Ian Witten: Waikato University Digital Pioneer (1947-2023)

Influential computer scientist and University of Waikato Emeritus Professor Ian Witten has died in Hamilton aged 76. An expert in computer software and digital technology, he helped establish the University’s international reputation in machine learning, data mining and digital libraries. Ian Witten arrived at the University from Canada in 1992, having received an MA in Mathematics from Cambridge University, England, an MSc in Computer Science from the University of Calgary, Canada, and a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Essex University, England. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand..

In 1994, with Alistair Moffat and Tim Bell, Witten co-wrote Managing Gigabytes, which was highly influential on the early architectures of Google. The paper was cited in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s 1998 Stanford University paper The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine in which they presented Google, “a prototype of a large-scale search engine which makes heavy use of the structure present in hypertext. Google is designed to crawl and index the Web efficiently and produce much more satisfying search results than existing systems.”

Witten’s contributions to research encompassed machine learning, data mining, digital library systems, computer-assisted language learning, Wikipedia mining, text compression, hypertext, melody extraction and indexing, theory of adaptive systems, speech synthesis, digital signal processing, linear and non-linear identification techniques, adaptive user interfaces, programming by example, computer typography, and documentation systems.

Witten oversaw the development of software that has been adopted in more than 60 countries and is used to collate information for large operations including disaster relief operations across Latin America, for combating AIDS in Africa, and for development purposes in French sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to his research being widely published internationally, Witten instigated several projects including the Waikato Machine Learning project, the Waikato Digital Library project, and a partnership with UNESCO for an interface which was translated by volunteers into 60 languages. Through this he became heavily involved in promoting the use of digital libraries in developing countries.

Among the institutions mourning Witten’s passing was the Trust Waikato Symphony Orchestra where Witten was a long standing and cherished clarinetist. He described New Zealand as “moving to heaven.”

Original article by University of Waikato, May 9, 2023.

Tags: Obituaries  Science and Technology  

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