Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Student blog: World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) 2019

In April this year, I attended the 10th World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. as part of the Faculty of Social Sciences' Global Leadership Initiative (GLI). I represented the Information School as a Policy Analyst in a team of eight students led by Dr. Suay Ozkula (Sociological Studies) and Dr. Paul Reilly (Information School). WSIS is a United Nations (UN) multi-stakeholder global forum that promotes the implementation of the WSIS Action Lines for advancing UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With a focus on “ICTs for development”, the Summit identified global trends and new partnerships to help achieve the SDGs.

In addition to attending various sessions during the week-long Summit, we worked on blogs and policy briefs on our topics of interest, which were later published on Global Policy Opinion. The team also had an opportunity to deliver our own panel during the event. ICTs in the University Environment – 7 Case Studies saw each member discuss innovative uses of ICTs within Higher Education such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), digital methods, digital activism, online admission systems and mental health. My talk focused on e-learning analytics and data usage, as well as Virtual Learning Environments such as MOLE. A walkthrough of the session was documented by Dr. Reilly in two parts (1 & 2). The panel allowed us to highlight our own interests and work as part of a team to deliver an extremely informative and engaging session (according to several audience members).





There were many sessions during the Summit that I found very inspiring. For example Ethical Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence, a panel hosted by UNESCO, discussed the societal implications of growth in these technologies. Speakers emphasised the importance of exposing the fallacy of “objective” data, especially when human biases are inadvertently coded into algorithms. This was one of several panels on the topic that inspired my Global Policy blog post on intelligent systems and big data, co-authored with Dr. Ozkula and Hana Okasha (B.A. Digital Media & Society). It also reminded me of our Data Science program, where we have consistently weighed the importance of integrating societal considerations with the deployment of advanced techniques such as machine learning and AI in society. It was encouraging to be part of conversations at a global level that were equally concerned about highlighting and addressing these specific issues.


In line with my evolving interest in smart cities, I also had the opportunity to follow several sessions on the subject and quickly came to appreciate the scale of issues that could arise in its development. This included a very brief but interesting foray into the threat of quantum computing to blockchain, an emerging platform in the management of high-volume data in smart cities. More immediate issues, however, centred around gender balancing approaches in the progress of smart cities. The session on (En)gendering Smart Cities discussed gender as one of several biases that are inherent in the technologies used to drive those very goals forward. While it was laudable that initiatives based on gender analyses were being brought to the fore, equal emphasis should have been placed on discussing the challenges that are associated with the deployment of such policies. This was an issue that I explored in further detail with Dr. Reilly in our policy brief published with Global Policy. We additionally discussed the advent of the concept of “smart villages” in connecting rural communities as well as gender implications that should be considered alongside these efforts.

Despite the intensive but extremely productive week at the summit, our experience was additionally enriched by a visit to the UN regional headquarters in Geneva for an informative tour of its premises as well as history of its operations. The experience was further enhanced by the company of our outstanding team from Sheffield represented by members of diverse backgrounds, interests and outlooks who complemented each other well. Our daily commute to and from the summit and after hours provided further opportunities for building friendships, discussing our experiences at the summit, Sheffield and life, and generally being helpful and encouraging of each other throughout the week. It is my belief that being a part of this exceptional team provided an important foundation for an immensely educational, successful and enjoyable experience at WSIS 2019. Moreover, this experience, with invaluable guidance and support from Dr. Ozkula and Dr. Reilly, has further enhanced my studies at the Information School by providing the added dimension of gaining first-hand practice in learning and effectively communicating ideas as they are transformed to policy at the highest levels. This will definitely be an experience that stays with and serves me for life, among many others that have been made possible during my time at the University of Sheffield.

Evelyn Baskaradas
MSc Data Science

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