Andrew returns from AAAL conference in Atlanta

Post by Andrew Moffat (2015 Cohort)

American Association of Applied Linguistics

For people learning a second language, today’s hyper-connectivity has the potential to present new domains of engagement with and exposure to their target language. Exposure to the target language is accepted as a necessary condition for language learning, and it is often a key variable in classifications of learning environments. However, Internet-based communication technologies have the potential to connect learners with expert and non-expert speakers of the target language, regardless of geographical location, providing opportunities for informal learning.

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) has historically been approached within Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition as a tool for enhancing language learning. More recently however, there has been an increased focus in investigating language learners’ pre-existing, “extramural” English-language online communicative activities, exploring their potential as a site of exposure to language and negotiation of meaning in authentic interaction, with a view to integrating this aspect of learners’ lives more deeply with their formal learning. Most of this work is small scale and qualitative in nature, and there has been relatively little large-scale fact-finding carried out to survey current practices in this area.

My talk presented the findings of a large-scale survey undertaken in partnership between the University of Nottingham and Cambridge University Press. A questionnaire asking respondents about their English-language online communication activities was promoted on CUP’s online dictionary website, receiving over 10,000 responses in a four-week period from second language English speakers all over the world. The analysis of this data set identified contexts of CMC in which English learners most frequently use their L2 as well as commonly occurring difficulties encountered therein. The talk concluded with a brief overview of an approach to incorporating and supporting English-language online activities in the classroom, thereby integrating formal and informal learning.

 

Lunchtime Lecture at the ODI: Using data to support citizen-centric sustainable urban development in Tanzania

Post by Roza Vasileva (2016 Cohort)

On January 26, 2019 I had an excellent opportunity to present my PhD research project. More specifically, I spoke about the findings emerging from my research interviews in Dar es Salaam with various stakeholders of the Tanzanian data ecosystem: government, donor institutions, local community organisers, start-ups, international experts and academia. This study aimed to understand what processes take place on the ground when people try to take advantage of data and technology to transform Dar es Salaam into a ‘smarter city’, and what the challenges are.

This was a public event as part of the ODI Fridays – free lunchtime lectures for everyone. Below is the video recording of the presentation.

–originally posted on Roza’s blog

National Open Data Symposium in Oma

Post by Roza Vasileva (2016 Cohort)

On October 1-3, 2018, I had the pleasure to participate in the first National Open Data Symposium in Omanas a speaker on principles and benefits of Open Data. The presentation covered various definitions of open data, including examples in some key sectors such as health, education, transport, etc.

I was pleased to see representatives from five different sectors across government and private sector together, having a discussion, raising challenging questions. There are many agencies within the government, which have started publishing open data, and these efforts are a bit uneven. I think the most important thing about the symposium was that these agencies came together to start moving towards a collaborative approach to open data. This event sent a powerful message to the public, government and even international open data community that Oman strives to advance their open data agenda and has desire to bring best international practices in this process.

Being one of the international speakers in the event and having worked with the World Bank on open data in many countries, it means to me that Oman is really keen to learn from other international experiences and adopt best global practices in their approach to do open data and moving towards smarter future. We need to remember that we’re increasingly living in cities, and Open Data is key to creating a platform for smart cities. Citizen-focused smart cities increasingly use data analytics to improve service delivery to its citizens making them more accessible, engage with the communities, find joint solutions to most pressing urban issues, making our cities more livable and sustainable. As my own area of academic research lies in looking how open data can support smart cities, I want to see Oman open data use it for open urban innovations and delivering better services to its people.

Conversations evolved around how to make data more usable for the data users. Engagement with the consumers of the data was one of the key points that was raised throughout the symposium. I echo one of the participants comments that value of releasing open data comes from data use. One of the key elements to open data is adopting open license that explicitly gives permission to use and re-use data for any purpose, including commercial purposes. If the license does not exist on the portal and does not articulate those rights for data re-use, the users cannot be sure that they can use the data. This is one of the challenges Oman will need to address to enable the open data benefits, especially for economic growth that were extensively discussed at the Symposium.



-originally posted on Roza’s blog

How to make a strong password

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)


Making strong passwords which are memorable are easier than you think if you ignore everything that you’ve been told and start to think of the reasoning behind the combination.

Yesterday morning I heard an advert by the UK’s National Cyber Security Center about setting better passwords. I went to the resources and ended up going down the rabbit hole to discover a range of resources on a variety of topics on ‘Get Safe Online’.

It’s a good starting point but very basic. If you know not to keep your dog’s name as a password, you won’t come out any better than when you went in. Personally, I’ve always found it a waste of effort with imposed slap-dash restrictions by IT teams or platforms to make me ‘secure’ (must be 8 characters long, include a special character etc). You can follow these rules but still be relatively vulnerable to hacks like the dictionary attack.

So, here’s some things I’ve learnt from various readings, discussions and from Dr Pound’s lectures at University of Nottingham that will help you understand how to make strong passwords rather than being told what passwords should contain.

1. Ignore what you’ve heard: Most common password is, believe it or not, ‘Pa55w0rd’. It meets the base requirements of being 8 characters long and contains a capital and a numeral. But, this would literally take no time to crack with a dictionary hack. But, if you ignore these requirements and change the way the same word is written to ‘pAssw*rd9’: first letter is not capital, ‘0’ turned to an asterisk and adding a ‘9’ because it’s conveniently next to the asterisk key. The strength of this simple memorable word changes to drastically more secure than what you started off with.

I’ve explained this in the parts below but just making a case here that keeping the word password as a password, isn’t all that weak, but it’s actually the combination that’s weak. In a similar way, you can keep words that are easy to recall by simply changing the combination of how those words are set. Always try to use three words as your password.

2. Don’t replace alphabets with numbers: You’re not any more secure by replacing the ‘e’ with a ‘3’, an ‘O’ with a ‘0’ or an ‘a’ with a ‘4’. When hackers attack, this is one of the first parameters they set as it allows an easy break when they’re racing against time. Instead, add it randomly into the word instead, ‘baseball’ to ‘ba9eb8ll’ where cracking time goes from something around the 10-minute mark to 3 months. Similarly, ‘p12345R6’ is much stronger than ‘Pa55w0rd’, although it’s the same word with ‘1,2,3,4,5, 6’ introduced and ‘R’ made into a capital letter than the ‘D’.

3. Capitals: Yes, they’re good but try not separating or ending words with them. This is because these parameters are set by the hackers when they attack i.e. words beginning/ending with a capital letter. See example 2 above for password where we made R capital instead of ‘P’ or ‘D’.

4. Special Characters: If you’re using a character like “_” or a “*”, use it in the middle of the word rather than to separate the words. Imagine the censoring of a r*de word. This means avoiding adding it at the start or end as the word won’t be well censored if you would see it anyway. Again, this helps to not get fished out at the start of a hack. Now, imagine updating the password to ‘pA*sw0Rd’ on the principles above.

5. Complexity: The complexity doesn’t have to be “letsthinkofacrazylongword” to keep us safe. You could use simple word combinations that are memorable without being vulnerable by using the tricks above. This also saved you the time taken to have to reset your password because it was so hard you forgot yourself an hour/day after setting it. I think we’ve all been there, right?

6. Prioritise Passwords: “Don’t keep the same password for everything” is obvious. What’s new is that you can actually prioritize the passwords you choose. This can be relatively easy by simply deciding how much information a platform holds about you and how valuable this information is to you. If there are pictures of you on a platform that can be used against you (snapchat/insta), that goes higher up on the priority list than an email account you don’t use very often. For low priority platforms use passwords that you wouldn’t mind resetting if you forgot them (which can take time). Equally, you won’t be at a great risk if your information was stolen or acquired by someone who isn’t supposed to have it.

7. ‘Call a friend’ option: Just that in this case the friend is still you, but through a different screen that you own. This is known as two factor authentication and great way to put in another loop to make sure others are kept out. Not every platform offers it and it could potentially mean that you might end up locking yourself out. For instance, if my online bank uses a text message with a code that I need to enter on to the platform, I could have changed/lost my phone number and not updated it for the bank. This means I have to go into the branch to prove my identity and provide new details. Another case could be Hotmail using Gmail to verify that’s it’s actually me IRL, but I might have forgotten my Gmail password too because it wasn’t my primary email. This will be quite difficult to correct because I can’t show up to Google HQ to prove it’s still my account.

8. Install that update: Yes, update your application or software. New patches/updates sometimes happen because they’ve found a weakness in the software, like the recent Whatsapp and Facetime bugs. Updates are rolled out to implement new software that gets rid of any backdoors that hackers can use to get in.

9. IRL: Yes, keep a note in the real world with your password(s). It’s like writing a diary so similar rules apply. Ideally, don’t give it the heading of ‘these are my passwords, keep out’, don’t stick them next to the device and don’t indicate which platform those passwords are for. It could be as simple as what appears to be a shopping list under your spice jars.

Resetting passwords is annoying but you’re better off doing it now than later.

—originally posted at https://neeshekhan.wordpress.com/

My Journey to a PhD

Post by Abigail Fowler (2016 Cohort)


STEM “My Journey to a PhD” Talk, February 2019

I joined a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) event at Loughborough Grammar School. I was happy to join in when I heard they were running STEM events for secondary school boys and girls. On a rather wet and windy day, I headed to the event hoping the pupils would enjoy my talk and have some interesting questions.

My talk covered My Journey to a PhD, my research, and a memory game to demonstrate working memory. The game involved seeing an image of items from around the home and kitchen for 10 seconds. Then having 10 seconds to write down as many items as they could remember. I took the items with me as a tactile version in case any blind or partially sighted pupils attended. Somewhat ironically I forgot to boil an egg to take with me to match the image, but improvised with an egg cup for the tactile version.

The talk went really well and the pupils loved the memory test. No one got all 14 items, and they all sighed when I put the image back up so they could see what they’d missed. The second test involved spotting what was missing from an image, and they all answered the moment the slide appeared. It was a simple but effective demonstration of how our ability to remember varies between tasks and this should be considered in design. I am glad I included a practical element as it is always great to get more interaction. The group had been hesitant to ask questions, so it was good to give them permission to get involved at the end of the talk.

My PhD is sponsored by the rail industry. It turned out that Network Rail provide funding for a STEM challenge. Pupils were eager to hear how they could work on projects of interest to Network Rail. I suggested they consider level crossings, and how to influence the behaviour of level crossing users, as this is an area of great interest to the rail industry.

During the day I got to hear some of the current ideas students had for their own STEM projects. These included how to detect when someone is having an allergic reaction to food and designing a water filtration system to provide drinking water. I was really impressed with the range of projects and their innovation.

I talked to the teacher afterwards, and they will be coordinating STEM events in the future across the region to raise awareness with pupils of opportunities and future careers in STEM. I welcome this programme, and the links that can be built between schools and universities to support pupils in their further education of STEM subjects.

—Originally posted at

Survival Guide to starting your PhD

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)

I recently came back to university – almost ten years after I graduated. I decided to do a PhD. My jobs have been at prestigious companies with dynamic and intense environments, allowing me to be empowered and thrive at what I do. I decided to let go of lucrative pay and forge something for myself. I set out seeing the PhD as a stepping stone to get me to where I want to be. Of course, I didn’t expect this experience to be a breeze. I’m still fairly new, having just entered my second semester, but here are my top survival tips that might help you going through something similar.

  1. Manage your money – If you come from a working life, salary and money is more of a constant. Cycles that keep replenishing themselves, especially if you’re good at managing it. I am fortunate to get a stipend in the UK but it it’s a drastic difference to my usual monthly pay checks. It’s more important now than ever to stay on top of your finances as this might end up being a long journey if you decide to see if through to the end.
  2. Rely on your support networks – I have been doing this, a. lot. I ended up relocating and this means that I’ve ended up relying a lot more on my existing support networks for emotional support. Feel secure enough to say what you’re feeling without having to put on a brave face. A lot of insights can come out of frank, candid discussions and you might be surprised by some useful nuggets of advise that come your way.
  3. Forge new relationships – go out with your cohort! Life is extremely hectic in a new city, a new environment and doing new things all at once, I know. But don’t use that as an excuse to bail out of socials. It’s really helped me to form close relationships with some of my peers (many of whom are much younger) and even when talking doesn’t help (which for me does not work btw!), just having someone beside you, or having a short conversation with someone who’s company you enjoy or a lecturer, can go a long way to brighten your day and raise your sprit.
  4. Structure your days – I recently had a coaching session with a brilliant person and discovered that some of the source of my feelings came from a lack of structure during my evenings. While I’m good at structuring my day and prioritising, thanks to my work experience, I’ve been rather bad at structuring my evenings. I hadn’t noticed this at all. While it’s okay to put in a little extra as your learning the ropes, it’s also important to have structured evening and to keep yourself engaged in activities you did as part of your working life. So, go to the gym, go out for a meal (a table of one is just fine by me!), go to the theatre or have a karaoke night. But do something that keeps that structure for you.
  5. Reflect, re-evaluate and hang in there – This is a big one. I am quite introspective but it’s important to do little mental checks to see if your project is going in the direction (vaguely at least) that you set out when starting out with the PhD. Your dream can have different versions, sure, but the dream should still be there. If things are aligned, try to hang in there. Everything can seem hard at first but it gets easier.

I broke away from my usual topic pieces but I hope this is useful if anyone is going through something similar, within academia or not. It’s also good for me to have this to reflect back on in a few month’s time.

 

The Moment – a movie you control with your mind

Post by Richard Ramchurn (2015 Cohort)

In October 2017 I set out to direct my second brain controlled film. For the previous two years I have been doing a PhD in brain controlled cinema, which has consisted of taught courses, ‘performance led research in the wild’ studies, a bit of my own practice and a lot of reading. The PhD has given me the time and resources to study and analyse how people came to interact with my first film The Disadvantages of Time Travel, and to read up on passive theories of control amongst other topics relevant to my field. All this has informed my practice and when it came to returning to the director’s chair it was with the foundation of that work. The process of making my second film The MOMENT required me to dedicate all of my time and resources to it, and being able to officially pause my PhD during that time was invaluable. The production was gruelling. For at least a month I worked 7 days a week on no more than 4 hours sleep a night. After the shoot a lot of the crew, the producer and myself went into a kind of freefall and took a few days to return to a semblance of our previous selves. The MOMENT is the largest project where I have been at  the helm, it had a crew of 28, and 9 professional actors and we worked to a budget of £54k.

Behind the scenes

I kept detailed notes as I went along, throughout all of production, which will be helpful when it comes to writing up the practice side of the thesis. Screenings of The MOMENT have been used to collect ‘in the wild’ data form the public focusing on their interaction with the brain controlled film. However the film itself has its own touring life and a sustainable tour is currently being planned throughout 2019.

Making of the MOMENT on Vimeo

A project of this scale needs a team behind it. It is worth mentioning that I have the privilege of having an excellent and engaged supervision team who have supported the process, and my producer and partner who have made the practicalities of this project possible. I also found additional partnerships in industry with Live Cinema UK who helped with exhibition and engagement with widespread cultural organisations.

Lessons learnt summary –

  • Make sure you have adequate budget and time.
  • Time spent planning is never wasted.
  • Pool your resources, work with people you trust and if possible have history.
  • An army marches on its stomach, keep your crew fed and watered.
  • Find all the support you can from within and outside the PhD structure.
  • Continue to make friends with organisations.
  • Engage with the press.
  • Talk about your work whenever you can.

Siyang presents at IEEE FG 2018

In May Siyang Song gave a conference talk at IEEE conference on Automatic Face and Gesture Recognition 2018 on his work around facial recognition: Human Behaviors-based Automatic Depression Analysis using Hand-crafted Statistics and Deep Learned Spectral Features. 

He said that it was an amazing experience, but felt a little nervous about speaking infront of an expert audience and in his reflections thinks that he needs to get some more practice in public speaking to boost his confidence.

His advice to other PhD students:

“don’t be shy, a top conference can give us chances to exchange ideas with most successful and famous guys in our field face to face”

 

Will 2019 be the year your publish and present some of your PhD research?

FINISHING UP AT CAMBRIDGE

Post by Kate Green (2016 Cohort)

So the Michaelmas term at Cambridge has come to an end which means that I have finished my 3 month internship with the Trust and Technology Initiative.

A lot has happened over the course of three months and I would like to take this time to reflect on some highlights:

The Trust and Technology Initiative Launch; I helped cover the photography of the event as well as presenting my research.

 

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MCCRC Symposium – organised by my colleagues, this symposium and workshop provided me with some insight into the legal side of privacy.

Value in Personal Data workshop at the Digital Catapult – I attended a brunch workshop that explored putting a monetary value on personal data.

Misinfocon – as part of Mozfest’s programme this conference explored minsinformation in today’s society. This was particularly interesting from a public health perspective and the impact of misinformation on epidemics. I wrote some reflections for the Initiative’s blog.

Hannah Fry talk – I attended Hannah’s talk on her recent book on algorithms.

 

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USB-C talk from Google – this was a little too technical for me, but it was interesting to learn about the challenges of USB-C in laptop design.

Lunchtime talk with Prof Simon Schaffer – who talked about Babbage who didn’t invent the computer, but in fact replaced them…


Aside from different events, I met lots of new people from different areas from sociology to law, to computer science, to psychology.

I think this was a good time for me to take three months away from my PhD and explore different (but not unrelated) areas. It’s given me some perspective and a sense of where my PhD fits in the wider context.

In terms of work, I first of all started to explore the personal data downloads from social media platforms. I looked at the ease of access, the file types and device compatibility. I was interested to see how personal data downloads might be useful for social media users who participate in online health communities.

While this area was interesting, I wanted to make sure that the internship had a tangible outcome that could be useful for my PhD. I began to explore my interview data from my first study and specifically focused on a question I asked around ‘trust’. I had not analysed this part of the study because I was unsure of its relevance and usefulness, however, whilst at the Trust and Tech Initiative I felt like this was an opportune moment to explore it. I am hoping to write the findings up more formally and submit it to a conference proceedings in 2019.

When I shared the findings with my colleagues at the Initiative and it was felt that my exploration of trust through a transdisciplinary lens could serve as a useful resource for others entering the conversation. I have been writing up a report that uncovers one approach to talk about trust in technology and I use online health communities as an example case study. Once it has all been tidied up and formatted into a well-designed document it will be published by the Initiative.


Overall I feel that the internship was a positive experience; however, I am looking forward to focusing back on my PhD. The break was welcomed and now I feel it’s done its purpose. 🙂

A Weekend of Rail Hacking!

Post by Christian Tamakloe (2016 Cohort)

Hackathons are endurance events that bring a host of parties involved in software development together with subject-matter experts in a field to work together to develop products usually in an extremely short period of time, typically a day or two. A long-time staple of the software community, hackathons are increasingly popping up in other industries as they have been shown to be very effective in producing innovative solutions to problems.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in HackTrain 5.0, a rail transport focused hackathon organised by Hack Partners over the weekend of the 9th to 11th of November and it was an amazing experience. It was a hackathon with a twist, as being rail-focused, it involved hours of coding interspersed with train trips to different cities in different countries. It also had massive support from the industry, with sponsors from a range of industry stakeholders including the Department for Transport, Network Rail, Transport for London, Great Western Railway, South Western Railway, Eurostar and Fujitsu among others.

The weekend began with a launch event that saw over 100 participants from all walks of life in the same room with rail industry staff and experts. After a brief introduction to the programme of activities for the next 48 hours by the organising committee, it was the turn of partners and sponsors to present an overview of their various challenges and datasets that they hoped participants could come up with innovative solutions to. These challenges were centred around 4 main themes: customer experience, operational efficiency, rolling stock enhancement and intelligent infrastructure. The presentations were followed by a dinner break where participants could mingle and get to know each other better as well as prod the sponsors and mentors for more information on the challenges.  After dinner, participants were divided into two groups: one group would be travelling through two European cities (Paris and Frankfurt) while the other, of which I was part, would visit the UK cities of Milton Keynes and Cambridge. While the European team proceeded to take their leave, the UK team began the process of team formation.

Participants were allowed a minute to present any ideas they had around the challenges and rail travel in general as well as any skills they would want in potential team members. The top 10 ideas were voted for by all, and teams were formed around them. I took over an idea from another participant who pitched two and recruited 2 others to join me. Our idea was an online marketplace for trains where passengers could buy and sell items among themselves while on a trip, in response to the customer experience challenge.

Idea and Team Formation

After the teams were formed, the group headed to the station to catch our train to Milton Keynes. It was an exciting trip with our large group making our way through crowded stations decked in our HackTrain paraphernalia, which included an infinity gauntlet! We had to share carriages with other passengers and after explaining what we were doing sometimes got some feedback on ways our solutions could be enhanced.

Hacking on the train
The Infinity Gauntlet

Our first stop in Milton Keynes was a hotel, where the hacking officially begun. My team began with refining our initial idea by doing some research into its technical feasibility and business viability. Even though the idea was novel and innovative, we decided there were too many issues with it to progress it. After hours of deliberation, we settled on a new idea that took advantage of one of the technologies provided us to solve a long-standing problem with rail travel: accessible travel for disabled passengers.

Using the local train Wi-Fi network, augmented with an innovative “Edge Computing“ platform, we proposed an web application that would allow disabled passengers to book travel, require assistance, order food and plan their onward journeys form the train. Our aim was to empower these passengers to make more spontaneous journeys, as the current methods hampered their ability to do this and usually resulted in bad journey experiences and ultimately fewer trips overall. We called our solution Platform C 3/4  to reflect the how our service would serve as a portal to a magical train experience for disabled customers (C).  With our idea and plans finally decided, we proceeded to work on building a prototype and prepare our final pitch. Even though we only went to bed quite late into the night, we were satisfied with what we had been able to achieve.

The next morning, we headed back down to London, to the next hacking space. This trip was much better, as most teams managed to get table seats so they could work on the train.  We spent the afternoon at the ORM offices and continued working till evening, when we set off for the final hacking space in Cambridge, the St John’s Innovation Centre. We nearly lost some members in the chaos of the Saturday crowds and were delayed for a while due to this. However, we finally made it to Cambridge safe and sound in the evening, quickly set up and got to coding our prototypes. Each team had a mock ‘dragons den’-style presentation where we pitched our solutions to the HackTrain team and mentors, who acted as the dragons. This session proved very useful and provided very constructive feedback on our pitches in terms of delivery, content and challenge focus.  We spent the entire night incorporating this feedback as well as working on our prototype. It wasn’t all work and no play though, as the teams took turns to take part in a Mario kart competition, which turned out to be as competitive as the hackathon itself.

A bit of Mario Kart

Our final trip came the next morning, where we joined up with participants from the European train back at the Fujitsu offices in London, which was to host the finale of the hackathon. Despite most people staying up the whole night, the energy was amazing, even as teams rushed to make last minute fixes to their codebase and submit their work to beat the submission deadlines. At about two o’clock, the final pitches began. Teams were given four minutes to present their work and the grilled with questions from the judging panel. A lot of innovative solutions were presented and every team had a working demo to show. At the end of the day, even though my team did not place in the top 3 overall, we were able to nab the top spot for the best solution around South Western Railway’s customer experience challenge and came away with cool prizes. Not bad for a weekend of work J .

Final Pitches

All in all, it was a great experience that gave me a lot of insight into the issues, priorities and future direction of the rail industry. It was also a good opportunity to sharpen my skills in idea generation and prototype development through its agile design sprint-like process. Finally, I made lots of new friends and industry contacts that would be valuables resources in my future projects.

You can find more information about future HackTrain events by following them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheHackTrain.