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Dr Jason RC Nurse (Computer Science) talks about his experience of becoming a book at book at 2017's Curiosity Carnival, and why public engagement is an important part of the job of being a researcher.

Jason Nurse profile

What is your research area?

My research is about the security and privacy risk of being online. I’m interested in understanding how different forms of technology such as social media or smart devices impact our lives in terms of privacy and security, both positively and negatively, and also how they impact companies. At the moment I’m looking at the Internet of Things – all those smart devices in our homes, like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. There is a potential concern around criminals who manage to hack these devices and monitor what you say; then they can tell when you’re home, or not at home, or they might catch you saying something sensitive and use that to blackmail you. This kind of risk can be quite serious.

Why did you decide to take part in Curiosity Carnival?

I really like public outreach. I am a strong believer in not just doing research and writing academic articles; as much as possible I want to translate my research into something that helps people to see what research is all about, and how research can benefit them and better inform them. I view it as a really fun part of my job.

I believe all our research could be much more relatable and much more understandable to the public. People don’t need to understand all the detail, but they do need to understand the idea. I think that’s really important for us as researchers, because a majority of research is publicly funded. So we’re almost like suppliers, going back to customers and telling them what we’re doing with their money. No matter how complicated the research is, I believe there is a responsibility to convince people that what you’re doing is sensible and beneficial – and not only people in your small corner of the world.

What was the activity you part in?

Along with other researchers from different disciplines, I took part in ‘Living Library’ at the Weston Library. There was a librarian who had three shelves of books, with each book representing a researcher. My book was called ‘How do you keep safe online?’, with a blurb explaining why the topic was important and useful. People could decide which ‘book’ they wanted to ‘borrow’, and then they would be directed to the appropriate researcher.

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The experience of being a book gave me the opportunity to talk to a lot of different people, and gave them the chance to speak in depth to a researcher and bring whatever questions they wanted to discuss. For example I spoke to a student from Finland who was a techie and so I could talk in a detailed, technical way with him. But I also spoke with a mum and her young daughter; the mum was really concerned about how much she should be letting her daughter use social media, what she should be monitoring and how. I liked ‘Living Library’ so much that I actually did a double shift – I just kept going!

What did you get out of the experience? Were there any challenges, and would you change anything next time?

I think that one of the key challenges is always about being able to bridge the gap between what you’re doing, however complicated that might be, and what someone else may be interested in. I have learnt that going along to any of these events with the ‘perfect finished product’ is not the aim. With every bit of outreach you do, whether it’s talks for schoolkids or activities at science festivals or even talks to other professionals, you get feedback and then you refine what you’re doing. It’s very much a process of experiment, and you have to be able to change things up depending on the audience.

Are there any practical tips or suggestions you would give to researchers who are new to public engagement?

I would say start small and build up, and don’t be afraid to experiment. I started out by doing outreach talks to visiting schoolkids. There is a lot to be gained by doing these initial talks in the department – it’s kind of a safe space. You can practise your talks, demonstrations, and activities with the kids who come in, and then if you feel it works well, you might build up to bigger events. Schoolkids are a good test audience. They’ve maybe travelled two 

and a half hours on a bus to get to Oxford, so you definitely have to keep them engaged, but you also have to try to inform them.

You do have to recognise that engagement is not straightforward – you have to put in the work to get a complicated idea into a format that makes people actually want to pick it up and engage. You also have to get the balance between being entertaining and making sure your audience learns something. But it’s important not to be dissuaded too quickly, and to accept that it’s always going to be a process of refinement. One practical tip I’ve learnt is not to speak for 20 minutes in one go – when I do talks I ask questions throughout to ensure my audience is paying attention.

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Take guidance from the people in your department and division that can support outreach. Speak to people that have done outreach, because there’s lots of tips you can get from them, potentially directly related to your field.

Finally, I’d say that any outreach work I do is on top of my research time. So I do always have to keep that in consideration.

Do you have plans for any future public engagement activities?

Not right now, but I have done quite a few different things in the past. With Oxford Sparks I’ve made a video on ‘A day in the life of a researcher’, a podcast, ‘How do we stop our social media obsession from making us a target for crime?’ and an animation, ‘Keeping social media social’ which was done in collaboration with two other researchers in Computer Science, Helena Webb and Marina Jirotka. I’ve also taken part in several science festivals as well as the Hay Festival and ‘Pint of Science’, and I’ve had an article published on The Conversation, about the security risks of smart technology.

 

This case study was written by Sarah Loving.