the beginning of the end?

This week has been weird.

I came back from the CIRN conference in Italy on Saturday, saw some friends from Austria on Saturday, and slept a lot on Sunday to catch up from my late nights and early mornings all of last week. So, I decided to write this post today with the creepy title – apologies but also, I’m not actually sorry about it. clickbait. yes.

This week though, was strange. When I came into the office I just couldn’t do very much. I sat at my laptop, working on something, for the whole week but don’t really have much to show for it. I guess that’s normal in a PhD, but it’s just one of those weeks that feels weird. I had a supervision, went to a PGR training session, did some marking, wrote some e-mails, and did quite a bit of writing; but still I didn’t feel like I was being productive…

Yesterday, I decided to re-start my dissertation (again) and had a long think about my research questions; something I’ve been avoiding for months. After my supervision the other day, my supervisor and I decided I would send him something to read in two weeks. While I’ve got quite a few words on paper in a document that has headings and chapter titles and looks like a dissertation, I don’t have a chapter that’s actually completely written from start to finish. Instead of continuing on my messy process towards attempting to write a dissertation, I decided to open a new (yet another) document and actually properly figure out what I wanted to say.

I’m sure it’s going to change again, because it’ll never be finished (ugh), but this time I actually have research questions. I’ve got an overview of my methodology, a detailed dissertation structure, and need to write an overview of the background to introduce the whole thing. This isn’t supposed to be a perfect or finished chapter, instead it’s something that I can send to my supervisor, something to talk about.

We’ve talked about my work a lot, and have had some really fantastic discussions about what it could look like, what chapters can feel like, and how the data could be presented. We’ve talked about pieces of writing I’ve done, but none of that writing has been dedicated ‘dissertation writing’. So, now it’s time for that, I guess.

It feels weird.

And yes, I’m using that word ‘weird’ again because I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just…strange, I guess. I generally don’t like finishing things, and sending something that’s written for my dissertation to my supervisor kind of marks the beginning of a long process that is supposed to be the end, or the finishing, of my PhD programme. I’ve been here for almost 4 years now, working on my PhD for roughly 2 years and 2 months now. It’s time to get to the writing.

I’ve done lots and lots of thinking about what it could look like, I have way too many outlines and notecards with potential chapter structures and overall dissertation structures. I’ve talked to all of my supervisors about a number of these different structures and outlines and potential framings, but now it’s time to put words on paper. Useful and meaningful words that will lead me to the finish line.

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!

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.

What’s the point

Last week on Tuesday, during my supervision with one of my supervisors, he asked me: What’s the point? Why are you doing what you’re doing? At first, this seemed like an absolutely horrible question to ask. I chuckled, we both laughed, and then got quite serious. After a few seconds of me not saying anything, I responded with uuhhmmm what do you mean? To which he expanded a little on what he meant. He laughed again and said he didn’t mean the question to sound as horrible or mean as it did; that he just wanted to bring me to think about what I was doing, and why I was doing it – what it was that I was actually interested in.

To give you a little context on that, this came towards the end of a supervision in which I wanted to talk about the big picture of my PhD. I’m at a point where I want to figure out what I’m doing, where I want to start writing on my actual dissertation documents, and where I want the writing that I am doing to actually fit in with the final argument that I’m making. After going through the thought process I’ve been having over the last year or so (again) with him, we got to a point where nothing really made sense anymore.

I want to do too many things.

I also keep talking about social justice or justice without really going beyond the common sense arguments. Recently, I’ve read some Amartya Sen, I’ve read some Martha Nussbaum, and I’ve read some Nancy Fraser, but for some reason this doesn’t seem to enter my conversations with my supervisors yet. I haven’t really internalised any of these yet, and so haven’t found out how they fit in with my work on enough levels yet (yes, it makes sense with my basic argument of: I’m designing technologies and am looking at how they can/do/should support a move towards a more socially just world, but nothing really beyond that. And I still haven’t really started taking that thought apart yet either).

So what am I actually doing?!
What am I interested in beyond my application area of designing technologies?

In an attempt to answer the questions my supervisor was asking me, I began to drift to a slightly different space. I thought about what I’d written so far, and decided to talk about what I enjoyed there. I really liked writing the ECSCW paper (or well, it’s currently under review). This was a paper that I’ve re-worked too many times to count, have hated for a while, but for some reason keep coming back to. It’s trying to unpick the relationships we build with charities when designing technologies with them. It does this by providing a theoretical overview of HCI literature surrounding methodologies that are used in publications in this space before going into a pragmatic case study that is supported by vignettes of parts of the research experience that I captured in the form of handwritten notes. After the case study, I try to unpick what happened in the vignettes with the help of the methodological overview I used at the beginning. This was a hard paper to write, but looking back, I really enjoyed it!

Looking back at CHI2017, I also remembered that I enjoyed writing the methodological paper (that got rejected) a lot more than I did writing the other paper that was based more on the data I collected, outlining implications for design for technologies to design with sex work support services. While both of these papers are important for the work I am doing (and I’m glad I wrote them both), I did enjoy writing the methodological one more. It made more sense to me, and it felt like there was more of a reason for me to write it. After all, what’s the point of having yet another paper with implications for design? (I mean, I understand there are lots of reasons for this, and it’s actually an interesting paper, but I don’t think it’ll have a major impact on anything, really).

This brought me back to a thought I had a few months ago: why not write my dissertation in a similar style as these papers that I enjoyed writing?

Shocking! I know.

But really, why not? I’ve been getting too hung up on the digital technology and the design process recently, as I’m trying to synthesise everything into an actual website design for NUM with T and E. So the supervision last week was a welcome reminder to come back to reality, to come back to the complexity that is what I am trying to do (or at least I think is what I’m trying to do).

Talking to my supervisor last week was such a good thing to do. It made me re-think what I’ve been doing, and made me realise that that silly thought I had a few weeks (or was it months?) ago wasn’t actually that silly! Talking Rob through my idea was a bit strange. It was something that I’d kept to myself, that I didn’t even write down properly because I didn’t think it made too much sense, and thought it was an argument that was too pragmatic. But here goes. What if I write about the work that I’m doing; the actual practicalities of what I’m doing, to explore the ways in which the designing of digital technologies with and for sex work support services impacts different spaces: what role does it play in relation to the charity I’m working with? Since I’m working in an inherently political space and am all in favour for the re-politicisation of research, what role does my work play in the wider political context (ie the sex worker rights movement)? How does the way I write about the work affect HCI practice and methodology? And how does the work I do affect myself as a researcher and as a person?

All of these questions are really big, but they actually fit in with my social justice, feminist, participatory-style oriented methodology. They answer important questions that HCI (and actually service design research as well) have been asking for a while now. I guess I can use the same argument I used for my ECSCW paper: everyone keeps saying we should talk about these things, but nobody is actually doing the we need to talk about this bit. So it’s maybe going to be me!

So, maybe that’s the point.

Every now and again I get an urge to draw out my entire dissertation in a single flowchart. I know this wont necessarily make sense to everyone, but it sort of makes sense to me. I always tell myself I’m not a pragmatist, I’m not someone who goes through things in a necessarily very logical order, that I’m really chaotic and like to be spontaneous. At the same time however, I love making flowcharts about my dissertation. To be fair, they often come out of nonsensical notes on pieces of paper (or the floor). These notes often make sense as I’m writing them (and drawing different coloured lines between the different parts of the paper), but once I’ve covered the piece of paper, the connections often don’t even make sense to me anymore.

This time I tried something different. I wrote some notes on a piece of paper (that actually made sense in the order I wrote them, almost like a list), and after that started to draw out what I was doing with my research. I went back and looked at the reading and writing I had done thus far, and wrote down the two gaps in research that I’m trying to address: (1) the gap in research around digital service delivery for sex work support services; and (2) the gap in research around the intricacies and complexities of doing this kind of design research. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t have a research question that addresses this (but I guess my disliking of research questions calls for another post!), but I guess that’s what I’m trying to do!

A weird flow-diagram of a potential dissertation that made sense in my head when I drew it

After realising (again) that those were the two things I’m trying to do, I also added the things I’m interested in as outlined in the questions I posed above about who is affected by my research (though I left out the personal journey on the diagram I drew). The whole point of the dissertation wouldn’t be my argument if it didn’t go to a meta level it really didn’t need to go to: to explore the relationships between these different areas, and to explore the everchanging ecology that is built through the process of designing digital technologies with (sex work) support services. In this way, the application area (sex work) becomes less important in the end, as it is an example of a space that is particularly complex due to the many historical, legal, and cultural stigma and misrepresentation in society that is often associated with the space. It’s a space I want to keep working in, but I also understand that what I am learning about working with charities and the processes I am going through to develop technologies with them is a space that goes beyond this. Taking this thought further, it takes me back to what I was saying earlier about how I feel about the two papers I wrote for CHI2017: what’s the point of them? Is it to design more technologies or is it to attempt to understand the world we work in, affecting the ways in which we think about the work we do?

A (very) short update on my life as a PhD student…

The last couple of weeks have been crazy. I’ve spent very little time at home, and very much time worrying about stuff I shouldn’t worry about. I’ve now finished the first month of my PhD, and I already feel like I’ve gone down rabbit holes I didn’t need to go down…

Having said that, lots of really interesting things have happened! I’m now officially a PhD students, which is exciting in its own right, but on top of that I’ve also done lots of other things for the first time.

I can now say that I have helped write an MA level module, as well as teaching it! So that is scary and exciting too! I’m working with a lecturer that used to teach me two years ago. Not only have we worked on a module together, but we recently also wrote an article for The Conversation!

We responded to a late OECD report that stated that technology does not actually increase student attainment (based on the PISA test) report. We claim that technology CAN help improve learning and education, but that because of the way we test learning and education, it may seem that technology doesn’t do much. You can read a response that’s a lot more eloquent and detailed than that one sentence here.

library from afar?

I have written a lot about the library I helped organize. I don’t know if I have focused enough on my worries that it will not be used…well. I’m really worried my work was in vain.

BUT!

good news!

A new volunteer has arrived in Patihani for FACE Nepal. It is part of her job to look after the library. She has developed a sign out system and has told me that the library really is open every day, and that the kids are actually using the library regularly! 🙂

exciting stuff.

final touches.

Today I finished the final touches of the library (ie the final painting)

As I was doing so, at some point I just had to laugh…three years ago, my art teacher was always trying to get me to work on bigger and bigger canvases for my IB Art show…I wonder if this would have been big enough ^^

Well. Tomorrow will be the teachers’ introduction and then my stay in Nepal is over. My stay with FACE Nepal however will not finish now.

Every three months we will hand out a questionnaire to the teachers, the headmaster and the students to be able to analyse the usage of the library. Exciting things are happening.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for when I came to Nepal. I wanted something to take back ‘home’ with me to continue working for the NGO, or at least the country. And this is just PERFECT! 🙂

Thank you FACE Nepal for allowing me to do this project!

introducing the library.

Since the library is basically finished (all the books are shelved, the shelves are categorized, the floor is clean, the tables are set up the benches are cleared and set up for studying) I started introducing it to the classes. 10th grade is left. then all classes are through.

On thursday I will finish the painting (the leaves of the trees). I will also show the 10th graders the library and how to use it.

The headmaster and I decided that the eighth grade would be in charge of keeping the library clean. This way there is no added work for the teachers, and the students are made responsible for their own actions. Next school year, the new 8th graders will be in charge, and so on. They seem to be somewhat engaged…at least when I asked them to come to the library just after school they all showed up (yay!) So that seems to be working.

The teachers will all get the introduction on friday. I have finished the manual that will be printed and handed to the headmaster. The activity schedule is done (every three weeks) to ensure that the library is used at least at that time. At the teacher introduction on friday afternoon I will not only explain but also show them how some of the activities work. Which shall be fun!

I heard that Room to Read is coming back to Chitwan, Nepal to do some work with the libraries they supported in 2005. So that should be interesting. I hope to keep updated with all the information about the library that is going on even after I go back to Austria and then off to England for University.