Enigma seeks to broaden computer science’s scope on campus

Calvin Liang (left), Soubhik Bharari (center), and McCall Bliss, the founders of the Tufts computer science journal Enigma, pose for a portrait in front of Halligan Hall on March 2. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

Interest in computer science has been mounting at Tufts, to the extent that the Department of Computer Science made the decision last spring to restrict the number of students who could enroll in computer science classes to first-years and computer science majors and minors. Given the field’s popularity on campus, junior Soubhik Barari was surprised to realize that Tufts lacked an organization or publication to connect students who share an interest in computer science.

Barari came up with an idea for a new publication that would unite the computer science community at Tufts, as well as highlight the versatile and interdisciplinary elements of the field. To see this idea through, Barari asked three peers who are also involved in computer science — junior Calvin Liang, junior Macgill Davis and senior McCall Bliss — to be co-founders of what is now called Enigma, an online data and computing journal.

According to Barari, who is the journal’s editor-in-chief, Enigma’s mission is to inform the Tufts community of the ways in which computer science interacts with different disciplines.

“We want to bring alternative conversations about computer science that don’t fit into the main discourse of computer science,” he said. “We feel that it’s way more nuanced and has more applications than just making pretty websites.”

The four co-founders are each involved with other fields at Tufts and thus bring diverse backgrounds to the journal. Barari, a computer science major, worked on his high school’s literary journal, which he cites as another inspiration for this publication.

In addition to computer scienceDavis also studies international relations. Bliss, Enigma’s director of web and design, is a computer science major with a minor in multimedia arts, and Liang, the managing editor, is an engineering psychology major with a minor in computer science.

Barari encourages students of all backgrounds to contribute to the publication.

“We’re looking for people with skillsets in web development, data science or visualization, who are also into political science, net neutrality, technology as it relates to international development, whatever really,” Barari said. “One person approached me at our GIM and told me that in his spare time he likes to write historical articles about computer science, and that’s something that’s really nifty and highlights what we’re about.”

The journal will consist of six sections: Filter, Canvas, Tutorial, Sync, Linger and Anagram, Barari said. These sections are designed to cover a wide array of computer science topics; while the Filter section is designed to focus on computer science news at Tufts, the Canvas section will present “visualizations of the week” — student-produced visualizations, projects from visualization techniques courses or independent projects.

The Tutorial section will offer computer science students tips for surviving courses, according to Bliss.

“That way students in COMP15 [Data Structures] won’t have to Google all their questions, they will just go to our journal and see, ‘10 Nifty Tips for Using Program X,’” Barari said.

Barari said that the Sync section will feature interviews with Tufts faculty or young entrepreneurs at Tufts, while Linger will work to link students to events, projects, jobs and alumni. The last section, Anagram, will feature lighter activities and topics, such as computer science brainteasers, Bliss said.

According to Barari, part of the journal’s goal is to make computer science more accessible to those who have not been exposed to it.

“What we’re mainly trying to do is bring those conversations to the Tufts undergraduate population and make computer science more accessible,” Barari said.

Liang is excited to see how Enigma will speak to students who are combining their computer science major with another, seemingly-unrelated major, such as English or art history.

“I have a lot of friends who say they’re interested in computer science but don’t have time to take a whole course,” he said. “So we’re thinking that with the Tutorial section we’ll post guides so you can get exposure to coding without necessarily having to take Introduction to Computer Science.”

In addition to the six sections, the publication will also feature Tufts Trends, a project that Barari is working on that utilizes visualization and data science techniques.

“Tufts Trends is a story-based blog, using data mining on public Tufts data to deliver insights and unique stories,” he explained.

One idea for the blog that he’s working on now will look at Tufts Confessions, a Facebook page on which Tufts students can post anonymously.

“Right now, I’m working on something related to the Tufts Confessions Facebook page. There’s an unprecedented amount of public data there, around 25,000 or 30,000 posts on Tufts Confessions overall,” Barari said.

Barari hopes to use the data from the page to tell stories about the student population.

“There’s so much you can tell from it — what’s keeping Tufts students up at night, are we mostly drawn to negative confessions or do we like to see hopeful narratives on Tufts Confessions, etc.,” he said.

For now, the journal will be published online only.

“It’s easier to get the content out quickly, and less expensive,” Bliss said. “We don’t have a budget, and everyone looks at things online right now, so we’ll try to generate some traction and then see if we either want to publish one article in pamphlet form, or publish the whole journal maybe once a semester.”

According to Barari, members will have the freedom to upload new posts at their discretion. Bliss added that Enigma is currently focused on publishing strong content, rather than quickly posting as many articles as possible.

“It would be nice for our users to see some consistency with our articles, so depending on the section, we were thinking we would add new posts either once a week or twice a week and allow our writers to have some time to get a good story,” Bliss said.

Bliss attempted to start her own website a year ago on which writers, musicians and filmmakers could easily connect and make movies, but the club fell through due to Bliss’s study abroad plans. Now, she is excited to be a part of Enigma.

“I’m really into this idea of an interdisciplinary club, of making this into something bigger than computer science,” she said.

Barari said that he sees Enigma as a combination of the Tufts Observer, Khan Academy and LinkedIn.

“There are a lot of things we’re trying to do with the journal,” he said. “It’s all to show the Tufts community that computer science isn’t synonymous with coding, to bridge the gap between the humanities and computing.”

Barari acknowledged that computer science could seem intimidating to those who are unfamiliar with it.

“There are so many people who have their foot in the door in computer science, and we just want to invite them in,” he said. “We want to make people see that computer science is ubiquitous, and exists everywhere that we are; at the same time, it’s something people can take and transform and make personal and use for things outside of what people think computer science is about.”