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February 25, 2013 / Hannah

Interviewing

One of the primary research methods employed by POSTnote authors is to interview expert stakeholders – aiming for a wide range of viewpoints from government, industry, academia and NGOs. I had my first interview yesterday: a telephone conversation with a leading expert in data security and internet surveillance.

I did thirteen research interviews last year for my PhD, so I should be well-rehearsed in them by now. Nonetheless, as I settled in by the phone I felt a familiar flutter of nerves, and just a hint of reluctance to pick up the phone and start dialling. Of course, mindful that we had an appointment, I overrode the instinct to procrastinate and the interview went smoothly and was very informative. But I hope you’re not judging me too harshly for feeling a little shy: research interviews can be quite daunting. You may have a lot invested in them going well – getting a date in the diary with someone who’s very busy can take a while, and you want to make the most of the window you have. There’s also pressure to be efficient: the interviewee is giving up their time to help you, usually for free, so you don’t want them to feel that their time’s being wasted. Early stage interviews can be especially challenging if you’re still scoping out your topic – when the conversation takes an unexpected turn it’s often not obvious which question you should ask next.

Luckily having done quite a few interviews I’ve worked out a small number of key strategies to make sure I get the most out of them and keep pre-conversation nerves to a minimum (most of the time):

Don’t be afraid to admit you’re not an expert.

I spent most of my first interview last year feeling mortified at how little I knew about what we were discussing and convinced that my questions were idiotic. However, most people agree to an interview because they’re happy to share their knowledge, so they’re not going to be outraged if you need some additional explanation. Once I’d completed a few interviews without anyone laughing in my face, I relaxed and remembered that if I knew all the answers, interviewing would be a pretty pointless exercise anyway.

…but do do some preparatory reading.

Having said that, having a decent grasp of the basics will mean you get a lot more out of your interviews. I’ve found it’s helpful to start making a note of key themes that emerge over the course of your reading, which you can start to structure the interview around. I sometimes make a little mind-map of the main issues that I can refer to during the conversation if I’m not sure what to ask next.

Know what you want

It’s helpful to have a mini ‘mission statement’ for each interview, to ensure you’ve got the most out of it. Try to be specific: this time I started with “learn more about technologies for surveillance”, which didn’t really help me focus my preparation, so I broke that down into, “find out what the different interception methods are”, and “learn what the major challenges are in using these methods”, etc. When I felt as if the interview was winding down, I was able to refer to my mission statement to ensure I’d found out what I needed. The mission statement can also help you form your questions: start with key open-ended questions like “what are the benefits of these proposals?” then have some more specific follow-up questions ready if needed, like “how much money will they save?”

Don’t panic if there’s an awkward silence.

When you’re frantically scribbling notes (or all too aware of the dictaphone on the table), it’s easy to suddenly run into a pocket of silence and realise you have absolutely no idea what to say next. Awkward. I’ve found that at this point honesty is the best policy. Saying, “sorry, I’m just catching up with getting this written down”, or “bear with me a second while I refer to my notes”, is much better than freezing like a deer in the headlights and sitting in painful silence as time seems to stretch into eternity – trust me, I’ve tried both. Taking a brief measured pause to write something down or flick through your questions is fine, and might give the interviewee the chance to reflect and think of something else they’d like to say.

That’s it really, aside from the really obvious things like making sure you’ve got a suitable venue, and offering them a tea or coffee if they’ve come to you. There’s only so much preparation you can do, as hopefully they’ll be doing most of the talking: you just need to make sure the conversation stays on track. As one of my fellow POSTies said: “I wouldn’t worry too much, they’re going to have a lot to say. All you have to do is listen”.

In that spirit, if you’ve got any tips for getting the most out of research interviews, please share them here – I’d love to hear them!

February 22, 2013 / Hannah

First fortnight as a ‘POSTie’

So what have I been up to since I started at POST?

The first day, predicatably, was spent getting my bearings and settling in. I’d been asked to arrive at 10, so I decided to do a commute test-run and try to get in for 9. Good job I did, as it turns out TFL’s predicted journey time of 13 minutes between King’s Cross and Westminster was optimistic to say the least! POST welcomes a total of about 20 fellows a year, with roughly five there at any one time, so they don’t waste a lot of time getting you started. Security pass, building tour and an introduction to the POST staff and other fellows were accomplished before lunch, then it was down to work. Everyone was very welcoming however, and given that fellows are all current or former PhD students, a long introduction to research would be overkill.

I spent most of the first afternoon learning some more about POST and how it fits into Parliament. POST provides Parliament with independent, unbiased information on science and technology, and is ‘bicameral’, which means it serves both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Many MPs and peers do not have a scientific background, so POST provides accessible analyses of public policy issues relating to science and technology by organising events, assisting select committees, and publishing briefing notes: ‘POSTnotes’.┬áIt’s one of these POSTnotes that I’m here to research and write, on the topic of Surveillance of Internet Communications. The House of Commons Library has indicated that MPs would like more information on the technical side of this issue, so the POST board decided on it as a topic for one of the new fellows – enter me!

The rest of week one was spent mostly on preparatory reading. Despite having no background in computer science, I thought I knew a decent amount about the internet – how to find the best websites, use apps effectively, and not lose money to exiled princes who want me to help them with their multi-trillion dollar inheritance. However as I delved into the world of internet protocols, data packets, encryption and black boxes, it became apparent that I’d soon be learning much, much more. It’s been slightly daunting, but also hugely exciting to have the opportunity to research a completely new area. Being a beginner in this field may even help me in writing the POSTnote: they’re designed to be accessible to non-experts, avoiding jargon and explaining complex concepts and issues in simple yet meaningful ways. My lack of prior knowledge about internet communications means that putting myself in the shoes of a non-expert reader ought to be a breeze!

POST draws on expertise from a range of stakeholders to research briefing notes, so this week I’ve been building up a list of potential interviewees, and contacting them to request meetings. I’ll be chatting on the phone with a leading academic on Monday, hosting someone from Microsoft on Tuesday, and travelling to Cambridge the week after to meet two experts in encryption and computer security. In between that I’ll be finding time to attend a Home Affairs Select Committee evidence session on e-crime, and sit in the Serjeant at Arms box for Prime Minister’s Questions. I’ve already attended a POST seminar on Broadband Britain: check out my writeup here.

All in all then, it looks as if I’ll be kept pretty busy here. Would I want it otherwise? No way.

February 21, 2013 / Hannah

The first POST

Hello blogging world! I recently started a three month fellowship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and the lovely Nicola – public engagement manager for the Energy CDT Network – suggested I blog about my time here. “I’ll start straight away!” I said. Well, a week and a half later, I’ve finally sort-of sussed the commute, mentally mapped the new office, settled into my new (old) digs back in my parents’ house and caught up with some old friends… so here I am.

I’m Hannah, a final year PhD student with the Low Carbon Technologies CDT at the University of Leeds. My PhD research is on domestic microgeneration, so I’ll probably be chatting a bit about that in addition to my work at POST writing a POSTNote on Surveillance of Internet Communications. In my spare time I love to scuba dive, run and read. I also really love food and cooking, with a mostly vegan diet (if you’re interested in that sort of thing check out my other blog, Hannah Eats Vegan). My friends and I spend a lot of time putting the world to rights over home-cooked meals, and I can’t promise that some of these rants lively discussions won’t make it onto this blog: please feel free to join in in the comments section!