Data privacy

It could not be more timely to have my piece on data privacy published in THE SCOTSMAN amid the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. It has become a constant struggle for modern days internet users not to be exploited by corporates, governments, and advertisers, and other malicious bodies. As the scale of digitisation grows, dangers and risks in a real society are increasingly reflected on the internet. We can no longer exclude ourselves from what happened in a virtual world as the intermingle of the virtual and the real society intensifies. Like it or not, data literacy is a must-have skill for survival today. The challenge is, data literacy is still very much in its infancy and is being updated everyday (if not every second). How do we keep ourselves constantly updated, informed and up-skilled?

Strava has revealed more information about their ‘Global Heatmap’ feature, which enables “athletes from around the world” to discover new places to be active. As of today, I found a pop-up window advising about the heatmap and the data it reflects before people click to view it:

The heatmap shows ‘heat’ made by aggregated, public activities over the last two years.
The heatmap is updated monthly.
Activity that athletes mark as private is not visible.
Athletes may opt out by updating their privacy settings.
Areas with very little activity may not show any ‘heat.’
Visit the Strava blog to learn more or close this window to explore the heatmap.

While this is helpful, I think more emphasis on data privacy should be placed in the blurb. Users need to know how this feature (and other features or the whole app) concerns their privacy. We need to push digital companies to look into the ‘P’ word (privacy) more.



International Women’s Day 2018

Many of my colleagues and I are currently exercising our right to withdraw our labour following a democratic ballot of UCU members.  This is a national dispute over unjustified attacks on lecturers pensions by Universities UK.

The 2018 International Women’s Day is one of the strike days. I reluctantly declined an invitation to participate in the panel discussion of the award-winning movie ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘. This has not been an easy decision. I’d so very much like to endorse this brilliant idea of Katie Skinner (Macrobert’s Film Programme Officer) of examining the film as a feminist text and to look at the way the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have shaped the awards pool this year. However, as a UCU member, it is pivotal not to break the strike (as suggested by my colleague Dr. Peter Matthews).

So, to celebrate this year’s international women’s day, I’d like to make a blog entry to commemorate the brilliant women I have met during the strike. Giving some of their best at Tuesday’s ‘Teach Out’ at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum were:

Prof. Kirstein Rummery who talked about gender inequality in academia,

Prof. Carron Shankland who introduced the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace,

Dr. Sarah Wilson who drew on C. Wright Mills to question the moral symbols, sacred emblems, legal formulae upheld by the authority to justify their rule over higher education institutions.

There are also bright young ladies who spoke at the Teach-Out to endorse their lecturers’ decision to strike. Even at the picket line, I was entertained by the intellectual conversation with Dr Melanie Lovatt about sociological imagination of the future.

While it has been difficult to refrain myself doing the usual academic work, I have cherished this opportunity to observe the comradeship and solidarity amongst the UCU members, and the key role that female academics play in the ongoing strike.

Proud to be a woman. Happy International Women’s Day.

Any corroding evil

Dr. Michele Aaron shared the outcomes from her AHRC funded project ‘Digital Technology and Human Vulnerability: Towards an Ethical Praxis’ at our research seminar today. Dr Aaron showed some clips from the films made by patients at the John Taylor Hospice. Nothing is more moving than seeing authentic, honest accounts of dying people. The range of creativity and content in these films demonstrated different attitudes towards life (and death). Participating in this film-making project also appeared to give the patients a sense of direction, and a sense of agency, allowing them to leave a legacy. Film-making, a creative and performance-based method, has been employed as a method for engagement, for empowering patients, and for collecting evidence of embodied experiences.

Our colleague Steve Chinn followed Dr Aaron’s emotionally charged presentation with an informational and insightful talk on the ‘representations of cancer in popular culture’. He addressed many critical issues that I have not thought of before: for example, Breaking bad‘s failure of portraying a cancer patient truthfully; Obama’s overly frequent use of the word ‘cancer’ as a metaphor; the overly frequent use of military action metaphors in ‘fighting’ against cancers in the mass media, which are also absorbed and prevalent in everyday conversations. All these minor things upset many cancer patients (or people who are terminally ill) because dealing with cancers is not easy. Steve also shared his ‘accidental conversations’ with oncologists about treating patients. The painting ‘Three Oncologists’ by Ken Currie at the National Galleries of Scotland vividly revealed how little we know about cancers.

Indeed, not only do we know very little about cancers, we also seldom talk about them (or death or dying) in our society. It is like a taboo. Film-making kind of allows people to express their voices on these difficult topics. While the videos from the “Life: Moving” project are engrossing, I could not help thinking of the recent saga with Logan Paul’s suicide forest video and those who chose to broadcast / live streamed how they committed suicide on the internet. Is it just a generational difference (how digital natives voice their views on death and dying on the internet where they were endowed with)? Or is it to do with how digital technologies shape our ways of living / dying? About the extent to which young people see and show their on-screen selves, their instinct of putting everything (personal) online?

The encounter with these videos has been profound. See below.

Every thing every time

Dan Hett wrote on Facebook today:

Did you know: the ‘every thing, every time’ signs have written almost 80,000 poems about the city. see one for yourself at Manchester Central Library until Aug 9th.

Every thing, every time‘ is a data poetry project, in which Dan is involved, in collaboration with artist Naho Matsuda. Commissioned by CityVerve in partnership with FutureEverythingNaho Matsuda created a computer programme that processes the live data from numerous sources in a ‘smart city’ (e.g., real-time weather data, transport data, air pollution data, event data), giving it a set of rules for shaping and presenting each line of the never ending and ever changing poem on split-flap display.

There had been some issues with these installations across Manchester. For example, it was ported that the Hulme Community one was powered down last week (though someone joked that it could have been a concept poem a la John Cage). Nevertheless, these digital poems did make the city more charming, telling stories and describing what’s happening in a smart city, making the invisible visible. As people at Manchester get on with their everyday events and interact with each other, more data are being generated and processed, contributing to the writing of poetry.

Data aesthetics goes hand in hand with critical data studies, one of my current research interests. I’m interested in data art not only because it is a critical reflection and creative response to societal and political phenomenon. Art, as we have seen in recent years, has become a powerful language for communicating research outcomes. I am interested in data art also from the perspective of critical data studies: how we can tell stories in smart cities and in what language? Why do the available data streams seem so neutral: weather, transport, traffic. Are they really neutral? What about other data sources? Why are they not available? The basic question about what we have and what we have not is quite profound; it raises all sorts of data (in)equality questions and power issues.

Who would have thought that the data poetry approach could be made so sociological?

Info and more poems at:

And it’s featured in Click.

Thinking through #Things

I witnessed the power of ‘things’ for storytelling at the ‘Thinking through Things’ workshop at Middlesex University on 29th June 2017, which aimed to engage the participants with methodological frameworks where objects/artefacts are at the centre of the research process.

Although my research interests centre on digital culture, I believe that performative methods (such as creative methods) can help understand emotions, motives, narratives involved in on-screen activities, the relationship between on- and off- screen activities, and embodiment of digital objects (such as data, algorithms).

Participants were asked to bring an object and/or a photograph that matters to them. At Rachel Hurdley‘s session, we displayed them together (see the photograph below) and talked about what they were and why we brought them. Talking about these objects helped unravel social meanings that are embedded within the objects, and the memory associated with them. Actions of collecting, ordering, cleaning, repairing / mending / manipulating objects all denote certain social meanings. For example, Rachel Hurdley talked about how significant the ‘collecting and displaying’ gesture is in her new research project about vulnerable prisoners.



We built a food tower with the usual items found in someone’s food cupboard. Profiling immediately started; we were speculating who this person might be: a woman or a man? a vegan? an environmentalist? someone who likes Japanese food?

In the collage workshop, we created ‘research self-portraits’, using materials
to reflect on our research trajectories and to ask how research objects and
approaches are auto/biographical. A wide range of materials were provided: photographs; magazines; badges; letters; lego; drawings; cloth; glitter. This session encouraged not only the use of a creative research method (self-portraits) for story telling, but also for reflecting on the meaning and value of the material in our individual research trajectories. I had to think about how to visualise and materialise my current research interests on ‘big data’ and ‘open data’. I found ‘I ♥︎ Big Data’ in some network’s magazine advertisement. I still needed words to express ‘data’ and a lot of on-screen activities.

Thinking through things: using collage as a creative research method for making a self portrait of a researcher.


In Michael McMillan‘s session, we talked about the photographs we brought with us. It was so emotional – full of memory and deep meanings about our relationship with others (family, friends, animals). The settings / backgrounds in the photographs said a lot about ideologies, values, the wider political environments, just like Michael McMillan’s installation ‘The Front Room‘.

I left the event full of ideas. I can’t wait to implement these creative methods in my research, and explore more creative ways of communicating my research within and beyond academia. I’m also keen on introducing these methods to my colleagues and students to help with creative writing or data collection. What a productive day. Thank you to the organisers!


The first cohort of the two degree courses that I lead, BA (Hons) Media and Communications, BA (Hons) Media and Creative Writing, graduated this June! Three years flied by rather quickly. I can still remember vividly the first Cultural Theory session with Prof. Judith Williamson three years ago (2014) where we got an accidental lesson about non-discriminatory jokes (virgin mobile vs. walking into a bar – Ouch!). It was so effective that students created a spreadsheet graffiti as a response afterwards. Non attendance, late submission, PMC, etc. We had them all. After trying different methods (in-class assessment, guest speakers, workshops), I found one-to-one tutorials the best way to educate these students. In this way, we can work on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

And they grow up, produce, and deliver. Anthea, for example, has matured so much. She not only wrote a first-class dissertation on fandom, but also produced a series of podcasts promoting black women’s achievements. Joe Stevens, in his usual stype, produced two books collecting humorous quotes from the private Facebook group ‘Farnham Rants‘ as a way of representing Farnham. Kayon’s podcasts ‘News in 3‘ for discussing ‘fake news’, and Danny’s digital magazine that aims to encourage student self-publishing and networking both contain good ideas. But, the highlight of the year has to be the short documentary ‘The Guildford Bike Project‘ made by Josh Jones, a well-considered and beautifully-shot documentary.

This film has received very good feedback from the visitors to our graduate show. For example, I received a note from James Burbidge on the 10th of June 2017:

I spent 10 minutes of my life this afternoon watching a really well produced and edited little film, raising a keen awareness of socio-economic impoverishment and a project attempting to improve the situation within the very heart of frightfully affluent Guildford.

The attention to detail and the pace and rhythm of it was spot on, and the captured comment by the staff member,  “ we seem to value money now over peoples welfare, ” is indeed a true sign of our times.

A documentary that just had to be made.

Thank you Josh.

This film has been officially selected by the Stockholme International Film Festival 2017. And I have no doubt that it will receive more attention in the near future. There are many more stories Josh could say about the key figures in his film, and we could only hope that he will have time to make sequences of this one to satisfy our curiosity.

The congratulations not only go to the students, but also to myself and my colleagues who have been supporting us all the way. Well done, all!