Mapping Research on Urban Sustainability

Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo

Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo

In this guest post by anthropologist Charlotte Johnson, she discusses her perspectives on the PICKs project (published earlier this month in Sustainability: The Journal of Record and available open source).

When asked to ‘map all the research related to cities and resources at UCL’ my first thought was ‘eek’, and not just due to the overwhelming size of the task (UCL has a research body of over 4000 people). But from a critical perspective mapping can be an act of epistemic violence – what gets put on the map and why, who gets to decide on the parameters? For me, a map is an object fraught with imperial overtones not to mention the hubris in attempting to comprehensively represent an ever-shifting landscape.

Continue reading

Active City: MRes Visualisation Projects 2013-2014

The MRes group visualisation projects are complete, and as predicted, rather impressive. This year the theme was “The Active City”, and students took this and ran with it in a variety of ways, whether viewing the activity of mobility-impaired users of the London Underground network, exploring the Thames as a driver of development and cultural activity, or looking at the cultural life of the city through museums and blue plaques.

Continue reading


PICKS-SUST: UCL sustainability research on the theme "Empowerment and Inequality"

PICKS-SUST: UCL sustainability research on the theme “Empowerment and Inequality”

I’m apparently now in the Sustainability field (which is rather exciting): the first paper with my name on it was published in Sustainability: The Journal of Record this month. Anthropologist Charlotte Johnson is first author (I’m the second, and final, author), so that makes me partly sustainable, I suppose. It’s called PICKS: Exploring Post-Disciplinary Knowledge in a University’s Urban Sustainability Research Landscape but it’s really much friendlier than the title suggests. And it’s open access, so you can go ahead and read it (nb: this page plays more nicely with Zotero bookmarks).

Continue reading

MRes Visualisation projects

June is an exciting time in CASA, as our MRes students will be turning in their group visualisation projects, which never fail to dazzle and impress. Our students learn from Andy Hudson-Smith’s 3D skills, Adam Dennett’s GIS know-how, and my Processing datavis chops (such as they are), so the resulting projects are like a giant datavis mecha with all of our powers combined, and the students’ own experience and imagination spicing up the mix (and frequently going well beyond what we’ve taught them).

We won’t see their final projects until next week, but I already have some glimpses of the work they’ve done in response to the various small briefs* they had throughout the term. I thought I would show a few of these off in anticipation of the main event…

Continue reading

Steaming Crossness

IMG_1503After my wander up the Greenway last year, it was exciting to finally see Crossness pumping station in action this weekend. Bazalgette’s sewers were/are gravity-fed, so by the time south London’s sewage reaches the Thames at distant Crossness, it’s some thirty feet underground, and needed to be pumped up to surface level before it could be discharged into the Thames. Fear not, those plucky Victorians waited until the tide was going out; in the meantime, it was stored in a giant sewage reservoir onsite.

While the lake of sewage has been replaced by a field of solar panels*, much of the original building and mechanisms remain, restored by volunteers over a number of years. And yesterday was steaming day, so we got to see one of four giant and colourful beam engines in action.

The building itself is home to some beautiful Victorian ironwork. From April next year, they will be open much more regularly, but until then, there is a list of open days on their website.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*I’ll leave you to insert your preferred glib comparison, or more nuanced insight about bountiful resources and centralised infrastructure, here

Data Visualisation for Public Engagement at #scicomm14

UCL sustainability research around energy (credit: Martin Zaltz Austwick and Charlotte Johnson 2014)

UCL sustainability research around energy (credit: Martin Zaltz Austwick and Charlotte Johnson 2014)

I’m excited to be chairing a session on Data Visualisation for Public Engagement at the British Science Association’s annual Science Communication conference, which is in sunny Guildford this year. It’s not until May, but when you keen scicommers, academics, science journalists, students, museums people and scicurious freelancers sign up, you’ll need to tell the nice people that you want to come to our session and not one of the equally awesome other ones, so I thought I’d get in ahead of time.

Data visualisation (aka “datavis”) is in the news constantly. The British Library are currently running an exhibition of scientific visualisation, books about visualisation and infographics sell by the truckload, and broadsheets and tabloids alike are running data journalism and visualisation blogs. What does this mean for public engagement with research, and science in particular? I’ve put together this session because I want to understand these issues. I’m a lecturer in spatial analysis and visualisation – which means I teach students (mainly from an architecture or geography background) techniques for visualising “human” data (like demographics, transport, twitter data, research funding data) and models (networks, agent-based, cellular automata, neural nets). I think datavis is already having a massive impact in social sciences, but I’m a physicist at heart, and I am really curious about how this all works in the natural sciences.

To this end, I’ve put together what I think is a really exciting panel. Damien George is the most focussed on communicating research outputs from natural science – not only that, but his efforts to map the research landscape in physics articulates what research is for both publics and practitioners. Andrew Steele has done great work visualising government science spending with his Scienceogram, and continues to find ways to communicate and challenge science policy via datavis. Artemis Skarlartidou has worked with communities in mapping potential sites for nuclear waste disposal, and has particular expertise around building trust through visualisation. Together, I want to explore what I think are key questions about datavis – what can it articulate that other ways of communicating cannot? How can it be used for meaningful engagement? Who can use these tools? What opportunities are we missing? And what are the limits of these techniques?

But of course, it won’t just be the panel doing all the talking. Each panellist will discuss datavis in general, and visualisations they’ve worked on, for about ten minutes each, leaving a generous 45 minutes for a decent discussion – technical, ethical, practical, or otherwise. Because datavis is fairly current, I’m expecting a lot of interesting views in the room – but we don’t require attendees to be experts, so even if you don’t know the right end of a visualisation from the wrong one, come along to question, debate and see what the fuss is about.

The session runs from 3.30 on Thursday May 1st - I hope to see you there.

—If you’re a newcomer, I recently wrote a post recommending some introductory books, as well as one which has my thoughts about which languages you might consider using if you want to get into the nitty-gritty programming side of things.

My favourite episode of Global Lab


The Magic of Podcasting

CASA’s homegrown Podcast, The Global Lab is shortly to relaunch with a new team of interviewers appearing alongside the wizened faces (/voices) of Steve Gray, Hannah Fry and Claire Ross (and me, of course). As part of this relaunch, we’re also getting our back catalogue onto Soundcloud and linking to all of those interviews over the last two and a bit years, and getting the original team to give a shout out to their favourite episode as it goes up. Because it’s March, I started to use the #marchOfGlobalLab hashtag, which quickly turned into #theImplacableMarchOfGlobalLab in my mind, thanks to its connotations of an army of podcasters and interviewees.

What have I learned from Global Lab since Steve and I started it in 2011? Well, I arguably already knew a fair bit about podcasts, at least if my share of two Sony awards is to be taken seriously*. I suppose I learned things I already knew, namely that the most important and valuable thing about any endeavour is usually people, and people in demanding jobs with other priorities will struggle with time-consuming things like podcasting. But I’ve also thought about ways to help with that, so I’ll share some of those here for other podcasters.

So, firstly, lower the barrier to entry. The original show format contained a “news section”, which was basically a chat between two hosts, followed by a short interview, then a brief outro. The news section might take half an hour to prepare, an hour to record and two hours to edit. Half a day’s work every fortnight was too much, so we ditched it. Also, a light edit is ok in the right circumstances. Our interviews used to run for 30-60 minutes, edited down to 15-20 minutes (which takes at least two hours unless you’re very fast/experienced) or unedited, which is too long for a casual audience (IMHO). Now we record 20-25 minute interviews and edit very sparingly.

That means interviews have to be well done. Although I’m not an expert interviewer, I love interviewing people. It is fascinating, it’s a real art, and I think I’ve massively improved at it since my first attempts. Making inexperienced interviewees feel at ease is important, and usually the best way to do that is to be better at interviewing – for example, knowing when to interrupt and interject, because then it will feel more like a chat and less like a monologue, and when not too, because it can be offputting. It’s important to know that the interviewer isn’t there to look like an authority on the topic. The interviewer is the voice of the audience, so if I know (or am busy showing I know) too much, I may not ask important questions at the points where the audience is getting lost. I tend to think that the audience aren’t tuning in to hear my personality, but for a show like Global Lab, we have different guests each episode, and the interviewers are the glue that bind things together, so we need to have a little personality. Hopefully not a deplorable excess.

From the perspective of bringing people in as part of the team, I’ve increasingly tried to make the tech easy. Our original workflow led to a really strong web frontend, but the process was a bit complex and not readily transferable. So we’ve reduced edit expectations and are experimenting with a Soundcloud feed. Sometimes the off-the-shelf option is the best. Also, if you have a team, use the team to train each other in the tech, technique and workflow – they will improve by teaching, and the learning process is fresh in their minds when they train someone else.

My current thinking is that getting any ongoing outreach or engagement activity rolling is in great part about finding enthusiastic people and lowering barriers to them starting and continuing, so that it becomes a small bit of their research life that they look forward to! Having a group of people who are keen really helps, as they can support one another. I hope that this normalisation of public engagement, outreach and dissemination as part of the research process will have long-term impacts. I guess we will have to check with the Global Lab team and see what they say a little bit down the line.

I’ve carefully avoided divulging my favourite Global Lab episode to date – possibly the Sounds of Science panel I participated in, but that’s not a proper Global Lab episode, just me talking about microphones and the sound of a shuttle taking off**. I honestly don’t have a favourite interviewee, and it would be a bit unfair to pick if I did. Maybe Nicholas Peroni’s social life of bats, or Jason Dittmer’s nationalist superheroes. Now if only I’d got James Kneale to talk about H P Lovecraft…

*if you haven’t heard of the Sony Awards and therefore struggle to take them, or me, remotely seriously – you are reluctantly forgiven

**it is really good