Open Thinkering


Month: February 2022

Weeknote 08/2022

Mysterious smoke visible from our bedroom window. I never did figure out where it came from.

I’m sitting down to write this on Saturday morning. I’ve done nine days straight of 5k runs on the treadmill at the gym, followed by straight-arm pull-ups. I can see my body shape changing before me, which is a good job as (what I was calling) ‘Medium Covid’ was catching up with me around the midriff.

It’s been half-term for the kids this week, and the stormy/windy weather has meant that all of their outside organised activities have either been cancelled, or weren’t on because it’s the school holidays. So they’ve been around a lot while Hannah and I were ostensibly trying to work and have only a couple of days off each. In the end, I averaged about thee hours per day over quite a range of things, as you can see from my Toggl summary below:

Hours I toggld this week

Our son had his second vaccine this week, which we’d purposely scheduled for the holidays after the reaction his body had to it last time. While it wasn’t quite so bad this time, he still had a temperature of 38.7 C and was physically shaking during the night. The week before he’d gone into shock after a repeat injury to his neck/shoulder. Parenting, eh? 🙄

The trouble with not taking off half-term with your kids is that it ends up being the worst of both worlds. I’m not available in large chunks of time to be able to take them places and do interesting things. But neither am I doing enough work to really make it worthwhile.

I think part of the problem is that I’m experimenting with a new ‘shape’ to this year in terms of my work. A different working pattern, if you will. The idea is that I’ll take a month off after every three — so April, August, and December. Realistically, I think that month might be shaved down to three weeks, and I’ll take a week at every half-term.

My sister was up with my niece and nephew this week. We don’t see them often enough, so it was good to hang out with them for a while. I also caught up with a couple of people via Zoom that I haven’t spoken to for a while. They’re both Twitter OGs back from when there was a group of us teachers changing the world through the judicious use of technology. One of them, like me, moved out of teaching a few years ago, and the other is just about to, it seems.

One thing that’s been on my mind quite a lot this week (again!) is logistics for my upcoming trip to the Netherlands. After a lot of thought and, of course, a spreadsheet I’ve worked out that it makes no sense for me to get the ferry instead of fly. I acknowledge and am concerned about the climate emergency, but I’m not spending an extra couple of nights away from my kids for the sake of a few kilograms of CO2. That might sound flippant, but actually the decision has caused me some angst.

We’ve got a gloriously free weekend, so my wife is shopping, our son is volunteering as a steward for the local park run as part of his DofE, and our daughter… is re-watching Paddington 2. I’m writing this weeknote, and then I’ll be putting together this month’s edition of Thought Shrapnel.

We’re planning a bit of a kickabout this afternoon, followed by the usual homemade pizza tonight. Tomorrow, we’re booked into a new place for Sunday lunch where you need reservations well in advance. We’ll then relax watching the cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea as the other three members of my immediate family support Liverpool; I’m neutral.

Next week, the kids are back to school, it’s Shrove Tuesday (pancake day!) and I start my Tethix course on tech ethics, which runs from 20:00 to 23:00 local time. Given I try and be in bed by 22:00 most days, I may be tired on Wednesday mornings over the next few weeks…

Photo taken from our bedroom window. I never did figure out where the smoke came from…

Weeknote 07/2022

Replacing the batteries in my UPS

This year seems to be accelerating, and it’s not like I began this year from a standing start. When I look at my calendar for the next few weeks, I’m doing some work in person in a different country for the first time in over two years, planning to walk Hadrian’s Wall, and going on holiday abroad with my family for the first time in what seems like forever.

These are the kinds of things that I would have previously taken somewhat in my stride. However, the pandemic seems to have narrowed my horizons and aged me a little. Perhaps it’s all in my head, though, and once I get out there again everything will be fine. I hope so. The good news is that I’m feeling a lot fitter and stronger than before; it seems that my ‘Medium Covid’ has come to an end. I ran for 20 minutes on the treadmill on Friday, no problems at all.

There have been storms this week which have meant that a lot of our kids’ activities have been called off or postponed. My UPS decided that this would be a good week to serve up an annoying warning (signalled by a long continuous tone) meaning that the battery needed replacing. Thankfully, we weren’t without power at any point this time around. Changing the battery in the UPS was like some kind of open-heart surgery, but with more electricity!

Living in the very north of England, it’s interesting to me to see the media reaction to the storms. Storm Arwen before Christmas knocked out the power for a million people up here, some for over a week. No response or help from the government. The media report it in passing. This week, Storms Dudley and Eunice hit the south? Front-page news, government response, and general panic. Just goes to show where priorities lie. I hope we remember these kinds of things when it comes to election time.

On the work front this week, I’ve written a few things including some responses to questions about ‘growth’ and how we think about it at a co-op like WAO. I also published a post about some interesting findings from the user research I’m doing for the Zappa project. Laura sorted out the editing for the podcast episode on misinformation we recorded, and published an excellent post on the WAO blog about setting open standards for a project.

The latter was for Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation that’s got some funding to create a new Creative Climate Digital Platform. We’ve helped them with digital strategy and hiring their first Product Manager, but progress is slower than we’d like. As a result, we’ve outlined what we need to see happen in the next few weeks so that we don’t have to pause work on the project for a while.

Our work around Keep Badges Weird with Participate is going great guns and is a wonderful example of what you can do with people who work openly, who trust you, and who are willing to deviate from an initial plan. From an idea around resurrecting an email-based course on Open Badges, we’ve pivoted with Mark (CEO) and Julie (CLO) to create a community of practice with associated badges that is now almost 200-strong. Our first community call was this week, and we agreed on plans this week to do something with the domain (which currently just redirects to the WAO website).

Our work with Greenpeace continues, with the web strategy project ticking over nicely and the project which cannot be named entering its next phase. What both of these projects has reminded me is how important it is to align with the client on why you’re doing the work and the objectives you’re trying to achieve together. Once they’re agreed, everything else follows.

The work that I’m doing separately to the co-op at the moment, through Dynamic Skillset, is user research for Bonfire team on the Zappa project. This is an attempt to counter misinformation and disinformation on federated social networks, especially related to the ‘infodemic’ (as they put it). I’ve spoken to some really interesting people this week, from end users to technologists and philosopher-technologists. The latter is the way I’d describe Cade and Benjamin from The New Design Congress. I’ve got a lot of reading to do after speaking with them on Friday!

In addition to user research, I’m also helping Ivan think through the user interface of Bonfire Social. There’s a lot more reflecting I need to do once I’ve read, for example, Aesthetic Flattening, but one breakthrough we had was thinking about design patterns in existing social networks and what works and what doesn’t.

For example, Mastodon’s default UI mirrors that of Twitter to a great extent, lumping together what I would describes as verbs (notifications) and nouns (timelines) as if they are similar things. With Bonfire, there were two sets of three icons in a row which was confusing. In conversation with Ivan, we agreed that using Pleroma’s approach of a dropdown for users to switch between timelines would make a lot more sense. I’m no designer, but I have thought a lot about the conservation of attention in my work on MoodleNet. (Ivan was also designer and front-end developer for that project)

There’s a lot more we can do and learn in this area, and I think UI/UX considerations will be a key element of the Zappa project. I’m going to dig into Simply Secure’s work around UX patterns in decentralised networks as part of my research.

Next week is half-term for my kids so I’ll be taking one full day off (Wednesday) and one morning (Monday). The latter involves my daughter playing for Newcastle United’s development squad against Sunderland’s Regional Talent Centre (RTC). My daughter would very much like to get into the RTC so it’s an important match for her. I’m also looking to do some walking to up my capacity for this Hadrian’s Wall walk, which is weighing a little heavy on my mind at the moment.

Image of half-way through replacing the batteries in my UPS.

Some interesting findings from user research for the Zappa project (so far!)

Squirrels around a bonfire

One of the things about working openly is, fairly obviously, sharing your work as you go. This can be difficult for many reasons, not least because of the human tendency toward narrative, to completed stories with start, middle, and end.

The value of resisting this tendency and sitting in ambiguity for a while is that allows for slow hunches to form and serendipitous connections to be made. So it is with user research I’m doing as part of the Zappa project for the Bonfire team. We need time to talk to lots of different types of people who meet our criteria, and to spend some time reflecting on what they’ve told us.

As I wrote in my previous post about the project, we’d identified some of the following:

  • a list of people we can/should speak with
  • themes of which we should be aware/cognisant
  • groups of people we should talk with

Inevitably, since this initial work, we’ve come up with some obvious gaps in the people we should speak to (UX designers!). The people we’ve spoken with have recommended other people to contact as well as avenues of enquiry to follow. This is such an interesting topic that we need to be careful that the project doesn’t grow legs and run away with us…

10 interesting things people have told us so far

We haven’t started synthesising any of what our user research participants have said so far, but as we’re around halfway through the process of conducting interviews, I thought it might be worth sharing 10 interesting things they’ve told us. These are not any any particular order.

  • Countering misinformation is time-consuming — to fact-check articles takes time and by the time the result is published the majority of the people who were going to read it have done so anyway.
  • Chat apps — public social networks are blamed for not dealing with mis/disinformation but some of the most problematic stuff is being shared via messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
  • Difference between human and bot accounts — it’s possible to reason with a human being but impossible to do with a bot account.
  • Metaphor of adblock list — a way of reducing the burden of moderation on administrators and moderators* of a federated social network instance by creating a more systematised version of something like the #Fediblock hashtag.
  • Subscribing to moderator(s) — delegating moderation explicitly to another user, perhaps by automatically blocking/muting whatever they do.
  • Different categories of approaches — for example, reputational solutions that deal with trusted parties, technical solutions that prove something hasn’t been tampered with, and process-based solutions which make transparent the context in which the content was created and transmitted.
  • Visualising connections — visualising the social graph could make it easier to spot outlier accounts which may be less trusted than those that lots of your other contacts are connected to.
  • Fact-checking platforms can be problematic — they promote an assumption that there is a single ‘Truth’ and one version of events. They can be useful in some instances but also be used to present a distorted view of the world.
  • Frictionless design — by ‘decomplexifying’ the design of user interfaces we hide the system behind the tool and the trade-offs that have been made in creating it.
  • Disappearing content — content that no longer exists can be a problem for derivative works / articles / posts that reference and rely on it to make valid claims.

It’s been fascinating to see the different ways that people have approached our conversations, whether from a technical, design, political, scientific, or philosophical perspective (or, indeed, all five!)

Next steps

We’ve still got some people to talk with next week, but we are always looking to ensure a diverse range of user research participants with a decent geographical spread. As such, we could do with some help identifying people located in Asia (yes, the whole continent!) who might be interested in talking about their experiences, as well as people from minority and historically under-represented backgrounds in tech.

In addition, we could also do with talking with people who have suffered from mis/disinformation, any admins or moderators of federated social network instances, and UX designers who have a particular interest in mis/disinformation. You can get in touch via the comments below or at: [email protected]