Farewell 2020

Social Informatcis staff and students all centre meeting December 2019

The way we were, December 2019. L to R: John Marshall, Peter Cruickshank, Lyndsey Middleton (now graduated with PhD), Katherine Stephen, Rachel Salzano, Marina Milosheva, Laura Muir (now retired), Hazel Hall, Leo Appleton (now graduated with PhD), Ella Taylor-Smith, David Haynes, David Brazier, Frances Ryan (now Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen), Colin Smith, Wegene Demeke, and Bruce Ryan.

Just over a year ago, on 22nd December 2019, I summarised the the previous six months of activities of the members of the Centre for Social Informatics. I illustrated this account with a jolly photograph of us all bunched closely together around the table a few days earlier in room C34a of Edinburgh Napier University’s Merchiston campus.

At this point, none of us would ever have thought of putting the terms ‘social’ and ‘distancing’ into the same sentence; the letter R was only important to us as the name of a software environment for statistical computing and graphics; and we would have considered it very odd should anyone have suggested the donning of a face mask to pop into Tesco to pick up a loaf of bread. Looking at this photograph today, and rereading the text that accompanies it, generates mixed feelings of nostalgia for pre-COVID19 times with my wonderful colleagues, and regret that we have been working apart from one another for so long, with little prospect of this arrangement changing in the near future.

This time last year it was inconceivable that many of our usual work activities would either come to a complete halt (e.g. business travel – my last trip was on 19th February to the University of Glasgow to deliver a research seminar on collaboration and networking) or shift to online (e.g. meetings, supervisions, PhD examinations, interviews, preparations for REF2021). We enjoyed only a couple of months of pre-pandemic normality at the start of 2020 before we were instructed to work from home from mid-March onwards.

Peter Cruickshank and Frances Ryan (who, at the time, was still working with us) were very lucky with the timing of their workshop for the Digital identity security information practices of citizens (DISIPRAC) project on 27th February. (See the project report made available in April.) In contrast Bruce Ryan, Rachel Salzano, Katherine Stephen and I were extremely unlucky with our 19th March timing for Event 3 of the Research Impact and Value in Library and Information Science (RIVAL) project. We were obliged to cancel this event at very short notice on 13th March, eventually converting it for online delivery eight months later on 19th November 2020. Still in my office at Merchiston today are piles of printed material that we had hoped to use at RIVAL event 3. These include delegate packs, specially created posters, and a stack of yellow cards for an i-Spy game. What a waste!

For other projects that were only just underway – or about to start – when the pandemic hit, it was a case of reviewing the original plans and converting them for online delivery. So, for example, video conference interviews were conducted for the Information avoidance and diabetes project led by Gemma Webster with Bruce Ryan. (Preliminary findings are available in a poster presented in June 2020; Gemma and Bruce hope to publish a full paper on the project in 2021.) Similarly a pilot researcher mentoring scheme led by Ella Taylor-Smith was delivered online. Some of us found imaginative new ways of meeting our project aims. For example, David Brazier (project lead) and Rachel Salzano (researcher), had hoped to conduct some public engagement work on the theme of information literacy with Edinburgh city library users in workshops. Instead they refocused their practical work to make online recordings of individuals speaking about their information behaviour and use.

Later in the year, we were much better prepared to plan and execute our research taking into account the pandemic restrictions, and built this into project proposals such as our two successful bids for SFC funding. (This is also the case for two new ESRC/SDS funded PhD studentship awards that we will be advertising in the new year – David Brazier is the Director of Studies (DoS) for one, and Ella Taylor-Smith DoS for the other.)

In the past 10 months we have also become quite used to participating at online conferences. For example, we have made contributions to:

Despite all the difficulties of remote working, we have had good news to share with one another over the course of the past 10 months. These include, for example, prestigious external appointments: Rachel Salzano as a part-time researcher at the Alan Turing Institute; Peter Cruickshank to the editorial board of the eJournal of eDemocracy & Open Government (JeDEM); and Gemma Webster as a full member EPSRC Peer Review College. A couple of us were pleased to be recognised for our teaching in the ENSA award nominations (myself and Wegene Demeke). Even better news was that David Haynes’ ISKO2020 contribution won the best paper award, and Katherine Stephen won the SDS TMT competition, with Marina Milosheva’s submission to the latter also highly commended. It would be remiss not to mention our three 2020 PhD graduates: Leo Appleton and Lyndsey in Middleton July and Iris Buunk in October. We congratulated our PhD graduates on their new jobs: Leo Appleton and Frances Ryan in March; Alicja Pawluczuk in April; and Iris Buunk in June. We waved goodbye to Laura Muir when she retired in September. A warm welcome awaited David Haynes when he joined the group in January and Debbie Meharg at the start of the autumn term, as was the case for our three new first year PhD students in October.

We have also been actively publishing our work this year. The outputs listed below draw on the expertise of the group members in their social informatics research. (Names in bold indicate current members of the Centre for Social Informatics; in green are the names of former members.)

So, in spite of everything, we actually achieved quite a lot in 2020. We have plenty of other work underway that should deliver in 2021 (e.g. grant proposals pending, papers under review). Here’s hoping that later in the year (once vaccinated) we’ll be able to share our good news for 2021 on campus in person (rather than on Teams, as is the current practice for our weekly Wednesday afternoon research group meetings).

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