Milestones And Memories: Reflecting on my First International Conference

Ellie Colegate from the 2021 Cohort reflects on her recent attendance at the British and Irish Law Education and Technology (BILETA) 39th Annual Conference held between the 17th and 19th April 2024 at Dublin City University.

post by Ellie Colegate (2021 cohort)

Attending a conference. Scary. Attending an international conference. Super scary. Attending an international conference where you are presenting your work that you’ve entered a postgraduate prize, you’ve not been to an international conference before or flown since February of 2020. Extra super scary.

I realised on my way back from the conference that this was the first time I’d done a lot of things. Of course, all conferences are different, but I thought I’d share these in case you’re attending a conference soon and need some reassurance of what to expect.

The First Time I’ve…attended an international conference.

Confession time. I did present at this conference last year with a co-authored paper. However, this is the first time I’ve joined the community in person with my own first-authored paper and travelled to another country to present. So, it’s a first milestone to reflect on.

Now I’m not a big fan of travelling on aeroplanes. It’s not the plane itself that makes me anxious, it’s the bit before, the getting to the airport on time, making sure you have your bag/s sorted for security, finding the gate etc. It just gives me a cold chill. Luckily, my colleague and friend from another university was also attending the conference so we travelled together which helped a lot.

I also just took it one step at a time, tried not to worry too much about the steps ahead, even when my boarding pass refused to scan at every automated point at the airport, I remained calm and before I knew it, we were in Dublin!

suitcase
My pastel pink suitcase was a certified way of not getting separated from my fellow travellers.
stained glass window
A stunning piece of stained glass in the building on the Dublin City University Campus where the conference was held.

Dublin was a super easy city to navigate, so once we were out of the airport and had purchased a travel card that gave us unlimited trips on public transport for the duration of our visit, the city was ours to explore. So, we went straight to the hotel to eat – travelling is exhausting and really makes you work up an appetite!

We did manage to fit in some city exploring in the evenings after panels and on the Saturday before leaving for our flight back. Something that I now will do at all conferences where I can get to see the city I went to rather than just spending two days at another university’s campus – as nice as DCU was!

a long room with giant globe
The long room at Trinty College Dublin visited as part of the Book of Kells Exhibit.
The store front of a book store
The font of the Hodges Figgis, the oldest bookstore in Dublin.

The First Time I’ve…submitted my work for a paper prize.

When the call for papers went out for this conference, so did the details of prizes for papers. I’ve never entered any of my work for a prize before, so I thought if I’m going to go in with a paper I might as well go in for it all and see what happens. The process was very straight forward, I entered my abstract via Oxford Abstracts like everyone else and then nearer the conference date and within the deadline given I sent over a copy of my full paper and informed the organisers which prize I’d like to be considered for. Then I waited. The results were revealed on the last day, last session of the conference, so plenty of time to half not think about it and half think about it!

Whilst I was unsuccessful at securing the prize on this occasion, the process of preparing the paper for submission and entering it for consideration afforded me a depth of insight to what I was presenting that I perhaps wouldn’t have had if I had just prepared slides and an abstract. The fellow attendees were really kind in their best wishes of luck when I mentioned that I was entered for the prize and asked lots of questions about my work, so despite not being successful I was still able to talk lots about my work and know that it was of value within the wide BILETA community.

The First Time I’ve…attended a conference dinner.

Questions I had before the conference dinner: What do I wear? What do I talk about? Do I talk about my work? Do I talk about everyone else’s work? How much detail do I go into? What about if I bore people? What about if I don’t know what to talk about? Can I talk about my dog? No that would be unprofessional. How professional is a conference dinner? What is for dinner? Do we all sit at a long table? Do we have allocated seats? What about if I get sat next someone I don’t know? Worse, what about if I get sat next to someone whose work I know? Do I ask them about it for my literature review? Can I do that? What about shoes?

Questions I had after dinner: where can I get more of that carrot cake?

The dessert gets an honourable mention – carrot cake and ice cream!

I was unsure about the dinner on the basis that I’d never been to one before. Turns out, it’s just like a normal dinner really, expect we had a set menu of two choices to pick from. You can sit where you like (I sat with my friend) and you don’t have to talk all about work, you can talk about other things! (I did avoid the dog chat though purely because the law and tech discussions were a bit more interesting!) The dinner gave me a great chance to talk to others in the area, our table ended up being two put together full of discussions and networking over food. I heard lots about other people’s work in the area, events they had coming up, where they had come from, it was a super wholesome discussion with like-minded people who know about similar topics and things that you do. Nothing to be scared about really!

The First Time I’ve…been recognised for my previous work (!)

This one was unexpected. As I’ve said, I attended this conference virtually last year and presented a work in progress paper, so when an attendee walked up to me and said “I remember your presentation from last year” I was a tad stunned given it’s not been published yet. After my initial shocked reaction and my excited message to my co-author that we had been remembered, I reflected on how much of a community the organisation is. It wasn’t an interrogation, it wasn’t a critique, it was a “I remember you presenting last year, it’s great to see you back.” And that was lovely.

It was also an opportunity for me to reflect on my progress in the last year and how my work has developed. Whilst the paper I was recognised for is still a work in progress, other papers and outputs are now published and been presented which felt like an age away last time I was at BILETA. I’ve learnt that if you keep going, you’ll get there with things and being recognised was a reminder for that. It also showed me that despite my own thoughts that my PhD is just me at my desk with my laptop, my work is out there and contributing which is a nice motivator going into writing my thesis up.

The First Time I’ve…met other researchers in the area whose work I am familiar.

Networking. A word that scares me to my core as I think I’m not very good at it. You can’t take a class in networking, but it turns out networking is just talking to people, and I can do that. I hadn’t made a list of people I wanted to talk to really despite it being always recommended. But I did have a rough idea of who I should probably talk to as they were either doing work interesting to me or working in a similar area to me.

So, on the coffee breaks and lunches I made a point of going up to them and introducing myself, the first couple of times it felt awkward, but I’d join conversations with others rather than marching directly up to people and sticking out my hand with a business card. The more I did it, the more conversation I had, the easier it got, and people were super kind! A few even came to my presentation after meeting me. BILETA has such a welcoming community which values its PGR members, so people are open to sitting down and having discussions with you when you’re there and connecting with you afterwards. From now on at conferences, I’m going to try and network with people more following this as it is just talking to people about your work, and we can all do that!

The First Time I’ve…sat down and thought about my trip.

It’s hard to sum up such a great trip in a blog post (if you’ve got this far, bravo!) but I think the main thing I’m taking away with me is the value of going to things in person, meeting people face to face, chatting to them and joining communities where you can. These sort of events and experiences can make what can be a lonely experience doing a PhD far from that and reminds you that you’re not just working on your own in an office somewhere and like the CDT, there are groups and organisations you can join and be a part of.

Entering a community of academics can be daunting, travelling across the world for a conference can be daunting, and presenting your work with others can also be daunting. But, as I found this year, sometimes you must go out of your comfort zone to make gains in your PhD journey. I found the BILETA community and conference to be one of great enjoyment, Dublin a stunning city, neither of which I would’ve found if I hadn’t of taken a chance on my work. To both, I’ll be back.

Gaining Insights into Staff Well-being: My Placement Experience at MVCFS

post by Emma Gentry (2021 cohort)

From July 2023 to February 2024, I undertook my placement with Mountain Valley Child and Family Services (MVCFS), a non-profit US mental health service which supports young people between the ages of 10 and 21 with complex trauma and other significant mental health challenges. They offer a range of inpatient, outpatient, and rehabilitation services in California, operated by multidisciplinary teams of psychologists, doctors, nurses, support workers, and a range of other specialist personnel. Given the demands of this environment, there is great importance in understanding not only the welfare of children but also the welfare and experiences of employees.

My role as a placement student involved exploring ways to best capture staff well-being and satisfaction, and my activities were supervised by the HR director and the director of programme development – both of whom have a great deal of experience in the organisation. During an initial 3-week visit last July/August, I was based in the HR office at their main rehabilitation facility where I was able to observe not only the operations within the HR department but also some of the therapeutic activities that staff were carrying out with clients. In the first week, I met with directors, managers, HR personnel, and support workers to learn about a variety of staff well-being experiences across the organisation. Based on these conversations, I utilised my research skills to extend a common measure of staff satisfaction, which was later disseminated across the organisation. In the following months I (remotely) wrote a report based on quantitative and qualitative themes that emerged from the data, as was requested by my supervisors. Following their specific requirements I also benchmarked some of the findings against the norms for US healthcare organisations and discussed the similarities and differences with results from other organisations. Diligence and thought were required to communicate the findings to a specific client (my placement organisation) – a skill that will be highly useful in future academic and industrial contexts.

The placement presented many opportunities for reflective practice. Although an outsider perspective has its strengths in research, it also comes with limitations (i.e., more focus needed on effective communication and building rapport). Importantly, I tried to remain mindful of ‘learning’ before ‘doing’; those working at MVCFS are the experts of their own experiences after all. Building an awareness of my positionality in relation to those I am researching is something I try to continuously improve in my development as a (mostly) qualitative researcher. Throughout my visit, I stayed in a staff accommodation block and was able to chat to members of staff coming and going in between their shifts, where I tried to learn as much as possible about their experiences. Once I had talked to enough people (all of whom were very welcoming and friendly), I then felt confident enough to carry out my ‘formal’ research activities.

As I have found throughout my own PhD research, a challenge when assessing workplace well-being is socially desirable responding, especially if employees are concerned about the extent to which the measures are truly anonymous, and if there is a lack of transparency around where their responses may end up. There are also inherent dependency relationships at stake between those who provide and those who rely on a source of income and job security, creating difficulty in researching how people really feel. I used this awareness throughout the research process by explaining to employees, with transparency, what would happen with their data, and exactly how it would be presented to decision-makers. I also explained that I was not affiliated with the organisation and that only I would be able to see raw (but still anonymous) responses, as a way to mitigate the potential for socially desirable responding. My prior PhD experience was helpful in this sense for building a sense of trust between myself and those completing the survey, and for maintaining a clear channel of communication throughout the whole research process.

Not only did my PhD research skills help with the placement project, but the discussions I had during my time at MVCFS also sparked ideas for ensuing chapters of my thesis. Through conversations with my HR supervisor, I gained an appreciation of the similarities/differences that exist between UK and US organisations in terms of how they offer employee benefits (i.e., health insurance), and I familiarised myself with the legal aspects of this process too. I also learned about the post-Covid labour market in which MVCFS now operates and how organisations across California are responding to associated challenges. This is important because with workplace well-being it is necessary to consider the myriad of contextual factors that may be impacting employees as well as the organisation.

My own assumptions and implicit biases were challenged throughout the placement, providing key opportunities for reflection. Perhaps coming from the CDT, which is centred around the use of technology, I assumed that everyone would want to take the survey online for greater convenience. However, to my surprise, everyone chose to complete the survey offline. Some employees mentioned they seldom use technology in their daily lives. This prompted deep reflection around representation challenges in my own research, with potential underrepresentation of those who may: (a) be struggling with their well-being but are not open to talking about it; (b) feel less competent with technology; and (c) have reduced access to digital support. In pursuit of more inclusive approaches to well-being strategies it was important that I took a step back at this point to assess personal conscious/unconscious biases I may exert on my research. This experience further prompted reflection on the debate in the information systems literature around what we need to support socially and what can be supported through technology.

Altogether, I greatly enjoyed collaborating with an organisation as unique as MVCFS. Key points for reflection included the importance of (a) learning before doing and (b) continuously challenging your own assumptions as a qualitative researcher. I look forward to applying the valuable experience I have gained at MVCFS not only to my PhD thesis but also to other contexts in the future. Thank you MVCFS!

Call for Participants – Everyday Online Harms Research Study

Are you worried about what your child sees online?

Third-year CDT student Ellie Colegate is looking for participants aged 12 to 20 for her study on the online harms bill and similar laws. Ellie wants to learn what young people find harmful in their online interactions.

written information looking for participants for a study

You can find out more about the project and what’s involved by clicking on: Everyday Online Harms Research Study

If you know anyone who might be interested in participating, please have them contact Ellie at psxec2@exmail.nottingham.ac.uk.

Reflections on Redirection – Preparing a Conference Paper

Ellie Colegate from the 2021 Cohort reflects on her recent attendance at the Socio-Legal Studies Association Annual Conference hosted by the University of Portsmouth in April 2024 and the process that led to her presentation.

SLSA logo

post by Ellie Colegate (2021 cohort)

“the course of obtaining a publication never did run smooth” – William Shakespeare…if he did a PhD or worked in a research position.

I have learned over the last few years that there is no linear process to writing a research paper. When it comes down to writing a paper and disseminating your work and ideas to the world it’s you, your notes, your findings and quite often your laptop doing battle in your mind to produce something that is understandable (we hope!) and illustrates your findings or thoughts in a cohesive way.

Writing a research paper is a highly personal experience, no matter the subject of the paper. So, when a paper is rejected or receives quite a lot of feedback, it can be disheartening and can sometimes make you question if you’ve got what it takes. However, last year I learnt that rejections aren’t always rejections; sometimes, they’re redirections.

In May 2023, WhatsApp introduced an editing window for messages that enables a sender to make changes to text that previously would have been permanent and unchangeable. Advertised as great for correcting typos—we’ve all been there—or adding extra context if you’ve missed an essential emoji, the introduction of a 15-minute window was promoted as being great if you “simply change your mind.”

As someone whose research revolves around the online harms young people experience due to online content and the legal interventions introduced to reduce these, this got me thinking. What about if someone changes a harmful message already read so that it is not harmful anymore?

So, I got to work on my paper concerning ‘Edited and Disappearing Content’ – focusing on WhatsApp as the platform offering edited content and Snapchat as the platform offering content that disappears – and how, in certain circumstances, these types of content have the potential to harm young, aged users. Utilising existing reports outlining how and why young people were harmed online in the last few years, I analysed the newly introduced laws contained within the Online Safety Act 2023 alongside the ability for users to edit their content and make such disappear to illustrate how these features could cause issues for the overall aim of the law to reduce harmful interactions and content online.

From the outset, I had a journal in mind for this paper so worked to their specification. However, about a week after sending it off I received the “Thank you for your submission.” Email which continued with “unfortunately we will not be able to send your manuscript out for review.” The reason? Whilst the topic was of great interest, the journal was moving in a direction of empirical based work, of which my paper was not. But they hadn’t said “No thanks, you’re work isn’t good enough.” They’d said, “We like the ideas, we’re just going in a slightly different direction.” It was redirection, not a rejection.

A few months later I received the call for papers for the Socio-Legal Association Conference 2024 so decided to resurrect the paper sat gathering digital dust in my files and try again. The conference wanted submissions concerning how the law as written down in statutes might operate in practice and impact society and vice versa, sounded appropriate for my work. In January 2024, for the second time I hit the submit button, and to my relief, this time, it was accepted.

Fast forward to April and the paper was a part of in the IT and Cyberspace stream of the conference. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend in person in Portsmouth, however, I was still able to attend various sessions and engage with the posters. A test call at the start of each day for virtual presenters gave us an opportunity to test sound and slides which took a lot of the stress away from the actual presentation. Presenting virtually didn’t alter my experience I don’t think, the stream organisers and another panellist were also online, so the audience were equally engaged as I imagine they would’ve been if I was in person – even if I’m still slightly mortified that I caught a glance at the room at one point and realised I was projected like some sort of academic cinema!

I presented from my desk at home, but if I did go to Portsmouth, I imagine I would’ve looked something like the below:

SLSA goodie bag
An in-person attendance perk – conference goodie bag!
Credit: Alessandra Cuppini via Twitter
boats and the Victory naval ship at sunset
If I had of been there, a visit to the famous Victory naval ship would have been a must!
Credit: Brian Aitkenhead on Unsplash

The value of feedback given at conferences is something I fear is overlooked. But fresh eyes and levels of expertise can really help develop your ideas, whether you take them forward and write (or in my case adjust) a research paper or fold these ideas into your thesis and other outputs. Conferences are great for networking but equally are great for signalling to people ‘I’m working on this, I’m still figuring it out, any thoughts?’ So, I write everything down, the questions I’m asked as well as the feedback I get to fold back into the paper if it’s still a work in progress.

If it wasn’t for that first rejection, I wouldn’t have been redirected to the SLSA Conference, sure I might have had a published piece of work in the journal I’d scoped, and I probably would’ve submitted something else to the Conference for consideration. But I wouldn’t have learnt a valuable lesson I’m taking with me for the rest of my career: rejections aren’t the end of the world, and they aren’t always your fault.

The world didn’t end because a journal rejected me, my PhD didn’t fall apart before my very eyes, I was redirected to a venue from which I have made valuable connections with others and am awaiting news about a special edition. So, the work will likely still see the light of day in published form, it’s just a bit later than expected, and that’s okay for me. As Shakespeare might have said, the route to publication never is smooth.

The link to the full paper and slides can be found at:
How Edited and Disappearing Content Poses a Challenge to The UK’s Online Safety Regulations Tackling Harm Facing Young People Online

Navigating Imaginary Landscapes: My Placement with Makers of Imaginary Worlds

post by Pavlos Panagiotidis (2022 cohort)

My placement with Makers of Imaginary Worlds took place in various locations around Nottingham and remotely.

Starting date: 25/06/2023
End Date: 25/09/2023

During the past summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-month placement with Makers of Imaginary Worlds, a company that combines art and technology in innovative ways to create experiences for children and families. I worked on a number of projects during my time there, which helped me gain a better understanding of the practical implications of engaging audiences in mixed reality experiences, as well as the potential for research in the intersection of HCI and performance.

During my placement, I was presented with several opportunities to work on projects that involved immersive technologies, approaching audience engagement, and experimenting with prototype technologies for performance. These projects, located in various parts of Nottingham, posed diverse challenges that made the experience exciting and solidified my interest in the intersection of art and technology. This placement helped me refocus my research objectives towards areas likely to have practical impacts. These areas include developing innovative methods to assess audience engagement through computer vision and creating methodologies to evaluate the aesthetic implications of emerging technologies in performance-making.

One project I worked on involved the qualitative analysis of interviews with visitors to the “Home Zero” art installation. This installation was designed to encourage participants, mainly children and families, to envision a more sustainable future through a playful, interactive experience that used paintings from the National Gallery as a starting point. I cleaned the data and performed a preliminary analysis of interview transcripts to study how audiences interacted with and perceived the installation. My analysis showed evidence that visitors enjoyed engaging with tangible interfaces and hands-on interactions, which made the experience more engaging and effectively supported the learning process. Later that year, I co-authored a paper that transformed some preliminary insights into a study on the significance of tangibility in designing mixed reality experiences about environmental sustainability for children. I also had the opportunity to contribute to another academic paper based on “Home Zero”, which aims to provide bridges between the disciplines of theatre and computer science, exploring how these fields can converge to enhance participatory design.

An example of an interesting field observation was when a child participant in HomeZero used the “Imagination Scanner,” a device that supposedly measured the participant’s imaginative capacity. The child’s excitement was palpable when they scored higher than their parents, and the automated system rewarded them by opening the door to the next part of the installation. This moment highlighted how design and technology could invert typical familial hierarchies, providing a unique and empowering experience for the children involved.

During my placement, I also had the opportunity to engage closely with “The Delights,” an event that blended dance, sensory activities, and interactive installations to captivate its young audience at the Hoopla Festival, which was held in Nottingham’s local parks. My role involved interviewing families to document their experiences and synthesising this information into a detailed report for stakeholders such as the festival committee. This report not only showcased the high level of audience engagement but also underscored the event’s impact on community connection, child development, and the creative transformation of public spaces. I gained valuable experience in the process required by funders to collect and analyse data and report the outcomes of publicly funded events to justify subsidising an art-making company.

Evidently, the event transformed perceptions of local parks from mere recreational spaces to vibrant community hubs that facilitate child development, artistic expression, and community bonding. Interviews with parents revealed significant shifts in how these spaces are viewed and utilised, emphasising the parks’ new roles as sites for creative and interactive family engagement. Notably, parents appreciated how the event encouraged their children’s expressive skills and social interactions, with many noting increased confidence and communication in their children due to participating in the activities offered. The experience showed me the importance of audience insights in designing experiences. Understanding audience behaviour, expectations, and engagement can be crucial in creating successful events. My placement’s most technically challenging aspect was working on a computer vision-based audience participation assessing prototype. This project aimed to collect and analyse data regarding audience behaviour in interactive installations and explore the possibilities of using computer vision technology to refine interactive artistic experiences.

During my placement at MOIW, I gained a deeper understanding of how my backgrounds in theatre, physics, and computer science synergistically apply to mixed reality experiences. The diverse approaches include assessing audience engagement, designing for optimal user experiences, performing qualitative and quantitative data analysis, and exploring the potential of physical and technological prototypes in performance. While being a “jack of all trades and master of none” can pose challenges in pinpointing one’s exact skills, it also allows for unique involvement and contribution to artistic projects.

Further reflecting on interdisciplinary approaches, I recognised that while the potential for convergence between computer science and theatre is evident, the independent evolution of these disciplines has occasionally made collaboration challenging. However, this placement reinforced my belief in the value of interdisciplinary research and the potential to bridge gaps between these fields, making designing each mixed reality performance a valuable step toward this integration.

In general, my placement with Makers of Imaginary Worlds was a valuable experience that enhanced my understanding of immersive technologies and audience engagement in a real-world setting. It solidified my commitment to exploring the intersection of art and technology, paving the way for my future work in the field. Thanks to my placement, I developed a deeper understanding of the intersection of HCI and performance, both academically and practically. I learned that collaboration and interdisciplinary research are crucial in creating and studying mixed reality events. Mixed reality requires a blend of skills and knowledge, including art, technology, and design. Therefore, processes that support interdisciplinary collaboration are essential in creating innovative mixed-reality experiences.

My Placement: Empowering Older Adults with Technology Through the ExtraCare Smart Market Initiative

post by Angela Higgins (2022 cohort)

Technology may help older adults maintain independence and live healthier lives, however there is a belief that this population is completely unable or unwilling to embrace these interventions. My work considers how we may empower people using technology, so when given the placement opportunity to work directly with older people trying out technology, I was eager to accept. My placement with my PhD industry partner, ExtraCare Charitable Trust, was split into several weeklong activities from autumn 2023 to spring 2024.

ExtraCare Charitable Trust is the UK’s leading not-for-profit provider of retirement housing, for people over 55. Their stated mission is “creating sustainable communities that provide homes older people want, lifestyles they can enjoy and care if it’s needed”. As such they encourage active and independent living and provide their residents with opportunities and activities to promote healthy ageing.

The Smart Market scheme is run by ExtraCare to allow their residents to try before they buy a range of technologies, along with set-up support. Older people may benefit from the use of appropriate technology to support independence and manage their well-being. However, there are many perceived barriers to entry, including usability, usefulness, and cost. To negate some of these factors, the Smart Markets allow residents to trial smart devices, including Amazon Echo and Alexa products, Ring doorbells, smart plugs, smart lights, sleep tracking mats, and Fitbits.

I ran Smart Markets at two ExtraCare sites, Lark Hill in Nottingham, and Reeve Court in St Helens, Merseyside (which just so happens to be my hometown). At both locations, the Smart Market was announced at the monthly village meeting, followed by a “Demo Day”, allowing the residents to drop in and ask questions alongside demonstrations. Then, to encourage further uptake, two “Market Days” were conducted where I set up a “market stall” in a common thoroughfare at the villages for two hours on subsequent mornings. At both the Demo and Market days residents could either take the smart device themselves, if they felt comfortable setting it up, or book an installation appointment. After 6-8 weeks I returned to collect the device they’d trialled. I also interviewed some of the residents about their experience with the Smart Market, and their use of technology more generally, to produce a report to assist ExtraCare with their future provision of technology services for their residents.

Through being present in the community, I was able to meet and chat with many of the residents at each location, and met a wide range of people, with different interest levels in technology. Some people already owned a full suite of gadgets, and some had no interest in technology whatsoever. However, quite a few were interested in trying things out but were either concerned about the cost or had no one to help set them up. These people were my main Smart Markets “customers”, and I was able to answer their questions and help them decide on some technology that was useful for them. If they required the help, I then booked them in for an installation appointment where I would come to their property and get them started. Finally, some people stopped by the Smart Market events not to try out a new product, but because they were having issues with technology they already owned. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to assist everyone who needed it, but I tried to help wherever I could.

I found installing the technology with residents a joyful and insightful process. Having spent some time in the communities, this gave me a chance to get to know the individuals a little better. Residents all had unique needs, challenges, and aspirations when it came to using technology, and I tried to work with them to set-up the technology. Examples include someone who wanted to try and Fitbit because her doctor had recommended it for health monitoring, someone else wanted a smart plug to avoid having to bend down to switch a light on and off, and another woman wanted to try and Echo Show to display photographs taken by her husband. Before I left, I handed residents a guide to the features of their device and asked them if they had any specific desires from using the device. If possible, I’d set up any services or systems they’d like, such as favourite radio stations, or connections to other apps. I believe that if we are to encourage people to use technology, it should be for purposes they find useful or enjoyable, so having sometime to spend with individuals was invaluable. I was even invited to speak at a retiree’s lunch club by one of the residents, which was a new experience for me, but a very pleasant one!

After the trial period, I returned to collect the devices, and setup the new devices if residents had bought replacements. Some residents agreed to an interview about how they’d found the device, and if they were buying their own. As well as providing direct feedback to ExtraCare about the Smart Markets, I could also provide insight into how residents used technology. Often more technologically competent residents would support their friends and others in the village with their devices. Additionally, many of my interviewees had extensive experience with technology prior to retiring, and did enjoy using it, even if there was the odd difficulty!

The main difficulty I encountered during my placement was with scheduling. As I split this research into separate sections (between sites, and between the different stages of research) often I could not achieve everything I wanted within the allocated time. Sometimes this was due to scheduling conflicts between myself and the residents, sometimes due to conflicts with other responsibilities I had, and sometimes just because life events prevented everything from going to plan. However, this emphasised to me the importance of flexibility and slack time when conducting research.

Overall, I found my time spent at Lark Hill and Reeve Court thought-provoking and inspiring, and will help me develop my future work with older adults. I was able to build relationships within the community, which is especially useful as I will be conducting more research at Lark Hill, and get in-person experience of how older adults were using technology. I especially learnt a lot about outdated and ageist stereotypes at work in the assumptions people have when designing for or researching with this community.  This work has proved valuable to my PhD and I hope ExtraCare have found my work beneficial to facilitate their residents to use technology to stay happy and healthy.

My Placement Experience: Lessons and Triumphs

post by Kuzi Makokoro (2022 cohort)

Reflecting upon my placement, a key lesson around the most important decision to make before starting a placement, was to consider the specific skills and experiences I hoped to gain. This past summer, I had the opportunity to partake in a placement with my industry partner, Co-op, which turned out to be a remarkable and invaluable experience for my professional and academic growth.

Before finalising the arrangements for the placement, including setting the dates, duration, and defining the project, a series of discussions took place between my supervisors and me. We assessed the multitude of opportunities that this placement could offer. It was during these deliberations that the versatility of a placement’s benefits became apparent to me. One option is to align the placement activities with your ongoing PhD research, ensuring that the work is not only relevant to your academic pursuits but also meets the strategic needs of the industry partner. This synergy often results in a mutually beneficial outcome that propels your research forward. Another approach could be to take a break from academic work to gain a breadth of experience in the industry, thereby expanding your professional network and engaging in projects that are also of interest to you.

Having spent the last nine years in commercial roles within various industries and capacities, I was already familiar with the dynamics of industry life. This pre-existing industry experience informed my decision to select a project that complemented my PhD research. Once I made this strategic choice, the focus shifted to pinpointing a suitable project. After numerous consultations, we collectively decided to concentrate on the Healthy Start Scheme—a government- initiative designed to aid low-income families with children under four by providing them with essential foods like milk, fruits, and vegetables. This project was not only crucial to my industry partner but also resonated personally with me, as it underscored the meaningful impact of data-driven initiatives on societal well-being.

The research objectives for the placement were ambitious: to utilise predictive analytics to predict the uptake percentage of the Healthy Start Scheme using food insecurity measures and to apply machine learning techniques to identify and understand the factors that influence uptake significantly. Working in conjunction with an industry partner meant that the practical application of my research findings could potentially aid the partner in supporting and promoting the scheme more effectively.

Entering the placement, I had certain preconceptions about how the experience would unfold, the nature of the work I would engage in, and the interactions I would have with various stakeholders. However, the practical aspects of my placement differed from my initial expectations. I quickly realised that my chosen topic necessitated a more independent working style, with periodic contributions from my industry partner rather than continuous collaboration. This shift led me to a new understanding of the role of a researcher in a consultative capacity, working in partnership with an industry entity. The experience also allowed me to lead a research project autonomously and understand the nuances of impact work. My responsibilities included initiating regular meetings with my contact at Co-op, seeking input and assistance from the wider team when needed, and managing the project’s pace and milestones.

In hindsight, although the timing of the placement originally seemed appropriate, I later reflected on whether doing it later on in my PhD program might have allowed for a richer output. The project demanded proficiency in skills that I had not yet mastered at the time, necessitating a steep and rapid learning process. This included developing an understanding of predictive analytics methodologies, acquiring proficiency in programming languages such as Python, learning about digital data collection techniques, and interpreting complex model results.

Consequently, what was initially set out to be a three-month placement evolved into a five-month project, as additional time was required for me to learn, adapt, and then effectively engage in the research. I adopted various learning strategies, such as the accelerated learning techniques outlined in Jake Knapp’s book “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days,” which aided me in assimilating new information rapidly, trialling different approaches, and breaking down the project into smaller, more manageable tasks. Ultimately, I was able to enhance my skill set and produce actionable insights from the project, though a better approach to defining deliverables within the given timeframe would have been advantageous.

The research outcome was insightful; we identified several strong predictors within the model, such as income deprivation and language proficiency, as well as intriguing variables like household spending on fish and the caloric density of purchases. We explored various ways in which my industry partner could leverage these insights to better support the Healthy Start Scheme in communities where it is most needed.

In summary, the placement was a journey of adapting to a different work environment, setting pragmatic goals, and scaling up professionally. This learning experience has been instrumental in advancing my PhD work. It reiterates my initial emphasis on the importance of understanding what you seek to achieve from a placement. Although I had not initially set out to acquire these specific skills through the project, they have proven to be of great value as I continue with my PhD journey. Looking ahead, I am excited about the prospect of converting this project into my first published academic paper.

Fantasy Legal Exhibitions

post by Favour Borokini (2022 cohort)

Barely a day after I returned from St Andrews from the three weeks long Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, I again set out to London for the Fantasy Legal Exhibitions workshop, held on the 18th and 19th of July, 2023 and organised by Victoria Barnes and Amanda Perry-Kessaris. The workshop was funded by the Socio-Legal Studies Association and Kent Law School.

I enjoyed the premise of the workshop and was quite eager to apply for many reasons. One, I enjoy speculative fiction and fantasy especially. I greatly enjoyed Max Gladstone’s portrayal of magician-lawyers in “Three Parts Dead”, partially because it validated a lot of my feelings about the amorality of lawyers and (corporate and commercial) law firms and their often very expansive (and expensive), though invisible, influence on how society and the shaping of culture – I also really like gargoyles, the ghastly grotesques. Rare is the fantasy medium that provides a treatment of the things. It’s almost like no one knows what to do with them. So bravo, Max Gladstone, bravo!

photo of four stone gargoyles
Image credit: Unsplash

With the theme of the workshop being exhibition, I found the paradoxical invisibility of lawyers and the garish nature of legal artefacts: Lady Justicia, the ostentatiousness of lawyers and law firms, and the wig and gown all very fascinating.

Beyond fictive speculation, as part of the application, I reflected on the significance of exhibition in legal research and law and wrote about how the British Museum’s retainership of the face of Queen Idia and other artefacts during a punitive expedition in the 19th century.

The face of Queen Idia is of some significance to me, being the symbol of my alma mater, the University of Benin (UNIBEN), where I received my LLB. Though UNIBEN is a federal university (a type of public university administered by the federal government rather than a state government), it is situate within the territory of the Benin Kingdom, and bearing the face of Idia, the powerful Benin Queen mother, the University represents (as an avatar, ha!) a symbiosis of this plural sort of arrangement.

The British Library’s refusal to release Queen Idia’s mask, even on loan, for the global 1977 Festival of Arts of Culture (FESTAC ‘77), on the other hand, is emblematic of how not to support pluralism.

Ivory mask of Queen Idia
Ivory mask of Queen Idia: Wikipedia

During the workshop, we visited various sites, including the British Museum, where each participant was invited to visit sections of interest, drawing and reflecting on how exhibits reflected law and power. There, I found myself drawn, perhaps inevitably, as I really love anime, to the Japan section high above, where I first happened upon the Kudara Kannon statue. I was drawn to it perhaps because it is literally an avatar, a living embodiment of the deity.

sketch of Kudara Kannon statue
Artistic rendition by clearly, very talented PhD student researching avatars
Kudara Kannon statue
orginal Kudara Kannon statue

The Japan section held many attractions for me and my research, which explores performativity and self-presentation and I found the artefacts extremely fascinating as the numerous ways identity can and is presented held a lot of appeal for me.

label for the Ichikawa Danjuro lineage description

Consider, for instance, the Kabuki of the Ichikawa Danjuro lineage performed by nine generations under the same stage name!

What did this say about fluid identity across different cultures?

After we left the British Museum, we went on to visit the Postal Museum. Here, I found the more archival, custodial nature of the Postal Museum a sharp contrast to the openness of the British Museum.

The Postal Museum was presented as an institution that sought to preserve history. Some of the procedures we undertook in the museum seemed quite ritualistic as well. We had to wash our hands and ensure they were dry, for instance, due to the fragility of the documents. No photographs were allowed within the archives, either.

students looking at archives at the Postal Museum
At the Postal Museum. Photo Credit: Amanda Perry-Kessaris

We had a period of reflection on the differences in exhibition styles between these two institutions and thought about the exhibition of law. How did the presentation of law by its archivists and curates discourage and encourage public perception and interaction with the institution of law?

Workshop brief

Following this (it was a very busy day!), we went to a nearby playground and were encouraged to draw a play item and adapt its display for our own fantasy legal exhibitions.

sketch and notes by Favour
I drew a bench and a man on it under a tree with limited success.

We went on to visit Middle Temple and, finally, the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS).

display cabinets showing silver cups commemorating first women called to the bar

I think I enjoyed Middle Temple the most, though I did get lost along the way. There were so many stairs and I don’t do well with stairs and lost most of our party, and needed rescuing by Amanda.

There’s something… well, a lot about being a lawyer is quite conservative. Something to do with the nature of law itself and the sort of people typically drawn to it, sticklers for rules and all that. There is also usually a lot of history to preserve. Law provides an in, a mirror and a vantage point to understand society. You can tell a lot about the values of a group of people by studying their law. What is praised and rewarded and what is punished.

Internally, as well, how institutions like Middle Temple, dedicated to the training and development of legal professionals, were formed is rich history too, in and of itself and being a legal practitioner provides belonging. One of my favourite and amusing parts of being a (Nigerian) lawyer is how we address ourselves, “My learned brother.” In a society as conservative as Nigeria, receiving the address of “learned brother” and “gentleman” is quite significant, if also… quite clearly problematic. One may address a female colleague as brother but still treat said “brother” in very unfraternal ways, and female lawyers struggle on many fronts in the legal profession.

In Nigeria, law students wear the same clothes and study together for five years (one year more than most Nigerian undergraduate courses), we then go on to the Nigerian Law School to qualify for the Bar for a year and then spend the rest of our lives working together, dressed the same way. It was that same feeling of camaraderie that I felt at Middle Temple. A space for my kind. It was, on the whole I think, what positive exhibitionism looks like.

At the IALS, we finally got into the more practical side of things. I must preface this by admitting to struggling with visual artistry. Words, I feel quite at home with, and I do like to go on and on with the right audience but drawing and sculpting(!). Nevertheless, she persisted. Our final activities were to design our own fantasy legal exhibits and mould a sort of frontispiece for them.

I chose an eye. An eye is just a ball with long feathers on it, isn’t it?

But more seriously, all performances and exhibitions are done under an eye or for an eye or with an eye or view to achieve some aim and objective. The evil eye, the male gaze, performativeness, theatre, not even when we are alone, especially not if you’re religious, are we ever free from some sort of appraisal.

So I made an eye.

a model of a clay eye by Favour
It has an eyepatch too!

For my fantasy legal exhibition, I decided that I wanted to create an exhibit of self-portraiture avatars with African women.

Favour's sketch of a fantasy legal exhibit

All things come to an end and so too will this piece, very shortly. A few months after the workshop, all participants were invited to create a PowerPoint presentation of their exhibition. Our presentations may be viewed at the Fantasy Legal exhibitions blog post.

My research is socio-legal. In it, I explore how people represent themselves via avatars and what the law is, in response to avatars. These days, I think about the good sides of digital technologies and performance. There’s something there that is law – our norms and cultures and practices, our desires. I plan to take Eugen Ehrlich’s megalomaniac jurisprudence bent to heart as I try to discover what avatar law is.

brief for British Museum

Exploring Children’s Interaction with Robotic Installations: Reflections on Placement with Makers of Imaginary Worlds

post by Victor Ngo (2022 cohort)

My placement ran from July to September 2023, with Makers of Imaginary Worlds (MOIW), and involved planning and running a two-part study that would help inform my PhD research on ‘Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in Live Creative Installations’. More specifically, how children interact and form relationships with the robotic installation, how children understand and shape their interaction in this context, what meaning children attribute to the robot and their interaction, how curious children are during the interaction and what motivates their curiosity.

NED (The Never-Ending Dancer)

To add some background to my placement partner, MOIW are a Nottingham-based art company, who aim to create interactive and sensory experiences where children can play, engage and explore. MOIW’s first live robotics project, Thingamabobas, is aimed at younger audiences and involves the use of a computer vision-equipped robot arm, called NED (The Never-Ending Dancer), which can detect audience members and interact with them autonomously. This installation also includes a series of mechanical circus-like creations that are designed to enable children to interact with them as imaginative, dynamic sculptures that provide novel, enjoyable, and empowering experiences.

Unlike social robots, industrial robot arms typically have a functional design, void of humanoid features or facial expressions. MOIW aims to transform the industrial robot arm into a playful kinetic sculpture that defies expectations, offering an inventive interpretation. By introducing variables such as costume design, musical accompaniment, and contextual storytelling, the artists aim to redefine the perception of the robotic arm. Demonstrating how fiction can facilitate a willing suspension of disbelief among audiences, allowing viewers to trust and immerse themselves in reimagining a new reality.

The Study:

The first half of the study, part 1, was completed at the National Festival of Making, Blackburn, with a tremendous number of people attending and in general a great event! This half of the study explored the audience’s understanding of the initial robotic system, with no changes to the system’s capabilities or functionality. This allowed for a base understanding of its performance, capabilities, and limitations in the wild for a researcher new to the system, this proved extremely useful and provided me with the knowledge necessary to complete part 2. The second half of the study, part 2, was completed at the Mansfield Museum, Mansfield, exploring the same audience understanding, however, the system was altered to allow for 360-degree motion around the robot’s base as well as a different method of detecting the audience, moving to body pose detection from facial recognition. Although a direct comparison between the two studies is not possible, insights into audience responsiveness, engagement, and enjoyment are all possible and valuable to the discussion, and future development of this system or similar systems.

Reflections:

Over the course of three months, this placement has provided me with the opportunity to develop key interpersonal and professional skills, as well as improve my technical aptitude.

My initial discussions with MOIW for the placement were straight away met with enthusiasm and sometimes whimsical imagination from Roma Patel and Rachel Ramchurn, the artists of MOIW. Despite MOIW being a relatively small company, I was fortunate enough to learn the ins and outs of art installation production and how artists like Roma and Rachel turn ideas and imagination into professional productions, and how they deal with issues, changes and unexpected setbacks. Shadowing them allowed me to observe how they manage large-scale projects and interact with professional organisations. This has enabled me to further develop and improve my own understanding of professional engagement and project management.

Throughout all stages of the placement, the artists from MOIW frequently discussed possible alterations and upgrades with me to improve the interaction capabilities of the robot. Here I was able to apply and improve my technical experience, developing solutions to enhance the robot’s interaction capabilities or increase the system’s audience detection accuracy and reliability. Despite the technical success of some of the solutions developed, it is important to highlight that not all of the artist’s ideas were technically feasible or within the scope of the project. Communicating this effectively and managing the artist’s expectations was key to ensuring that both the robot was functional and ready for the study, and the professional relationship with MOIW was maintained, without either party being let down or led to believe the system was any greater or less than what was agreed on.

During the study, I was not only the lead researcher on site but also a range of other roles that sometimes required me to step out of my comfort zone. These included in no particular order of social or imaginative intensity; Thingamabobas Wrangler, Storyteller, Imagination Guide, The Researcher from Nottingham University, Technical Support.

As part 1 of the study at the National Festival of Making was a two-day event over the weekend during the height of the UK summer holiday, I was left with little choice but to quickly adapt to these new roles or suffer being swarmed by the thousands of curious and enthusiastic visitors that attended the event. To my surprise, and with a little help from Roma and Rachel, I was able to help children and adults alike be transported into the whimsical world of the Thingamabobas, for about 20 minutes at a time.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and opportunity to work with MOIW to not only develop an art installation, but to also help run it was a great privilege. The skills I have learned and applied in both professional engagements as well as in the wild will be beneficial to my PhD research and to myself as an individual.

 

Reflections on my placement at the Department for Transport

post by Phuong Anh (Violet) Nguyen (2022 cohort)

I began my placement in the Data Science team of the Analytic Directorate at the Department of Transport in April 2023 to gain access to datasets for my pilot research. However, I feel that my internship officially began in July, when I was able to become familiar with my work and knew precisely what was expected of me. I still remember the rainy afternoon when I went to the warehouse to collect my IT kit. It was quite a funny memory, and now it is quite emotional to pack and return my kit as my internship is over.

My project

My internship was an integral component of my doctoral research on “Using personas in transport policymaking.” I aimed to combine various data sources to investigate the travel behaviour of various demographic groups, and then use this understanding to inform transport planning and policy formulation.

I began by examining multiple DfT data sources, including the National Transport Survey, Telecoms Data, and Transport Data dashboard. I arranged meetings with several data team members to ask them about how they analysed these data in previous projects. I also had opportunities to discuss with members of other teams including System Thinking, Policy, Social Research, and Data administration… to learn about their work and the policy-making process at DfT.

Since the official release of the transport user personas report in July, I have collaborated closely with the personas team. I began with an examination of the methodology for developing personas. I also attempted to apply additional data science techniques to the same dataset (National Transport Survey) to cluster travellers into distinct groups and compare the results of the various methods.

DfT published transport user personas. (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/transport-user-personas-understanding-different-users-and-their-needs).

I worked with the Social Research team to organise workshops introducing the potential of using personas in DfT’s work, such as Road Investment, AI Strategy, and Highway… In addition, as part of my research, I utilised the Social-technical framework theory to structure the transport system and then gathered data to present and analyse the interaction between personas and other transport system components. On the other hand, I learned how policy is formulated and I will continue to work with the Policy team to investigate how personas can support their work.

Some lessons for myself

About work

Working on the Data Science team, which is part of the Advanced Analytics Directorate, was an excellent opportunity for me to improve my statistics, mathematics, and programming skills. Colleagues were very knowledgeable and supportive. Through the team’s regular meetings and project summaries, I got a general understanding of which projects are active and which models and methodologies are used to solve the problems. Sometimes I found myself bewildered by mathematical formulas and technical models. Although I have studied Data Science in the past, which has provided me with a foundation in Data analysis and Programming, in real work data looked more complicated. The assignments in the placement have taught me how to overcome the challenges of dealing with multiple data types.

Working in Civil Service, I had access to numerous training resources, workshops, and presentations, including but not limited to Science and Programming, this course covered user-centric services, artificial intelligence, evidence-based policymaking, and management skills. This is why I regard my civil servant account to be so valuable.

I received numerous perspectives and comments on my research proposal thanks to weekly discussions with my line manager and multiple team members. Importantly, I learned how to present and explain my ideas and academic theories to people from diverse backgrounds, as well as how to make the ideas clear and simple to comprehend. I believe this is a crucial skill in multidisciplinary research, communication, and public engagement.

About working environment

This was also my first time working in civil service, a “very British” working environment. Even though I have more than five years of experience in the airline industry, it took me a while to become accustomed to office work. It could be because the working environment in Vietnam differs from that in the United Kingdom, business differs from civil service, and full-time office work differs from hybrid work.

In addition to the knowledge and expertise I gained, I learned a great deal about time management and how to use Outlook professionally to organise my work, as well as how to spend concentration time between multiple meetings every day. This was extremely helpful when having to divide my time between multiple tasks, such as PhD research, placement, and meetings with supervisors from various institutions. In addition, I believe that working in person in the office is more beneficial than remote working, having access to a larger screen. being able to meet and discuss with multiple people, rather than being limited to 30-minute meetings and a small laptop screen. Thus, I travelled to London every week. These regular catchups with my line manager/industry partner proved helpful because the industry partner was able to provide a realistic perspective and I was able to update them on my work and interact with other DfT employees who supported my research.

About my personal development

Since I began my PhD journey, I have experienced many “first-time experiences”, including my first time working in Civil Service. This placement is not only an integral part of my PhD research, but also provides me with a great deal of experience and lessons for my personal growth. It was so unusual and sometimes difficult, but it forced me to leave my comfort zone. I was confident in my ability to perform well, having had the previous experience of being an airline strategist in the past, but the new experience of being an intern, learning something new, made me humble and enthusiastic as if I had just started school.

My principal lesson is to simply DO IT, JUST DO IT. I believe that the majority of my depression stems from my tendency to overthink. There were times when I examined the data set and had no idea what to do. I was even afraid to send emails or speak with others. However, when I actually did what I should do – WRITE something and ASK some questions – and I saw results, I realised that that work is simpler than I originally thought. Then I learned that sitting in a state of distress and worrying about the future is ineffective in resolving the issue. I must take action and be diligent to see myself become a little bit better and better every day.

The summer was very short, and most colleagues took vacation time. Honestly, the internship was not “comfortable” in the beginning, but now I believe everything is going well. This placement is also assisting me in developing a clearer plan for my PhD project. I am grateful for the support and lessons I have gained from this opportunity, and I am considering another summer placement next year.