Monument Monitor; an overview halfway through

Last October I made the alarming decision to turn my back on the world of tech, and the very enjoyable life of a software developer, and scuttled back to academia to pursue a PhD.

It was a decision I did not take lightly. I know many people who are completing/completed a PhD and the vast majority faced incredible challenges which affected both their mental health and general wellbeing. Several didn’t enjoy the process at all and some completely regretted the decision to start one in the first place. It was with their dire warnings ringing in my ears that I agreed to join the SEAHA CDT 2018 cohort, signing up for a 3 year PhD, and expect to finish after my 30th birthday in 2021. That’s right, I will still be a student when I am 30.

What’s SEAHA? What’s a CDT?

SEAHA stands for ‘science and engineering in arts, heritage and archeology’ – essentially all the things that I’m interested in rolled into one research group. CDT stands for ‘centre for doctoral training’. In order to secure large amounts of funding for research projects, universities now often club together to provide better and wider support for PhD students. SEAHA is made up of people/departments from UCL, which focuses on chemistry and imaging; Oxford, which focuses on archaeology/geography and Brighton, which has a focus on computer science.

So what are you doing?

My research area follows on from the MRes I completed in 2017, in which I attempted to establish to whether we could monitor remote heritage sites, using visitor photographs. Large heritage organisations such English Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland look after hundreds of sites over the country, but cannot be at every site all the time. It seems logical therefore to utilise tourists, who frequently visit heritage sites and use their images to get an idea of what happens around historic monuments when conservators are not there. Around 70% of us visited a heritage site in 2018, that’s a lot of untapped data potential.

During my masters I looked at wether measurements taken from a variety of smartphones were reliable enough to measure colour. In short the answer was ‘yes, sort of – if you have enough images to mitigate margins of error introduced by uncalibrated images’. This lead to some pretty cool graphs and resulted in this paper:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/anie.201801743

Alongside this work I set up two small pilots at Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran and at Holyrood House Palace to try and collect images to monitor groundwater levels and vegetation growth respectively.

The publication and the success of the pilot project led to my current PhD research, with the Monument Monitor project being scaled up across 20 sites around Scotland. You can find out more about it on the website here or this blog.

So, halfway through – how are things going?

Overall, really well, I could go into minute details about every aspect of my research life, but for brevity I will break it down into the ‘Good’ and ‘Not so good’

Good

Working with heritage – I bloomin love history, always have always will, and now I get to visit them for work.

Working with tech – My skills as a software dev have been indispensable to this project, being able to write data analyst scripts, throw together a quick website or interact with APIs is immensely useful when creating a Citizen Science project from scratch.

Managing my own project – I always said I would either do a PhD or create a startup, just as soon as I could think of the right one. With Monument Monitor I feel like I have hit both these goals.

Solo working – Whilst I am based at UCL, I live in Bristol and rent a co-working space, which gives me a professional space to work in away from both my bedroom, smelly ol’ London and the nastier side of academia. I highly recommend this for any PhD student that can manage it!

Ease of explanation – By it’s nature, a PhD is an incredibly niche thing and a nightmare to explain to PhD-muggles. The concepts behind my research are really easy to convey, which is really nice. This may seem like a silly thing, but being able to get others engaged in what you spend nearly all your energy thinking about is really nice

Me at the northernmost case study site, Ness of Burgi, in Shetland

Not so good

Time Management – Whilst managing my own time is great, strict discipline is sometimes challenging in nice weather!

A continual fear of failiure – I think this is a shadow that follows most of us around, not just postgrad students. The constant assumption that my work is either ‘not enough’ or that I am not working ‘hard enough’

Not being around Academia – My office space is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it’s lovely to be around normal working adults, I do miss being able to ask people about ‘academic stuff’ that I invariably know nothing about, due to not working in Unviersity.

Getting stuff to ‘done’ – This is a term we used to use in my old dev team that referred to a stage where it could be shipped. Of course, in an evnrionement where everyone has opinions of how code should be written (or in my PhD case, how things should be written, and just how many things should be done by one person) that can be quite a challange.

Writing – I’m dyslexic and I hate writing. This will be an issue next year when I have to write a thesis. Damm.

I will be writing a series of articles over the coming weeks to dive deeper into the subjects I am working on. Be prepared to hear a lot more about Citizen Science, Heritage Science and all things AI in the future!

^ A selection of submission from February ^

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