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Martin Zaltz Austwick, Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis

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Illustration Lucinda Rogers

We are able to ask questions such as what social media tells us about the cultural life of a city or what neuroscience tells us about how we navigate

From a heady mix of interdisciplinary teaching and complexity theory, to the humble bicycle, this year has certainly been eventful. I came to the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) as a physicist, and this academic year I published my first paper as a “social physicist” – well, that’s what I call myself sometimes, although perhaps it implies that other physicists are anti-social, a bit unfairly.

The paper was on how people use bikeshare schemes in five different cities around the world. In London, of course, these are more often called “Boris Bikes”, and their movements are responsive to the ebbs and flows of the city – rush hour, tourist trips around the park, even tube strikes – and more often than not, the vagaries of weather.

The availability of more and more datasets like these creates an amazing challenge for people like me: how to use our knowledge to align these complex datasets with useful questions, ones that might tell us something meaningful about the world.

This could be what social media tells us about the cultural life of a city, what neuroscience tells us about how we navigate, or how to visualise and understand social networks. All of this could be important to cities in the future, and data, computation and mathematical methods help to pull these questions together on a fairly grand scale.

But I’m firmly in the camp that believes that the role of research staff at universities is not just about creating knowledge, but also sharing, translating and discussing it with all sorts of people. I think every researcher, PhD student and professor should do that in one way or another.

I was also delighted to be able to start a Public Engagement Fellowship this year with my inimitable colleague Dr Hannah Fry. Public engagement is where we take our research to people who aren’t academics, so we talk to previously underrepresented or underreached bits of the public by participating in various events, talks and workshops, and actually listen as well. I’ll be doing the crazy amount of public engagement I’ve always done (talks, podcasts, songs, videos, festivals…) but I’ll also be trying to help other people fit public engagement into their research lives.

So it may have been the Chinese Year of the Horse, but I’ll remember the recent academic terms as the “Year of Massive Amounts of Teaching”. It’s been my first full year as course director and, along with Master’s-level courses on programming and visualisation, I’ve started teaching on the BASc, UCL’s undergraduate degree programme which combines arts, science and humanities.

This rich and terrifying mix appealed to my scattershot interests, and when I heard they were looking for second year option modules, I got a bit overexcited and volunteered to help write and teach on two separate modules, one on cities and one on data literacy.

While no course works perfectly first time, I’ve really enjoyed being able to try new teaching formats and create some really interdisciplinary modules – ones where students can’t stay in a particular box, but have to stretch themselves in areas where they may not be playing to their strengths.

I’m hoping these students get used to the enforced humility of constantly working across boundaries, and playing catch up with specialists in each field. Life does get boring if you always know the answers. I imagine.

Dr Martin Zaltz Austwick is a lecturer in the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), and Course Director of the MRes in Advanced Spatial Analysis and Visualisation.

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Portico Issue 1. 2014/15
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