Elena Parmiggiani is visiting TiP from the Institute of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. She is based in the computer science department there, and is here in Copenhagen between the 8th- 21st September 2014.
Rachel: Hi Elena, Welcome. Can you start off by telling us what you work on, and what you’re going to be doing at TiP?
Elena: I work on a project called Digital Oil or Doil, which is a Norwegian Research Council funded project looking at the use of sensor based information in the oil and gas industry- What are the types of data, logging devices, measurements, routines and workarounds to operate subsea oil and natural gas wells in a safe and efficient manner? We have a few case studies. I work on environmental monitoring, we also have people looking at data in production, realtime drill pipe installations, exploration and so on. We are asking what it means to work qualitatively around subsea wells.
As for being here at TiP, I have a pretty open agenda because I am in the phase of beginning to write up my dissertation. It’ll be a collection of papers, but each will have to speak to the fields of Information Science (IS), Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) and Science and Technology Studies (STS). Here I wanted to present my work to the group, get as much feedback as possible, mostly related to how I am framing my work and how it works for the external listener. I am also beginning to draft the methods chapter, a reflection on how I conducted the ethnography and how the work contributes to the intersection between IS and STS. It also helps to get practice speaking about the work. I have presented internally, and in Edinburgh in May where I was able to use feedback to re-frame my research questions.
Rachel: How did you come to work on what you do?
Elena: I have a background in computer engineering BSc and MSc. I wanted to do engineering because I come from a scientific type of high school in Modena, where I had a strong theoretical training with maths and physics, languages, Latin. I thought computer engineering sounded fascinating: the courses I did were oriented towards software development, and was highly theoretical.
Through some connections of my MSc thesis supervisor, I did MSc thesis as NTNU exchange. I had been dreaming about moving to Scandinavia – first Norway, then Finland, so in my mind was already prepared for the “interesting” weather. The topic I was working on during my MA was mobile learning in city wide environment. It drew a lot on CSCW literature, so then I got acquainted with it, and I really loved it. I said I really want to go back. I returned to Italy and worked for a year but kept asking about possible PhD position in Norway. One opened with Eric Monteiro, and I applied. I had never studied IS or STS before but Eric was confident that my training during the MSc thesis was actually a good starting point so he saw what I couldn’t see in me, and I have to thank him a lot for that. I said I was fully prepared to learn Norwegian, and this attitude was helpful as my field study started only 2-3 months after I arrived.
Rachel: So tell me more about the Project you are involved in
Elena: The main project is called Doil, or Digital Oil. I started my fieldwork at a desk in the entrance to the North Oil company where I worked, far from where the main things were happening, but over a few months I moved to the main office where five of the main project partners were working. This massively increased my understanding and made it my workplace too, I wasn’t just a visitor. There were two main projects I followed, EnviroTime and Venus. The former is an institutional and official project with technology vendors, deliverables, and lots of media coverage to do with environmental sustainability. The latter is an internal project, which has moved between different funding bodies. The two projects became entangled through the use of data produced in the internal project – Venus – in the official project – EnviroTime. I can no longer disentangle the projects and the building of the infrastructure.
Rachel: Can you say more about your fieldwork?
Elena: It started with being in the office, office hours, with 4 people involved in the two projects i am following. I tagged along with them for whatever meeting, workshop or thing that was happening.You share time together at lunch, at coffee and during trips together. I have also found that thanks to the projects they are working on, they ask themselves the same research questions that i ma posing myself. How do you – what are the dynamics to let a new infrastructure for environmental monitoring emerge?
Something I find very interesting about the project in Norway is the openness, the databases and data being open. Everything is published online and you can trace what they are doing. I went back to Italy in the summer and I noticed many new installations, oil and natural gas extraction rigs on the Adriatic sea, and nobody talked about it. Where did they come from? It was so difficult to find information!
Rachel: Tell us where you see this work gong?
Elena: Now of course I have to sit and write the thesis. Writing by publication is normal in a computer science department, I have to submit by March 2015, and after that I am thinking about getting a postdoc. I really enjoy what I am doing, even if it was all new in the beginning the learning curve has been so steep and exciting, I want to continue for a bit at least. I would like to keep on working in this energy sector; sticking with energy and monitoring seems a good way to exploit the knowledge and connections that I have already got. I also love doing the fieldwork.
Rachel: Can you tell us a surprising moment from your research?
Elena: One surprising thing was being so welcomed, but also – since I have an engineering background – I’m really into the nitty gritty details! I am interested in hearing how sensors work and fail, understanding very situated problems in installing an ocean observatory , settling the infrastructure in some places. Actually there is one episode I would really like to tell you about. I was interviewing one leading IT advisor, sitting in both projects of my study. He was talking to me while he also had a skype chat open with some consultant, developers involved in the website. At one point, the chat started blinking. The software development guy told him to look at the website because something was happening. We did, and we saw that there was a fish that had just come out of the coral (on the Venus open web portal). The fish was looking at the camera, and moving its mouth, then it was really looking very cross. They started to comment about it on the Skype chat, when my interviewee turned to me, and said, “You know, that’s not the first time it happened, we saw “him” before!”. I was really intrigued by the personification of nature here. So they analysed the acoustic files, it turned out this same fish, whenever he comes out, makes a shshshshs noise at the camera. He seems to be annoyed at the camera, but then he goes away and comes back. I think that empirical snapshot describes what the project is all about, the question of “Will we annoy them by doing our operations there? How will they react, maybe they will be annoyed, maybe they will then forget?”
Rachel: In what way does it encapsulate the project for you?
Elena: Because it captures the meeting between human culture, and nature, how something this far away and invisible on the sea floor suddenly becomes closely visible and communicates with you on the desktop. It is something I have been trying to emphasise in my papers: the environment is an active actor in whatever we do. so you can plan for and design whatever infrastructure you want, pipeline, you have to remember the env is not a passive. You can put your sensors to monitor all the fish you want but if the fish swim in another direction, you don’t monitor anything at all. If you want to use some Latourian terms, nature given microphone – literally – through which it is granted a right to speak. We will not know in this project whether it stabilises or whether the voice of the environment can be heard in the energy world in general, but it is definitely an interesting attempt to move the attention in this direction.
Rachel: Indeed! So, what is the best thing about doing the PhD?
Elena: A PhD is hard! It has sad and happy moments, it’s just a roller coaster. I am not saying anything new here, but the coolest thing? Coming up with your ideas and developing them, and seeing the learning curve going up, that’s something that really makes me wake up in the morning, learning something new. The empirical part, because of course, I had a luck of PhD with nice long empirical fieldwork. I am not sure everyone is as lucky but if possible I should invite new students to put as much effort into their empirical work. I am trying to methodologically show ethnography as valuable, both in discussions in CSCW and in IS.
Rachel: And what have your impressions of Denmark been? I know you’re only here a short while, but given that you’ve dreamed of Scandinavia for a while…
Elena: I have been only a week, but the first thing I loved is the vibe of the city of Copenhagen. It’s really alive and whatever corner you turn there is always something going on, a cafe or students or a market. It feels like for my first three days here, I was doing an ethnography of restaurants, cafes and pastries. I haven’t found one I don’t like yet. Also, beer is cheaper!!
Rachel: And finally, what have your impressions of TiP been?
Elena: That’s been amazing since the first minute. Everyone is really nice and welcoming and wiling to talk to me. I sit with other PhD students who are really nice and communicative, they showed me around on the first day and I felt, in a few minutes, I felt I was one of them. Which is the step that is sometimes missing if you visit for such a short time, you don’t get the most of the experience if that bit doesn’t work. Professors and others, that might not have time, everyone has had time for a coffee or a chat or something. Even when I was still in Norway, setting it up all the communication was great. So thank you!