Hi 21 bye 20

by Dries De Roeck on April 8, 2021

Whoops, almost half into the year again. But, since I always like writing these posts and reading them again after some time I wanted to do one for 2020 before I forgot all about it. This is something I started in 2011, the format changed over time but the idea remains the same : looking back and forward. (archive : 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019)
In general, 2020 won’t be forgotten quickly because of the bomb COVID-19 dropped. At the same time, this bomb allowed me to get work done I wouldn’t have been able to do in the way I did it.

Things that stuck with me looking back at 2020

Canned a PhD

Who would have thought, but it happened! I submitted my PhD during the first week of July 2020, had to make some administrative changes and re-submitted early August 2020. I then defended it on October 21st.
At the end of 2019, my friend Alex convinced me I should just get it over and done with and move on. Up until that conversation, I was about to abandon the whole PhD thing and let it go. Nevertheless, I spent a week with Alex in London early February (pre-covid still!) and assembled and wrote a first draft of the whole PhD manuscript. I submitted this to my commission, and by the time they read it COVID had struck already. The pandemic did allow me to take a break from my commercial project work and focus full time on my PhD. I managed to review, rewrite and can the whole thing in 5 months after yet again some though feedback rounds. But, somehow the stars aligned and a successful submission and evaluation happened! Thanks once more to everyone involved, before and behind the scenes. It has been a bumpy ride, but I’m so happy the ship managed to keep moving forward.

For those who care, the PhD thesis can be found here. In case you want, I’d be happy to have a chat about its contents or the process that led up to it.


To be honest, I experience the first months of the COVID pandemic as months of spending time together with the people I care for the most : my family. Our children were 7 and 9 when the pandemic hit, they did their schoolwork at home whilst I managed to do some time boxed PhD writing. My wife was also working from home during pre-set time blocks, which made it all very workable for us. I actually really enjoyed this lifestyle, and started dreaming of a fully remote job at some point in my life.

Moving back to Africa

It still feels like a miracle, but on November 12th 2020 we landed in Senegal again. Not sure how my wife managed to get all the paperwork done, but once again stars aligned and we managed to board the plane. At the moment I’m writing this, we’re still in Senegal. We’ve been here about 5 months now, and still have half a month to go. We’re moving back to Belgium on May 1st, with mixed feelings … but I’ll keep that story for a separate blogpost.
In a nutshell, our stay here has been challenging but also a once in a lifetime experience. We’re living together with a close Senegalese friend of ours, who has built a house for us (co-financed by us) during the second half of 2020. The house is super basic, but has been more than enough for us. Our children go to school here, my wife helps a European NGO who are active in the village (Mballing) and together we’re running a small scale chicken farm. I’ve also built a precious plastic shredder machine, as a way to reflect on what can be done about the plastic waste problem over here.

Things that worked out differently in 2020

Personal projects

I had the idea to put more time in working on personal projects, but once the opportunity came around to use the pandemic to finish my PhD all focus went to there. So unfortunately I didn’t really manage to work on other things. Meaningful Christmas lights aka Community Lights is still very high on this list, I did manage to pull out colour values out of a mysql database and push them to a Particle device … but did not get round to parsing the data and making the whole thing work.
Other personal projects include some keyboard building ideas, revamping my personal website, making my first PCB and experimenting with digital gardening.

Everything else?

In 2020 we all realised, I think or hope, most things worked out differently. Looking at this from my personal perspective, I was more than happy to be declared temporary unemployed regarding all commercial projects I was involved in. It took quite a change of mindset, but to be honest I really enjoyed it happened.

Things I want to do in 2021

Find funding

I still feel good looking back to the little ‘draw the internet’ project I did back in 2019. Ever since I’ve been looking around for finding some funding to do more little ideas like that one. But I hope to switch gears a little in the coming months and start looking around more actively, small scale fellowships or other ways to engage myself in doing independent research projects which can run besides my day job … or perhaps intertwine with it. Now that “that PhD” is over, I need to create a new play garden where my mind can wander off in all directions. If I can get this funded to cover costs for building things and travelling around, that would be very helpful. Let’s see what we can come up with.

Write a pictorial paper

For some time, I’ve had some ideas to write a pictorial paper for a large conference (CHI or DIS) … I had hoped to get to it during my stay in Senegal but the headspace and mindset wasn’t really there. The paper I have in mind reports on the ‘draw the internet’ experiment I did in 2019 – I’m still looking for the story arch (there are several). But I’ll just start writing and see where I end up.
As the same time, I realise this might be ‘paper procrastination’ as I could also turn another 3 chapters of my PhD into a paper too … in any case, I want to write and submit an academic conference paper to one of the larger venues this year. The reason being I enjoy taking part in the CHI/DIS community, and want to contribute actively … not just lurk in the back.

Prepare decent and inclusive content for Fri3d 2022

Because COVID the family friendly hacker camp Fri3d Camp which I co-organise didn’t take place in summer 2020. We’re now aiming for summer 2022. After giving it some thought, I’ll be leading the content programme again. Learning from previous years, I really hope we can once again bring a super diverse programme. Yet, I want to figure out how we can address a more diverse and inclusive crowd … as sometimes my issue with ‘hipster STEM/STEAM’ initiatives tends to be they always attract the same type of people. Ideally I’d like to see more non-tech savvy people there, who are not your average middle class white ICT worker. No idea how to make this reality, but I’ll try to figure something out along the road.

Reboot EU life

Keeping the most challenging one for last, we’re moving back to Belgium within a few weeks. At that moment, we’ll have spent 5 months and a half in Senegal. At the moment, we’re going back with mixed feelings … but we for sure realise our ‘life’ needs to continue in Europe, not in Africa.
After living in Senegal for 5 months, we realise it’s super hard (perhaps impossible?) to really integrate here. We had high hopes to mingle a lot with the local people, and somehow genuinely participate in everyday life here. This worked out to some extend, but also caused frustration. From a distance, life seems a lot simpler here … but the constant uncertainty about ‘basics’ makes life a lot harder (for me/us). With basics I refer to things such as ‘is the water reservoir still full’, ‘do we still have enough cash money’ or ‘will the schoolbus be on time or not’? For sure, mastering the local language (Wolof) is key to integrating more deeply. We only speak some basic words and sentences and rely on French for the rest. Not being able to speak in a nuanced way has led to several miscommunications with our friends here. Lastly, ’inverse racism’ really is a thing … although not very visible at first – as a European you are regarded as a walking bag of money. This implies that most conversations you have might seem friendly at first, but mostly result in some kind of question about money. Because of this, it’s (for us) very hard to develop trustable relationships with people and truly feel accepted for the persons we are – beyond the money that sits on our bank account.
That might all sound very negative, but I should be clear we really enjoyed spending 5 months in Senegal. It has been a super enriching experience, something which gave us the opportunity to learn more about our values as people and as a family. We all wonder what we’ll take home from this experience and how it will change our lives back home … the obvious risk is that we’ll just resume the life we had before, but I truly hope we’ll at least be critical about the way life happens ‘home’.


I usually do a top 5 tracks playlist at the end of these posts, but because of our stay in Senegal I haven’t been able to put something together yet. Will add it later on.

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