Appointment to the RCUK Digital Economy theme Programme Advisory Board

Digital Economy logoThe Research Councils UK Digital Economy (DE) theme supports research to realise the transformational impact of digital technologies on aspects of community life, cultural experiences, future society, and the economy.

Over the past couple of years I have enjoyed spending time with staff from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on work associated with the DE theme. This all started two years ago when I was invited to join the 12-person panel that conducted the 2012 impact review of DE theme investment. Soon afterwards I became involved in an additional stream of DE research undertaken under the banner of “digital personhood”: I helped identify the scope of the investment; served as a mentor at the sandpit meeting where project ideas were germinated; and recently participated at the first digital personhood network meeting. I have also been involved in reviewing grant proposals and panel work for the DE theme.

When I noticed the call for new members of the Programme Advisory Board (PAB) for the DE theme earlier this year, I saw further opportunity to support this area of research. The PAB provides advice on the research direction and balance of the programme to include consideration of issues such as training, new and emerging research opportunities, and evaluation of the programme itself and its outputs.

Given that my work is largely concerned with the intersection of digital technologies with people and communities, and the resultant challenges and opportunities, I felt that my expertise would be of interest to the appointing committee. Added to this is my perspective as someone who works at the “softer” end of computing, and who can bring to the fore questions related to the possible social impact of new research directions, and how these might influence subsequent funding decisions. I also believe strongly that teams seeking to develop strategic direction need to include individuals who work across subject domains and professional groupings. This is because new knowledge happens at boundaries, and those who operate as boundary spanners – like myself – are well-positioned to anticipate novel and unexpected trends from observing connections across various areas of activity.

I’m delighted that the appointing committee welcomed my application and has recently confirmed my membership of the DE theme Programme Advisory Board for a three year term. I am very much looking forward to working with my new colleagues on the PAB to help invigorate and drive the future direction of the DE theme. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to strengthen further the relationships with research council colleagues that have grown over the past couple of years.

A professorial lecture on poverty, privacy and the press


8 members of the Centre for Social Informatics tweeted the talk – including Frances Ryan, Christine Irving, Leo Appleton & Jan Auernhammer pictured here

It’s rare that all the members of the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI) manage to gather together at the same place at the same time. However, we almost managed it last Thursday when we attended the inaugural professorial lecture of our CSI colleague Dr Alistair Duff. Apart from one PhD student and one researcher (who was at a conference in Finland presenting two papers, including one that I co-authored), there was a full turn-out of the academic staff, researchers, and research students of CSI at the event, all eager to hear what Alistair had to say about The information society and its challenges. Two PhD students made special journeys to attend the event from afar: Leo Appleton caught the train up from Liverpool and Nicole Van Deursen flew in from Spain.

Alistair Duff tells the audience about meeting Daniel Bell

Alistair Duff tells the audience about meeting Daniel Bell

Alistair began his presentation by defining the term “information society” and referring to three particularly influential works: (1) Machlup’s The production and distribution of knowledge in the United States (1962); (2) Daniel Bell’s The coming of the post-industrial society (1973); and (3) Masuda’s The information society as post-industrial society (1984). In his early career Alistair was lucky enough to meet and correspond with Daniel Bell, and shared with the audience a photograph of their meeting.

Alistair then went on to outline what he believes are three big problems of the information society: poverty; privacy; and the press. He argued that we have a duty to take care of the poor, and this includes the information poor, who struggle to participate in the information society. He expressed his shock that privacy appears no longer to be regarded as a social norm, but has become a “quaint virtue” as we drift into a surveillance society. In the last part of his talk he demonstrated his enthusiasm for the “dead tree press” (as opposed to what he considers to be ephemeral comment in the transient blogosphere) as a means of disseminating informed opinion. In short he called for protection of the poor, privacy and the press.

The newly inaugurated Professor Duff and his wife Liz

The newly inaugurated Professor Duff and his wife Liz

Alistair took advantage of his public platform to thank his colleagues in the Centre for Social Informatics and the School of Arts and Creative Industries, and the bodies that have funded his research over the years, in particular the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the AHRC. He admitted to almost forgetting to thank his wife, even though she was sitting opposite him in the front row of the audience. Happily he remembered just in time (and – in his own words – thus managed “to avoid a beating” when he got home!)

After the formal proceedings in the auditorium were over we enjoyed a reception, where discussion of the themes covered in Alistair’s presentation continued over drinks.

Between exhibition and contemplation: considering everyday routines on Blipfoto

blipfoto squareThis week my colleague Dr Eve Forrest has been participating at the Helsinki Photomedia conference in Finland. Today Eve is presenting our co-authored paper Between exhibition and contemplation: considering everyday routines on Blipfoto in a session entitled “Non-professional photography: practices and power”.

Photomedia conference logo In the presentation Eve reports on the study of the practice of Blipfoto users that we undertook last month. The analysis of focus group and interview data raises some interesting questions about participation in this online community, and our presentation refers to a number of contrasting perspectives that we identified from the data. We highlight how Blipfoto can simultaneously be considered both a private and public space, where users may choose to be anonymous or open, presenting their photographs primarily for themselves or for others. Although ostensibly for pictures, our research findings tell us that the Blipfoto site is also very much about words. The theme of time also emerged from the data. We discovered that by interacting with the site on a daily basis, users capture today with an eye on tomorrow. On occasion questions of life and death made their way into the conversations with the research participants, revealing how this theme of time can be actively linked to the lifetime of Blipfoto users. In the latter part of the presentation Eve considers the question of routine as related to Blipfoto use. First we have been able to draw some conclusions on how Blipfoto both disrupts and builds routine in the everyday (off-line) life. Second we have learnt how users develop their own routines when interacting with the site.

For further details of this work, please feel free to browse the presentation slides below.

Google+ and library and information professionals: invitation to contribute to research project

Google+-logoThis is a call to fellow library and information professionals to contribute to a research project on the use of Google+. If you work in the library, information and knowledge sector, please read on to learn more about the project and how you can contribute to it.

The survey is being used to collect data for a project entitled Social platforms as business tools: An investigation into the use of Google+ by librarians for their professional development and in library and information services delivery. This is being undertaken by Edinburgh Napier University student Grant Charters. Grant is keen to consult with a range of professionals who work in libraries and information services to find out about their use on Google+ for their own professional development, and/or to support services delivery.

Grant Charters

Project student Grant Charters

Grant will be delighted if you can contribute to the project by completing the short survey. It should only take about 5 minutes to answer the questions. All responses will be anonymised and no individuals will be identifiable in the written report of the project to which the results contribute. If you are able to spread the word of the survey to other professional colleagues, this will also be appreciated. The survey link is at

For more information about the project please feel free to contact Grant at

Social media and public libraries: a doctoral defence in Finland

Finland in "spring"

Finland experienced a fresh covering of snow last week

I have examined quite a few PhDs over the course of my career, both in English and in French, but until last week I had not had the opportunity to participate in a doctoral defence at a Nordic university. Last week I travelled to Åbo Akademi University in the Finnish city of Turku to serve as the opponent at the PhD defence of a thesis (in English) entitled Social media and public libraries: exploring information activities of library professionals and users.

A number of other activities were also fitted around the defence, one of which was an invited research seminar delivered to staff within the School of Business and Economics. Entitled Joining it all up: developing research-practice linkages in the UK, my presentation covered efforts to strengthen research-practice linkages within the UK library and information science community since 2009, and the possible impact of this work. (The slides are available from my Slideshare page. Dr Isto Huvila has also kindly blogged my presentation.)

The PhD candidate on Friday was Maria Kronqvist-Berg. Maria works as a library director in the municipality of Malax on the west coast of Finland about 350 kilometres north of Turku. The broad theme of her doctoral study is social media and public libraries. A large proportion of published studies on social media in professional settings privileges the technologies themselves (for example, my own work on librarians’ use of Twitter), or focuses on particular applications such as marketing. It also tends not to consider all stakeholders in the mix. In contrast Maria’s study explores the interface where public library staff, services delivered by social media, and library users meet. As such it makes a contribution to what is currently just a small body of knowledge on social media deployment, and professional and user perceptions of this.

The candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg with opponent Professor Hazel Hall

Candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg with opponent Professor Hazel Hall

The context of the work in the thesis is set by referring to earlier theoretical contributions on information behaviour and use, and practice theory. Much of the previous work on the information practices of end users has focused on the task of satisfying information needs. However, when people deploy social media to meet their information needs they engage in other information behaviours that go beyond solving a simple information-related problem. These include activities and practices such as communicating, creating, sharing etc. The consideration of these additional activities in this study thus extends the scope of information behaviour research and demonstrates the applicability of conducting such research from a practice theory perspective.

The findings from the study reveal the opportunities and challenges of social media as a channel for information services delivery. Significantly it throws doubt on the validity of considering this form of delivery as a separate from other services offered by public libraries. It thus challenges a discourse of Library 2.0 evident in the peer-reviewed and professional press. By highlighting how librarians balance and integrate social media with library services, Maria’s thesis provides a more realistic view than that promoted by advocates of Library 2.0. Maria’s work also evaluates the opportunities and limitations of conceptions of social media applications as platforms for collaborative activities with users, and thus will be of interest to practising library and information professionals keen to consider critically the use of social media for the development of their services. (The full thesis is available in English to download as a pdf from the Åbo Akademi University library repository.)

It is always an honour and a pleasure to serve as an external examiner. What makes the Nordic experience special, however, is the very public nature of the defence. This is in complete contrast to the rather private and closed nature of the British PhD viva. Maria’s defence on Friday was played out over the course of just under two hours in front of an audience of about 50 colleagues, friends and family. The audience members even included a baby, who mewed gently from time to time in a pram positioned in the back row of the auditorium.

Supervisor Professor Gunilla Widén, candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg, and the academic hat

Supervisor Professor Gunilla Widén, candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg, and the academic hat

The defence followed a well-established timetable which began when Maria (the candidate), Professor Gunilla Widén (the candidate’s supervisor and chair of the defence) and I (as opponent) processed into the auditorium in front of the audience members, who all stood up as we walked by. In the first few minutes Gunilla opened the defence with a few words of introduction, and by placing the doctoral hat – a symbol of academic freedom – on the table at the front of the auditorium. (The use of the hat is described in more detail on the Åbo Akademi University web pages.) Then Maria gave a lecture on her work in Swedish, and I responded with a short speech of my own (in English). Once these preliminaries were concluded, we moved on to the questioning, which lasted about an hour. I first asked Maria some general questions, then we discussed the methods that she deployed for her study, and finally we considered the study’s outcomes.

For the defence I wore an Edinburgh Napier gown. There is not a tradition of academic dress in Finland, so I anticipated that the audience would be rather interested in my outfit for the afternoon. I therefore explained the history of the gown at the start of my speech, referring to its development from academic and clerical dress of the medieval universities of Europe to its ceremonial use today. This also gave me a chance to speak about the medieval Scot after whom my university is named (mathematician John Napier of Merchiston), logarithms (celebrating 400 years in 2014), and the decimal point.

Maria Kronqvist-Berg enjoys a well-deserved slice of apple cake after the successful defence of her thesis

Maria Kronqvist-Berg enjoys a well-deserved slice of apple cake after the successful defence of her thesis

After the defence there was a University reception at which tea and apple cake were served. That same evening Maria followed tradition by hosting a dinner in the honour of the opponent. Others at the meal included the candidate’s family, fellow PhD students, and colleagues from the University. The meal was fabulous. Indeed the first course of gravlax and beetroot is one of the most delicious starters that I have ever tasted. Between each course there were speeches from the candidate, her supervisor, and me. It really was a lovely occasion.

There were lots of other wonderful little moments throughout the day of Maria’s defence. I loved watching the pride of the candidate’s parents as she gave her opening presentation at the start of the formal proceedings, and witnessing her friends line up to congratulate her afterwards. I was also delighted that Dr Tuomas Harviainen, who I had met before at a Finnish conference in 2011, travelled all the way from Helsinki to watch the defence, and to hand-deliver to me a copy of his own PhD thesis Systemic perspectives on information in physically performed role play. Tuomas explained that he followed up some of the recommendations that I made to him about his doctoral studies three years ago, and these had a great influence on his final submission. One of his reasons for attending the defence was to be able to thank me for my advice in person.

The opponent's marked-up copy of the thesis and coverage of the defence in the local press

The opponent’s marked-up copy of the thesis and coverage of the defence in the local press

Something else that impressed me on Friday was how the tradition of the public defence helps with the rapid dissemination of research findings, presented in an accessible way, to the general public. Since anyone can come to listen to the defence, the University advertises it widely, and this encourages press coverage of the student’s work. For example, if you can read Swedish, do take a look at this press report. Such a system addresses the issues of the researcher-practitioner gap in domains such as library and information science, as outlined in the seminar presentation that I delivered at Åbo Akademi on Thursday.

Digital Personhood network: review of first meeting, 6-7 March 2014

Digital Economy logoIn 2012 I was a member of the 12-person panel that reviewed the £130 million investment in Research Councils UK’s Digital Economy (DE) programme. The main remit of the panel was to consider the full range of DE projects funded to date. These ranged from doctoral studies based across UK universities, to the large collections of projects hosted at the three DE hubs: (1) Horizon at the University of Nottingham; (2) dot.rural at the University of Aberdeen; and (3) the social inclusion through the digital economy (SiDE) projects at the Universities of Newcastle and Dundee. The review panel’s findings are available in its report hosted on the EPSRC web site.

Digital personhood themes

Digital personhood themes

In addition to reviewing projects that were already underway, the 2012 panel members were also keen to identify possible areas for future DE programme investment. I remarked how few of the studies at the time focused on what it means to be an individual who lives and works in a digital economy. The panel members and research council staff discussed this observation further, both during the review week in May 2012 and immediately afterwards. Out of these discussions grew research council interest in funding some further work around the theme of “digital personhood”. Following a sandpit event in November 2012, £5 million of additional DE programme investment was allocated to support (a) five distinct Digital Personhood projects and (b) a digital personhood research network.

While each of the newly-funded five projects is concerned with empirical research into particular aspects of digital personhood, the network grant was awarded to help ensure that the five Digital Personhood projects, and other associated research, maximise their collective impact. The grant funding was awarded to bring together digital personhood researchers, and other stakeholders, at a series of meetings to share research results, expertise and contacts. By working collectively in this manner, it is anticipated that it will be possible to map emerging themes in digital personhood research, and to identify associated societal challenges. This work will inform both (a) public understanding of digital personhood, and (b) discussions of relevant issues at research council and government levels. The network grant’s web site also serves as a hub for information about the five Digital Personhood projects, and other resources of relevance to the theme of digital personhood research.

Professor Mike Chantler

Professor Mike Chantler introduces a breakout session

Last week I attended the first meeting of the Digital Personhood Network. The venue was Cranage Hall in Cheshire, the same place where we held the Digital Personhood sandpit in November 2012. It has to be said that it was a far less stressful experience to be at Cranage Hall as a network member, than as a mentor (as I was at the sandpit event), or as a former sandpit participant.The meeting was chaired by Professor Mike Chantler of Heriot Watt University, Principal Investigator of the network grant. Mike took us through a well-organised and interesting programme that included formal presentations and breakout sessions for structured information exchange, as well as ice-breaker exercises, refreshment breaks, and free time during which delegates were able to get to know one another better and start to form connections across the network’s membership.

The formal sessions on the Thursday included an opening keynote by Professor Chris Hankin of Imperial College London on the nature and meaning of identity, and presentations from research council staff Dr John Baird and Rachel Tyrrell on the DE programme from the perspectives of the EPSRC and ESRC respectively. There were also updates on the five Digital Personhood projects (or, as one team put it, “a chance to tell the audience of the challenges of implementing plans for a cool project devised in the middle of the night during the sandpit week”). The five projects are:

Impact activities noted by Dr John Baird

Impact activities noted by Dr John Baird

Given the network grant’s remit to maximise the collective impact of digital personhood research, much of the time at the meeting was devoted to the theme of impact, i.e. the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy. A second presentation on the Friday by Dr John Baird highlighted how the research councils conceive impact, and provided some excellent advice on how to address pathways to impact in research grant proposals. In addition breakout groups discussed strategies for ensuring the impact of research projects.

The Conversation logoI was particularly interested in the Thursday afternoon presentation by Laura Hood, Commissioning Editor (Digital Economy) for The Conversation. The Conversation is a news and current affairs web site that presents content written by academics (as opposed to journalists), in an accessible manner (helped by The Conversation’s journalists) for a general readership. Laura argued very persuasively of the value of the site as a means for researchers to extend the reach of their research. This can be achieved through the posting of articles on The Conversation web site itself, and also beyond thanks to The Conversation’s practice of pitching academics’ articles elsewhere. Laura was very pleased to take the business cards of delegates keen to promote their work in such a way.

Digital non-personhood research challenges

Digital “non”-personhood research challenges

The other main output of this first network meeting was the articulation of research themes related to digital personhood, and associated research questions. These were developed through group discussion of the range of ideas submitted and organised into thematic groups by individuals prior to the event itself. In the feedback sessions these were labelled: “Determining personal digital value”; “Research community challenges”; “Beyond self”; “Digital “non”-personhood”; “Digital social contract”; and “Multiple digital personhoods and the single self”. It is anticipated that this work will contribute to mapping the research domain of digital personhood and identify research priorities in the future.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my participation at this first network meeting was witnessing how a range of highly innovative projects, and a lively well-networked research community, has grown from the seed of an idea expressed in a meeting room in Swindon in May 2012. I feel privileged to have been involved in the Digital Personhood initiative from the very start, and at each of its major milestones: the scoping workshop for the sandpit in July 2012; the selection of sandpit participants in October 2012; the sandpit itself in November 2012; the assessment of the five successful sandpit proposals in early 2013; and this first meeting of the Digital Personhood network.

Stefano Padilla and Mike Chantler

Stefano Padilla & Mike Chantler at work

Thanks are due to Professor Mike Chantler, Dr Stefano Padilla, and Thomas Methven of Heriot Watt University for organising and delivering an excellent event. As someone who has held a network grant in the past (the AHRC-funded Devleoping Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) network), I am fully aware of how much effort goes into this work. I am already looking forward to the next network meeting and watching how the Digital Personhood projects develop and flourish in the future.

For further coverage of the sessions, please see Nicola Osborne’s live blog of the meeting. You may also be interested in going through the tweets from the meeting by using the hashtag #digiperson. The full meeting report will be available on the Digital Personhood Network web site soon.

Do you have the facts on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia logoDr Ally Crockford works as the Wikimedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland (NLS). This post is the first its kind in Scotland, and is part of an attempt by the NLS to lay the groundwork to improve open access to the library’s resources.

Last night Ally gave a presentation on her work at an SLA Europe event that was sponsored by Springer and hosted by the NLS. Her focus was the “real facts” about Wikipedia,

Ally is keen to dispel some of the myths about Wikipedia, and to address a number of concerns that are commonly raised about the reliability of information presented in its entries. At the start of her talk Ally referred to a number of studies that have shown that the reliability of Wikipedia is similar to that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica online. She argued that instead of being seen as an admission of low quality, the warning banner that sits across the top of Wikipedia entries should be perceived as a signal to encourage active reading. In short, the banner prompts users to think critically about the content that is presented to them. That Wikipedia makes it possible to see how entries have developed also encourages users to engage more deeply with its content.

Ally’s talk also included explanations of how contributions to Wikipedia are edited and moderated, and the professional and personal value of becoming a member of the community that contributes to the site. Ally made particular reference to the relationship between Wikipedia and libraries. She dismissed the view that Wikipedia should be seen as a threat to traditional library and information services. Indeed, she believes that libraries that collaborate with Wikipedia can reach out to new users.

Ally highlighted some recent projects where individuals have gathered together on the same date to create and edit Wikipedia content on particular topics. There is an opportunity to join in such an initiative in Edinburgh at the end of this month at the Edinburgh Women in Computing editathon 2014, which takes place on Friday 21 March.

The formal part of the evening concluded with some questions from the audience. There were a couple of about stats (on the number of contributors to Wikipedia, and how to see the stats for a particular page), and a query on how to post to Wikipedia about your own organisation without risking bias. The final question as to whether or not Wikipedia is a “geeky boys’ club” led to an interesting discussion of initiatives underway to address this view, both in terms of the profile of contributors and actual content.

If you missed the event and would like to know more, you’ll be pleased to hear that Ally’s presentation was recorded. It should be available soon as a podcast from SLAEurope.