Posts Tagged ‘conferences’

InterFace’11: good event, surprised by the Digital Humanities positioning

I had the pleasure of attending InterFace’11 last week. It first ran two years ago in Southampton, so it was interesting to return two years on:  This year it was an ambitious 2.5 days event, with a range of activities including things I’d seen at InterFace’09 (lightning talks, ‘speed networking’, keynotes) but also workshops, ‘how to’ sessions and an unconference. I had to duck out of much of the second day, but what I did see was good! There was a good diversity of lightning talks from participants — the ones I caught covered topics from the ancient world to tangible interaction to maps as narrative.

Kicking off the unconference

I particularly enjoyed the keynote from Stephen Scrivener (self-described Computer Scientist and Artist), who spoke about design practice and research. The other keynote was Melissa Terras, who among other things remarked that we can define digital humanities until the cows come home (I paraphrase) — this reminded me of similar conversations in the Web Science community.

I was surprised by a comment by one of the organisers in the closing session: I forget the exact phrasing, but they referred to InterFace as a digital humanities conference, which really isn’t how I perceive it. (There was a strong focus in the area this year, but it wasn’t solely DH.) As I know a couple of the people who were involved in its inception two years ago, I promptly started rummaging around… 🙂

My understanding is that InterFace was originally positioned to avoid being Yet Another Digital Humanities Conference. However, I gather that none of this year’s organisers had attended a prior InterFace (and they also happened to largely be ‘digital humanists’) so almost certainly weren’t exposed to that ethos.

Despite being surprised by the DH-specific positioning, this was certainly an engaging event with plentiful learning opportunities! The organisers did a stellar job, so much kudos to them.


A personal perspective on the WebSci summer school

You can probably tell from my previous burst of blogging that the recent WebSci summer school in Galway enthused me. As I believe I mentioned before, I wasn’t totally certain of what to expect or if the week would be worthwhile, but it absolutely was.

I had two minor niggles: firstly, 90 minutes is a very long slot even for speakers of keynote quality. Secondly, I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘talks’ and ‘tutorials’ (I expected the latter to be more interactive, and to include exercises). Overall, however, it it was an extremely well-executed week with a great range of speakers and topics… for instance, see my write-ups of talks from Wendy Hall, Bernie Hogan and Marc Smith, not to mention my rants about data and social networks.

For me personally, I especially valued three aspects:

  1. I met some new and wonderful (not to mention enthusiastic!) people
  2. I got to broaden myself, learning some new stuff around natural language processing and network analysis (a change, given my UX/HCI background!)
  3. I had some thoughts about a nice piece of Web Science-y work I’d like to do in advance of WebSci’12

Yes, we were enthusiastic...

It was a valuable week: if future WebSci summer schools run in a similar vein, I’d certainly recommend them.

Symmetry on Twitter

It’s day two of the Web Sci summer school, and as ever Twitter is proving to be a useful backchannel. It occurred to me that I’m using the two main Twitter mechanisms — hashtags and at-replies — for opposite purposes right now.

I’m using the hashtag mechanism exactly as expected: tagging tweets with #websci so they show up to people subscribed to that tag. But I’ve also been tweeting about the summer school quite heavily, and I don’t want to spam my followers who aren’t into WebSci.

So, I took a leaf out of Max Wilson‘s book: I’ve been addressing comments about the event to the summer school account, @WebSciDocSS2011. Twitter thus understands my tweets as part of a conversation between myself and that account, and only displays those tweets to people who follow both me and the other account. (I also occasionally tweet an unfiltered reminder that I’m doing that, in case followers haven’t realised and are unwittingly missing the tweets.)

Tweeting with symmetry

For example...

Why am I talking about this? Simply because I was pleased by the symmetry, both in function and form. Functionally, I’m using one mechanism to reduce exposure and one mechanism to increase it. As to form, the tweets necessarily always start with @WebSciDocSS2011, while the #websci tag usually comes at the end.

Cool, eh?

Web Sci summer school, day 1

Ok, today was a blur but a few thoughts:

Honestly, I had a slight concern I might not get loads out of the summer school — I’ve had the privilege of being part of the WebSci community for some years now. It was not impossible that I’d show up to an event that was reminiscent of the WebSci conference series, a mere couple of weeks after WebSci’11, and not necessarily learn a lot.

I’m pleased to say I don’t think that’s the case. Some interesting talks today, and I’m refreshed by how few people I know here. Hooray!

Wendy's keynote at the summer school

Wendy's keynote at the summer school

Wendy opened her keynote with some audience interaction. The audience turned out to have a few who self-identify as web scientists (yes, including myself 😛 ), a few social scientists, lots of techies, and lots of people who didn’t stick their hands up! The majority are from UK/Irish organisations, some from the EU, a few from further afield.

We had some conversations about the balance of the WebSci community, in terms of its composition of engineering-types and humanities-types. Yes, it’s a recurring conversation; but it’s important. So, the first question to Stefan Decker from his opening talk was about HTML and RDF formats: it was a web technology question, and we very quickly got into a web technology conversation. This is no one’s ‘fault’, but demonstrates the difficulty of having a balanced conversation between social scientists and computer science, and an ongoing worry about CompSci dominating. Web Science is more than web technology or computer science.

On a related note, Abraham Bernstein gave a stellar talk about processing large graphs, but the first half of it was targeted at a CompSci audience. (This is no fault of his own: he was brought in on very short notice!) When Wendy raised the issue, asking him if he could talk about social aspects and bear in mind there are non-CompSci people in the audience, he rose to the occasion admirably, adjusting his style and vocabulary very smoothly.

Of interest, though, is the response from another member of the audience, who defended the speaker by saying “These are tools we need to understand and query the semantic web.” Yes they are, but I’d argue that not every web scientist needs those tools: they’re certainly a key part of the WebSci toolkit, but there is more to web science than querying linked data. (Of course, it’s possible the comment came from wanting to soften a perceived blow to our speaker.)

I very much enjoyed Wendy’s keynote, and shall blog it separately in a moment…

Multidisciplinary fun: when words have different meanings

Speaking of disciplinary differences… I co-organised the panel at WebSci’11. We wanted to talk about locational technologies and their implications for privacy, the law and interation design. The panel, of course, was composed of people from different disciplines: two lawyers (Lilian Edwards and Judith Rauhofer) and two computer scientists (Derek McAudley and myself).

First thing’s first, the panel seemed to go down well — hooray! We received positive feedback and chatter on Twitter seemed happy, particularly with Judith’s presentation.

We ran into an interesting issue, though: having organised the panel months in advance, a mere 24 hours before kicking off I realised that when my co-organiser Lilian said ‘panel’ she meant a rather different beast to what I meant by the same word.

So, in law it turns out that panels don’t really open to the audience: the allocated time is split evenly between the panellists, who each give their piece (presumably responding to one another). By contrast, my understanding of a panel session is that each panellist will speak for a little while — say, five or at most ten minutes — giving their position and pertinent information, before opening to the audience for a general Q&A that will probably take at least half the allocated time.

In the event, of course, we came to a compromise: I think we as panellists spoke our piece for perhaps 40 minutes, before having 10 minutes for questions. For myself, I felt uncomfortable during that because I was concerned that the audience was going to be expecting what I had been expecting — the opportunity to really interact with us. There were a few confused tweets, although as I say, the panel appeared to go down well in general.

All’s well that ends well, then. Still, lesson learned: different disciplines have different vocabularies and assumptions. This is something I have been saying for years, and I still got tripped up by it! I shall take the experience as a gentle reminder about the challenges of working across disciplines.

Web Science Curriculum workshop at WebSci’11

I kicked off my WebSci’11 experience by attending the Curriculum Workshop, where I was delighted by the range of instititions present: we had 37+ attendees representing 17 institutions. Of those institutions, 4 are currently running a Web Science program (masters or doctoral), 6 plan such a program, 4 are running a Web Science module as part of a program. (An excellent point raised on the day regarded terminology, so let me be clear: when I say ‘program’, I mean a degree course. By ‘module’, I refer to part of a degree course.)

So, how do you define the curriculum of a nascent discipline? It’s no small task, and White et al are doing some fine work in not only building and honing such a curriculum, but also in explaining that process. Their paper (Negotiating the Web Science Curriculum through Shared Educational Artefacts) was nominated for the best paper award, and can be found here.

While I’m talking about Southampton bods, I’d like to take a moment to link to EdShare, a system for sharing educational materials. It was mentioned as an example of a possible mechanism for sharing WebSci materials: for instance, it includes materials from Southampton’s Foundations of Web Science module.

Inevitably, we touched upon the issues of teaching an interdisciplinary subject. Wendy Hall remarked that the most important thing is getting to grips with multiple disciplines. For my part, I’m certain that one of the reasons the Southampton DTC students impressed me is that each one of them has two supervisors, and those two supervisors always hail from different disciplines: that approach really seems to be paying off.

I was also interested to hear discussions about the concept of ‘verifying’ curricula, or accrediting courses. We’ll have to see what happens there.

A few links:

  • Mark Bernstein shares his thoughts, particularly regarding multidiscipliniarity — to say the least, an important concept in this arena. Tell us more, Mark: how does ‘the old Liberal Arts degree’ work, and how does it fit here?
  • Su White’s notes on the day.
  • A survey to take if you’re running/building a WebSci course

In closing, there’s clearly a lot of work to be done in this area, but I was very encouraged to see how many places are running (or about to run) courses: Web Science is important, and it’s growing. Watch this space.

More post-conference thoughts: the Dutch, speaking Dutch, and oh-so-many ideas

I could keep writing and writing about WebSci’11, but I’ll try to hold off from too many posts! A few more observations, slightly more personal:

As someone who recently moved to the Netherlands, I was really impressed by the strong presence of Dutch institutions: my presentation followed talks from TU Delft and the University of Amsterdam, for instance! This was perhaps predictable based on the high proportion of submissions from the Netherlands, but still struck me. My job in Eindhoven isn’t directly affiliated with a WebSci initiative, so when I arrived in this country I had no idea WebSci was so big here.

Besides my predisposition to noticing the Dutch community, another consequence of living in the Netherlands for the last half year concerns my language. I used to have some limited German, such that back in 2005 I could at least order in a restaurant and discuss the cost of goods in a market. It turns out that learning Dutch has basically wiped that clear: I spent much of last week stumbling through a mishmash of half-Dutch, half-German… only to spend my first half-week back in the Netherlands speaking poor German to the locals. Whoops!

On a more work-oriented note, I am absolutely brimming with ideas after the two conferences. My current list includes giving consideration to:

  • a ‘Strange Hypertext Festival’ (as per the Narrative and Hypertext workshop)
  • some geocaching fun
  • some narrative hypertext fun
  • workshops for negative results (this idea was mentioned in both conferences)
  • Interesting Things with Spatial Hypertext

I opened this post with a promise to try and refrain from over-blogging WebSci’11. Cards on the table: I have two more posts to make, one on WebSci curricula and one on industrial-academic collaboration. Watch this space 😉