Category Archives: Uncategorized

Back to the Classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I’d be interested in running a workshop for year 12 students as part of the ESRC* Festival of Social Science.  This was organised as part of the University of Southampton’s Learn with US (Outreach) programme which I’d quite like to do more work with in the future.  The theme of the workshops was looking at how technology, and mobile phones and devices in particular, are being used in social science research.  As part of my research, I’m looking at networks and network (or graph) theory, so I thought I could have a go at teaching that.  I find networks fascinating, AND I knew I had some excellent resources that could be adapted for use with students, so why not?

I’m also really keen on promoting the idea that a) computer science is for women too, b) web science is an excellent way of combining the social sciences with computer science, and c) age is no barrier.  A teacher who was accompanying a group of students also told me that, as well as being a role model for girls, I was also showing students why being able to write code was so important as it could have a real practical benefit.

I really miss being in the classroom.  Why will be the subject of another blog post, but suffice to say that, for me, there’s something exhilarating about putting things together (in this case, a PowerPoint and some handouts to guide students the through some actual hands-on work) so that I can deliver knowledge in a way that I hope is interesting.  I like being in charge, in my own space, directing my own personal show.  It’s also a really good chance for me to consolidate my own learning, which is one of the benefits of teaching.

The students were, of course, excellent.  They were made up of groups from several schools – one or two local, others from further afield.  It was really interesting to observe how different as groups they were from one another, which I assume reflects both the socio-economic background they were drawn from (and is almost certainly directly related to the catchment area of the school) and the ethos of the school itself.  The interactions between them, them and their teachers, and with me was markedly different from session to session.  Having only taught in one school before (and not really being detached enough to just observe), it was a fascinating experience for me.  It was, though, overwhelmingly positive and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I’m sure they left with a positive view of the University of Southampton, and I hope they were inspired by my workshop, and the others they attended.

By the way, the resources I used were borrowed and adapted from the ‘Power of Social Networks’ MOOC** that has just finished on Futurelearn.  It’ll be repeated though, if you fancy a dabble into the world of social networks.

*Economic & Social Research Council

**Massive Open Online Course



This time last week, I was probably on an aircraft waiting to fly back to Gatwick, following five days in Rome.  It seems like a long time ago now.


He’s got wood.

You really can’t take more than three steps in Rome without stumbling over some ancient ruins.  They’re everywhere.  Often, they’re just some pillars, supported by metal bands and standing among weeds and rubble, usually up against more contemporary buildings.  I don’t doubt that just a few feet beneath the pavements, so much more remains undiscovered.  The point is, you can see so much without paying a penny, like the Trevi Fountain, which is pretty much what we did.

I didn’t bother to do any specific research before I went.  I watched Mary Beard’s series on BBC4 when it was broadcast.  I wanted to just look, and take it all in.  And it really is spectacular.  My general photos are here.  The river you can see is the river Tiber – the Tiber!  I don’t know why this excited me so much, but it did.  I wish I’d kept up with Latin, though.  Just the street names can tell you so much, but I might have been able to read some of the inscriptions and graffito.

Anyway, out hotel was this one, which was central for everything and very comfortable.  Mind you, it was a bit inconsistent.  My room was right at the top, with my very own balcony, and very spacious for a single room.  Wifi was pretty near impossible to get, though.  My travelling companions had single rooms each, both of which were smaller than mine (although one had a queen(?) sized bed and a door that was incredibly difficult to open.  The other was more like a cupboard and had a leaking bidet.  And none of our rooms were in the hotel we originally booked, which was this one.  For some reason, they’d made a mistake and had to move us.  The Helvazia was more central, but further away from the Colosseum and the conference venue which is the reason one of us was there in the first place.


Even had a lime tree…

In fact, the mistake with the hotel booking came at the end of a day that had started with the rail strike meaning that I had to get a taxi to the station because my train was cancelled, then the aforementioned taxi hit a cyclist who had come tearing out from a park straight across the road (and was wearing his earphones….), and then the train to Gatwick was cancelled as well so we ended up getting another taxi (fifty quid each) to the airport because we didn’t want to take any more chances with public transport.  Sigh.

I didn’t find Rome as expensive as I thought it would be, which probably says more about how prices have risen generally than anything else.  We are really well (apart from the last evening, which was ok but not up to the standard of previous choices).  We ate here (which was my favourite, and by far the cheapest, especially with wine at 7 euros a litre) on the first evening; lunched here on Thursday (lovely, freshly cooked food but very uncomfortable seating if you have anything other than a small bottom); a Sicilian restaurant Melo on Thursday evening; and here on Friday evening.  The Constanza was something special.  Not only was the food and wine excellent, but the restaurant itself is partially in the remains of a Roman theatre.  Saturday was a bit of a disappointment.  We wanted to go to a place that made pizzas fresh and right in front of you, but unfortunately it was full, complete with queue of people waiting for a table


The Tiber!

Two spectacular places we did pay to visit were the Colosseum and Trajan’s Market.  My Colosseum pictures are here.  Trajan’s market (photos here) was originally directly linked with the Colosseum.  The magnificent horse sculptures you can see are modern, and part of a touring public exhibition, the Lapiderium.  Given that I hard a tour guide say that more  ‘exotic’ animals were dispatched for public entertainment (and probably by ‘accident’ in the chariot races) in the Colosseum than at any time in history, I thought they were a poignant reminder of how cruel human beings can be.20161015_180440I would definitely go back to Rome again.  I didn’t see the Sistine Chapel,  or visit any of the art galleries.  I’d do some more research as well, and visit something with a bit more knowledge under my belt.  Oh, and I’d take several pairs of comfortable walking shoes and loads of pairs of socks.  Walking around Rome is incredibly hard on your feet, paved as it is with small granite blocks  if you’re lucky, crumbling concrete and tarmac if you aren’t.  It’s the best way, though, as nothing is especially far away and public transport looked packed and tricky to negotiate unless you speak some Italian.  I wouldn’t like to be there in the summer.  It was very warm even in October, and busy.  I can only imagine how hot and crowded it must be July/August.

What Big Data Can’t Tell You

I’ve spent what seems like months writing Python code that will let me download the content of blog posts.  You can  do this using what’s known as an RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed, but that only yields a summary of the most recent posts, when I need the whole post, and every post the blogger has written.  In some cases, this goes back years.  It’s been a painful process, and will be the subject of my next blog post, but just for a bit of ‘fun’ I thought I’d look at the comments feed instead.

A while ago, Tom Starkey (@tstarkey1212) asked on Twitter if there was any way of finding out which Edu-blogs might be the most popular.  One way of finding out might be to look at the number of comments made on posts, so I thought I’d use the RSS feed this time to download the latest ones and have a look.  I wrote some Python code, and bingo! there they all were in a nice tidy spreadsheet.  There are some issues, though.  Quite a few, actually.

  1. I have no idea if I have the http address of every Edu-blogger out there.  My source was the list in a spreadsheet provided by Andrew Old .  How complete it is depends on a) whether you’ve heard of Andrew, or b) whether you’ve heard of him but don’t want to add your blog to ‘his’ spreadsheet.  Still, there are over 800 blogs on there so it’s a big enough sample to be getting on with.
  2. The information I needed was the blog post title, the name of the commenter, the date the comment was made, the comment itself, and the http link to the comment.  The link is important because it contains the title of the blog site.  RSS feeds yield particular information as they’re kind of standardised.  However, the title of the blog post contained in the link, the bit in bold in fact: isn’t always the actual title.  Nor is it always after the //, so any attempt to automatically extract the title based on its position in the http address was difficult.  When you’ve got over 8000 rows in your spreadsheet, you so want to automate the process if you can.  I chose not to, because….
  3. The name of the commenter might also be the title of the blog.  In fact, this was the case for quite a few posts, something that only becomes obvious when you slowly scroll through each of those 8000-plus rows.
  4. The name of the commenter should be the very last item in the field yielded by the RSS feed.  In theory, it should be easy to extract because it would come after a comma or possibly even a | symbol.  So, I could write some code that would iterate over every one of those 8000 rows and just extract the commenter’s name and put it in a separate column, right?  Wrong.  Some fields were truncated because they were too long.  Relying on commas to demarcate the right characters risked getting the wrong information.  Sometimes there was nothing more than a space.  In the end, I did it manually, copying and pasting.  That also helped me to identify names that related to the blog title and the name of the commenter, so I could match them up.
  5. Finally, the most obvious thing.  Not everyone who read a blog leaves a comment.  In fact, I’m willing to bet most people don’t. And if they do, I bet they do it via either posting a link to the blog with a recommendation, or simply retweeting the link that brought the blog to their attention in the first place.  The only way of knowing who reads a blog is in the hands of the blogger themselves via their stats pages, or possibly Google with their page link algorithm.  Still, I think the real proof (in spite of what some bloggers have claimed) lies in those stats.  And given I’ve been accessing some sites repeatedly in an effort to see if my code works, there may be some glitches there as well.

In spite of all this, I gathered my data and used NodeXL to produce a graph.  Three, in fact.  The basic one is here and is best viewed using a laptop or PC.  I’ve made some notes based on the graph metrics (graph-notes) and there are two other versions here and here .  Again, it’s best you view them using a laptop or a PC.

Finally, if your blog isn’t on Andrew’s spreadsheet, and you want to see how it compares with everyone else’s (or you’d like me to include it in the data I’ll be using for my PhD) you can either add it yourself or let me know the address and I’ll add to my own records.  I intend to anonymise all my data before I publish it because I know how sensitive it is even though it’s public (I’m an ex-teacher myself).  Or you can send me your viewing stats because, after all, they paint the clearer picture.

The thing is, though, that while it’s easy to think your blog might the one that’s influencing everyone and getting them ‘on your side’,  knowing and proving it are completely different things altogether.

Baby’s First Conference*

Nearly a month ago now, I attended my very first conference – WebSci16 – in Hanover, Germany.  I submitted a short paper, which was accepted as an extended abstract.  I was also invited to submit a poster for the poster session.

Now, I admit I was a little puzzled about posters when I first started my MSc, but I know now they’re just one of the things academics use to communicate their work.  As such, they’re not necessarily works of art with lots of illustrations (although some of the best ones I’ve seen have been) but they need to be concise, clear, and not overly wordy.  If you want to see mine, it’s here Extended Abstract Hanover 16 Poster .  And here’s my paper, if you’re really bored… Extended Abstract Final.


Me and my poster.

So anyway, a few thoughts.  Web Science is, basically, an inter-disciplinary thing.  It usually combines an ‘ology’ with computer science, but then there are other approaches like my colleague Nikko who is researching online identities from the perspective of Law; or another colleague who is researching event detection on social media.  Basically, if some aspect involves people and the internet, Web Science can fit in there somehow.  A lot of computer science people have also moved across to Web Science, which is great.  They work hard to develop and refine all manner of things including data analysis, machine learning (AI) and language processing.  The problem is that they can sometimes be so focused on the technical side that they forget the human aspect, and I think it’s that which really defines Web Science.

Many times during the course of listening to someone present their research, I wanted to ask why they thought their work was important, and the impact they thought it would make.  Many of the questions focused on technical aspects of the paper, which told me there were a lot of computer scientists in the audience.  These things are important, of course they are, but a little more thought about where humans fit in would have been better.  In short, there were times when I was disengaged and a bit bored, but I was with some fab colleagues, the venue was great, and the food lovely.  And I met my data science hero, Pete Burnap.  Oh, and the organisers very kindly averted disaster when I realised that the posters I’d been carrying in my poster tube fell out the bottom when we had to make a mad dash across Schipol airport to catch the connecting flight to Hanover.  I wouldn’t have been too upset about mine, but I was also carrying one for a colleague who was had also been accepted for a paper and poster, but couldn’t attend.  Both posters were reprinted without any fuss , so a massive thank you! to them.

Here’s a link to my photo album if you want to browse.  The post looking building in the park in the town hall where we went for a formal dinner on the last evening.

Oh, and then Nikko and I went to Berlin for a couple of days…..

*phrase courtesy of Nick Bennett.




That Was The Week That Was…

It’s been a funny old week.  Lots of good stuff, and then some not-so-good-stuff to make up for it all.  More on that in a bit.

The week started with a few minutes live on BBC Radio Solent (this is the link, it starts from 01.23.00), talking about Twitter being ten years old.  I was an early joiner, and somehow managed to get linked up with an amazing and funny group of people.  Sometimes so many were added to the conversation, it was impossible to add more than a few short words.  Those were the days before hashtags, and long before Storify.  Arthur Biscuit and RickyBee were among my favourites!  Sadly, that original Twitter account was lost as I had to adopt a new one for various reasons, a vindictive ex-husband being the main one.   I absolutely loved doing the radio interview, and I think that came through.  Everyone seemed pleased, anyway.



On Tuesday, I drove home to Devon.  On Wednesday, I enlisted the help of a friend and together we cleared my garden of broken fence panels, emptied my old garden shed, and dismantled it.  This wasn’t easy as it was nailed together and even though it clearly wasn’t long for this world, it put up a fight.  In the end, it was chainsawed to death, and stacked up ready for removal.  Under the floor was a scrape, probably made by a young fox trying new locations out for size; and a nest made by a hedgehog.  Several families have been brought up under my shed – I could see when the entrance by the door was in regular use, and one summer when I was sitting in the garden one of the babies emerged and fell asleep in the shade.  Clearly home had got a bit warm!



On Thursday, my pre-booked man-with-a-van turned up to take it away.  After that, he helped level the ground and prepare it for a replacement shed.  This was still on the allotment I’d just given up, so we duly dismantled it and  brought it back.  It went back up a treat, and on Friday I painted it and refilled it with as much of my stuff as I could.WP_20160323_008


On Saturday, I took the final bags of rubbish and unwanted stuff to the tip.

While all this was happening, I discovered that my very first conference paper had been accepted as an extended abstract and poster, which is fab as I’d already booked to go to Hanover for the conference in any event.  I have some feedback from the reviewers, some of which is quite critical, but to be honest it’s that I wanted more than anything.  My supervisors have been really supportive, but comments from people who are also experts in their field and know nothing about you are also very welcome.

An old hedgehog nest.

An old hedgehog nest.

And while all this was happening, my lovely Godson Zak (11) has been in hospital – first of all at our local one here in North Devon where he had his appendix out, and then he was transferred to the children’s hospital in Bristol because he was so poorly.  It took several days to decide he was suffering from appendicitis, but by then he’d  lost a lot of weight (and he didn’t have much flesh on his bones to begin with, like so many lads his age), the organ itself was ‘manky’ and he’d developed an abscess.  After operating and cleaning things up, he was transferred to Bristol for specialist care.  He’s had to have his would re-stitched, and a PICC line inserted so that he can get some nutrition.  His digestive system has temporarily shut down, but his stomach is still producing bile which is also being drained, and isn’t this just awful for a child to go through?  My heart goes out to him and his mum.   He hasn’t made any fuss and endured everything that’s happened to him with a stoicism that’s well beyond his years.

Get well soon, Zak.  Very, very soon.




Bloody Technology….

Today, I was told that Grooveshark is no more.  I’m not surprised its failed; there were serious issues with licencing, and it was only a matter of time before it was hit with some serious lawsuits in the USA, and that’s exactly what’s happened.  What makes me cross is that I’ve lost my playlists, and it’s taken me a while to curate those.  And you know what?  I paid.  I believe that downloading music for free is theft, and I was prepared to pay for it, and did so.  Furthermore, Grooveshark gave me access to the kind of music I liked – mostly stuff from the 70s and 80s, the kind of thing I bought on vinyl many years ago, and some of which I’ve replaced on CD since.  Grooveshark was a joy to use and I feel incredibly let down that, in spite of my stumping up real money, the business failed to run properly and now it’s gone.

What now?  Well, there’s a thing.  Spotify is expensive (£9.99 per month, or £4.99 per month for students, which I’ve opted for) but now I discover there’s no app for my Windows tablet.  That may not be an issue for most people, but a) my laptop doesn’t have bluetooth, and b) my Windows phone DOES have bluetooth but, because I live on a boat and rely on piggy-backing from my landlord’s router, the wifi signal is crap and keeps dropping off.  Why is bluetooth important?  Because I have a bluetooth speaker, that’s why.  So I’m stuffed.  I can’t use my phone because the wifi signal isn’t strong enough, I can’t use my tablet because there’s no app for that, and I can’t use my laptop because I can’t connect to the speaker.  Great.

I don’t think I’ve ever hated Windows so much in all my life, and yet the problem is bigger than that.

I pay for broadband at my permanent, land-based address, even though I’m not there most of the time.  I pay BT because BT is one of the very few providers in North Devon.  There’s no fast broadband there either.  Down here, where I live most of the time now, I can’t have broadband because I float.  I DO have 4G, which is faster than my broadband at home in Devon, but it would cost a fat fortune to buy the kind of data I need to consume, so I borrow the wifi from my landlords, which is ok but the signal is very poor, except when the tide is high.  I’m excluded from mobile data, which would be perfect for me (and anyone else who moves regularly, and I bet there’s a lot of people like that these days) because of the cost.  I’m excluded from certain services because not everyone chooses to create an app for the Windows tablet platform, and yet I chose Windows because it means I can synchronise everything.  As a result, I actually feel worse off than if I’d stuck with a mixture of Windows and Android.  And please don’t mention Apple to me.  The only advantage I can see with Apple is that at least I’d KNOW I’d have to replace perfectly good stuff because the company had made a commercial decision to force me to.

Things may, of course, change with Windows 10, but only if my phone and tablet will update to the new OS.

Oh, and the Facebook app on my phone is incredibly glitchy, as is the podcast app, which frequently causes the phone to restart.  And the iPlayer app is nothing more than a link to the website that will run the battery flat in no time if you use it.  And the tablet doesn’t allow anything to run in the background unless its plugged in, so when it goes to sleep, you lose whatever it is you were watching or listening to.  This is incredibly shoddy customer service.  My advice to you right now is NEVER buy a Windows tablet unless it’s running the ‘full’ Windows OS, and not Windows 8.1 RT.  Or a Windows phone.  Right now, I wish I’d stuck with Android.

Today has been one of those days that’s exposed the flaws in technology.  I’m really cross, as you can probably tell.