March for Science NL: Sharing the”signs of the times”

Yesterday was a momentous day in the history of science. Never before did so many scientists and science supporters take to the streets in such huge numbers across the globe. Mass demonstrations took place in over 600 events, from the North Pole to the Antarctic.  This went way beyond just anger about budget cuts and petty research politics. The deeply felt common goal was to defend the value of science as the bedrock of “The Reasonable Society” in an age where that very society is under threat from a belief in “alternative facts”, “post-truths”, and aggressive religious fanaticism aiming to literally take over the world again.

I took part in the Dutch version, which was held in Amsterdam. It was a rare and empowering sight to see so many researchers having come out of their labs, joining forces with concerned citizens, and knowing this was simultaneously happening all over the world. We live in scary times, but it is good to know that amidst all the extremism, the voices of reason are starting to connect and get organized.   Quoting the March for Science NL Statement:

For far too long, scientists and supporters of science have remained silent in the face of policies which ignore scientific evidence, and endanger human life and the future of our world. Today, staying silent is a luxury we can no longer afford. It is time for everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policies to speak out for the values they believe in, for the sake of society, as citizens of the world. We need to bring awareness to the community and higher bodies that science is important, and it is everywhere, in every layer of society, even though this is not always directly perceivable. Importantly, science should not be partisan, left nor right, progressive nor conservative, and should not be controlled by governmental politics. It is a method for discovering the actual truth of things, regardless of ideology and regardless of authority. Nonetheless, for science to remain free from political influence, scientists need to engage with politics – now more than ever.

To share some of the uplifting spirit and message of the March for Science gatherings, here is a gallery of the – often very thoughtful – “signs of the times” that were carried by participants in the Dutch demonstration:

Collaboration Patterns as Building Blocks for Community Informatics

From 4-6 November 2009, the 6th CIRN Community Informatics Conference was held in Prato, Italy. As in previous years, the conference brought together an interesting mix of researchers and practitioners from North and South, discussing ways to effectively use information and communication technologies to foster community building. This year’s theme was “Empowering Communities: Learning from Community Informatics Practice”.

I gave a keynote address at the conference. Title of my talk and the accompanying paper was “Collaboration Patters as Building Blocks for Community Informatics”. Below the slides of the presentation and the abstract of the paper.

Abstract

Community Informatics is a wide-ranging field of inquiry and practice, with many paradigms, disciplines, and perspectives intersecting. Community informatics research and practice build on several methodological pillars: contexts/values, cases, process/methodology, and systems. Socio-technical patterns and pattern languages are the glue that help connect these pillars. Patterns define relatively stable solutions to recurring problems at the right level of abstraction, which means that they are concrete enough to be useful, while also sufficiently abstract to be reusable. The goal of this paper is to outline a practical approach to improve CI research and practice through collaboration patterns. This approach should help to strengthen the analysis, design, implementation, and evaluation of socio-technical community systems. The methodology is illustrated with examples from the ESSENCE (E-Science/Sensemaking/Climate Change) community.

Moving Community Informatics Research Forward

091001_movingCIThe latest issue of the Journal of Community Informatics contains my point of view on “Moving Community Informatics Research Forward”. In it, I argue that at least four aspects need to be taken into account when researching the interplay of communities and their technologies: contexts/values, cases, process/methodology, and systems. Furthermore, in order to move our research field forward, more systematic attention needs to be paid to the role of definitions, the identification of lessons learnt and the development of testbeds and collaboratories. The point of view is based on my conference summing up of the Prato 2008 Community Informatics & Development Informatics conference.

Research consultancy: taking the plunge?

research_consultantOn February 18, SIKS, the Netherlands Research School for Information and Knowledge Systems, organized a career day for Ph.D. students, with the goal of making Ph.D. students think about what are the career opportunities after they finish. It was a very inspiring day, with many interesting presentations and interactions.

I was asked to present my perspective on how to set up and survive as a small (i.e. one-man) research consultancy company. In this post, a quick summary of the points I made in my talk.

As an (academic) research consultant, you are a linking pin between science and society. On the one hand, you translate academic ideas into concrete applications, such as projects, tools, systems, and procedures. However, just as important, you should feed back real-world insights into the scientific process. This way, combining rigor with relevance, you can help build bridges between the two worlds which, unfortunately, are often still so parallel instead of connected.

Pros and Cons

Some of the pros of being an independent research consultant instead of working at an academic institution include:

+ More freedom & control Being your own boss you are, well, your own boss. You have much more freedom and control about who you work for, when you work, and how you work (and even why you work). Of course, bills still need to be paid, boring tasks still need to be done, and annoying people cannot always be avoided, but in general, you can be much more selective. This sense of purpose, control, and fulfillment (and, sometimes, even a free weekend) is exhilirating and nourishing, especially for those who have been under many years of intense Ph.D., tenure track, or postdoc pressure.

+ More relevant research One of the curses of the academic system is the publish-or-perish culture. The pressure is enormous to focus on top journal publications, at the expense of research relevant to, say, society. In my own field, community informatics. hands-on testing of ideas through lots of trial and error is inevitable for getting meaningful results (and, I strongly believe, in the end good science). However, in academia spending too much time on this messy practice is discouraged, as it distracts from the Holy Grail of “The A Publication”. Having been relieved of the publication burden, you have more freedom as an independent researcher to focus on empirical, more relevant research.

+ More own research agenda Rather than having to adhere to an institutional research agenda, you can set and follow your own, personal research agenda, which you pursue in the context of your total portfolio of self-selected projects. This allows you to focus, for as long as you want and in many different settings, on the main research questions that fascinate you. In my case, one overarching question is the activation of online collaborative communities.

+ More diversity Being an advisor to many different organizations, networks, and communities on a very wide range of topics makes you grow, both intellectually and personally. You need to quickly analyze a rich set of practical problems, all somehow related to your expertise. It is very rewarding to try and see the patterns in initially seemingly very different real-world contexts and to formulate and apply lessons learnt. This theoretical sanity check sometimes leads to profound changes in your thinking, which can be most stimulating.

+ More satisfaction Your company is your baby. You still have to work very hard, and inevitably experience frustrating situations, but all of the above  can give a deep feeling of satisfaction when you see the ideas, connections, and impact of your work grow.

Of course, like everything in life, there are cons to being on your own as well:

– More risk Working by and for yourself exposes you to many more risks. You are no longer protected by an organization. No contracts means no income. Being in bed with the flu means no income. And, of course, there is nobody else in the organization to blame for errors and underperformance but yourself.

– Less (rigorous) research As your attention is scattered among more, shorter-term projects, and since you focus more on relevance instead of rigor, the research you do tends to be more case-based instead of methodologically deep. Also, in the general busi-ness associated with running your own company, it is easy to postpone doing and reflecting on your research. On the other hand, this situation is not really so different from the average  academic position where meetings, supervising, teaching, and travel also causes most serious research work to be postponed to evenings, weekends, and holidays…

– More goodbyes One of the nice aspects of working in an academic group for many years is that a real “sense of community” between its members develops. When being a consultant, you are literally “all over the place” and working more on a short-term contract basis. This often means that by the time you start to really like (some of) your colleagues, you have to move on again.

– Less beaches Probably the best perk of academia is the ability to go, and often stay and work for longer periods of time, in really amazing places. My academic life has taken me to many corners of the globe, resulting in many unforgettable impressions and experiences.

Do’s and Don’ts

So, how to go about starting your own one-(wo)man show? Following are some of my own lessons learnt.

– Be ready: PhD + postdoc is ideal It may seem that I discount the value of academia. Far from it, I think it’s the world’s greatest connector in terms of people and ideas (and largest travel agency!) Despite all its downsides, I have had a marvellous time, and it has shaped me professionally and personally in so many ways. So, I would not advise recent graduates to immediately start their own research consultancy. Ideally, you would have a PhD and at least a few years of postdoc experience. During your PhD, you learn the ropes, define your main ideas, and create your initial network. A postdoc is invaluable, as you learn project managament skills and (hopefully) how to descend a bit from the Ivory Tower. A postdoc forces you to learn the all-important skills of translating your Great Ideas that Will Change the World (but that, I know it hurts, nobody outside a tiny part of academia is interested in) into a more practical form that at least some members of the rest of the human race might be willing to pay for.

– Have (and keep!) a financial buffer (>1 yr) Continuing this point, one of the hardest things to do when starting your own research consultancy, is to prove that you have something practically valuable to offer. It is no use to advertise in the Yellow Pages and it may take a long time before you have enough paying contracts to break even. So, before you start, make sure to have enough savings for at least a year. This means you will not have to accept unacceptable offers and allows you to negotiate your contracts from a position of strength, not panic. Also, once you are finallly in business, make sure to refill the buffer as quickly as possible. Contracts never come at regular intervals, and you must be able to weather the next storm.

– Logo, website, blog Before you go public, make sure to have a professional logo and a well-designed and informative website. First impressions matter and the very first thing potential clients will do is to check out your site. The way you shape, structure and fill it with content says a lot about what you expertise is all about, so make sure to invest in this at the very beginning. Also, if you can, try to keep a blog. It doesn’t have to be a daily chore, but post at least once in a while so that potential clients can get a better idea about who you are and how you think and work.

– Network, network (and network!) Contrary to what many outsiders think, research is all about meeting people: fellow researchers, problem owners, potential clients, and just interesting fellow human beings. Networking is all-important, especially in our line of business. Go to anything that may seem remotely interesting: conferences and seminars, of course, but also meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, public lectures, etc. Also, start meeting up with contacts you haven’t seen in a long time and tell them about your ideas. A warning: don’t network and expect something to come out of it immediately. Don’t try to pressure people into giving you a contract, it won’t work. Just try to go and genuinely meet people for the fun of it. In fact, I find this one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my work. Everybody has a story or two to tell. Listen and learn!

– Be pro-active Gone are the days that there was a professor or supervisor to tell you what to do (if those days were ever there). When running your own company, NOTHING happens by itself. You are your own boss, employee and secretary. Scan your environment for opportunities and go for them. Don’t wait for the world to come to you. It won’t.

– Don’t underestimate acquisition Acquiring a contract is hard work and can (and will) generally take a much longer time than you expect. Try to not put your research darlings first but represent the interest of your clients. What is their problem they want to have solved? Make a list of ten words that capture the key concepts and techniques of your research approach. Now can you formulate a solution without using any of these terms in the first 5 minutes of your presentation? If so, you may have a chance of landing a contract!  This advice is exaggerated, of course, but only just. Try to think and talk in terms of the client’s language, at home and in your publications you can wallow in all the scientific jargon that you want. Besides being able to frame the problem and solution in the client’s terms, be patient. Acquisition can sometimes take a very long time from the very first conversation to the actual signing of the contract. As stated above, you must have the financial capacity to afford the wait.

– Don’t set rates too low Coming straight out of academia, hourly consultancy rates seem sky-high. Clients know this, and may try to take advantage of it. However, don’t set your rates too low. Being a research consultant, you have many more unbillable hours than others as you have to invest in your research: the time to read the literature, scan the Web, attend conferences, travel, etc. Then there are the hours other freelancers also can’t charge: doing the administration, acquisition, travel to and from clients,  set up your office, and so on. There’s the investments: office, equipment, travel expenses, and so on. You have the full taxes and social insurance to cover, pension to take care of, risks to take. Taking all that into account, your average income may actually be less than what you earned before, definitely in the beginning. So, don’t set your rates too low initially. You may offer an introduction rate for a limited amount of time, but make sure to know and show your worth.

– Plan and track time Even more so than in academia, there is an overwhelming amount of short-term and long-term things-to-be-done. Establishing and running your company, keeping track of numerous projects and clients, and, oh yes, do some research reflection once in a while, forces you to be systematic. Your calendar and to do-list become your best friends. Also, meticulously keep track of time, assigned to specific activities. This is not only useful for billing purposes, but also for getting a feeling of where your time goes, and how to improve your ways of working. There are many different systems. I prefer them Web-based, using Google Calendar as my calendar, Remember The Milk for my to do-s (using Getting Things Done as the organizing methodology), and SlimTimer for keeping track of my time.

– Stay connected to research community One of the joys of academia is the continuous meeting of minds, the sharing of ideas, passions, and good times with kindred spirits. From a more down-to-earth point of view, being an active member of one or more research communities is essential for keeping on top of the state-of-the-art, of growing your ideas and building your reputation. Being a research consultant does not mean you should sever these all-important ties. Keep in touch, remain active in the field by visiting colleagues, attending seminars and conferences, participating on mailing lists, reviewing papers, and publishing.

– Invest in research time and places Set aside a minimum number of hours a week, and the occassional longer period of time for writing a paper or fundamental reflection. Don’t just do this from home, but travel as well, to meet up with research colleagues and friends. If possible, try to get invited as a speaker, which lets them take care of travel and accommodation and reconfirms your reputation as an active member of the field.

– Enjoy it! Last but not least, enjoy it! Setting up your own company, besides being hard work and somewhat risky, should be fun. It can provide you with a priceless sense of freedom, direction, and self-realization, getting yourself very high on Maslow’s pyramid…

Researching with Communities

Researching with Communities: Grounded perspectives on engaging communities in research

Edited by Andy Williamson and Ruth DeSouza

Researching with communities presents a range of personal and grounded perspectives from academics, researchers and practitioners on undertaking research in ways that promote and privilege the voice of the community, is respectful of local or indigenous practices and is culturally safe.

Most definitely not a ‘tick list’ for approaching community-inclusive research, this book provides grounded exemplars, guides and discussion about the experiences of doing research respectfully and inclusively. It does this by drawing on the perspectives of researchers and community practitioners and by providing a range of reflective chapters that explore what community-based research means in a range of settings and for a range of people. Like the communities in which they are grounded, undertaking research in this way is always a unique experience.

This book is a valuable resource for researchers, evaluators, students, community practitioners and policy makers. The international authors cover disciplines from community ICT to health and refugee and asylum seekers to community development.

The book can be ordered online, priced at £24.95. For more information and to order your copy, please visit http://www.lulu.com/content/1550518.