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.

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!

Reflections on my placement research project

After having looked what the children had drawn and written down, I want to make some quick comments. I have not yet fully analysed all the data I received, but have developed some common themes within the different pieces of art and writing.

Most commonly, people who are homeless are seen to be as very poor, sad, begging and wearing very torn, broken and ripped clothes. Some examples even went as far as missing arms and legs, not having many teeth and hair and being very thin.

I was surprised to see that, for the most part, the children drew adults and not…like I was expecting…children. I wonder why this is. Could it be that the people they see on the streets are mostly adults? Do they not imagine that a child could live on the streets without their parents? This would be an interesting question to ask for further research.

Something else that I was surprised about, that I mentioned briefly in my last post, was the lack of distinction between Gypsy and homeless. When I told the kids I wanted to find out what they thought about people who are homeless, some immediately jumped to the conclusion that I meant Gypsies. Although I shortly talked to them about the difference and that Gypsy is a unique ethnic group and that they aren’t in fact always poor I obviously couldn’t change these children’s minds. A boy even drew a lady who was very poor and living in a Gypsy camp for his assignment of drawing a person who is homeless. I guess he wasn’t completely wrong (traditionally Gypsies are a nomadic people that don’t have a home in the sense that many Westerners see a home), but I personally think that putting these two minority groups into one bucket is slightly racist towards both groups. This is something else that would be interesting to further investigate: What do private school children perceive Gypsies to be like. After finding this out, it would be interesting to compare the images/data from the research on the perceptions of homelessness and of Gypsies.

It was a little sad that I had to rush my research due to lack of time, but I was still able to gather the data I needed and wanted for my research. It would be great to conduct this research on a larger scale and with more available time. Now that I have some data I think it would be interesting to see whether/how the perceptions change as people get older. It would also be interesting to see if a child’s heritage/other countries of residence have an impact on how they see people who are homeless. A short discussion was started on this as a girl stated that she sometimes thought that her entire country of origin was filled with people who are homeless because there was so much poverty where she came from. Having a large-scale discussion on this topic would be very interesting.

As you can see this topic still interests me quite a lot. There are lots of different questions wizzing around in my head about where else this research could go…I probably should stop thinking about this now though, because I will be able to write a whole second dissertation on this topic if my questions keep coming….never mind the dissertation, I could write a book on this topic….oh oh. Okay, enough on this topic. I am starting to go crazy in thinking about writing dissertations and books and all those things.

Maybe someday.
But that day is not today.
I’ll keep this in mind.

Speaking of keeping things in mind, would you be interested in reading more about this…in a more academic manner? Children’s perceptions of homelessness?

One slow day and one day of serious focus group action.

Monday was a very, very slow day. I got to the centre a little early, so everyone was still in the lunch room. That didn’t bother me. I went upstairs, got the key for my room and went to my room to prepare for the day. I thought I had a big day ahead of me. I wanted to get my focus groups going.

Once I’m ready, I head out of the room towards the Café that is usually very full of people drinking coffee and tea. Not today. So I go downstairs and outside, around the building and into the other building. I see a couple of people, but nobody I know. So I start to go back inside to see if Marius is now in his office.

He is.
So I ask him about going to visit the school in the other centre run by the same NGO. He agrees and tells me I can go on Wednesday. Yes. Awesome.

I still don’t really find anyone. So I take matters into my own hands. Thank god I made a quick ‘what’s important on the street’ survey. I basically force whoever I see to talk to me and even talk one person into doing a longer interview with me. In the end I get one focus group done as well. Still…it was a very, very strange day. I recognized nearly nobody.

Tuesday was quite different. The centre was still not bustling and full of life like the past week, but I saw more familiar faces and was able to get two focus groups going. This time however, I decided to just do everything I wanted to do in a focus group at once. No more ‘oh, but they need time’ or ‘but I don’t want to use up 30 minutes of their precious time’. No more. I just did everything I had to do: positives, negatives and interesting aspects of life on the streets, what was learnt on the street, personal learning timelines, a picture of the most important lesson and short interviews about all of those things. It was a good day.

As of now, I have all the data I need for my dissertation.

I think.
I hope.

Tomorrow I will be going back in just to see if anyone else is willing to do any of my research schedules with me…an interview, a focus group, just have a chat. I feel like most of the people who want to talk to me have done so already. Many have talked to me on several occasions. I have my eye on 4 more people who were busy doing other activities today. I might get them to do another focus group with me. We’ll see.

Besides that possibility, tomorrow I have an exciting day ahead of me. In the morning I will be heading in to the school to conduct the first part of my placement research. In the afternoon I’ll be back in the centre and a little later I’ll be able to visit the school that the NGO has created for the people who are homeless.