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NESTA Crucible Alumni - Google UK

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A couple of years ago I managed to find myself involved with something called NESTA Crucible (NESTA website).  Amongst other things, Crucible was a programme that was all about getting people from different disciplines together and offering some useful and practical guidance to researchers and academics.  A couple of years after the final Crucible event, NESTA funded a day which was broadly entitled 'Crucible Alumni' to enable past participants to reflect on what had happened after the programme came to an end.

It was both a fun and useful day, and I'm summarising bits of it as a blog for a couple of reasons.  The first to remember what happened (!), the second for the other people who were able to come along and third, to share something about the useful points that were discussed with a wider audience (which seems appropriate, given that engagement with different people was one of the themes of the day).

Introductions and Presentations

The event was hosted at Google's London offices.  I was interested to discover that I had been to the area in which the offices were situated, but I had no idea that this was where Google's offices were.  The day began with a brief introduction by a Googler, followed by a further brief talk by NESTA's chief exec.  We were soon into the first key part of the day where former members of the programme were able to give some short presentations using the Pecha Kucha (Wikipedia) format.

I had never witnessed the use of this technique before but, in essence, presenters were asked to give talks that contained 20 PowerPoint slides which changed every 20 seconds - a tough format, and one that forces presenters to avoid waffle!

The notes I've made accompanying the first presentations are: 'linguistic map of Glasgow', 'lego' and 'genome sequencing'.  The next presentation described some science outreach activities to schools.  The words I've used in relation to this presentation were 'chromosome carnival', 'Edinburgh festival' and 'radio programme'.  If anyone is interested in learning more, do let me know so I can put you in contact with the presenter.

The next presentation was by a Crucible contemporary called Howard Falcon-Long, who is an expert in fossil plants.  Howard talked about getting involved with some media fellowships, and has had an opportunity to write for the BBC - Howard certainly has managed to do a lot since our time on the programme. Other phrases that I've noted from other presenters include 'research in neurodisability', 'lab automation', 'life at high altitudes' and 'viruses'.  The words 'fun', 'science' and 'outreach' were also found together on the same page of my notebook. 

Collaboration and adventures in research

There were two formal(ish) presentations during the day, followed by a short group activity.  The first presentation was by Professor Kate Jones (ZSI website) from the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research, UCL.  Kate holds a chair in Ecology and Biodiversity and spoke about two things: Bats and Citizen Science.

I remember seeing quite a few bats when I lived in my previous house in Sussex; they would swoop down by the side of the house, almost doing circuits of my garden before they mysteriously disappeared as quickly as they came.  Having noticed them flying around, and having been told that there are so many different types of bats out there, how might we be able to understand how many they are and, importantly, how the bat population is getting along?  Determining change requires us to take measurements, but how on earth can we measure the how many bats there are?!

Kate introduces us to something called Citizen Science (Wikipedia).  This is where an interested member of the public can play a small but important part of a wider research endeavour.  The advantages are that participants can make a contribution, it permits the exposure of different issues to a wider population and also can play an important role in informing members of the public about science.  Plus, it can be pretty fun too.

One way to count bats (I have to admit, I had never ever thought to ask this question before!) is to record the noises that they make.  Different bats make different noises.  Easy, right?  Well, you've got to capture the noises, which means driving around at certain times of the day using special recording devices.  When you've got the noises, there's then the problem of categorising or classifying the noises.  There are a few bits of technology that are being used: some kind of vehicle, a recording gadget, and GPS, a clock, a computer - and you can find quite a few in your mobile phone.

Kate introduced us to a couple of websites, iBats which is a programme about collecting bat sounds and calls from the environment, and Bat Detective which allows members of the public to start to classify recordings, thus providing useful data for the 'bat scientists'.

This kind of approach to science, the crowd sourcing of either data or analysis isn't new, but the availability of powerful computers in the form of your mobile telephone and increased availability of fast internet is facilitating the availability of new types of experiment.  One of the first citizen science projects (as far as I'm aware) is called Galaxy Zoo.  After a period of training, you are able to classify different types of galaxy that, perhaps, no one has ever studied properly before.

Whilst Galaxy Zoo can be used on a desktop PC, I also remember having heard of something called Mappiness.  This is a mobile phone application which asks you to respond to how happy you are at a particular point in time (I remember this featuring in a TED Talk I saw not so long ago, but I can't find its link).

Kate also mentioned another website called Zooniverse.  This site collates different crowd sourcing or citizen science projects together in one place.  I'm certainly struck by the breadth and diversity of the different projects. There is also, of course, an Open University biodiversity observatory project called iSpot, which has over eighteen thousand registered users.

Towards the end of last year there was a lot of press coverage about ash dieback (Wikipedia) and increased awareness of the extent to which this fungal infection is attacking ash trees in Great Britain.  The increased awareness of this problem quickly led to the development of an app called Ashtag (along with other similar projects).  Kate mentioned a website called Naturelocator which links to other projects.

Kate mentioned a project that I had heard of about six months ago through a geek news site called Slashdot.  This was a crowd sourced radiation map.  In the wake of the Japanese Tsunami and resulting nuclear accident, software developers and hardware designers created personal low-cost Geiger counters.  Citizens could were then able to take their own geo-tagged radioactivity readings that were in competition with the official measurements produced by the authorities.

An interesting (and rather obvious) thought that was inspired by Kate's presentation is that science can lead to the creation of technology which, in turn, can then lead to further science.  Technologies such as the mobile phone can (in part) democratise science (and the taking of measurements), but there is also the challenge of ensuring the quality, integrity and reliability of results.  This said (taking an open source software analogy) just as many eyes looking at the same software can potentially lead to fewer programming bugs, many data collection points can lead to more accurate and comprehensive results. All in all, a very thought provoking talk.

Soapbox Science

Seirian Sumner (Bristol University) is a scientist who is interested in bees, wasps and ants (if my notes serve me well).  Seirian also has an interest in popular science writing and sharing her enthusiasm for science with the general public.

Seirian introduced us to the idea of 'soapbox science' and presented us with a challenge - we were asked to imagine that we were at speaker's corner, Hyde Pare.  Let's say we were given a soapbox to stand on - what would you say (about science) that would draw listeners to you?  We were then asked, 'is anyone going to volunteer?'  Within minutes, around six scientists were balancing on tables trying to entice us bystanders (I didn't volunteer) to listen to what they had to say about their subject.  It was a compelling demonstration.  Any Googlers who were passing by must have wondered what was happening, and it was a miracle that the police were not called given how much shouting and impassioned speaking was going on!

Over a course of about an hour or so, we were introduced to Soapbox Science and heard what Seirian and her colleagues had been doing.  It began with a summary of a pilot, followed by a summary of an event (ZSL) that took place on the London Southbank in July 2012.

So, why do all this?  A number of reasons were put forward.  Seirian opened her presentation with what, to me, was perhaps one of the most compelling arguments.  Since scientists are primarily funded through government research grants and teach at publically funded universities, there is the argument that scientists should be giving something back and Soapbox Science is one of many ways to do this.  Other reasons includes enjoyment, understanding and making connection between science and art, public dissemination of work and raising awareness of research and subjects, inspiring others and gaining new ideas.

Towards the end of the day there was quite a debate about gender and science, and an open question of, 'if people leave science, where do they go to?'  Another thought is that although women in science was a very prominent and important theme in Seirian's work, diversity in its broadest sense (gender, socio-economic background, ethnicity and disability) is equally important.

This final presentation of the day made me reflect on whether there might be other ways to inspire people.  I started to wonder whether there was any mileage of trying to connect stand-up comedy and computer science.  I haven't got anywhere with this idea yet; it's something I'm continuing to mull over (!)

Reflections

There are two key things that I gained from this day and both of them are loosely connected to each other.  The first relates to our own discipline.  We can sometimes get so locked into our own subject and trying to solve our own little problems, whether it is creating something or taking part in a larger debate, that we can easily become entrenched in our own way of thinking about things.  Speaking to other people outside our own discipline, whatever those disciplines may be, can be very refreshing.  We're exposed to different scientific (or artistic) language, different types problems and different types of methods.  In doing so we may then become more critical of our own way of solving problems.  There are days when we become so familiar with our own subjects that they don't seem as exciting as the work that other people are carrying out.  When we begin to talk to people outside our discipline we actually realise (again) that the subjects that we find interesting are, actually, very cool.

The other point is that how much more we could each be doing.  Research, teaching and administration represent very important, necessary and all-consuming aspects of an academic role.  So much so, it is easier to forget, as Seirian pointed out, that perhaps we need to consider our role in terms of a wider responsibility too.  Science and research is very much carried out and facilitated by universities and research institutions.  I guess an important thought is that sharing can represent an opportunity for everyone who becomes involved.

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