Sunday 12 June 2016

International collaboration, without leaving the house (or, why social media can be a good thing)

The idea behind today's post is in some ways blindingly obvious, but also often overlooked. Basically, it's that sharing ideas online can lead to all sorts of interesting, unexpected international collaborations of various types. I'm talking here specifically about research and academic-related collaboration, but it could apply to just about anything. I thought I'd share a short maps/viz story about this, just to demonstrate that 'internationalisation' (a common feature of University policy) doesn't mean having to cram yourself into a plane for 10 hours to some far flung paradise. But of course I should start with a map.

It's a bit of an eyesore in some ways, but that's not the point. Here's the story, and the point...

I'd been doing some work on mapping travel to work flows, since the data were released for England and Wales in the summer of 2014. Some time after that, another University of Sheffield department were contacted by a scholar from Turkey (Ebru Sener) asking about the possibility of visiting on a short Erasmus-funded trip. The other department didn't follow up so I looked into it, Skyped with Ebru and quickly discovered we had a lot of common interests and a good amount of overlap in our skills - but also, crucially, areas where we could learn from each other.

This led to a research visit in 2015, during which time we wrote a paper on housing market search (now published in Cities). Ebru also taught a class for me that week, which was great. We then kept in touch via e-mail and social media and it was Ebru that suggested I make the commuter dots go back to where they came from, which I thought was a nice touch and I then wrote this stuff up into a short piece for the Huffington Post after they got in touch (I have a paper on that coming out in future as well).

That summer, I experimented further on this area of research by looking at US commuting flows at the small area level. I published a short working paper on it, as well as a couple of blog pieces, plus the data I created from it. This then led to a brilliant US scholar (Garrett Nelson) taking a sub-set of the data and using a community partitioning algorithm to derive communities for one state (Massachusetts - see below). He blogged this, told me about it on Twitter and then I had a new idea so contact him again to see if he wanted to collaborate on a project to do this for the whole United States. Once again, we Skyped, made a plan and then got to work (side note: we used cloud computing because the data had outgrown the desktop environment).

Now we've almost finished our paper and - we hope - this will lead to further collaboration on the topic.

Following this, the brilliant Mark Evans (from Michigan) got in touch to say he was planning something which built on some of the ideas I'd had in order to build an interactive US version of the animated dot map you see above. He built it, shared with me and then it went kind of viral - with many news sites and local and regional outlets picking it up (Daily Mail, CityLab, WIRED, etc.). I don't claim that I could have done this but it's nice to know I was, in part, a source of inspiration. Mark has also shared his method, which is great for further collaboration and other users. In the gif below you can see that Mark has coloured the dots based on where people come from, which is a nice innovation.

And the point? International collaboration and internationalisation seem to be talked about a lot in terms of travel, short and medium-term study visits and can be a logistical nightmare. Often, it's necessary though. The kind of thing I've discussed above can be an additional means of 'internationalisation' that is both cost effective and time efficient. I haven't seen that much about the possibilities for formal international collaboration through social media. This might be because I don't pay attention. 

Having said that you can do international collaboration without leaving the house, I am of course off to the US this week for a conference...