MSc Web Science: Week 2

Firing up the ‘Pi’s/Tim O’Riordan 2013/CC BY 2.0 UK

The highlight of the week was definitely the Raspberry Pi session; an hour long workshop that was added to the end of classes on Thursday. The Raspberry Pi is a tiny and cheap computer that has been developed to provide a budget platform for practicing programming. Because it’s cheap (about £30), it can be used to run dedicated processes, like controlling a pyrotechnic display, or carrying out passive surveillance.

The workshop provided an excellent adjunct to the introduction to writing Python script earlier in the day, as the task involved writing a few lines of code that enabled a Raspberry Pi module to interact with an external object (a jelly baby) via two wire probes. Essentially, the jelly baby completed a circuit which triggered the playing of an audio file of someone singing. Charming, and slightly weird.

The team behind the Erica the Rhino project were also on hand to provide some inspiration for projects that we have been asked to undertake later in the year. At the moment I’m trying to come up with a project that involves recording video in public places, but which doesn’t compromise privacy.

Quantitative Research Methods (QRM) 

This week I had my first experience of using SPSS software to explore datasets, and in class we moved on to consideration of two of the basic concepts covered by this module: Confidence Intervals (CI) and the Central Limit Theorum (CLT). CI is the range of values within which it is expected the true value of a population will lie (within a degree of confidence, e.g 95%). Because the mean varies depending on each sample that’s taken from a given population, we need to construct a range of values to provide confidence. This is done by taking sample means from the population many times (e.g. 1000). The CLT states that regardless of distribution of the variable in the population, the results of these multiple samples will be normally distributed.

There is no truly object way of defining confidence, but using this method we can show that the true value lies between two values. Confidence is based on the sample size – essentially the bigger the sample the better the confidence. However there are diminishing returns beyond sample sizes of around 1400 – at least I think so.

Computational Thinking

In the lab we undertook some basic programming using the Python GUI. This is a very popular, informal, flexible, dynamical language used by Google, and others, to control their internal systems. It’s also a useful stepping stone to Java programming.

The programming exercise involved developing, in stages, a ‘Hangman’ program.

Independent Interdisciplinary Review

A further discussion on what is required for this module included a recent MSc Web Science student, taking us through his experience of writing for this module. His IIR explored changes in how Intellectual Property is understood on the Web via the disciplines of Economics and Law.

The task for this week was to choose a topic and disciplines, and add a blog post to the COMP6044 blog site – providing an outline, justification and bibliography. I have decided to look at corporate data sharing through Anthropology and Economics lenses.

Hypertext and Web Text for Masters

This week we were introduced to HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Extensible Markup Language (XML), Cascading Stylesheets (CSS) and Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT) – all of which originate from Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). XML adds flexibility to HTML and contains elements (in hierarchy), attributes (label elements), entities (contain document fragments), and DTD (document type definitions).

We also touched on the latest version of HTML, HTML5, which includes new more appropriate tags and recognises new structures that are useful for search engines and usability. Browser adoption of HTML5 is patchy, but it is gaining ground.

Stylesheet languages (e.g. CSS and XSL) ‘separate concerns’ and allows users to concentrate on content, as layout and design are defined elsewhere. CSS attaches ‘missing’ semantics, complexity and processing instructions in XML. CSS decorates, but does not build – XSLT does both.
From past exam papers it looks like there will be a question that requires a reasonably thorough understanding of XML.

Foundations of Web Science

This week we discussed the development of the Web from a social shaping perspective (as opposed to a technological determinist viewpoint). We were presented with a list of technology and social developments – from the discovery of electricity, wireless telegraphy, the Cold War, to the development of the social web – and asked to discuss them, and how we shape our technology, in small groups. A number of areas that have been overlooked so far include the failure of Soviet attempts at networking, the importance of Federal funding of the National Science Foundation to the development of the early Web, and the enduring fascination with celebrity which drives much of the social web. However, and possibly significantly, an early attempt to classify all the world’s knowledge, the Mundaneum, was mentioned.

We also continued to explore our personal use of the Web. Most of the class use mobile devices for traversing the Web, and start browsing early in the day.

We were asked to examine our individual Web use and communicate our understanding of it via a diagram – and add this to the class wiki. Many in our class produced interesting ‘infographics’ (some using the infogr.am online infographic tool) which classified their Web use by actvity (e.g. ‘work’, ‘leisure’, ‘diy’). I found that my attempts to classify my own activity beyond family communication or personal interests seemed to be arbitrary and unhelpful. Does adding complexity to this area help? Probably not. Can my simplified Dial-e framework (stimulate, analyse, investigate, create)  be used to categorise Web activity? I think so – but I need to explore this further.

Digital Literacy Student Champions

I met with Lisa Bernasek and arranged to run short ‘WordPress 101’ sessions during three of her “The Arab World (in and) Beyond the Headlines” classes. The purpose is to get her 60 students publishing within days and with confidence. My aim is to run these sessions so that all participants will have started a draft of their first post by the end, and would have gained a clear appreciation of what they can do as authors within WordPress.

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