information for advertisers. The technology has enormous potential for sales and marketing all over the world, according to M.I.T.

Although the basic concept seems simple, it is not easy to train computers to recognize the full gamut of human expressions.

To make it happen, Kaliouby enlisted the help of the women in Cairo. “One of the challenges of building a computer system that can recognize people’s facial expressions involves training the system. And to train the system you need loads and loads and loads of face video examples that are labeled by human experts,” Kaliouby explained. “So, you basically show the computer examples of people smiling, and examples of people lowering their brows and examples of people nodding. And that’s how the computer learns. … Now, hiring people to watch these face videos and label them is a pretty expensive undertaking, but it’s really key to our success and the technology’s success.”

School bus monitors in Cairo, who have become computer savvy, thanks to Rana el Kaliouby (Magdi Abdelhadi).

Happy faces all around

It was a win-win situation, as it turns out, in Cairo. “Facial expressions are a universal language,” said  Kaliouby. “It does not matter which country you come from … and here are these women who are pretty socially and emotionally intelligent. We trained them how to read facial expressions and gave them laptops, and have them watch face videos and label them. Then we take that data and that’s the training data for our computer system.”

Kaliouby’s enterprise has enabled some of the 10 bus monitors who were taken on by Affectiva as labelers to more than triple their income: from 300 Egyptian pounds, to nearly 1,000.

But it was not only about money, said Amira, one of the bus monitors, echoing a theme of the Egyptian revolution: it’s dignity.

“The bus monitors were the last to speak at the meeting. There were only two minutes left. I stood up without permission and told them none of the bus monitors spoke and that I wanted to say something,” Amira said.

A little revolution

Not a day goes by in Egypt without a strike or a protest of some kind, for better pay or working conditions or for purely political goals. The story of Marwa and Amira’s “little revolution” captures a bit of the profound changes taking place in Egyptian society since the revolution.

The people have risen up and are slowly pushing against the leftover authoritarian edifice of dictatorship not only in the political sphere but in the workplace.

But Islamic parties with a deeply conservative agenda now control the Parliament and they most certainly will try to resurrect the same old authoritarianism, but in a religious garb.

The question now is: Can they put people like Marwa and Amira back in the box?