Student profile: Maire Evans
What was your academic path before coming to the Web Science DTC 4 year MSc/PhD
At school I loved the Classics and English, but after A levels did an Art Foundation Course, followed by a degree in Philosophy with Linguistics as a minor. I became interested in epistemology and AI
through looking at knowledge representation and propositional / expert knowledge representation
systems. I then did a one year taught Masters in Computer Science and continued to look at AI, and
artificial neural networks.
From the MSc I went on to work in a variety of roles: creating databases for Emergency Planning,
helpdesk support, IT training, then later, working with managing information streams for Centrica
plc’s Report and Accounts, and working on the editorial board, helping with its production and signoff. I was asked to do a few other jobs there too, (mostly in corporate communications, some in IT)
all of which I really enjoyed, and while I was there I also started training as a Company Secretary, so
studied a bit of corporate law and got quite involved with issues involving transparency and how the
company’s profits fitted into our country’s overall economic picture through having to work closely
with Investor Relations in analyst briefings and sending announcements to the Stock Exchange. I
have done quite a bit of editorial work (and am still wondering why it’s so easy to edit other people’s
work but not one’s own), but more recently worked in Search Engine Optimisation with one of the
original SEO companies. I recently started another degree with the OU in psychology, but couldn’t
afford to complete it – did one year and then trained as an ITC teacher. After that I finally responded
to the siren call of Web Science!
Why did you choose Web Science?
Looking at the above, I feel a little as though Web Science chose me! Funnily enough it was through
the lure of contextual advertising – every time I was researching anything for the SEO job, I think I
recall adverts for the DTC jumping out at me; I know it just appeared on the web somehow and I
kept looking at it and dreaming a little. The fact they seemed to want people who were multidisciplinary encouraged me, as for most of my life people have looked on my background as being a
liability! I was really, really nervous about applying, but I decided I had nothing to lose. I was a bit
worried because my first degree was in Philosophy, a subject which most people do not see the point
of, but since I’ve been here, I’ve seen what a strong fit it is.
What does the Web mean to you?
A lot. I’ve seen its many socio-technical manifestations – and more: it meant everything to me when I
was at home with children for a while and studying online. It was a like having a buoyancy aid thrown
out to me. But then I began to question the content of what was being handed over…And why there
is so much that is so questionable. Does it represent human achievement in all its glory or is
everything important non-searchable, on the dark net? How much of what is indexed trivial and
repetitive? I’ve seen the effects of cyber-bullying and easy access to porn culture on children I’ve
taught, how people try to manipulate search engines to make money, how it can amplify people’s
efforts to define their identity, how people use it for both good and bad purposes. I grew up without
it, but when I first saw it working I was completely sucked in. It still seems ever so slightly magical to
me. The buzz was just starting when I did my first MSc, and I was an evangelist in my first jobs – but
no-one believed me then!
Best experience of the course so far?
The other students are just mind-blowingly clever, funny and lovely. I do feel extremely lucky to be
here and really honoured to know them. I also really look up to and appreciate the lecturers, but
don’t want them to get big-headed, so please try to keep that quiet.
What Research Areas are you interested in for your MSc/PhD?
I’m still fascinated by AI, knowledge representation and epistemology, and am also increasingly
interested in the discourse coming from economic theory and policy – and debates on privacy,transparency, open and linked data (and other sorts of data) and corporate responsibility. (As an
aside, ‘privacy’ comes from ‘privare’ – to ‘deprive’ or ‘starve’ – shows how we’ve changed our views on
I’m attracted to the idea of a knowledge economy and the ways in which the web can mediate this,
but think this calls for a re-framing of some of the old debates. I’ve seen the effects on businesses
who have to arrange themselves in order to provide transparency and the weird sorts of data that
can be produced as a result, and the horrific results for the workers at the bottom of the heap being
scrutinised, called to account and made to mechanistically map out all their actions, in ways which
never really explain what they actually do anyhow; their sheer unappreciated intelligence.
I wonder how much of our economy is predicated on this false-data culture, and how many of the
real drivers are hidden away, and may continue to be for a while? If we believe in the concept of
growth, surely we could produce it with much less effort and evasion, using Open Linked Data for
example in the places where it fits? (Although if we become massively interlinked economically, then
it becomes harder to find places where the use of any data might not have repercussions.) We can
then ask for governments and corporations to be accountable in ways which are possible and allow
them to do their jobs with the appropriate amount of privacy – which actually seems to be necessary
I’ve seen a lot of bad data being bandied around that actually provides no sort of a picture of what an
institution is doing or how it might go on to succeed or fail. I’ve also seen the way in which this fatally
demotivates the people producing the data – which surely is not good for growth. In SEO I’ve seen
people who insist on thinking only about ‘clicks’ without thinking about who the people are who are
clicking and why they’re there, and how the way in which the people behind the site respond might
drive their visitors’ future behaviour in the wide economy. In a connected economy there are
interdependences that need thinking about quite carefully, especially in a knowledge economy,
faithfully represented on the web and accessed through the web, as it increasingly is. Clicks are
treated as mechanistic data in analytics, and human motivation is only looked for in predicting where
to lay the traps for the explorer of a site. There is a very unhealthy discourse which sees consumers
as prey and site owners as hunters laying traps for them. Whether the notion of stakeholders is
outdated or not, this is a ridiculous way to be talking about consumers: as though they are diseases,
vermin or the enemy. This is not the language of a knowledge economy.
The web also has an interesting side-effect here, which is that searching for data can produce results
that are not necessarily reflective of the ‘truth.’ So search is a key area here, which then necessarily
means how the architecture of data is set up. So this also underpins the way in which if growth is to
be somewhat mediated by the web, it should have some of its core concepts enlarged upon or redefined and this ontology should be reflected in the semantic architecture of data management.
I’m a little bit obsessed with data in all its manifestations, including, of course, open and linked data,
which is something that I have often longed for in the past. I’m interested in how data behaves on its
own, and in ‘groups’. Data seems to be more vulnerable in a group, as it’s the grouping or
arrangement that gives it context and makes meaning emerge and also creates a target. But the
meaning that emerges can be different to the meaning coming from one datum on its own. This
seems to me to be related to reductionistic approaches to knowledge and the old deterministic ways
of talking about the body as a system. When you treat some systems in particular ways then the
treatments have side-effects which are treated as problems but not incorporated (literally) into the
framing of the treatment. It seems the web has a degree of scale and complexity that means it’s
important not to just treat it as another version of technology, but something different that calls for
reframing of questions. So I’m currently looking for a way of fitting these slightly disjunct ideas
together, and looking for a way to explore some of them, (probably not all!) under the aegis of the
economics of knowledge.
What are your career ambitions?
I have never had ambitions. Life is too contingent. I’m pragmatic and opportunistic and tend to move
sideways through places (a bit like a bot) as I’m far too interested in exploring things to be careerminded in the linear sense. I have a very strong sense of curiosity. Most of my jobs have depended
on me being able to elicit information from people without them feeling threatened. Even having
thoughts in your head about ambition can obtrude on honest conversations with people about why
and how they do the things they do, which are necessary conversations sometimes, in order to
understand data and its place in our economy.
In your own words, what is Web Science?
Web Science is about taking a three dimensional space, populating it with discussions on, knowledge of and reflections on: (among other things) identity, security, science, technology, the arts, politics, economics, society, maths, physics, computer science, psychology, law, communications and philosophy. Imagine that space as a piece of paper. Imagine mapping out everything we know about those subjects on the piece of paper. Now take the paper and crumple it up into a ball, (a manifold geometry). Get a knife and stab holes through the ball. You’ve made ontological tunnels that map out new dimensions through subjects. Making these tunnels solid, whether for five minutes or for a lifetime, has created an interdisciplinary primeval mass. Things are emerging from the new mass, ways of making subjects talk to each other, ways of getting rid of the old, flat boundaries. Questions crawl out, and every slight movement of the manifold spaces rubbing against each other means that we must ascertain whether these are questions we should pursue or questions we should let disappear off into the webby void that constantly shifts and re-propagates.