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Episode 6: Dr David Ellis: revolutionising psychology research with tech & smartphone data

In this episode:

Prof Anna Cox talks to Dr David Ellis, a psychologist with a keen interest in technology and the data it produces. We talk about how he owes his career to his mum who first suggested that he study psychology at university, how a curiosity to play around with technology lies behind much of his research and the methods that he uses, and the competing demands of academic life. We also touch on his frustration with the reluctance of some psychologists to embrace technology to help answer important questions about the impact of smartphones on our health and wellbeing, and explore the importance of thinking carefully about what data we collect as scientists: the challenge of giving participants control over what they contribute is not straightforward when seemingly innocuous data can hold some surprisingly personal and unforeseen insights about what people are really up to.

Dr David Ellis is an Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of Bath. His work considers the data that digital technologies collect and how the resulting information can provide insights about individuals and their behaviour, and the impact this technology has on people and society more broadly. 

Find out more about David’s research

 Biography and publications

You can read David’s biography, discover more about his research interests and find links to his publications here: https://researchportal.bath.ac.uk/en/persons/david-ellis

Psychology Sensor Lab website https://psychsensorlab.com/

 Book

Smartphones Within Psychological Science https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/smartphones-within-psychological-science/1E6378830C46451427D9A04CBE60150D

 Videos

GetAMoveOn Network+ workshops

David Ellis has collaborated with Anna Cox on the GetAMoveOn Network+.  Here are the videos of two events that he ran as part of that project:

What does health look like: visualising health stats from wearable activity trackers

Wearables in primary care: an innovation workshop

David’s TEDx talk: Is technology really ruining your life?

David’s tips on securing your first job in academia: a talk for the British Psychological Society Psychology Research Day 2018:

David discussing smartphone ‘addiction’ on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science:

Other resources

Link to paper on privacy and open science which David mentions in the podcast: Dennis, S., Garrett, P., Yim, H. et al. Privacy versus open science. Behav Res 51, 1839–1848 (2019). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-019-01259-5

Follow David on twitter

@davidaellis

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

Transcript eWorkLife podcast Season 1 Episode 6 – interview with David Ellis

Anna Cox

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode I’ll be talking to Dr David Ellis, a psychologist with a keen interest in technology and the data it produces. We talk about how he owes his career to his mum who first suggested that he study psychology at university, how a curiosity to play around with technology lies behind much of his research and the methods that he uses, and the importance of thinking carefully about what data is collected by scientists so as to put the participants in control of what they contribute.  But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from our other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Kathy Stawarz

I’m Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer at Cardiff University. My top tip for using technology to support your health or well being is thinking whether you need the technology in the first place. Sometimes the best technology is no technology at all.

Sandy Gould

I’m Sandy Gould. I’m a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. My top tip for using technology to support your well being is to take five minutes now again to look through your old photos. Deleting the junk will make you feel organised. And you also get a nice reminder of the fun times that you’ve had.

Anna Cox

Now today’s guest: Dr David Ellis is an Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of Bath. His work considers the data that digital technologies collect and how the resulting information can provide insights about individuals and their behaviour, and the impact this technology has on people and society more broadly.  Here’s my conversation with David.

Anna Cox 

Welcome David. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

David Ellis 

Hello. Nice to be here.

Anna Cox 

So I wanted to start back at the beginning. As an undergraduate, you studied psychology at University of Glasgow, and I wondered were that interested in the subject came from.

David Ellis 

So I was originally going to do medicine, and that was what I thought I do. And I think I realised – I was still at school – I didn’t really want to be in hospitals, and I don’t, I don’t know why I thought medicine was a good idea. I think it’s what teachers often thought – if you do science, get them into medicine. And I think a few weeks before, or in the run up to applying for university, I was having this crisis of what am I going to do. And if my mum listens to this she’ll love this because my mother basically said why don’t you do psychology, why don’t you do that? And basically I didn’t really know much about psychology, and I thought yeah okay I’ll do that. And that was really, there was no planned, like decision. I did psychology. So that was that was how I ended up doing it.

Anna Cox 

So you didn’t have an idea about, “Oh, and it’ll leads me to doing something in particular”?

David Ellis  

Not really. I mean, I think a lot of people were clinging on to this practitioner thing of like maybe I’ll be a clinical psychologist, as you know, tonnes of people who do psychology initially think that’s what, what they might do. I was probably part of that. And it was sort of like a turning point in my third summer between my – it was in Scotland so there’s four year undergrad – so the summer between  my third and fourth years, I was really lucky to get a kind of student scholarship to do some research over the summer, and it was, it was like between the university in a private company. And I think that was the first time I was actually, “This is quite fun”. I could, I could see myself just doing this. And I just thought it was awesome that I was getting paid, not a huge amount of money but I started getting paid money to think about stuff and come up with ideas, and I thought well this is, this is quite good. And that was what then led me to finding out what a PhD was and speaking to people about it and being quite naive, probably.

Anna Cox 

So when you went into doing the PhD, did you do that with, with the idea that, okay, I’m going to be on this academic track then

David Ellis 

I think so.  How fixated it was to the academic track, I’m not sure, but I definitely liked just thinking and learning and being in that environment. And, yeah, I mean I remember like approaching, who was my undergraduate supervisor, and I was like, I think I want to do this, this PhD thing. I probably was very naive and though it’ll all be fine. I remember he said oh that’s good you know, I’m glad and, and, I mean, I sort of realised, no, I can put all my eggs in one basket, hoping I would get this funding.  I knew it was competitive but I don’t know why I thought I was doing so it didn’t apply for others. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gone, I mean I would have probably got somewhere else but I just, just thought I’ll do that. And that worked out, but I didn’t, I wasn’t thinking long term.  I was just, I was just amazed that I was like, I mean I’ve even explained it to my dad, you know, various times, you know, you get some money to just go and do some stuff. And explained to my dad, you get paid to just think and learn. And he said, yeah, uh hu, sounds alright.

Anna Cox 

So can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing for your PhD research?

David Ellis 

Yeah, so I started off very, I’d say very traditional psychology research and that was running experiments in a lab, as you would expect: very kind of cognitive psychology, but I started to explore and more social constructs of time and how behaviour changes over time, and this coincided with, I spent a few months in the Scottish Government, and I realised now that I was moving into like more sort of computational social science, but no one had really… I don’t know if that term existed then,  but it was like this, access to these big data sets and I kind of realised that, there’s all this data out there about people. I could still run things in a laboratory, but there’s all this potential outside of that, and then that was really exciting. And so, my supervisor sort of captured that interest I guess. Yeah, so it was quite, there’s lots of different methods in it from very small experiments which might only have 20 or 30 people all the way through to, you know, millions of people in sort of government data sets. So it’s pretty broad. It’s probably too broad. There’s no like it… I suppose you always reflect back on things, but I’ve got a good set of experiences and different methods which is quite nice.

Anna Cox 

And you said then that you were looking at how behaviour changes over time. So lots people might think, “Well, what do you mean?”

David Ellis 

Yeah. So I was looking at sort of specifically, so I’ve done these like really kind of small scale experiments where I was sort of trying to explain why, if people have ever experienced why they get confused what day of the week it is was trying to explain why that sometimes happens. And it’s partly because people have got really strong associations with the beginning and the end of the week. So if I ask you what day it is on a Monday, you’re twice as fast to respond than if I asked you on a Wednesday, for example. But these associations are really err, well you have very negative associations, people tend to have negative associations with Monday and positive with a Friday. So they were interested to see if that if that kind of bears out on like larger data, you know, and other patterns of life. So you find that people miss more doctor’s appointments at the start of the week than the end of the week, but one of the things that was more interesting about that was that while that was quite nice and it supported some of this err experimental work, this, this kind of Monday to Friday decline, if you’d like, was much stronger in younger patients than older patients. And so that gives you some opportunities to move appointments around to maximise attendance, and that led to a lot of work afterwards, with other people on – I’m still doing now – on appointments, but it also, yeah kind of this applied, this notion of like taking things outside or applying it. I had an interesting time in the Scottish Government that made me more convinced I wanted to stay in academia, I have to say. I enjoyed it but pointed back to university after those few months.

Anna Cox 

So do you know why young people behave differently to older people in this?

David Ellis 

So, yeah, I mean it’s, it probably – this is more speculative at this stage – it’s probably got something to do the fact that once you’re retired, your kind of weekly cycle is a bit more – you might not be working on a Monday, you’ve got the weekdays – meaningless in that occupational kind of context, whereas younger people (it’s seeing younger people as a big age group, but, you know, people who are in the working population), they have that pattern, and it’s, it’s quite a small effect but it’s quite significant. And we, we ended up years later, doing work with a clinic where they strategically moved appointments to different days of the week, and we were able to show that you can actually save a lot of money and a lot of time and yeah that’s… I mean it’s like everything is sort of led to meeting other people and developing new connections and then to more work on that. Like so.

Anna Cox 

Is it this kind of…like using large data is sort of a theme that runs through your work, kind of looking at data. So is that kind of where it came from?

David Ellis 

I think it probably did. I think when I moved from Glasgow to Lancaster for the first time, I was being exposed to not only all this data but wearable technology, which was like more kind of (laugh) wasn’t really as wearable as it became but it was… That also was just like well there’s so much you can do with this, and interesting again it was running lab experiments again, but I was probably being drawn towards like what’s going on outside the lab. And I think that’s why that was always just so appealing to me, I guess like, I was always interested in technology and the sort of person that was as a student I was in a band, and played a synthesiser because I was interested in technology. I wasn’t a very good musician, but that’s that’s, that’s what I was interested in. So yeah, it kind of brings those two things together.

Anna Cox 

So, that work that you started to do then, was it still thinking about health contexts? So using the data for that kind of purpose?

David Ellis 

Yeah, I think initially, well I suppose at Lancaster, yes it was. Some of it was, was more kind of occupational in the sense that we’re looking at groups of people behaved outside the lab when they were doing different tasks and I was getting introduced as well to new types of data like linguistic data when you record conversations and how you can then have that transcribed and that was all kind of new. So one of the consistencies, is that I’ve always been given quite a lot of freedom, by PIs or other people I’ve worked with which is really exciting.  But it can be quite hard to know what you’re doing some of the time, but you become really independent – you just kind of get on with it, sort of thing.

Anna Cox 

So you’ve developed particular strategies for that, then for working out, if you, when you’re given all of this freedom, like what to go and do.

David Ellis 

Yeah,I mean, I kind of, I suppose my PhD supervisor was always really kind of like he likes, liked ideas, and I was always about that as well and I think if I’ve got an i…., as always, I’ve got ideas to do things I’ve never got a shortage of things to do. It’s funny, actually, you know, I spent years sort of escaping the laboratory if you like, and now I’m actually coming back to it in more recent work, and I think it probably says a lot about my own attention span. But I just a move to what… I’ve been really lucky that people have given me space to just develop. I don’t know what strategies… I think just I’m not really… I suppose a lot of it’s like just not being too worried about things not working the way I think they’re gonna work, you know, I’m quite happy with that. There’s lots of other things why I ended up being a scientist but the certain notion of just doing stuff, and seeing what happens I’m quite keen to… yearh. This is interesting because I’ve just started to try and set up a sort of small lab from wanting to look at how people play video games collaboratively or don’t. I’m talking specifically now about things like Call of Duty, and you’re just learning how to use things like vision mixers and, you know, knowing that there’s a lot of stuff about video feeds, there’s no, I kind of just, I like generate more ideas I think when I’m messing around with stuff of that ilk, so just experimenting with tech I guess is part of it,

Anna Cox 

And that sounds like that drives your ideas as well as giving you the skills to do new things.

David Ellis 

Yeah, I think as well it’s also that’s not technically, like we’re sharing theoretical angles or like I’m quite interested at the moment in all the discussion within psychology about the generalizability crisis and how we measure things, how we do things and I suppose that kind of makes me think of, you know, the better ways we might be able to do some things and that sort of spurred me on. So it’s not always technology driven, it’s sometimes driven from like theory or from what other people are doing. So it’s somewhere in the middle, and someone introduced me once and said, they looked at what I did and they didn’t believe I was a psychologist, they thought I was a computer scientist.  I took that as a compliment, but I think yeah I probably sit right in the middle, that’s probably why I’m in the School of Management now, which is all different, lots of different people from all over the place.

Anna Cox 

So how have you… because you’ve published in, in psychology, but also in computer science. Like how have you found that? Do you find that you had to like learn new skills in order to talk to those different sorts of audiences?

David Ellis 

I mean there’s, there’s certain languages that we all use, you know, so I mean I think… it reminds me that computer scientists sometimes describe an analysis as an experiment, which I can never get my head around, but I do, I deal with it, you know. And I guess, again, it’s like we kind of the people I’ve worked with who are psychologists, we’re also working with computer scientists and they kind of embark this knowledge of almost like in a heads up sometimes but you know, that’s what they’ll do, or that’s, that’s what we’ll do. And you know, I think when you’re trying to solve a problem or, or do work, you know, no discipline is perfect on its own. No one’s got all the answers and I’m fairly comfortable with that. I think it is, it is challenging because you’re learning a new language. I find that actually sometimes harder in medical journals, just because it’s it’s a very, you work with people who are quite blunt enough to say, don’t write that it’ll get someone’s back up, but it’s, it, it probably makes you a better writer – again just because you’re thinking about who different audiences will react, and hopefully if anyone reads any of the work then that’s always a bonus but it, it’s, it’s hard, I think. And I find it hard within the context sometimes of what universities expect of me. I was, when I was more of an early career researcher, I think there’s that notion of you’ve got your discipline, the things that the discipline wants you to, and what your department wants you to do. And then you’ve got the things that the university wants you to do. And sometimes there’s a bit of a conflict, because every discipline’s got its own little thing that it thinks is good, and management is no different, that layer, to any others. And sometimes you have to, you’re trying to do everything, so I’ve got to please the department, and also want to do the stuff that I care about. And if I want to have an applied impact, I need to publish in a medical journal really rather than maybe a psych journal. Yeah. I think that’s something that, in a lot of places needs a bit of work sometimes because it’s, it’s, it’s really challenging. And it’s not always recognised maybe as it should be.

Anna Cox 

But having this applied impact sounds like something that’s one of the things that drives you.

David Ellis 

I think it’s easier for me to get up like yeah, it’s just easier to sort of, if there’s an ‘applied thing’ slapped on it, I can sort of think more critically about it and say well actually… and I think that also comes from the notion of leaving of a laboratory, you know people behave in a lab, it’s not actually how they behave outside the lab. So, if you want to change something or improve something or understand something, I’m quite keen. It is messy. People are messy. I’m quite happy to embrace that and that’s okay. But yeah I think definitely it’s, it’s, it probably drives me insane that there’s other things I’ve done where I think, “What on earth is this gonna ever do?” But then someone else might come along and say oh we thought about that so I think, I say, what I said there, I’m always slight… when I reflect and stuff, I just think it’s cool, for all those the issues with academia it’s just being able to just do stuff, and think about stuff but that freedom is really nice.

Anna Cox 

So one of the things that you’ve done with your freedom is to write a book.

David Ellis 

Yeah, yeah.

Anna Cox   

Which is perhaps not something that, that everybody in your position would have thought, that’s going to be like top of my list. So, where did that idea come from?

David Ellis 

I didn’t, again, it’s not something that I had always planned to do. It was inetresting explaining to people when I said I’m going to write this book, and you know books have kind of, in psychology, fallen out of fashion a wee bit.  Sort of like it was like, “What are you writing a book for?” It’s not, (indistinguishable) but you do do papers, and I think I again have probably been encouraged a lot by people to do things that I really want to do, and you’ve got those systems but if you’re doing what you really want to do you have to you have to balance that. And, I mean I have built up a good collection of, em, failed grant applications, and, you know, stuff that I’d written and other papers that would slot into a kind of story, if you like, and I thought, I remember saying to my colleague at the time I said I’m going to look at this.  I sort of made a deal with myself that well, I’ll send it to a publisher, just this idea and see what they say. And I thought well if they say no, I might not pursue it and they came back and were very positive and said you know can you give us a bit more and then reviews were quite positive. And so, and then they just left me alone to do it. And that was, that was great, you know, and it is a bit of a, it’s not indulgent but it’s, it is very much for you. I think there’s, there’s the book as it is, but writing the book was just a really good excuse to read, even more than I would have done, and have a disproportionate knowledge of something. That has been really helpful, and then making other collaborations where people want to know something about a smartphone in that context so I know the paper, I know, that’s good, that’s a good one to read.  So it just, it also came about due to frustration that it came out of the frustration of – I’m sure it probably reads a bit like someone who’s frustrated at times – but it’s the way psychology has gone about understanding modern technology is so baffling. In some ways it’s viewed as enemy number one, rather than what could this help people with, or what, what could it help us understand. There is so much on smartphone addiction, or whatever you want to call it, you know, it’s such a big area of psychology, and I don’t know why.

Anna Cox 

So, I mean I guess people looking at the title of your book so, “Smartphones Within Psychological Science”, like might very well think that this is about the psychological harm that smartphones might cause to us right.

David Ellis 

I suppose there’s a bit of that, but yeah.

Anna Cox 

Um, so for people who don’t know this area, um do you think that smartphones are something that we should be worried about too? You’ve already kind of alluded to the fact that there’s a lot of people looking at this.

David Ellis 

Yeah, so I mean I think, I think, smartphones, like any other technology, there, there are potential harms and there’s, and it’s not different to necessarily the internet, or other digital technologies and the work that I’m involved with now is very much about understanding what those harms are – as er genuine harms – and how you can map them and mitigate them and, you know, there’s a lot of thinking about, like, what would a taxonomy of digital harm look like for example. There’s quite a few other things we’ve been working on. But psychology has spent a lot of time talking about kind of general notions of technological, very general to the point they’re quite difficult to define. So like smartphone addiction isn’t recognised as a clinical thing, but it’s talked about by people as if it is, and then when you look at how that construct happened or how the Internet addiction happened, it’s so wafer thin, that it’s amazing that it’s, that it’s lasted and there’s a whole thing of, tonnes and tonnes of work. So, so what the book is partly about is that, but it’s also just about where these are being used as research tools. So there’s lots of really great examples of working in social psychology, personality psychology, where the data from smartphones, whether it’s from sensors or from what we tell, you know ecological momentary assessment, that are really making huge leaps, I think, in terms of what we’re learning about people and challenging what we thought we knew, in a lab. You know, so you kind of got these two dual…  The best example is within cognitive psychology. So you’ve got a group of people often a lot computer scientists as well, I should add, who have been building applications that can do cognitive testing or video games that can test for early onset Alzheimer’s or, you know, assess working memory. We’ve got another group of people who claim that smartphones are damaging children’s cognition. And now, you’ve basically got a tool here that can measure exactly when you’re using the device, and do the cognitive tests, but these two groups are totally separate to each other, and no one wants to join it. The people who build the apps are just interested in what it can do. And the people who think it’s a problem are, basically, they think as a problem. I don’t, you know, and never the two shall meet. And that gulf in cognition is phenomenal. It really… the language that’s used, the whole literature bases, do not overlap, yet the device could answer those really important questions, if you it wanted to.

Anna Cox 

Do the people who believe that smartphones are causing harm to children are not doing the science to demonstrate this?

David Ellis 

Yeah, exactly, not really. And I think there’s, there’s a whole host of problems.  It’s from, you know, there’s actually understanding, okay, I suppose this is really harsh – I’ve said this in the book too, so it’s not that harsh – but the various people who claim that the technology is the most harmful seem to know very little about the technology. Because if they knew more about it, it would totally change the way they went about doing the investigation, and that comes back to the notion of, you know, why do interdisciplinary research.  So that’s a really good space to be in for that to answer that question. Now, as with all books since the book came out, people have gone and done exactly that. And of course we find that, well, smartphones might not be the reason that kids cognition is getting better, or worse, or staying the same. So it is happening, it’s just taking like a long time. And I suppose that’s my own frustration in the field, sometimes is, is, is why that takes so long, I guess, whereas computer science moves more quickly. Psychology is a bit… takes its time.

Anna Cox 

So I suppose the flip side of this, which you said that like the book also covers, is about how psychologists can use smartphones as a data collection tool. And it seems there that like possibilities are almost endless really, I guess. So, have you done work in that area yourself.

David Ellis 

Yes, I mean I guess this came before, that sort of weird, like I was quite lucky when I started working at Lincoln. I got a grant to hire a postdoc, and had a PhD student, and we were sort of just thinking about what this technology could be used to do. We never thought we’d get involved with the screen time debate or anything like that but one of the more straightforward applications we could do at the time was collect usage. And it’s funny that at time, we just thought this was interesting, and we were showing that oh by the way, if someone estimates this, it isn’t what they’re actually doing, isn’t that interesting. And it wasn’t until, like, a year later where we probably did a bit more reading, and look, like, there’s all this stuff that saying these are addictive, and it uses this estimate of the skill. Well hang on, we showed that this, this wasn’t very good and that kind of revisited some of that work. And, you know, more recently, I’ve been fortunate that other PhD students who have a psychologist’s background, but have become basically software developers. So, Chris, who is just finishing off his PhD now has basically made a PhD out of building smartphone apps for psychologists, and it’s a very different way of developing, if you’re going to develop a secure app, you know, it’s, it kind of tries to put participants at the front and centre of of that collection process. It’s cool that he’s kind of learned all this stuff during his PhD. So yeah, I suppose my experience is that, again, it’s that mix of like technical and then try to use that as answers to answer a set of questions.

Anna Cox 

What does it mean to “put participants at the front and centre” of data collection?

David Ellis 

It’s becoming quite challenging actually. Psychology, historically, you collect like one data point. You give them a measure or scale, you know, it tells you about them. You can share that it’s just that one number. If we’re collecting someone’s location data from a form, that data is highly revealing about where someone lives, where they work probably.  When I say putting them front and centre, I mean that they have, participants are able to make the decisions about what they share and when they share it, and when they stop collection and when they start collection. I suppose we’ve been really lucky with like reviews, reviewers of papers have pointed out a lot of things that we didn’t necessarily think of was an issue. When we, when we build, when Chris has built our apps now, you know when they’re running, let’s say it’s collecting usage data, there’s always a little banner at the top that reminds people what’s going on, and ultimately we don’t get any data until the participant actually presses the button to send it to us; it’s not saved in real time it’s sent as a batch at the end and it’s encrypted. It’s not just putting participants at the front and centre, it’s also like the way that we’re building these apps is very incremental. It’s not like, here’s all the data from before, which would be comparatively straightforward to do. But we’re kind of saying, right, we’re interested in this thing, this is what we’re going to investigate, and we’ve got reasons to do it, and then we can, we kind of build… It’s classic psychology, it’s a bit slower, in a way, but it’s, it’s to try and get this right, because we don’t want to publish apps that then cause another Cambridge Analytics or something, you know it’s, I think we’re all mindful of that. So it’s about putting people in control of the data.

Anna Cox 

So thinking carefully about what data you really need to collect, and then, er, giving participants all the control you can possibly think of in terms of reminding them that it’s being collected, and they’re the one actually pressing the button to send it to you.

David Ellis 

That’s right. I mean I think that there’s there’s things we can go further with and other groups have started to do things where they’re using like differential privacy, where the researchers are, you know, is much more controlled, you know. Basically participants can withdraw their data afterwards, you know, so it, you know, so there’s, there’s a lot of, there’s some quite a bit of development in that area about  how we get that right. So I mean it does feel a bit like making up the rulebook sometimes because you’re going to ethics boards in psychology – and I won’t name any institutions – but some know more about this than other,  just by who’s on the board,  and the some things I look back on and I’m thinking, I would have asked some more questions. And then there’s other things where, you know they’re asking the right questions, but it’s, it’s not like running the lab test and then everyone leaves. And as the methods change and the data gets bigger, the rules are gonna change and I think the British Psychology Society needs to make sure that that they’re keeping up with what’s going on because it is changing quite quickly, so no easy task.

Anna Cox 

Yeah, I think certainly many institutions are becoming much more aware of, I suppose, about these issues, about what data is being collected and how is it being stored. And also thinking hard about data that’s in the public domain so, you know, issues around looking at data that you might gather from a social networking site for example, where you don’t really have consent from for the people who are posting it:  they didn’t know they were going to be part of the study. So there are a whole load of like difficult things that people are grappling with.

David Ellis 

And there’s going to be mistakes as well. I think the early papers on Facebook, for example, you’ve got like expressions of interest, basically raising the exact point you said there about, well how did you get ethics? You didn’t really get ethics. You know, if someone tried to do that again, it’d be like, no you can’t do that. So, there is, it’s really hard because it is a process of learning, and I mean even in our work, you’ve got like there’s a development of how applications for the smartphone have got better and more secure, because we’re learning, as we’re doing it.

Anna Cox 

So, given that so many people are kind of thinking about this at the moment, are there any kind of useful resources that they can look at to kind of help them, even if it’s just think through these sorts of issues?

David Ellis  21:04 

I mean I think there’s, there’s a growing number of papers, yes check out the papers. There was really good one from Dennis and colleagues called “Privacy Versus Open Science, which is a really good one about just, just really the reason these issues…how are we going to replicate all this stuff in the digital age? I mean, there’s also, it’s also I think within medicine being discussed around, you know, some of the work I’ve done in the past, we get the data set, we can never share the data set, and there’s some cases where I think we probably could, There’s ways to do it. That’s not on the agenda, and these data sets are really expensive, and there’s kind of this ongoing discussion so I mean it is it is being mentioned in the literature, in a variety of different places. It all ultimately depends on on how sensitive some of the data is, you know, that people are wanting to collect. I think the challenge for psychology is just partly people just becoming aware of what data is out there, because it’s so scattered. I mean, you know, it’s interesting that the ESRC are kind of doing a set of consultation in new and emerging forms of data that… but by the time the consultation is finished, the new emerging forms of data have already emerged and are new again. But it’s really – I think they said that not me-  but it’s really challenging. And as things change so, and it’s all at the mercy of often tech companies as to what they will release and what data is available. Facebook changed, probably for the better, but you couldn’t replicate stuff that has happened in the past because Facebook changed.  And yeah there’s not, there’s not going to be answers to how we deal with some of these questions. But I suppose, the more you use that data and the more – this is me personally –  the more you will you get drawn into those discussions because they’re important.

Anna Cox 

And I suppose that, you know, over the past year, many psychologists who perhaps were doing a lot of their research in the lab, have had to think about new ways of conducting that research and moving it all online. So many of these issues are kind of coming up for people who might not have thought that they, that these were things that would impact their research because they didn’t think of themselves as necessarily engaging in digital data collection.

David Ellis 

Yeah that’s right, and I think it’s, it’s, it’s changing a bit because up until recently, the biggest influence of the internet for psychologists, had been more self report scales, and bigger samples, so it was like I’ve got this scale, offered to online and I get 1000s of people. And I think we’re now at the point where more and more people are starting to what about beyond this scale. What else can I collect online. And again, I would say it’s taken a bit longer than it should have. But it’s slowly, that that is happening, and that leads to those kind of questions as to well, just because we can collect this should we be collecting. It’s hard because some data you don’t know how valuable it’s going to be until afterwards, I don’t think. I remember sitting in my office with a post doc, a PhD student, and we were looking at people’s smartphone usage data, and somebody submitted at 6.00 am every morning and there’s this line, there’s a gap and an identical line and a gap, and we thought there’s a problem with the software. And it turns out this was someone hitting the snooze button every morning, and we realised we could work out when they were, when they were asleep or when we’re getting up every day – because they were a very conscientious student I should say, because they were very regular and early getting up in the morning. And we said, we never thought we would know this. And we start to learn stuff and you’re like oh this – and that’s incidentally how a lot of, you know, forensic psychology tries to catch the bad guys by taking a trace and try and make better use of it. So yeah, it’s really difficult if you don’t always know until you’ve got some data.

Anna Cox 

So this idea of having, you know, looking at big, big collections of data and trying to understand people’s behaviour, it’s obviously something that underpins a lot of the different avenues of your own research. And I’m kind of interested to know what, how it impacts your own life. So, do you collect data about yourself?

David Ellis 

I don’t, not really no. I do have a colleague who I won’t name, who did spend a year collecting everything they possibly could about themselves. I believe there were some interesting insights. I can’t remember what they were. But he basically went down the quantified self, extreme, and he was tracking everything. I’ve never really done that, I mean, I probably, you know, I have an Apple watch, and I use it to track my run, you know, running, which doesn’t change that much, because there’s no other sport to do at the moment. You know, I spend a disproportionate amount time in front of the laptop, like most academics, probably, but I don’t really collect in terms of personal technology, if the technology is like useful, you know and it stays. I’ll keep it, you know, it will become a part of every day, you know. As I said, I learned about, you know, video streaming and I’m recording lots of video streams at the moment, and that’s quite interesting and I’m probably annoying my partner about it because that’s what I’m talking about and they might not be interested, but I become quite obsessive, until I know everything about it. But then, it’ll just go into the you know, I’ll move on to something else so yeah it’s a, I suppose it’s quite kind of, I suppose we started off by talking, it’s all… sometimes people… I didn’t really plan a lot of the stuff that I’ve ended up doing it’s just been quite fortunate that I’ve met people that have given me freedom to mess around with stuff and, and then sort of lightly come up with ideas.  That’s what  I’ve done my PhD students as well.  I think, it is that, kind of provided people think the works OK – when I say people I mean reviewers.

Anna Cox 

So the whole messing about with things, is sort of like the key to how you’ve created your career in a way then?

David Ellis 

I mean, the more romantic notion would be that I’m this psychologist who’s like, look to this theory and develop, you know, but I just, as I said my attention span and patience is like I just want to learn stuff and do stuff so it’s quite hands on in a way, and it’s probably become, it’s become more and more technical, in a way but then whether I’m learning all this technical skill, there’s that kind of handing over of what you know about what you don’t know about and I’m quite comfortable. Like I’m probably a worse R programmer than I was a few years ago, because other people you know are just getting better at that, and they’ve been trained up in their undergrad in psychology. I was never – I was taught SPSS or some nonsense, you know, and so you can become… I’ve reached that point that around sort of realising that I actually don’t know. There might other things I might be worried about I’m kind of like, yeah, just reached that point where people are… which is cool because people are bringing something, so we should use this and it’s like what what’s that, yeah, which is what my supervisor was doing to me probably, at one point I was that person that was coming to them.

Anna Cox 

So, before we finish up, I wondered whether having had that experience of writing your book, you’ve got another book in you.

David Ellis 

Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny I think there could be. I don’t know what the book would be. There’s, well, I think, if I was going to write, yes is the answer to the question I think so. But I don’t think… I would probably want to write something that in a way is sort of still academic but a bit less academic in a way, like I think I’ve really become more interested in how sort of we, we do science and how universities work and I think there’s, there’s lots of things that, that we get right. But I think  in the social sciences, there’s a lot of things that I don’t think we do right. I don’t think universities always get it right sometimes either so I don’t know whether if I was gonna write another book it would be sort of thinking about how we.. I  think there’s so many books on this already, you know, there’s so many books on just the state of science if you like. I don’t know if there’s a market, but I did start writing some notes down and then I sort of thought, I don’t want to write another book quite yet. So I think I would write another book but I haven’t found the exact topic, yeah.

Anna Cox 

There may be something about how we do science or could do it better?

David Ellis 

Yeah, I think, I think, I think there’s even even actually a book on sort of… I think being an ECR now is quite exciting in so many… this is my other thing of how I see things changing in the last few years, I think it is still a really great time to be a scientist, but I do worry that ECRs have been asked to do so much stuff. Like it’s I thought it was bad, when I was trying to get a permanent job. I feel though it is, you know, and again it comes back to this: the money is coming from interdisciplinary pots, but you have to serve your department in your single discipline as well, which means you basically have to do both, which are equal, just… I mean, I love my job, but sometimes I think why have had to do this.  You know, why couldn’t I just focus on this. And then there’s the kind of impact, and the REF, and probably the TEFF and it’s a lot. I don’t know. I suppose I was naive. So I didn’t really think as much about these things as I maybe should have done. But it’s just, I think it is a challenge for for ECRs to to navigate that, maybe more than it was a few years ago, I’m not sure.

Anna Cox 

So maybe a handbook for ECRs?

David Ellis 

How to get a job. Yeah!

Anna Cox 

I think there’d be a lot of people would buy that. All right, well we’re running out of time so I just want to say thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me today,

David Ellis  1:05 

Yeah, thank you very much. It’s nice to get that chance to just reflect sometimes. It’s really nice.

Anna Cox

Thanks so much to David Ellis. You can find him on twitter @DavidAEllis, all one word. You can also find a link to his website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website eWorkLife.co.uk where you can also find more evidence based tips on using technology to support work and well being, and a link to our new eWorkLife radio app.

Anna Cox

I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_ If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+.  Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com.