Posts Tagged trips
A fortnight has passed since WebSci10 opened its doors to the eager, interdisciplinary crowd. It was a fascinating conference, and I’m still processing a lot of what went on there. What follows are a few thoughts and highlights…
Keynotes: We had a couple of nice keynotes. I was most especially struck by Melissa Gilbert (no, not that Melissa Gilbert) talking about the digital divide and different frameworks of ICT usage. Specifically, she discussed work with poor women in a particular city of the USA. The key point was that we cannot build a better web from our privileged technology use framework — we have to understand the end users! Of course, that itself isn’t the most subtle point in the world, but the talk went beyond that. The take-home was that social science can’t be an add-on after technology has been built: interdisciplinary is needed during that process.
Papers: Formal talks were neatly divided into five sessions (web and: society, community, data, intelligence, methodology), with my own talk in the final of those groups. The material really was interdisciplinary, with speakers including geographers, lawyers, sociologists, and of course computer scientists.
Content ranged from privacy to porn to politics (that was just the first session!), accessibility to linked data, microblogging to folksonomies, crowdsourcing to shopping. There was a lovely talk on credibility online, and how much people think they trust mainstream vs online sources compared to how much they actually do.
Web and Methodology: My favourite session was the one in which I spoke! Entitled Web and Methodology, it opened with the wonderfully charismatic Harry Halpin talking about philosophy and WebSci, followed by various Southampton people: Dave de Roure on data in WebSci, Les Carr, Susan Halford and Cathy Pope giving CS and sociological perspectives on the WebSci framework, followed by myself. It closed with material on systems to support behaviour change.
My talk seemed to be well-received: the paper and slides can be found here, but basically I was presenting TAPT and the initial results from that study back in December. I had a couple of good questions, decent feedback on how it went, and — encouragingly — a couple of possible contacts for maybe running a case study or two. It’s too early to know whether that’ll work out, but well worth pursuing.
Other sessions: aside from the above, the conference included a wonderfully animated poster session, varied lightning talks and an engaging plenary which included discussion of where WebSci is going and how to form a cohesive community.
Miscellany: it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces, some from Southampton but others from further afield. I met plenty of new folk, and hope I manage to stay in touch with at least some of them!
Memorable moments include Caroline Wilson’s wonderful comment (which appeared to take over Twitter!): “Copyright law is like an onion: it has many layers, and it will make you cry.”; chatting with Tim Berners-Lee about linked data, the W3C and my research; and seeing (also playing with) my first iPad.
Summary: I very much enjoy the opportunity to interact in a like-minded community, hear what’s going on at the cutting edge, and get feedback on my work. This conference was especially relevant to my interests, and I think the organisers did a great job. I was particularly happy with the decision to run it as a single-stream event, which was an effective device for getting the different disciplines interacting. Watching the growth of this nascent community has made for a fascinating time of late, and I don’t think it’s about to get any less interesting…
This time last month, I was just back from Arizona: I travelled out courtesy of a Microsoft scholarship to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (quite a mouthful!). There were 1600 participants, who were almost entirely (unsurprisingly) women in computing!
It’s a really different event to traditional academic conferences: it’s very US-oriented, a good proportion of attendees are undergrads, and there’s a strong industrial presence (not to mention recruitment drive!). There’s a lot of academic content (good content, at that), but that isn’t the be-all and end-all of the event. As the name suggests, it’s a celebration as well!
I gave an oral and a poster presentation whilst out there, and both seemed to go down well. I got some useful feedback, but primarily I’ve met a lot of fascinating women, with whom I hope to stay in touch. All in all, it was a fantastic opportunity.
It’s a while since I wrote in here — it’s been busy, of late.
So, first thing’s first: since I last wrote, I have successfully completed my mini thesis. Hooray! This means my next Big Deadline is around Christmas next year, by which time I need to have my thesis written… eeek! My supervisor tells me to allow half a year to write up the thesis — that allows for contingency and finishing off bits in the background, of course, but still theoretically means I need to have all my work done in under twelve months. That isn’t long!
Meanwhile, I’m finally at the point in my degree where I’m actually making some kind of research contribution. An important part of the doctoral experience is the act of sharing one’s work with the wider community and getting feedback: as such, I’m just back from a semi-whirlwind of conferences.
I first went to PETRA, on pervasive technologies and assistive environments, where I presented a full paper on the pervasive aspects of my work — multimodal messaging and using it to provide social networking functionality.
Next, I took a poster on the social aspects of the work to the hypertext conference, where I talked about finding methods to understand user experience: it’s no good my re-providing the functionality of social networking websites using novel, pervasive channels unless I can show whether or not the pervasive experience matches the web-based one!
Finally, last week I attended a symposium in Southampton called InterFace, an event to promote learning and sharing between fields of technology and the humanitities.
Each of these represented a rather different experience. PETRA was very solidly in my research area, and a fantastic chance to meet a community which was new to me and give a substantial presentation on my work. Hypertext was more relevant in terms of the adaptive nature of the system I’m designing, and the social aspects of the work; it was a very different community, but no less responsive to what I had to say. Finally, InterFace was a one-of-a-kind event, mainly made up of postgrads from all over the UK, and a few other countries: a diversity of fields were represented, from archeology to sociology to computer science. I always enjoy the challenge of discussing my work with people from different backgrounds, and this provided exactly that opportunity.
I’m now done with conferences for the foreseeable, which may be for the best! I have yet to wade through a big pile of papers to read, contacts to email and to dos to, well… do.
I’d better get to it!
I had the privilege of attending WebSci09, earlier this month. This was the first conference on web science, and a real mishmash of disciplines were represented. Topics included access to scholarly literature, parallels between WebSci and cognitive science, conversing between disciplines (Engineering and Humanities / CompSci and Sociology in particular), and so on.
The conference included some rather inspiring keynotes (particularly those by TimBL and Nosh Contractor), and of course, many networking opportunities. I have made a couple of connections which I hope to follow up
I presented my poster on the second day, and spoke to all manner of people from various disciplines. I was surprised to be interviewed by a journalist from a French IT news company, but it’s all good! As with Cumberland Lodge, it was a great experience to present my work to people who weren’t necessarily CompScis.
A quick sample of papers which struck me:
* perceptions of extremist activity online – the long tail of the online marketplace as applied to religious extremism (lower costs of reaching niches).
* the meaning of URIs – does a URI have a specific, concrete meaning as defined in a dictionary? Or is its meaning what was intended by its owner/originator? What about when meanings change as language shifts?
* Semantic web techs to augment the museum experience in the Netherlands… annotating artefacts in a repository.
* social and tech processes related to the addition of features to wikipedia
* offloading cognition onto the web – devices doing some of the stuff we can do for us, instead of us. This talk discussed a ‘grounding kernel’ of words (you can use a dictionary only if you have a basic set of the language in your possession to start – that’s the kernel), and the relevance of that set of words to the success of Google searches.
All in all, the conference had a real energy to it. Here’s to WebSci’10!
I had the pleasure of attending the above event last week. It examined the careers and ongoing professional life of PhDs, inside and outside academia. It included four plenaries, which each took two successful PhDs from a given area (history; sociology; natural science; drama), one of whom had stayed in academia and one of whom had gone into industry. There was a very broad selection of speakers – and of doctoral students – with great discussions.
It was fascinating to have the chance to talk with people carrying out PhDs in areas like art and drama – how do you examine one of those? (Well, I have more of a clue than I did before.) This was not a CompSci conference: people didn’t use their laptops during sessions!
There were negative and positive themes throughout this event. Points were made about the frustration of imposed processes which stifle creativity and innovation, and the lack of investment here in the UK compared to other countries (e.g. Germany). On the other hand, there were fascinating life stories on hand, and an enormous range of diversity and openness. ‘Serendipity’ was an often-used word, and ‘don’t over-plan your careers’ was said more than once!
The opening keynote was given by Tom Docherty, an English professor at Warwick. He talked about how we have lived through the age of mechanical production and are now in the age of digital production, and ranted at great length about how we value form above content. For example, we have all seen the Mona Lisa, whether we’ve been to Paris or not – we get an aesthetic impression of its form, but don’t see the work right there in front of us, in context as the result of a historical process. Similarly, he talked about how we disconnect from stuff in the news (e.g. a dying child in Gaza) and instead look at situations in terms of how they’ll play out (say, the consequences for countries in a conflict).
Similarly, he ranted about how lecturers are expected to fill in data on the aims, objectives, goals of a taught module – and not just go and teach it. How many PhD students have courses about managing their PhDs, structuring their time? A lot of us. But that stuff is nothing to do with the content of the PhDs!
He ended by saying that we have lost the visceral experience – we experience what we think we ought to experience, not the thing itself – how do we respond to that dying child in Gaza? How do we grieve? (Personally, I’m not convinced about all of this. He says we aren’t free to experience things as they are, but were we ever? And does this not, on some levels, just boil down to over-thinking things and “head vs heart”? He is, after all, a PhD talking to a room of PhD candidates.)
Anyway. Enough on the opening keynote.
Other things which came up were discussions of issues faced by female academics (you know the stuff – bringing up families etc – though also a point about how there is a need for the token woman on committees, which can leave us over-stretched – this resonated!). Also a point was made about inequality, not in terms of promotion and pay, but care-giving: how many husbands might drop a job to care for an ailing mother-in-law? How many wives would do likewise? Hm.
Student presentations were in parallel streams, ten to a group. I heard about visual deception in cinema, the effects of downhill walking in the elderly, implementation of policy… see how broad this conference was? Heard an utterly fantastic talk on the Battle of Mersa El Brega in 1941 – the speaker just came to life and told us a story – I forgot I was in a presentation, I was there with the speaker in 1941. Fab!
I gave my own presentation after a walk around the grounds (which were so “upper class English” it was unbelievable: of course, we were a stone’s throw from Eton and Windsor Castle). I worked really hard when putting it together to make it accessible to non-techies, and I was really pleased that I appear to have succeeded in this. I had loads of questions, and at breakfast the next day an artist from RCA and then a cinematographer separately grabbed me to talk some more. Win!
Of course, the Q&A session following my presentation was very broad, reflecting the audience. I was really surprised to be asked by the historian, “How on earth will you write this up?” He felt it would be incredibly difficult because my work is currently in two halves (which will later, with luck and hard work, mesh together), and thus I can’t write a linear document. This hadn’t struck me as anything of note at all – perhaps a reflection of how different approaches to PhDs can be.
I was delighted to meet a fellow CompSci at the conference – by the strangest coincidence, our research areas overlap. He’s looking at online social networking, what makes some profiles popular and things like this. There was an interesting discussion following his presentation on the ethics of data collection (the data’s grabbed from the ‘net – he isn’t getting consent from the profile holders), what data mining means (clearly not a topic which many in the room were well versed in), how it can be used. Anyway, we two cheated the interdisciplinary nature of affairs by talking CompSci over dinner – CHI, hypertext, coding languages. Tee hee!
The final plenary was given by the drama people, and was very interesting. Topics included the power of the actor to create something which isn’t physically there (think invisible walking sticks), and to bring to life the (perhaps ambiguous) written word. Actors and research: how some love to research a role, others hate it and fear the research will constrain or confine them. Discussion of the obligation to publish in academia, and how that can lead to lots of second rate stuff, rather than rarer but sparkling gems. Great points about how academic research requires a rather introverted state of mind, but teaching and attending conferences demands an extroverted approach. Impostor syndrome as a consequence of always questioning everything.
The penultimate speaker discussed Nietzsche, including a quote which resonated with the opening keynote – “life in things is truer than any theory about things”. But PhDs inherently involve engaging with the theory of things!
Clearly, this conference produced a lot of food for thought. It was really refreshing to go and talk to such a broad set of people, and I found the exercise of explaining my research to such a group very valuable indeed. Good times!
Edit: a summary report by Cumberland Lodge may be found here.
I’ve just spent an exceptionally busy four weeks writing, reviewing and improving my literature review. This is the first major deadline in a doctorate, and at the least catalogues your chosen research area, and helps you to work out where to go next; the good ones do some analysis, too. I’m pleased to say I handed mine in yesterday. It was very hard work, and I was very pleased to get rid of it! It isn’t over, though, as I have a viva in just under three weeks. I hope, in the viva, to get in some good discussion about my future direction.
I won’t be thinking about that immediately, though, because I’m off to Florida on Monday. A group of us from ECS are attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – I’m thrilled to have a scholarship! I attended a very useful briefing earlier this week. I have discovered that it isn’t a research conference, and it is very parallel: loads of streams to choose from. It’s all about motivating and inspiring women in computing, and is full of talks from women in industry and research, speaking about what they are doing, and why. (I think!) Another purpose of the conference is, I gather, recruitment of women who are about to graduate: so there’ll be lots of undergrads, and lots of big companies. That said, I hear there are plenty of postgrads there, too. Most of all, I am told, it is a celebration. I am intrigued!
The astute among you may have noted that the conference isn’t actually starting ’til the week after next: this is because myself and a friend are going out a week early, for a well-earned break!
It’s been a bit of a mad time since I got back, but I’ve finally go a mo to blog about the Anita Borg Scholarship retreat…
So, the event ran from Thursday afternoon to midday on Saturday. I got NDAed, so I can’t go into depth, but in brief:
Had an uneventful journey; being met at the airport by a taxi driver
was particularly nice! As was the hotel. It’s a Swiss stereotype, but
everything really was clean and quiet! Zürich is a beautiful city.
Thursday night involved a meal out, and a talk by a woman from the
Mountain View offices, all about women in computing, and computing, and
how exciting our field is at the mo (it’s true!). She also touched on
what it’s like to work at Google. The meal itself was lovely, as were
the other finalists; I really enjoyed getting to know them, and hope to
stay in touch.
Friday was a long day, with plenty packed in. After a breakfast
buffet, we headed to the Google offices, and started with a tour; the
NDA apparently covers this, too, but I will tell you that these offices
We had a welcome talk from the director of engineering, who
discussed how Google are currently opening offices all over the place,
the variety of nationalities in the Zürich offices, and the particular
focus of work in Zürich.
The next talk was about the scholarship, and how it started in 2003
when Anita Borg died. This is the first year that it’s run in Europe.
The next talk was techy, on algorithms for web search. I shan’t go
into detail, but it covered ranking, eliminating near-duplicate pages,
and load balancing. I enjoyed it very much, though it was super-mathsy
in the middle!
Next up (this was a busy day!), a career panel; this was mostly
focused on what it’s like to work at Google. I think ‘intense’ and
‘fun’ might both be words to cover it, from what I can gather! Like
IBM, they allocate some of your time to cool (appropriate!) projects of
your choosing. Good call! They aren’t so much up on part-time work, or
working from home – having seen their culture, I can see why. It’s all
about being around with your team, as far as I can tell.
After lunch was another talk, on geo-web stuff; Google Maps, My Maps, Mapplets, the impact of these technologies… all very good.
The next workshop was on women in careers, which did what it said on
the tin; a discussion of how companies can attract, and retain, tech
women. I agreed with the observation that there can be too much
emphasis on the ‘women in computing’ thing. Maybe we just want to do
our jobs without a fuss being made?
Next we headed to the other set of Google offices in Zürich, for
their TGIF event, which was relaxed, fun and had a real sense of
community. Here, I chatted more with one of the scholars, and was
astonished to discover that whilst doing her full-time PhD, she’s
bringing up her two year old child, with her husband is currently
living in Canada! I was really inspired; I’d just assumed that no woman
would have a child during a PhD. She was really relaxed and happy
talking about her child, which was lovely. Good on her!
This session also included a really touching video about Anita Borg. I’m glad they showed it.
After all this, we head out for a very nice evening meal, in a
super-lush restaurant. Lots of interesting conversation, including the
discovery that it’s illegal in Switzerland to to wash your car or hang
out laundry to dry on a Sunday. Genuinely illegal, as in you get fined
if you do it!
Saturday marked the close of the event, with a great big brunch in town.
All in all, it was an amazing (if exhausting) day or so. My fellow
finalists and scholars were a vibrant, smart and wonderful bunch, and I
was very well looked after – I had a great time!
I received a couple of emails today about the Anita Borg networking retreat. (Still looking forward to it!) A quick query, and I discovered that yes, Google are happy to book my return flight a few days later. Their plan was to return me to my country sometime on the Saturday afternoon, but I think I’ll ask for something coming back on the Tuesday afternoon; that gives me nearly half a week to explore. Yay, exploring!
(I must brush up on my German. I gather that the Swiss accent is very different, so I’m not sure how much it’ll come in. Still! It’s nice to make the effort, and I’ve been meaning to go back to my German for a little while.)
I applied for Google’s Anita Borg Scholarship a couple of months back – and today an email dropped in saying that I’m a finalist!
This means that I’m off to a networking retreat in Zurich at the end of May, with other finalists and various Googlers. Exciting, no?
In the meantime, I have a couple of phone interviews for the actual scholarship. Getting that would be pretty amazing, but I’m not going to think about it much; I don’t know what the other finalists (read: the competition) are like, or exactly what it is that Google are looking for. The Plan: be myself on the phone, and don’t worry about the scholarship. Whatever happens, I’m attending the event in Zurich – and that’s super!
As you may know, I spent Monday at SET for Britain (Science, Engineering and Technology for Britain), at the House of Commons. It was a lunchtime reception, so not quite four longs long, and it flew by. I was in the first of two 90 minute poster sessions, and had very varied visitors: two of the judges, and plenty of participants who were presenting in the second session. A tiny minority of these were computer scientists, most were not. All were good to talk to, and some good points were raised about my work (e.g. the ethics of creating a system for students with smartphones, when not all of them own such things!). I hope to stay in touch with a couple of these people. (Oh: I should mention, my poster was entitled ‘Pervasive Technologies for Accessibility and Learning’.)
My local MP, Alan Whitehead, had been planning to show up towards the end of the event, but he didn’t make it, which was a shame. So it goes!
Meanwhile, I had the luxury of checking out other people’s work during the second session, and my, it was varied! It went from the usability of devices for soldiers, when they’re kitted out with cumbersome combat gear, to the impact of coastal defences on other bits of coastline, to what insect navigation can tell us about learning and memory, to psychological resilience in obese children (why ‘fat camps’ work wonders with some, but other kids have the exact same experience, then resume their old habits once they leave), to the forgeability of digitally signed signatures, to the effects of testosterone on economic behaviour. (Exposure to lots of testosterone in the womb resulted in ‘hyper rational’ behaviour, whilst participants with lots of testosterone in their bodies tended to act more emotionally in their decision making. Contradictory and interesting, no?). There was also a model of the experience of homeless TB sufferers in London. And work on the effects of climate change on cyclamen. And the study of neutrinos. See what I mean about the variety?
Oh, and Westminster itself is extremely impressive! Very high security going in, of course, not unlike going through an airport. More men with big guns than in most airports, though. And gorgeous buildings!