Mutuality in research

Energysense is the context for innovation in research. Not only in the research that is conducted, but also in the way we enable research and shape the possibilities for creating knowledge. As such, Energysense can be seen as an instance of the ‘changing ecologies of knowledge and action’ that have recently come under academic scrutiny (see among others, the CEKA programme at Oxford). In this blogpost, I reflect on one of the lines of ‘innovation’ we have been developing, focusing on mutuality.

With the aim of making concrete the spirit of mutuality we hold dear, we recently organised an encounter with participants in Energysense. This was the occasion for us to experience a different kind of accountability, one that contrasts sharply with the metrics-rich way of working that now dominates the academic world. In this tense context, it is a true privilege to be part of such a pioneering alternative approach to research and to have the freedom to explore and develop alternatives.

Critiques of the current culture of metrics, for example, the powerful Leiden Manifesto, have provided useful tools for addressing accountability in science policy and in institutional practices. In writing about this event, I hope to show how concrete activities on the ground can further contribute to creating new frameworks for academic work.

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Over the past three years, Energysense has striven to implement a number of values in its activities. For example, privacy-by-design is a guiding principle in developing our ICT and processes, we’ve implemente ‘informed consent as an ongoing relationship’ (rather than a single contractual moment). And in all our communication, we take a personal approach rather than a formal one. Another value is that of mutuality. So far, we’ve implemented this by systematically including an opportunity to comment or ask question or provide feedback in our data gathering. Concretely, this means that there are ‘text boxes’ in our questionnaires and that we always follow-up fully on all input from Energysense participants. This may seem banal, but it at an operational level it requires attention and dedicated staff time—something we’ve been careful to ensure, in spite of our rapid growth, and across times of peak busy-ness.

Come visit us!

Last week, we took mutuality one step further: participants invite Energysense into their home to trace their energy use and behaviour, so in turn we invited participants to come and visit us in Energysense’s ‘home’.

Through our participants newsletter, we invited all current participants (close to 800 households) and received over 70 registrations. On Friday 10 March, we welcomed about 50 participants to our building, the new, award-winning Energy Academy Building at Zernike, the science campus of the University of Groningen.  The programme was varied: mini-lectures from energy researchers, demonstration of energy measurements, a tour of the building and of the energy exhibition Re:charge, as session on participants’ views of privacy and security of Energysense data and a ‘meet and greet’ with the

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Energysense team in our offices. A number of participants also took part in a research interview (q-sort) in the framework of Mufti Hasanov’s PhD project.We ended with a lively reception.

The afternoon was set up so as to allow participants to experience a diversity of aspects of Energysense. We also wanted to maximise the opportunities for interaction, so all activities took place in small groups of about 8-10 participants paired with a member of Energysense.

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With this event, we did our best to show our participants how much we appreciate their input to Energysense. It was also a fantastic opportunity for us to work as a team, each one of us contributing their expertise and skills to make the event a success. As a team, we also ‘exposed’ ourselves to all the participants’ questions, to their inquisitive perusal of our offices, to their advice, (counter-)expertise and criticism.

Accountable!

At the end of the day, we were very pleased but also feeling a bit raw. Why did we feel more exposed, more vulnerable? In spite of how much we try to be open in all our communication about what goes in Energysense, this face-to-face encounter felt closer, more intimate. These activities were therefore precious in revealing what it is that we tend to keep backstage.  Of course there is nothing wrong with work being in progress or in preparation, and we all like to put our best foot forward. But the presence and interaction with our participants created a particular kind of relationship to our research object that is not so present, not so tangible in our daily work–nor in most infrastructural projects for research.

Reflecting on this, I think that last Friday’s encounter with our participants created a particularly intense opportunity and obligation to provide accounts of our work, to be ‘accountable’. All these impressions, this intense experience of an encounter, form a basis for a different kind of accountability. The experience is a deeply enriching one that will stay with us and shape our work.

New course on Big Data

In the academic year 2017-18, I’ll be giving a course to Masters students in Computer Science at the Faculty of Science and Engineering of the University of Groningen. It will replace another elective course that focused on ethics, and I’m hoping that it will provide students with the opportunity to explore epistemological issues around Big Data using STS concepts and approaches. Developing the course is a lot of fun and a great opportunity to consolidate many of the insights we are developing in Energysense. Plus, one of the assignments will be doing an interview, so we’ll touch on some ethnographic skills as well.

Course description

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Data seems to be everywhere in contemporary society.  Precisely because of this ubiquity, it is important to consider how data is created and used, and how it circulates, so that we can understand the implications for business, for private and public life, and for what we know about ourselves and the world.

A new course at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Groningen, will equip students to reflect and act on issues around big data. Big data is a phenomenon that affects all kinds of sectors, from energy to banking to sports to neuroscience. It has a history going back several decades and has been shaped by tools and institutions, with the result that ‘big data’ has its own biases and tendencies. It is therefore crucial to  analyse how big data approaches are a specific way of creating knowledge and how this knowledge is used. In particular, we will trace how new forms of measurement yield data, that are then combined with particular kinds of statistics and database logics.

We will also cover the reasons underlying the hypes and hope around data, the new forms of ‘value’ attached to data, and the emergence of particular movements (‘open data’; neveragain.tech, responsible data science).

A number of skills will be integrated into the course, providing a basis for dealing with data issues as a researcher or professional working intensively with data. This course will enable students to reflect and act, when it comes to issues such as visualisations, design of privacy-enhancing technologies, or the value of correlation.

Museums and the Digital

A nebook_9789089646613_178w collection, edited by Chiel van den Akker and Susan Legêne, is entitled Museums in a Digital Culture: How Art and Heritage Become Meaningful. It has just appeared at the Amsterdam University Press. The table of contents and introduction are available on the AUP website.
Sarah de Rijcke and I have a chapter in the book: Networked Knowledge and Epistemic Authority in the Development of Virtual Museums. It is based on earlier research we pursued in Network Realism.
Material in this article also appears in Image as Interface, Library trends 59 (2011), analyzed from a library and information technology point of view. It has been reworked here with a focus on museums, curation and heritage preservation. We hope this publication will reach a new audience and stimulate cross-overs between media studies, STS and museum studies.

Teaching with Volvo

What is the role of technological promises, and how can we understand them through an anthropological lens?

Beloftes van duurzame innovatie: interactie tussen innovatie, technologie en cultuur

Together with about 20 participants, I addressed these questions in the course of a lecture given as part of the series Anthropologie voor Duurzaamheid, organised by the Impact Academy in spring 2016.

One of the ‘promises’ we analysed together was that contained in this short video by Volvo, in which the car is put forth as an instrument of care–familial, social, environmental. This commercial left no one indifferent!

New publication on Smart Grids coincides with 5th edition Groningen Energy Summer School

29 juni 2016

Every year, the University of Groningen and the Energy Academy Europe organise a summer programme, the Groningen Energy Summer School (GESS). This year, a new collection of writing on smart grids will appear, based on contributions to the GESS editions of 2014 and 2015. It is entitled Smart Grids from a Global Perspective: Bridging Old and New Energy Systems and is edited by Anne Beaulieu, Jaap de Wilde & Jacquelien Scherpen.

The book appears with Springer and contains a number of chapters based on lectures by speakers at the summer school and two based on chapters from dissertations written by participants. The publication appears in the high profile series Power Systems. The collection is thoroughly shaped by the summer school, not only in the composition of its authors and in the interdisciplinary scope of the material covered,  but also in the form of the book: each chapter ends with points for discussions that are based on interactions at the summer school. “GESS is a wonderful example of the way a high-level, interdisciplinary summer school can lead to great publications with prestigious publishers,” commented prof Herman de Jong, leader of the summer school project at the University of Groningen.

The Groningen Energy Summer School for PhDs will see its fifth edition in 2015—with yet another enthusiastic cohort of participants from all over the world and an impressive interdisciplinary programme. Interdisciplinarity is a core value of GESS: participants from all corners of academia take part, from Law to Physics, from Economics to International relations. The summer school offers a unique opportunity to delve into other areas of energy research and to broaden one’s understanding of energy issues. The theme for 2016 is ‘Energy Transition, Geopolitics & Urban Security: Linking Global Networks to Local Needs’

Ït’s very rewarding to see that the power of the summer school has led to such tangible outputs that reach far beyond Groningen,” says Anne Beaulieu, co-editor of the collection and co-coordinator of GESS.

This year’s edition of GESS will take place between 18 and 26 August. The first chapter of the book is freely available.

The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography

A great collection of writing on ethnographic methods is being gathered by the capable hands and minds of Larissa Hjorth, Heather Horst, Anne Galloway & Genevieve Bell.

In a section entitled ‘Debating Digital Ethnography’, I’ll have the pleasure of putting forth a contribution on computational ethnography.

Title: Computational thinking and new modes of ethnography.

Abstract: Ethnographic methods in the context of digital tools and networked relations have been adapted in fascinating ways. In this contribution, I will analyse how computationalisation as a framework (Hayles, 2012) shapes some of the adaptations of ethnographic methods. Using ‘tropes’ as a way of analysing ethnographic accounts, the relation to the ethnographic object, to other ethnographers and to the readers of ethnographic inquiry will be analysed. Computational ethnography is contrasted to other ethnographic approaches that have been crafted in the past decades, such as virtual ethnography and mediated ethnography. Issues around common computational ethnography practices, such as capture, automation, sensing and scraping are analysed.

A new job

Since 1 January, I’ve been leading the programme Energysense. With over 200 households registered, we are well into the pilot phase of this exciting initiative. Energysense is eminently interdisciplinary, and located at the interface between research, infrastructure, innovation and engagement. A wonderful adventure with a great team awaits!