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Embedding citizen science at UCL: Interview with ‘Institutional Leader’ Muki Haklay

Briony Fleming29 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… 

From Provost’s Award to brain imaging in rural Gambia: Interview with Clare Elwell

Briony Fleming21 January 2019

This is an interview with Claire Elwell, as part of our series focusing on the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, looking at previous winners and their experiences with Public Engagement. Claire won a Provost’s Award for Public Engagement in 2012 in the category ‘Established Career Academic/Research’


What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m a Professor of Medical Physics in the Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering. I lead a research group developing new methods for imaging the brain and I’m currently running the BRIGHT (Brain Imaging for Global Health) project in Africa to understand the impact of malnutrition on infant brain development

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I’ve been at UCL for 28 years! Prior to that I worked as a clinical physicist in the NHS.

You have previously won one of the Provost’s Award for Public Engagement here at UCL, what project was that for?
I won a Provost’s Award in 2012 for my work engaging a range of audiences with medical physics and bio-engineering. This included leading an exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and doing stand-up comedy as part of the Bright Club, Science Show Off and Pint of Science.

Has winning the award changed things for you?
The award was a good opportunity to show how UCL values public engagement and it opened my eyes to the huge range of activities that are being undertaken by staff and students across the college. It’s also been great to encourage other members of my department to get involved. One of my colleagues, Ilias Tachtsidis has set up a brilliant initiative called Metabolight which is developing really innovative ways to show how light can be used to diagnose and monitor brain injury in newborn infants.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list
I’m really proud of my BRIGHT team who have set up an open day at the field station in rural Gambia where we are running our brain imaging studies. They worked with the African field staff to put together activities to engage families from the local community. They are now planning to roll these activities out at range of events and festivals in the next few months. Their work is a great example of cutting across cultural boundaries and thinking really carefully about how to engage with different audiences.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?
Depends on which day you’re asking. Today it would be Paloma Faith’s Fall from Grace, Little Miss Sunshine and Far From the Madding Crowd.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
Schrödinger gets pulled over by the police for speeding. The officer looks over the car and asks if there’s anything in the boot. “A cat” replies Schrödinger. The officer opens the boot and says “This cat is dead”. Schrödinger sighs and says “It is now”.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?
My Irish grandmother – I miss her pearls of wisdom

What advice would you give your younger self?
Be bolder

What would it surprise people to know about you?
I’ve been on a fear of flying course

What is your favourite place?
Anywhere I can do some open water swimming

 

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 week’s Spotlight On… 

Public engagement at UCL: Stepping stones to the future

ucwetca6 July 2018

At the 10th Anniversary Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, the Provost launched a formal call to the UCL community to join a conversation about where we want to take public engagement at UCL by 2028. He has invited Laura Cream, Head of Public Engagement, to meet him in Spring 2019 to share the Top Ten Targets for Public Engagement at UCL, and the stepping stones for reaching them. So on Wednesday 20 June 2018, our network meeting brought together a variety of UCL staff and students to begin the conversation and open the platform to others at UCL to lead it.

The session was opened by Laura Cream who highlighted that while UCL should be rightly proud of its leading role in the sector,  there is still a lot more to do. She underlined that this can only happen with a strong coalition of allies inside and outside the institution. Laura’s challenge to the group, and to her team, is to turn the aspirational rhetoric of institutional strategies and plans into tangible change at UCL and concrete actions which build enduring links to communities in our neighbourhoods. She particularly wanted to encourage us to think about creating clearly signposted ‘doorways into UCL’ for communities outside, cross-institutional platforms which help people shortcut the process of relationship building and delivering on commitments to improving the lives of those who live and work in our neighbourhoods in terms of access to our procurement contracts, employment opportunities and facilities. Finally, she called for a greater focus on public engagement within the curriculum. Laura sets out further her vision for Public Engagement in the next 10 years.

The meeting was then run by leaders in engagement from across the institution.

First up was Professor Sarah Bell, of the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources, and director of the Engineering Exchange. Sarah pulled no punches and, via an analysis of the relative staffing and governance levels of Public Engagement and Innovation and Enterprise at UCL, argued that universities have become unbalanced in terms of the interests that they serve. Sarah argued that while these two areas have much in common – their focus on the importance of upstream engagement, a special interest in London and the value of co-production and co-design) – what sets them apart is their access to both power and money. Sarah argued that UCL Public Engagement has consistently punched above its weight given its scale and resource-level (citing the inclusion of public engagement in both the draft UCL Research Strategy and UCL Academic Careers Promotion framework as two examples) but asked how much more they could achieve if similarities between these areas could be exploited to further create opportunities to work with public groups in meaningful ways.

Next up, Andi Skilton (Senior Research Associate Lead at NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and UCL Institute of Ophthalmology) stimulated discussion around Patient and Public Involvement work at UCL. Andi outlined the PPI agenda as set out by the National Institute for Health Research and INVOLVE, again pointing out that there were many crossovers between this and the broader public engagement agenda which and  could be further exploited in the next ten years. The section closed with a discussion between those working in PPI and those working public engagement, creating an opportunity to share expertise and offer solutions to problems that may not occur to you when you’re working within a single, rigid policy area.

 

Dr Michael Edwards of the Bartlett, and founder member of the International Network for Urban Research and Action (INURA) and of the Planners Network UK (PNUK), gave us insight into his celebrated public engagement achievements. He highlighted his delight to see that public engagement was no longer seen as a barrier to promotion, and in fact can now enhance those prospects. Michael spoke passionately about working with students to engender a sense of engagement as a necessary part of both learning and researching, and that UCL’s work should be guided by the needs of the whole of society, rather than select elements of it. Michael convened a group discussion on how public engagement could work better with the Connected Curriculum, and how we could be more responsive to community need.

 

Finally, John Braime, Manager of the Volunteering Service, took us through the evolution he had observed over the past 10 years and then focused on many of the barriers left to be navigated to achieve our collective ambition of engaging community and public groups in a meaningful fashion. John gave us summaries of Creating Connections, the Evaluation Exchange and the Science Shop, a few examples of mechanisms that we have used to link groups together and to initiate projects beginning with local, community needs. John challenged the group to think about how we will create more opportunities for external partners to initiate and lead projects, supported by expertise at UCL.

 

 

The session ended with Georgia Pitts, Public Engagement Manager for BEAMS, and Lizzy Baddeley, Project Manager for EPSRC Community Engagement, leading a discussion on what our collective destinations for the next ten years might be, and the stepping stones to get there. I bounced around a few tables and eavesdropped on conversations which ranged from sign-posting opportunities for communities, creating Public Engagement champions across UCL departments, establishing more matchmaking mechanisms for projects and a host of other ideas.

Just a snapshot of some of the suggested ‘Destinations’ and ‘Stepping Stones’ for Public Engagement at UCL

The session was lively and has given us much food for thought, but we still want to hear your ideas. We’ll be updating you all soon on our next steps and further chances for discussion in September. In the meantime, share your ideas by emailing the UCL Public Engagement Unit at publicengagement@ucl.ac.uk or connect on Twitter by tagging @UCLEngage with the hashtag #PublicEngagementFutures

 

Advocating Public Engagement: Can UCL be an instigator of change in the sector?

Lizzy Baddeley8 May 2018

This is the second in our series of responses to the UCL Public Engagement Unit’s 10th birthday. This blog from Iwona Bisaga, a PhD student in the Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, suggests that UCL needs to lead by example and advocate more widely across the Higher Education sector about the importance of public engagement.

Coming from a social science background, I like to think I have a higher appreciation for working with and for ‘the people’ than friends and colleagues from other disciplines might have. This is obviously a generalisation but, whether true or not, I have been driven in my choices and decisions according to what my work means for others (does it change anything? Does it make anything better for even just one person?) and how I can work towards achieving the goals of my work in collaboration with those who are ultimately impacted by it.

My PhD research is done in collaboration with an industry partner and that in itself means a lot because there is someone who is interested in what I find out pretty much by default. If it wasn’t for this kind of collaboration, I probably wouldn’t have decided to do a PhD.

man crouching, face obscured by camera

Iwona’s public engagement project involved asking the users of solar home system, who was researching, to take photographs

But what about everyone else, including those whose lives I have been researching (i.e. users of Solar Home Systems in Rwanda)? What do they get out of it? What voice do they have?

Well, for one, it is expected that my findings will help inform the work aimed at improving the products and services which those users receive. But, even though they are at the very centre of our collective work, their voice is passive: they respond to surveys, they participate in focus groups, they answer calls. But do they ever get to ask questions? Learn about what the product-service, provider-customer relationship is about? What the limitations and successes of the off-grid solar sector are?

I have received support both from the UCL Public Engagement Unit (PEU) and the UCL Global Engagement Office (GEO), with particularly the former assisting me to tackle that very challenge. To appreciate that those participating in the research should not only be informants but also recipients of it is, in my opinion, a huge achievement already, and UCL is far ahead of just that. There is an active effort to bring public engagement to the forefront of all of research activities across the university. There are various pockets of support, going beyond PEU and GEO. Citizen science has its own chapter now, one of very few (or perhaps the only one) in the UK! There is the encouragement to think along the lines of action research and its importance, the need for more involvement with research participants and various stakeholders who might be impacted or interested in what we’re trying to learn, to discover, to create. I’m impressed by how much public engagement is talked about across UCL, which translates into a rather widespread, shared appreciation of its significance in achieving true, meaningful research excellence.

woman and man on a sofa looking at a camera

Two participants in Iwona’s researching looking at the photographs they had taken

However, do others have the same level of appreciation? Does the wider academic community, beyond our Bloomsbury bubble, have the same understanding of what it means to do public engagement as part of academic research?

Sometimes I feel it is looked at as a novelty, an idiosyncrasy. Perhaps aspirational, but not really recognised as something that belongs to academic rigour, academic standards.

Where I would like UCL to go next is to become the external advocates of public engagement as vigorously as they have been its advocates internally. Ultimately, how is it going to matter what we do here if nobody else follows and respects our efforts? Just like research studies should not just produce something for the sake of consuming it but rather actively participating in it, so should other folk in the academic circles and beyond (here I talk about policymakers, practitioners, private sector actors etc.) should not just consume and observe from outside the yes- interesting, yes- useful, and yes- often different research efforts, but join in and collaborate, replicate, participate in them.

Being such a strong proponent of public engagement, UCL is in the best position to advocate it and make it into a standard of excellence along with those already set. And by UCL here I mean all those who are doing public engagement on a daily basis, who have adopted the mantra and who are credible examples of it. There are partners out there who I’m sure are going to willingly help, who are also part of the movement. If it isn’t happening yet, then maybe it can start happening soon?

For her PhD, Iwona Bisaga is looking at the behaviour of users of the Solar Home System BBOXX in rural Rwanda. She was funded through the UCL Public Engagement Unit Beacon Bursary scheme for a participatory photography project. You can read more about her research and engagement on Iwona’s website.

Are these open gates or defences?

Lizzy Baddeley23 April 2018

In the first in a series of responses to the UCL Public Engagement Unit’s 10th birthday this blog from Professor Ian Needleman (UCL Eastman Dental Institute) asks what more we can do with our physical spaces at UCL.


Laura Cream in her provocative blog asks Are we being ambitious enough for public engagement at UCL?. The ten year anniversary of the Public Engagement Unit (PEU) is indeed a cause for celebration of progress at UCL. From my point of view, as I have neglected to do this, it is time for me to say huge thanks to the PEU staff for their support, guidance and cajoling which has transformed how I see my role.

After ten years, what I feel most is a greater hunger and impatience for where we should be. The physical and metaphorical gates on Gower Street still represent a barrier, which is of course what they were intended to provide structurally. The museums have wonderful, award-winning events and collections that attract the public and our local communities. There are many other events that bring us together at specific times. But where are the UCL spaces that the public chose to wander into daily to pause for a few minutes and hopefully in some way share with us our rich activities and we might to learn something from their experiences? What a rich opportunity this would provide and who knows what conversations it might start?

The 10 years of public engagement at UCL series will continue through 2018. If you would like to contribute, get in touch!

Are we being ambitious enough for public engagement at UCL?

Lizzy Baddeley9 January 2018

This blog was originally published on the UCL Culture blog.


2018 marks the tenth anniversary of UCL’s Public Engagement Unit – not quite a silver or diamond jubilee –  but still a date to celebrate together, to pause and reflect on what we have collectively achieved in the last decade and to start a conversation about where we want to get to by 2028.

Ten years is popularly known as the ‘tin’ anniversary –  a rich seam to mine for metaphors. My mind is drawn immediately to thoughts of the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man and his yearning for the heart that the tinsmith forgot to give him. We see public engagement as the life blood of the university, the multiple relationships between researchers and communities outside enabling a constant circulation of conversation, questions and ideas which enrich both UCL’s research and teaching and the lives of those around us.

The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz

The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz

A common refrain amongst UK public engagement professionals is that their work is still seen as peripheral within their institutions. I am in the enviable position of being able to say to my peers at other universities that the last ten years has placed public engagement firmly at the heart of UCL; we have one of the largest centrally-funded public engagement teams in the UK, a thriving Public Engagement Network, well-established funding and training opportunities and an ambitious UCL Public Engagement Strategy being delivered in partnership with our colleagues in UCL Culture, UCL academics, students, Professional Services colleagues and our external partners. What more could I wish for?

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that there are still a few things on my wish list for 2028.

By 2028, I would like to see UCL’s reputation for quality public engagement strengthened even further. Students and staff will be attracted to UCL, not just for its academic excellence, but also for the strength of its commitment to real world impact and engagement. The future I would like to see is one in which dissertation, PhD topics and research questions within a broad range of disciplines are increasingly identified in dialogue with, and their outputs exploited by, communities outside UCL. For this to be a reality, we will need to see some serious investment in UCL’s cross-institutional public engagement infrastructure to match the serious ambition of UCL 2034, the London Strategy and our vision for community and public engagement within UCL East.

We already have outstanding researchers who have blazed a trail in forging their own relationships and developing standalone projects – but think how much more we could achieve, and how much faster, if we had institutional platforms in place to connect staff and students with Camden and Olympic Borough communities.

Work already underway should help. Programmes such as the pilot Evaluation Exchange have the potential to transform the way we connect UCL researchers and voluntary sector organisations across London, but it requires long term commitment and sustained funding. The benefits far outweigh the costs; Doctoral Training leads across UCL could exploit the Evaluation Exchange as the first port of call for their Knowledge Exchange commitments, UCL researchers would have the opportunity to develop and apply their skills in real-world situations while working in multidisciplinary teams, and London’s voluntary sector capacity and resilience would grow. The icing on the cake will be UCL’s ability, alongside its existing excellence in volunteering, to document and highlight the breadth and depth of its commitment to making London a better place to live and work in for all.

I’d also love to see more academic conferences taking the lead from researchers such as Dr Deborah Padfield (Slade School of Fine Art) and Prof Joanna Zakrzewska (Eastman Dental Hospital) who were the driving forces behind ‘Encountering Pain: hearing, seeing, speaking,’ a free two-day live networking event and international conference held at UCL in July 2016. It diverted radically from the traditional academic conference format in order to encourage exchange between different groups affected by pain and make academic enquiry more accessible to all. Incorporating performance was just one of the ways they achieved this, and mirrors UCL Culture’s approach of using the arts to promote dialogue and mutual understanding in a research engagement context.

Bridging the gap between theory and practice in the public engagement context is also of increasing interest to me and my team and is at the heart of our RCUK-funded work on the Ingrained project. Over 2018, we will be exploring the local relevance of the global issues at the heart of Grand Challenges with four London community organisations, researchers involved in the Grand Challenge of Transformative Technology and academics from UCL Science and Technology Studies. The aim is to build some long-lasting relationships and to consider how to embed public engagement at a more fundamental level within UCL’s overarching Research Strategy.

dancer at conference

Image from ‘Encountering Pain: hearing, seeing, speaking,’ a free two-day live networking event and international conference at UCL in July 2016.

These are just some of my wishes for the decade to come.

What I really want to know is what you wish for and how you would like to work with us to achieve it? Throughout 2018, UCL Culture will be celebrating UCL’s public engagement past and present and hosting an ongoing conversation about its future. It’s going to be a busy year.

In February UCL Culture will be taking Bright Club to East London with Stratford Circus performances highlighting UCL’s All Stars and some new faces. March sees us marking the achievements of all involved in the Evaluation Exchange and an invitation to join us in a conversation about how to continue the work. Spring heralds two Creating Connections events organised with our colleagues in the UCLU Volunteering Services Unit – March in East London and another in April in partnership with the Francis Crick Institute and the Living Centre. June brings the Provost’s Public Engagement Awards (nominations are open now) and a celebration of a decade of the remarkable achievements of UCL staff, students and their community partners.

So please get involved in this year’s conversation, become part of our network, tweet us, and email us with your questions, ideas and thoughts and help us be even more ambitious about the decade to come.

Laura Cream

Head of Public Engagement, UCL