Slow Food + Slow Internet = Inspiration + Progress

All photos © Derya Akkaynak. Want them? Please email.

Being creatures of habit, we are remarkably good at sticking to routines (even to those may cause us to underperform), because it is less costly to do again what we have done once before than to rethink how we can improve it. Academic workshops/conferences/seminars are great examples of such routines: how well does the current standard format work, confining participants to a classroom 7-8 hours a day, multiple days in a row, to offload technical content on them? Not that well, as a weeklong workshop in Italy reminded me this summer.

Despite being organized solely for the transfer of skills and knowledge, workshops are commonly carried out in a way that having talked about all items on the agenda carries more priority than successfully transferring knowledge. This summer, supported in part by the Martin A. Abkowitz Travel Award given by MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, I attended a workshop that was conceptualized and implemented in a way that would be considered a disruptive innovation in the field of academic workshops, if there were such a category. The Vespucci Initiative’s Summer Institute on Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and Citizen Science innovated on three aspects of workshop organization that may not traditionally be considered important (or, even relevant):

venue,

food

and connection to nature.

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[ Side note: My interest in citizen science stemmed from my love for scuba diving. In 2011, I was diving at a manta ray gathering spot in Hawaii, with at least 50 other divers who had come to watch these majestic animals feed in the dozens. As I looked at the divers around me ascending and descending, I realized that the wrist computers they wore, each of which had a thermistor, essentially made them sensors sampling the temperature of the water column! That same night, I started the citizen science project www.divers4oceanography.org, with the goal of collecting temperature data from divers, and making these data available for scientists. There were some VGI challenges about this idea: with every set of temperature data, divers also have to submit the dive location. Dive sites are generally represented with names that refer to a general area, and with not coordinates, so making sense of the geographic information submitted by divers is not a straightforward task. Luckily, I learned that the prestigious Vespucci Institute this summer was going to focus on the creation and understanding of VGI and citizen science data, just in time to submit an application. It turned out that attending the workshop not only gave direction to www.divers4oceanography.org and helped me make more informed implementation decisions, but it also changed my view on workshops.]

In a “typical” academic workshop, the day starts around 8 or 9 in the morning, and may run until 5 or 6 in the afternoon, with a couple of coffee breaks, and an hour or so allocated for lunch. Many times, workshop venues are dining rooms at big hotels, in which natural light will be purposely blocked by way of not having any windows – but, mirrors and glass chandeliers will be hung throughout to create an illusion of natural light.

A typical academic workshop or conference looks like this.
A typical academic workshop or conference looks like this.

Attendees generally stay at that particular hotel to minimize commuting time and cost, maximizing time spent in the classroom. Breakfast and lunches are commonly eaten in a different room of the same venue, sometimes while sessions are in progress so the presenter can cover more course material. After sitting through hours of technical lectures and instructions, all the while responding to smart phone beeps and buzzes, participants look forward to that one fun and relaxing event of the day: dinner and drinks. This routine repeats every day until the start of the last session of the last day, which most participants will miss because they will have left for the airport.

Venue

The 2014 Vespucci Summer Institute venue was anything but typical: the workshop took place on a 300-hectare farm and estate in Fiesole, Italy. The estate, called Fattoria di Maiano, dates back to the 14th century and is still growing olives and pressing their own oil. Even though the Fattoria provides accommodations, participants were encouraged to stay off-site to get more exposure to the history, culture and natural beauty of Fiesole and Florence. In fact, instead of taking the shuttle bus, many participants chose to do the hour-long hike from and to their hotel in Fiesole to the Fattoria through the woods. This hiking trail passed through Monte Ceceri, the hill from which Leonardo Da Vinci conducted some of his flight experiments.

View of Fattoria di Maiano on a stormy day, the venue for the 2014 Vespucci Summer Institute (and many more in years past).  The fattoria dates back to the 14th century, still producing oil from the 20,000 olive trees spread over 300 hectares.
View of Fattoria di Maiano on a stormy day, the venue for the 2014 Vespucci Summer Institute (and many more in years past). The fattoria dates back to the 14th century, still producing oil from the 20,000 olive trees spread over 300 hectares.

Workshop rules were few and simple: turn your laptop off, take notes on paper and pay full attention to the speaker. Most participants struggled with these rules to a certain degree: some with not having constant internet access, and others, with using a pen. During breaks or in between sessions when we could use our laptops, we found out the Fattoria’s settings only allowed a certain number of users to get online, and even if one could get online, the connection was frustratingly slow. Initially, this inconvenience made everyone grumpy. Most of us could not even remember when we had last encountered slow internet, let alone, no internet. But it soon became clear: without it, we were a lot more engaged, and got more done, faster.

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Not a painting – just the view from our classroom at the Vespucci 2014 summer institute in Fiesole, Italy.

Food

The pastoral setting of the workshop was inspiring, but our only inspiration did not come from the view. Italy is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, which values a slow pace of life and getting pleasure from food. Since its founding in 1986, the Slow Food movement is embraced by many countries in the world because it aims to preserve, support and promote local growers envisioning a world where all people can have access to good, clean and fair food. Having internalized the Slow Food philosophy, The Vespucci Institute had allocated two hours for lunch everyday, which included the proper antipasto, primo, secondo, insalata and dolce courses, accompanied by local wine. The experience of fresh, tasteful and healthful meals turned these long lunches into indispensible idea-generating components of the workshop, as opposed to what would have been a break from it.

One of the dining rooms at Fattoria di Maiano.
One of the dining rooms at Fattoria di Maiano.

Connection to nature

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Fattoria was its proximity to nature. For an entire week, the only sounds we heard came from the donkeys on the farm, and not from honking cars. It was possible to take short or long walks on the estate at any time of the day. Indeed, our first day exercise was to choose between bird watching as a citizen science activity, or aerial imagery collection using a balloon – both of which were intended to help us understand the experience of users who volunteer geographic information. Could the same information transfer take place using 6 bullet points on 2 slides? Certainly. But guess which version will be more memorable!

On a beautiful setting accompanied by delicious food, we learned about the commonalities and differences between VGI and Citizen Science. Perhaps more importantly, we learned how to present ideas involving these concepts to funding agencies. This was not accomplished through a prescribed set of instructions from a thick guidelines document, but through teamwork to figure out how to express convincingly why our project should be funded and how the funds would be spent. This was remarkably eye-opening: most of us did not know how much a graduate or post-graduate student cost at our home institutions. Some of us did not know how much overhead our home institutions charged. Some of us did not know institutions charged overhead.

Some examples of our "slow" lunches during the Vespucci week.
Some samples from the “slow” lunches during the Vespucci week.

Preparing and presenting our stories was not even the difficult part; we had to convince the “funding board members”, who in this case were the workshop facilitators, of the value in funding our project. This was tough: the facilitators were superstars in their fields and liberally questioned every idea we put forward: Cristina Capineri (University of Siena, Italy), Max Craglia (Joint Research Centre of the European Commission), Muki Haklay (University College, London), Frank Ostermann (University of Twente, the Netherlands), Thomas Bartoschek (University of Münster, Germany),  Caren Cooper (Cornell Lab. of Ornithology), Liz Barry (Public Labs, NYC), and Andrea Wiggins (Cornell Lab. of Ornithology). My team proposed to collect historical and current-day photographs of glaciers and measurements of ice thickness from Alpine climbers, because these data would be essential in complementing what we know about the melting of glaciers from satellite imagery. Such a complete picture could then help European governments make informed decisions on freshwater management and allow scientists to update their glaciological models. Our project was voted “most likely to get funded” by the facilitators.

Residents at the Fattoria farm.
Residents at the Fattoria farm.

By the end of the weeklong workshop, participants had overcome the withdrawal symptoms of working offline (most everyone had internet access at their hotels), and seemed to think the “slow” way of working allowed for more creativity, more progress, and more time for “life” because work just got done faster. On my account, I feel that the timing for this workshop could not have been better; I had just finished my PhD, and now had armed myself with enough tools to pursue a new direction in citizen science as a post-doctoral project, which is completely different than my thesis research. I left the workshop with ideas and foundation for at least two papers, and met future collaborators.  Intending to pursue a career in academia, I am now also highly motivated to educate myself on teaching and effective communication techniques, and will keep the Slow Food + Slow Science formula in mind for academic meetings I will host or sponsor in the future.

Facilitators and participants together with Public Lab's balloon (and kite) mapping kit. The kits are on sale here: http://store.publiclab.org/products/balloon-mapping-kit. In this photo, I am in the front row, first on the right.
Facilitators and participants together with Public Lab’s balloon (and kite) mapping kit. The kits are on sale here: http://store.publiclab.org/products/balloon-mapping-kit. In this photo, I am in the front row, first on the right.

Once again, I am grateful for support from MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Department through the Martin A. Abkowitz Travel Award, which made it possible for me to attend the 2014 Vespucci Summer Institute.

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