I am more than halfway through my sabbatical now, and it seems appropriate to revisit the goals I had for my sabbatical, and possibly set some new ones before it’s too late to make changes. I’m going to start with those original goals (in gray), and add comments and thoughts..

Learn about other ways of thinking through sustainability. I want to take the time to deeply explore my own beliefs about sustainability, cross-cultural understandings of sustainability, and how both relate to my chosen field. I am planning on spending at least an hour a week just thinking and writing and reading about ethical/social/planetary issues relating to sustainability. I am also planning on teaching my course on sustainability in both of my sabbatical locations. Total time commitment: 5-6 hours per week.

Outcome: So far this has been a success, although not exactly as I had imagined. I just completed a ubicomp submission with Indian co-authors based on interviews in India, and a survey deployed in India, U.S. high and U.S. low income communities. It was fascinating to explore this data, and definitely caused me to rethink the role of technology in sustainability. Related to this I also submitted a grant proposal with several other U.S. faculty intended to explore automated techniques for affecting energy use across three different continents. Much of this was made possible by collaborations developed with the wonderful folks at IBM Bangalore. I am also teaching my environmental class here in Zürich, and although that is just starting, it is interesting to see the differences here. Finally, I have been blogging about sustainability in a non-academic fashion in an attempt to explore basic beliefs and perspectives on sustainability from a radically new perspective, and recently wrote an article for Interactions based on my blog post questioning the basic assumptions underlying HCI work in sustainability.  Not sure if it adds up to an hour a week, but overall I’m happy with the progress on this topic so far.

Expand my toolbox. I want to learn more about hardware and machine learning (I’ve posted about this before on this blog). My current plan is to take a class on machine learning (I have a handy virtual one with me, or I can sign up wherever I’m at) and teach myself hardware using slides from a CMU class & hands on experimentation. I figure if I spend 2-3 hours per week on each (in parallel if possible, in series otherwise) I should make good progress on this over the year. Total time commitment: 4-6 hours per week.

Again, this has been a success. I completed the Stanford Online Machine Learning class this fall and have been leveraging what I learned in my student advising. Overall, I found the class to be enlightening but the homework a little too easy to solve without complete understanding. Still, it did help deepen my understanding of the algorithms and the methods for improving accuracy and so on.  It was highly focused on statistical techniques, and is nicely complemented by the second course I am taking (much more slowly), Carolyn Rosé’s applied machine learning. Now that one ML class is done, I am also working on my knowledge of hardware using slides of Scott Hudson’s and related materials and have gotten through several arduino projects. So not complete, but I’m pretty happy with this. Extra bonus: I can squeeze some hardware work into family time as the kids love to be included in it. 

Finish hanging projects. I have: Three projects that require analysis only and two-three projects that require writing code. I plan on doing these for the most part in series, unless I am able to recruit local talent to help with the latter two. It’s possible they won’t all get done, but I hope at least some will! Estimated time commitment: 4-6 hours per week. Start new projects that I’ve already thought about. I have two in mind. Estimated time commitment: 4-6 hours per week if done in series.

I wish I’d written down which specific projects I intended to work on! For the most part this has not been a great success. I have completed one (writing) project, and recruited students to work on others. However, recruiting students in Switzerland has not worked out well, and I’ve had varying success reaching any complete goal with students I recruited in India. There is still time to accomplish this goal, but I think that I am unlikely to get anywhere near 6. For my own sake when looking back on this six months from now, I will name the projects this time around: Futures — done; Search tools — making progress; Cosmo/viewpoint extraction — making progress; Mechanical Turk web accessibility — stagnating; Diabetes + Lyme analysis — stagnating [but I could tackle this without additional students]; Macro energy audits — stagnating; Using routines to reduce energy use — done; Lo-fi presence — making progress.

Write a large NSF proposal [already started]. Estimated time commitment: 1 hour per week through November.

Sadly petered out at the last minute, though I cannot take the blame for this. On the upside I led a group of five other PIs in writing a medium proposal (mentioned above). It was a fascinating experience in herding faculty which I’m not sure I ever want to repeat! :). 

Continue supporting students. Estimated time commitment: 3-4 hours per week of meetings, 1 hour per week of prep & planning. Meet new people, start new projects, develop new ideas. Estimated time: 4-6 hours per week.

Both successes (though you might ask my current students if they agree :P). Amazing how Skype can shorten the distance between places. I’m now holding meetings across three continents each week, a sign of the new collaborations I’ve begun. Also along the way I’ve given 7 talks and counting. But what I’m most pleased about in this arena is the opportunity that it’s given me to rethink my own research agenda and try to explore new ways of positioning myself. I have begun to realize that while I am driven by applications that matter this has in some ways obscured other things that I care about. It has also affected my ability to recruit a certain type of student — folks for whom programming and building things and solving hard technical problems is as important as the applications this enables. So I have, through public speaking engagements, been exploring a new way of presenting my work, one that emphasizes both the enabling middleware that can make possible the creation of applications that address real world problems using technology. More on this in a future post, as this is running long, but I consider the opportunity to rethink research approaches, goals, and so on to be a major benefit of sabbatical. 

So what next? Certainly, at a minimum more of the same. What I’ve been trying to do is working, and I plan to continue for the next few months. I still need to forge stronger collaborations with some swiss colleagues, and am actively working on that. I also need to step back and ask which hanging projects are worth pursuing and what the best approach to doing that is. And of course I need to keep in mind that this is my chance to rest and rejuvenate.  I will have been deeply involved in writing about 120 pages of text by the end of April, taught most of 4 classes since the start of last summer, and advised or mentored about 13 people (in one-on-ones) across two continents throughout most of the sabbatical, and learned 1.5 new foreign languages. In between, I’ve also been taking time to travel, relax, spend time with my kids, and continue fighting for my health. I plan to continue that, as I wish to arrive home not only inspired and educated but also healthy and well rested for the start of the fall semester.