Thursday, 5 July 2012

My Thoughts On NetSci’12 and WebSci’12 Conferences (June 2012, Northwestern University, Evanston IL, USA)

It was a great privilege to be accepted to the Web Science conference in 2012 for my first conference presentation. Having been accepted, I was also offered the opportunity to attend the Network Science conference immediately before it as they were held together at Northwestern University, and so I had an opportunity to experience a conference without the stress of presenting before WebSci came around (literally, right before it!). This will just be a quick post on what I thought were some of the highlights of the two conferences. For a more detailed summary of what was covered, another Web Science PhD student from Southampton – Ramine Tinati – has provided a great overview on his blog.

I found the second keynote of NetSci to be my personal highlight of the first conference with Iain Couzin providing a really interesting presentation titled ‘From democratic  consensus to cannibalistic hordes: the principles of collective behavior’ which demonstrated network science in a way that I had never thought of before – looking at the interactions between animals and their resulting network. Most startling was the simulations and animations of cannibalistic locusts, who by biting at each other form a consensus on which direction to move and then form the well-known locust swarm. Now that was not something I was expecting to find out from a network science conference!!!

Overall the Network Science conference was interesting and useful to attend due to the nature of my PhD which is now incorporating network modelling and propagation simulations. A lot of the concepts covered were familiar to me, but it definitely made me aware that my maths is rather rusty and I could do with digging out my A-Level textbook to ensure I follow it all properly…

On the Friday, NetSci ended and WebSci began with a crossover keynote delivered by Jon Kleinberg, at which point my own nerves of my presentation the next day began to kick in. It was, however, great to see the first panel session of the conference that afternoon, in which a friend I met during a recent Web Science workshop in South Korea presented and discussed work on a topic very similar to mine: ‘When Daily Deal Services Meet Twitter: Understanding Twitter as a Daily Deal Marketing Platform’.

After another keynote and the WebSci poster session that evening (in which two of my Southampton Web Science colleagues - Huw Davies and Lisa Sugiura - showed off their excellent work) the Saturday arrived with me feeling very nervous indeed. My supervisor has since said that I was like a different person that morning… oh well, hopefully now that the first one is out of the way, I’ll be more relaxed next time! Anyway, the day started with a great keynote by Sonia Livingstone, providing a refreshingly non-techy discussion about the use of the Web in education. This was followed up by Claire Hooper’s excellent presentation about how Web Science crosses over with HCI and how both qualitative and quantitative methods are needed to study it in an interdisciplinary nature.

Southampton was then represented well again by Terhi Nurmikko, another member of my PhD cohort, who gave a great presentation about how the semantic Web can be used in Cuneiform studies – again something that upon starting Web Science 2 years ago I was not expecting to hear about, but now think is a great application of the developing technologies available.

After lunch, Sinan Aral gave another really interesting keynote about measuring influence on social media, and then it was my turn to present my paper ‘Measuring The Performance Of Social Media Marketing In The Charitable Domain’. To be honest, I really can’t recall how it went – as soon as I finished I realised it was all a blur! People have told me this is normal, but it would be nice to have some idea of what I actually said… I’ve received some kind feedback on Twitter, and from my supervisors, colleagues and other staff members (including one who claimed I was incredibly relaxed… err I’m not so sure about that one!), so hopefully it was all OK.

The day ended with another superb keynote from danah boyd of Microsoft Research discussing ‘Understanding Privacy in an Era of Big Data’, which covered some really interesting aspects of the changing world of privacy and what people are doing to deal with it. It was then off to downtown Chicago for an evening dinner cruise on Lake Michigan, which was amazing, especially as my nerves had died down by then and I could enjoy it all properly!

On the final day, Ramine Tinati of Southampton presented his paper ‘Mixing Methods and Theory to Explore Web Activity’. This was a great presentation to come at the end of the conference as it got the thinking back on to how mixed methods are vital to Web Science, and judging by the (slightly) heated debate that erupted afterwards in the questions part, showcased a brilliant level of Web Science understanding from the Southampton party.

Rounding things off, Luis von Ahn presented the closing keynote on the various crowdsourcing successes he has developed. It was a great way to end the conference, showcasing one of the really productive parts of Web Science, but also done in a really good way (I loved his presentation, the slides were great and it had a good touch of humour). His final slide, about his future research question regarding coordinating massive amounts of people to “solve crime” did raise a few concerns within the audience though (“crime” as a social construction can’t be “solved”, and would this sort of action raise serious social, ethical and moral issues relating to vigilantism?).

And so WebSci drew to a close and I left feeling pleased with the experience of my first two conferences, and debut presentation. I now can’t wait until next year’s Web Science conference in Paris, hopefully I’ll be there again to show off the next stage in my PhD.

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