Mapping the value of Estonian nature with social media

Social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., have been with us for many years. As a result, they have accumulated a wealth of data on billions of people’s whereabouts and life events worldwide. After the famous Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook and Instagram restricted access to their data for external researchers. Fortunately, some social media sites, such as the photo-hosting Flickr, still allow researchers to analyse anonymised data stored by their owners in open access. As Flickr is designed for sharing pictures, it has become especially noticeable in urban studies and visual landscape research.

Common touristic data (such as overnight hotel stays) provide some insights into the number of tourists in Estonia, but they hardly capture the quality of their nature and city experiences. Moreover, traditional surveying rarely concerns local citizens. By mapping various aspects of landscape experiences – for example, taking evening or daylight landscape photographs – we get evidence of people’s values, preferences, and even unexpressed concerns related to city life and nature. As a result, social media data recognises problems in city governance, tourism policy, and protection of nature, which should be addressed to achieve a better quality of life for us and future generations.

If you would like to contribute to social media research conducted at the University of Tartu, we encourage you to share descriptions or photos of your experiences in Estonia and abroad via your favourite social media with the hashtags #mycityexperience and #mylandscapeexperience.

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Sergei Põlme: critical thinking helps survive in the digital jungle

I studied biology at the University of Tartu, first focusing more closely on the study of fish and later, fungi. Currently I am involved in research studies describing the biodiversity and regularities of fungi and also microbes. Biology does not have all the answers, but it is a prism that helps me better understand what is going on both in nature and with humans. In a very short time compared to the duration of evolution, essentially just over the last generation, we have become buried under an exponentially growing flood of information. However, all fast and great changes involve adaptation difficulties.

From jungle to the digital jungle

Screens of different forms are taking up an ever-increasing portion of our time and attention. Both the computer and the smartphone may be effective tools but they also open up an ocean of information in which everyone is fighting for our attention. The Homo sapiens has spent most of its evolutionary history living in small communities, where the accepted information was not only different in its amount but also in character: natural landmarks and footprints did not compete for our attention; hunters-gatherers had to be skilful to notice details that were necessary to make adequate decisions. Now the situation has turned 180 degrees – in the jungle of the web, each custom-designed title, banner, comment and thumbnail competes for an opportunity to plant their narrative into as many brains as possible. So it is no wonder that the fledgling Homo digitalis may get lost in the digital jungle more easily than the Homo sapiens in the real jungle. While for the Homo sapiens, the price of an error was empty stomach or danger to life, the Homo digitalis just risks a head full of rubbish, mental disorders and social division caused by polarisation. It is true that the most striking cases may also pose a threat to life and health.

A group of Homo sapiens in the jungle in the French Guiana in 2006 (private collection).

Science and critical thinking

Those trying to find their way in the digital jungle may find critical thinking extremely helpful. Critical thinking has the same core features as the principles of simple scientific methodology. In this respect, it is hard to overestimate the role of the University of Tartu in my personal development story. The result is not just a black-and-white view of the world where all information is placed on a scale of verifiability, but a perception of my own subjectivity. Thereby it becomes clearer that subjectivity is one of the main human characteristics. I dare say that most narratives that people have and most memes that they spread describe just small fragments of reality, and describe it either incompletely or do not desribe it at all. On the contrary, the success of memes can be estimated according to their rate and range of circulation, and not whether they have anything to do with reality. What matters is that the meme speaks to the recipient.

At its most simplified, science can be defined as a discipline that applies methods to minimise subjectivity when describing reality.

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Starting a company as a student in Estonia without dropping out of the university

Who am I?
Hey, I’m Ayaz, and I just graduated from the Department of Innovation and Technology Management at the University of Tartu. I now work as a product manager, and I am also a doctoral researcher at the University of Jyvaskyla in the IT Faculty (specialisation in Educational Technology). While studying at UT, I started a company, Inskillz, together with my friend, Gultan. And, in this post, I will try to share my experience with opening a company as a student.

Why did I decide to move to Estonia?
Before moving to the company part, I would like to share my experience as to how I decided to move to Estonia. I always saw the name of “Estonia” in my geography exams in high school, and during my university years, I kept getting more information about Estonia, because almost all startup and IT-related news was coming from this country. Of course, when you get a lot of updates about one place, you directly start to learn more about it, and that is how I began to fall in love with Eesti.

I always wanted to live in a country with cold weather, and I think Estonia is a heaven for chionophile people like me. The weather, the University of Tartu, the Innovation and Technology Management Department, and the openness of the people motivated me to make my decision about moving to this amazing country

How did I decide to open a company?
To me, almost everyone has one idea which they would like to make real by opening a company. When I came to Estonia, it was quite challenging to find networking or professional events to meet up with other people.

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When hereditary disease decides your profession – Aylin’s story

My name is Aylin, and I would like to share all about my university experience and life in my course, so here we go!

University of Tartu student Ailin exploring the student's city.
Image credit: private collection

I come from Azerbaijan, and currently I am a second-year student at Tartu University. I study genetics and biotechnology here. I grew up in a medical dynasty: my uncle, both aunts, as well as great aunts and great uncles, have all had medical backgrounds. That’s probably also the reason why I knew I would have a profession related to medicine as soon as I developed self-awareness.

The urge to help people was in my blood. At the same time, the family did not force me to do anything. Initially, it wasn’t my dream to study genetics; I wanted to become a neurosurgeon. But by the time I graduated from high school, I began to get more and more interested in genetics.

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International students of the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy regard Estonia as the place to make your dreams come true

Eight international students started studies at the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy this autumn. Three of them are exchange students who stay here for one semester only and then continue studies in their home country, and five study Sound and Visual Technology in the two-year English-taught master’s curriculum at the academy.

Students of the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy.
Students of the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy, Rufat Mustafayev from Azerbaijan, Jason Alexander Greenberg from the USA, Maren Irmelin Munthe-Dahl from Norway and Qumrosh Abbas Khan from Pakistan consider Estonians as friendly people and Estonia as a place to realise their dreams. Photo by Marko Saarm.

The master’s students of Sound and Visual Technology come from Azerbaijan, the United States of America, Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Erasmus exchange students are from Lithuania and Norway and they study dance art, handicraft and metalwork. Krista Tamm, the academy’s International Relations Specialist, explains that besides their major discipline, international students also learn the Estonian language and culture.

We decided to find out what made these people come to Estonia and Viljandi and what they plan to do while they are here.

Rufat Mustafayev from Azerbaijan started his master’s studies in sound technology. He said he had applied to several European universities, including the Polytechnic University of Milan, but still chose the programme offered in Estonia, because it covers both visual and sound technology. In Italy, he says, it is possible to study music and acoustic engineering. “I decided in favour of Viljandi because in this industry, sound and visual art always work together and it would be good if I had experience in both fields before I start work,” Mustafayev explained.

He has previously studied in Turkey and Azerbaijan, and while pursuing his bachelor’s degree, worked as a volunteer at a Formula 1 stage and at European Football Championships. “By the end of my studies I already worked for those companies,” he says with pride. He is an active student, which is confirmed by the fact that Mustafayev has helped coordinate Erasmus projects in his homeland and often visited Turkey and Georgia in connection with these projects.

Of the two years he will study in Estonia, he plans to spend one semester in a Berlin recording studio to study how to create audio design for video games. This is his dream.

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When the university mascot becomes a theme for memes

Last academic year, the University of Tartu organized a mascot contest that attracted a total of 97 submitted designs. The university family selected “Tiksu” by Lennart Rikk as the winner. The design of the mascot has now developed further, and at the end of August the live version of Tiksu was introduced. 

Mascot Tiksu participating in the opening event of academic year.
Tiksu. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Legend says that Tiksu is a mystical bird said to have accompanied students at the window of a lecture hall for three autumn and spring semesters, and nobody really knows its species or origin. By nature, Tiksu is a curious and charismatic bird who wishes to represent the values and interests of the university family. Tiksu is now part of the university family and can be seen in some lectures and events all over the campus. 

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The one event which changed my perception of Estonians

People playing games outside.
Fun activities with the crowd. Photo credit: Gerlin Gil

Weeks back I got an email inviting me for the Summer University 2021 – an event organised by the Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL). I was to attend in my capacity as the President of the Association of African Students, Estonia (AASE). I was excited about the opportunity to travel to another part of Estonia, but I wasn’t looking forward to much networking with native Estonians, as my previous attempts have failed rather woefully. (Long story short: When I moved into my dorm space in last November, I was eager to make friends and tried picking up conversations with random strangers. I was particularly looking out for Estonian students, but discovered soon that most Estonians are not into small talk.)

The Summer University event was to be held for two days from 21–22 August at Voore Guest house in Jõgeva County. The Tallinn contingent of student representatives set out from Tallinn for the 2 hrs 30 mins journey. I and one other African student representative were received at the park by the Project Manager, and other than the occasional eye contact and polite nod, the journey was a quiet one for me, just as I expected – but this perception would soon be shattered by the affairs of the following 48 hours.

As mentioned at the beginning, the event was organized by EÜL, which is an umbrella organisation of students whose aim is to stand for the rights, needs, and interests of students at the national level and to support student unions in carrying out their work. The Summer University was very timely, as it addressed several topics that have bedeviled our various associations. Some notable issues and highlights of the event include the following:

  1. A discussion session on discrimination of international students and how student councils should react;
  2. A workshop on mental health without borders presented by Kristel Jakobson;
  3. Presentation on the situation of international students by the representative of Eero Loonurm – Mari Liis Jakobson;
  4. Deliberations on how to help students and chat about the way forward; and
  5. A presentation by representatives of Integratsiooni Sihtasutus (The Integration Foundation) on multicultural society.

AASE made a case for the struggles of African students (especially new students), notably visa applications, accommodation, opportunities in the job market, and integration into the society, and at the end of the first day, it was clear to me that although international students have peculiar struggles, there are many challenges faced by all students, including Estonians.

I was shocked when (during the event) I had people walk up to me to pick up conversations. I was lucky to be paired in a room with an Estonian student who is probably the most energetic soul I’ve met since moving to Estonia November last year. He was versatile and told me the history behind everything. 

Group photo of the participants.
Participants of the Summer University 2021. Image credit: Gerlin Gil

We had fun field activities, and in no time I had found a basis for conversation with students interested in geopolitics and my home country, with a brilliant chap working in an awesome startup, recommendations for where to find suitable internships, and suggestions on how best to learn the Estonian language. We spent most of the late evening at the sauna and playing games, and I think I picked up more Estonian words in one evening than I have in my last six months of trying to learn at home. I took one valuable lesson home: Estonians are not difficult people provided you are willing to identify areas of mutual interest and are prepared to meet them halfway… in the sauna. 😊 So if you haven’t found a “common language” with Estonians, please don’t lose hope; rather, be ready for surprises.

The Summer University was a part of EÜL’s project, “Growing Ties: Student Democracy in a Transnational Era”, which is supported by Mondo, the European Commission, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Estonian Ministry of Culture, and the National Foundation of Civil Society (KÜSK).

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