Day in the Life of an academic: the sabbatical edit

People keep asking me what I do on my sabbatical, so I thought that it would be fun to do a ‘Day in the Life’ post. This is what I got up to on Wednesday.

IMG_6920I wake up about half an hour before my alarm went off, with the sun streaming through the bedroom window. I love it when the day starts like this! I spend some time mentally preparing for the day ahead, and then check my e-mail, the news and Twitter. Then, it is time to get everybody out of bed, and ready for their day, too.

As I am working from home, there is no commute. So, at 8h01m I am sitting at my desk, coffee cup refilled, and ready to start working. I choose a playlist for my first working session, and put my headphones on. This morning, Ludovico Einaudi keeps me company while I work on the outline of a research project that Jon Mendel and I are trying to put together regarding the social consequences of algorithmic decision-making. This takes longer than I had anticipated (it always does!), so it is only at 11h09m that I am able to send off the draft document to Jon.

I take a look at my pedometer and cringe: the morning is nearly gone and I only clocked in 1,002 steps. The downside of working from home is that I do move very little (unless I make an effort otherwise). I decide to pause for some tea and to stretch my legs. Ten minutes later, I am back at my desk, this time looking for sources of research funding. There is an increasing pressure on academics to obtain external funding for their research (as exemplified by the very sad case of Professor Grimm, at Imperial), and my employer is no exception.

At 12h30m I decide to get some lunch. Unusually, I have no leftovers, so I cook something. While lunch is cooking, I reply to some e-mails and check Feedly. I eat standing up, as I have been sitting all morning, and my back is hurting. (I am very envious of my good friend Angie’s office setting).


At 12h55 I am back at my desk, with an espresso. During my sabbatical, I have been investing some time, everyday, in professional development activities such as learning something online, attending a workshop, or reading something I wouldn’t usually read. Today, I decide to watch videos from the Quantified Self in a Sustainable Society event, as this is a topic that I am curious about, and watching the videos seems to be an effective way of quickly bringing myself to speed with what is happening in this area.

IMG_6925It is now 13h40m. I choose a new playlist (I am going for Script, this time, to help me through the after lunch slump), and I settle down to work on a paper. At 2h55m the alarm reminds me that I need to get ready to pick up the youngest from school. I grab a snack, and head off. On my way there, I listen to an HBR ideacast podcast. I find podcasts a great way to keep up with what is happening in the world of management and technology, or to extend my knowledge (e.g., with the Intelligence Squared or the Philosophy Bites podcasts).

I am back home at 4 o’clock. While I supervise homework, I answer a few more e-mails, and check social media for about 20 minutes. Then, I do a bit more work on the paper, but as I am a bit distracted, I opt for a low effort task: inserting references and general editing. At 6 o’clock I go to the gym for a quick circuits session.


After the children are in bed, I work for another 2 hours, mostly sorting out admin, and preparing for the meeting that I am having tomorrow.

This is very typical day, for me, in terms of hours worked, and the pattern (e.g., stopping work to pick up the children from school, but do a bit more work when they are in bed). However, as you may imagine, the pace and the actual activities are very different from what I do outside of the sabbatical. For instance, I would spend a lot (!) more time dealing with e-mails and admin work, and I would struggle to find so much time to look for funding. Also, I would have no time for regular professional development activities, which frustrates me as I am a naturally curious person, who likes to keep learning new things and developing new skills.

How do you find (or create) time and opportunities for professional development?

Young Saudi females and their smartphones

That picture of a 13 year old’s mobile home screen reminded me of a really interesting paper written by Sunila Lobo and Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood (who is a whizz about all things mobile) on how young female Saudis use their smartphones. The paper is available here, though, unfortunately, it is behind a paywall.


The research was conducted 4 or so years ago, which is a long period of time in terms of mobile technology development. However, as there is so little research on the habits of this interesting group of users, and given that habits change more slowly than gadgets, the findings are still very valuable.


Saudi Arabia is a very conservative nation with strict – and very restrictive – rules regarding participation of women in society. But it is also a nation with a very young population, with high disposable income and who have embraced mobile technology. So, Sunila and Silvia set out to study smartphone usage and attitudes among young Saudi women, and this is what they found.


In common with their Western counterparts, young Saudi women identified very strongly with their handsets, which, together with selected applications (e.g., camera), were key for the development of their digital personas. The devices were always on and easily accessible – including by the bedside or in the bathroom. Smartphones were a fundamental part of these young women daily routines, from organising their social lives, to entertainment or note taking (e.g., in classes). Again, messaging seemed to be more widely used than voice communication.


The authors reported the ubiquitous use of applications of a religious nature, such as access to texts from the Koran or alerts for daily prayer times, which is not so prevalent among young Western users of mobile technology. Another difference seemed to be in terms of brand preference: at the time of the study, Blackberry had a market penetration rate among this group 77% higher than in the US, overall.


According to this study, however, the main difference between young female Saudi consumers and their western counterparts was the attitude towards privacy. The young Saudi women that participated in this study were very comfortable with government surveillance. They deemed that the government had the right – or, indeed, the duty – to monitor mobile communications, alongside fixed phone communications or Internet browsing behaviour, for national security purposes. However, they objected to their mobile activity monitored by friends and family (as many young Western women would). The mobile was seen by these consumers as key to navigate the complex restrictions imposed on their domestic, work and social lives, and they valued being able to control who sees or knows what, among their relatives and peers.


So, while there is very little in common between the Western and the Saudi societies at a macro level, it seems that there are many similarities in terms of how young women use and relate to their mobile handsets. And while these two groups of consumers may be poles apart regarding how they view government surveillance, they share a desire to control their online presence and informational privacy.


What are your thoughts about this research?

Who needs a phone, anyway?

teenhomescreen.jpg-largeOh, I love this – it is a screenshot of this man’s 13 year old daughter’s iPhone home screen. Within easy reach are:

  • Camera
  • Instagram
  • Text messaging
  • Web browser

Less accessible (i.e., tucked away within a folder) are:

  • iTunes
  • Pinterest
  • Snapchat
  • Youtube

And nowhere to be seen:

  • Facebook
  • and… Phone!

I suspect this reflects the mobile habits of many teens. It certainly reflects my teen’s (except, maybe, for Snapchat), who would happily do without her iPhone, but will not leave home the room without her iPod.

Some thoughts that this screenshot inspired in me, in relation to marketing to this group of consumers, include:

  • Who needs a phone, anyway? – This group wants web-enabled mobile devices, not phones;
  • Show me, don’t tell me – Images are key in how this age group experiences the world, makes sense of their experiences, and interacts with each other;
  • Do you really want me to like your Facebook page? – If you target this age group, your days of feeling frustrated with Facebook and how it makes life difficult for you may be over sooner rather than later. Hooray;
  • Emoticons everywhere – These little drawings can pack a lot of meaning and really enhance communication in this era of small screens and limited characters. If we are mining social media data for customer insight, we need to find a way of including emoticons in our analysis.

What else did you find interesting in this snapshot of a teen’s mobile?

Spotted elsewhere: The Trust Engineers


A podcast episode from RadioLab about how Facebook’s Protect and Care team (formerly known as the Trust Engineering team) tweak this social network’s interface to make it a more trusted and friendlier environment.


Retweeted by ‘New Social Media, New Social Science?’, aka NSMNSS (Twitter feed here). As per NSMNSS’s website, this organisation ‘brings together academics, researchers and research stakeholders to address (…) questions posed by the increasing use of social media and social media data in social science research’. It was this network that curated, crowd-sourced and launched the book “Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries” (affiliate link) that I mentioned here.

So what?

On the surface, this podcast episode is about what leads people to report Facebook photos, and how the company deals with those complaints. In reality, however, this episode is a treasure trove of reflections on:

  • Complaining behaviours and communication – e.g., how intention to report or to remove offending pictures varies with wording
  • Nudging and social engineering
  • Online vs. offline communication
  • Experimentation on social platforms – apparently, at any one moment, any given Facebook user is part of 10 experiments at once, without our knowledge
  • Research in academia vs. industry
  • The ethics of experiments

Grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy this thought provoking podcast. Afterwards, let me know your thoughts about this podcast.


New book: The Private Security State

I am delighted to let you know about the publication of the book “The Private Security State? Surveillance, Consumer Data and the War on Terror”. This book is the outcome of a large research project led by Professor Kirstie Ball, at the Open University, and which I was part of.

private security state

This project looked at the use of commercial data for national security purposes, with a focus on the implications for the firms that participate in those schemes. In the book, we consider two national security initiatives, namely the Anti Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing programme which screens financial transactions in order to detect and prevent criminal activity, and the eBorders programme which monitors the movements of people across the UK borders. The book outlines, in considerable detail, the impact of these two schemes for the firms’:

  • Information systems infrastructure
  • Customer service levels
  • Relationships with key stakeholders
  • Staff training
  • Operations


The book also includes an overview of the theories and frameworks used in the study, as well as the research design.


The book comes out on March 25th. More information here.

Not so fast – Learning about audience engagement at a speed awareness course

In the period leading up to Christmas, I was caught driving just above the speed limit. Instead of getting a fine and points deducted from my driving licence, I was offered a chance to attend a Speed Awareness Course. I did attend the course, and I did learn a thing or two about speed limits. For instance, I learned that a series of street lights placed at no more than 200 yards from each other, in a built up area, indicates a speed limit of 30 miles per hour (unless otherwise indicated, for instance by a 20 mph sign – more here). Interestingly, though, the course also showed me a few principles about audience engagement, which I am going to copy for my own teaching and public speaking practice.


  1. Acknowledge the mood in the room

There were 23 people in the room. Twenty-three people that did not want to be there. Twenty-three people that resented giving up four hours of their lives (and a lot of money). Twenty-three people who were sure they knew everything, already (we estimated that there were more than 500 years of driving experience in that room).

The trainers acknowledged the mood right from start, for instance by saying things like ‘I know that you would rather be elsewhere on this Monday, afternoon’. Another way was to ask a series of anonymous questions about perceptions and attitudes, and displaying the results. This served a number of purposes:

  • It normalised the situation – once you saw that everybody in that room, and in previous sessions, felt the same, you felt more relaxed;
  • It set expectations about the importance of honesty during the session, including with yourself and about what you did not know;
  • As the questions were repeated at the end of the session, this gave the tutors an instant assessment of the change and, therefore, how effective the session had been.

Two other things that the instructors did and that I thought were particularly effective at dealing with the mood in the room was to:

  • Empathise with the audience, by referring to situations where they felt the same;
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person. They mentioned several times that driving above a safe speed was dangerous. But, equally, they said several times that it did not mean that we were bad drivers or, indeed, bad persons.
  1. Focus on one take away message

The session was clearly about one message: do not drive above the safe speed level. Every piece of information and example were geared towards that end, and supported it. For instance, when we talked about road signs, we only talked about those relating to speed; and when we talked about road conditions, it always about how those impacted on safe speed levels.

Roughly the session was structured this way:

  • Clarify audience perceptions about safe speed levels
  • Show (not tell) why driving just a couple of miles above the limit is dangerous for others as well as you (e.g., what happens to your internal organs, if you come to a sudden stop)
  • Explore why we drive over the limit
  • Discuss how we can ensure that we drive at a safe speed

Occasionally, there would be references about how people could find more information about related topics such as road or car safety. But the conversation stayed firmly within one topic.

I am entirely guilty of trying to cram too much content into one single talk, or blog post, or lesson. This is because I want to share all I know with the audience. However, I can see that by trying to give the audience ‘more value’, I may be actually confusing them. I suppose this is one of those cases of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

  1. Make it highly interactive

The mixture of topic (dry) and audience (unwilling) means that the default attention span in the room was quite low. To deal with this, the tutors first instructed us to put our mobile phones away and were very clear about the negative consequences of failing to do so. Then, they made the session highly interactive by interspacing short bursts of content with:

  • Questions (and answers), sometimes to the audience, sometimes by the audience
  • Group discussions (for instance, about a driving scenario)
  • Short tasks (e.g., fill a short form)
  • Videos
  • Surveys via audience response systems

I was quite impressed with the use of the audience response systems. It was a quick and non-intimidating way of gauging the audience’s opinion on something (for instance, attitudes towards speeding, as I mentioned earlier), as well as a great way of gauging knowledge levels about some sub-topics… and, then, adapting the delivery, accordingly. Now if only I could I find a system that is as interactive and anonymous as the automated response system, but more flexible and less expensive to use in my classes. Maybe using mobile phones… Any ideas?

Spotted elsewhere: Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Reddit AMA


An AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on Reddit. Sir Tim Berners-Lee not only invented the World Wide Web (WWW), but also made it freely available, thus giving up any royalties. He is, without a doubt, one of my personal heroes.


Posted by @Wired, on Twitter.

So what?

The AMA session with Sir Tim Berners-Lee (which is archived here) was on the topic of the future of technology. At one point, user bhalp1 asked Sir Tim what he though about the harassment and threats faced by many women on the Internet, to which the WWW inventor replied:

I think that the mistreatment/abuse/harassment of women is a very serious issue. I think in general boys need to learn early on to have and to show total respect for all women. If you look back at your online behavior and realize you have made even one off-color remark, then cringe and never do it again. It has a massive negative affect. It is not funny. It is not cute.

Maybe it is predictable that Sir Tim Berners-Lee would say so. Maybe it won’t make a difference to many current online trolls. Still, I loved that he took such a clear stance against the mistreatment of women, not just online but in general. I only wish he had gone beyond saying that the person making such a comment should ‘cringe and never do it again’ to actually say that s/he should take very concrete steps to repair the harm caused, because misogyny is not a victimless crime.


What caught your eye on the web, this week?