End of an era

A few weeks ago, I gave a panel presentation at the ARMA conference in Liverpool — however, this was my last official duty with a Talis hat on.

Talis is a small employee-owned company, and maintaining a research strand has been far sighted, but unusual. After a period focusing more in the development of new products, Talis is shifting to a phase when every resource should be focused on delivery … and hence long-term research, and my own role in the company, has had to cease.

Talis has been a wonderful place to work over the past seven years, both the individuals there, but also, and crucially important, the company atmosphere, which combines the excitement of a start-up, with real care and sense of community.   So if you spot posts advertised there, it is a great place to be.

Talis was my principal regular income, as my academic role at Birmingham has only been 20%, so long-term I need to think about whether I should increase again my academic time, or do other things. I have been very fortunate never having previously had a time without regular income, so this is a new experience for me, although, of course, common.

Over the past few years, I have kept some time ‘unwaged’ for other projects (such as walking round Wales!) and occasional consultancy, and my to do list is far from empty, so this summer and autumn I am intending to spend more time writing (yes TouchIT will be finished, and editing the Alan Walks Wales blog into a book), picking up some of the many half-finished coding projects, and doing videoing for Interaction Design Foundation

Students love digital … don’t they?

In the ever accelerating rush to digital delivery, is this actually what students want or need?

Last week I was at Talis Insight conference. As with previous years, this is a mix of sessions focused on those using or thinking of using Talis products, with lots of rich experience talks. However, also about half of the time is dedicated to plenaries about the current state and future prospects for technology in higher education; so well worth attending (it is free!) whether or not you are a Talis user.

Speakers this year included Bill Rammell, now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire, but who was also Minister of State for Higher Education during the second Blair government, and during that time responsible for introducing the National Student Survey.

Another high profile speaker was Rosie Jones, who is Director of Library Services at the Open University … which operates somewhat differently from the standard university library!

However, among the VCs, CEOs and directors of this and that, it was the two most junior speakers who stood out for me. Eva Brittin-Snell and Alex Davie are to SAGE student scholars from Sussex. As SAGE scholars they have engaged in research on student experience amongst their peers, speak at events like this and maintain a student blog, which includes, amongst other things the story of how Eva came to buy her first textbook.

Eva and Alex’s talk was entitled “Digital through a student’s eyes” (video). Many of the talks had been about the rise of digital services and especially the eTextbook. Eva and Alex were the ‘digital natives’, so surely this was joy to their ears. Surprisingly not.

Alex, in her first year at university, started by alluding to the previous speakers, the push for book-less libraries, and general digital spiritus mundi, but offered an alternative view. Students were annoyed at being asked to buy books for a course where only a chapter or two would be relevant; they appreciated the convenience of an eBook, when core textbooks were permanently out on and, and instantly recalled once one got hold of them. However, she said they still preferred physical books, as they are far more usable (even if heavy!) than eBooks.

Eva, a fourth year student, offered a different view. “I started like Aly”, she said, and then went on to describe her change of heart. However, it was not a revelation of the pedagogical potential of digital, more that she had learnt to live through the pain. There were clear practical and logistic advantages to eBooks, there when and where you wanted, but she described a life of constant headaches from reading on-screen.

Possibly some of this is due to the current poor state of eBooks that are still mostly simply electronic versions of texts designed for paper. Also, one of their student surveys showed that very few students had eBook readers such as Kindle (evidently now definitely not cool), and used phones primarily for messaging and WhatsApp. The centre of the student’s academic life was definitely the laptop, so eBooks meant hours staring at a laptop screen.

However, it also reflects a growing body of work showing the pedagogic advantages of physical note taking, potential developmental damage of early tablet and smartphone use, and industry figures showing that across all areas eBook sales are dropping and physical book sales increasing. In addition there is evidence that children and teenagers people prefer physical books, and public library use by young people is growing.

It was also interesting that both Alex and Eva complained that eTextbooks were not ‘snappy’ enough. In the age of Tweet-stream presidents and 5-minute attention spans, ‘snappy’ was clearly the students’ term of choice to describe their expectation of digital media. Yet this did not represent a loss of their attention per se, as this was clearly not perceived as a problem with physical books.

… and I am still trying to imagine what a critical study of Aristotle’s Poetics would look like in ‘snappy’ form.

There are two lessons from this for me. First what would a ‘digital first’ textbook look like. Does it have to be ‘snappy’, or are there ways to maintain attention and depth of reading in digital texts?

The second picks up on issues in the co-authored paper I presented at NordiChi last year, “From intertextuality to transphysicality: The changing nature of the book, reader and writer“, which, amongst other things, asked how we might use digital means to augment the physical reading process, offering some of the strengths of eBooks such as the ability to share annotations, but retaining a physical reading experience.  Also maybe some of the physical limitations of availability could be relieved, for example, if university libraries work with bookshops to have student buy and return schemes alongside borrowing?

It would certainly be good if students did not have to learn to live with pain.

We have a challenge.

A tale of two conferences and the future of learning technology in the UK

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to two conferences focused on different aspects of technology and learning, Talis Insight Europe and ACM Learning at Scale (L@S). This led me to reflect on the potential for and barriers to ground breaking research in these areas in the UK.

The first conference, Talis Insight Europe, grew out of the original Talis User Group, but as well as company updates on existing and new products, also has an extensive line-up of keynotes by major educational visionaries and decision makers (including pretty much the complete line-up of JISC senior staff) and end-user contributed presentations.

hole-in-the-wall-Begin02The second, Learning @ Scale, grew out of the MOOC explosion, and deals with the new technology challenges and opportunities when we are dealing with vast numbers of students. It also had an impressive array of keynote speakers, including Sugata Mitra, famous for the ‘Hole in the Wall‘, which brought technology to street children in India.

Although there were some common elements (big data and dashboards got a mention in both!), the audiences were quite different. For Insight, the large majority were from HE (Higher Education) libraries, followed by learning technologists, industry representatives, and HE decision-makers. In contrast, L@S consisted largely of academics, many from computing or technical backgrounds, with some industry researchers, including, as I was attending largely with my Talis hat on, me.

insight-2016-jisc-keynoteIn a joint keynote at Insight, Paul Fieldman and Phil Richards the CEO and CIO of JISC, described the project to provide a learning analytics service [FR16,JI16] (including student app and, of course, dashboard) for UK institutions. As well as the practical benefits, they outlined a vision where the UK leads the way in educational big data for personalised learning.

Given a long track record of education and educational technology research in the UK, the world-leading distance-learning university provision of the Open University, and recent initiatives both those outlined by JISC and FutureLearn (building on the OUs vast experience), this vision seems not unreasonable.

However, on the ground at Learning @ Scale, there was a very different picture; the vast majority of papers and attendees were from the US, an this despite the conference being held in Edinburgh.

To some extent this is as one might expect. While traditional distance learning, including the OU, has class sizes that for those in face-to-face institutions feel massive; these are dwarfed by those for MOOCs, which started in the US; and it is in the US where the main MOOC players (Coursera, udacity, edX) are based. edX alone had initial funding more than ten times that available to FutureLearn, so in sheer investment terms, the balance at L@S is representative.

FutureLearn-logoHowever, Mike Sharples, long-term educational technology researcher and Academic Lead at FutureLearn, was one of the L@S keynotes [Sh16]. In his presentation it was clear that FutureLearn and UK MOOCs punch well above their weight, with retention statistics several times higher than US counterparts. While this may partly be due to topic areas, it is also a reflection of the development strategy. Mike outlined how empirically founded educational theory has driven the design of the FutureLearn platform, not least the importance of social learning. Perhaps then not surprisingly, one of the areas where FutureLearn substantially led over US counterparts was in social aspects of learning.

So there are positive signs for UK research in these areas. While JISC has had its own austerity-driven funding problems, its role as trusted intermediary and active platform creator offers a voice and forum that few, if any, other countries posses. Similarly, while FutureLearn needs to be sustainable, so has to have a certain inward focus, it does seem to offer a wonderful potential resource for collaborative research. Furthermore the open education resource (OER) community seems strong in the UK.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) [HC16,TH15] will bring its own problems, more about justifying student fee increases than education, potentially damaging education through yet more ill-informed political interference, and re-establishing class-based educational apartheid. However, it will certainly increase universities’ interest in education technology.

Set against this are challenges.

First was the topic of my own L@S work-in-progress paper – Challenge and Potential of Fine Grain, Cross-Institutional Learning Data [Dx16]. At Talis, we manage half a million reading lists, containing over 20 million resources, spread over more than 85 institutions including more than half of UK higher education. However, these institutions are all very different, and the half million courses each only may have only tens or low hundreds of students. That is very large scale in total volume, but highly heterogeneous. The JISC learning analytics repository will have exactly the same issues, and are far more difficult to deal with by machine learning or statistical analysis than the relatively homogeneous data from a single huge MOOC.


These issues of heterogeneous scale are not unique to education and ones that as a general information systems phenomena, I have been interested in for many years, and call the “long tail of small data” [Dx10,Dx15]. While this kind of data is more complex and difficult to deal with, this is of course a major research challenge, and potentially has greater long-term promise than the study of more homogeneous silos. I am finding this in my own work with musicologist [IC16,DC14], and is emerging as an issue in the natural sciences [Bo13,PC07].


Another problem is REF, the UK ‘Research Excellence Framework’. My post-hoc analysis of the REF data revealed the enormous bias in the computing sub-panel against any form of applied and human-oriented work [Dx15b,Dx15c]. Of course, this is not a new issue, just that the available data has made this more obvious and undeniable. This affects my own core research area of human–computer interaction, but also, and probably much more substantially, learning technology research. Indeed, I think most learning technologists had already sussed this out well before REF2014 as there were very few papers submitted in this area to the computing panel. I assume most research on learning technology was submitted to the education panel.

To some extent it does not matter where research is submitted and assessed; however, while in theory the mapping between university departments and submitted units is fluid for REF, in practice submitting to ‘other’ panels is problematic making it difficult to write coherent narratives about the research environment. If learning technology research is not seen as REF-able in computing, computing departments will not recruit in these areas and discourage this kind of research. While my hope is that REF2020 will not re-iterate the mistakes of REF2014, there is no guarantee of this, and anyway the effects on institutional policy will already have been felt.

However, and happily, the kinds of research needed to make sense of this large-scale heterogeneous data may well prove more palatable to a computing REF panel than more traditional small-scale learning technology. It would be wonderful to see research collaborations between those with long-term experience and understanding of educational issues, with hard-core machine learning and statistical analysis – this is BIG DATA and challenging data. Indeed one of the few UK papers at L@S involved Pearson’s London-based data analysis department, and included automatic clustering, hidden Markov models, and regression analysis.

In short, while there are barriers in the UK, there is also great potential for exciting research that is both theoretically challenging and practically useful, bringing the insights available from large-scale educational data to help individual students and academics.


[Bo13] Christine L. Borgman. Big data and the long tail: Use and reuse of little data. Oxford eResearch Centre Seminar, 12th March 2013. http://works.bepress.com/borgman/269/

[Dx10] A. Dix (2010). In praise of inconsistency – the long tail of small data. Distinguished Alumnus Seminar, University of York, UK, 26th October 2011.

[Dx15] A. Dix (2014/2015). The big story of small data. Talk at Open University, 11th November 2014; Oxford e-Research Centre, 10th July 2015; Mixed Reality Laboratory, Nottingham, 15th December 2015.

[DC14] Dix, A., Cowgill, R., Bashford, C., McVeigh, S. and Ridgewell, R. (2014). Authority and Judgement in the Digital Archive. In The 1st International Digital Libraries for Musicology workshop (DLfM 2014), ACM/IEEE Digital Libraries conference 2014, London 12th Sept. 2014. http://alandix.com/academic/papers/DLfM-2014/

[Dx15b] Alan Dix (2015/2016).  REF2014 Citation Analysis. accessed 8/5/2016.  http://alandix.com/ref2014/

[Dx15c] A. Dix (2015). Citations and Sub-Area Bias in the UK Research Assessment Process. In Workshop on Quantifying and Analysing Scholarly Communication on the Web (ASCW’15) at WebSci 2015 on June 30th in Oxford. http://ascw.know-center.tugraz.at/2015/05/26/dix-citations-and-sub-areas-bias-in-the-uk-research-assessment-process/

[Dx16]  Alan Dix (2016). Challenge and Potential of Fine Grain, Cross-Institutional Learning Data. Learning at Scale 2016. ACM. http://alandix.com/academic/papers/LS2016/

[FR16] Paul Feldman and Phil Richards (2016).  JISC – Helping the UK become the most advanced digital teaching and research nation in the world.  Talis Insight Europe 2016. https://talis.com/2016/04/29/jisc-keynote-paul-feldman-phil-richards-talis-insight-europe-2016/

[HC16] The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing Quality in Higher Education. House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Third Report of Session 2015–16. HC 572.  29 February 2016.  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmbis/572/572.pdf

[IC16] In Concert (2014-2016).  accessed 8/5/2016  http://inconcert.datatodata.com

[JI16]  Effective learning analytics. JISC, accessed   8/5/2016.  https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/projects/effective-learning-analytics

[PC07] C. L. Palmer, M. H. Cragin, P. B. Heidorn and L.C. Smith. 2007. Data curation for the long tail of science: The Case of environmental sciences. 3rd International Digital Curation Conference, Washington, DC. https://apps.lis.illinois.edu/wiki/ download/attachments/32666/Palmer_DCC2007.pdf

[Sh16]  Mike Sharples (2016).  Effective Pedagogy at Scale, Social Learning and Citizen Inquiry (keynote). Learning at Scale 2016. ACM. http://learningatscale.acm.org/las2016/keynotes/#k2

[TH15] Teaching excellence framework (TEF): everything you need to know.  Times Higher Education, August 4, 2015. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-everything-you-need-to-know


logo design competition – final days

The first entries are in for the logo design competition for the open HCI course I’m presenting in the autumn.  Arunn @ Talis has posted them on the wall in the office.  One is a very good cartoon style illustration, but I’m sure I don’t really look like that :-/

Final entries due by tomorrow midnight … and then Arunn is going to post them up for popular vote … and whichever gets most votes I end up wearing on a T-shirt at the HCI conference in a few weeks time.  There are times when democracy just feels wrong!

mooHCIc – a massive open online HCI course

Would you like to know more about human–computer interaction, or would you like free additional resources for your students?

Hardly a week goes by without some story about the changing face of online open education: from Khan Academy to Apple’s iTunes U and a growing number of large-scale open online courses from leading academics such as Thrun‘s AI course at Stanford.

Talis is interested in the software needed to support these new forms of large-scale open learning.  So, partly because it seems a good idea, and partly to be a willing guinea pig, I am going to run a massive online open HCI course in the autumn.

This type of course is either aimed exclusively at people outside a traditional education setting; or else, in the case of some of the university based courses, the professor/tutor is teaching their own class and then making some of the materials connected with it available on the web.

While similarly aiming to cater for those outside mainstream education, I would like also to make it easy for those in traditional university settings to use this as part of their own courses, maybe suggesting it as additional material to recommend to their students.  Even more interesting will be if the online material is incorporated more deeply into your courses, perhaps using it instead of some of the lectures/labs you would normally give.

If you are teaching a HCI course and would be interested in me being a ‘virtual guest lecturer’ by using this material (free!) please let me know.

I don’t intend to do a broad introductory HCI ‘101’ (although I may start with a short ‘laying out the area’ component), but more a series of components on particular sub-topics.  These will themselves be split into small units of perhaps 10-15 minutes ‘lecture style’ material (Khan-style voice over, or maybe mix of voice-over and head-and-shoulders).  Each sub-topic will have its own exercises, discussion areas, etc.  So, tutors intending to use this as part of their own courses can choose a sub-topic that fits into their curriculum, and likewise individuals not part of a formal course can pick appropriate topics for themselves.   I may also think of some integrative exercises for those doing more than one component.

I have yet to decide the final topics, but the following are things for which I have given some sort of tutorial or produced fresh materials recently:

  • introduction to information visualisation — using materials created for IR+InfoVis winter school in Zinal last January
  • emotion and experience — using new chapter written for next edition of HCI book, and tutorial I did at iUSEr last December
  • physicality — looking at the interactions between digital and physical product design — based on forthcoming TouchIT book
  • formal methods in HCI — as I have just written a chapter for Mads’ interaction-design.org open encyclopaedia of HCI
  • user interface software architecture — based on heavily updated chapter for next edition of HCI book
  • creativity and innovation — (wider than pure HCI audience) — drawing on experience of teaching technical creativity using ‘Bad Ideas’ and other methods, with both practical (doing it) and theoretical (understanding it) aspects
  • designing for use (adoption and appropriation) — understanding the factors that lead to products being adopted including the rich interplay between design and marketing; and then, the factors that can allow users to appropriate products to their own purposes.

I will not do all these, but if some seem particularly interesting to you or your students, let me know and I’ll make final decisions soon based on a balance between popularity and ease of production!

The value of networks: mining and building

The value of networks or graphs underlies many of the internet (and for that read global corporate) giants.  Two of the biggest: Google and Facebook harness this in very different ways — mining and building.

Years ago, when I was part of the dot.com startup aQtive, we found there was no effective understanding of internet marketing, and so had to create our own.  Part of this we called ‘market ecology‘.  This basically involved mapping out the relationships of influence between different kinds of people within some domain, and then designing families of products that exploited that structure.

The networks we were looking at were about human relationships: for example teachers who teach children, who have other children as friends and siblings, and who go home to parents.  Effectively we were into (too) early social networking1!

The first element of this was about mining — exploiting the existing network of relationships.

However in our early white papers on the topic, we also noted that the power of internet products was that it was also possible to create new relationships, for example, adding ‘share’ links.  That is building the graph.

The two are not distinct, if one is not able to exploit new relationships within a product it will die, and the mining of existing networks can establish new links (e.g. Twitter suggesting who to follow).  Furthermore, creating of links is rarely ex nihilo, an email ‘share’ link uses an existing relationships (contact in address book), but brings it into a potentially different domain (e.g. bookmarking a web page).

It is interesting to see Google and Facebook against this backdrop.  Their core strengths are in different domains (web information and social relationships), but moreover they focus differently on mining and building.

Google is, par excellence, about mining graphs (the web).  While it has been augmented and modified over the years, the link structure used in PageRank is what made Google great.  Google also mine tacit relationships, for example the use of word collocation to understand concepts and relationships, so in a sense build from what they mine.

Facebook’s power, in contrast, is in the way it is building the social graph as hundreds of millions of people tell it about their own social relationships.  As noted, this is not ex nihilo, the social relationships exist in the real word, but Facebook captures them digitally.  Of course, then Facebook mines this graph in order to derive revenue form advertisements, and (although people debate this) attempt to improve the user experience by ranking posts.

Perhaps the greatest power comes in marrying the two.   Amazon does this to great effect within the world of books and products.

As well as a long-standing academic interest, these issues are particularly germane to my research at Talis where the Education Graph is a core element.  However, they apply equally whether the core network is kite surfers, chess or bio-technology.

Between the two it is probably building that is ultimately most critical.  When one has a graph or network it is possible to find ways to exploit it, but without the network there is nothing to mine. Page and Brin knew this in the early days of their pre-Google project at Stanford, and a major effort was focused on simply gathering the crawl of the web on which they built their algorithms2.  Now Google is aware that, in principle, others can exploit the open resources on which much of its business depends; its strength lies in its intellectual capital. In contrast, with a few geographical exceptions, Facebook is the social graph, far more defensible as Google has discovered as it struggles with Google Plus.

  1. See our retrospective about vfridge  at  last year’s HCI conference and our original web sharer vision.[back]
  2. See the description of this in “In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives“.[back]

using the Public Suffix list

On a number of occasions I have wanted to decompose domain names, for example in the URL recogniser in Snip!t.  However, one problem has always been the bit at the end.  It is clear that ‘com’ and ‘ac.uk’ are the principle suffixes of ‘www.alandix.com’ and ‘www.cs.bham.ac.uk’ respectively.  However, while I know that for UK domains it is the last two components that are important (second level domains), I never knew how to work this out in general for other countries.  Happily, Mozilla and other browser vendors have an initiative called the Public Suffix List , which provides a list of just these important critical second level (and deeper level) suffixes.

I recently found I needed this again as part of my Talis research.  There is a Ruby library and a Java sourceforge project for reading the Public Suffix list, and an implementation by the DKIM Reputation project, that transforms the list into generated tables for C, PHP and Perl.  However, nothing for easily and automatically maintaining access to the list.  So I have written a small PHP class to parse, store and access the Public Suffix list. There is an example in the public suffix section of the ‘code’ pages in this blog, and it also has its own microsite including more examples, documentation and a live demo to try.

New Year and New Job

It is a New Year and I am late with my Christmas crackers again!

If you are expecting the annual virtual cracker from me it is coming … but maybe not before Twelfth Night :-/

The New Year is bringing changes, not least, as many already know, I am moving my academic role and taking up a part-time post as professor down in Birmingham University.

At Birmingham I will be joining an established and vibrant HCI centre, including long-term colleague and friend Russell Beale.  The group has recently had substantial  investment from the University leading to several new appointments including Andrew Howes (who coincidentally also has past Lancaster connections).

The reasons for the move are partly to join this exciting group and partly to simplify life as Talis is based in Birmingham, so just one place to travel to regularly, and one of my daughters also there.

Of course this also means I will be leaving many dear colleagues and friends at Lancaster, but I do expect to continue to work with many and am likely to retain a formal or informal role there for some time.

As well as moving institutions I am also further reducing my percentage of academic time — typically I’ll be just one day a week academic.  So, apologies in advance if my email responses becomes even more sporadic and I turn down (or fail to answer :-() requests for reviews, PhD exams, etc.

Although moving institutions, I will, of course, continue to live up in Tiree (wild and windy, but, at the moment, so is everywhere!), so will still be travelling up and down the country; I’ll wave as I pass!

… and there will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March 🙂

Six weeks on the road

I’ve been at home for the last week after six weeks travelling around the UK and elsewhere.  I’ve not kept up while on the road so doing a retrospective post on it all and need to try to catch on other half written posts.

As well as time at Talis offices in B’ham and at Lancs (including exam board week), travels have taken me to Pisa for a workshop on ‘Supportive User Interfaces’, to Koblenz for Web Science conference giving a talk on embodiment issues and a poster on web-scale reasoning , to Newcastle for British HCI conference doing a talk on fridge, to Nottingham to give a talk on extended episodic experience, and back to Lancs for a session on creativity! Why can’t I be like sensible folks and talk on one topic!

Supportive User Interfaces

Monday 13th June I attended a workshop in Pisa on “Supportive User Interfaces“, which includes interfaces that adapt in various ways to users.  The majority of people there were involved in various forms of model-based user interfaces in which various models of the task, application and interaction are used to generate user interfaces on the fly. W3C have had a previous group in this area; Dave Raggett from w3c was at the workshop and it sounds like there will be a new working group soon.  This clearly has strong links to various forms of ‘meta-level’ representations of data, tasks, etc..  My own contribution started the day, framing the area, focusing partly on reasons for having more ‘meta-level’ interfaces including social empowerment, and partly on the principles/techniques that need to be considered at a human level.

Also on Monday was a meeting of IFIP Working Group 2.7/13.4. IFIP is the UNESCO founded pan-national agency that national computer societies such as as the BCS in the UK and ACM and IEEE Computer in the US belong to.  Working Group 2.7/13.4 is focused on the engineering of user interfaces.  I had been actively involved in the past, but have had many years’ lapse.  However, this seemed a good thing to re-engage with with my new Talis hat on!

SUI: paper:

Web Science Conference in Koblenz

Jaime Teevan from Microsoft gave the opening keynote at WebSci 2011.  I know her from her earlier work on personal information management, but her recent work and keynote was about work on analysing and visualising changes in web pages.  Web page changes are also analysed alongside users re-visitation patterns; by looking at the frequency of re-visitation Jaime and her colleagues are able to identify the parts of pages that change with similar frequency, helping them, inter alia, to improve search ranking.

Had many great conversations, some with people I know previously (e.g. the Southampton folks), but also new, including the group at Troy that do lots of work with data.gov.  I was particularly interested in some work using content matching to look for links between otherwise unlinked (or only partly inter-linked) datasets.  Also lots of good presentations including one on trust prediction and a fantastic talk by Mark Bernstein from Eastgate, which he delivered in blank verse!

My own contribution included the poster that Dave@Talis prepared, which was on the web-scale spreading activation work in collaboration with Univ. Athens.  Quite a niche area in a multi-disciplinary conference, so didn’t elicit quite the interest of the social networking posters, but did lead to a small number of in depth discussions.

In addition I gave talk on the more cognitive/philosophical issues when we start to use the web as an external extension to / replacement of memory, including its impact on education.  Got some good feedback from this.

Closing keynote was from Barry Wellman, the guy who started social network analysis way before they were on computers.  At one point he challenged the Dunbar number1. I wondered whether this was due to cognitive extension with address books etc., but he didn’t seem to think so; there is evidence that some large circles predate web (although maybe not physical address books).  Made me wonder about itinerant tradesmen, tinkers, etc., even with no prostheses. Maybe the numbers sort of apply to any single content, but are repeated for each new context?

WebSci papers:

The HCI Conference – Newcastle

I attended the British HCI conference in Newcastle. This was the 25th conference, and as my very first academic paper in computing2 was at the first BHCI in 1984, I was pleased to be there at this anniversary.  The paper I was presenting was a retrospective on vfridge, a social networking site dating back to 1999/2000, it seemed an historic occasion!

As is always the case presentations were all interesting. Strictly BHCI is a ‘second tier’ conference compared with CHI, but why is it that the papers are always more interesting, that I learn more?  It is likely that a fair number of papers were CHI rejects, so it should be the other way round – is it that selectivity and ‘quality’ inevitably become conservative and boring?

Gregory Abowd gave the closing keynote. It was great to see Gregory again, we meet too rarely.  The main focus of his keynote was on three aspects of research: novelty, value and reliability and how his own work had moved within this space over the years.  In particular having two autistic sons has led him in directions he would never have considered, and this immediately valuable work has also created highly novel research. Novelty and value can coexist.

Gregory also reflected on the BHCI conference as it was his early academic ‘home’ when he did his PhD and postdoctoral here in the late 1980’s.  He thought that it could be rather than, as with many conferences, a second best to getting a CHI paper, instead a place for (not getting the quote quite perfect) “papers that should get into CHI”, by which he meant a proving ground for new ideas that would then go on to be in CHI.

Alan at conference dinnerHowever I initially read the quote differently. BHCI always had a broader concept of HCI compare with CHI’s quite limited scope. That is BHCI as a place that points the way for the future of HCI, just as it was the early nurturing place of MobileHCI.  However CHI has now become much broader in it’s own conception, so maybe this is no longer necessary. Indeed at the althci session the organisers said that their only complaint was that the papers were not ‘alt’ enough – that maybe ‘alt’ had become mainstream. This prompted Russell Beale to suggest that maybe althci should now be real science such as replication!

Gregory also noted the power of the conference as a meeting ground. It has always been proud of the breadth of international attendance, but perhaps it is UK saturation that should be it’s real measure of success.  Of course the conference agenda has become so full and international travel so much cheaper than it was, so there is a tendency to  go to the more topic specific international conferences and neglect the UK scene.  This is compounded by the relative dearth of small UK day workshops that used to be so useful in nurturing new researchers.

Tom at conference dinnerI feel a little guilty here as this was the first BHCI I had been to since it was in Lancaster in 2007 … as Tom McEwan pointed out I always apologise but never come! However, to be fair I have also only been twice to CHI in the last 10 years, and then when it was in Vienna and Florence. I have just felt too busy, so avoiding conferences that I did not absolutely have to attend.

In response to Gregory’s comments, someone, maybe Tom, mentioned that in days of metrics-based research assessment there was a tendency to submit one’s best work to those venues likely to achieve highest impact, hence the draw of CHI. However, I have hardly ever published in CHI and I think only once in TOCHI, yet, according to Microsoft Research, I am currently the most highly cited HCI researcher over the last 5 years … So you don’t have to publish in CHI to get impact!

And incidentally, the vfridge paper had NOT been submitted to CHI, but was specially written for BHCI as it seemed the fitting place to discuss a thoroughly British product 🙂

vfridge paper:

Nottingham MRL

I was at Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham for Joel Fischer‘s PhD viva and while there did a seminar the afternoon on “extended episodic experience” based on Haliyana Khalid‘s PhD work and ideas that arose from it. Basically, whereas ‘user experience’ has become a big issue most of the work is focused on individual ‘experiences’ whereas much of life consists of ongoing series of experiences (episodes) which together make up the whole experience of interacting with a person or place, following a band, etc.

I had obviously not done a good enough job at wearing Joel down with difficult questions in the PhD viva in the morning as he was there in the afternoon to ask difficult questions back of his own 😉

Docfest – Digital Economy Summer School

The last major event was Docfest, which brought together the PhD students from the digital economy centres from around the country. Not sure of the exact count but just short of 150 participants I think. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, business, design, computing, engineering, and many are mature students with years of professional experience behind them.

This looked like being a super event, unfortunately I was only able to attend for a day 🙁  However, I had a great evening at the welcome event talking with many of the students and even got to ride in Steve Forshaw‘s Sinclair C5!

My contribution to the event was running the first morning session on ‘creativity’. Surprise, surprise this started with a bad ideas session, but new for me too as the largest group I’ve run in the past has been around 30.  There were a number of local Highwire students acting as facilitators for the groups, so I had only to set them off and observe results :-). At the end of the morning I gave some the theoretical background to bad ideas as a method and in understanding (aspects of) creativity more widely.

Other speakers at the event included Jane Prophet, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Chris Bonnington, so was sad to miss them; although I did get a fascinating chat with Jane over breakfast in the hotel hearing about her new projects on arts and neural imaging, and on how repetitious writing induces temporary psychosis … That is why the teachers give lines, to send the pupils bonkers!

  1. The idea that there are fundamental cognitive limits on social groups with different sized circles family~6, extended family~20, village~60, large village~200[back]
  2. I had published previously in agricultural engineering.[back]

A month away brain engaged and blood on the floor

Writing at Glasgow airport waiting for flight home after nearly whole month away. I have had a really productive time first at Talis HQ and Lancs (all in the camper van!) and then visits to Southampton (experience design and semantic web), Athens (ontologies and brain-like computation) and Konstanz (visualisation and visual analytics).

Loads of intellectual stimulation, but now really looking forward to some time at home to consolidate a little.

During my time away I managed to fall downstairs, bleed profusely over the hotel floor, and break a tooth. My belonging didn’t fare any better: my glasses fell apart and my sandals and suitcase are now holding together by threads … So maybe safer at home for a bit!