SICSA Phd Conference 2022

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Last week I presented my poster at SICSA PhD Conference 2022 held at Glasgow Caledonian University. I was able to meet other PhDs at different stages of their projects, which was the perfect opportunity to reflect on my work and explore others’ doctoral journeys. Have fun!

The SICSA Conference

Every year the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) organises a general PhD conference open to Scottish universities. Students are able to display their work during the poster session or even take part in a dissertation competition. The organizers didn’t come up short on making the event more engaging and interesting by arranging insightful guest lectures. This year organizers added a Reverse Viva session where participants could ask questions about the PhD thesis to its authors. Additionally in this 2-day event, delegates were able to attend various workshops on Intellectual property; Getting the job you want after finishing your PhD; Post pandemic computing science education; Bricolage for blended spaces and Early career research.

Poster Session

It was my first attempt at a scientific poster. Seeing the massive amount of examples that almost always look the same, I came up with the new layout. Unfortunately, the layout seemed to be the sole strength of the poster since I was unable to win the competition lol. However, I managed to draw the attention of other PhD researchers, which gave me an opportunity to discuss my research and answer some questions which was a fun experience. In the past, I saw little to no purpose in events like that, however, this year I tried to get rid of any prejudices and try my best. It was not always smooth, some people genuinely liked the project and were keen on engaging in a conversation, whereas for some it wasn’t that interesting (I don’t blame you!).

My Poster (better when zoomed in!)

The poster session allowed me to meet some new interesting PhDs and explore some of their research as well. I learned about what my fellow peers work on now, which gives me a better idea of potential collaborators for future projects. One thing I found odd was the way the posters were judged. The session was announced to all participants after one of the guest lectures, which many students planning on checking out the posters for the first time. Together with the judges moving around and trying to assess each of the posters, this just resulted in a slight mess. Probably it would be beneficial in the future for the judges to remain anonymous, it would put less pressure on the presenters and also lead up to more natural discussions.

Guest Speakers

Although there were many keynote speakers, my favourite sessions were delivered by Kyle White and Stewart Whiting, who talked about their journeys in launching a start-up during a PhD. It was very inspirational to see how many things can be achieved in such a long time. I was amazed to see how with persistence and motivation you can achieve huge success (and be able to finish PhD, ha!). Their stories gave me a fresh perspective on my future plans and also some ideas, but too soon to share anything yet.

Workshop session: Bricolage for blended spaces

To be entirely frank, the only reason I attended this workshop was that I had no idea what bricolage was. Luckily my amazing colleagues from Edinburgh Napier University, Emilia Sobolewska and Callum Egan were happy to explain the concept. To keep it brief, bricolage is the methodological approach that involves applying multiple different methodologies for the same problem and testing them all at the same time. Together with the concept of blended spaces, where a physical environment and a virtual environment are deliberately integrated, these two make quite a strong case for project design process. If you are interested more in how bricolage can be used in research, I recommend Emilia’s piece on Tailoring methodological bricolage to investigate non-discretionary use of digital technology.

General thoughts

The SICSA PhD conference this year was great! It was good to see all of us PhDs together, discussing our research, sharing stories with each other and having fun doing so! The venue was great and the fact that such a big event remains free to attend says a lot about SICSA. I believe that initiatives like this benefit the research community and ensure that more people will choose to pursue their own research in the future. Looking forward to the next year’s edition and can’t wait to discuss my research progress with some of the people I met this year!

 

Edinburgh – Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS)

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I recently participated in my first summer school as a PhD student, held at Edinburgh University. It was an amazing experience and I would like to share some of it with you, enjoy!

What is SICSS?

Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS) is an initiative that started in 2017 but since then it grew to more locations and it is now running across nearly all continues (not in Antarctica yet!).  The main goal of the institutes is to provide a bridge between social and data science. This will allow the researchers to work with large amounts of digital data. Together with the information delivered by advanced researchers, the institutes create an excellent learning environment.

The Format

Participants

During this 2-week summer school, a group of 24 people were selected. We all came from different backgrounds and the only common thing was our interest in computational social science (CSS), although, most of us were PhDs.

Schedule

During the first week, we attempted a series of lectures/workshops on various data analysis methods including:

  • Reproducible workflows, data carpentry
  • APIs, Web scraping, digital research methods
  • Networks and network analysis
  • Social networks and simulations
  • Computational text analysis and natural language processing
  • Machine learning and prediction

Because lectures were delivered by experienced academics, we were able to discuss the application of such techniques in their research. This offered a chance to understand the given concept beyond its theoretical description. Furthermore, by utilizing them on the actual data, we could explore the limitations and strengths of learned methods.

Guest Speakers

Each day of learning was preceded by a guest lecture, from speakers who work or are associated related to the CSS field. I particularly enjoyed the talk delivered by Anita Gohdes on her research paper entitled: Distract and divert: How world leaders use social media during contentious politics. In her study, she explored the digital communication strategies of world leaders, using their social media interactions. It was interesting to see the differences in practices among various political ideologies.

Another great talk was delivered by Benjamin Bach who talked about the various visualisation techniques and tools available for the researchers. We learned how to appropriately choose the visualisation technique so that it would achieve the desired outcome. Benjamin is responsible for running a VisHub, where he works toward more understandable visualisation solutions for all.

Group Work

The second week consisted of group work on any topic related to CSS. Our group decided to explore the position of US Twitter users on gun control from an analysis of tweet text and mentions and retweets network. During this 4-day project, we were able to use some of the methods learned during week 1 but also improve our team-working skills. The time constraints prevented us from performing a detailed investigation into the topic. However, we managed to gather a collection of 1000 tweets related to gun control and based on our annotations (pro-/against-gun control) we performed our analysis. With some of the insightful findings regarding the retweet networks (very clustered) and promising results from trained classifiers (f1 score of 80% in the best case), I believe we utilized the given time well.

Furthermore, this task showed me that working in a group of talented and motivated researchers is not an easy task. Don’t get me wrong, I worked on a number of group projects before but never at the doctoral level. The experience was both amazing and challenging at the same time, we spend some time working out the dynamics of our group, however, in the end, we were able to fulfil most of our initial goals and were happy with how things went. Special thanks to my amazing group members: Alisha Kelkar, Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd, François t’Serstevens, Alessio Scopelliti and awesome teaching assistant Aybuke Atalay for guiding us in the right direction. 

Social Aspect

Apart from the high standard of teaching provided by the SICSS, another great thing about this summer school was the social aspect of it. The organizers did an amazing job at not only planning the summer school but also at ensuring that we would connect as a group by organizing social events. While during the day everyone stayed focused on the learning part after the classes ended we were able to get to know each other a little bit more, which made the whole experience more fulfilling. Here I would like to thank Christopher Barrie, for organizing the whole event and being a great teacher!

SICSS- Edinburgh 2022 cohort in their natural habitat

To Sum up

The SICSS- Edinburgh 2022 exceeded my expectations. Beginning with the fact that it it fully funded by external sponsors, this summer school offers a great opportunity for researchers from all different backgrounds to learn about how digital data can be effectively used in various domains. It was the best experience, as a PhD student, so far and it allowed me to develop as a researcher and also grow as a person. Through the mix of classes and various situations, I have gained a fresh perspective on my own research and was able to improve my teamwork abilities, which I believe are crucial in both life and work. SISCA runs every year in various locations, I strongly recommend to anyone to apply and see for themselves how awesome it is! However, make sure you do that early in the year as the institutes are very popular.

Navigating Wellbeing & Reimagining Resistance During the PhD (SGSSS Symposium)

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Recently I participated in the SGSSS student-led symposium on Navigating Wellbeing & Reimagining Resistance During the PhD. The event was held at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and gathered over 30 doctoral students associated with the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science. As one of the participants, I would like to talk about my experience and share with you a couple of things I learned.

What was the Event About?

For many of us, it is hard to find the right work-life balance. While keeping mentally and physically well is important for everybody, the doctoral study requires (usually 3 to 4 years long) commitment. Therefore, a suitable working environment is essential. By ensuring our wellbeing, we can utilize available resources (such as time) to their fullest, thus allowing us to excel at our research and other academic or professional commitments. The event was organised by SGSSS student reps, including a colleague from my research institute, Katherine Stephen.

How the Event Looked Like?

Before going to the event I was not sure what to expect. I thought it will look similar to a conference or a research group meeting, with representatives and speakers giving talks about how to improve your wellbeing during a PhD. While partly, it was like that 😀, the whole event was very informal, which gave us (students) a chance to meet each other and discuss relevant matters in a casual atmosphere. Everyone quickly started talking to each other and then we all proceeded to the main room which was followed by a couple of networking exercises.

Living Libraries Sessions

Once everybody got to know each other roughly, the Living Libraries session began. The session consisted of 7 different tables and for each one, a single book was assigned. The book was a person facilitating the conversations and serving as an expert on a topic. Some of the themes included: First Generation Academic; Doing a PhD with a Disability or Managing Your Mental Helth During a PhD. It is worth mentioning that mentioned books, were other PhD students, hence in our conversations we could all relate to each other. I was able to explore other students’ experiences and their journeys, which opened my eyes to various challenges and opportunities available to us.

Other Sessions

Following these sessions, we had a great talk with Dr Jo Ferrie on Why are PhDs Traumatic? and Dr Maddie Breeze on Imposter Syndrome in academia. However,  I found the Reframing Failures Panel held by Dr Ashley Rogers, Dr Mhairi Mackenzie and Dr Colin Atkinson the most interesting. The speakers presented their journeys as the PhD researchers and shared useful tips on how to manage failures. The conversations were more insightful as each of the presenters had gone through different failures and found unique techniques or strategies in dealing with failures useful. Additionally, the session was followed by the Q&A which allowed us to hear their perspectives on our struggles.

What was the Best About the Event?

I personally enjoyed the earlier mentioned informal setting created by the organizers. That way we could talk about the problems we face and things we are not happy about in a safe environment. Moreover, the fact that we were able to actively discuss with each other, created a sense of unity and from my perspective facilitated more honest conversations.

Apart from that I really enjoyed the Reimagining the Future of Higher Education held by Jessica Cleary, which allowed us to reflect on the current state of HE concerning our PhD as well as academia in general in a funny yet constructive way.

Wellbeing & Resistance: Top Takeaways

For the person who never heard about the Imposter Syndrome, learning about it and realising its relation to academia was of huge help. Although, personally I never felt like an imposter, exploring the topic allowed me to reflect on some of the situations from my past and understand them better. In short, all of the symposium’s sessions were useful, while I could not relate to all of the topics raised, each one of them broaden my perspective, thus allowing me to further develop as both a PhD researcher and a person. I believe that simply listening to other people’s stories and having a chance to discuss them, gives you the opportunity to re-think some of the past situations and ultimately allow you to grow.

My Approach to Wellbeing

For me, wellbeing is having a sense of structure while remaining free. Having a proper diet, nurturing my hobbies, allocating time for work and relaxing and, most importantly, being open to new experiences and opportunities. By putting yourself through new situations you provide yourself with a fresh perspective, which might not be useful at first but it is sure to be helpful at some point in the future. It is perfectly fine and normal to feel uncomfortable when doing something new, however, getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is what ultimately will allow you to become a better researcher and a person, at least that’s what I think 😉.


I am looking forward to some of the future SGSSS sessions and hope that the pleasant and welcoming environment from this session would accompany future meetings. It was great to meet so many new people who are also pursuing PhD research and listen to experienced individuals on their approach to wellbeing at work.

 

Scottish AI Summit 2022

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Last week I participated in the first-ever Scottish AI Summit in Edinborough at the Dynamic Earth venue. It was my first experience with the conference and wanted to share my thoughts on the topics discussed as well as the event itself.

Conference Agenda

The three main topics of the summit were Trustworthiness, Ethics and Inclusivity in AI. These were a base for the discussion for eight distinct panels and 3 workshops. As it wasn’t possible to attend all of them, I had to choose which one will be the most relevant for my PhD and interests. While I could spend hours discussing all of them, I will share with you the ones that were the most insightful from my perspective.

Panel 5: Why is Explainable AI still a challenge?

Explainability in AI is becoming a very hot topic in this domain right now. Increasing access to the software and easily accessible programming packages, allowed researchers from non-programing backgrounds to employ and test machine learning models on their ideas. Furthermore, the rise of artificial neural networks has led to sophisticated methods being widely available. While they often provide superior results to traditional methods, they are associated with explainability issues, resulting from their complexity. This phenomenon is known as the ‘Black Box” model, which results often elude human interpretation. Rather than trying to explain the models, researchers focus on interpreting the results by isolating the important features. However, this approach still does not provide sufficient information on why and how the model makes the final decision, merely gives the idea of what is being considered.

Panel Discussions

Panellists consisted of AI experts from both academia and industry. While in some cases, the lack of explainability might not be an issue, for example, the Netflix recommendation algorithm, when it comes to the areas such as law enforcement or healthcare it poses a huge threat. Whether it’s academic researchers or companies, it is crucial to contextualize the AI system. Some applications might favour performance over explainability while some should not, according to one of the panellists, the importance of explainability is linked to human participation in the system. In other words, the system in which the final decisions are made by humans does not necessarily has to provide complete explainability, as human experts are only using it to aid their decisions. Another area in which explainability might not play an important role in, is the detection of rare, often catastrophic events, which otherwise wouldn’t be discovered soon enough (i.e., nuclear reactor faults).

My Views

While I can definitely agree with the latter case, in which AI is the only to only tool at the disposal of the human when it comes to lack of explainability in high-stake sectors such as law enforcement or healthcare, not being able to understand the results of the AI system, might lead to terrible consequences. For one, people might begin to rely on the system too much, and while it might provide satisfactory results at the beginning, not being able to understand its decision process, effectively does not improve the understanding of the specific disease or legal verdict. If sometime in the future the system would come out to be faulty, people would demand compensation, court judgements would have to be revoked additionally stigmatising the AI for years. I agree with panellists, that there is no “one fits all” when it comes to the approach to the explainability in AI. Each case is different, nevertheless keeping the human in the loop could limit the risks coming from lack of explainability.

Workshop 2: What does Responsible Innovation Mean to You?

The main reason I attended this workshop, was that I wanted to see how it differed from the panel discussions. To my surprise the conversations there were much more interactive, with participants having a chance to talk with each other and vote on the questions raised.

Discussion

Again people from the industry and academia were invited and in this case, I was able to explore approaches to responsibility in AI from different perspectives. It was interesting to see how aspects such as ethics, transparency, inclusion and accountability align across all of these different parties. Speakers talked about how the approach to responsibility in AI changed over time, with people now taking a more proactive approach.

My views

While I consider the aspect mentioned in the previous paragraph important to every AI system. I think that the speakers failed to discuss the issue of participation, which I believe is essential to the well functioning of the AI system. Without participation, there is no reason to work on all of the remaining as there is no one to benefit from it. While these concepts become highly interconnected later in the process, I think more has to be done to ensure people are not afraid of AI and are able to trust it, especially older generations.

General Remarks

I very much enjoyed the summit and it was amazing to meet important people from the industry and catch up on the latest developments in this area. It was also a great place to meet new people and establish new contacts that might be relevant to my research. I was able to learn about the Scottish companies working within the AI domain and the talks I participated in gave me some interesting ideas on how to proceed with my research.


All of the talks mentioned in this post along with the original recordings can be found on the summit’s website here. All you need to do is to log into their virtual platform and you will have access to all of the materials online for the next five months for free.