Presenting a paper at Sheffield University’s inaugural iFutures conference, Thursday saw me taking my first trip to the Steel City. Having been a student again for 2 years now, the 5am start was a bit of a shock to the system, so I was very happy to find a lovely little on-campus cafe selling amazingly fluffy two-egg omelettes and a decent Fairtrade coffee (extra strong, naturally). Wolfing these down and wondering why, in 30 years, I’d never before heard of Yorkshire’s “famous” Henderson’s Relish (have you?) I perused the day’s programme and gave my slides a final once-over. The conference – tagline: “the next 50 years”, since Sheffield’s iSchool is currently celebrating its 50th birthday – was run entirely by Postgrads and aimed to provide a “forum for students to present forward-thinking and challenging research” in an “encouraging environment”. The organisers had accordingly “blocked” (in tongue-in-cheek fashion) their iSchool seniors from attending, focussing instead on attracting an audience of young/early-career academics. This worked out well; the event was no less intellectual, stimulating or professional, but for the students presenting, the day was made less intimidating in that ideas could be exchanged and space carved out more freely without fear of overtly supervisory objections.
Topics included the impact of ICTs on informal scientific communication, Institutional Repositories in Thailand, Chemoinformatics, telehealth project management, the ways in which public libraries can pro-actively support and respond to their communities, and a “radical” new approach to the analysis of classification schemes. A post-lunch Pecha Kucha session saw us voting via an “audience participation device” for the best and most engaging presenter. Pecha Kucha, if you haven’t come across it, is a trendy but very fun method of rapid-fire presentation – 20 slides are pre-programmed to be on screen for only 20 seconds each, meaning that the presenter ends up “pitching” a vision as much as opening up a debate and therefore has to be more creative. Facing stiff competition, Simon Wakeling’s take on the Future of the Filter Bubble was decided most worthy of a prize. My own full-length paper, which was also well received, was more traditional, describing a methodology for assessing academics’ attitudes toward new media and why that matters.
So what is the future of our field, which might broadly be called “Information Science”? Predicting the future is a dubious enterprise, and in an age of almost maniacal technological development, it becomes even harder to know what is scientifically probable and what is just science-fiction. Still, disclaimers aside, we can make some informed speculations based on current socio-technical trends. Two impressive keynote speakers – Professor Diane Sonnenwald (University College Dublin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Vanessa Murdock (Principal Applied Researcher at Microsoft Research) – were on hand to share their views. Coming from quite different perspectives, both shared thoughts about where information science should, or might, concentrate its energies. As a group, we possess much expertise that could help solve pressing social and environmental problems; failing health, climate change, inequality, global insecurity. While remedies for these might be figured out by analysts of the “big data” coming from scientific sensors and digitally mediated environments, disaster prevention initiatives and “crisis informatics” will only be successful if those creating systems, strategies and technologies are supported by experts able to assess their impacts on work patterns, task performance, and their wider (often unconsidered) socio-cultural effects.
Describing her own research into 3D medical Telepresence devices, Professor Sonnenwald emphasised that information professionals must make sure we are “at the table” when research projects and funding priorities are discussed institutionally and internationally. The kind of analyses that we undertake may lead to short-term headaches for those developing products – for example, one of her studies showed a particular device to be more flawed than its initial backers supposed – however in the long run, this is a good thing not just for them but for all of us. It’s cheaper to address design issues pre- rather than post-production, and, economics aside, we must make sure that the groups whose problems we try to solve are not inadvertently given more of them by shimmering but naively designed solutions. In an age of algorithms and automation, information science is far from redundant.
Vanessa Murdock focussed on how we can map the world and its preoccupations through the harvesting and analysis of social media data. Location-aware and location-based services on smartphones and web-browsers are one obvious example; Microsoft and others are working hard to build the “hyper local” as well as the personalised into their products. If you’re in Oslo and you fancy a pizza, wouldn’t it be nice to see at a click which restaurant near you has a menu to match your dietary requirements, what other customers thought about it, and where, based on your tastes, you might go afterwards? Less trivially, it would be valuable for sociologists, political economists and others to discover with reliability precisely where most tweets about Revolution X are coming from in order to ascertain the demographics of those tweeting them and what percentage of the population they actually represent. Naturally such applications are not without their issues. We need to think deeply about privacy, data protection, regulation and – at a technical level – the reliability of services based on data which are often difficult to interpret syntactically and semantically. Further, aren’t companies really just servicing the “Technorati”, treating them as typical of the needs and preferences of humanity when in fact, they are only a small and (it might be argued, insubstantial) minority? Reminding us of a need to understand the difference between solutions that work on “toy data” or simplified abstract models, and those which work when applied to reality, Murdock also pointed out that while “you should take the noble path and build things which are useful when possible, there is also a role for building things which are cool!”
Sheffield has about 60 PhD Students working in the two main research groups of their Information School, and it seems that the culture there is as lively as it is cutting edge. All of the presenters were really impressive and I’d like to thank the committee for putting together such a fun event. 🙂