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 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

‘Outside the Screen’ podcast interviews Szymon Olejarnik

Outside the Screen podcast logo

‘Outside the Screen’ is a podcast about research and policy developments concerning children’s interactions with screen-based content.

Szymon Olejarnik, a first-year Horizon CDT student, was interviewed by ‘Outside the Screen’ about his PhD research, which focuses on youth socialisation in a gaming context with a special focus on autism.

You can listen to the podcast episode at Loneliness, Go! and gaming on the autism spectrum  (Interview starts at 16:40).

 

Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute 2023 Reflective Report

post by Favour Borokini (2022 cohort)

From June 25th – July 15th, 2023, I attended the 6th annual Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) Summer School at the University of St Andrews. The institute aims to foster interdisciplinary collaborations about how intelligence is expressed in humans, non-human animals, and artificial intelligence (AI), among others.

I was excited to attend the Summer Institute due to my interest in AI ethics from an African and feminist perspective. My current PhD research focuses on the potential affordances and challenges avatars pose to African women. As AI is now often implicated in the creation of digital images, I thought DISI was a great environment to share ideas and insight into how to conceptualise these challenges and opportunities.

The attendees were divided into two groups: Fellows and Storytellers. Fellows were mostly early career researchers from diverse fields, such as cognitive science, computer science, ethnography,  and philosophy. The Storytellers were artists who created or told stories and had in their number an opera singer, a dancer, a weaver, a sci-fi author, a sound engineer and many others. The Storytellers brought spontaneity and life to what would surely have been a dreary three weeks with their creativity and their ability to spur unselfconscious expression in all the participants.

DISI 2023 began on a rainy evening, the first of several such rainy days, with an icebreaker designed to get Fellows and Storytellers to get to know each other. In the following days, we received a series of engaging lectures on topics as varied as brain evolution in foxes and dogs, extraterrestrial intelligence, psychosis and shared reality and the role of the arts in visualising conservation science. A typical summer school day had two ninety-minute lectures punctuated by two short recesses and a longer lunch break.

The lecture on Psychosis and Shared Reality was given by Professor Paul Fletcher, a Professor of Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge who had advised the development team of Hellblade, a multi-award-winning video game that vividly portrayed mental illness. This game put me in mind of several similar research projects ongoing at the CDT researching gaming and the mind. As a Nigerian, I reflected on the framing of psychosis and mental illness in my culture and the non-Western ways these ailments were treated and addressed. That first week, I was quite startled to find that two people I had spoken casually with at dinner and on my way to St Andrew’s were Faculty members. One of these was Dr. Zoe Sadokierski, an Associate Professor in Visual Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, who gave a riveting lecture on visualising the cultural dimensions of conservation science using participatory methods.

In that first week, we were informed that we would all be working on at least one project, two at the most (more unofficially), and there was a pitching session over the course of two afternoons. I pitched two projects: The first project was to explore the aspirations, fears and hopes of my fellow participants using the Story Completion method, a qualitative research method with roots in Psychology, in which a researcher elicits fictional narratives from their participants using a brief prompt called a stem. This method helps participants discuss sensitive, controversial subjects by constructing a story told from the point of view of a stranger.

Many of the stories were entertaining and wildly imaginative, but I was particularly struck by the recurring anxiety that in 2073, the beautiful city of St Andrews would be submerged due to rising water levels. This seemed to me a reflection of how attached we had all become to that historic city, how attachment to places and things can come to help us care more.

For my second project, I and two friends (pictured below) interviewed six of our fellow DISI attendees for a podcast titled A Primatologist, a Cognitive Scientist and a Philosopher Walk into a(n Intergalactic) Bar. The idea was to get artists and researchers to tell an ignorant but curious alien on a flying turtle planet called Edna about their work and the Earth. These interviews sparked amazingly unintended reflective conversations about the nature of life on earth, our relationship with nature and human values, such as honesty. On the final day, we put together an audio trailer for some of the most insightful parts of these conversations as our final presentation.

Photo of our Podcast team. L-R: Antoine Bertin, Favour Borokini, & Matthew Henderson. #TeamEdna

Prone to being critical, I often felt disconcerted by what I perceived as an absence of emphasis on ethics. Having worked in technology ethics and policy, I felt prodded to question the impact and source of a lot of what I heard. In a session on the invisibility of technology, I felt extremely disturbed by the idea that good technology should be invisible. In fact, I felt that invisibility, the sort of melding into perception described as embodiment by postphenomenology, spoke more to efficiency than “good”, bearing in mind use cases such as surveillance.

There were some heated conversations, too, like the one on eugenics and scientific ethics in research. The question was how members of the public were expected to trust scientists if scientists felt ethically compelled not to carry out certain types of research or to withhold sensitive findings obtained during their research.

And the session on questioning the decline in “high-risk, high-return research”, which seemed, unsurprisingly, focused on research within the sciences, led to comments on funding cuts for social sciences, arts and the humanities resulting from the characterisation of these fields as low-risk and low-return, causing me to reflect that, ironically, the precarity of the latter, qualified them more as tagged high-risk, at least, if not high-return.

But the summer school wasn’t all lectures; and there were numerous other activities, including zoo and botanical garden trips, aquarium visits, beach walks, forest bathing and salons. During one such salon, we witnessed rousing performances from the storytellers amongst us in dance, music, literature and other forms of art.

An evening beach bonfire with a Frisbee game
Favour and two “dudes” at the entrance to the Edinburgh Zoo

I also joined a late evening expedition to listen to bats, organised by Antoine, one of my co-podcast partners. There was something sacred about walking in the shoes of the bats that evening as we blindfolded ourselves and relied on our partners to lead us in the dark with only the sense of touch, stumbling, as a small river rushed past.

I think the process of actually speaking with my fellow attendees caused me to feel warm towards them and their research. I believe ethics is always subjective, and our predisposition and social contexts impact what we view as ethical. At DISI, I found that ethics can be a journey, as I discovered unethical twists in my perspective.

It was my first time at the beach!
At the St Andrews Botanical Garden

This thawing made me enjoy DISI more, even as I confirmed that I enjoy solitary, rarefied retreats. As the final day drew near, I felt quite connected to several people and had made a few friends, who I knew, like the rarefied air, I would miss.

The success of DISI is in no small part due to the effort of the admin team, Erica Cartmill, Jacob Foster, Kensy Cooperrider, and Amanda McAlpin-Costa. Our feedback was constantly solicited, and they were quite open about the changes from last year.

I had a secret motive for attending. My research’s central focus is no longer AI, and I felt very out of place not having something I thought was core to the theme. But a conversation with Sofiia Rappe, a postdoctoral Philosophy and Linguistics Fellow, led to the realisation that the ability and desire to shapeshift is itself a manifestation of intelligence – one modelled in many non-human animals, reflecting awareness and cognition about how one fits in and how one should or ought to navigate their physical and social environment.

I look forward to returning someday.

With my friend Khadija, on the last day
After Cèilidh-ing, with Mia and Paty

You can listen to our podcast here: SpaceBar_Podcast – Trailer 

A Reflection on The Connected Everything and Smart Products Beacon Summer School 2020

post by Cecily Pepper (2019 cohort)

My first summer school started with an invite via email. Despite my interest in the topic, my first thought was that robotics was not my area of expertise (coming from a social science background), so maybe I shouldn’t bother applying as I’d be out-of-my-depth. Although after some consideration, I thought it would create some great opportunities to meet new people from diverse backgrounds. So, I stopped worrying about my lack of knowledge in the area and just went for it; and I got a place!

The summer school was held digitally due to COVID-19 restrictions, which had both its benefits and pitfalls. On the first day, we were welcomed by Debra Fearnshaw and Professor Steve Benford, and were then given the opportunity to introduce ourselves. From this it was apparent that there was a wide variety of delegates from several universities, with a range of disciplines including social sciences, robotics, engineering and manufacturing. The first day mostly consisted of talks from experts about the challenges we face in connecting technology and the potential of co-robotics within the fields of agrirobotics, home and healthcare. The main task of the summer school was to create a cobot (collaborative robot) that could overcome some of the issues that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated. The issue that the group chose to address had to fall into one of the categories introduced on the first day: food production (agrirobotics), healthcare or home. Along with this challenge, more details were needed on function, technological components, and four key areas of the cobot design: ethics, communication, learning and safety. These aspects were introduced on the second day. After being split into groups at the end of the first day, I felt happy as my group had a range of experience and expertise between us, which I felt would bode well for the challenge as well as being beneficial for myself as I could learn something from everyone.

Similarly, the second day consisted mostly of talks, this time based on the four themes mentioned previously. The ethics discussion was interesting and included in-depth explanations around aspects to consider when reflecting upon the ethical consequences of our designs, such as privacy, law, security and personal ethics. An online activity followed the ethics talk but was soon interrupted by a technical glitch. Despite this, we were able to engage with alternative resources provided in order to reflect upon the ethics of our cobot design. This was useful both for our eventual design, as well as applying this to our own PhD research.

The other themes then followed, including a discussion around interaction and communication in technology. This was an insightful introduction to voice user interfaces and alike, and what the current research is focusing on in this field. While fascinating on its own, it was also useful in thinking about how to apply this to our cobot design, and which features may be useful or necessary for our cobot’s functionality. A talk on the third theme of learning was then delivered, including details about facial recognition and machine learning, and the applications of these in the field of robotics. Likewise, this was useful in reflecting upon how these features may be applicable in our design. Finally, the theme of safety was considered. This talk provided us with the knowledge and ability to consider safety aspects of our cobot, which was particularly apt when considering COVID safety implications too. Overall, the first two days were quite lengthy in terms of screen time (despite some breaks), and I found myself wilting slightly towards the end. However, I think we could all understand and sympathise in the difficulty of minimising screen time when there is a short space of time to complete all of the summer school activities.

On the final day, we split into our teams to create our cobot. This day was personally my favourite part of the summer school, as it was fantastic to work with such a variety of people who all brought different skills to the group. Together, we developed a cobot design and went through the themes from the previous day, ensuring we met the design brief and covered all bases. Probably the biggest challenge was keeping it simple, as we had so many ideas between us. Despite our abundance of ideas, we were strict with ourselves as a group to focus and keep the design simplistic. Additionally, the five-minute presentation time meant that we had to keep our design simple yet effective. We then presented our home assistant cobot, Squishy. Squishy was an inflatable, soft cobot designed to assist carers in lifting patients who were bed-bound (as occupational injuries are a significant problem within the care industry). Squishy’s soft design enabled comfort for the patient being lifted, while the modular design provided a cost-effective solution and the possibility of added-extras if necessary. Along with this, Squishy was beneficial in that it consisted of wipe-clean surfaces to enable effective cleaning in light of COVID-19, as well as aiding social distancing by reducing the need for carer-patient contact. Other features of Squishy included machine-learned skeletal tracking and thermal cameras to aid safe functionality, and minimal personal data collection to maintain ethical standards. After the presentations and following questions, the judges deliberated. Results were in…my team were the winners! While I was happy to have won with my team, the most fruitful part of the experience for me was meeting and learning from others who had different backgrounds, perceptions and ideas.

Overall, I felt the summer school was well-organised and a fantastic opportunity to work with new people from diverse backgrounds, and I was very glad to be a part of it. I’m also pleased I overcame the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ feeling of not believing I would know enough or have enough experience to be a valuable delegate in the summer school. So, my advice to all students would be: don’t underestimate what you can contribute, don’t overthink it, and just go for it; you might end up winning!

The Summer School was funded by EPSRC through the Connected Everything II network plus (EP/S036113/1)

 

HOLDING AUDIENCES TO ACCOUNT

Nick Tandavanitj has recently begun his PhD journey as part of the Horizon CDT 2023 cohort.

Nick is a leading member of the artist group Blast Theory, which is one of the CDT’s supporting industry partners and whose work combines interactive media, digital broadcasting, and live performance.

Nick’s research will explore the meaning of asking for audience involvement. You can read more about this on Nick’s original post on the Blast Theory Blog.

Holding audiences to account

 

My Internship at Capital One

post by Edwina Borteley Abam (2019 cohort)

My internship at Capital One started mid-November 2021 and ended mid-May 2022.  Capital One is a credit card company originally situated in the US with two branches located within the UK in Nottingham and London specifically. I interned at the Nottingham branch over a period of 6 months, on a part-time basis.

The company has several departments and units. I was placed within the Data Science team which forms part of the wider Data group within the organisation. There are three main sections within the Data Science team namely Acquisition, Customer Management and the Bureau team. The Acquisition team concentrates on building models to score new credit card applicants. The Customer Management team focuses on managing and monitoring the behaviour of all existing credit card customers and credit line extensions and the Bureau team manages all data and information exchanged between credit bureaus and Capital One.  For my daily work, I was placed within the Customer Management team and collaborated on two related projects- (Onescore2 and Challenger Model).

The internship:

Onescore2 project involved creating machine learning models to manage the behaviour of existing credit card customers. I worked together with my manager to build models to predict customers likely to default on their cards over a defined period of time.  We used R (a statistical programming software) as the main tool for the project. The specific activities assigned to me on the project involved creating the R program files for executing the models, monitoring the progress of the models’ execution, collecting and interpreting model results, and updating the GitHub repository with project outputs. The previous knowledge and skills acquired from the Data Modelling and Analysis course in year two of my PhD helped me understand the technical details involved in the analysis and to carry out my assigned duties effectively on the project.

The second part of this project is the Challenger Model project and it involved building different models in Python to compare their performance with Onescore2.  The project was an exploratory study of different conventional models in predicting the likelihood of default. The Challenger Model project serves as a baseline to compare with results from my PhD work, which potentially could form part of my PhD thesis. As this phase of the project is linked to my PhD work, I benefitted from the guidance and input of my supervisor.  While working on the Challenger Models, I held periodic meetings with my manager, supervisors and other members of the Data Science team where I presented on progress and discussed possible directions for the project.  I also took part in weekly stand-up sessions where all associates within the Data Science team shared updates on ongoing projects.

My reflections:

Looking back on my internship, overall the experience has been insightful, an exciting journey and a time of personal development.  I have grown and evolved in several areas in terms of interpersonal and professional skills.

Upon arrival in the first week of the internship, my manager was deliberate to arrange informal meetings and chat sessions with other members of the Data science team.  These introductions and chats exposed me to a range of people in various roles and at different levels of leadership in the team. It helped to quickly integrate into the team to create new connections and meet new people. Despite being naturally reserved, I enjoyed the conversations much as everyone was friendly. I was encouraged to step out of my shell to interact with more people. During my interactions, I seized the opportunity to ask all the lingering questions I had on the topic of credit scoring which is also at the heart of my PhD research. Each person was friendly and particularly eager to answer all my questions and chat about the work they do.

Apart from the Data Science team, I had the chance to speak with other associates in other departments of the company and that experience was reassuring and enhanced my confidence at the workplace. I got first-hand experience in mixing with different people from different backgrounds in an office setting and learning to blend with them.   The conversations in the first couple of weeks opened up my understanding more on the details of credit scoring and credit cards. I got more understanding of how the different teams work together to make credit cards available to people and how customers are managed and credit lines extended. I had the opportunity to join major meetings and to hear updates on projects being worked on within the different departments of the organisation. This also gave me a wider view of other aspects of the business.    I was able to connect how the theory of credit scoring I had read in books and research articles played out practically in the real world through this experience.

During my internship, I worked both from home and the office.  Every week during the first few months, I worked three days at home and two days in the office.  I found commuting to work on time a discipline to develop as this was my very first time working outside of industry. Although challenging initially but got easier with time.  The regular catch-ups and progress updates with managers and my supervisor were sometimes strenuous and nerve-wracking, however, it trained my communication and presentation skills.

The work culture in Capital One challenges associates to give their best on the job but at the same time encourages relaxation and places such high priority on wellbeing.  Unlike other work environments, I was surprised to find several fitness and relaxation points like the gym, tennis and pool table strategically placed in the Capital One building to support associates. In addition, during my internship, the company observed a day of fun activities for its associates every quarter of the year just to have a break from work.  This shaped my perceptions about the working environment.

Capital One is the industry partner for my PhD and I was privileged to have access to their data for my PhD work. Through my connections with the team members, I was able to easily recruit participants for my first PhD study which I believe would have been difficult otherwise without the internship.  Overall, I enjoyed the internship and the experience has been beneficial not only for my PhD but for my personal development.

 

 

My experience at the Mindtrek Doctoral Consortium in Finland

post by Emma Gentry (2021 cohort)

In November 2022 I was accepted to present my PhD plans at Mindtrek’s Doctoral Consortium in Tampere, Finland. With the exception of one prior conference, until this point, I had only presented to academics and peers within the CDT, so I was delighted to be given this opportunity. Mindtrek is an international technology conference held every year in collaboration with Tampere University. With its strong focus on human-computer interaction and future technology, I was eager to immerse myself in all that the conference had to offer during this stage of my development as an early career researcher. In what follows I reflect on my experience of attending a doctoral consortium for the first time, offering key takeaways for PhD students looking to attend similar events in the future.

The event was brought to my awareness when I came across a post in the CDT impact group written by one of our Horizon alumni, Velvet Spors. Velvet offered a great deal of insight about the benefits of attending such an event. Reflecting on this moment I feel grateful to be part of the CDT community with access to an abundant network of researchers and alumni. I would strongly advise talking to PhD students/alumni in similar areas to see what kinds of events and conferences they recommend. I’m very glad to have established a connection with Velvet before attending Mindtrek.

The conference lasted a total of three days and was set up as a hybrid event, though I was fortunate enough to attend in person. For the doctoral consortium itself, we were asked to deliver a 10-minute presentation followed by a 10-minute discussion with four panel experts. Trying to explain your PhD in 10 minutes or less is always a challenge (especially when it’s a 2-minute flash presentation on Industry Day), but it is a skill that is so important to develop for effectively communicating and ‘selling’ your research to others. Reflecting on this experience I realised the importance of prioritising what you talk about, placing emphasis on why the contribution is important, and illustrating what other people might gain from your work.

The depth of the feedback I received from the doctoral consortium exceeded my expectations and each panel expert had a different angle of the PhD to comment on. I ultimately learned the importance of saying what’s out of scope for the PhD and being ok with not knowing the answer to a question, especially in the very early stages when you are still ironing out the specifics of your project. The doctoral consortium panel provided extensive suggestions for where I could take my research based on their expertise. I think the exposure you have to go through in the early stages can be quite daunting but also necessary for your development as a researcher. It’s helpful to think that everyone on the panel started somewhere and probably had a similar experience at their first doctoral consortium/conference.

The following days comprised the main part of Mindtrek’s academic conference where I came across many exciting tracks relevant to my PhD topic. The tracks I found particularly interesting were “Understanding and Designing for the Socio-Technical” and “Fictional, Speculative, and Critical Futures”. The focus of my PhD was still very much open at this point, and I felt inspired by many of the talks in these tracks. As part of the Horizon CDT program, we are encouraged to take awareness of upcoming, novel, and creative methods given the interdisciplinary nature of the training centre. The Mindtrek conference was ultimately a perfect opportunity to expose myself to a range of creative methods and to broaden my horizons in this way. Networking events were held in the evenings after conference hours which provided a more relaxed environment to speak with researchers and panellists. I always find it helpful to ask PhD students in the later stages of their doctorate, and even those with many years of experience after their PhD, what they wish they’d done earlier on.

The event enriched my career as a researcher in a multitude of ways. As well as developing my presentation skills further, I learned how to effectively communicate my project to an audience outside of the CDT. I was encouraged to think about the impact my PhD might have afterwards, and how I might engage with key stakeholders. For example, how might I disseminate my recommendations in a way that would make the most impact? It’s easy to get caught up in the theory of a PhD but recognising the real-world impact you can achieve is essential.

To sum up, I would highly recommend attending a doctoral consortium to anyone in the early stages of their PhD. I ultimately learned the importance of keeping an open mind in the early days and accepting that your project may change a lot from your original plan. You also need to have the exposure to be guided in the right direction. It may feel challenging to take this step but expanding your comfort zone is necessary for growth.

Neurodiversity Challenges

post by Jenn Layton Annable (2020 cohort)

Working as an autistic autism researcher can sometimes be a lonely and distressing experience. Daily contact with academic literature that consolidates pathologising or stigmatising beliefs and constructs can be traumatising. Luckily there is a growing community of autistic autism researchers who, although widely dispersed geographically, come together through digital technology and virtual spaces to offer peer support and collaborate in academic writing and work that counter such narratives with alternatives, grounded in our self-knowledge and awareness. This digital network of neurodivergent researchers, activists and thinkers has also crystalised into the academic disciplines of neurodiversity studies and critical autism studies, containing both scholarship and activism in equal measures.

My first published peer-reviewed paper emerged from this need to counter potentially harmful, clinically situated perspectives. An autistic autism researcher acquaintance Nick Chown raised the matter of the paper Neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodiversity: definition of terms from Scotland’s National Autism Implementation Team within an autistic autism research group asking for collaborators to respond to the publication, specifically dealing with a number of flawed assertions contained the text.

These included:

    • An attempt to formalise the concept of neurodivergence within a typology in which those who are neurodivergent fall outside of societal norms and those who did not are neurotypical, when societal norms are fluid and ambiguous at the best of times.
    • The reduction of all other types of neurodivergence (such as different learning abilities and styles, tourettes or other atypical mental and neurological experiences) beyond those of autism or ADHD within the category of “other”, essentially disregarding the original principle of neurodiversity as encompassing the entirety of human experience; a very standard reductionist psychiatric/diagnostic approach to this vast diversity.
    • Crediting of the term ‘neurodiversity’ to Judy Singer (an academic who was the first to use this in scholarship), when it had in fact been used online by autistic activists up to five years previously in the early nineteen-nineties.

The collaborative writing process within a neurodivergent research group can be complex, with much consideration given to the different sensory or communication needs of each individual as well as the ongoing stress they may be experiencing at any time. Often there are occurrences that would be considered rude or inappropriate, such as abruptly leaving a meeting with no explanation, were they to occur in an equivalent neurotypical workspace. Our team of writers and advisors included those who had a range of neurodivergent differences; autism, ADHD, dyslexia and mental health challenges, so as much time went into managing these with compassion and understanding toward one another as the actual writing itself. Although conflicting needs can cause frustration and difficulty, the shared experience of stigma and ignorance from others that neurodivergent people hold together is a strong foundation to work from to overcome them.

Additionally, the neurodivergent status of several contributors is not known publically outside of our research community (individuals holding prominent or senior academic positions would still experience discrimination were they to publically disclose). Others who worked on the response are publically known as autistic clinicians who have to be seen to not be challenging their professional status quo too much. This risk is such, that meeting recordings that included such individuals were transcribed and then deleted to avoid exposure of them to harm, professionally or personally.

We worked virtually using email, and shared documents for writing, commenting and editing, together with the occasional face-to-face video call. These styles of working have of course become much more prevalent since the Covid pandemic, however, their benefits to neurodiverse writing groups extend beyond the convenience of meeting without travel.

Neurodivergent communication preferences span many media and dimensions beyond that of written language. One of our group creates TikTok content incorporating signing for the deaf ADHD/autistic community, opening up lived experiences such as these to others who might be excluded because of intersectional disabilities. There was much lively debate about the inclusion of graphically based examples of neurodiversity and how far we would be able to challenge the publication boundaries of a very traditional medical journal such as the British Journal of Psychiatry and still be considered credible. On this occasion, an alternative format such as this was deemed to be too far to be included. Our work shows how different social and communication styles implicit in neurodiverse/neurodivergent groups demonstrate the value they can add to the democratisation of academic knowledge through variable dissemination, both from within the academy to the outside and from the outside in, via the insider/outsider perspective we hold and express through our output, whatever form it takes.

Overall, the process of containing the very different perspectives and styles within even a small neurodivergent group such as ours can be a challenge in and of itself, ensuring that they are all included in enough substance whilst still creating a coherent narrative. Nick and I worked on this refinement and translation process, with the agreement and ‘member checking’ of the wider team. This is how I came to receive the second author attribution in the writing process.

The first challenge we faced was the rejection of the paper’s original format as that of analysis, instead being considered as a commentary, with a word count and citation limit of half of what we had submitted. We decided as a group to reformat the original writing, to ensure a timely response to the original article with a commitment to submitting an expanded version at a later date. Upon resubmission, we received thoughtful reviewer feedback which improved the overall quality and style of the paper. These included challenges to “better capture the nuance and undoubted controversy in the field of biomedical vs social paradigms of neurodiversity and disability” which we managed successfully, whilst remaining within the wordcount and inclusive of the many different frames of neurodivergent reference included in our authorial group.

The final submission was well received by the BJP, whose editors and reviewers thanked us for our thoughtful and considerate responses both to their comments and the original paper. Although we were disappointed to have to shorten our original writing there was a commitment between a smaller group of those who contributed to further our thinking in a later piece, alongside others who produce and curate digital content for social media to adapt what we had created to make it suitable for audiences in these different contexts. We felt that this would be the best approach overall. In coming together we were able to express and explore a range of different ways of thinking, expressing and depicting our ideas. All are valid and worthy of use, however, the delineated nature of certain specialities like academic publishing means that, unfortunately, certain ways of being and communicating are still valued above others. We hope our work, as neurodivergent academics, will champion a breaking down of these barriers of in/validation between different styles and types of communication, along with greater acceptance of neurodivergent ways of being and knowing.

If you would like to read the full response written by me, Nick Chown, Luke Beardon and Nik Howard, please click here.