torsdag 29 september 2016

Blog post #400 + 6th anniversary of the blog!

This is blog post #400 since I started this blog in September 2010 and it's also close enough to qualify as the sixth anniversary of the blog - the first blog post was published on September 2, 2010! This is also the third instalment in this series of blog posts:
- Blog post #200 + 3rd anniversary of the blog! (September 2013)
- Blog post #300 + 4th anniversary of the blog! (October 2014)

As can be seen, it took three years to publish 200 blog posts but only 13 months to write the next 100. Now it has taken almost two additional years to write the next 100 blog posts but then I had a four-month hiatus not just once but twice last year. Still, it took three years to publish the first 200 blog posts and three more years to publish the next 200 blog posts so I guess I'm right on track for publishing blog post #1000 sometime around 2025...?

So what should I write about beyond commemorating the fact that this is blog post #400? I have re-read the previous two blog posts (above) to get some inspiration.

A thread in these blog posts is me lamenting the poor frequency of comments on blog posts. I was surprised about that back in 2013 but that's not the case any longer. Nowadays I'm instead surprised when someone does leave a comment on the blog. There are only comments on 7 out of the 52 blog posts that have been published this year and most comments consist (only) of one comment and then an answer by me. This is not a very lively place for discussions but rather very much a one-way channel where I publish things for you to read.

Another recurrent theme in these commemorative (?) blog posts is to have a look at trends and readership. Here are the latest figures:

I could reflect on how the blog relationship has changed as well as of how my own use of the blog has changed over the last two years. I still have vague ideas about who reads the blog either regularly, irregularly or just stumbles across it (for some reason or the other) only once. I get a feeling many people visit the blog regularly (or irregularly) and that many also arrive here by following my Facebook updates about new blog posts. I sometimes meet people (acquaintances) who have clearly read my blog, but that's unusual (or they might not acknowledge that they have read the blog).

The pace of publishings has (from day 1) been to publish at least one blog post per week and at the most two blog posts per week. I'm most often at the two-per-week level because there seems to be an infinite number of things to blog about! Life as an academic is if not "exciting" then at least very varied!

Back in 2013 I wrote that blogging has become a way of life and a part of my weekly routines. That's certainly correct in that I can look at my calendar for next week and scan it for possible and probable "bloggable events"...  A difference now compared to a few years ago is that I have a much more elaborate blog post "production pipeline" in place. This makes it easier to produce 1+ blog posts per week. I never sit down in front of a blank blog post any longer but instead always have several possible topics (that could be developed into blog posts) jotted down in a draft blog post that exists for just that purpose.

Back in 2014 I wrote that "I'm not really sure what it is that people like about the blog". I still don't due to the scarcity of feedback. Now and then I do meet someone f2f who says they read/appreciate the blog but that is a rare occurrence indeed. I do know what reasons I have for blogging though because I wrote a blog post about it back in 2011 ("On the many functions of this blog") and most of it is still true. I would say that my top reasons for blogging both back then and right now are to:
   - keep a diary and erect a repository (with resources/links) of what I do in my day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year academic life. The blog is for example a great resource when it's time to update my CV or negotiate about my salary.
   - help acquaintances near and far away stay updated about my doings ("promote" my research).
   - promote not just my personal research but the research area I am interested in (e.g. the intersection of "sustainability" and "computing").
   - as an outlet for the pleasure I feel at expressing myself in writing! Much of what I write is "instrumental" - I write it in order to... something. This blog is different. I write it also just because I can and because I want to. No one expects or demands that I write certain blog posts - it's all rather about intrinsic motivation. Now it might be useful for certain instrumental reasons (see the reason above) but that's certainly not the primary function or the primary reason for why I blog.
   - Also, this blog has become a perfect tool for the "third task" at Swedish universities (beyond teaching and research), e.g. "public outreach". An interesting dimension of "public outreach" is that the blog provides a source of inside information ("the dirt"?) on the job of a university teacher that students of mine can read (although I have no idea how many do).

I'm in fact amazed by how many read this blog (or rather about the # of page hits). Going back three months (to the middle of the summer!), the nine blog posta I wrote between mid-June and mid-July all have between 511 and 757 hits:

The 8 blog posts that were written six months ago (mid-March to mid-April) instead all have between 650 and 877 hits:

A few other notable reasons (mentioned already in the blog post from 2011) are that:
- My blog is my homepage (info center) on the web.
- My blog documents the books (and supposedly the articles) that I have read "recently" (I seem to always have a huge backlog).

One thing that confuses me right now (are there any search engine optimisation people out there) is that Google/Blogger provides me with information about traffic (how many hits a certain blog post has had) but so does a counter called GoStats and the numbers differ a lot. When I recently published a very popular blog post, it is to be assumed that almost all traffic for the following days consisted of people reading that particular blog post. For that particular blog post and those particular days, it looked as if Google/Blogger recorded twice as many visitors (unique page hits) than GoStats did. GoFigure. Does somebody know the answer to this enigma? The only thing I can think of is if many (many!) spiders crawl the web and load my blog posts and this is recorded by Google/Blogger but filtered out by GoStats(?). So the blog seems to be more popular than ever in Google/Blogger but not in GoStats (see the figures above)!?

A final reflection. Readership suffered from the blog absence/hiatus last year but looking closer at the actual production of texts (rather than just the two periods with a prolonged continuous total absence of blog posts) a clear pattern emerges:

Rather than saying there two periods of blog absence (between July 2015 and September 2015 and between December 2015 and February 2016), it's more fair to say that I was absent from the blog for a whole year, between mid-March 2015 and mid-March 2016, with the exception of publishing a handful (eleven) of blog posts during that period. My next comment feels a lot more personal that what I usually write about on my professional blog, but what is totally clear in hindsight is that my blog absence closely follows the progression of my father's cancer diagnosis. He underwent a complicated operation last spring, got better during the autumn but then got worse again. The total absence of blog posts between December and February closely mirrors his struggle with the return of his cancer and his demise in the beginning of the year. Who has time to...  what's the purpose of blogging when someone near and dear slowly fades away? This is indeed a sad and gloomy ending to this otherwise celebratory blog post.

söndag 25 september 2016

From reviewer to author (academic practices)


Part I

Something quite amazing happened last year. About this time, or actually a little later, I reviewed A Paper for the 2016 CHI conference. I thought the topic of the paper was extremely interesting, but, the authors hadn't read The Book. They spent a lot of time inventing the wheel again and again and much of it was due to not having read The Book. Another problem with the paper was that while the topic was very interesting, it was hard to see that the authors had managed to connect the topic to topics that were relevant to the CHI conference in a satisfying way. It was an interesting topic and an interesting paper, but was really CHI the right venue for the paper in its current form? My "verdict" as a reviewer was that the paper wasn't ready for CHI in its current form, but I also gave very detailed and exhaustive feedback to the authors on how to take the paper further. And that was that, or so I thought.

Some months later I was over in the US for a public event as well as for planning the then-upcoming 2016 Computing with Limits workshop (conference) that I would co-chair together with Barath Raghavan and Bonnie Nardi. After the public event, Marcel Pufal, a ph.d. student that I knew very well from my sabbatical at UC Irvine (we had shared the same open lab environment for half a year) approached me. He started by asking "Is there perhaps a chance that you recently reviewed a paper that was submitted to the CHI conference about topic X?" I was floored because I couldn't understand how he could know that. Isn't the information about which papers I have reviewed supposed to be secret? It turned out Marcel had written The Paper and he had drawn the conclusion that I might have been reviewer #3 due to two clues. He felt he recognised certain ("Swenglish"?) phrases or turns of words or something (could have been a consistent error when I speak/write English due to it not being my first language), and, he also vaguely recalled that I at some point had recommended he should read The Book.

The bigger surprise came when he invited me to become a co-author at the next attempt at rewriting and submitting the article in question! I've never been recruited as a co-author in quite that way before. The only reason I don't divulge the actual topic of the article or who the other two co-authors are is that the article we wrote together currently is under review. It might be the case (especially if the article is accepted) that I will go back to this blog post at a later point in time and de-anonymize the text above.

I've been pondering the fact that I was recruited as a co-author in this very way. It's of course very flattering to put some effort into writing a helpful (but tough) review and then get "instant feedback" and credit for it by getting an offer of co-authorship in return. In this particular case I already had a relationship with the paper authors, but it could theoretically happen that you reach out and get in touch with someone you don't know.

Part II

Some time later (end of April 2016) I submitted a paper to the ICT4S conference. I got four positive reviews back in mid-June, but Reviewer #2 stood out in terms of having provided very detailed and helpful comments. I couldn't follow up on all the feedback the reviewer gave me due to several reasons:
- I didn't have the time to incorporate/act on all the feedback before the deadline for the camera-ready version.
- I would have had to read up pretty extensively in new/bordering areas to be able to fulfil the reviewer's requests.
- The focus would then have shifted and my paper would have become a different paper. I'm not sure it would have been the paper I wanted to write to the conference, but perhaps instead some other paper.
- The paper would have overflown all boundaries. Acting on all the advice and suggestions would have required an article-length treatment (rather than a shorter papers-length treatment) of the issues in question.

So I followed some of the suggestions I got and put other suggestions/advice aside. They might come in handy if I wanted to extend the paper into a journal article. Which got me thinking.

So a few weeks after the conference, I sent this e-mail to the program chairs:

Hello ICT4S program chairs.

I got two very thorough reviews of my ICT4S paper and especially Reviewer #2 had a lot of very good comments (see below). The problem for me was that:

- I had limited time to take the reviews into account and incorporate them in the paper

- Had I done a thorough job of doing so, it would have become another paper or a paper that would have been way too long.

In the acknowledgements, we credit the reviewer(s) as follows: "We would like to thank an anonymous ICT4S reviewer for the insightful comments and also take the opportunity to express our regets that we could not follow through on more of the excellent advice due to time constraints”.

As it is, I am thinking of extending the paper into a full length article and I would like to discuss this with Reviewer #2. If we get along and can manage to create a shared vision of what such an article could look like, I would then like to extend an invitation the the reviewer to become a co-author. I know this is irregular but I have recently myself been recruited to become a co-author in just this way.

So, I wonder if you could forward this mail to the reviewer in question?



Only a day or two later I got an answer:

Hi Daniel,

The ICT4S organisers have passed on a message from you.



I would be more than happy to co-author on a future version of the paper.

And the mail "of course" came from someone I already knew, namely Oliver Bates at Lancaster University. We haven't actually done anything more yet but that's primarily because we both worked frantically towards the CHI conference deadline up until only a few days ago. Also we're not really in a hurry. But I do look forward to starting up a writing project with Oliver. We know each other - we are actually organising a workshop together at the end of October - but we have never written anything together before. Also, I found the review very useful and could also see that the reviewer (Oliver!) knew about topics that will come in handy when we start to work on extending the paper into an article.


Isn't this just the coolest way ever to recruit a co-author? It's like going on a blind date where your best friend promises you will hit off. It's actually probably even better since there is not outside manipulation, pressure or suggestion behind the match-up (best friend or no best friend). And it makes for a good story too!

What is best though is that these examples harbour the potential to change the practice of reviewing paper. What if people knew that a really helpful review could (sometimes) lead to a gig as a co-author of the paper in question? Wouldn't that keep reviewers on their toes and with the added beneficial effect of generating truly excellent reviews a lot more often than today? And vice versa, couldn't we then sometimes encounter the very best co-authors for our papers in the pool of reviewers of an earlier version of the paper?

Another reason I like this idea is because it is very democratic. You would act solely based on the quality of the review - rather than making a decision that were based on the title or the reputation of the reviewer!

I hope I will have inspired at least one or a few readers to go ahead and recruit a reviewer (or at least reach out in an attempt). If so, I'd like you to go back to this blog post and write a comment or alternatively send me a mail and tell me about it! Perhaps this is the start of a new academic practice? Perhaps it's not really a new practice - perhaps you have already experienced it or perhaps this is not at all that unusual in some specific academic field? Do tell!

torsdag 22 september 2016

My anonymous conference submissions (to CHI)

My conundrum is this:
- I want to write a blog post to commemorate every significant event that happens in my (academic) life as it happens and when it happens. That includes writing a blog post about every paper I submit to a conference or a journal.
- But the review process for conferences and journals is often (but not always) supposed to be "double blind", meaning I am not supposed to know who reviewed my submission and the person reviewing it isn't supposed to know who wrote it (in order to be able to treat it impartially).
- The problem is that when I publish a blog post with the title and the abstract of the text I just submitted, I de-anonymize myself and the process isn't double blind any longer.

I personally don't have a problem with the process being "single blind" rather than "double blind". It's  sometimes not very hard to figure out who (or at least which research group) has written a particular article. But my big problem is rather this: what happens if a conference organiser or a journal editor finds out and becomes pissed off at me for flaunting the rules? What if that decreases the chances of my text being accepted to the conference or the journal? What then if I'm not the first author and the article is rejected partly due to my "careless actions"?

But if I don't write a blog post directly after I submit an article, exactly when should I then blog about it? Let's say I submit two articles to a conference. That would - up until now - have result in two blog posts in the week following the submissions. But what if I have to wait for the better part of two or three months only to find out that one article was accepted and the other wasn't. Should I then publish two separate blog posts and state in the blog posts that "this article was accepted" and "this article wasn't accepted" (which is kind of a downer)? Here's what I have decided (for now):

- I will not publish a blog post about every submission from now on (especially if the process is double-blind). This is not because my respect for the double-blindness of the double-blind review process has increased as of lately, but rather just a tactical judgement so as not to decrease the chances of my texts being accepted for publication. I will instead make moment-to-moment decisions about publishing or waiting depending on the venue etc.
- I will however write a blog post directly after I submit a paper, but I will hold on to publishing it until I know whether it's been accepted or not so as not to "interfere" with the review process.
- I will then publish the already-written, waiting-to-be-published blog post. I will not rewrite the blog post except perhaps to add a sentence about its status (accepted/not accepted). I very much want the blog post to retain the post-submission high that captures the "just-submitted-a-text-feeling"

Here's a concrete example:
- I just (less than 12 hours ago) submitted no less than three articles to the upcoming (Denver, May 2017) CHI conference.
- Instead of directly publishing a blog post about one of those articles, I instead publish this text (about not publishing that text!).
- I will still write that blog post - about just having submitted that article - but you won't see it because I will save it as a "draft" that only I can see (in the blog editor mode).
- According to the CHI homepage, the final decision notifications will be disseminated on December 14.
- My then-previously-written blog post (about just now having submitted an article to CHI) will then enter the December stream of blog posts. It will at that time be slightly anachronistic due to just having made a time travel trip the better part of three months into the future - but that's the price that I have to pay to comply with the double-blind review process.

This complicates matters in ways that have to do with the blogpost production pipeline also in other ways. It could be hard to find a(nother) topic to write about right now since I haven't worked with anything very important during the last week except my three CHI submissions. Even should I find topics to write about, I will have to write up such blog posts in parallell to writing up just-having-submitted blog posts that will languish in the blog editor mode for a couple of months. Again, that's the price I will have to pay to keep the sanctity of the double-blindness of the double-blind process and so that's how it's gonna be from now on. Well, at least for now - I might change things later if they don't work out the way I want them to.

All of this is slightly awkward, but what can you do? Well, what can you do? Does someone have any advice or suggestions on this?

söndag 18 september 2016

Blockhead Hans/Dummerjöns (paper)

Me and my colleagues Björn Hedin and Olle Bälter submitted an abstract to the 9th [Swedish] Pedagogical Inspiration Conference a week ago. I recently attended the 8th International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2016) and I think of these two conference in similar terms; not the place to submit a paper in order to get a bona fide heavy-hitting academic reference, but, a great place to go to meet and talk to people who have the same concerns that you do and to get inspiration for your everyday life as a university teacher (or director of studies etc.). I do however have to admit that I have never attended any of these smaller Swedish conferences but my colleague Björn has attended several. He and I did in fact submit a paper, "I'm gonna study now! I just have to color-code my books first" (about students' procrastination/studying habits) to the 4th developmental conference for Swedish engineering educations three years ago. I suspect Björn will go also to this conference (in Lund in southern Sweden on December 15) and that I might (again) pass. Or perhaps I should go this time around?

Perhaps I should have written "I suspect Björn will go also to this conference (should our abstract be accepted)..." but I honestly believe the chances this abstract will not be accepted is slim-bordering-on-zero. I'm just stating the facts as I see them when I say that anyone who has taught at a university will want to have a look at this paper. No hubris and no hype here, no-siree! The turnaround is quick, we will find out if our abstract is accepted on October 3 at the latest and the deadline for submitting the full text (≈ 1300 words) is on November 6. Submissions will be evaluated according to the following three criteria:

- Potential for being of interest for teachers in technical educations.
- Potential for creating serious discussions about teaching and learning.
- Anchored in a pedagogical reasoning. 

I do have one additional comment that is important. We use a fairy tale, H.C. Andersen's "Blockhead Hans" (Wikipedia, Blockhead Hans in English) as an allegory for (the actions of a specific) student of ours quite a few years ago. The fit between the fairy tale and the actual case is "fair", but it might not be fair to use that particular epthet for the student in question. Both the abstract and the text itself will be written in Swedish and the Swedish name for the fairy tale of Blockhead Hans is "Dummerjöns" which has considerably more negative connotations ("simpleton", "juggins"). Having just handed in the abstract, we have already decided to rewrite it and use another fairy tale to frame our paper should it be accepted.

The tale of Blockhead Hans - an academic tragedy

Björn Hedin, Olle Bälter & Daniel Pargman, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, School of Computer Science and Communication, Dept. of Media Technology and Interaction Design.

In the Swedish educational system there are - usually for good reasons - many rules and guidelines. Matters should treated in fair and legally certain ways and everybody should be treated equally. The system should be flexible and it should be possible got students to get credits for having taken similar/equivalent courses elsewhere so as to not make it unnecessarily difficult for students to graduate. Operations should be run efficiently and taxes should be used to the best effect. Not least, all degree objectives should be met and a high quality of education should be guaranteed. Situations do however occurs when these rules and guidelines come into conflict with each other and if the organisational benevolence is consciously being taken advantage of, it could lead to consequences that will seem unreasonable.

In this article we want to illustrate these conflicts by using a concrete example from real life, a student that we have here chosen to call Blockhead Hans after H. C. Andersen's classic tale of Klods-Hans ("Dummerjöns" in Swedish). Blockhead Hans did, after having studied for a number of years, receive a degree from our university with the smallest possible margin. All rules about crediting and the like had been followed to the letter, but the department heads, education directors, program directors, examiners and teachers doubted that this particular student had assimilated the contents of the educational programme and could to an even lower degree guarantee that the student had achieved the learning objectives that had established for the educational programme.

In this text we present a number of strategies that unscrupulous students have used, but that had been raised to an art form by Blockhead Hans; accrediting chains, plagiarism, referring to fictitious emergency circumstances so as to request exceptional treatment, to produce a catalog of lies from minor meaning creep (c.f. "mission creep") to freely fabricated judgements [supposedly by other teachers], deliberately ignoring rules, systematically and strategically asking several different authority persons the same question in parallell in the hope of getting the desired response from one of them, and, to generate tsunami waves of e-mails (in this case over 1500 pieces) to exhaust decision makers.

We use this example to illustrate how our framework of rules can be exploited, and we question whether it is at all possible to fail or prevent a student who is unscrupulous enough from graduating in the Swedish higher education system. By extension we want to stimulate discussions about how we should balance regulatory frameworks on a spectrum of smoothly and flexibly meeting the needs of conscientious students while preventing unscrupulous students to cheat their way through an education.

This paper (or rather the actual case we report on) is directly related to a blog post I wrote five and a half years ago, "Can a student fail at a Swedish university?"

torsdag 15 september 2016

My soon-to-be colleague's name is...?


We will hire a new assistant professor in Human-Computer Interaction with a specialisation in Sustainability at my department. It's getting close to the bone now. The work of figuring out and formulating what professional experiences, skills and abilities that person should have started the better part of a year ago and it was primarily me and Cecilia Katzeff who did that work.

The job ad could be found on the KTH homepage, in Swedish newspapers and it also made the rounds in social media during the spring (and is still available on the web). The last date to apply was at the end of April and around a dozen persons applied. We have now come to the point where only four persons remain on the shortlist. The appointments board will meet with and interview the applicants today! The four persons that have been called by the appointments board are:
- Elina Eriksson (KTH/CSC/MID - my department)
- Björn Hedin (KTH/CSC/MID - my department)
- Somya Joshi (Stockholm University, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences (DSV))
- Daniel Schien (Bristol University, School of Computer Science)

I should add that I myself have not seen the applicants' CVs or their applications and I have no insight whatsoever into the appointments process. After interviews and discussions in the appointments board, that process will end with a ranked list and where the #1 person on the list will be offered the job - the opportunity to get a tenure track job and to become my future colleague (of course provided that that persons accepts the offer, is happy with the salary and other conditions etc.)!

Beyond the boilerplate text about KTH and our school ("one of Europe’s leading technical and engineering universities", "Sweden’s largest technical research and learning institution", "research and education covers ... natural sciences and all branches of engineering, as well as in architecture, industrial management, urban planning, history and philosophy"), these are the things that the new assistant professor will actually do:

"Duties of the assistant professor are 30% in education and 70 % in research.
  • Develop, plan and teach at undergraduate, postgraduate, doctoral level courses in HCI and sustainability, as well as in other HCI courses.
  • Supervise graduate students as well as students at master level.
  • Share responsibility for developing research in HCI and sustainability.
  • Formulate research projects and seek external funding.
  • Participate in research projects and writing scientific articles.
  • Inform the surrounding society about research results i.e. the third mission.
  • The assistant professor will be given opportunity to develop their independence as researcher and gain accreditation that may allow them to take other teaching positions with higher eligibility requirements ... Following application, the assistant professor shall be assessed for promotion to associate professor."
There are funds set aside for that person to conduct research (and write research grant applications) during 70% of his/her time for a period of four years. Here's what's important about the timeline:

Time limitation: The appointment is for an indefinite term, but no more than four years, and may be extended if, due to the teacher’s absence due to sick leave, parental leave or other special grounds, more time is required to reach the objectives of the appointment. However, the total appointment period may not exceed six years. The appointment is part of the Tenure Track system at KTH and the assistant professor may apply for promotion to tenured associate professor.

It is assumed that the assistant professor will later apply for being promoted to the position of (tenured) associate professor (in Swedish: promoted from "biträdande lektor" to "lektor").

The appointments board and two external (international) experts will weigh and measure (assess) the candidates and will use the following criteria as grounds for their assessment:
  • of highest importance is the applicant’s ability to conduct high-level research in the subject area, shown, for example, through international publications. Furthermore, the ability to initiate and conduct research projects, and to seek and obtain external funding is of highest importance.
  • of second highest importance is the applicant’s ability to develop, plan and implement education in HCI and sustainability of high quality at undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. The applicant's long-term development potential is also of second highest importance.
  • it is also important that a person who is appointed as assistant professor at KTH has experience from research environments other than KTH, equivalent to a post-doctorate period or doctorate degree from another institution. In more practical areas, experience from industry can be just as valuable as a traditional post-doctoral residency at another university. The applicant's ability to establish and develop cooperation within research and education is also important. Likewise important is the applicant’s ability to collaborate with the surrounding society and to disseminate information regarding research and development work. In addition, the applicant's expertise in developing and leading activities and personnel is important; this includes having knowledge about matters of diversity and equal treatment, with particular focus on gender equality.

There is also some boilerplate text about human-computer interaction (HCI) and sustainability in the job ad:

"Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the study of interaction between humans and computerized systems. The area is interdisciplinary and includes computer science methods and tools for designing user-tailored system functions, and, social science theory and method to understand evaluate and improve computerized systems for human use."

"Sustainability in the subject field is found at the intersection between media technology, human-computer interaction, ICT, and, sustainability and sustainable development. [It] is today a growing area covering general aspects of the role of and the relationship between ICT and the individual, group, organization and sustainability of the society. Sustainability includes environmental, social and economic sustainability, with focus on sustainability and the environment."

That's the end of my knowledge of this process. It's all very exciting and the only thing I'm sorry about is that we cannot offer jobs to all four candidates!

Addenum (160924): We now know that the competition was tough but that my current colleague Elina Eriksson was ranked #1 and will get the job.

söndag 11 september 2016

Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2016, conference)


Directly after the ICT4S conference ended on Thursday (Sept 1), I took the train from Amsterdam to neighbouring Belgium and the fairy tale city of Bruges. I settled in but then went to visit Sofie Lambert and Mario Pickavet at Ghent University the day after. Sofie and Mario had attended the workshop Elina and I organised in Amsterdam at the beginning of the week and they have also written the (2015) paper "Post-peak ICT: Graceful degradation for communication networks in an energy constrained future" together with other members of their research group. Sofie is a Ph.D. student and Mario is the head of the "Green ICT Research Cluster" of the larger group "Internet Based Communication Networks and Services (IBCN)" at the Department of Information Technology at Ghent University. I gave a talk at their department (an updated version of the Peak Computing talk I gave at UCI in 2014) and spent an afternoon of discussions with members of their research group. The Post-peak ICT paper is of interest to the Computing within Limits crowd but it turned out that it was mostly Sofie who had that interest and it seems her plan is to present her dissertation later this year and then pursue opportunities outside of the academic world.

The weekend was then "free" (spent for the most indoors working) before the second conference in a row, the 8th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2016) opened with a keynote and a Sunday evening welcome reception in the Bruges city hall. The keynote, "Engineering Education for Sustainable Development - Why are we here?" was given by the previous conference's best paper authors Richard Vaz and Scott Jiusto from the U.S. They finished their talk by posing a number of highly relevant questions:
- Why are we here?
   - What do we want for our students? (...and, what do they want from us?)
   - What do we want for ourselves?
   - What might we contribute to what "others" (the university, companies, society etc.) want?
   - How do we engage with the wicked problems of changing our own institutions to support our visions?

Vaz and Jiusto also discussed a topic that relates a lot to what me and my colleague Elina have written about, namely the question of motivation. Their conclusion was that authenticity is highly motivational. Students want the chance to do authentic work. To do something for a reason other than (and beyond) getting a grade is motivational. "Authentic" does not need to mean "exotic" (other continents), it could equally well be a trip to the other side of the city. Their conclusion was that learning goes up as soon as you leave your campus, go into real communities and do real work with them. There also needs to be a project sponsor to welcome, procure and direct the students and who can say "we want your help us with this".

I've been to two out of the previous seven EESD conferences, first the 5th EESD conference in Gothenburg in 2010 - my very first conference about sustainability and my third ever blog post (this is #395) - and then the 6th EESD conference in Cambridge 2013. The EESD conferences are for people who are in the intersection of engineering educations, sustainability and teaching. Probably most often in that particular order. People like me go there; I work at the Royal Institute of Technology (we only have engineering educations), I teach and do research on sustainability (the results which are displayed in this blog) and I sometimes reflect upon and write "amateur" papers on teaching and pedagogics as part of my own betterment and advancement (often together with my colleague Elina Eriksson).

In sum, this is not really the conference to go to in order to keep up with the research forefront - I'm not sure there really is a research front in this area - but rather a forum for mutual learning and for being inspired by what others do in terms of teaching engineering students about sustainability. I also think the organisers seem to think quite a lot about the social program and about creating opportunities for social interaction between attendees also beyond the program itself (e.g. social activities every night; welcome reception, conference dinner, Belgian night (beer tasting) etc.). It's therefore not surprising that I met up and reestablished contacts with Swedes I had met before (Magdalena Svanström, Ulrika Lundqvist, Anna Nyström Claesson and Andreas Hanning - all from Chalmers in Gotherburg as well as with KTH colleagues of mine (Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, Emma Strömberg, Elisabeth Ekener, Jon-Erik Dahlin, Fredrik Grönberg and Olga Kordas). I went into some sort of hyper-social mode at the conference and made a lot of new acquaintances, for example Sara Trulsson, Claes Fredriksson, Matty Janssen, Ola Leifler, Kateryna Pereverza and Oleksii Pasichnyi (SE), Annina Takala (FI), Veronica Sanchez Romaguera and Bland Tomkinson (Manchester, UK), Edward Conlon and Edmond Byrne (IE), Karel Mulder (NL), Bernard Mazijn (BE), Javier Orozco-Messana, Nuria Llaverias and Jordi Segalas (ES), Susan Nesbit and Naoko Ellis (CA), Scott Jiusto and Eric Kennedy (US), Najat Alsomali (SA) and Michele Rosano (AU).

All in all I had a great time at EESD and there's also a bunch of papers I am going to read that were presented at the conference. One of them is for sure the paper that my KTH "colleague" Sara Trulsson (never met her before the conference) wrote because she won the Best Paper Award with the paper "Active learning as a supportive teaching method to address climate change in higher education"! Also, I already have two or three ideas for papers for the next conference (which will be held 2018 at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey - it's not too far away from Philadelphia).

The ambience of the conference was really nice and it surely helped that it was situated in a small medieval Belgian city. The actual conference venue was at the University College West Flanders' Campus Sint-Jorisstraat (I lived 270 meters away on the very same street) and the building definitely gave off Hogwartsy vibes (also see the photo at the very end of this blog post):

There were three keynotes at the main conference that I thought were really good! Much more serious, straight-talking and "extreme" than I would have thought. No circumlocutions but just telling it like it is. I liked all three a lot!
1) Nicholas A. Ashford (Professor of Technology and Policy at the Engineering Systems Division of M.I.T) talked about Major challenges to Engineering Education for Sustainable Development. He was extremely critical of neoliberal deregulation of just about everything. He also pointed out that this (the problems we face as well as the solutions) are all about money. And politics. Some fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves more often are:
   - What are the causes of unsustainble industrial systems?
   - What are the visions for a sustainable future?
   - What or who is standing in the way of achieving that future?
2) David Peck (Professor of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology) talked about Building a circular economy and an analysis of the implications for engineering education. David discussed a term I had not heard before, "Critical materials", a product of the economic importance * the risk of supplies of that particular material. And, these materials are everywhere, including in all of our electronics. And they are hard to recycle (there is zero incentive to recycle them). Product life extension strategies (recycling, upcycling, sharing) are a good start but they in the end only help us buy time. He proposed we should learn some important lessons from how the UK handled materials scarcity during the second world war. Back then they actually developed mandated design specifications for the most durable, least materials-intensive products - and transgressions were punishable by law!
3) Walter Stahel (Full Member of the Club of Rome, Founder-director of The Product-Life Institute Geneva gave a keynote that doubled as an introduction to a debate called "Beyond the triple helix". This was another great talk but I did unfortunately not take any notes.

At the conference, there was a demonstration of "The sulitest" ( It tests how much you know about sustainability (15 subjects in 4 main themes). It has apparently become very popular, the homepage claims that (currently) 445 universities and corporations in 51 countries have used it. It might be interesting to look into the possibility of using this in our education.

The program was divided into four streams and there were five session in each stream throughout the conference;
- The A stream focused on circular economy, design and resources
- The B stream was about "Outside the box thinking" (issues that are not common in engineering education
- The C stream was about the core issue of all EESD-conferences: (barriers to) (innovative) teaching, as well as reforming programmes and curricula
- The D-stream was organised in terms of academic/engineering disciplines

I presented two papers at the conference; "Sustainable development for ICT engineering students - “What’s in it for me?”" in the D stream session "EESD and Disciplinary Approaches" and "Patterns of Engagement: Using a board game as a tool to address sustainability in engineering educations" in the B stream session "Social Responsibility in EESD". These two and all other papers will eventually turn up online proceedings "in the coming months".

My main complaint about the conference concerns the clustering of paper into session. I didn't think about it too much until I heard someone else complain about it. I obviously don't really know the problems the organisers faced putting together the sessions, but it did at times feel like the clustering of three papers into a session had a certain element of randomness to it. My second paper was about our use of games in sustainability education. There were two other papers about using games in education (both written by people at or with a connection to KTH and one was Sara's Best Paper), but these three papers were placed in three different sessions and I unfortunately didn't have the opportunity to hear any of the other two presentations. This is but one example, but it did fell more than once like one paper didn't fit the other two papers in a session or that there might have been an uneasy balance between the title of the session and the papers in that session. I'm for example not at all sure that our paper about using games in our education fits the description "social responsibility in EESD" particularly well. This unfortunately pulled down the quality of a part of the program some. Someone I talked to offered the suggestion that there should have been a number of suggested keywords that authors could choose from at the time they submitted their papers to the conference. I realise this is a difficult problem and I don't know exactly what would be the best way to solve it, but I do know it should be improved.

I have never heard the term "circular economy" be used as many times in such a short while as I did at this conference. The theme of the conference was "Building a circular economy together" and boy did we run in circles around this concept! I raised a question at the final session and we had an interesting discussion about the relationship between circular economy on the one hand and sustainability/sustainable development on the other hand.

There really is something to be said for have a conference in a small rather than a large city. Small cities are manageable in ways that big cities aren't. It's easy to learn how to navigate the city and to walk between events. They are cosy too and none more so than Bruges. It's like the old city in Stockholm but 10 times bigger. I really liked Bruges despite the fact that I did not spend very much time walking around the city.

The place were I lived was amazing. It was perhaps the best value for money that I have ever had. It was an Airbnb apartment in a small house with only two apartments. The hostess an her family lived in an apartment upstairs and I rented the lower-floor apartment. More like a small castle in fact. Below is my living room and there was also a hall, bathroom, toilet, bedroom and kitchen - all really really nice and very tastefully decorated. On the last evening we had a beer-testing event and it was literally 363 meters away from my apartment (according to my smartphone). I had to skip out for 45 minutes to handle a Skype conference call that spanned two continents - but was back at the pub less than five minutes after I hung up. The last night of my 10-day two-conference road trip was also the first night when I had the energy to actually keep on keepin' on for a night of modest alcohol intake but of deeply intoxicating academic discussions (ok, so some might argue it was the other way around but they are all so very Wrong!)

One more thing. I had some time in Bruges between the conferences and had planned to spend the major part of Saturday working. Instead I stumbled upon a hilarious US comedy group, Lonely Island, that I had never heard of before. I must have spent half the day watching YouTube videos of their songs. I was fascinated by Lonely Island but also about the fact that I had never heard of them despite the fact that they've been around for 10 years. It turns out few of my friends have heard of them, but when I asked my students almost all of them (at least almost all of the Swedish students) had heard of them years ago. Lonely Island are crude and vulgar, they use supremely foul language, but, they are very very funny. Since I then continued to listen to their songs during my stay in Bruges, I will probably always connect Bruges and EESD with Lonely Island and their songs. Some great songs/videos of theirs are "YOLO" (in-ge-ni-ous), "Jack Sparrow" (perfectly synchronised) and "We like sportz" (nerdy raised to new heights). Their many sexually explicit songs range from the quite inappropriate "I just had sex" (very explicit) all the way to the deeply disturbing (which I can't link to). Still, they are comical geniuses with perfect control of language, facial expression, gestures, timing and pop cultural references. The fact that they have just released their first movie (this past summer), "Popstar: Never stop never stopping", is something that totally passed me by and I now hope they will create a couple of new videos with some of the Popstar song. For example "I'm so humble" ("Bar none, I am the most humble-est ... Number one at the top of the humble list ... I'm so ordinary that it's truly quite extraordinary ... I'm not your normal definition of a rock star ... I don't complain when my private jet is subpar ... I guess in a way, bein' gracious is my weakness ... People say I'm so unpretentious for a genius").

PS. I just learned that Aaron Opdyke from University of Colorado has also blogged about EESD: day 1, day 2 and day 3.

PS #2: The full proceedings are now (Dec 2016) available online here (as one big pdf file)!

PS #3: The official EESD photographer took this picture of the EESD 2010 chair Magdalena Svanström and of me:


fredag 9 september 2016

ICT4S 2016 in Amsterdam (conference)


My two previous blog posts were about the two workshops I attended before and after the recently held 4th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S 2016) in Amsterdam last week. This blog post is about the conference itself.

I want to start by pointing out a meeting I had at the workshop Elina and me organised the day before the conference. I was really very inspired by meeting Norberto Patrignani. I had become aware of his (and Diane Whitehouse's) paper about "Slow Tech" earlier this year and became all the more interested in that concept (and their paper) after talking to Patrignani personally. Patrignani and Whitehouse are apparently working on a book about slow tech right now and I look forward to it (perhaps next year?). With inspiration from the Slow food movement, Slow Tech is here defined as good, clean and fair technology (and there are no less than 22 wikipedia pages in the "Slow movement" category including Slow reading, Slow education, Slow design and Slow science!). Good = used for good purposes, to solve real human problems (instead of developing new surveillance or weapons systems or just to increase profits). Clean and fair = ecologically and socially sustainable. I haven't read the paper yet but I feel that this is a very interesting "lens" that harbours the promise of uniting ideals of User-Centered system design with sustainability. I suspect slow tech could be used as a "filter" or a "sieve" to sort out "bogus" uses of technology and "bogus" projects.

So on to the conference and first some words about the venue and the organisation. It was all really good and this is a conference where a lot of thought goes into the organisation. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the General Chair Anwar Osseyran (SURFsara & University of Amsterdam) and the two Program Chairs Patricia Lago (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Paola Grosso (University of Amsterdam)! For the fourth time in a row, the conference was "hosted" by professional mediator Peter Woodward and that makes a big difference compared to all the other events us scientists host ourselves. The only other alternative I have experienced is to at times hire a journalist to host/moderate an event or a panel, but Peter is much better, not the least because he is interested in and knowledgable about ICT4S subject topics, he is funny and he is good at involving and engaging the audience/conference participants.

Just take the fact that he again brought a "Catchbox" microphone ("The throwable microphone for audience engagement"). The pictures below say it all and I want one (but they are unfortunately really expensive). It's so much less intimidating to ask a question when you can throw a microphone around in the audience instead of having to bother your neighbours and squeeze past them to stand in line for a shot at a microphone in a stand.

I understand Peter has also been involved in planning parts of the format of the conference which again utilised "ConverStations" instead of more traditional paper presentations (see below). The new invention this time around was the "WorkStations" (I attended one, see further below).

The conference venues were great. The workshops were held at the Amsterdam Business School and the conference itself was held at KIT. It was truly beautiful and luxurious - the main lecture theatre had plush comfortable movie theatre seats. I also love conferences where lunch is provided and you don't have to waste time looking for a restaurant nearby (in which direction?) that hosts 10 or 14 persons. It's just so much better when you can eat together and work the room by circulating cocktail-partywise. I've become a lot better at circulating during the last couple of years too and enjoy it a lot nowadays. It's either sink (stay put) or swim (circulate). It's always nice to talk to people you already know, but isn't the purpose of going to a conference to meet new people?  The only fly in the beaker was the fact that the conference venue itself, KIT/"The Royal Tropical Institute" (previously called "the Colonial Institute") was some kind of shrine to the benefits of colonialism and it (for example) had beautiful woodwork of the industrious Dutch bringing trade, culture and progress to all the savages of the world.

This is the 4th ICT4S conference and I have been to all the three previous ones (Zürich 2013, Stockholm 2014, Copenhagen 2015). I have written blog posts about the 2013 and the 2014 conferences but did not write a blog post last year. In my 2014 text I was for the most part critical, or at least hesitant about the "ConverStation" format, but while I by now had attended ConverStation presentation in 2014 and 2015, I had not myself presented a paper using the ConverStation format before this conference.

The main idea is that instead of presenting your paper in a plenary session - where half the people will sleep or read e-mail - you present it at a small table that has seats for a limited number of persons (say six or so). I talk for 10 minutes using printouts, slides or perhaps no technical aids at all and then we have a conversation (Q-and-A session) together. There are several advantages to this format as you get a very intimate ambiance as well as for the most part very deep discussions. Those who listen have chosen to go to my ConverStation in competition with 15 others presentations that happen simultaneously. The twist is that I give my presentation three times in a row and so each attendee has the chance to listen to 3 out of the 15 presentations (basing their decision on the paper titles and abstracts). There is a limited number of "tickets" (post-its) for each ConverStation so that attendees are distributed more or less evenly among the tables.

I had some really good discussions at my three presentations (due to excellent, critical and insightful comments from for example Daniel Schien, Patricia Lago and Steve Easterbrook). Much better than the questions and the discussion you usually have after a paper presentation. But, the ratio of presenters/audience was skewed this time around and I only had three attendees listening during each of my presentations and I also missed the opportunity to listen to the other 14 presentations that happened in parallel to my own. I think the ConverStation idea is a good one, but the implementation has to be thought through a little more. I also in hindsight realise that the local organisers could probably have done a better job of working up interest and drawing local people from Amsterdam, The Netherlands and neighbouring countries to the conference. Is it really worthwhile to give a 10-minute informal talk to an audience of only three (no matter how qualified these people are)?

Dawn Walker, presenter (CA), Daniel Pargman (SE), Lorraine Hudson (UK) and Roy Bendor (NL)

The big advantage of the ICT4S conference is that it draws people from various parts of computer science (and beyond) that you'd hardly meet otherwise. I know that the chair, Patricia Lago, loves the fact that she can talk to people she would never meet at the "ordinary" (more specialised) conferences she attends. I like that too. I have also come to love the fact that I get to meet a lot of people I nowadays know but seldom meet as well as the fact that we have managed to rope in a fair number of people from Sustainable HCI (S-HCI) to the ICT4S conference. A list of attendees would have been even better at this point as memory fails me after only a week. I even asked for such a list but it did alas not materialise.

I think all the keynote speakers were ok but my absolute favourite was Frits Verheij (Executive board member at the Universal Smart Energy Framework (USEF) Foundation) who gave a talk about "Why ICT is key in Sustainable urban energy". He had a long track record, he had lots to say and was not shy about saying what was on his mind in terms of what works (or could work) and where things go wrong. I wish I had a copy of his information-rich slides instead of just a bunch of photos! I also love the new term I learned, "prosumerification":

I know that the four parallell "WorkStations" (1.5 hour long workshops) were supposed to connect to each of the four keynote speakers, but I don't think that connection was made very clear. I only knew about it due to the fact that I lived on a houseboat together with my colleagues Mattias Höjer and Elina Eriksson and Mattias was co-responsible for organising and leading one of the WorkStation. His WorkStation was called "The role of the individual" but I instead chose to attend another WorkStation, "The Internet of Things and Big Data for sustainability". That was an... interesting experience. The WorkStation was led by an older tech guy who worked with datacenters and cloud computing (Chief Technology Officer at EMC Netherlands) and a younger Italian post-doctoral researchers who worked in Amsterdam. I don't know if they knew each other before the conferece or how much time they had spent preparing the workshop but what was interesting to the point of bizarreness was their combined enthusiasm about the benefits of using the Internet of Things and Big Data for sustainability. They for sure didn't convince me nor did they convince a polite but critical Roy Bendor and (at least) several others workshop attendees.

We all agree that both people (social media) and things (sensors) nowadays create an avalanche of data. The workshop organisers started out by stating - stating! - that more data leads to more knowledge leads to more wisdom leads to more intelligence. I would want to put intelligence in quotations marks ("intelligence") but they for sure didn't and they defined intelligence as the ability to understand implications and make correct predictions (and by extension correct - not "correct" - decisions). Without at this point asking if anyone had any thoughts or opinions this they instead forged ahead and started off the workshop by asking if we, as an effect of these developments would be able to "predict everything" in the future - a statement that was sorely rejected by those in the audience who spoke up. Bendor ruefully asked: "if we could predict everything, what would say about us?". I guess the predict-everything hypothesis was one of the two organisers' pet idea but it is just too weird to discuss here, a little like Elon Musk saying that the chances are a billion-to-one that we actually live inside a computer simulation).

I voiced my objecttions and referred to the paper I co-authored earlier this year about limits to policy-modeling ("In this paper we are particularly interested in the myth of increased quality, objectivity and truth that emerges from the introduction of [Big Open Linked Data] BOLD within policy modeling"). It's hard to raise complex rather than simple arguments at a fast-paced workshop, text is better for pondering most issues and so I here choose to refute the predict-everything hypothesis by quoting Gregory Bateson on the differences between engineering and physics on the one hand and the social sciences on the other hand. The first sentence below comes from my ph.d. thesis the rest is from Bateson (1972, p.229), "Steps to an ecology of mind":

Traditional engineering disciplines are based on intimate knowledge of how different physical materials react in a variety of conditions (temperature, vibration, torsion, stress, age etc.). Canine behavior – not to mention human behavior – is less predictable, less calculable:
”If I kick a stone, the movement of the stone is energized by the act, but if I kick a dog, the behavior of the dog may indeed be partly conservative – he may travel along a Newtonian trajectory if kicked hard enough, but this is mere physics. What is important is that he may exhibit responses which are energized not by the kick but by his metabolism; he may turn and bite.
This, I think, is what people mean by magic. The realm of phenomena in which we are interested is always characterized by the fact that “ideas” may influence events. To the physicist, this is a grossly magical hypothesis. It is one which cannot be tested by asking questions about the conservation of energy”

Perhaps the most succinct critique of the whole idea of Big Data (by necessity) leading to better decisions comes from Evgeny Morozow who slaughters the very idea of forging a useful link between Quantified Self (Big Data) and causality (prediction):

"Peter Austin data-mined the health records of 10 million Ontario patients to draw some fascination conclusions about them. One ... finding was that "Virgos vomit more, Libras fracture pelvises." ... Austin notes that you only need to "replace astrological signs with another characteristic such as gender or age, and immediately your mind starts to form explanations for the observed associations. Then we leap to conclusions, constructing reasons for why we saw the results we did." However, he argues, "the more we look for patterns, the more likely we are to find them, particularly when we don't begin with a particular question." In other world, what Austin takes to be the mark of bad research has somehow become a defining, beloved feature of the Quantified Self movement."

Another early, controversial and weird position the organisers took was that more data will (causally, automatically) lead to more intelligence and more sustainability. End of the discussion. Except it wasn't. I (and others) for sure were not willing to go along with such a simplified view of the connection between data and "intelligence" and sustainability. Trying to "convince" the organisers to give up or at least reconsider that position became one of the issues we spent the most time on in the workshop (it was hard work and I doubt we were particularly successful). I found it curious that the organisers assumed that increased "intelligence" would always be used in ways that would be beneficial to us as end users, consumers and citizens. I honestly think they had never considered that it could be any other way. I told them I felt as if I might as well have attended a workshop a hundred years ago on the topic "The internal combustion engine for sustainability!".

Me and others asked the organisers what they thought about the concept of planned obsolescence and why that sort of sustainability-hating practices would vanish in the age of the Internet of Things and Big Data but I don't think we got a straight answer. Even worse than the planned obsolescence of mechanical parts (say in a traditional lightbulb - see further The Lightbulb Conspiracy) is the computer-enhanced sustainability-defying planned, nay devious obsolescence that "intelligence" can make possible. At our workshop just before the conference, Sofie Lambert from Ghent (BE) had given an example of how more intelligence in our devices and services can lead to a whole lot of less sustainability ("The printer conspiracy"?). She had a home printer that one day just stopped working. She searched the web and found out that the printer had an internal counter and that her "quota" had been used up so that the printer - despite being fully functional from a mechanical point of view - considered itself retired and refused to print any more. I know I anthropomorphise, the printer didn't make any autonomous decisions, but it's "intelligent" software sure did. Sofie searched the web some more, disassembled the printer, reset the counter, put it all together again and could then continue using it. To fix her "intelligent" printer, she first had to lobotomise it! But how many of us have the interest, knowledge, skills and time to do that? And how many who do have those assets would even know the true nature of the problem they are facing - an internal counter that had maxed out but that could "easily"(?) be fixed? I think this example is exceedingly interesting and terrifying in its implications, since it does imply that more intelligence could lead to whole lot of less sustainability rather than more.

Another example that was raised (by Dawn Walker from CA) was the case of John Deere tractors that primarily seem to have the interests of the John Deere corporation - rather than their owners (users?) - in their (software) minds. From Wikipedia: "John Deere locks tractors digitally ... to prevent the DIY repairing by the owning farmers" and here's Wired's take on this interesting issue (and here is NPR's):

"In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle." It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it. ... The pièce de résistance in John Deere’s argument: permitting owners to root around in a tractor’s programming might lead to pirating music through a vehicle’s entertainment system. Because copyright-marauding farmers are very busy and need to multitask by simultaneously copying Taylor Swift’s 1989 and harvesting corn? (I’m guessing, because John Deere’s lawyers never explained why anyone would pirate music on a tractor, only that it could happen.)

To sum things up, more data and "intelligence" could lead to more sustainability or it could lead to less sustainability. My bet is on "less" if companies can earn more money that way. The workshop organisers resisted even this simple and pretty neutral statement both when the workshop was summed up and (I believe) when they later reported on the results in a plenary session. I'm not very impressed.

One last trail of thoughts that were only partially explored at the workshop came from one of the workshop organisers' half-assed but intriguing idea that since we pay for various services we use with our data (think of Google and Facebook), then data perhaps "could be seen as a currency?". I've come across this intriguing idea before, here's what I wrote in April 2014:

"This made me remember a slogan I've heard; "data is the new oil" (or, "data is the oil of the 21st century"). This is an intriguing notion even though I personally think oil is the new oil (as well as the old oil) because without the oil (energy), nothing will run and data will loose much of its current allure)."

The quote comes from a blog post about another - and in this context highly relevant workshop - I attended at the University of California Irvine (UCI) called "Big: Culture and Data in the Digital Field". Let's just say the ideas and the level of the conversation at that workshop (with workshop participants such as Paul Dourish, Mary L. Gray, Christine Borgman, Judith Gregory, Joan Donovan and Bill Maurer) was considerably more advanced and nuanced and leave it at that.

This time around I was at least a little more prepared for thinking about this particular issue and immediately started to ask piercing questions like "what do you mean?" (that for the most part went unanswered). Building on a great short text by Belgian economist and money theorist guru Bernard Lietaer called "Community Currencies: A New Tool for the 21st Century", I have come to understand that money can have several different parallell functions (ex: "a store of value" - think of gold and and other precious metals) of which Lietaer states that only two "are essential":

- A standard of measure. We compare the value of the proverbial apples and oranges by expressing each of them in dollars, for example.
- A medium of exchange that is more efficient than other forms--barter, for instance.

The point here is that saying that "since data has a value, it could (perhaps) be thought of as a currency" is just waaay to simplistic. The value of knowing which horse will win can be "invaluable" before the race but worthless afterwards. The same piece of data could simultaneously be immensely valuable for someone and of no value whatsoever for someone else; what is the value of figuring out that a pension fund is trying to offload millions of shares of blue-chip company X exactly one microsecond before anyone else realises it? The answer is "not a lot" - unless you happen to own a small data-center's worth of computing power and be deep into high-frequency trading... and so on... friendship also has value (we all agree friendship is valuable), but who would suggest we use "friendship" as a currency?  I agree data has (or at least can have) value, but that is far from saying it can be used as a currency no matter how titillating the idea sounds at face value.

Roy Bendor again contributed with some sharp thinking. His first observation was that data not just has (potential) value but that it (from a sustainability point of view) also has costs; more data means more processing and more processing means more servers and more servers means more data centers and more data centers means higher electricity use and higher electricity use is more unsustainable. Bendor then suggested that we could perhaps fold the material aspects (the sustainability impact) of (using huge amounts of) data into "the price of data itself". That should at least be a lot easier than estimating the value of data since it's much easier to count on what the sustainability costs and the environmental impact of data of running a data center are. Data in more polluting (coal-powered) data centers should thus "cost" more than data in less polluting (water-powered) data centers even if the cost of the energy (say, 1 GWh) is he same in dollars. It's an intriguing though and I can't quite recall if I've heard that particular idea been suggested before.

Other interesting opinions that were expressed at the workshop (in my opinion) exclusively came from the participants rather than from the organisers. Here are a few:
- Ole Schultz (DK): All the Internet of Things sensors have a materials and energy footprint. Chances are they can have a materials/energy/carbon backpack that is larger than their prospective energy/sustainability savings due to their embodied energy, e.g. the energy expended to build them in the first place. It might not be wrong to build such sensors but a case should first be made that they will have a net-benefit effect.
- Roy Bendon (NL): can we really even use terms like "intelligent" and "smart" if a product isn't sustainable? How can non-sustainable or un-sustainable ever really by intelligent or smart?
- Me: I'm willing to go this far but no longer: these technologies are promising. And they also represent a threat. We can not know in advance how they will be used, but let's work towards, and hope for the best. Just assuming things will work out without any efforts on our behalf will on the other hand only increase the chance that things won't work out.
- Me again, on the organisers' high hopes for "intelligence" enabling the circular economy. Organisers: We will be able to develop products that can tell about how they feel, including if they are about to have a breakdown (which can then be fixed). (Grumpy) me: we might get data and intelligence and some of it might be used to enable the circular economy, but, the same data/intelligence could on the other hand be used to disable the circular economy (like Sofie's printer example above).
- There was no time (and I'm not knowledgeable enough) to initiate a sorely needed discussion about intermediateappropriate, and convivial technologies as well as perhaps bringing up and discussing the intriguing concept of "minimal computing" which I would also like to look closer at. These ideas were not part of the workshop but I wish they would have.

This is a long blog post and my time and patience is running out. I want to wrap it up and here are some concluding machine-gun fire bullets:
- My paper "Designing for Sustainability: Breakthrough or suboptiminsation?" (pdf file) was one of six Best Paper Nominees. I got to present it from the center stage together with the other five nominees - of which two papers had been written by colleagues of mine at the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC). Alas, none of our papers won because the winning paper was "Sustainable and Smart: Rethinking What a Smart Home is" by M. Salman, S. Easterbrook, S. Sabie and J. Abate from the University of Toronto.
- I had a cold and also had problems with my neck (tense) and with (at times severe) dry coughs for the duration of the whole conference. That sucked big time. After our workshop had been held (the day before the conference started), I went directly home (to the houseboat, see the picture below) and just crashed. I didn't even have the appetite to eat any dinner. I did go out and have dinner with other conference attendees the very last night but then went home to sleep. I certainly wasn't a party animal this time around.
- The next ICT4S conference will be held at the University of Toronto in mid-May 2018. Steve Easterbrook will be the General Chair and Birgit Penzenstadler will be the Program Chair. I hope to be able to attend and already look forward to that conference. If you've read to the bitter end, you should obviously consider going there too!
- There might be an ICT4S summer school next summer (2017) under the tutelage of Steve Easterbrook and supposedly at University of Toronto(?). I might be involved. More info to follow later (or not).

Also, remember that just because we can do it doesn't mean it's the right thing!

Addenum (Sept 15, 2016). It turns out I misunderstood a few things and Sofie Lambert has also conducted some more "Internet research" on her printer problem:

Hi Daniel,

Interesting blog post, thanks for sharing it, this way I learned a bit more about how the rest of the conference went!

After seeing you refer to my printer story in the post, I retraced what it was exactly that I had to reset that one time to fix my old printer. I should clarify though that I never made any hardware modifications – all I did was reset a software counter (without having to take anything apart). The website that listed the method to fix the “error” on the display never explained why it was there, so I just assumed it was some made up issue that would be hard enough to fix so that it would coerce most customers into buying a new printer instead of googling for half an hour and then doing a manual reset.

But after retracing the issue I now found out that this error signals that the “waste ink tank” which is used to store the waste from cleaning cartridges is almost full:

Resetting the counter could result in overflow of that waste tank at some point (though probably long after the counter indication, safety margin and all that). So in fact, there seems to be a real “issue” that needed to be fixed here. Instead of resetting the counter, in theory I should have taken my printer to a repair center to get the waste tank cleaned. Which at first sight makes this a story of maintenance rather than planned obsolescence.

But on the other hand, I think this may just be a clever cover-up of planned obsolescence, where the story goes: Printer manufacturer X adds a component that needs to be replaced periodically, and which consumers can’t replace themselves (I’ve googled around for a while, so far no luck – and definitely no clear step-by-step guide from printer manufacturer X). Printer manufacturer X knows they have few service centers and that any repair is by default expensive (sending a printer to a repair center and back would already cost around 15 euros I guess). At the same time they make sure that the “periodic” replacement only has to take place when the printer has been used for a long time (outside warranty period), so they know consumers will doubt whether their old device is still worth the repair cost at the point when it refuses to print due to this “error”.

So basically, I’d still call this planned obsolescence, but printer manufacturer X has been clever enough to make it impossible to prove malicious intent… I have a feeling there are many examples out there of other brands and manufacturers using components that fail for “valid” reasons after using them for a while. As long as expectations of infinitely growing economies and profits push companies to increase their sales year after year I don’t see any reason this would change, either.

Long story short, I guess I’m with you on the “smarter is not necessarily more sustainable” front. As usual, ICT is a tool that can be used either way, depending on the user’s (or better, companies’) intentions.