Going Down The PhD Rabbit Hole


For the interview for my PhD program the head of the Mixed Reality Lab Steve Benford and Holger Schnädelbach sat on the panel and gave me a grilling while being quite nice about it. Considering I’d put the application in about 2 hours before the deadline and I’d mentioned in the application I wanted to do a PhD because of Top Gear, I was surprised I got an interview.

During the interview I was asked about projects I worked on, I spoke about counting flamingos with mobile phones and spending too few a time with the Map Kibera project. On asking my research interests I cobbled together something about interactions with crisis maps and the emerging field of crisis mapping. Then they asked me if I wanted to ask any questions so I asked about the opportunities of studying abroad. It seemed as if five minutes had passed, whereas 30 minutes had gone by.

We then went for a tour of the facilities, saw the after which, I caught the train home. I wasn’t hopeful for a place, afterwards things started to ruminate, “I should have said this differently/mentioned that/not said that” etc etc. I went back to the lab where I was finishing the dissertation for my masters and just got on with it. I got an email the next day asking if I wanted a four year place, unconditionally. That was a happy day.

I’m framing the history of how I got the place onto the PhD program because I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about the PhD and its processes. When presenting my viva I presented questions regarding the automation of trust in crisis reports. The idea being that the crowd is submitting reports to platforms like Ushahidi and other forms of social media, but not all of it can be trusted. What can we do to resolve these issues?

This came about due to one of the DTC’s staff asking me “What is your dependent variable?”. To which I pondered, thought around it and came up with measuring some mcguffin that would reduce the error in the reports. I hadn’t come up with a methodology, I figured I’d work one out as I went along.

Along these lines I started to think about the spatio-temporal distribution of reports. Could the reports be categorised by understanding the locality of where the report originates. At first glance yes, then understanding how people report becomes important. I was originally intending to look at crises like the 2007 Kenyan election crisis, the 2010 Egyptian elections; by understanding the the features of the reports made during the aftermath of these problems could that inform the understanding of future data.

However in these countries permeation of technology isn’t as high as in Western world. While Kenya and Huawei have introduced the IDEOS Andorid phone with GPS, 3G and all the features you would expect on a smartphone, cheap Nokias and generic Chinese phones still dominate the market. This would mean that the reports would need to be geo-located without a GPS; therefore relying on enough geo-information with which to place the report. This wouldn’t be the time to talk at length on vernacular geographies, I’ll leave that Julian Rosser and Tim Waters, but it would be fair to say locating a place precisely from the vernacular is quite difficult.

Presuming that I would be able to geolocate reports, how would the analysis – my new and novel contribution work? I had planned to look at time-series analysis, moving on to agent based models and bayesian networks to classify the reports. From this I would hopefully have a toolkit/method to automate the assignment of trust/reduce the uncertainty in the reports.

The missing link however, was that after people have made the reports and the trust/uncertainty value is assigned, then what? The Ushahidi platform is widely used to map crises but is used to map power cuts, count flamingos. However I have not found (and this is open invitation for anyone to make me aware of such content) how Ushahidi’s (political) crisis mapping has been used to complete a feedback loop. By this I mean end to end delivery of service. For example a bomb has exploded causing panic. The responders then used this information to gain situational awareness of the issue to provide the appropriate response. This research could possibly take the form of an ethnographic analysis of a crisis situation, a human factors study of the sense making/situational awareness requirements a framework of the interactions between the technology and humans in a HCI-esque study.

Within the research literature this analysis doesn’t exist, due to this I have no foundation to say how good my work would be. In my search for a dependent variable, I’ve ended up without one, and at a dead end. So what now? In hindsight most of this wasn’t good idea, however a common issue faced by those starting a PhD is that we don’t have 20:20 hindsight.

Before going on a sojourn to Tanzania for the Tandale mapping project I had the meeting with supervisors to discuss my thoughts. They agreed with what I had said, asking the way forward. From this I now intend to look at the role of technology in mapping in deprived environments. This will take an ethnographically informed approach to create a framework how how such mapping can be used for a feedback loop of service delivery.

In English and not academic psycho-babble this means I will look at the emergent field of community participation for mapping (like Map Kibera, Map Mathare and, now, Map Tandale among others), the technology requirements for supporting these activities and if new tools can be created to improve these activities. Any new tools would then be tested against each other, creating a dependent and independent variables. Thus an output/novel contribution would be an empirical study where one tool is better than the other is analysed supported by other research (policy orientated) on the different methods creating the tools.

In taking this approach I hope to inform the process of service provision either by adapting tools or creating my own. It may seem like starting at square one, however understanding the process of a PhD and the right questions to ask weren’t covered in previous education. My view of the PhD is still one of reverence but by reading theses, going through the supervision process I have a rare moment of clarity in that I know what I need to do next. So time for a Kilimanjaro, unfortunately at the Hyatt.

Written and submitted in the World Bank Offices, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (-6.81298, 39.29194)

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Author: Mark Iliffe

Traveller, Programmer, Geospatialist and Motorcyclist

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