Erion Elmasllari (’01): I like problems that are ‘meaningful, difficult to solve, and high-stakes’

November 12, 2020 Dimana Doneva
Erion Elmasllari (’01): I like problems that are ‘meaningful, difficult to solve, and high-stakes’

Erion Elmasllari (’01), who studied Computer Science and Business Administration at AUBG, won the prestigious Fraunhofer ICT Dissertation Award in 2019. His in-depth research on electronic triage systems aims to speed up rescue and treatment for victims of multiple-casualty incidents. While working on this project, Elmasllari has followed emergency responders step by step, going into tunnel fires and terror attack exercises to better understand the challenges of emergency response.

The alumnus, who is based in Germany, has won multiple awards for his research and has built an impressive career as a usability engineer, software engineer and speaker on the topics of usability and complex systems in life-critical contexts. Read our interview to learn more about his academic and professional interests, and the role that AUBG has played in his life.

Erion on winning the Fraunhofer ICT Dissertation Award

Last year you won first place at the Fraunhofer ICT Dissertation Award for your dissertation “A Framework for the Successful Design and Deployment of Electronic Triage Systems.”

I was truly happy about it. The award is given to the best PhD theses on ICT (information & communication technologies) done at the Fraunhofer Society, which is the largest applied research organization in Europe. It’s an honor even to be a candidate for it!

How did you choose the topic of your academic work?

Triage, my topic, is the process of prioritizing victims in a multiple-casualty incident. Think of multiple-car crashes, terror attacks, mass panic at a concert, or earthquakes. There are so many injured people that there are not enough doctors to treat them all at the same time. So, who do we treat first? We can’t take forever to decide because people are dying. But we also can’t choose people randomly for treatment, because doctors will get busy treating smaller injuries while severely injured people will be forced to wait. It is crucial for triage to be as quick as possible. Yet, the process is still done using pen and paper. Emergency responders have rejected every single IT and software solution that has been offered to them. Nobody from research or industry had taken a step back to ask “maybe we are the ones doing it wrong?”

I was working on an EU project about emergency management when I came across the topic and simply fell in love with life-critical systems and contexts. Triage was the kind of problem I like: meaningful, practical, difficult to solve, and high-stakes — quite literally life-or-death.

What do you think helped you win the award?

I think there are multiple factors, starting with asking the right question. My research analyzed systematically, for the first time, what we have been doing wrong over the last 20-30 years and how not to repeat the same mistakes again. I then took a user-centered approach, which means I asked not “what technology should we use?” but rather “what exactly do users need, and how can we support them best?” Third is the grounding of the research in reality. I’ve followed emergency responders step by step, asking, observing, learning from them, sharing the same experiences as them – I’ve even been in tunnel fires and terror attack exercises together with them to see for myself how it feels. This gave me a completely new insight into the issue. Supporting triage through IT is a usability problem first and foremost, not a computer science problem. Emergency responders did not need “more automation and faster algorithms,” they needed systems that were easy to use and reliable in a complex life-or-death context, when somebody is screaming in pain next to you. Finally, I think I managed to write and present my results in a way that is both easy to understand and practical for anybody to follow.

What role has your research played in the development of e-triage systems?

The research itself is quite new and the results are still spreading around the scientific community. What started as an investigation into triage has now become a much deeper look into how to approach emergency response and other critical socio-technical systems.


Erion Elmasllari (AUBG '01) holding his ICT Award
Dr. Erion Elmasllari with the Fraunhofer ICT Dissertation Award. With about 6,000 researchers, the ICT group is the largest IT research organization in Europe. Photo credits: Erion Elmasllari

RWTH Aachen University

What has been your experience as an MSc and PhD student at the RWTH Aachen University and what other research and publications have you worked on?

RWTH is one of the largest and best-ranked German universities, counting among its alumni some of the best-known researchers and Nobel-prize winners in multiple science and engineering fields. Just like at AUBG, you are responsible for taking your own decisions and shaping your own academic path. Unlike AUBG, meeting or talking to your professors outside of class — or even in class — is rare due to the huge number of students. You have to make things happen and to grasp opportunities. Nobody will put them on your path for you to pick up easily.

On the other hand, the cooperation of RWTH with other research institutes and companies creates many of those opportunities. Your research focuses on real problems. It is common to write your thesis while formally employed or in an internship at a company. In my case, I wrote both my MSc and my PhD at the Fraunhofer Society, the largest applied research organization in Europe. This is where I also developed my taste for complex socio-technical systems, involving the interaction, cooperation, and friction between technology and people. Case in point: emergency management, but also medical devices, energy efficiency, IoT, and many other fields I’ve worked on.

Professional development

How has your career developed after acquiring your PhD? What are some of the highlights of your work as an engineer, a researcher and a speaker?

I’ve been working for 20 years now, “straddling the gap” between industry, research, and academia. I feel very comfortable bringing and balancing those three areas together. Industry experience keeps me in touch with reality, with the problems that need solving. Research work allows me to solve those problems instead of being bound by them. Teaching and speaking force me to organize my thoughts and understand my research better, all while keeping me in touch with new ideas and people.

Straight out of AUBG, in my first job in the industry, I had the chance to see how important usability is. Nobody tells you about it in COS, but the ease of use of your programs is just as important – if not more important – than your choice of algorithms and database schema. I’ve done software engineering and usability hand in hand ever since. The PhD was then a natural step: I saw a problem in the industry and I took some time to research it. Nowadays, it is time to go bring that knowledge to the industry. I will, of course, keep in touch with teaching and research: I am an examiner and board member for the “Fraunhofer Certified Usability Engineer” certification, as well as a track chair at the International Conference on Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM). As a speaker, I’ve been invited, among other places, to Harvard University, to South Korea, and various congresses and conferences to share my approach to complex, life-critical contexts. But my main focus for the future will be industry. Through my company, Factorsixty, we are offering services, products, and knowledge helping businesses to improve usability and to approach complex problems and critical contexts the right way.

AUBG Impact

What role did your AUBG education play in your personal and professional development? Which classes or other university-related activities did you find most impactful?

There’s something special about AUBG: It vaccinates you against becoming a dogmatic expert that sees the world only through the narrow lenses of their field. I didn’t know it back then, but the AUBG kind of education forces you to see the big picture and approach things from many angles. All those mandatory courses that “have nothing to do with your major?” They seem like a nuisance, but they are just as important as your major when you work with unknown problems, lots of people, different backgrounds, and different interests.

I would encourage everyone to take some BUS courses. Especially students from COS. You are much more flexible and valuable when you understand how a business needs to run, what tradeoffs it has to make, and why it has to take certain decisions.

On the personal level: I came to AUBG in 1997, amid dark times in the Balkans and civil war in Albania, my native country. AUBG represented hope for education we could never get in our own countries. But we received so much more than top-quality education. We learned to hustle, not to give up, to take decisions and defend them, and to take responsibility for our own future. We learned to trust ourselves, sometimes too much, but never too little. There was always an open door and an open ear.

I still keep in touch with several of my friends from AUBG, though life has thrown us in all corners of the world and we rarely get to see each other in person. In many ways, I miss our late-night walks with them to the best banichka place in Blagoevgrad and the ensuing philosophical wonderings in the corridor lounges until 4 a.m.

To my COS & BUS professors: Bonev, Galletly, Christozov, Manev, Eastergard, Townsend, Greenberg, Ivanova, Nikolayev, Maneva, Frasco, and all others, to Prof. Stefanovich, Ivanov, Pedersen, Iliev, Stoytchev, Ganchev, Krotev and to every other AUBG professor I had the fortune to learn from; to Polly, Lydia, Jill, Debbie, David, Tanya, president Watkins and the rest of the student services, registrar, and administrative staff: thank you all for making AUBG the academic and personal experience I remember most fondly!

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