Coronavirus, working from home and cybersecurity

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)

As coronavirus sweeps across the globe all sectors are looking towards governmental bodies to issue statements that outline the next steps to contain this pandemic. Even from its early days, coronavirus demonstrated its far reaching impact on economies through effecting major sectors such as hospitality, tourism, governmental operations, hospitals, exports, imports and education (to name a few).

Italy is on an incredible total lock-down that hasn’t been seen by any developed state in recent memory. Wuhan’s lock-down is an incredible feat albeit too late. The US takes a more relaxed stance but has seen a number of cases where businesses are encouraging or mandating employees to work from home (WFH). In the UK, the Chancellor has just announced a £50b emergency response budget to the national health services, companies with less than 250 staff will be refunded for sick pay (for a period of 2 weeks/employee) and Statutory sick pay will be paid to all those who choose to self-isolate, even if they don’t have symptoms. I have also had conversations with people in the health service who are taking an unpaid leave of up to a month during this time to safeguard themselves. So things are getting serious and business can allow employees to work remotely for at least without suffering financially.

The dilemma with many businesses is that they’re not setup correctly or securely enough to allow remote working. This is no surprise as it costs businesses a great deal of money to secure remote channels that can access their information systems and ties in closely with their existing software and hardware architecture. Plus, it’s a complex operation to roll out and debug.

If your cybersecurity is compromised whilst WFH, sure enough someone (most likely you) will be held accountable. So, what does it mean for you if you’re at small business/start-up/charity/governmental department that’s just implemented a WFH policy.

Before leaping for joy at how convenient this might be for you (cutting out commuting time, money and health risks from mouth breathers) take a beat and consider doing the following:

Safe working space at home

This is a big one. Homes have a lot of distractions so what would this mean for your productivity? Would you end up putting in more time to make up for it? Is there enough structure at your place to allow you to take timely breaks and balance out your professional and private life? Would you remember to lock your device every time you step away or risk your child hopping on and sending out an email you were drafting and cause a formal cyber incident? Would it just mean more work for you? A ‘safe’ space should be your first thought when considering WFH.

Insurance coverage

Check what your company’s insurance policy is. If you (or your cat) accidentally spills something on your company device, is it covered off office premises? You don’t want to be out of access and be out of pocket for a policy implementation that wasn’t well thought out and you didn’t know what the risks would be.

Cybersecurity when WFH

Both elements above involve cybersecurity. Insurance coverage also covers the Availability aspect of cybersecurity and working space at home covers cyber accidents and incidents. Not many people would even know what a VPN is and wouldn’t have this set up for their home broadband. And that’s OK for your personal use! But when working on your home Wi-Fi it could impact your cybersecurity levels when WFH. Before you begin, ask your employer if they have systems in place that ensure your cybersecurity levels while working remotely are equally secure as when you’re on the premises. This could entail things such as encryption that add an additional layer of security when working remotely.

Access

I found out through experience that while small companies offer a ‘basic version’ of working remotely it can come with a lot of lag (you have a portal you go through via a personal device to access your work computer’s desktop). If systems aren’t set up correctly (well configured) your access can hang or crash. This could mean you’ll end up doing the same task for the tenth time! If you’re using your personal device to remotely access your computer and are frustrated with the system not working, you might be tempted to move files to your personal devices (so it all ends before you enter your kill zone) – don’t! This becomes more hassle than it’s worth and it’s much easier to get in touch with your IT department to report the issue to fix before you can begin your work on that task again – so sip some tea in the meantime.

In some cases the drives can be separated so while it all appears normally on your work computer this might not be the case for when you’re working remotely. Check with your employer if there’s a specific drive you need to move your documents to (while on premises) to ensure you have access to them remotely.

If you have a company provided computer such as a laptop then you’re clear of most of the headaches that come with lag, crashing systems and availability of documents – hurrah!

Prefer conversations instead of emails or texts

Try to have as many skype/video/call conversations as possible. This ensures that you are actually speaking to the person who you think you’re speaking to so your communication has what is known as Integrity in cybersecurity. Access through an insecure connection (such as your home Wi-Fi even if it has a strong password) can mean your account gets compromised and you have a man-in-the-middle intercepting and responding to your confidential company communications.

These are just some of the things that came to my mind when thinking about WFH cybersecurity and I hope it helps! If you’re a team leader encourage your team to adopt these practices. If you’re an employer, certainly consider these aspects prior to enforcing remote working. It would be good for companies preparing to have their employees WFH, to have a session that outlines best practice scenarios, remits of liability and answer any concerns or queries while we wait for coronavirus to pass.

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

Writing PhD thesis in the middle of a Pandemic

Post by Kate (Green) O’Leary (2016 Cohort)

It’s been a long while since I last blogged; seems like an ongoing theme over the past few years. It’s not that I purposefully don’t, I honestly just forget.

Anyway, here we are, in the middle of a pandemic and boy aren’t we feeling it. In a lot of ways life in my household has not changed a great deal. I have worked from home for over three years and my husband is a keyworker so, for the most part, things are relatively ‘normal’.

That doesn’t mean however, that I am finding writing my PhD thesis a walk in the park. It’s been extremely testing to say the least. I am currently about 4 months away from submission and on paper I am more than on track to finish on time; I am also determined to make that a reality. I still have my discussion, introduction, epistemological position, and appendices left to draft and my goal is to have the discussion written by the end of May.

Something that I find particularly difficult is going from the anxiety-filled, but excited and accomplished feeling when sending a section of chapters to supervisors, to a blank document: the next chapter. After having just finished one roller coaster of emotions the thought of starting it all again with another chapter feels painful. So much so that I don’t even want to get started on it.

I know that the best advice is “to just start” and then when I am in the zone, things will fall into place. Right now, it’s not like I have anything really to do that gives me a legitimate excuse not to do it. I am pretty sure that terraforming my island on Animal Crossing isn’t a good enough reason really.

Knowing that the final 9 months leading up to the submission was going to be a difficult one, in January I organised a writing group that met biweekly in Nottingham. It was organised as a relaxed space for people to write/work together and feel that they can have a ‘blah’ moment if they needed it. Going into lockdown, I knew that people transitioning to working from home constantly was going to rattle with their motivation to work, as having that separation between work and home is so valuable. Having all that roll into one gets messy.

The writing group now meets 3 times a week online. We turn our mics and cameras off for the most part, and work together. There is a chat box and we break (randomly) for chats. Knowing that there is someone on the other end of the line trying to work, brings a sense of community and the feeling that we are all in this together.

Without the encouragement of my friends at the CDT, I honestly don’t know how the past few weeks would have shaped up.

Today was a writing group day. I have grown tired of having no motivation and genuinely wanted to make a dent into this next chapter. With the encouragement of others, I’ve broken ground; two discussion points have been completed. Two of many, many more.

I hope that tomorrow I can tackle one more, hopefully more; but I won’t put too much pressure on myself.

Until next time folks.

–originally posted on Kate’s blog

Covid-19 and Cybercrime

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)

After being in self isolation for what feels like an eternity like many others I am also starting to get warped for what time it is. It’s hard for me to remember when things happened or which day we’re on. I’m experiencing a weird fatigue setting in which is the same for many of the people I’ve been speaking to, despite LinkedIn being on steroids. The fatigue also means that I’m finding it hard to find inspiration to write this blog but here we are – it’s Friday and things must get done. So, welcome to another blog post!

In my earlier posts I wrote about remote working and some pitfalls this could bring for your cybersecurity during Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, as more people have shifted to working from home (WFH) cyberthreats have been on a sharp increase. Some of you might be aware of Zoom (group meet up software) vulnerabilities that allowed hackers or unauthorised users to attend closed sessions which quickly became known as Zoom Bombings. Some kids innocently did some Zoom Bombings to prank their teachers while hackers used this to cause disruptions to virtual classrooms in Singapore.

The National Centre for Cyber Security (NCSC) and the National Centre in the US have issued a joint statement this month to announce that cybercriminals are using Covid-19 themed content to lure in users that are then cyberattacked.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise. There was an interesting mapping done by one of the US universities that showed how the virus moved across the US after spring breakers partied and went back to their respective homes. In the UK there have been several news stories on the BBC talking about an app by the government which will track Covid-19 infections. Given this context it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the easiest bait is for a cybercriminal. To me it’s the same as discussing that you’re planning to upgrade your home with new windows in public places (either online or in real life) and then suddenly seeing adverts that talk about a local window company or worse, getting cold calls from them. Plus, with a pandemic that’s sucker punched economies, had impacts that were unforeseen or unknown and where you have authorities proactively conceal the number of infections, it’s not surprising that Covid-19 becomes an interesting concept to explore, track and be ‘in the know’ for.

So, what can you do to stay safe online. I would suggest reading the news once or twice a day from a trusted source, ideally in static text (such as articles as opposed to interactive graphs), avoid disclosing your location to check the number of cases in your local area and always be wary of clicking links that are from people you don’t know. Even if the links are from people you might frequently speak with, be alert and notice if something ‘doesn’t feel right’ because their account could’ve been hacked. Trust your instincts with content online, listen to that small voice in your head that’s usually right and try to supress (if not temporarily extinguish) your curiosity for the time being. While you’re focusing on suppressing your curiosity, practice some mindfulness or Netflix binge watch the Tiger King.

Stay safe and my best wishes your way. Until next time!

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

Small visit to Big Dat – winter school conference in Ancona

Post by Vanja Ljevar (2017 Cohort) reflecting on her experience at BigDat2020

Big Dat was an international data science winter school that gathered many influential data scientists (currently working in industry), but also a vast number of postgraduate students, lecturers and other data science enthusiasts. This winter school was organised by Politecnico Italia, in Ancona, and lasted for 5 days, during which there were interactive workshops and talks given by international speakers. The concept was: we had an option to chose which morning lectures we were interested in attending; the morning lectures were concluded by a lunch where we had a chance to socialise with other equally minded data scientists. In the evenings we had arranged meetings with other participants for socializing, dining (and even dancing!).

One of the benefits of participating in this winter school was exploring Ancona during our free time. Being a very atypical Italian city, it is a well-kept secret, away from other touristy-crowded Italian attractions. However, this city of barely 100.000 people has a very rich history, maintained through old churches, small Venice-like streets (but no channels) and markets.

Our hotel was located next to a breath-taking monument – Il Passetto. This is an example of fascist architecture, commemorating the second world-war victims.

Apart from Ancona’s beautiful sights, some of the most relevant highlights of this winter school proved to be interesting ideas and concepts that can inspire data scientists to produce more effective, more creative and more ground breaking work. Bellow are only some of the examples.

The power of handwriting

Dr Charles Elkan, from the University in Califonia gave an incredible introductory lecture on deep learning. This lecture was focused on maths behind the concept and shed a new light on backpropagation, name entity recognition and co-reference resolution. However, the highlight of the presentation was the use of PowerPoint slides, in a way I have never seen before. Instead of creating a standard set of slides, Dr Elkan put on a screen his hand-written pages. After going though several (already) written slides, he wrote mathematical formulas in real time and we could see them on the screen. This provided the sense of a more personal, even face-to-face teaching environment, which we used to have with teachers in primary schools. This meant that we could all approach this largely popular, but also inaccessible (and may I add scary) field – from scratch (literally!) and with a more comforting and nurturing approach.

Occan’s razor

Another amazing set of lectures was given on the topic of Process Mining. Process Mining was more business – focused lecture about the family of techniques that support the analysis of business processes based on event logs. Presented as a highly relevant field of research, process mining was introduced though its four main characteristics: generalisation, precision, fitness and simplicity. The explanation about why simplicity is extremely important for process mining, the speaker mentioned the Occan’s razor – the problem-solving principle that states: when presented with competing hypothesis that make the same prediction, one should select the solution with fewer assumptions. The reason why Occan’s razor theory is particularly interesting is because it reflects the fact that this winter school was not only focused on delivering new knowledge about the latest progress in the filed, it also enabled us to share underlying theories and ideas that any data scientist and developer should have in mind during research. To further illustrate similar concept explained in the light of process mining, there was also a mention of the ‘conformance checking’. This is another concept that saves us from the bias of ‘unfairness’. To illustrate, if we ask who is the doctor who killed the most patients, it is highly likely to be the most experienced one (simply because they had seen the most patients!). Process mining takes into account such biases, which makes it fair and efficient.

How to produce nice graphs Be a detective

We walked into this lecture knowing one power of data visualisation: to communicate results in a more engaging and interesting way. Everyone likes nice graphs and we are always in search of new and more powerful softwares that will enable us to create them. However, this lecture was not about pretty graphs, it was about the true power of data visualisation – story telling and detective work. We learned presenting data visually is relevant not only because sometimes there are statistics that are the same, but their underlying data is different. Data visualisation is also a sort of detective work, aimed at creating work that presents several parts combined to respond to questions such are: who, when, what, where. The ultimate goal is finding a response to questions like why and how. To illustrate, the presenter gave us a story about John Snow and 1800’s London during the outbreak of cholera. Even though doctors and scientists believed it was the bad air that was responsible for cholera, John Snow decided to visually present the map of cholera cases in Soho, in 1813. Based on this visual representation of cases, John Snow was able to respond to a very important question – what do all these cases have in common? It turned out that all these patients retrieved water from the local street pump. After removing the pump’s handle John Snow effectively stopped the outbreak and unknowingly unlocked the power of data visualisation that today exists at every data scientists reach.

Summary

Overall, BigDat 2020 was addressed to students, researchers and practitioners who want to keep themselves updated about recent developments and future trends. It was a memorable research training event, with a global scope, aiming at investigating advances in the critical and fast developing area of big data, but also society itself. This was of particular relevance to my PhD as I got a chance to learn more about Natural Language processing, Deep Learning and speak to the leading experts from the field.  In fact, interaction was the main component of the event, reminding us all that we are always in a continuous pursue of knowledge, regardless of whether we are industry practitioners, renowned academics, industry pioneers or merely a 3rd year CDT students.

5 out of 5 stars!

Returning from BigDat2020

post by Maddy Ellis (2016 cohort)
reflecting on her experience at BigDat2020

BigDat 2020

6th International Winter School on BigDat
Department of Information Engineering
Marche Polytechnic University 
Ancona, Italy – January 13-17, 2020

Big Data in a growing field with ties into a number of academic tracks. The variety of sources, applications of Big Data create a large spectrum of challenges and advances which have potential for huge impact on scientific discoveries in business models, society, medicine and numerous other fields. BigDat2020 brought together researchers, academics and industry pioneers to facilitate learning, collaborations and idea sharing. 

During the winter school seminars and lectures were put on in a number of areas such as, major challenges of analytics, infrastructure, management, search and mining, security, privacy and applications. Alongside these courses from a number of inspiring speakers, the event also hosted daily lunches and breaks which motivated active and promising interactions from research students. Below are some reflections of my experience at BigDat2020. 

18th Century Insights into
21st Century Problems


During the winter school Rory Smith (Monash University) ran a series of lectures on ‘Learning from Data, the Bayesian Way’. The goal of these lectures was to take a Bayesian look at statistically optimal ways to detect and extract information in noisy data. This lecture series addressed a range of Bayesian related topics from inference and parameter estimation to sampling methods and hierarchical inference. Coming from a pure mathematics degree these lectures appealed to me the moment I saw them in the schedule. An early slide in the course read “18th Century Insights into 21st Century Problems”. This really resonated with me. My PhD is an interesting hybrid between the application of mathematics into modern issues such as poverty and development. Often in my literature review I have come across papers from over 100 years ago and yet the mathematics not only still hold but is fundamentally routed and often unchanged in work done today. There is something beautiful about this. It’s like visiting an old cathedral and admiring the strength of large pillars which have stayed standing through years of weathering and generations of visitors. 

Bayesian methodology is a statistical tool introduced by Rev.Thomas Bayes in the 18th century, yet it is vital in providing solutions to a variety of statistical issues and problems presented by researchers today. It’s incredible! Bayes approach can be used to compliment a range of statistical methods and I would recommend researchers from any field look into learning some basic Bayesian statistics to see where they could be used in their work.

Accessibility


Another thing which stood out to me at this event was accessibility. Big data is such a broad topic and is applied in so many fields now that scoping an event tailored to all these fields is inevitably difficult. People attending this conference ranged from pure data scientists and statisticians with intricate knowledge of a range of big data areas, to people from humanity schools looking to learn what big data is to apply it to their work. Knowing this I was pleased to see that the schedule of the events include a vast range of understanding requirements for different talks. Everyone was able to pick talks which suited their needs. Many of the talks though-out the week were however given as a follow on to previous talks in the week on the same topic. The meant that there were some big leaps within and in between talks. You could sit in an hour long talk and spend the first 20 mins feeling like you were not learning anything, then be totally lost by the last 20 mins. I think this is an inevitable part of interdisciplinary work, there will be moments when you feel things are too basic and moments of overwhelming confusion. This can really feed into impostor syndrome. What I did like about this event is that there were ample resources online provided after each talk which pointed people in the right direction both for learning the basics and extending topics to more complex levels. PhD can be very isolated, you work on a tiny specific area of what you do, and often you are the only one doing it. Sometimes you might read a paper or article which leaves you totally baffled and not even knowing where to look up the information you would need to understand what the paper was talking about. Events like this help to combat these issues of accessibility and impostor syndrome – they unite people and present an opportunity for experiences to be shared and questions to be asked.

My presentation


During Big Dat I presented a summary of my recent work. One thing I talked about during my presentation was data cleaning. After this presentation someone approached me and explained that they had experienced similar ‘messy data’ issues in a completely different dataset and field of study. This sparked a really interesting conversation about the challenges we have both faced and led to us both going away with various notes on our phone of ‘Things to look into’. Without the opportunity to present this conversation would never have happened. If I could speak to my younger self of future researchers starting on the PhD journey I would encourage them to take every possible opportunity to present their work. Not only will the practice build their confidence presenting and spark useful feedback and discussions but they will also get to know their work better and be pushed to clarify aspects of work.

It’s a boy thing…


Another reflect I had of this week is an ongoing reflection throughout my educational experience. I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics. Many of my lectures, seminars and tutorials showed disproportionally many boys compared to girls. This was also reflected in the teaching staff on the course. At the time I remember questioning it and thinking why is it like this? At what age does this separation start? Who’s responsibility is it to engage young women in the field? Sitting in my first talk at Big Data I was brought right back to all those questions. I picked the more technical of the two morning sessions and in a room of nearly 100 people I could only spot about 5-6 girls. Although not as extreme, the rest of the event also had notably more boys in attendance than girls. The gender gap in the professional world is closing, albeit slowly. However the data science and more broadly tech industry are still lagging behind despite being considered a modern field of work. Problem in the work force such as pay gaps, marginalisation and discrimination are not born in the work place, they grow throughout our education. I am lucky enough to be a part of a number of different projects involving young people. After coming back from this event I am inspired to talk to these children (both boys and girls) about the wonderful world and opportunities in STEM. 

There are big questions around this. What causes these problems? And more importantly, what can people along the education path, and working in the data science industry do to solve it and be more inclusive. It could take a lifetime to answer these questions, but I want to take these thoughts with me in my career. Whatever I end up doing I want to use my research (PhD and beyond) to show young people just one of the many incredible uses of STEM knowledge.

Gratitude


This is the final year of my PhD… the famously dreaded write up year. I am certain there will be points when I wonder “Why did I do this?” “Can I do this?” “Will it all be okay?” I know I will get wrapped up in various bubbles of stress and panic. 

Fact…. It’s gonna be tough! 

That being said, I am currently writing about the reflection of an academic event I attended in Italy. An event where I learnt all sorts of things about statistics, data visualisations and problems of privacy in big data among other things. An event which led me to meet all sorts of fascinating people at various points in their career researching a range of things from road safety to spread of disease. An event which allowed me to see Ancona, a city founded by Greek settlers and today one of the main ports on the Adriatic Sea with a colleague and close friend. An event where I had the opportunity to present my work and get feedback from knowledgeable experts allowing me to improve my work. How wonderful right?! 

This is just one of the many things which had happened to me because I became a PhD candidate. My approach to getting through this year is to pop my stressful bubbles with gratitude. Before writing this Big Data reflection I wrote a list of things which I am grateful for through my PhD. Random items from this list are now scheduled to pop up at various points from now until my completion date, giving me some much needed perspective. No matter how stressful I find this year, it’s a privileged stress to have and I intend to appreciate as much of it as possible. Here are just a few examples of things I am grateful for. 

Coding – Early on in my PhD my supervisor encouraged me to take the time to make friends with Python. I couldn’t have even considered the opportunities and doors this skill will open before I started. 

Mathematics for Development Bridge – However nerdy and cheesy its sounds I love maths and I love helping people. This PhD has shown me that there is a place for both. I can be a part of work with real impact without giving up my love of mathematics.

People – Where to start with this one? The range of wonderful people I have met through this PhD is incredible! I’ve met inspiring people who are doing incredible work, like-minded people, people from totally different lives and fields to me and, people who have become lifelong friends.

These are just three of a long list, but there is so much more; seeing the world, personal growth and awareness among other things. For any fellow PhD students in their final year… we got this! 

Key Take Aways


Maths is timeless and beautiful! (And have a look at Bayesian Statistics) 

Scoping large interdisciplinary events is hard, but worth it! 

There is more to be done in terms of gender equality, and I want to prioritise this in my own career. I wanted to do this PhD – and my gosh am I grateful for the opportunities it has given me! 

 -originally posted on Maddy’s website 

Coronavirus, Social Isolation and Loneliness

Post by Dominic Reedman-Flint (2017 Cohort)

As the Coronavirus moves into Pandemic status and more and more countries use ‘Lock Down’ techniques to mitigate the spread, we are going to be left with more and more people self-isolating. Have the effects of self-isolation been considered on individuals’ mental wellbeing?  We are suddenly plunging large swathes of the population into social situations that they may never have experienced before over the long-term. How will they cope? How would you cope if you have to self-isolate?

Another concern is that this self-isolation feels enforced in that we feel like there is no alternative. This, again, plays against our natural, social instincts and serves to ‘confuse our senses’. We are having to force ourselves to be isolated when we are naturally social animals. From a mental wellbeing perspective, this is a challenge.

However, the good news is we all have our digital selves and social networks for company. We ‘chat’ and message and read and ‘meme’ daily. Indeed, we have never been more technologically supported to manage this exact circumstance with mobile phones, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Slack et al we can connect instantaneously to multiple friends and family (and fellow researchers.) However, our physical networks are being broken so will our digital identities be strong enough to support our mental health? Evidence of extreme isolation and survival through digital identity is, perhaps unsurprisingly, scarce (maybe this will be an opportunity for me to get a study active) but evidence of mental health problems from lack of physical human contact exists. This is what we are facing on a global scale thanks to Coronavirus.

What is the loneliness we are discussing, we have all felt a bit down when we can’t connect or don’t have plans to connect. FOMO (or Fear Of Missing Out) can also feed feelings of loneliness but essentially what we are dealing with here is a much more deep-seated ‘need’ for connection that is not being met. Clearly Self-isolation will expose more people to the chance of feeling a connection is not being met. This could potentially lead to more people having mental health problems in the short and the long run or turning to addictions to quell the feelings of loneliness. It’s more easily done than you realise. Mind, a UK charity have this simple diagram that demonstrates, what I call, the downward spiral of loneliness.

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/

The sort of effects of this spiral include ‘depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.’ None of which we particularly need to be feeling when there is a deadly pandemic flying around the planet.

I’m speaking from personal experience as I was terrible at being alone and dealing with loneliness in my 20’s so I went out to pubs. A lot. And then it became a habit, which became an addiction. It was only through building physical connections that I didn’t fall off the edge altogether.

So how can we mitigate the dangers of enforced self-isolation? Some simple steps help to maintain mental wellbeing when isolated. Having agendas or timetables or just to do lists helps to motivate and rewards progress. Having hobbies and activities you can enjoy alone, be it computer games, music, reading or binge watching to name a few. Also building connections by reaching out, keep what communication channels are available open and use them regularly to show you are thinking about one another. Play games together, Word with Friends is a good start.  Make plans for the end of the pandemic.  Discuss the potential end of capitalist societies due to the pandemic. Just connect.

The important thing is to be aware that self-isolation will not suit everybody and those that struggle with it may need your help. And if you find you are struggling, I’m only as message away.

Another concern is that this self-isolation feels enforced in that we feel like there is no alternative. This, again, plays against our natural, social instincts and serves to ‘confuse our senses’. We are having to force ourselves to be isolated when we are naturally social animals. From a mental wellbeing perspective, this is a challenge.

However, the good news is we all have our digital selves and social networks for company. We ‘chat’ and message and read and ‘meme’ daily. Indeed, we have never been more technologically supported to manage this exact circumstance with mobile phones, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Slack et al we can connect instantaneously to multiple friends and family (and fellow researchers.) However, our physical networks are being broken so will our digital identities be strong enough to support our mental health? Evidence of extreme isolation and survival through digital identity is, perhaps unsurprisingly, scarce (maybe this will be an opportunity for me to get a study active) but evidence of mental health problems from lack of physical human contact exists. This is what we are facing on a global scale thanks to Coronavirus.

What is the loneliness we are discussing, we have all felt a bit down when we can’t connect or don’t have plans to connect. FOMO (or Fear Of Missing Out) can also feed feelings of loneliness but essentially what we are dealing with here is a much more deep-seated ‘need’ for connection that is not being met. Clearly Self-isolation will expose more people to the chance of feeling a connection is not being met. This could, potentially, lead to more people having mental health problems in the short and the long run or turning to addictions to quell the feelings of loneliness. It’s more easily done than you realise, Mind, a UK charity have this simple diagram that demonstrates, what I call, the downward spiral of loneliness.

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/

The sort of effects of this spiral include ‘depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.’ None of which we particularly need to be feeling when there is a deadly pandemic flying around the planet.

I’m speaking from personal experience as I was terrible at being alone and dealing with loneliness in my 20’s so I went out to pubs. A lot. And then it became a habit, which became an addiction. It was only through building physical connections that I didn’t fall off the edge altogether.

So how can we mitigate the dangers of enforced self-isolation? Some simple steps help to maintain mental wellbeing when isolated. Having agendas or timetables or just to do lists helps to motivate and rewards progress. Having hobbies and activities you can enjoy alone, be it computer games, music, reading or binge watching to name a few. Also building connections by reaching out, keep what communication channels are available open and use them regularly to show you are thinking about one another. Play games together, Word with Friends is a good start.  Make plans for the end of the pandemic.  Discuss the potential end of capitalist societies due to the pandemic. Just connect.

The important thing is to be aware that self-isolation will not suit everybody and those that struggle with it may need your help. And if you find you are struggling, I’m only a message away.

Working with Inspire Foundation Nottingham

Post by Symeon Dionysis (2017 Cohort)

 

In a society that seems to be increasingly motivated by personal gain, be it financial or otherwise, altruistically offering your energy, knowledge, and more importantly your time, towards a cause you find meaning to is a refreshing deed for the soul. Although I have participated in voluntary work before, the academic workload over the past three years has not allowed me to do so. Until now! Inspire Foundation was established in early 2019 by a group of researchers/employees of the University of Nottingham as well as individual from across the city. The goal? To bring together and integrate new and established communities through cultural and educational events and activities.

(Inspire Foundation at the Signpost to Polish Success (SPS) Event – November 2019)

Back in April, during a conversation with a friend (and one of Inspire’s founders), he informed me about the project they were putting together and the STEM club for young people they had just start running. I have always enjoyed working with kids (I have spent more than two years doing work on the social-emotional development of pre-schoolers) and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved, once again, in voluntary work. I decided to attend one session which was a broad and palatable introduction to computer science. The youngsters were enthusiastic and after the presentation, we spend some bonding time together. It was apparent to me at this point that this was an initiative worth getting involved with.

The main project of the foundation is the “Victor Tudorica” Bursary and Saturday Club, in memory of Victor Tudorica, a student at The University of Nottingham how unfortunately passed away back in 2016. With the goal of promoting and delivering educational activities and workshops in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) fields this initiative is aimed at young people between 11-15 years of age from disadvantages and potentially vulnerable backgrounds. The club ran for 6 months (March 2019 – August 2019) and it included a vast array of activities ranging from building LEGO robots to discussing skills for the future and from creating short movies to dismantling old computer hardware. The club also paid a visit to our own Mixed Reality Lab where we had the chance to talk to researchers, have fun at the VR playground and get our personalised laser-cut tags.

The most memorable activity for me was the movie-making session. At the previous meeting, we formed groups of 3-4 people and decided the theme of the short movie as well as set up our storyboards. We had, therefore, the structure of the story ready and upon our arrival, we decided what roles each one will play, where we are going to shoot our scenes and what kind of props we will need. After finishing with shooting, we spend a good amount of time editing our movies which we then presented to the entire group. It was an excellent activity for the young ones, being both engaging and informative since they learned how to use a camera and editing software as well as solving problems on the spot.

(Video Making Session at the Saturday Club – July 2019)

After the completion of the Saturday Club, I was wondering whether to get more involved with Inspire Foundation in the upcoming year and a couple of weeks ago I received a message regarding Inspire’s annual general meeting. Walking into the meeting, I was still not sure whether my academic work will allow me for a more committed role in the charity. These doubts, however, were waived away after experiencing first-hand the commitment and engagement from all other members. I decided, consequently, to become a trustee for this year. It is, indeed, the first time I become involved in this way with a charity and I very much looking forward to this journey.

(Inspire Foundation Annual General Meeting – October 2019)

Inspire Foundation has already several plans for the upcoming months, ranging from events with communities around Nottingham to re-initiating the Saturday club and engaging with the University of Nottingham in promoting STEM activities. Last week, for example, we participated in an event organised by the Polish community in which we set up an exhibit with our Lego Mindstorms Robots. Three kids from the Saturday Club were also present and helped out with the event. I will try to keep you updated on our activities with another blog post in the near future.

My overall experience with the Inspire Foundation has been nothing less than fantastic. Engaging with an organization that provides teenagers with the opportunity to explore new routes for their future as well as allowing me to meet new people and interact with local communities is one of the best decisions I have made this year and I would highly recommend for everyone to get involved.

The GIFT project

Post by Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort)

The GIFT Project is an international project funded by Horizon 2020, which explores new ways of engaging with cultural heritage through gifting . The scope of the project is huge, and draws together researchers, artists, designers and museum professionals from across Europe, including the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab . GIFT has developed and deployed various experiences with museums in Denmark, Italy, Norway, Spain, Serbia, the UK and the USA since it began in 2017. It has several different ‘tracks’ within it, each of which explores different elements of gifting, interactivity and cultural experiences. For example The Gift Experience allows the user to choose objects or places within the museum; photograph them; personalise elements of it, for example with a written note or audio comment; and then gift it to someone to experience for themselves. Another example is The One Minute Experience, which uses templates and guidelines to enable visitors to write short texts about objects viewed in the museums, which they can then leave as gifts for other visitors. I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful Dr Jocelyn Spence, the lead Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham for the GIFT project and originator of VRtefacts (developed alongside the equally wonderful Dr Dimitrios Darzentas), early on in my PhD. Through her, I learned about the GIFT project and the amazing work they were doing.

My PhD project is working with the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery  to explore relationships between audience, art and venue, and how those relationships can be better understood and developed into something more long term, personal and meaningful, through the use of novel technologies. Naturally, the GIFT project offered a fantastic insight into some of the ways work like mine is already being undertaken, and a chance to see how this work is received by the public users. When I was given the opportunity to help with a two day deployment of the VRtefacts experience as part of the GIFT project, I was delighted to get on board.

In late May 2019, at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery  we showed VRtefacts to the public for the first time. The project, without spoiling anything for any reader who may yet get a chance to experience it themselves, used virtual reality (VR) to encourage visitors to donate personal stories to the Derby Museum. Enabled by a combination of tactile and digital technologies, and a beautiful VR environment created by Dr Dimitrios Darzentas, visitors were able to interact with artefacts in a thoroughly immersive and novel way. My role for the course of the deployment was to get the visitor settled into the VR environment, set the scene for their donation experience, and then to guide them through their storytelling. We heard from a broad array of people, who donated an even broader range of stories. From hypothesising what the artefact may have been used for, to memories of related objects and places, to tangential personal anecdotes and fictional hyperbole, we were gifted with some fantastic tales that added a resonant, human layer to the objects displayed. The value of this to the museum, the visitor, and the research project are multiple. For example, for the museum, it gave a new avenue to understanding their audiences, and the meanings they take from the exhibits shown. For the visitor, it allowed them a deeper way to engage with the exhibits, a space to reflect on their own experience or expertise, and a platform to share those reflections with others. Finally, in terms of research, it demonstrated a novel, exciting way of accessing audiences, as well as the importance of inter-disciplinary projects in contemporary research.

The future for museums and galleries comes, in part, in a technologically driven, interactive format, which enables visitors to experience not just the exhibits, but the museum experience as a whole in novel and exciting ways. VRtefacts is a timely and exhilarating glimpse at what future museum visiting may entail, and the feedback from the public who engaged with the project was overwhelmingly positive. By providing a way for visitors to interact with artefacts and exhibits in a tactile, personal way, it became apparent that each visitor had their own interpretations, reflections, and indeed stories for each piece, brought to the fore by the enoblement of the technologies involved, that they were excited to share with the museum as well as each other. Enabling the visitor to share their stories was not only well received by them, but also by the museum who were pleased to learn about the histories of each piece, or the personal relevance of the artefacts to the individual. VRtefacts represents one face of the future for museums and galleries, in which personalised interactivity forms an important part of the visitor experience.

On a more personal note, the project demonstrated just one way that technologies can be utilised to enable and encourage connections between visitors, cultural venues, and exhibits. Despite my involvement beginning late in the process, just a few weeks before the date of the intervention, I was delighted that my feedback on the human engagement element was integrated into the final experience, and it provided a valuable insight into how these kind of projects are developed and deployed in a museum setting. Running the experience also allowed me to revisit storytelling skills I had established during my time working at an escape room, and develop those skills in a new context. Most importantly I think, it gave me an insight into the practicalities of running an intervention; potential pitfalls and opportunities, the value of a strong team, and the importance of foresight (like bringing spares for your spares!). I’m looking forward to being involved in more projects like this in the future, learning more and offering more back, even at some point using these skills I have been developing to stage my own interactive experience within a cultural institution as part of my PhD.

Identity/Space/Place workshop

Post by
Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort) and Velvet Spors (2017 Cohort)

📷 Felicia Black

Hi, our names are Harriet and Velvet, and we’re PhD students within the Horizon CDT. In September 2019 we ran a full day workshop as part of the Digital Economy Network summer school. The workshop was designed to reach academics from across a broad spectrum of subjects and schools of thought, and bring them together to explore how identity, space, and place (ISP) were present in their research.

We ran the workshop as a group of four researchers; Velvet, Harriet, Luke and Hanne, all of whom are currently at various stages of their PhD’s within Horizon, and all of whom have different academic and professional backgrounds. We came together as a group because we recognised that each of us had a strong link with identity, space and place within our work, and were keen on exploring how these concepts both shape, and are shaped by, a wealth of different influences. For instance, Harriet comes from a background in human geography, and explores situated identities in both virtual and physical worlds, and Velvet is interested in human-centred, holistic ways of being with each other as a way of caring for yourself—being explicitly and implicitly connected. Together, we were able to provide a broad basis of theoretical and practical knowledge about identity, space and place, in order to facilitate valuable discussions around the importance of these topics, and their impact on research practices and outcomes.

We split the day into three core sections, each to address a different aspect of ISP. The first part of the day was spent simply getting to grips with these ambiguous and diverse concepts, sharing each other’s understandings and reflecting on our own assumptions. In our first activity, we set everyone free to spend a few minutes running around Jubilee campus, and finding examples of identity, space, and place; sending photos back to us so we could then discuss what everyone had chosen and why. This was a fantastic exercise, because all the photos taken were unique and showed completely different interpretations of not just definitions of identity, space, and place, but also different interpretations of the spaces they interacted with.

📷 Jennifer Agwunobi

The second part of the day was designed to encourage reflection on how ISP affects daily life, and daily routines. We asked each delegate to draw a map of a route they take regularly or had recently taken, and then talked through what each person had created. Each map was highly individualised, in terms of what was represented, how those things were represented, and how the delegates showed their own personalities on their maps. This activity demonstrated not only how ISP impacts every single person on a mundane level, but it also allowed us to begin discussions on how technology shapes and is shaped by ISP at a day-to-day level.

📷 Jennifer Agwunobi

The third part of the day continued to draw on themes of technology in ISP and got everyone thinking about how ISP related technology might be shaping their research, and how technology could be used to capture and explore ISP more overtly. In this section we got everyone to play free games related to ISP in some way and talk through which elements from our earlier discussions were apparent in the games, and which were more hidden. This allowed for some great exploration of how virtual and digital space, place and identity can be experienced, accessed and represented.

The last bit of our write-up contains personal reflections from each of us individually, showcased in a conversational presentation (if you feel like it, please read it out loud in two silly voices!).

Velvet: We ran the workshop not only to get researchers thinking about these complex themes and how they shape and are shaped by our research, but also as a part-experimental pilot and part sense-making activity: It was designed to feel the space out — literally and figuratively — to see if there was potential for a collective way of working and being with each other. Happily, the workshop was a success, and it seems that long term connections were made which will be fostered as a mechanism to continue these crucial discussions and share knowledge between participants.

Harriet: The multitude of voices we were lucky enough to bring together for the workshop, ranging from computer scientists, to engineers, to architects and more, contributed momentously to the positive outcomes we were able to draw from the day. It also demonstrated the value of these kind of events, where researchers with different ideas and perspectives come together, break each other out of their comfort zones, and question the assumptions that are all too easy to forget to question ourselves. It’s sometimes easy to become so involved in your own subject that you can forget the real-world applications and implications of concepts you may have come to take for granted. Hearing from those other perspectives not only re-centred us, but it also gave some fresh ideas and takes on those topics that we had almost forgotten to continue to critically examine. This was best demonstrated for me during our discussions defining space, place and identity early on in the day, when one delegate offered their definition of place as a “region in space, defined by co-ordinates”. This was so interesting, because they took their definition and applied it to cyberspace, comparing co-ordinates as used in the physical world, to URL’s used to navigate the internet. They explained that navigating websites, much like navigating physical places, requires you to narrow down your co-ordinates further and further, until you reach a point where you are capable of finding your exact destination. In the real world, this might be zooming in on your map app, or switching to a local paper map instead of a regional one. Online, this might mean navigating to the area of the website which contained the content you were interested it, by clicking through toolbars and hyperlinks. This offered a fresh perspective on navigating online spaces which I had never consciously considered before and has contributed to my own understanding of cyberspace.

Velvet: But apart from these overarching understandings and fresh impulses, running the workshop also generated insights for own personal research.

Harriet: A big part of my own research centres around trying to understand identities of individuals as situated, fluid constructs which are performed as part of social, cultural and political contexts. Part of the value of this workshop for me came in the form of being able to see those different identities demonstrated, not only in the context of students studying all over the UK taking part in a workshop at the University of Nottingham, but also in the ways that those different identities were reflected on during the activities and within the discussions. During the mapping activity for example, we were shown what priorities and performed identities the workshop participants had as part of their daily routine, be that in the form of their favourite shop, their place of worship, their favourite places to study, and so on. No two maps were drawn in the same way, even if they shared certain places or themes, demonstrating the breadth of experiences and the impact of our own identities on the landscape.

Velvet: On a very individual level, this workshop also showed me how people approach similar topics in very different, multifaceted ways. For my own PhD work, this means that I now feel even stronger about bringing people from different areas together and to create a safe, inclusive and open space together, so that synergies and a mingling of ideas can happen. When we first discussed doing this workshop, we were worried – perhaps even slightly apprehensive – about the experimental and open nature we wanted to implement. Most workshops we have attended in research or academic settings tend to be very directed, expert-led and focused on clearly defined goals or outcomes. In most of these workshops, we also bring ourselves in as a researcher or expert – a very different version of ourselves than in private. In a way, our workshop asked for a researcher perspective, but also a very private and personal one. Bringing an authentic version of yourself into an unknown space is difficult and a slightly scary undertaking – especially if you feel strongly about the concepts that are being discussed. Space, place and identity can become very personal very soon, especially since they are ideas and factors that everybody has experienced. Bringing lived experienced into a group requires a collective understanding of what it means to open up and how to approach it respectfully, without letting ideas go unchallenged. Now, having conducted this workshop, I am excited about exploring a variety of facilitation, openness and outlines with space/place/identity and in my own studies – especially how to do the whole process justice.

Harriet: In conclusion, hosting this workshop as part of a series of Digital Economy Network summer school activities was a fantastic opportunity to share and develop expertise and ideas, with a host of others who all brought their own invaluable perspectives to the workshop. On a personal note, it was also a much-appreciated plunge into facilitation and public speaking, in a way where I was able to practice those valuable skills, in a space with other researchers at similar points in their academic journey, whilst also facilitating and encouraging them to do the same.

Velvet: After a personal reflection and getting feedback, we aim to turn “Space/Place/identity” into a series of activities, with other workshops and get-togethers to exchange knowledge, but also to hold space for each other to be. How that’s going to look like in future? We are not entirely sure yet, but this workshop has laid out the groundwork for sure. We aim to facilitate it in an unconventional, experimental way that allows for a non-hierarchal way of organising ourselves. Maybe we are going back to web rings, individual HTML webpages – maybe we are going to use peer-seeded automated networks. Whatever shape it might take, we are excited to work on it collectively!

Finally, we want to shout out to Felicia Black and Monica Cano, whose patience and perseverance made this workshop not only possible, but a success. Thank you, Felicia and Monica!