I want my work to have an impact and I believe that harnessing the increasingly available abundance of data is one way of ensuring this. LIDA presents the opportunity to combine my sociological and quantitative/computational skills, and I feel grateful that my internship project with the CDRC at LIDA synchronizes my expectations perfectly.
I work on the OpenInfra project, exploring the potential of (crowd-sourced) open-access data (OpenStreetMap) in planning active travel infrastructure. Open data could lead to a more accessible and inclusive decision-making process by including citizens in the process of building the active travel infrastructure and network they want to use every day. However, the data is “messy”, constantly updated but still lacking completeness. It is open but not easy to access or use, and although it might have mapping protocols in place, this does not mean that there are no errors (my all-time favourite is the width value of –1).
To help reduce the scope of the problem, I decided to focus on accessible pedestrian infrastructure. One of the first things I did was search for relevant policy documents. The Inclusive Mobility guide was released over 10 years ago (it has now been recently updated), so I suspected that it might not contain the most up-to-date recommendations. I thought that familiarity with current qualitative research on accessible pedestrian infrastructure might identify what essential information on street elements might not be, as of now, representable in OpenStreetMap.
As I was searching for qualitative research on my subject, I discovered an on-going project at the University of Leeds that has various synergies with my project, so I contacted them. This was the first time I had ever reached out to someone to explore how two projects might collaborate together, so it meant stepping out of my comfort zone. Whilst not easy, it is proving to be very rewarding. Here, I will share some lessons learnt that, I believe, gave ground to successful networking and partnership building.
Before I discuss building partnerships with external stakeholders, I want to highlight that the most important partnership to build is with your project team. Mutual trust and support between you and your supervisors are integral to advancing any project.
Writing that first email
In my case, I sought partnership to get a better grasp of my project and data needed for accessible pedestrian infrastructure planning. A clear idea of “why” gives purpose for reaching out. For me, it was helpful to think about the initial email as a cover letter. The following questions guided my email:
- Introduce yourself: who are you? Why are you qualified to contact them?
- The why: why are you contacting them (e.g. expertise in a domain, methods)? How did you find out about them?
- Benefits: what are the potential benefits of them partnering with you?
- Call to action: what do I want to achieve as a result of this email (e.g. organize a meeting)?
In my case, the trickiest part was to identify why they would be interested in meeting me. I approached this by reading their project website and an academic paper their team had published, trying to understand the project and agenda/factors that drove them as a team. I found that raising awareness of the struggles faced by people with disabilities is integral to their project. We also want to highlight the importance of mapping data relevant for accessible pedestrian infrastructure, so in my email I noted this overlap. I was careful not to overpromise or come across as too certain of their interest at this stage.
Initiating a partnership for the first time can be challenging. It took more than two weeks for me to sit down and write that email, not because of a busy schedule, but because I was worried about not receiving a reply. The key factor in overcoming this was acknowledging it and recognizing that it goes hand-in-hand with my imposter syndrome. Being honest with myself helped to put everything into perspective: nothing but time would be lost if I sent an email, but I would gain self-confidence and, potentially, a meeting. I was also aware of my project team being positive about me contacting them, therefore trusting me enough to enable me to give a personal touch to the project. These little realizations, or rather self-reminders, were very reassuring and empowering, leading to my first successful initiation of partnership building.
Scheduling and running the meeting
When I got a positive reply from them, I was over the moon – proud of myself for having taken that first step! Yet, I also knew that the next step was the meeting scheduling. Retrospectively, I can say that scheduling requires active listening. For example, there was a person in their team who currently lives in another time zone, hence I was asked to schedule meetings after 4PM GMT. Little pieces of information like this might pave the way for a successful meeting before it even starts!
Leading a meeting was an unknown field for me. I had a myriad of questions ranging from chairing the first meeting to making sure that the meeting allowed for discussion of both projects in parity, as well as the potential bridges between them. Here, I took advantage of the fantastic LIDA community and asked my personal buddy to share her experience. I got an invaluable piece of advice – do not be afraid to communicate your aspirations and hopes for the meeting up-front. Indeed, from the first email enquiry, this collaboration was about communication and testing the ground, so the meeting did not have to be “perfect” to be productive. This realization took the pressure off my shoulders.
The meeting went really well: it reassured me that our project is timely and needed and, more importantly, it exposed me to new interdisciplinary ideas and applications of OpenStreetMap data. For example, we discussed the potential of addressing the qualitative-quantitative divide (often thought of as binaries), organizing walk-alongs and mapathons, and a question on using OpenStreetMap data for 3D modelling. Not all of these ideas may be realised, but the process of engagement and listening have broadened my perspective on OpenStreetMap and its applicability to qualitative research. Finally, it made me feel that I am working towards doing what I set out to do: combining my sociological and computational skills for social good.
The entire experience of reaching out has not been just about networking and partnership building per se, but also stepping out of my comfort zone to suggest (and realise) ideas to my project team. It can be challenging to do if you (as I was) are assigned a project that is far from your field of expertise. Here, again, I want to reiterate the importance of building collaborative working with your project team – it takes time, trust, and willingness to communicate honestly, especially about fears and worries. Indeed, imposter syndrome can hinder my motivation more often than I would like, but moving one step at a time and, most importantly, collecting and appreciating those steps have been invaluable, especially in the face of stakeholder meetings.
The experience of networking and partnership building has strengthened the central position of communication in a (data science) project. Not only does it help to promote or disseminate its outputs, but also to shape one’s own perspective towards the project itself. For me, listening emerged as a key tool of effective communication, that perhaps needs to be given more credit in data science if the project is to have a real-life impact.
Author: LIDA Data Scientist Intern, Greta Timaite. Greta has a BA in Sociology and an MSc in Big Data and Digital Futures from Warwick University.