Women in Science: Can Twitter help us improve software?
Last Friday I took part in an event called Soapbox Science which had the aim of showcasing UK women in science, inspiring the next generation of scientists and making science fun and accessible. Easy, right? Well, no. That is actually a pretty tall order, but definitely a very laudable one.
When I was initially asked to speak at the event I was absolutely delighted and honoured to have been chosen by the fabulous organizers Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner. But then, as the day of the event got closer and closer, I started worrying about what I was going to say. I am used to talking about my research to academics at conferences, and to students in the classroom, but talking about my research to the general public whilst standing on a soapbox on London’s South Bank? I’m not used to that.
The research I planned to talkabout was carried out with some great collaborators: Joanne Jacobs, Rachel Harrison and Mark Baldwin. We investigated whether using social media as part of the software development process could improve the quality of softwareproduced.
Although I’m very keen on getting everyone interested in, and excited about, technology, how important it is and how it will continue to become more and more important in our lives, I’ve never stood on a soapbox and tried to do that.
I thought hard beforehand about what I was going to say, but didn’t get very far. I thought that maybe people would ask what software was so asked friends on Twitter a couple of days before the event how they would describe software to someone who didn’t know what it was. I got some great answers:
@marxculture It’s the petrol that makes a computer run
@andyfield The tools that allow you to actually make use of the computer
@barnstormed The car is the hardware, the driver is the software
@MarDixonSlowly. I usually explain it like a TV show on a TV box.
and many more.
On the day I didn’t need to describe what software is, or how it works, no one asked me that. After I arrived I went around to listen quickly to the other scientists that were already speaking. They all had props of some sort. I went inside and put together three boards to hold up during my hour on the soapbox. I focused on what I thought (hoped) would catch the imagination of passers by. On the main board I wrote down several numbers:
- 7 billion
- 2 billion
- 750 million
- 200 million
- 62 million
- 20 million
and asked my audience what they thought the figures stood for. When I made it obvious that I was talking about social media most people seemed to be able to guess, more or less, correctly what the figures referred to (answers below).
Once I got people interested I then went on to talk about how much social media, the internet and technology affect our lives in general, and then about how social media can help improve communication, especially between geographically dispersed teams, how it can speed up problem solving and much more.
Software is so important, it is all around us these days, not only in our computers but our phones, cars, ATMs, washing machines…it’s everywhere. These days the teams of people that produce the software that runs these machines often live in different countries from each other. Our research focuses on how people involved in the software production process are improving what they do by collaborating with each other via social media such as Twitter, Facebook etc. If we can work out how to improve software we will end up with improved phone/car/ATM/washing machine performance,and therefore, ultimately, better products.
When I was writing softwarefor my PhD, a few years ago, if I got stuck with errors in my code I would look through my programming books, talk to a couple of other PhD students and possibly pull my hair out trying to work out what was wrong. These days software engineers have access to a vast array of resources, not least of which is social media. We found in our study that not only can social media help improve the speed at which software can be developed, but it can also improve problem solving, make it easier to share best practice, enable more rapid and comprehensive testing and improve people’s working lives. 91% of our survey respondents said that using social media didindeed improve their working lives.
Once I was in situ on my soapbox I quickly overcamemy initial panic. I was able to talk to people walking along the South Bank trying to enjoy a Friday afternoon’s sunshine hopefully in an interesting and engaging manner. By the end I realised that I had really enjoyed my time out there on the front line. In fact they had to tell me to get off my soapbox at the end as everyone else had already finished J
So Soapbox Science, great idea, well executed. But it is a real shame that we need to do this. Unfortunately women leave science careers in droves from mid-career onwards. Why is that? I’d love to know what you think….
Remember the figures that I mentioned earlier? Here is what they represent:
- 7 billion people on the planet
- 2 billion people on the internet
- 750 million people on Facebook
- 200 million people on Twitter
- 62 million people in the UK
20 million people on Google+ after just 3 weeks!
The world is changing….science, software, twitter
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