NSF Grant Funds Professor’s Local Listening Project

By Maya Greenberg ’20, October 18, 2019
Doug Turnbull works with students to create local music discovery app that integrates with Spotify.

Ithaca is well-known for its support of the local musicians, and hosts several events each year that showcase local artists. This summer, Doug Turnbull, an associate professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Computer Science — and a musician himself — received a $220,000, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study recommendation systems that will help promote local music scenes.

The grant is titled “Counterfactual Learning and Evaluation for Interactive Information Systems,” but Turnbull’s goals go beyond theory and algorithms, as he tries to support local musicians. His idea? A website called Localify.org that recommends local events and generates personalized playlists on Spotify featuring music by local bands.

“If you realize that there’s some really great local bands playing here and start to support them by going to their shows, then you are supporting the local economy,” Turnbull said. 

Several students are working with Turnbull on his grant. One is Nicolas Wands ’21, a cinema and photography major with a web development and finance minor. The pair first connected through Turnbull’s introductory computer science course, and Wands was later later recruited for his grant work. His area of expertise for the project is front-end development and user interface design.

“It’s really nice to see that the computer science department’s projects focus around having an actual impact on people.”

Timothy Clerico ’20

As a communications student, Wands adds a layer of academic diversity to the project from which it has clearly benefited. “We could get every school involved if it [Localify] really grew,” he said. “Having a variety of skill sets is really important.”

Timothy Clerico ’20 is a computer science major with a physics minor. He works on the site’s recommendation algorithms, which make use of a user’s “heavy-rotation artists” on Spotify to find similiaries with local artists. Clerico got involved in the project through the School of Humanities and Sciences’ Summer Scholars Program, which partners students with faculty members to engage in creative inquiry, research and scholarship. 

Both students said they appreciated getting a chance to collaborate with a professor outside of class. “The point of college is so that you can work with people who are like-minded and have similar interests,” Wands said. “To have an opportunity like this where we have funding to do some really cool stuff is a once in a lifetime thing.”

“We’re doing meaningful work,” Clerico said. He cites similarly motivated projects like “Tots on Bots,” that uses technology to help children with disabilities. “It’s really nice to see that the computer science department’s projects focus around having an actual impact on people.”

“I really love building things with talented, motivated students,” Turnbull said, adding his hope that projects like these will help his students find optimal careers. “And that’s the bittersweet nature of being a faculty member, you see them graduate and leave your lab, but they go off and do great things.”