Embedding citizen science at UCL: Interview with ‘Institutional Leader’ Muki Haklay
By Briony Fleming, on 29 January 2019
This is an interview with Muki Haklay, as part of our series focusing on the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, looking at previous winners and their experiences with Public Engagement. Muki won a Provost’s Award for Public Engagement in 2018 in the category ‘Institutional Leadership’
What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m a Professor of Geographic Information Science at the Department of Geography. A major part of my job is co-directing the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group and to a smaller extent being a director of Mapping for Change, a social enterprise that specialises in participatory mapping and citizen science. Through both, I am working with a brilliant group of researchers on developing new approaches to engage people from all walks of life in scientific projects that produce results which are meaningful and useful to the participants. The ExCiteS group includes geographers, anthropologists, computer scientists, human-computer interaction experts, ecologists, designers, community engagers, and administrative experts – it’s very diverse.
How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I came to UCL at the end of 1997, to study for a PhD in Geography, and I’m still here. I started my academic career at the Department of Geomatic Engineering (now part of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering) and about two years ago moved to the Department of Geography.
You have previously won one of the Provost’s Award for Public Engagement here at UCL, what project was that for?
The Extreme Citizen Science group received an institutional leadership award in 2018 for the range of projects that we’re involved in – from working with forest communities in the Congo basin to record important local resources so they are protected from logging, to working across the street from UCL with the people and groups that are concerned with the impacts of air pollution and construction projects on their health.
Has winning the award changed things for you?
It was an honour and pleasure to be recognised by UCL, and it is something that is helpful to flag in different contexts (e.g. research applications), but it didn’t change things beyond that for now. Because public engagement is fundamental to the type of research that I and the group are doing, it is natural for us to continue and do the things that we do across the world.
Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list.
The top of my to-do list includes mostly research funding applications. The limited level of funding and the size of projects that support public engagement and citizen science are such that I need to be involved in many project applications to make ends meet. The result is a continuous effort to secure the necessary funding to keep all the talented people of ExCiteS together.
What is your favourite album, film and novel?
There are many, but if I think of those that I liked recently, then the album is Himmelmusik by L’Arpaggiata under the direction of Christina Pluhar; the film is Blade Runner 2049; and the novel is Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
I’ll share one that Alice Sheppard, ExCiteS community engagement officer, shared on our Slack group: I went to the library recently asking if they had the book about Pavlov’s dog and Schrödinger’s cat. The librarian said it rang a bell but she wasn’t sure if they had it or not.
Who would be your dream dinner guests?
George Frideric Handel, Senesino (a castrato that worked with him), Francesca Cuzzoni (a soprano that worked with him), and then I would sit back, watch the sparks, and listen to the gossip of the music scene in London at the time. Probably I wouldn’t understand a thing.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Always be nice to anyone who come and ask for help, regardless of whether they are undergraduates or professors. Some of the best collaborations and research opportunities evolved for me this way.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
I studied to play the piano for 9 years in my childhood and teenage years. I still hope to get back and learn to play the harpsichord one day.
What is your favourite place?
Jerusalem, where I was born. Like many ex-Jerusalemites, I love the city and find it upsetting at the same time. As the late Israeli author Amos Oz pointed, if you live there for 3 years, you get a degree in comparative fundamentalism.
You can read more about the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, including seeing previous winners, on our website. You can also read about fellow previous Provost’s Award winner, Sophie Scott in this Spotlight On…