Riding at high altitudes

I’ve been back in Newcastle for just over a week now and am slowly starting to process my holiday. I did something I’ve never done before, but something I’ll hopefully do again: I booked a package holiday.

Okay now before all the travel snobs get mad at me, hear me out.

It has been my dream for years, I’d say more than a decade, to go on a multi-day horse trek. Growing up, I went horse back riding and I’ve had a few short holidays with my mum (and sometimes my brother too) where we would drive into the countryside either while living in Romania or while on holiday back home in Austria (though there we’d drive to the Czech Republic – Znojmo, to be precise. If you’re in the area you need to go visit this lovely little town! It’s just an hour away from Vienna!). While in the countryside we’d usually stay in a little guesthouse or Bed and Breakfast type place that had horses. We’d then go riding for a couple of days having breakfast and dinner at the guesthouse and sleeping in a room there too.

I loved these trips. I loved the feeling of freedom and companionship I got from galloping through fields and forests. The serenity of walking through high grass on horseback and the excitement that overcame the horses and us riders when we had to wade our way through a particularly big river. Since having done the first of these trips when I was a little teenager I’ve wanted to do a horse-trek; but a real one. One where you have a pack horse and you carry your luggage in saddle bags. Where you go camping and ride through mountains, forests, rivers, or fields in what seems like the middle of nowhere.

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling, and almost everywhere I’ve been I’ve tried to find a place I can go horse riding. The thing with horse riding though is that stables are usually not in cities (and that’s a good thing – let horses run around. The need space, and grass, and fresh air!), but stables are also usually not in small towns. From where I’ve looked they’re somewhere in the countryside that is really hard to get to without having a car. Now, I can drive, but I’ve never really had teh organisational prowess, money, and time (all at the same time) to be able to rent a car for myself, find out where these stables are, somehow manage to find them, to then go on a short ride.

It is because of these prior experiences that I booked a package holiday. I knew my next destination had to be Central Asia (again, I’d been wanting to go for ages. Pretty much since I was studying Eastern European and USSR history back when I was doing my IB History course in High School), and I knew I wanted to go horse riding. Since I haven’t really had a proper holiday since I finished my Bachelor’s degree, since I didn’t take any time off last summer, and since I was pretty upset about not having travelled very much last year, I went looking for an adequate destination and stable in Central Asia in November last year. In the end, I realised that all my previous troubles were true here as well, so I started to have a look at holiday packages that are completely organised. In the end, I went through Unicorn Trails and booked their Pamir Mountain Explorer holiday.

It was absolutely amazing. The holiday had everything I was looking for: there was a lot of horse riding, a lot of different terrains to ride through, beautiful nature, camping, we had pack horses (!), and everyone in the team got along nicely. It was the perfect way for me to have a proper break from my PhD, and when I came back I was ready to get on with my work. I looked forward to it, and really wanted to get back to writing. It took me a couple of days to get back into the swing of things, but this trip was not only a perfect break, it was also a way of really acknowledging that I love what I do. That I want to continue to do what I am doing, and that I really missed it whileI was away.

I think I need to write another post about the trip as a whole, but overall I did the thing I never wanted to do (book a package holiday) but absolutely loved it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m already trying to figure out what kind of horse trek I want to go on next!

The Sprint

Again, I start by saying that I’ve not been blogging recently. This time however I have at least a bit of an excuse: I was on holiday and didn’t take my laptop. I took my phone, but only to take pictures with. No work, no wifi, no electricity. So, that’s my excuse.

Now I’m refreshed and back in the lab, so hopefully my two-posts-a-week schedule will come back soon.

Today I want to write about something I did a long time ago: from the 30th of May until the 5th of June, to be exact. That was the week that things started to get very serious in my project with National Ugly Mugs (NUM). I have been working with them for a long time (since December 2015, actually) to support them in their technology use and development. To do that, I carried out an evaluation of their services that resulted in some small changes in their service delivery (like slightly changing the ways in which they title their alerts), a CHI paper, but also the decision to not only give their current website a new look but rather to redesign their digital systems. With this redesign we hope  to make some of the work that those in the office do every day just a little bit easier. By bringing together a number of different services and technologies that they use we centralise the process and in turn shave off a couple of minutes from each membership sign up, leaving a little more time for the vital parts of service delivery and advocacy work they carry out.

So during this week from the 30th of May until the 5th of June we started working on the website. I guess that’s not really true since I had been working on the website since the beginning of 2016 (what with my considerations for research ethics, field work, thinking, and writing…), but this was the first time that pieces of code were written for the new system. Tom Nappey and I had been working for a while on some design options for the look of the new website, and it was particularly in the weeks running up to the re-development of the website that we finalised all the requirements. This means we worked very closely with NUM staff to compile all the necessary features, all the features we’d like to see on the website. We had been doing this for a while, but now was the time for final decisions; what was initially a two-page skeleton of the website turned into a roughly 30 page requirements document.

This document alongside some mock-ups of pages on the website were what we started the week with. At the end of the week, we had a brand identity document (to outline the new logo and design of the NUM ‘brand’ as well as how to use the new logo), a justification document (that brings together the research I carried out and the design decisions we made as a team), and a half-finished website (the core features and design work is finished and functions as it should).

The core team was made up of 4 people, though we had a little additional help on one of the days from one more person, and of course we had a lot of contact with NUM office staff to make sure they were kept up to date with what we were doing, how we were doing it, and why we were doing things in this way. Throughout the week, we worked for roughly 338h, I visited the office twice, and had 10 phone calls with them.

We documented the week in a number of different ways:

  • we put up a GoPro on the wall of our main working space to create a time-lapse of the week
  • we had a whiteboard on which we wrote the goals of each day, crossed them off, and took a picture each evening
  • we took pictures of the progress throughout the week
  • I took notes on the conversations, phone calls, and impromptu meetings we had
  • we documented much of our work in the shape of screenshots of the website we had made up to that point
  • and finally, we produced the brand identity guidelines and the justification document (though the latter is still not entirely finished as we have a bit of work left to do on the website before its launch).

Overall, it was a really long and tiring week; but also a week in which we got a LOT of work done. We worked until Sunday the 4th of June, after which the three guys I worked with travelled back to Newcastle. I stayed in Manchester for one more night since the NUM board was having a meeting on the 5th of June. I attended a part of this meeting to show them what we had been working on and where we were up to. This resulted in a walk-through of the brand identity guidelines and justification document, as well as a whistle-stop tour of where we were up to on the new system (both the front-facing website, and the admin-login that staff would be working on to manage membership, reports, and alerts).

We’ve still got a long way to go until everything is finished, but things are getting there. We are moving forward and now it’s about delivering. It’s about documenting everything correctly and ensuring that training for current (and new!) staff is appropriate, useful, and complete; about producing documents that outline the technologies used, the reasons for their use, the Special Operating Procedures, and instructions on how to use each of the elements of the website. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ve gotten this far, so things are not too bad.

Book chapters are a weird beast to master

I’ve not blogged here for a long time, so again I’m going to say how strange it is to get back into this. This time, I found this title in my ‘drafts’ in the blog post folder, so let’s see where this takes me in the next half hour or so.

Book chapter are a weird beast to master. There are so many different types of books and types of chapters, and it’s all very dependent on discipline and methodology. It’s a weird and complex hodgepodge of words.

Maybe I should explain myself a little before I get too far down the rabbit hole about how weird I think book chapters are. So, essentially I’m a PhD student who’s trying to write words for her dissertation while simultaneously trying to publish my academic work in a number of different formats. I’m working on stuff that is very much at the intersection of HCI and social sciences (and I’m using the term ‘social sciences’ here because I can’t figure out where in the social sciences my work actually fits in quite yet…). Since I’m still not entirely sure whether I want to go into social sciences or HCI after I finish my PhD, I want to try to publish in both spaces, in different formats. I’ve published papers in HCI, and have started going to social science focused conferences recently, but I’ve yet to publish in the social sciences.

That’s about to change!

A few months ago, I received a CfP for a book surrounding sex industry research. One of the sections of the book was something like ‘underresearched areas’ and another one was ‘technologies’. In my head, I think technologies and sex work are generally underresearched so I decided to write an abstract for the ‘underresearched areas’ section of the book.

Writing this abstract took me aaages. I couldn’t quite figure out how I could write what I wanted to write and have it make sense to a social science audience. I hadn’t realised just how much of the language I use in my writing is HCI-specific! So I went through and edited, edited, edited. I re-wrote things, took things out, restructured my abstract until it was the deadline.

To be fair, I probably freaked out much more than I needed to, but I wanted my ‘social science debut’ to be good. A few weeks later I get an e-mail from the editors and as it turns out my abstract was good enough! woop! So I’ll be writing a book chapter for the ‘Handbook of Sex Industry Research’. They did however change my chapter into the ‘technology’ section, which I wasn’t super happy about – but I can see why they did it.

So anyway, a few weeks roll around and I decide to get over my fear and try to figure out how to even start writing a book chapter. I remembered the vast amounts of editing and re-writing it took me to get the abstract into somewhat send-off-able shape, and just tried to have a go at the chapter.

At first, it went really slowly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, what I was trying to say, or even how to get a start at my chapter. I wrote a few sentences and let it sit for a while. Even though I had months before the deadline, I was starting to get worried that I hadn’t given it a proper go yet, but still couldn’t figure out how to go about doing it. It kept sitting in my head as something that I needed to figure out. It wasn’t something that actively stressed me out or scared me, but it was just this little thing in my mind that, every  now and again, would come up.

One Saturday, pretty randomly, I felt like I wanted to have a proper go at the chapter. I lied in bed thinking about what I wanted to write and it seemed to all make sense. It seemed like I knew what I wanted to write, what pictures I wanted to include, and how I wanted to shape my argument that would be my ‘social science debut’. It would be political and strongly worded, it would be reflexive, show what cool work I’ve been doing, but then also questioning why I did things in a certain way. I got out of bed got ready really quickly and headed outside to go to Pink Lane Coffee. I ordered my flat white, sat down on their brown leather couch, and had a go. I started with writing notes in my notebook, then developed a skeleton for the chapter in a word document and then had a go at writing the thing. I spent hours that day writing away, not really re-reading what I had written – just getting words on the page. I ended up with more than 5,000 words that day and still wasn’t completely finished. But I left it at that.

I don’t really remember what I did the rest of that day, but I’m pretty sure I slept well that night.

After having that start on the chapter, I felt good about it for a few weeks – I thought I had figured it out and was happy with what I had written, knowing that I had a lot of work left on it (I had still to write the conclusion, for example). So I let a few weeks pass again before I had another go at it. This time I picked up a printed out copy of the words I had written that Saturday that I had lying on my desk and started to have a go through it. I put it down almost instantly as I realised how bad the words I had written were.

Instead of being discouraged by this, I told myself: at leat you’ve got words down. Words are editable. You can re-write the whole thing, but at least you’ve got an outline that somewhat makes sense, and at least you’ve got words. You can edit them.

I don’t remember whether it was a few days or weeks later, but I had to go to a cafe again to get this sorted. This time I sat in the Settle Down Cafe and took the chapter and a pen out of my bag. A sip of my flat white, a deep breath, and then I started. I don’t think a single sentence was left in tact from my initial chapter. Almost all the pictures were deleted, and the structure changed drastically. It was a pretty  heavy re-write of what I had done on that long Saturday in Pink Lane Coffee. But this time I actually felt good about it.

I had essentially hand-written the entire chapter through my edits on the printed out page; many of my notes were now only legible to me, and the arrows and asterix’ stopped making sense after a while.

After a change in scenery I decided to try to type up what my hand had spilled on the page – I went through all of my notes, typing things up as I went along. Trying to decipher what I was trying to say wasn’t always easy, and I changed a few things in the process of typing them up, but it kept me going. I had something on paper that I just had to type up – this wasn’t a hard task, it was do-able. Much of the hard work (to this stage) was already done.

So I typed and edited, and had another read over, and changed many things again, and then changed some more before I was happy enough with it to send it to my co-authors and supervisors. It’s still not done, and I’m still not 100% happy with it (and I don’t know if I ever will be), but I’m in a good place with it now.

What was hardest however, was trying to write in such a different style and for such a different audience. A book is written so differently from a paper. Even though I actually have less space in the chapter than I would in a CHI paper, the format makes me want to write more reflexively; it makes me want to explain things more and not cram everything into a single paragraph or sentence. The different referencing format (Harvard as opposed to the ACM CHI format) makes me want to reference fewer papers, but spend more time explaining them and how they relate to my argument. It makes me slow down, think, and really appreciate the words I put on the page.

It’s weird.

I think working on this chapter is helping me re-calibrate the way I write. It’s helped me start to write for my dissertation. I know the dissertation is yet another type of writing with yet another audience and yet another purpose, but the way I want write about my work seems to be closer to how I am working on this book chapter than how I work on CHI papers. I don’t think I can really explain why (yet)…but for now, that’s where I’m going to leave it. An open-ended sense of wonder as to what my dissertation is going to look like, and how writing in different formats has helped me see my work through different eyes. It’s helped me look at different things, and it’s developed me as someone who puts words on a page.

Getting (re)organised

The last couple of weeks have been ridiculous. I’ve been in and out of Newcastle, in and out of the country, and in and out of my academic frame of mind.

It all started with going down to London for a workshop (that you can read about here) followed by the trans-atlantic flight to Denver for CHI. I was in the US for a week and a half, travelled back to Newcastle only to be absolutely jet lagged. I’m not used to travelling across so many time zones. What was nice about that trip however, was that I had the chance to unwind for a few days. I stayed in a lovely lodge a few miles outside Boulder and just walked around for a few days. I met up with Chris Bopp, whom I had been in contact with previously about a(n unaccepted) CHI workshop around working with Third Sector Organisations and had a lovely chat with him at the University of Colorado, Boulder Campus. During our chat, Chris showed me around the stunning campus and showed me the ATLAS institute, which is a pretty amazing interdisciplinary research space (it felt somewhat similar to Open Lab, though they did have different offices for different people and research groups).

After that lovely walk and chat I headed down University Hill and into town via Central Park and the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse (but that’s for another post!) before finding a way to get to my lodging (which, I only realised later really isn’t that far away from Boulder). So I took a bus there, checked in, and had a rest. I was shattered at this point. The conference (and associated parties) really wore me out, and I wasn’t sure whether I was actually over my jet lag yet at this point, or whether it was just starting to set in. Anyway, over the next couple of days I didn’t do much. I did some reading, I did a lot of eating, and walking around Boulder. I also walked in the FlatIrons and  on the Chautauqua trails, as well as the Boulder Creek path; both of which were absolutely amazing.

After this trip to Colorado I came back to Newcastle on a Tuesday afternoon. That week I was tired all the time. Jet lag really hit me quite hard, and I don’t remember much of what I actually did that week. I do remember however, that the sprint I was supposed to go on to get a start on developing the NUM website was pushed back by a week (and lordy was I happy that was moved!).

So the following week I stayed up late every night preparing for the sprint. I drew out mock-ups by hand, had conversations around requirements documents, had lots of conversations with NUM staff about the aforementioned mock-ups and documents and at the same time tried to organise all the materials we needed to go, have meetings with Ed, Rob A., and Tom N. about the trip, and tried to get everything sorted.

The week after that was the sprint. And oh my goodness. We worked all day every day for seven days. After what seemed to be a 90h week, I stayed in Manchester for one more day to present what we had done to the NUM board. We had completed the main functionality of the site, a 40pg brand identity guidelines document and a 95pg (and counting) justification document.

So, while I wanted to write about something slightly different, I’m happy I wrote out everything I’ve done in the last couple of weeks. It’s not an excuse for not blogging and generally feeling unorganised about my life and dissertation at the moment, but it’s a nice way of seeing that, while I feel like I’ve been running around like a headless chicken, I’ve actually been doing a lot of work alongside some other really great people. I’ve been getting stuff done, and just need to find a way of reflecting on this and moving forward.

I don’t remember how to blog – here’s an update.

I’ve not written on this blog in three weeks now, and have definitely lost my momentum. It’s harder to think about what I want to write about, and it’s harder to start writing it. Writing is hard. So, maybe I’ll just start by writing about what I’ve been doing since I came back to Newcastle – nothing super thoughtful, nothing fancy. Just some words in a blog post. It’s a bit of a shame really, because I was on such a roll before going away and taking this three week break…but oh well. I’ll write today, then skip a week as I’m away again, and then hopefully get back into the swing of things. But for now, I’m just going to write about what I’ve been up to.

I came back to Newcastle on Tuesday afternoon last week. I got home, dropped my stuff off and went to the shop to buy some fresh vegetables. I made some delicious food made from fresh ingredients because I’d been craving that for the last 5 days or so that I was in the US. I then just lounged around at home trying not to fall asleep too early.

My Wednesday was also a bit weird, as I stayed in bed really late and my foot was hurting from going hiking in the FlatIrons in the wrong shoes! Instead of going into the lab as I had intended, I decided to go to the coffeeshop that’s down the road from my flat. Although I only spent a few hours there working, I somehow had a really productive afternoon. What I thought was going to be a bit of wasted time in a cafe ended up being quite a good opportunity to get some work done! Instead of continuing anything, on my walk down to the cafe I decided to start something new (again. yes.).

Well, not really new, new, but kind of new.

I started outlining what my book chapter was going to be. Yes, I’m writing a book chapter, and it’s super exciting to me! It’s about digital ecologies and sex work support services. So instead, of trying to finish or continue some of the other bits of writing, I spent a good 3-4h working only on this book chapter outline. I had the abstract I had sent to the editors a while ago as a response to an open call for participation, and after weeks of not really touching it, I made a start. I had a go at outlining a book chapter, something I had never done before. This is going to need a separate post to explain the details of how all of this exciting stuff happened (ah I’m getting back into this blogging thing!), but for now I’m just going to say I ended up having a really productive afternoon on Wednesday where I probably did more than if I would have gone into the lab that morning.

Thursday was a weird one. I went into the lab in the morning and tried to have a look at my e-mails. I’m sure I did some other bits and bobs of things here and there, but overall I spent the day catching up with things I needed to do, and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in almost two weeks.

In the afternoon, I had a meeting to plan out what I was going to do this week. That sounds weird – but here’s the story: I’m going away next week to do a ‘sprint’ to finally get to doing some of the coding for the website I’ve been working on for the last year. Exciting times! And I’m sure I’ll be writing a post about this too at some point soon! Sitting together with T, E, and R, we figured out what exactly needed to be done this week, and what the timeline could be in relation to this and next week.

On Friday, I was on the road again. I took a trip to visit National Ugly Mugs, my research collaborators, to have a chat about the requirements document I sent them two weeks earlier. It was so lovely to be back in the office and to see everyone again as I hadn’t seen them in a long time, and it was also great to be able to talk about concrete things to do with the website – things we’d been talking about in the abstract for a long time.

Since that Friday (except Wednesday this week), I’ve been doing work on the website: I re-wrote the requirements document, incorporating elements that they had put into additions they had made to the document I had sent them, as well as details we talked about throughout the day. I’ve also been sketching out layouts for different pages, and working closely with T to come up with an overall design and design identity for the organisation.

On Wednesday, I switched gears completely. I met up with some of my collaborators on a different project, that we’ve called TransActions. Its a collaborative project between Newcastle University, Northumbria University, National Ugly Mugs, and CliniQ to co-produce a resource (we don’t know what it’s going to be, how we’re going to design it, or who it’s going to be for yet) with trans sex workers. We hosted two initial workshops (one with practitioners and one with sex workers) at the beginning of May to kick-start this process. On Wednesday, we had a look at the video and audio data we recorded at the workshop, and started our process of analysis. We listened to the morning session (with practitioners) and started working on our collaborative analysis. It was good fun, and also a super productive day! We made a plan for the rest of the analysis and should be coming up with stuff soon.

Back to my time in the lab though, working on the website, and trying to figure out details of processes that members, staff, and the general public go through when visiting the website.

It’s been a long week.

It’s been a busy week, but also a week that resulted in lots of tangible things happening, and it’s going to end with a plan for next week. A plan to actually build what I’ve been talking about for more than the last year. So, exciting things are happening, and I’m not really sure how to write about them. I’m going to have to figure it out.

I’ve learnt so much in relation to web design, project management, coding, websites, logic, etc. in the last week, I really need to figure out how to best document all of it! I’m really looking forward to next week because we’re going to get stuff done! It’s going to be ridiculously busy, but it should be fun too.

Anyway, until next time!

cookie recipe

Today’s going to be a short one because I was late to blogging-hour and don’t know what I’m supposed to be writing. What I like to do when I’m stressed, or trying to destress is cook or bake. This weekend was a bank holiday weekend, and I’ve got loads of things happening at the same time in May, so I wanted to make sure I could properly destress this weekend. I ended up cooking a lot, and baking some cookies. Not only is cooking and baking fun, but you usually end up with something delicious in the end too!

So, since I made cookies this weekend, and I don’t know what to write about, so you’re getting the recipe today. It’s something I kind of made up, but is based on my chocolate chip cookie recipe (that I initially found somewhere online, and then played around with until it was just how I liked it).

So you’re going to need:

1c butter
1/2c dark brown sugar
1/2c caster sugar
a little bit of Almond extract
2 1/4c flour
1/2c Müsli with nuts
1/4c cranberries
1/4c raisins
some baking powder
a handful of freeze dried strawberries

Preheat your oven to 180C

As with every good cookie recipe, you start with soft butter and beat that until it’s super soft and doesn’t have any clumps (until it’s pale if you want to be super fancy, but I don’t have an electric mixer and use a spatula to make my cookies, so I don’t really do that most of the time). Then you add both the sugars until everything is well combined. Add in the almond extract and turn your kitchen into what I imagine a marzipan factory to smell like.

Once all of that is well combined and smooth, add in 1c of your flour. Then add the müsli, cranberries, raisins, baking powder, and freeze dried strawberries and combine. Then add the rest of the flour. Don’t over-mix at this stage, as you don’t want your cookies to go too flat when baking.

If you can resist the urge to immediately bake them, let the cookies rest a bit before baking them.

Then dollop them onto a baking sheet and bake at 180C for 15-30 mins. depending on the size of your cookies. I ended up baking mine for around 20 mins.

Happy baking!


Technologies and Social Justice Outcomes in Sex Work Charities: Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives

In exactly one week, I’ll to be sitting on a metro that is taking me to the airport. I’ll probably be equally nervous and excited about flying to Denver, Colorado, USA to attend CHI2017. While there, I’m hoping to meet some awesome new people who do awesome research, I’ll be working on some cross stitch to raise funds for Planned Parenthood, and I’ll be running a few pop-up stalls for zine making for people to share their different experiences of being at CHI, but I’ll also be presenting my paper.

So, maybe I should give a little bit of context here. As fempower.tech, some great people that I work with and I are organising what we have called #CHIversity. It’s an attempt to make diversity (whatever that is) more visible at the conference, and to foster discussion on inclusion, representation, feminisms, and social justice while there. The name, CHIversity, is naff. We know. It was a bit of a play on the topic of diversity (again, whatever that means) and CHI, and is supposed to be tongue in cheek. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to start a discussion. In this way, we hope to provide a small alternative to the usual exclusive parties that people go to to network by providing a comfortable, safe, relaxed, and alcohol-free environment for people to come together. Since we’ll be crafting, if someone doesn’t want to talk but rather just enjoy the presence of others, that’s absolutely fine. If someone wants to chat and not craft, that’s also more than okay.

We’ll be doing a number of things: tweeting, blogging, fundraising, making zines, and supporting our colleagues at the diversity lunch. Something I’m quite excited about is our feminist CHI programme. It’s not complete by any means, but it’s a nice starting point for something that we could maybe keep doing at other conferences we go to?

You can find out more about what we’re planning by having a look at our website and to keep up-to-date with what’s going on while in Denver, please follow @fempowertech on twitter. 

While all of that is exciting, it’s not the only reason I’m going to CHI. I’ll also be presenting a paper I wrote with Mary Laing and Rob Comber. It’s called Technologies and Social Justice Outcomes in Sex Work Charities: Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives and is based on some of the work I’ve done with National Ugly Mugs. It’s an analysis of their service delivery in relation to social justice, and I outline how they utilise technologies for their reporting, alerting, and mobilising practices to support their social justice outcomes. The paper ends on implications for design that will be useful for people who want to design digital technologies with charities.

If that made you curious enough to want to read the whole ten pages, you can either go download it from the ACM digital library (once it’s out on there, probably around the 6/7/8 of May), but if you don’t have access to that or want to read it before then, here you go. See below for the abstract:

[edit on 3rd of May 2017: the paper’s now been published in open access, so go download it here to boost that download count, because academic metrics :p]

Sex workers’ rights are human rights, and as such are an issue inherently based in social, criminal, and political justice debates. As HCI continues to move towards feminist and social justice oriented research and design approaches, we argue that we need to take into consideration the difficulties faced by sex workers; and explore how technology can and does mediate social justice outcomes for them. We contribute directly to this challenge by providing an empirical account of a charity whose work is built on the underlying move towards social and criminal justice for sex workers in the UK. Through ethnographic fieldwork, meetings, interviews, surveys, and creative workshops we describe the different points of view associated with the charity from a variety of stakeholders. We discuss their service provision and the ways in which HCI is uniquely positioned to be able respond to the needs of and to support sex work support services.


Digital Economy Diversity Network Funding

At the beginning of February, I went to the Digital Economy Annual Meeting. Among other things, we talked about diversity and the importance of reflecting on our situation in the individual Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), but also across the Digital Economy (DE) research centres, and the Digital Economy Network (DEN) overall; and doing something about it.

A few colleagues and I were very keen to try to work on something, to do something about it. So we thought of some ideas and started putting together a funding bid to be able to do this. I wrote about why I started working on a funding bid to try to do this with some friends and colleagues in an earlier post, but we’ve had some exciting things happen since then. Janis and I put together a proposal for a Digital Economy Diversity Network to send to the DEN. We did this with support from Manu (from HighWire) and Astrid (from Media & Arts Technology) and full backing from our CDT manager.

We had a couple of different ideas, but also some very strong ideas about what we didn’t want this to be. We didn’t want this to be a ‘data collection’ tool for the DEN to gauge how ‘well’ they’re doing in student / researcher satisfaction, and we didn’t want this to be a single event where everyone moans about all their problems and then celebrates the good things without any real outcome. Instead, we wanted to create something that we would hope could be a sustainable network to keep the conversation about diversity, equality, and equity alive. We wanted it to be intersectional, to go beyond the tick-box exercises of counting how many men, women, and non-cis people applied to and were accepted to the CDTs.

So here’s what we came up with:

We proposed to organise 4 meetings a year for 2 students from each of the 11 CDTs to come together in a working group. Each of these meetings would be hosted and organised by a different CDT in a different UK city/university, and the students that attended should be slightly different too (to reduce workload for the attendants, but also to encourage those that would usually not go to a ‘diversity’ meeting to go) At these meetings we would have three types of activities: (1) critically discuss a particular issue (2) find some sort of consensus or learning outcome from these discussions (3) develop one ‘job’ that each pair of students should do to report back to their CDT what was discussed at the working group.

With these activities, we hope to be able to take into account the specificities and contexts of each of the CDTs (Do they have a central office? Do they share an office with others? What does the integration with the rest of the department, school, university look like?). At the same time, we hope to share experiences across CDTs based on a particular issue, and hopefully share some tips and tricks at how to tackle specific things among CDT students.

An example: During one of the meetings, the topic of concern is recruitment and how to ensure that CDT recruitment takes into considerations issues of equality and diversity. Throughout the day the host CDT will have organised activities and points of discussion around this, and the outcome could be a set of guidelines for labs / CDTs to follow to ensure recruitment is accessible. The activity that each participant is to take back to their own CDT could then be that the participant is to organise a meeting with the Professor of their lab to discuss their recruitment policy for the next cohort, pointing towards ways in which this could be made more accessible to a more diverse set of applicants.

While each of these meetings should have a very specific outcome (notes in some shape or form from the discussions of the workshop, the exchange of good practice among CDTs, and a feedback mechanism to share insights with the rest of the CDT after the meeting), we hope that after a year of running these workshops we also have an overarching outcome. While we hope for some unmeasurable changes in work culture and environments, we will also be putting together a report on how the workshops went with some recommendations for policy for the DEN, seeing as currently there is not a single diversity or equality policy in place.

If you want to read more details from our proposal, you can find it here.

In theory this sounds great, but to be able to run something like this, we need support and enthusiasm from students in other CDTs. We need people who want to engage in these kinds of discussions, and we need these people to be able to come together to discuss them. A part of this is also that we would need a measurable sum of money to run these meetings to ensure that no CDT has to find funds to host, facilitate, or send their students to these meetings. This is why we applied for funding from DEN. Yesterday, was the exciting day where we received the e-mail we had been waiting for!

Yesterday, we got the e-mail that said we had received the £6000 we applied for to run a pilot of this network for one year. 

This is fantastic, but also scary. It’s an exciting opportunity for all of us involved, and I’m looking forward to starting to organise the first workshop with Janis.

Interdisciplinarity is fabulous

I’m going to try something slightly different today. I’ve been thinking about my PhD and some of the work I’ve done and am planning to do and wanted to try the thing where you write a blog post about your ideas that may or may not turn into some paper / dissertation writing. Last week, during the fempower.tech writing group, I started writing these thoughts down in a word document. At the beginning of the session I said that I was going to try to write a blog post, but since the writing group lasts for two 75min sessions, the bit of text ended up being a lot longer than a blog post. I started re-writing bits and putting in some stuff that turned it more into a weird outline / paper / chapter hybrid as opposed to a blog post. So, I’ve decided to give this kind of blogging another go in one of these morning blog sessions. I now only have roughly 15-30 mins to write this, so am going to just go at it.

I’ve written bits of academic writing about the methodology I’ve used, but haven’t done much writing about the ‘role’ of the technology, or in fact the role of the work and collaboration that goes into designing the technology when working with (politically active) charities. Using sex work support services as an example of charities that work within a particularly political space, I’ll outline briefly how I think the development of the technologies, the talking about technologies with staff and service users, and the deployment of technologies can play a role in their service delivery.

[edit: while I’d like to do this, I think that’s going to have to be split up into a couple of other posts. Here I’ll talk about the different literatures and how I currently think they fit together]

Before doing that though, I think it’s important to outline the gist of some of the literature that has brought me to thinking about these things. There are three areas of academic research that intersect when talking about the ways in which digital technologies can support sex work support services on a number of different levels: Socially engaged HCI research, Sex Work Research, and Social Work Research.

There’s the literature in HCI that explores spaces of social justice through social justice-oriented interaction design, or through examples of work that is based in feminist, post-colonial, or other social justice-oriented spaces. These topics are starting to be addressed, and some researchers are beginning to explicitly call their work ‘feminist’ or ‘social justice oriented’ (which is great!) but there is still something lacking for me. I’m not entirely sure exactly what that is yet, but I’d like to see a more nuanced engagement with these theories from the social sciences. Having said that, the work I do and the ways in which I think about this work is partly inspired by the growing group of researchers working in this space.

While trying to navigate this rapidly evolving space of socially engaged and justice oriented HCI publications, I do also appreciate the long history of reflexive, social justice oriented, and activist research that is present in some of the sex work research literature. A paper I keep going bak to for some reason is Phil Hubbard’s ‘Researching female sex work: reflections on geographical exclusion, critical methodologies and ‘useful’ knowledge’. It’s a pretty old paper (published in 1999) and is focused on the difficulties of a non-sex working male when engaging in research with women who sell sex (which arguably is quite different to what I do), but for some reason I keep coming back to this paper. It brings up some interesting points about ‘useful’ knowledge and ‘critical methodologies’ which, when coupled with the reading I’ve been doing in the socially engaged HCI literature, makes a lot of sense to me.

The third space of academia that I include in the weird venn diagram of literature that seems to be building my PhD is Social Work literature. I’m going to be honest and say that this is the bit of research that I’ve read the least in so far, but I’ve got a stack of papers that I want to get through that brings out debates within the discipline around whether or not social work is based in social justice, what this social justice could look like, and how social work practice engages in social justice work. This is particularly interesting to me, as I also keep coming back to Feis-Bryce’s Huffington Post article on why the third sector must be political. I understand that ‘being political’ and engaging in social justice work are different, but I also appreciate that they are deeply interwoven. Particularly when looking at sex work support services and the services they provide for their members, clients, or service users, the importance of social justice debates becomes important.

Working at the nexus of these three areas provides me with a unique possibility of looking at the research area from a different perspective. Often HCI research brings in new theories and research areas, but too often the engagement is not deep enough to provide nuanced debates. At the same time, sex work research is very good at providing these nuanced debates, but not very good at engaging in research with digital technologies (though there is a move towards doing research on the use of digital technologies, but here this is the part that doesn’t provide too much nuance). And lastly, in social work debates the topic of social justice oriented service delivery seems to be a debate without a clear answer. Meanwhile, I’m stuck working in this mess of research fields, theories, and practices. Trying to navigate the language and detail that is needed for these different areas is difficult and confusing, but bringing these together will ultimately help me understand the space better. It’ll help me think across the fields, through the disciplinary boundaries, and as such help me “decide how [we] can best make a contribution to debates surrounding the oppression of excluded groups” (Hubbard, 1999). Bringing in the pragmatic elements from HCI and social work, and some of the activism that takes place in social work practice however, allows us to go further than contributing to the debates surrounding sex work research, policy, and law. It allows us to engage in the fight against oppression of excluded groups by engaging more directly in pragmatic work that fights this oppression, while simultaneously theorising and contributing to the academic debates surrounding this as well.

“If our mission is to improve the safety of sex workers how can we remain silent when policies are introduced that will harm them?”


My first publication…from ages ago

Today I’m going to talk about something really old to ease myself into talking about more recent things. I’m going to talk about my first publication. It was a weird experience that I think I’ve slightly touched upon before, but I want to revisit to reflect on how far I’ve come in relation to this and to ease myself into talking about more recent things. It’s also something that’s on the bucket list I’ve put on my website, so since I had nothing else to really talk about today, I thought I’d address something from there.

My first CHI paper. If you’re from HCI, chances are you know about CHI. If you’re not, it’s (one of) the biggest HCI conferences out there. HCI is a weird field where conference proceedings are actually quite hard to get accepted (CHI has an acceptance rate of around 23-25% each year), and where they’re in the form of (roughly) 10 page peer-reviewed papers as opposed to the usual 250-500 word abstracts in social science conferences.

CHI stands for Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and is held in a different city every year. The one I’m going to be talking about is CHI 2015, and was held in Seoul, South Korea. So this is a reflection on something quite old…

This was the year I was finishing my MA in International Development and Education and was looking around for places to do a PhD. I really got a taste of doing research half way through the MA when we were writing our research proposals, and wanted to continue to do this. It wasn’t something I had ever before considered, but something I wanted to know more about. I looked and asked around in different universities across the UK and Europe to see if there was anything interesting somewhere.  I found loads of interesting Professors and Lecturers, but couldn’t really find something that stuck out. I found people that were particularly interested in homelessness (and I think actually contacted someone to see if they wanted to have a chat) but things never really went any further than an e-mail. Nothing felt right. It wasn’t until I heard about Culture Lab (which is the old name for Open Lab) that I started to feel like this could actually be something I wanted to do. The website, while not the most up-to-date and amazing thing, told stories of interesting projects that sounded more like the kind of thing I was interested in. It wasn’t all about reliability, about standardised research methods, and projects made by one person. It was about collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and creative research methods. For some reason I decided to send off a message on the contact form for the lab and was half-expecting not to get anything in return, when a few days later I had an e-mail in my inbox from R. We met up and I explained what my research was for the MA and how I wanted to do a PhD in something similar but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do it in yet. He seemed somewhat interested and continued to informally support me throughout the rest of my MA research. Throughout this process, we met up quite regularly and as I started to get to know the lab a little and he started to get to know me a little he mentioned that there was going to be some funding for a 1+3 PhD studentship that he thought I might want to apply for: the Digital Civics PhD.

I did.
For some weird reason, I got it.

When it came to writing my dissertation he was an immense help, and since it was roughly the same time of the year as CHI deadline he and P recommended that I put something in for the conference. I was terrified and thought it was a bit silly I was writing something for the conference, but almost everyone that was in the lab at the time was doing it. They offered me a desk in the lab (multiple times) but I was too shy to accept it. I didn’t feel like I was smart enough, or good enough to sit with all these other amazingly smart people, so I only ever came in for my supervisions with R. It wasn’t until it was almost the CHI deadline that I started actually working in the lab. I wish I’d have done that sooner! The people are incredibly smart and intimidating, but they’re also absolutely lovely and kind – I really should’ve just sat down in the lab sooner. Maybe I could’ve gotten to know a few more people sooner.

Anyway, back to the paper. So it started off with R explaining to me what CHI was, what a CHI paper was, and how the review and publication process worked. Throughout the entire time he made clear to me that, while the work I did was interesting and good, it had a low chance of actually getting in (which is/was very true). It was my first time writing something, which lowered the chances even more, but I did it anyway. It felt really great that they thought the work I did was interesting enough to be published, and it was even more exciting that I got to work on an actual academic publication with R.

I’m  not going to go into detail of his supervision style, but he was really supportive in the writing of this paper and helped me out in many different ways. He sat down with me and answered my silly questions, but he also sat down with me and the paper and transformed a few of my horribly naive sentences into something that read like an academic paper so I could learn from that and transform the rest of my paper by myself.

When it came to deadline day, I was happy with the paper and excited to see what reviewers would say. A few days before we had another meeting about the paper where we decided together that it was amazing that I had written this, that it was something that should definitely be submitted, but that I shouldn’t have too many hopes as it was my first time submitting, and the work was arguably not done with HCI in mind throughout the whole thing (as I was focusing on the International Development and Education thing for my dissertation…). Anyway, we submitted and I was excited to see the reviews.

They ended up being quite nice, but it seemed like the paper would not get accepted. They scores weren’t terrible, but not good enough to really get the paper accepted. I was a bit sad, but also understood that there was always going to be a next year. After the AC meeting (where they discuss each paper and finalise the decision whether it should be published or not) however, I got an e-mail that said my paper was accepted and that I would be shepherded. R had explained to me earlier that this meant someone took on a lot of work and time to help me re-write parts of the paper (my discussion) to the point where they think it should be publishable. Apparently someone thought my work was interesting enough to be published. Thank you!!

So, over the christmas holiday I re-wrote my discussion section and changed other parts of the paper to match with this so it would be ready for publication in early January. That was an exciting experience that I briefly go into more detail here. And then, when it came to May 2015, I got to fly to Seoul to present the work I did. To talk about homelessness in Romania and the informal learning networks that are shaped in that environment. It was fun and exciting, and terrifying all at the same time. Something I’d like to do again, and something I’m going to do again in a couple of weeks at CHI 2017 in Denver, Colorado, USA. But that’s for another post.

I have changed a lot over the last two years academically and personally, and I’m assuming CHI will have changed too. This year my paper was not shepherded, and got a variety of different scores across the board. The reviews were absolutely lovely and I was able to make the paper much better based on them. I’ve grown a lot since this first CHI cycle. I’m less scared about sending out papers for review (I actually really quite enjoy that process now!), I’m less scared about showing my writing to others (anyone want to proof read any of my stuff?), but I still ask R silly questions about conferences and their review process (I don’t think this’ll stop until I stop working with R). I’m glad I was pushed into the scary land of CHI so early, it made the next year much easier, and has now opened me up to attempt to publish not only at conferences but also in journals and got me interested in learning more about book chapters. Exciting times. I’ll keep you posted.