söndag 23 januari 2011

Data driven sustainability

A ph.d. student at my department, Jorge Zapico, has come halfway and so and he wrapped up one research project and kicked off a new one this past week. These projects are not his own personal projects, but he is the person most heavily invested in them and the driver and de-facto (though not formal) coordinator and project leader.

I could not attend the part where the "Persuasive services" project was wrapped up, but I did attend lunch and the official kick-off of the "Data driven sustainability" project. I will be one of three persons in the "reference group" for the project, i.e. I will not work in the project itself but will have a ancillary role in supporting, evaluating and providing constructive feedback and advice. I will start doing that right here and right now.

I have not had time to speak further with Jorge about the project beyond reading the project plan and there are several things I do not understand yet. Although I did find the project plan exciting, I also found it lacking in coherence. In a best-case scenario this is due to a lack of understanding on my part. In a worst-case scenario this is due to conceptual weaknesses in thinking about (and writing up) the project. Somewhere in-between and hopefully closer to the truth is the case of:
- a) the project plan being really open and only hinting at and pointing in a general direction (i.e. for now leaving many things open), or,
- b) having some basically sound ideas that could be developed further and that (perhaps especially) could be communicated better.

I can certainly see that the basic techy ideas can dazzle someone who is not knowledgeable in the area and who might then restrain himself from asking further questions and making a fool of himself. That person might be me not being knowledgeable enough - except that I'm not afraid to ask about what I don't understand. Furthermore, it is pretty pointless for me to be in the reference group unless I really grok what the project is about.

So I expect to have conversations with Jorge, with Hannes and with Ambjörn around our coffee table about this project during the coming months and look forward to that. This is what I understand the project to be about right now:

There are several cool up-and-coming technologies such as increased numbers of sensors and increasing amounts of real-time data, open data, linked data, APIs and mashups. This makes it possible to explore new metrics, applications, tool and theories for using this data so as to support sustainability by making environmental information more visible and more based on facts (quantitative data) of how things really are - right here and right now. Collecting, accounting and analyzing environmental information should thus support better decision-making in the area of sustainability.

That's about it. I also understand that so-called "interventions" are an important part of the expected results of the research project. These interventions are basically prototypes or (web) applications that are part proof-of-concept, part open-ended "toys" (albeit serious) and part something else. An example of an "intervention" from the "persuasive services" project is carbon.to (check it out, it's fun!).

It thus sounds like a practical and really fun project. What I don't understand is how the project is supposed to create a "theory" of... something (as per the project plan). The plan states that one of the two main outputs of the project is "A theoretical framework and toolkit of how ICT can allow making visible the environmental variables and how this information can help to move towards sustainability". That's a worthy goal, but I can't right now connect the actual (practical) work that will be done in the project with these more "heavy" theoretical outputs of the project. What I can see is a project that explores different ideas, builds stuff that might spread virally and thus change the world by "starting a revolution" from below.

Hopefully things will become a little bit more clear later this term. I anyway with Jorge the best of luck in launching the project!

tisdag 11 januari 2011

No open laptops at the seminars!

my course on social media, it is stated in the criteria for examination and grading that:

I will try to take active participation at the seminars into account, i.e. the fact that you have contributed a lot (talked, asked questions and answered questions posed by others) at the seminars might make a difference if your final grade for the course hinges right in-between two different grades."

Some way into the course I felt that I had a good grasp of who was who - without which the statement above would be pretty futile. Halfway into the course however, I went one step further in my "intrusiveness" in "laying down the ground rules to support the students' deep learning of course materials".

I can't (unfortunately?) control the students' attention, and the fact that some don't utter anything at all during a seminar is, I guess, ok (some might feel shy or that their English language skills is an impediment to full participation). But I actually feel pretty secure in my judgement that if a student has a laptop open and his/her nose inside it throughout a two-hour seminar, that person is a notorious non-contributor to the seminar. Although the physical body is present (and the student will get credits for attendance), the student is mentally not really "there" to the same extent as other seminar participants. Just as some persons are can be rewarded for active participation, others might thus be penalized for active non-participation in the same way (i.e. it might make a difference if the final grade for the course hinges between two grades).

It should be noted that I am only referring to seminars here - students are free to surf as much as they want on the lectures (just as they are free to not attend them at all). Students are not particularly expected to contribute that much to lectures except by (passively) listening - as apart from the seminars.

Instead of stirring things up in this potential hornet's nest and instead of intruding too much into what students might perceive (probably at least partly correctly) the be their own business, I have on the other hand later realized that I could easily have reached the same goal (no computers in the classroom, higher chance that students contribute to the discussions) by physically rearranging the classroom. With one big table in the middle of the classroom where everyone can see everyone else, it is really very difficult for a student to haul up a laptop and start surfing. And if they do, then we just sit in a big circle on our chairs next time around without even having a table in front of us...

I anyway really don't know if this was a controversial decision as there were scant possibilities for students to oppose or discuss the issue within the course itself (except by commenting on the blog post where the new "rules" were stated - which no one did!). What do you dear reader think - is this a controversial decision? I suspected it might be and I therefore supported my position with a couple of quotes from a book we "almost" encountered as course literature (we read a shorter article on the same topic and by the same author; "Is Google making us stupid?"):

"In [an] experiment, a pair of Cornell researchers divided a class of students into two groups. One group was allowed to surf the Web while listening to a lecture. A log of their activity showed that they looked at sites related to the lectures content but also visited unrelated sites, checked their e-mail, went shopping, watched videos, and did all the other things that people do online. The second group hear the identical lecture but had to keep their laptops shut. Immediately afterward, both groups took a test measuring how well they could recall the information from the lecture. The surfers, the researchers report, "performed significantly poorer on immediate measures of memory for the to-be-learned content." It didn't matter, moreover, whether they surfed information related to the lecture or completely unrelated content - they all performed poorly. When the researchers repeated the experiment with another class, the results were the same.


"Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we're involved in, the greater the impairment the distraction cause."


" 'the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still-vivid activity." Many studies show that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we'll overlook or misinterpret important information."


"What determines what we remember and what we forget? the key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetitions or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory"


Hembrooke, H. and Singleton, L. (2003). "The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments". Journal of computing in higher education, vol.15. no.1 (september 2003), pp.46-64.

Trafton, J. and Monk, C. (2008). "Task interruptions". Reviews of human factors and ergonomics, vol.3, pp.111-126.

Jackson, M. (2008). "Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age". Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Kendel, Eric. (2006). "In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind". New York: Norton.

PS (140919): Clay Shirky came around to the same position on this issue as I have.