Tuesday, 18 October 2016

How real can VR be?

In Arthur Conan Doyle's story "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" (published in 1921), Sherlock Holmes fools some criminals into revealing the whereabouts of a diamond by convincing them that he is playing his violin in the neighbouring room. In fact, he is hiding behind some curtains listening to their conversation while a gramophone record plays the Hoffman 'Barcarole'.

Some years earlier, in 1895, at the Grand Café in Paris, the Lumière brothers presented film of a train arriving at a station.  Legend has it that, as the train loomed large on the screen, the audience panicked and ran away screaming.  Almost certainly though, the accounts are as fictional as Holmes' trickery with the gramophone.

Both technologies record and reproduce aspects of reality.  What would it take though, for a virtual reality to be mistaken for a real reality?  Should there be a VR version of a Turing test?  If a listener were placed outside two booths, one containing a real violinist and the other playing a recording of the violinist, would the listener be fooled?  Could a projection be displayed beside a closed window in such a way that someone in the room could not tell which showed the outside world?

Even if a technology could pass such a test when new, could it continue to do so?  Cutting edge technology quickly becomes blunt. CGI special effects that, 20 years ago, seemed impressive, now seem clumsy.  Arguably, the same question could be asked of the Turing test for artificial intelligence (AI).  If the AI did not learn in the same way as humans, then it may not consistently pass the test.

Monday, 12 September 2016

False information on social media platforms (by Wasim Ahmed)

This month’s discussion is inspired by the panic that was caused at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) over false claims that there was an active shooter on the premises. Police did not identify a shooter, and the reports derived from the police arresting a man who was wearing a mask and wielding a plastic sword. Only weeks before, at JFK airport, there were reports of a shooting at the airport, which also turned out to be a false alarm. The ‘gunfire’ was in fact Usain Bolt’s cheering fans. 

Both these cases had an element of truth.  At LA airport, those posting to social media genuinely mistook a man wearing a mask for a shooter, and at JFK they mistook cheering for gunfire. However, there are also cases where information on social media is posted with the sole intention of deceiving. During the 2011 London riots for example, several unsubstantiated claims which were spread on Twitter. These included the following:
·         Rioters attack London and release animals
·         Rioters cook their own food in McDonald’s
·         Police beat a 16-year-old girl
·         London Eye set on fire.

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012 certain false tweets were picked up by the mainstream media and reported as fact.  More generally, regular users of social media platforms will encounter highly shared false content on Twitter and Facebook. Some such content may simply be a practical joke.  A recent article, for example, reported that sixty Facebook profiles had been created for non-existent Houston restaurants. Often though, the  misinformation is malicious. Several falses rumour about transgender people have been spreading on Facebook (eg, the rumour that a company was installing urinals in women’s restrooms). 

Public figures are often the subject of dishonest postings. Facebook recently apologized for promoting a false story about Fox News broadcaster Megyn Kelly in their #trending section, According to Craig Silverman (founding editor of Buzzfeed), Facebook’s algorithms contribute significantly to the spreading of such hoaxes.

China takes the issue of false news from social media very seriously, and has recently clamped downA case could be made for a system where users are prosecuted for posting malicious information during disasters; but the issue of more casual false information is difficult to solve.: educational solutions such as educating users and highlighting the importance of basic fact checking would help ease the trend though. Craig Silverman has collated several must-read sources on how to verify information from social media users in real time, and I would highly recommend looking at some of these resources before the discussion group. There is also the Verification Handbook, a guide to verifying digital content for emergency services authored by journalists from the BBC, Storyful, ABC, Digital First Media, and others.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Writing badly - the key to academic success?

There are few academic works that I would actually claim to have enjoyed reading.  Michael Billig's book "Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences" proved to be one of the exceptions.

The iSchool researchers' discussion group has talked about academic writing before.  However, armed with new perspectives from Prof Billig, I thought I would raise the subject again.

Of the various points that Michael Billig made in his book, one was particularly relevant to the iSchool, i.e., the argument that much of writing in the social sciences requires information to be removed. He discusses at length the passivisation that occurs in the process of writing for academic publication.

As someone who has spent many years working in the social sciences, that last sentence came naturally.  It is however, exactly the sort of sentence that Prof Billig criticises.  When I converted a process to a noun (the process of turning active verbs into passive ones), I stripped out a lot of information (about who was doing what, to which verbs) to produce an academic-sounding word (passivisation).  By such means, social scientists bring things into being (Massification, Normatization, plus other ...izations, ...and ...ications),  A social scientist whose new thing is discussed and analysed has the makings of a good career.  However, the people who do the ...izing or ...ify-ing are all too often removed from the discussion.  The focus tends to be on hypothetical processes rather than real people.  Perhaps the social sciences are at risk of being de-societalized.  

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Staying private while searching the Internet (by Alessandro Checco)

One of my interests in online data privacy: how can users access custom content without being tracked individually? Can we break this vicious circle in which advertisers spy on users and, as a reaction, users hide even more?

My idea is to allow a milder form of identification than the classic way in which a use is uniquely identified.  Instead, users would automatically be hidden within a crowd of similar users.

The challenges of this approach is to combat spam and Sybil attacks, but it turns out it can be easily done through cryptographic tokens such as e-cash.

Another topic I am exploring is: how to detect Search Engines ‘learning’ about sensitive topics during a searching session? Interestingly, the advertisements that appear during searches provide evidence of tracking on sensitive topics. Google doesn't seem to track our entire search histories for the purpose of advertising, but just the last 4-5 queries.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Uses and Risks of Microblogging in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (by Soureh Latif Shabgahi)

Microblogs, such as Twitter and Yammer, have become very popular for both personal and professional pursuits. Some authors have claimed that social media can radically transform organisations. However, there is a lack of empirical research that evaluates that claim. My thesis investigated the uses and perceptions of risks of microblogging in UK based Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

The research adopted a qualitative methodology because of the intention to explore how participants understand microblogging. Twenty one semi-structured interviews (either face-to-face or on the phone) were conducted with participants in SMEs based in South Yorkshire, UK. A thematic approach was taken to analysing the interview data.

Most of the organisations approached adopted microblogs by a process of trial and error. Smaller organisations did not make much use of the platforms for direct advertising i.e. selling products to others. The participants focused more on other uses. Internally, microblogs were chiefly used by individuals to collaborate remotely with their co-workers and to ask or respond to questions. Externally, microblogging was mainly used to enable users to exchange information, to communicate more with customers and to build relationships with clients. A visual representation was developed to illustrate the uses of microblogging in SMEs. Participants in the study particularly valued microblogging for its limited functionality, its cost effectiveness and because it could be used via mobile phones.

Most participants perceived microblogs to be highly risky, i.e. to expose the organisation and employees to danger. The commonest type of risk was seen to be the danger of damaging the reputation of the business. The majority of participants talked about controlling what types of information should be shared on the platforms and controlling who should engage with microblogging. To illustrate such feelings around risks, two visual representations were developed.

This research is the first in-depth study about the uses of microblogging in UK based SMEs. It was found that microblogging did not radically transform organisations. It was seen as a useful form of communication for SMEs, but no more than that. The limited financial resources and professional expertise that SMEs have, was key to how they adopted the technology. As regards practical implications, something could be done to address the trial and error approach to using microblogs found to be typical of smaller organisations. For example, managers could be given training courses on how to best use microblogging. To improve management of risks, more concrete expert advice could be developed and organisations would benefit from sharing of model policies.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Factors that lead to ERP replacement in Higher Education Institutions in Saudi Arabia: A case study (by Arwa Mohammed J Aljohani)

The use of Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP) in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has increased substantially over the last few decades. A review of literature relating to Information Systems (IS) and ERPs has confirmed that few research studies have considered ERP in Higher Education: most have focused on their use in business.  In addition, the literature tends to concentrate on issues relating to the adoption of ERP, with a particular emphasis on success stories. Consequently, studies that focus on problems and difficulties associated with the replacement of ERPs, particularly in HEIs, are rare.

Knowledge of the decision making processes associated with ERP replacement is clearly of value to those who have to make the decisions, yet little is known about how and why such decision are made, or about the factors that influence them.  This study aims to fill some of these gaps.  The researcher seeks to investigate the causes and consequences of ERP replacement in a Saudi Arabian HEI.  Data relating to the case study at the heart of this project comes from 17 semi-structured interviews analysed using a Grounded Theory (GT) approach.

The study aspires to make both theoretical and practical contributions to the field.  In particular, it will increase understanding of decision-making processes in HEIs by helping to identify why and when they should consider replacing their ERP systems. A framework is being developed that will help identify factors and issues that should be considered before the decision to replace is made. The study therefore has clear practical value to decision-makers in HEIs and will help to ensure efficient use and exploitation of current systems, and safe adoption of new ones. The research should also be of relevance to system vendors, who have a clear interest in the use of ERP in higher education.      

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Post viva questionnaire - responses from Halima St Egberongbe

Post-viva questionnaire - responses

What is the title of your thesis?
An investigation of  quality management (QM) approaches in university libraries in south western Nigeria

Can you provide an abstract (for inclusion in this blog)?
This exploratory research project used a case study of university libraries in south western Nigeria, to explore the QM techniques applied by university libraries in managing their procedures as well as the types of approaches used to ensure service quality.  A mixed- methods two-phase case study design was used to address both research questions and objectives of the study.  Three methods of data collection are described:  An initial online quantitative survey with heads of 24 university libraries; second qualitative face-to-face semi-structured in-depth interviews with 15 university librarians and 10 focus group sessions (73 participants).   Findings suggest that respondents were aware of QM practices, service delivery and its impact on the mission and vision of respective host institutions.  There were no quality management tools in place for use in Nigerian university libraries.  Application of QM principles in the university libraries was not in line with any best practice to shape QM and as such could not lead to consistent/systematic QM implementation.  Two proposed models of QM implementation are described:   A proposed QM framework for university libraries in south western Nigeria; and a maturity model to help in post-implementation assessment of QM maturity levels of the libraries.  This study demonstrates that the concept of QM is quite germane to the development of the university library system though a number of factors (internal and external) have inhibited the process of its implementation, for which government intervention is recommended to aid its realisation.

 How long did you spend preparing for your viva?
I read through my thesis over the Christmas break  and tried to identify possible areas of
interrogation, for which I made notes. Then I re-read my literature review, methodology discussion and conclusion chapters during the week before the viva.  During the same week , I met with my supervisors, had a presentation with my research group and discussion with a few colleagues, all of which were indeed very helpful.

How long did your viva take?
1 hour 40 minutes.

Did the examiners concentrate on any particular section of your thesis? If so, which?
Apart from the initial interrogation, the remaining session was mainly discussion that bordered on policy issues and the feasibility of the study.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were pleased with your performance?
I was very pleased with my response on what motivated me to embark on the study; methodology; and sampling of participants for the study.

What was it you did that pleased you?
My responses generated interesting discussions on the study which gave me opportunity to provide  further explanations on the study.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were dissatisfied with your performance?
I was asked to provide a further explanation of a specific word while defining a concept. I struggled a bit and gave up because I did not want to goof.

What was it you did that dissatisfied you?
My inability to answer that bit of the question on the spur of that moment. Though it was early into the interview, I did not allow that to affect my posture, because my earlier responses had received positive nods from my examiners.

Please give an example of a question that you found hard.
My examiners wanted to know why my contributions and recommendations were not strong enough.

Why was it hard?
I was asked to restate my contributions and recommendations and could not, at that moment go beyond what I already have in the thesis

What was the outcome of your viva?
I passed, subject to minor corrections.

Please give some examples of the sort of corrections you need to make (if any).

Strengthening the conclusion chapter, particularly in terms of contribution and future research.

Some issues with referencing.

Corrections to typos and errors that required further proof reading.

Do you have any tips for looking and feeling confident in front of the examiners?
Try to take a good rest the day before, dress decently and be well composed 

Can you think of any good advice that you would give to students who are preparing for their viva?

Seek guidance from your supervisors for clarification on any issues prior to your viva
Try to ensure adequate revision of your work, by not leaving preparation too close to your viva

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Is that ethical? Exploring ethical challenges facing social media researchers (by Aimi Ladesco)

This blog explores some of the challenges, issues and grey areas that can arise when researching user-generated content (eg, social media and web forums).

It is important to distinguish between situations that relate to the researcher’s role as an individual, and to those that relate to her role as an associate of her employing institution.

As an individual, the researcher may take a utilitarian view and argue that there is value in capturing and analysing user-generated content at an aggregate level, in order to monitor trends associated with events of public interest, such as infectious disease outbreaks.  Such an analysis could clearly be of value and, as the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham might have observed, would produce more utility than bad.  If, by contrast, the researcher took an ethical stance such as that of Immanuel Kant, which was based on duty rather than utility (deontological), she may object to the use of such content without informed consent.  Not to do so, she might argue, could lead to all kinds of personal data being accessed on the grounds that doing so could be for the greater good.

As an associate of an employing institution, there are additional ethical considerations. The researcher will, for example, be expected to help her employer fulfil legal duties in regards to the data protection act and the safeguarding of participants.  She will also be, to some extent, morally obliged to protect the image of her employer. 

The ethical policies that arise from such considerations can sometimes delay research or halt potential collaborations. One of the values of social media research is that it allows the capture and rapid analysis of data relating to emerging news stories.  

Research institutions often have different ethical polices, with some being stricter than others possibly because, like the individual researcher, the ethics of different institutions are differently affected by utilitarian and deontological considerations.  The loss of opportunity to analyse and react to change caused by some of the stricter policies may, ironically, be a cause of harm as well as a means of preventing it.

There are instances where a researcher in a crisis situation may, through appropriate use of social media data (such as Twitter), be able to map locations of particular concern and offer refuge points in a crisis situation: the work of digital humanitarians, such as Patrick Meier provides a good example. The Standby Task-Force is a global network of volunteers who assist crisis-affected communities. However, initiatives such as this may be stifled by some of the ethical policies associated with research involving human participants.

This leads to another distinct, but related concern: should such ethics policies apply to research conducted in a researcher’s own time, using her own equipment, rather than research carried out in accord with her role as employee of a research establishment? For example certain voluntary activities (such as the Standby Task-Force) may be classed as research.  If they are classed in this way and are, according to the employing institution, deemed unethical, who should carry out such potentially life-saving activities?

Resources for further reading:

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Santa Claus: The truth! (And the usefulness)

It's a nice feeling to get a paper accepted.  Then comes the crunch moment when you realize that you said something silly and it's now preserved in print.

In 2014, I had a paper published in J.Doc about the evolution of information.  In it I argued that:
"the beliefs of any culture lead to practices that can be fitted into one of three categories. There will be some that are useful for all people for all time; some that were useful for some people at some time; and some that were never useful for anyone at any time."

I was being cautious.  Originally I had meant to write that beliefs were true for all time, for some time or for no time, but was daunted by the philosophical baggage associated with the word truth so I chose instead, to refer to usefulness.  That was a big mistake.  Last month's discussion was an example of why.

The topic was: "When did you stop believing in Santa?  Why?  If you still believe in Santa, please come prepared to present evidence.  If your  culture is a Santa-free zone, who or what is the equivalent in your culture?"

Not surprisingly, none of those who attended believed in Santa.  Sadly, we didn't have anyone from another culture who was prepared to nominate a Santa equivalent.  What emerged from discussion though, was the fact that Santa Claus is a very creepy individual.  An old man who spends 364 days of the year monitoring the behaviour of children and who is capable of sneaking unseen into their bedrooms at night would, in most other circumstances, be an object of fear rather than affection.  As it turned out, we weren't the first people to have that thought, and Santa Claus has featured in at least one horror film.

However, Santa Claus is an example of where utility and truth diverge.  His myth is, I'm fairly certain, one that few adults have ever believed.  However, like many myths without truth, it is useful. A point that was made by more than one person at the discussion was the role that Santa Claus plays in coercing excitable children to go to bed quietly on Christmas Eve.  He is a metaphysical protection racket: Behave - Or else!

Santa Claus is an example of why, in all probability, there have been no beliefs that have been useful for nobody at any time.  Even ones that are clearly and demonstrably untrue can be put to use by someone.