I am so thrilled to be here and gave myself time in the first week to not only explore Urbana and Champaign, but also adjust being back in the US after my semester abroad. I am really excited to live in a college town, which is something I’ve never done before! I started reading a variety of papers to familiarize myself with recent research in Human-Computer Interaction. I will be soft-mentored by a graduate student in the department and contribute to his project, and also be able to take ownership of another project of my choice. Karrie and Ranjitha gave me some resources on creating research questions and hypotheses to guide thinking about my own project.
My objective for this week was to refine my project topic for the summer. I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to choose my topic of research, but it’s honestly overwhelming because there’s so much interesting research to be done! I am starting to learn firsthand how independent research is -- you're not given a list of articles to read culminating in a clear assignment, but rather you choose what you think is necessary and take away what you think is important. In my initial research, I was drawn to topics of education and learning initially, but then became more interested in recent research about finstas, private-facing Instagram accounts that publish sensitive content, and how this phenomenon relates to the idea of Multiple Profile Maintenance. After much finetuning, I have written some research questions that will guide me. Additionally, I researched the tools currently available to crawl and scrape data from Instagram, which is challenging considering the privacy concerns that come with the platform. I got the web scraper to work for public accounts, but am still facing challenges in getting the scraper to work for private accounts. I have found a few crawlers online already, and have been comparing them to see which features will be useful for our project going forward. Outside of research, I've been enjoying hanging out with the undergrads in the lab and other people I'm meeting in Champaign. I also got the chance to check out the Urbana Farmer's Market as well as the public library here so I'm catching up on some pleasure reading too.
We decided that my specific portion of the research on finstas would be to create the probe that users interact with during interviews. Because users have been reluctant to discuss their experiences with finstas, this probe will help users feel more comfortable and will help them more clearly articulate the reasons behind creating and maintaining multiple accounts. Another challenging yet fun part of this process has been learning how to write effective research questions. Being a part of the ideation process of this project in its initial stages has been rewarding. Just one comment can direct the project in a totally new way, which has been interesting for me to witness firsthand.
This week I have been designing a prototype for the probe. To better familiarize myself with this type of research, I read about the standards for prototyping in the Human-Computer Interaction community, as well as some background on the significance of cultural probes in research design and methodology. After reading an assortment of papers that used probes, I had a clearer vision of what I needed to include in my prototype. I sketched out by hand the prototype of what I wanted everything to look like, and have learned so much about effective design through this process. I exercised a lot more creativity than I am used to in my studies -- always a welcome challenge for me. I am going home for the holiday this week, which I’m looking forward to since I haven’t been back home in almost six months! I’m surprised how quickly I’ve adjusted to living in Champaign. I know my way around already and have found some favorite spots around town to ease me into my summer here. I have missed the feeling of being on campus so being at U of I has been perfect for me!
The web app of the probe is up and running! Users can now log in to Instagram through the app, and much of their profile data is being pushed to a database, which is then displayed on the next screen. It’s simple so far, but it’s a solid first step in the development process. I’ve been able to learn a variety of technologies as well as play a guiding role in the ideation process to get to this point, so I’m excited! However, the code takes a very long time to run, so hopefully I can optimize it in the coming weeks. I’m still struggling with the best ways to architect the app and connect the front-end to the back-end. I’m looking forward to styling the app in the coming weeks so it looks usable and interesting. I have been taking full advantage of my proximity to the U of I pool and gym this summer :) The weather here is perfect for lounging at the pool and reading which has been a great way to relax!
I am adding more functionality to the probe by scraping and visualizing more features of the Instagram accounts. To more closely resemble the prototype, I am iterating the process that I solidified last week, with each page visualizing a specific feature of each account. On the other hand, I have been struggling with being kicked out of scraping Instagram. We’re not quite sure what’s triggering this problem, but it’s frustrating since it doesn’t let me work on the code for 1-2 days at a time. Regardless, watching what I’m coding look more and more like the prototype has been really rewarding.
I’m still struggling with being kicked out from Instagram, but I was able to add a lot more to the app before that happened again. The app is working pretty well, and everything seems to be well-connected. I’m working on making the code itself more efficient to potentially bypass this issue. I was selected to present this research at the Grace Hopper Conference through the DREU program! I am incredibly excited about this and am looking forward to sharing my research at this venue.
This week I am working on styling the web app. It’s exciting thinking about how the end user will interact with what I’ve made. I’m putting the finishing stylistic touches and making everything look clear and usable to the future participants. Things like loading pages and draggable items are something I’m not going to take for granted anymore! I presented my poster this week at the REU Symposium, which was an exciting experience! I felt proud of all that I’ve accomplished, and it was rewarding to share my work with others in the Illinois CS community. I have also been taking advantage of all the cool places on campus because I’m realizing my time here is coming to a close -- I’ve checked the Japan House, the Krannert Art Museum, and bowling at the Union off my bucket list!
I am so sad it is my last week here at U of I! I've had such a wonderful time here and it's been such a growing experience for me. I didn't think I could have handle how independent research is, but it is actually the part I loved the most! I loved being able to shape the project on my own and then bring my ideas to my mentors to collaborate all together. This experience has definitely solidified my aspirations for graduate school. This week I have been mapping out next steps for my project and adjusting the style of my app as I get more feedback on it. I am making sure that my app is usable after I officially leave my internship. I will be working throughout the year to contribute further to the project as well.
My goal in the beginning of this summer was to walk away with something I am proud of and to learn more about what it means to do research, and I'm happy to say I've achieved what I set out to do. It's bittersweet to be leaving Champaign, but I'm looking forward to relaxing a bit at home before the school week starts again. I am eternally grateful to all the people who have supported me along the way. Thanks for all the memories, UIUC!