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Weilie Yi
Weilie Yi, principal scientist at location analytics startup Placed, with one of his favorite machine-learning algorithms.

Weilie Yi grew up loving maps, and became a computer scientist. So in many ways his role at Seattle startup Placed is his perfect job.

The startup specializes in location analytics, helping companies figure out not only how but where people are using their apps and mobile services. Yi, a former Microsoft software design engineer who worked on products including the Bing search engine, is now Placed’s principal scientist.

Meet our latest Geek of the Week. Continue reading for his responses to our questionnaire.

What do you do, and what does it mean to you?

I’m a Scientist at Placed and I make sense of our location data.  I try to figure out what’s going on and what it all means.

When I was in graduate school I researched computational psychology and I built models to predict human behavior.  What I do at Placed connects well with the research I previously completed.  I really enjoy working with data, and trying to figure out a meaningful outcome.  In general, I enjoy problem solving and that’s what my job is all about so it’s very meaningful to me.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? 

Location Analytics is a very new area, with only a few companies trying to make sense of location data.  This problem is important because it gives us a lot of insight into linking online behaviors with physical activities.  By linking the digital and physical world we are contextualizing location for our customers to better understand the impact of location on customer actions.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I’m inspired by the prospect of solving original problems.  The problems that we are trying to solve are hard.  For example, there are many different types of phones out there and this creates an issue in creating software that works well on all models. I’m continually inspired by the challenges my team faces on a daily basis.  Breaking down all the pieces…the problems involved when each piece is broken down.  My inspiration is finding the right answer and ultimately making peoples’ lives better.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? 

My initial impulse is to say “the internet” but there is something that I have loved since I was a kid: maps.  When I was little I would spend hours looking at and collecting country maps. Crazy, I know.  Now, I love digital maps.  The birds eye views, contour maps, 3D buildings, they are so cool!  And I get to spend a lot of time exploring them at work!

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) At work, I’ll break up my day by working on different projects.  I might spend time reading papers while monitoring an experiment.  Taking test phones out in the field for a short field trip and using this as an opportunity to get some exercise, fresh air, and clear my mind.

Mac, Windows or Linux?

This is an interesting question.  The initial answer is none.

The long answer is I came from a Windows background, using it in school and I worked at Microsoft for four years.  At Placed I primarily use Linux and I’m loving it but it is best used for writing code – not for documentation and entertainment.  In an effort to combine the best of both worlds I’m currently running a Windows machine with virtual Linux.  That way I can switch back and forth.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? I don’t understand this question. I had to ask my co-worker.  I grew up playing with maps, not watching TV.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time Machine: it would allow us to see something we have never seen – the past or the future.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Make robots.  Affordable, small robots that are kind of like smart phones with legs.  They would be like mini-personal assistants that could for example poke you when your alarm goes off in the morning.

I once waited in line for … I’m considering the term “in line” metaphorically.  In 2006 I really wanted a Prius and there weren’t that many released in the US.  So, I had to have it shipped from Japan and we had to wait three months.  It was the green one on the front of the brochure.

Your role models (And why?): I have two role models, and wait before you judge: Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates.  I realize that they are two very different people, one is a celebrity and one is a billionaire but they have one very important thing in common: they are both philanthropists.   Not only are they successful in their fields, but they also believe in making this world a better place.

Greatest Game In History: I’m not much of a game person, but if I had to choose a game it would be Civilization.

Best Gadget Ever: Hands down, the iPhone.  It’s the first time where a computer becomes so small, so powerful, so popular, so fast.

First computer: The first computer I used was a very old Apple.  Black and white screen, big chunky display.  The Apple was also my first time working across two platforms, where I used to write code on paper and then type into the computer.

Current phone: I currently have the Android Motorola Atrix 4G and it is showing its age.  At a year and a half, the GPS doesn’t work, the WiFi won’t connect, and the touch screen is broken so I’ve had to adapt until my contract is up.  As an example when I write an email I rotate the screen back and forth to avoid dead spots. Also, I’m not a fan of waiting for the manufacturer / carrier to decide when I can upgrade to latest version of Android.

Favorite app: My favorite app is Flipboard on iPad. Now it has a lot of competitors but still is the best.

Favorite cause: Curing cancer is my favorite cause.  It’s a very hard problem – it takes generation of scientists to solve the problem with constant attention.  Also, my wife works at Fred Hutch and works in this field.

Most important technology of 2012: 7-inch tablets are the most important current technology.  I don’t enjoy taking both my phone and my tablet everywhere.  4 inch smart phones are too small for reading, especially on bus.   With a 7-inch tablet, I can still make calls without looking too crazy but it’s still big enough to watch videos and read the news.  I look forward to iPad Mini.

Most important technology of 2015: I’m really excited about head mounted displays such as Google Glasses. Having a display right in front of people’s eyes will open up a lot of opportunities in ubiquitous computing.  What will be really revolutionary is a light weight HMD with a non-obstructive eye tracker.  Imagine taking pictures with “eye gestures” such as double-blinks.  Such devices have existed in labs for a while but bringing them to the general public will have a huge impact on how people interact with computation.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Work on original problems.  Don’t work on repeating things that already have answers.  Work on something new that can make a difference in peoples’ lives.

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