Friday, February 10, 2012

I, Conference iConference

Today was the last day of iConference 2012. The conference, geared to topics of interest to iSchools (i.e. Information studies), was hosted by my school, University of Toronto, Faculty of Information. When I wasn't volunteering, I was able to attend several sessions. This post captures my ramblings as I make sense of my first foray into iConferences and immersion in the iSchool movement.

Conference vibe
Having not been to any other iConferences, I'm not sure what is typical of their nature or this particular instance. As a smallish conference for a defined body, it had a collegial feel. This was a welcome relief from more vast and impersonal conferences. The organizers did a great job encouraging the collegial feel from such touches as name tags that presented one's name as most important and a welcome reception complete with ice-breaker games and signature cocktails.

Recaps of conferences often fail to account for the venue. In my mind and body, venue is as important as the content. I'm hoping that in my small way I can convince (or shame) conference organizers and venues to care about this. The conference facilities at Toronto's downtown Marriott was overall quite good. The conference rooms were comfortable and they had a nice central area, dubbed the Living Room, with comfy seats, food, ample (free) coffee, and art installations. It was a great spot to hang out - surprisingly, most venues I've been to lack such space. I also like how the Marriott is centrally-located (even if I hard time finding the passage from the Eaton Centre and spent awkward amount of time walking around Sears' lingerie section until I found it). Even for in-town attendees, let alone for foreign visitors, it is important to be near amenities instead of at a desolate, entrapping conference centre. My only complaints were that the rooms were a little airless (typical) and even though there was free wi-fi, there were difficulties connecting to it and cell networks.

Between my volunteering duties and childcare limits, I missed a lot of sessions that I would have liked to have attended. And some sessions were not up my alley. But I greatly appreciated that the conference had a variety of session types - paper sessions, workshops, panels, posters, jams, world cafe and fishbowl discussions. I wish more conferences would mix things up like this.

I would also like to emphatically state at this time how hugely inappropriate it is for people to "present" by reading (often in a monotone) their paper in its entirety. Reading aloud at a conference is as out of place as going to a restaurant to sleep on a table. It is disdainful of the audience and pointless (other than to add it to one's c.v.) and I am peeved at how tolerated (encouraged?) it is in academia.

Rather than recount every session, I'll briefly highlight the main concepts and take-aways:

Positive design - Mary Beth Rosson raised this as a fruitful approach to design that builds upon what a medium enables rather than dwelling on overcoming its constraints. For example, online conversation may not have all the visual clues of face-to-face, but it is easily archivable and searchable. So it helps to consider under what circumstances these benefits are desired and plan around that.

User-defined success - an interesting way to think about the "success" of behaviour observed online or elsewhere is to use the metrics reflective of people's goals. I've seen program evaluation that has this component, but I don't believe this concept is as widespread as it should be in academia or industry. For more on this, read the paper presented by Christopher Mascaro Not Just a Wink and Smile: An Analysis of User-Defined Success in Online Dating (co-authors Rachel Magee & Sean Goggins)

Visual research - there was an interesting panel that examined different methods to solicit research on a concept (see Jenna Hartel's What is Information). I believe that methods that rely on people to textually account for their thoughts and behaviour are limited, as are reductionist surveys and experiments. It's interesting to consider other ways of soliciting participants' ideas - in this case Hartel used drawings, but I think photography, collage, clay, performance, or cultural probes would generate invaluable insight.

Commenting on news websites - Mary Cavanagh studied user comments on news sites.
Among her findings, she found comments used by people for: informing, contesting, criticising, elaborating, questioning, asserting, ampliyfing, mocking, learning, and re-framing. I asked her whether she observed a "community" among these sites' users and although she noted elements of "we-ness", inter-poster conversation and familiarity, she's reluctant to consider it cohesive and reoccurring enough to be a community.

Information browsing versus information seeking - as Jenna Hartel and panellists pointed out, there tends to be a focus on information seeking as rational and expedient, neglecting the role of pleasure and play. The term information browsing helps to capture the elements of affect, embodiment, and serendipity in information use.

Map-based search
Microsoft Research was a sponsor of iConference 2012, so they were there promoting their new products. I was really impressed with their Academic Map search tool. By selecting an academic area and a location on the map, one can easily see clusters of research and click on an individual researcher. They are currently limited to 14 very broad areas (e.g. "Social Sciences") but in talking to the rep. there are plans to refine these categories, which would make it much more useful.

Benefits of locative media
Topics directly related to my research interests were unfortunately limited to one poster, Does the Use of Place Affect Learner Engagement? The Case of GeoStoryteller on the Streets of New York, but it was excellent. The project used locative media, with an optional augmented reality component, to deliver information about the history of Germans in NYC. What I found particularly encouraging is that the researchers, Anthony Cocciolo and Debbie Rabina, found that such applications effectively used place and technology to improve learning engagement. As they note: "This engagement is the result of discovering new information about familiar surroundings using standard mobile user interfaces (lists, maps, videos), and not from more novel user interfaces (augmented reality)".

I would have liked to have seen sessions along this line at iConference, but it offers a panoramic snapshot of work going on in iSchools. It will be interesting to see if mobile user experience, geoinformatics, location-based services or locative media feature more prominently at the next iConference in Fort Worth, Texas.

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