Dr Aare Puussaar
Research Software Engineer, SAgE Technical Services
Please describe your current research interests
It’s about citizen engagement in smart cities, more specifically about how citizens can use data as a supporting resources for advocacy and action in a grassroots way of using big data in analytics. But in a hyper local community settings. Multiple projects have spun off this but they all have key themes: access to data, data production and sense-making. I have multiple projects which are linked to software or platforms and a bunch of methods which I used around those things. My background is in engineering so I have all of those software skills and have also worked as a data scientist.
How did you get into research?
I used to work in a research company along with a university that provided expertise on how to scale up algorithms to learn human mobility to that was my background. I was the software architect building up the systems. We also published stuff around Human Geography looking at statistical indicators for mobility. Then I went to a setting in Orange Labs in France so I worked there as a researcher and that’s how I got into real research! And then came to study for a PhD here at Newcastle.
What are the main methods you use, how and why?
It’s an action research approach, or participatory design approach. Either a community finds me or, often, I reach out to different communities. There’s some ethnographic work and you identify something they might be interested in. I usually have a theme, mine is data and advocacy around data to local democracy. I then work with them to see what we could do together, and that’s the interactionism approach. I wouldn’t say I’m doing co-design, I’m still doing more user-centric design where I have conversations, we do some workshop activity and then it take that away and translate through my lens, something tangible. I often use guided methods for people to use in workshop methods and then move onto software platform to use different tools – its community driven.
One project is around citizens collecting environmental data. Within a smart cities context the decisions of where to collect, what to aggregate comes from a university or big industry, or even the councillors or local government. As a university we have these tools and we’re interested in how people can have a say in the smart city machine. People can use them to do their own investigations if they’re hand held or if they’re sensors they can commission us. Commissioning infrastructure is becoming very popular in this lab. We provide infrastructures for people to use so if they don’t have the expertise, there’s a system that links them to people that have or provides a structural way for people to make something that they’ve designed through that system. We empower people to better use the tools that are available. Creating knowledge within the community rather than giving buttons to push.
Recently, I am looking into how we can take an engineering and social sciences approach to merge them. This comes from public health where they have a generic intervention and then target interventions. It’s based in targeted universalism.
I still use engineering sprints, it’s a traditional feedback process of iterations. I build my systems like this and although I design it with people I also have a second approach which is targeted, working with them to help them use that tool or resources such as open data. I’m an advocate of open data but it’s not accessible.
Which methods excite you?
I like mixing methods. I’m lucky that I’m in a lab where everybody is from a different discipline, we all feed off each other. A perfect example from history is in Bells Laboratory. If you have multiple people feeding off each other from different disciplines they can create new value or new methods. We feel like sometimes people get stuck and use the same methods but expect different results. I get stuff from theory and then from engineering which works well in terms of getting stuff done!
And then also in public health, people have different approaches because it’s all about behaviour change. We can have policy and laws but essential in order to make a change people need to change their behaviour. So, that too!
Are there any methods you’d like to explore?
I like methods that bridge the gap between people on the street, community members, and big corporations and decision-makers who traditionally hold data. So methods that enable that!
What, about methods, did you wish your younger self had known?
That it would have been more interesting to read philosophy and social theory! Coming from a very physical science field we would build just to solve problems and when there were humans in the mix we couldn’t engineer stuff – it would have saved me so much time just reading a bit of social theory!
Have you had any memorable methodological blunders?
Yeah…most of the tools I built no one really used! You realise even if you design tools with people there’s still something missing, you kind of need methods to guide people to use them. Sometimes in engineering you make stuff just because it looks cool!
Which upcoming ECR or PgR should we look out for?
Most of the people that work in Open Lab! They are usually out of their comfort zones when they come in and then they learn philosophy and social sciences and try to understand how technology works from the perspective of normal citizens.
If you could recommend students read just one text on methods (book or journal article), what would it be?
The knowledge landscapes of cyberspace by Hakken (2003). The whole book is about how social informatics systems are greater than the main problem. It’s too critical on mathematicians and it doesn’t provide methods but it’s what we as engineers should begin with!