Co-founder of the ETHOS Lab, Brit Ross Winthereik has been awarded the title of Professor at the IT University and will be giving her inaugural lecture in 23 March 2018. Brit is still affiliated with the ETHOS Lab but currently focusing on her roles as Head of the Technologies in Practice Research Group and principal investigator for the Data as Relation research project. In this blog post, she offers her reflections on the ETHOS Lab as an experiment.

Blog post entry by Brit Ross Winthereik, Associate Professor, Co-founder and former Head of the ETHOS Lab

I have been asked to reflect on the first two and a half years of the Lab’s life. How well has the Lab done in terms of being an experimental space for teaching, research and services?  

Establishing the Lab happened in collaboration with Marisa Cohn and Michael Hockenhull. The Technologies in Practice research group needed a space for exploring interferences between digital data and qualitative, interpretative methods. 

In what way did it matter that we framed this space as an experimental space?

In a natural science context, experiments are designed with the possibility in mind that they can fail. Experiments are rigorously framed, and the bounded space of a laboratory enforces a structure for later replication. Then there is the popular meaning of experiment. This sense of the word refers to something that is unfolding, innovative and hard to control. Neither was what we had in mind.

Drawing on social science literature of demonstration sites, we saw the ETHOS Lab as more of a test bed. A place where students and researchers could attend to and craft relations between the digital and public organizations, businesses and social life more generally.   

We would use devices and methods that existed out there, and engage in re-purposing and development of new tools and techniques. Students and researchers have experimented through Tableau, Gephi, Python, Watson, TCAT, Netvizz, Alexa, Google Home, Twitter and data sprinting, and some have developed their own techniques.

Visualization is a strong component in our tests. Because testing always has a component of public demonstration, data visualization emphasizes the importance of gathering around an object. During Lab events data has been ‘the object in the middle’, that which engages participants in serious play.

Including students from all subject areas at the ITU has been important right from the start. The open frame is part of the experimental in the sense that when a diverse set of practices and forms of knowledge are invited into the same space, there is generative friction. We have witnessed the potentials and the limits of trans-disciplinarity. Mostly experiences have been good.

In addition to the PublicETHOS events, the Junior Researchers’ program and the Velux sponsored research project can be counted among the Lab’s successes. The many talented Junior Researchers managed to draw busy faculty into the Lab to listen to pitches and project designs. Despite heavy pressures from recent reforms these students have been intent on getting as much as possible out of their studies, i.e. close interaction with peers and faculty.

The Lab has tested a concept of a modern university, where interpretative visualization practices bring together faculty and external collaborators. This has led to much discussion about what might constitute the services offered by the Lab. What can a Lab do in terms of offering its services to society and how might bringing collaborators to the house offer in terms of research possibilities? ETHOS has had junior researchers examine bias in algorithms for face recognition and use of speech recognition in municipal work. A focus on technologies in practice are within the scope of BusinessIT in the sense that it creates knowledge about how data infrastructures in businesses and organizations are under significant transformation today.

Are there any risks to a Lab that tests visualization techniques and interpretative methods? There is a risk that the ongoing standardization of ITU Labs forgets to take into account that these spaces only exist through an engaged community of students and researchers. A streamlining and professionalization is likely to jeopardize the experimental ethos in the ETHOS Lab. I cross my fingers that in the new year stronger bridges will be built between the Lab and ITU’s thriving research and student environments as well as with external collaborators looking for sparring partners in a society increasingly driven by data.