Sleuthin’ Time

Title: Theme: Target Audience Format
Researching Digital Identity Recognising My DI HE students Workshop


Learning outcomes
  • Awareness of material on Web about an individual
  • Awareness of tools available for searching
  • Ways of refining searches
  • How context can cut dramatically improve search results
Workshop comprising three parts:

  1. An hour spent designing an algorithm (for computer science and IT students) describing how to search for someone online.
  2. An hour spent searching for the course facilitators, and refining the algorithm
  3. A brief period spent designing a report on the findings, producing a portfolio of the ‘target’
3 hours (can also work in 1.5 hours, if a set of guidelines on how to search for someone are provided)
Resource links:
This workshop was run with 2nd year IT students at our university.  We described a scenario, in which the students were ‘spies’ who had to find information on a ‘target’ without the help of their HQ (which had a ‘mole’ and had to be considered as compromised).In the first part of the workshop, they had to go through a theoretical problem solving process and come up with a plan of how they would find information on someone using existing web tools.  They had to write down the steps they would take, in the form of an algorithm or ‘recipe’.  To help them consider some of the issues involved with finding information, they were given an example person to try to find information about.  Shirley Williams described the scenario as “John Smith came to visit us here at the university recently – you need to develop the process by which you can build a dossier on him”.There are two key elements in this scenario description which bear some explanation.  John Smith is a very common name, and just searching for the name itself will not provide focussed results.  Most students realised the problem and were asking for further hints, whilst some appeared to think that it was OK to build a dossier based on results about anyone called John Smith!  After a reasonable time had elapsed, giving the students time to come up with potential solutions to the problem, they were given the additional hint that they would probably benefit from using the context of the question (Shirley Williams said John Smith came to visit us recently at the university).

In the second part, the students were given the two workshop facilitators to build dossiers on.  In this case, this meant building a dossier on Pat Parslow and Shirley Williams.  The main difference between these two test cases is that searches for “Shirley Williams” need to have contextual information (e.g. University of Reading) to return useful results, whereas searches for “Pat Parslow” are almost all about the relevant individual (with 2 main exceptions).

Some students managed to find a lot of online resources to help them with their searches.  In some cases, the availability of information (particularly if you are willing to make a small payment for access to some data) was a cause for concern for them.  Generally, participants showed an increasing awareness of:

  • availability of information,
  • increase in accuracy of searches when context is used,
  • ideas for managing the information available about themselves

One thought on “Sleuthin’ Time

  1. In our case, the exercise was run with a group of 2nd year IT students, and they were expected to produce an algorithm. The name of the individual they were given to start with was John Smith (with a small amount of ancillary data). If they took into account the person who gave them the information, a simple Google search actually hit on the right person as the first link returned, but combining this information was not something they thought of without prompting.
    Once they had worked through the first exercise, they were asked to build their dossiers on me (Pat Parslow) and the other member of staff. None of the searches on me revealed much of my online presence, buta couple tracked down information they considered vaguely scandalous on Facebook.
    Some of the teams who were researching the other ‘target’ found and used tools providing electoral roll information. Some of the participant appeared to be a little disturbed at the amount of information that could be found out about someone, especially in terms of material they had not put on the web themselves.
    The participants were strongly engaged for the duration, and a good number of them appeared to gain a new appreciation of some of the issues relating to availability of ‘official’ information.

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