What is your position and role at the University?
I joined the Horizon Digital Economy Institute in the Computer Science Department in 2009, as a Research Fellow, more recently Senior Research Fellow. I spent eight years there, studying emerging digital technologies from a sociological perspective. In October 2017 I began a three year Nottingham Research Fellowship, based in the School of Sociology. During the Fellowship I’ll be exploring the implications of Internet of Things technologies and the data they create for life in the home. Conducting the Fellowship from a base in Sociology is allowing me to access expertise here in areas such as family life and science and technology, and integrate that with the interdisciplinary networks I developed during my time at Horizon.
Why did you apply for a Fellowship?
There were a couple of factors which really drew me to the Fellowship. Having a fellowship meant taking complete control of my research for three years, without having to concern myself with institutional commitments. What was particularly exciting about the NRF was the opportunity to transition into a lecturing position afterwards. I am interdisciplinary academic, both by training (my PhD was in Science and Technology Studies) and by practice, having worked with computer scientists, psychologists and engineers throughout my career. While this is increasingly a necessity for a successful research career today, it becomes problematic when seeking a permanent position as a lecturer, given that teaching remains -for the time being at least – largely monodisciplinary. Transitional positions like those offered by the NRF are becoming an increasingly vital stepping-stone for researchers to make the switch to lecturer.
Nottingham was key to my Fellowship proposal. My experience in the Computer Science Department here over the last eight years has given me a network of cross-discipline contacts out of which the proposal grew. It taught me how to successfully collaborate across different fields, and – crucially – exposed me to cutting edge developments in computer science. Research going on at Nottingham, through projects such as Databox (a personal data ‘vault’ which gives individuals ownership of their digital data, rather than corporations and governments), are seeking to radically change the relationship we have with our ‘digital footprints’. It is technologies such as this which inspired my Fellowship. Looking further ahead, my cross-disciplinary networks at Nottingham will be key for generating exciting new funding bids to carry on the research beyond the Fellowship.
How would you explain your research?
At the heart of my Fellowship proposal was the concept of interpersonal data, which I developed during my time at Horizon. For decades we have drawn on the notion of personal data as a means of managing aspects of the digital world and its impacts on us. In recent years the generation of digital data has exploded – in quantity, reach, granularity – and personal data is now a cornerstone of the digital economy, the resource mined by some of the largest companies on Earth. Not only does personal data offer huge commercial opportunities for the Googles and the Facebooks who capture it, and access to services for us in exchange, but it also generates many challenges and threats. As societies we have fought to control these developments through means such as the EU’s ‘Right to be Forgotten’ law.
My work considers the implications of a new class of technologies which are now being embedded in the fabric of the world around us. These ‘Internet of Things’ technologies present a discrete set of challenges for managing data. Unlike current technologies such as smartphones and laptops, which exist as discrete devices tied to an individual, IoT technology can be nearly anywhere, collecting data at any time. In shared spaces such as family homes, this means that data is being generated which is not about individuals, but groups. As this interpersonal data becomes increasingly visible to us, through new services and new laws which seek to increase transparency, the boundaries between what is private, public, hidden, and shared, becomes increasingly porous. Over a hundred years ago the German sociologist Simmel observed that if society operated without secrets, it would be unrecognisable from the one we know. My work is concerned with the mapping the trajectory of technologies seemingly moving us in the direction of such a world.
How will your research affect the average person?
The developments I’m studying are rapidly becoming a part of our everyday domestic lives. Devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home have become commonplace in a short space of time, and seek to become the nucleus of a smart home which will surround us with IoT technologies. It remains to be seen how much of the hype will be realised, but the reality of a world of pervasive data collection is already with us, and understanding how we are adopting those technologies into our lives, and the consequences, is the first step towards managing them in a way which is socially beneficial. The cost of getting it wrong will be considerable, both for individuals and society.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Know what you’re getting yourself in for! Research is a fantastically exciting area to be in at times, and offers you a degree of personal agency which is incredibly rare in the world of work today. With that agency though comes a great deal of responsibility, and that can be a strain. The greatest cost is of course the insecurity of the job, and unless you are willing to put up with the disruption this entails periodically, or are extraordinarily successful with sourcing funding, you need to always have an ‘escape plan’ at the back of your mind. By the end of the Fellowship I’ll have spent a decade in research, and would not have changed it for the world, but it is the right time to seek a more secure position – even if that comes with a reduction in the freedom I’ve enjoyed as a researcher! Having a successful research career and then moving into lecturing requires finding ways to be accomplished both as an interdisciplinary and monodisciplinary academic – ultimately that is the challenge to overcome.