Information’s Future

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.

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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.

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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. 🙂

Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.

Networking Communities

I’ve just started a summer research placement project with the Manchester Digital Laboratory – aka MadLab – and it’s already proving to be an eye-opener. The theme of our project is communities – which are MadLab’s raison d’être; but although I’ve heard people talking about it more than once over the past year, I have to admit I’ve never actually been there before now. Seeing the space and how it’s used is pretty inspiring. Around 50 groups use MadLab regularly, with many more hiring it for one-off or special events – performances, workshops, training sessions. At the same time, it’s friendly, down-to-earth and totally unpretentious, buzzing with a relaxed creativity that attracts groups as diverse as android developers, poets, and budding taxidermists, who drop in and out to share ideas, crack on with work, and generally have a nice time doing what they are passionate about with others who feel the same. It could be hard to find space otherwise. So, that’s the sales pitch, right? Well, actually, it’s entirely accurate. So it seems to me anyway. Finding useful and exciting ways to demonstrate what MadLab is all about using data, graphics, and the 9 days we have available to us, is what our MadLab Community Networking Project is all about. It’s going to be an interesting challenge!

Anna at the Wall

Mapping some of MadLab’s diverse communities

With input and advice from MadLab’s Dave Mee and DARE‘s David Jackson, graphic designer/researcher Anna Frew and myself are going to be gathering, organising and manipulating information about the techies, creatives and other enthusiasts who bring MadLab to life. What are the characteristics of these groups and what are the connections between them? Who and what drives them? How active are they and how do they intersect with public or private sector organisations elsewhere in the city? There are miriad ways to look at the data. Sifting through different sources and different types of documentation, we can identify what we know and what we need to know. Then we can start gathering information from the groups themselves, fleshing everything out and filling in the gaps. Our aim is to shed new light on MadLab, mapping and modelling the networks that operate inside and around it and making it clearer how they fit within its ecosystem. My task is to bring some structure to a bundle of data and metadata, and enrich it. After which, Anna will begin to create some at once beautiful and informative visualisations, giving us multiple perspectives on MadLab’s communities. Naturally this will all end up online at some point. Or so I imagine. The details aren’t yet entirely clear since we’re only just getting started. If you want to know more about our emerging workflows and thought-processes, please do go over to Anna’s blog and read her excellent write-up of what we’ve been doing in Weeks 1 and 2.

Dave's notepad

There are multiple ways to diagram…

For me, the project is a great opportunity. It provides a pathway to learning more not just about data visualisations, which have interested me for a while, but also about the challenges involved in creating and maintaining communities, and the value that organisations like MadLab can bring to a city. As you can see, Post-It notes and brain-storming will be just as important as databases and JavaScript to our workflow! Soon we should have a dedicated space on Tumblr, and eventually an article about the project will appear in the TACIT journal although we have a lot of work to do before then! Please do check back here for updates and let us know if you’re a MadLab member who wants to help us out [madlabcommunityproject at gmail.com].

Hej, Sweden!

A trip to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, with one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines, was just what I needed after going far too long without a proper holiday! Staying with a friend made it all the more special since getting an inside perspective always provides a far richer experience than relying on websites and a Lonely Planet guide – not that those aren’t great too of course. Highlights of the trip included sunbathing for hours between the rocks while a gentle sea breeze blew all around, and tasting the various baked goodies on offer at Tjörn’s superb sourdough bakery. I really had forgotten how good it is to forget all about working! 🙂 Inevitably we stuffed ourselves with some of the amazing fish and seafood that Sweden is renowned for. Sjöbaren restaturant in the old part of town has a great selection. Personally, I would recommend their “Wallenberger of the sea” (which I think is egg yolks, cream and ground fish?) with asparagus and flavoured mashed potato. The staff are also really friendly and don’t mind taking some time to explain their menu to you.

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At Röhsska Museum of fashion, design & applied arts, we wandered through an interesting mixture of permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. “Ond Design”, or “Evil Design”, was particularly intriguing. The objects on display are either “designed to harm” or can be “linked to evilness through events that can be called bad”. This means everything from machetes, nazi flags and explosive devices designed to look like children’s toys, to clothes made in sweatshops, consumer electronic goods that harm the environment, and products tested on animals. Röhsska also has a great collection of Japanese statues and a plethora of furniture and glass. Nordiska Akvarellmuseet (the Watercolour Museum) on Tjörn was really worth seeing. Yes, their exhibition on Alice Neel was fascinating – but the setting and the design of the museum itself were equally memorable. Sitting snugly amongst the island’s houses and shellbanks, the museum is bright red and typically Swedish, with relaxing views over the water and studios for both artists and researchers to create and contemplate.

Gothenburg is full of cheerful and beautiful people and it’s hard not to think that some clichés about Sweden are true. Still, not everything is predictable. I was surprised to find that it has a fair few little sushi bars, all of which cater for vegetarians as well as lovers of squid and raw tuna. Another unexpected treat came in the form of some local bagpipers, whose music drifted up through the park one sunny afternoon. Formed in 1976, the Murray Pipes and Drums of Gothenburg play “everything from christenings to funerals” and their founder was himself trained by a genuine Scotsman, somewhere near the banks of Loch Lomond.

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It was kind of cool to be in Gothenburg for various nationally significant events. First, Sweden’s national holiday brought everyone to the park with picnics and surreptitious bottles of wine; then, the national football team lost 2-1 to Austria during a qualifying match for Brazil 2014. But at least a Royal Wedding (which seemed to put even Kate and William’s in the shade) gave everyone reason to celebrate again. Amusingly, the groom was a British-born American who speaks barely any Swedish and who seemed to understand just about as much of the ceremony as I did!

Little Green

People often refer to Chorlton, where I live now in Manchester, as “leafy” or green – and to be sure, on a sunny day, it is certainly one of the nicer places to be. The scents of flowers and plants drift through the streets from various front gardens and parks to provide a reassuring sense that here at least, nature is asserting herself just a little. Still, moving between two cities throws up inevitable comparisons, and back in Glasgow for a few days, I couldn’t help but think that there is nowhere quite like the city’s beautiful West End, which really does come alive on a warm day (20 degrees Celsius!) with a combination of urban modernity and lovingly maintained foliage that most cities would really envy.

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Well, Glasgow does mean “dear green place” after all. Or something like that. Maybe I’m getting nostalgic! Who would have thought I’d get more of a suntan North of the Border than down here? 🙂

Transformed Realities

This Thursday, our Digital Transformers Symposium finally took place and I am delighted to report that it was a huge success! Nineteen speakers presented diverse work from multiple Arts and Humanities subjects, sharing ideas and findings with one essential common theme – the ways in which digital technologies are transforming things – be they individuals, societies, or the ways in which we experience and understand. The day kicked off with a keynote speech by Dr. Jim Mussell, who took as his example the serial publications of Charles Dickens in Victorian magazine Household Words. This might seem an odd place to start – even if we are talking about digitised versions. After all, aren’t electronic versions just surrogates for higher quality originals? Dr. Mussell convinced us otherwise. By making use of digital tools for bibliographic analysis which at first glance seem utterly alien to the contexts of the works they are used to study, we may in fact find ourselves closer to the “truth” of a printed piece and its place in history. Magazines and books are objects. They are not the essence of a work but are “records of a set of cultural practices” – whether those practices involve binding and ink or binary and hyperlinks. By thinking about how digital versions of texts relate to their non-digital forebears, we might better appreciate that our interpretation of the past is always just that: an interpretation, within an imposed artificially linear narrative. Instead of being treated as deficient, inauthentic and lacking, new interfaces to old texts should be valued as enhancements – as transformative.

Panel 1 DTN

Ioanna Zouli presents her paper on “video practices and the dynamics of telepresence”.

The day proceeded with four themed panels – Participation and Community Engagement; Methodological Challenges; Shifting Structures of Communication, and Audio-Visual Experiences. Two play sessions were also on offer – Introducing the geographic dimension to your research: GIS for the Humanities (led by Dr. Paty Murrieta Flores) and Meaning and meaning-making: a social semiotic multimodal approach to contemporary issues in research (led by Professor Gunther Kress). All of our paper presenters were young early career researchers, from around the UK and beyond. For me, one of the best parts of the symposium was the sense of community that seemed to emerge once the sessions got underway. Even when discussing work far removed from their own, the audience were supportive and enthusiastic. This may be one of the key positives of digital media within the academy – particularly for young researchers. Whether you are a cultural theorist, a linguist, or an information scientist, a realignment of disciplinary boundaries creates opportunities to identify shared and new perspectives, enhanced by engagements with digital tech. Dr. Patricia Murrieta Flores explored with us how Geographic Information Systems, initially designed for engineers, scientists and planners, have become fruitful and fascinating tools for archaeologists and historians, who use them to identify and model patterns and trends of the earth, its artefacts, its people and their geo-politics, across space and time.

Dr Patricia Murrieta Flores gave us a hands-on introduction to GIS in the Humanities

Dr Patricia Murrieta Flores gave us a hands-on introduction to GIS in the Humanities

The day concluded with a stimulating and lively debate on the perils and potentials of Open Access Publishing as it relates to the Humanities and to Universities more generally. It is difficult to know at present whether the “Gold” or the “Green” route to Open Access publishing will prevail; most likely institutions will use some mixture of the two, with both becoming competitors in an increasingly uneven and costly publishing ecosystem based around entrenched and outmoded (?) notions of prestige and value. Those who can afford it will be driven towards Gold, with Green and its laudable aims of equity and freedom being pushed into the role of second-best.

Open Access Panel

A spirited panel of experts led a debate on the potential costs and benefits of Open Access

Our expert panel (Drs. Cathy Urquhart, Paul Kirby, Alma Swan and Stephen Pinfield) hinted now and then at positive transformative potentials stemming from OA – Alma Swan in particular sees OA as a welcome tonic to old-fashioned models – but overall it seemed a rather gloomy picture, dictated as ever by economics and elitist notions of bettering one’s peers. Many academics wish to see a culture of openness, experimentation and sharing, with contributions valued for their merit. The harsh realities of convention and money make that something of a pipe dream. There will be limited budgets to pay article processing fees hence managers will be forced to ask which articles represent the best financial “return on investment”, too busy and pressurised to judge them on anything other than proxy criteria of quality that do not consider the intellectual value of a work in its own right. Well, that’s the doomsday scenario. However naively, I very much hope that freer forms of communication will emerge to combat that!

We will be uploading slides, videos and other materials to the official Digital Transformers website over the coming month, so please do check there for more details on the excellent papers and presentations that were given by the members of our nascent ERC network. :-)

Wild and Playful Artistry

Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.

Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.

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Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.

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Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.