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Episode 8: Dave Cook: digital designer to anthropologist | the wellbeing secrets of digital nomads

In this episode:

In today’s episode, Prof Anna Cox talks to Dave Cook, a digital anthropologist researching the practices of digital nomads. These are people who’ve taken remote working to the extreme by choosing to live in a different country from where they work. We talk about how he started out as a designer in the early days of the internet, set up one of the first gay online services, and went on to run the nascent BBC Online, at a time when media producers thought the internet was a flash in the pan.  We discover what the fallout from the dotcom boom and bust taught him about the importance of focusing on user experience, how he discovered his true calling as a research geek, and his love of ethnographic approaches. He describes how he has applied those in his study of digital nomads, and the insights he has gained into the paradoxical experience of these extreme remote workers, who are discovering that the work-related disciplines they initially wanted to escape, are actually the ones that help them to create work life boundaries, and avoid burnout.  We also explore how these practices might benefit us too, as many of us continue to work from home.

Dave Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. His work explores the lives of self-described ‘digital nomads’ who work out of co-working spaces in Southeast Asia. The research focuses on the work practices and routines that are required to sustain working on the road.

Find out more about eWorkLife, including tips for managing your own wellbeing and work-life balance, on our website https://www.eworklife.co.uk/

Episode transcript: https://www.eworklife.co.uk/podcast/

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Find out more about Dave Cook’s research

 Digital Nomad project website

You can follow Dave’s digital nomad project here: http://thenomadproject.org/

 Biography and publications

You can read Dave’s biography, discover more about their research interests and find links to some of their articles here: https://theconversation.com/profiles/dave-cook-507256

and here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/people/research-students/dave-cook

 More articles and research papers

Digital nomads: what it’s really like to work while travelling the world? https://theconversation.com/digital-nomads-what-its-really-like-to-work-while-travelling-the-world-99345

The freedom trap: digital nomads and the use of disciplining practices to manage work/leisure boundaries https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40558-020-00172-4

Book chapter

The New Work From Home Environment. In The Business of Pandemics: The COVID-19 Story Edited By Jay Liebowitz https://www.routledge.com/The-Business-of-Pandemics-The-COVID-19-Story/Liebowitz/p/book/9780367557423


eWorkLife: developing effective strategies for remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic https://youtu.be/5DZN-z4g8rU

 Follow Dave Cook on twitter


 eWorkLife contacts


Twitter: @annacox_

Twitter: @_E_WORKLIFE


Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

Sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+

Transcript of interview with Dave Cook

Prof Anna Cox  00:08

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of human computer interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode. In today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Dave Cook, a digital anthropologist researching the practices of digital nomads. These are people who’ve taken remote working to the extreme by choosing to live in a different country from where they work. We talk about what the fallout from the dotcom boom and bust taught him about the importance of focusing on user experience, how he discovered his true calling as a research geek and his love of ethnographic approaches. And the paradoxical experience of digital nomads who are discovering that the work-related disciplines they initially wanted to escape are actually the ones that help them to create work life boundaries, and avoid burnout. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from our other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Dr Kathy Stawarz  01:32

I’m Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer of Cardiff University. My top tip for using technology at work is to switch off all your notifications.

Dr David Ellis  01:40

So I’m David Ellis. I’m an associate professor in Information Systems at the University of Bath, and my top tip for using technology to get the best out of life is to try and align it with your own goals. So for example, a fitness tracker. It may not make you fit out of the box, but it can still help.

Prof Anna Cox  01:58

Now, today’s guest, Dave Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. His work explores the lives of self-described digital nomads who work out of co-working spaces in Southeast Asia. The research focuses on the work practices and routines that are required to sustain working on the road. So without any further delay, here’s my conversation with Dave. Welcome, Dave, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Dave Cook  02:25

Hi Anna, how are you today?

Prof Anna Cox  02:26

I’m good. I’m really good. I want to start by asking you kind of about how your career really started. So I know that your first degree was in graphic design at the Royal College of Art. So I want to know, what led you to that at the beginning?

Dave Cook  02:54

Yeah, so my first degree was in design and history of design. So, you know, that was, you know, my focus at the beginning. And I won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, which finally brought me down to London. I met lots of interesting people, and when I left the Royal College of Art, I started to work as a journalist. So I started working in the design press and reviewing, you know, technology and design.

Prof Anna Cox  03:30

So at that stage, was your interest in design quite broad, or is it specifically about digital design?

Dave Cook  03:38

No, it was print design. I was mainly concerned with magazine design. At the beginning of my career, I was obsessed with magazines like The Face and ID.  It was very early 90s. And then the obsession between fashion and graphic design and technology all melded together. I was kicking around London going to cover, you know, design launches and crazy stuff. And I was writing A to Z sort of, you know, how technology was impacting culture. And yeah, so that was the kind of stuff I was doing.

Prof Anna Cox  04:20

Okay, so was that kind of your introduction to kind of the world of digital technology there and kind of thinking of it in that sort of context?

Dave Cook  04:31

Yes, I was living in London, and I had design skills, and I had writing skills. So I was writing, working as a freelance designer, and a freelance writer. And that’s when I got involved in technology. So I got involved with bulletin boards. And I got involved with this bulletin board called Freak which was run by a guy called Chris Smith. And that was for underground coders. And because I had all of this experience working in style magazines, we came up with the idea of doing a gay online service. And we got some funding from some drinks brands. And we actually launched one of the first gay online services, which is now forgotten, which was called Planet Patrol. So that was in the mid 90s. I forgotten about that.

Prof Anna Cox  05:34

I know that your career took you towards sort of like user experience and user design. So can you tell us a bit about that journey about how that happened?

Dave Cook  05:48

After the era that I’ve just spoken about working in all those different magazines, I started working for something called a digital agency. They were like advertising agencies that started to specialise in digital. And that’s where my career really started to kick off. So I was doing a little bit of HTML coding, I was doing a bit of graphic design, I was doing a bit of writing, I started working as a producer. And I did that for a number of years, because the work in that area just grew exponentially in in the mid 90s.

Prof Anna Cox  06:28

And it must have been quite exciting.

Dave Cook  06:30

It was really, really exciting. We had no idea what we were doing but big brands and companies were throwing money at this kind of stuff. There were four or five years where we were really working at this, you know, sort of like digital frontier where everything felt possible.

Prof Anna Cox  06:52

You worked in quite a few different organisations doing those sorts of roles. Before moving on to start your own business – What People Want. What’s the story behind why you started your own business?

Dave Cook  07:06

Before starting What People Want, I went from working at digital agencies, and I got hired by the BBC to launch BBC Online. At the time, the director general was calling online and the internet, the third pillar of the BBC, alongside radio, and TV. But that really wasn’t a sentiment that was shared by a lot of senior editors at the BBC, who were calling it a flash in the pan. I can remember, you know, being in my early mid 20s, and going into big meetings with big, scary editorial people at the BBC, and trying to explain the internet to them. And most of the time just being looked at as if I was mad.

Prof Anna Cox  08:00

So what sorts of things were you using the internet for at the BBC at that time?

Dave Cook  08:07

Yeah, so I had two main jobs at the BBC. So I was the launch editor of bbc.co.uk which was the public service arm, but before that, I was the launch editor of Beeb.com, and they were connected to the publishing arm of the BBC, which was BBC Worldwide. So we’re talking magazines like Top Gear, Radio Times. And they saw it as a form of online publishing. So I worked there for a couple of years. And there were lots of people from digital agencies, from ad agencies. And we did some really interesting work. I was actually poached by the public service arm. I stayed there for a year and a half. And then I left to work for the digital agency Razorfish where I ended up being head of user experience for all of the European offices. I spent a couple of years travelling all around Europe, working with designers and creative directors, and writing job specs for things like interaction designer, and information designer. All of those things that a lot of agencies now take for granted.

Prof Anna Cox  09:24

But they hadn’t exist before then when you were first writing them, like creating those new roles?

Dave Cook  09:30

No. And we were writing those job specs as well at the BBC. I remember actually at the BBC, when we were launching BBC Online, it was at the same time that they were launching the new BBC logo. I remember talking to the branding agency, and we said, look, we got to kind of like find a way of getting it low res so it’s gonna work over the kind of modems that people have and you know, those kinds of conversations, so kind of like people were thinking traditional media and not understanding that we couldn’t do all of that stuff online. Some young people that are listening to this probably think this is crazy.

Prof Anna Cox  10:09

So it sounds as though because of the role you were doing at that point in time, you were really a bit of an interface yourself in terms of translating the digital world into concepts that people could understand where if they haven’t had much experience with it. So for example, you know, what will work online? What can we do and what can’t we do yet?

Dave Cook  10:35

Yes. And that was really most of the 90s for me, which was integrating these different cultures. When I went back to Razorfish, and I took, you know, a very, very senior role within that organisation, we were still managing that kind of integration. So we had we, you know, we had, across all of our different European offices, a lot of graphic designers who were fantastic in print, who still weren’t great at translating that into design that was interactive. I can remember very detailed conversations about the difference between an interaction designer and an information designer: an information designer, was designing something that happened on the page. And it worked in that moment in time, when you were looking at the screen. And an interaction designer would, for example, you know, design the, the flow through a shopping cart. So we were still having those conversations, even when I started my professional practice in the early 2000s.

Prof Anna Cox  11:50

So what led to you starting your own company in this space?

Dave Cook  11:56

Well, the very short answer to that is the dotcom crash. When I was saying earlier that we were making up all of this stuff in the late 90s, and it was a digital frontier. That was very exciting. But we were also getting a lot of things wrong. In the very early days, when we were doing interactive brochures, digital design agencies, were making loads of stuff that people weren’t using, it wasn’t appropriate for slow internet connections. And when the dotcom crash happened, there was a massive realisation that a lot of the stuff that we were making wasn’t stuff that people wanted to use. So the really famous example is Boohoo.com. I don’t know if you remember Boohoo.com, but they were a fashion retailer. And they really over engineered and over designed their site. And at the time I used to call this over exuberance of design digital Baroque because there was just way too much design and it was about as far away from UX – user experience – and accessibility as you can get. I was at Razorfish, when dotcom crash happened, when that whole house of cards came tumbling down. It was really, really heartbreaking. And I can remember going on holiday to Australia, and while I was on the plane having to write some kind of matrix about who we would keep and who would have to get rid of, but it was all irrelevant in the end because the company went chapter 11 like so many others. So I went travelling for a year actually, I was pretty burnt out. And my mental health wasn’t great. I wasn’t looking after myself. So I think that that came at a really good time for me.

Prof Anna Cox  13:50

And so was it … did you come back from that year of travelling and say, right, I’m gonna start my own company?

Dave Cook  13:56

I went backpacking for a year, and I did a lot of things that I’d never done.  I jumped out of a plane. I did the Inca Trail, I did a lot, lots of crazy things. But I spent a lot of time thinking what I really liked about what I’ve been doing in my career so far.  It all came back to user experience research. And when I was at Razorfish, we created a department within what we called the user experience network, or the experience network, called user intelligence, based on the really radical idea that we’ll go out to people and ask them how they wanted to use things and watch how they use things so that we could create meaningful and intentional user experiences to use a little bit of jargon. And I basically held the idea with me for a whole year when I went travelling, and I said, okay, well, this is, you know, what I want to do for the next phase of my career, and I’m still doing it now.

Prof Anna Cox  15:01

What was it about that that you enjoyed, because you said that you spent time thinking not just about what your skills were. But that what you enjoyed doing. So what was it that kind of captured you?

Dave Cook  15:17

The short version of that story is I was research geek. And you know, how that showed itself was that I just really liked, like talking to people. I’m, you know, a very, very sociable person. I’m very curious. I like to talk to people. And I, out of those conversations, I, you know, like to turn them into design ideas. And I realised that that was the kind of designer I was.  Actually looking back at some of the really talented designers that I’ve worked with, were designers who could leave their ego outside of the room, and they had open hearts and open ears. And that’s what a really good designer is. You can have a really good, you can have a designer, who is fantastic visually, but still create stuff that people don’t want to come to. And you can obviously have designers that are visually poor, but you know, want to communicate well. But for me, a really, really good designer has both of those things.

Prof Anna Cox  16:24

It’s interesting he when you talk about how the things that you enjoy, are having conversations and listening to people. And you know, and really being focused on that. Because there there seems to me to be a bit of a thread there that kind of led you towards the area in which you’re working now, in terms of digital anthropology. So I know that you you studied human computer interaction, first, formally and then went to digital anthropology. And can you tell us a little bit about what the similarities and differences are between those two areas?

Dave Cook  17:04

If it’s okay, I’ll kind of like come at it with a little bit of a story. So when when we met, I think it was roughly about 2005. I, I’d done a post grad, at the UCL Interaction Centre. You know, as always, I had a desire to be curious, this desire to go deeper. That was, that was a really fun time. So I was able to take all of that learning into my professional practice. The reason why I came to anthropology was because the research projects that I worked on with clients that really interested me most were things like the context studies and the diary studies and the ethnographic studies.  A lot of the work we do is looking at how people use products and services, on the other side of a one way mirror in the lab, or now remotely, and I really, really wanted to do more ethnographic projects. You know, they only come they only come along every so often. And they’re quite expensive for clients as well. And when we do do them for clients, they typically go on for a few weeks a month, if we’re lucky. And I really had a desire to research something over months or a number of years, that I could really get my teeth into; something that I could understand and immerse myself in.

Prof Anna Cox  18:39

How did you discover digital anthropology? Because I think it’s something that perhaps a lot of people wouldn’t know exists as an area.

Dave Cook  18:47

Yeah. So I did the digital anthropology Masters at UCL.

Prof Anna Cox  18:54

So did you happen to cross that sort of by accident that existed as a course?

Dave Cook  19:00

I chose, I chose digital anthropology, because I had a background in digital. I guess, I felt that doing digital anthropology made sense, because I might be able to bring it back into my professional practice. So I thought that might be a conversation that went both ways. And and that was very much the case. Now I wouldn’t describe myself as a digital anthropologist, just describe myself as just as an anthropologist with a psychology background, but that was my way into the discipline. But I wanted to get into a research project where I was, you know, sort of like in the data. That’s what I wanted to do. And the thing that drew me to anthropology was the research method, essentially, that you go somewhere and you immerse yourself in the culture, and you might do interviews and you might do surveys, but the main focus of the research method is just to be there. And you’re not necessarily looking for an artificial encounter, like an interview. They just kind of unfold and present themselves to you naturally. And that’s quite exciting. And it’s quite frustrating sometimes as well, because you have to be very, very patient. And you know, things really do unfold, you know, sort of like over time, and I’ve kind of like even gone to an extreme within that, because I’m doing my PhD part time. My data collection window is seven years. Normally, it’s a year for anthropology. But I did kind of intentionally design it that way, because I wanted to understand not only what happened within a specific culture – I’m looking at digital nomads  – but I wanted to look at people’s individual trajectories, and look at what happened over time. And that’s been really, really useful coming into the pandemic, because I, you know, have a data set, which is unique. And, you know, these remote workers chose to be remote workers, but I’ve seen what happens to people over a number of months and years.

Prof Anna Cox  21:30

So I really want to talk to you about your your research project. There, this seems like an optimal point for us to kind of dig into it a little bit. So, can you start by telling the listeners what you mean by a digital nomad and what it is you’ve been focusing on?

Dave Cook  21:51

So digital nomad is a very contested term. And when I published my interim results last year, one of the points that I made is that digital nomads can’t agree what a digital nomad is. One of the first things that I did was to create a diagram that tried to show how a digital nomad was different to a business traveller, for example, or from a backpacker, or from a tourist. The stereotype is that they are young millennial knowledge workers who decided that they’re tired of working in an office so they can work digitally and remotely, so they go to places like Thailand or South America, and they move from place to place while they’re working. So the distinction between a business traveller and a digital nomad is that a business traveller traveller will travel for work and then come back. And digital nomads just work whilst they’re travelling.

Prof Anna Cox  22:53

So who are they typically working for?

Dave Cook  22:57

They tend to be not, not entirely – and I think this will change after the pandemic – they tend to be freelancers, or people that run small businesses, they work in copywriting graphic design is very common. If you go to a co-working space in Thailand, which is where, which is where I’m doing my research, there’ll be quite a few computer coders.  Some of the computer coders, because they used to being quite autonomous, because they work on very focused deep tasks are actually working for organisations. And they’re confident or belligerent enough to say, Well, I can do my work anywhere. So if you think I’m good enough, hire me under those conditions. I’ve had a few of those conversations, you know, and that’s very interesting. So that’s the stereotype type. When I started going into the field in 2015, it was pretty much all white men. And that has begun to change. Over the last two or three years, when I’ve been hanging around co working spaces in Thailand, the gender balance has started to change. And, you know, what I’ve seen, you know, people from different countries outside of the traditional European countries, the UK, America and Australia, who tend to dominate in these co working spaces. Or if they’re working out of an Airbnb. I’ve got more research participants who are, you know, you know, female –  women from Korea, for example. So that has that’s changing very, very slowly.

Prof Anna Cox  24:50

And I guess that’s the kind of thing that because you’re doing your research over a seven year period, you’re able to document that, this kind of change, which people working outside of anthropology, who are perhaps more likely to look at, or conduct their studies over shorter periods of time, wouldn’t necessarily see this kind of thing evolving in the same way.

Dave Cook  25:16

Yes. I mean, I think that has been the real gift of this research project. And it gets me up in the morning. I’m so so excited about it. I, you know, I have to be careful about saying, I have any plans, do any of us have any plans at the moment, but I have an intention to go back into the field, to go back to Thailand, in in the winter, and do some more data collection. It might be my, my last in person data collection. But I have been collecting data throughout the pandemic as well. And it’s always been hybrid projects, in that I’ve been going to Thailand and come back. So I’ve been doing in person research. I basically when I’m there, I sit in co-working spaces and offices and Airbnb, and I just watch people work and have conversations about work. That’s what I do. That’s my research method, which might come across as quite strange to some people. But in order to keep in touch with my research participants over time, I can’t always expect them to go back to the same co-working space or the same location or even the same city because they’re nomadic. So I am researching this diaspora that spread across the world. And I’ve, you know, been doing that via zoom and via Skype for a number of years now. And that’s been really interesting. So that’s, I guess, where the digital anthropology aspect comes in. And before the pandemic, digital anthropology was about studying the digital, or using a digital research method. I think that’s pretty much all anthropology now, or it touches all of anthropology now. So that’s another thing that’s completely changed. We were having conversations about, you know, what does digital anthropology really mean before the pandemic, it’s going to be really interesting to see where the conversations turn to now.

Prof Anna Cox  27:39

So the people that you’ve been studying, if they are experienced remote workers, and I guess, you know, for many people, being a remote worker is now something that, that we might all say we have some experience, or at least many people who were previously based in offices when they were working. And that’s how I’m wondering if you can tell us some of the things that you have learned from studying the digital nomads, and how you think that might be of use or might inform our understanding of people’s experiences of switching suddenly to remote working during the pandemic.

Dave Cook  28:20

I’ll start with the first distinction about what’s different about a digital nomad to working from home or working remotely during the pandemic. And the first one is autonomy or choice. So, pretty much everybody who I’ve met as a digital nomad, or you could call them an extreme remote worker, have done so by choice. And the reasons that they normally give for wanting to be a remote worker is some kind of generalised idea that they want to be free, free from the office, free from the nine to five, free from commuting. This language of freedom isn’t you know really about autonomy, and to be able to design and guide your own life. But what’s been really interesting, what I found out when I published interim results, just over a year ago now, is that this type of freedom comes with a cost. I would say that out of the people that I’ve had direct interactions with about 90% of them go home, or they give up on the life’s lifestyle as a permanent choice within the first year, so it’s not for everyone. And when the pandemic hit, and people were asking me what the experience of remote work or working from home was going to be, I think I came across as a little bit of a Cassandra, where I said, Well, you know, a lot of burnout happens and it takes a lot of work and it’s not for everyone. But I think one of the things that is also very, very evident in my research and I think people are experiencing now, something changes when you do something day in day out, and you do find your own way. And you can simultaneously really like aspects of working from home and really hate other aspects of working from home. And, you know, I’ve done some research with you, during the pandemic, and we’ve interviewed people. And one of the things that I found really interesting in some of those interviews, in the early lockdown, they were saying, you know, I really enjoy this aspect of my daily routine. And I find it really, really difficult to manage all of my own time. But I still don’t want to get back into the office. So I think one of the things that I found that really struck me about how successful digital nomads maintain the lifestyle permanently, whilst not experiencing burnout, is they are very self disciplined. And they go to co-working spaces, they journal every day, they practice mindfulness. When I first read through some of the interview transcripts of some of these elaborate self discipline practices, I thought that they were a little bit much, and I didn’t fully understand them. When I first heard that, it was like interviewing jack Dorsey from Twitter, and the kind of like stuff that you know, you know, he famously does, you know, sort of, you know, seven day for Vipassana meditations, you know, these kind of extreme self discipline practices. But, as I’ve made my own way, through the pandemic, and and lockdowns I’ve started to use a lot of these techniques more and more. So they seem quite exotic and quite distant from my everyday experience when I was studying them initially. And now they started to make more and more sense.

Prof Anna Cox  32:09

So can you give us a flavour of your own practice here, like, just tell us about perhaps one thing that you may be observed in your research and then you’ve adopted yourself and, and perhaps any hints or tips you might have for anyone who might want to adopt it themselves.

Dave Cook  32:28

I think the thing that’s been most useful to me during the pandemic is a daily journaling practice, I had a pretty solid journaling practice before the pandemic. And it’s become a very strict daily practice, I sometimes used to go days without journaling. Now, I journal every day, I didn’t used to journal weekends, or when I went on holidays, and I’m now journaling then. What I get out of journaling is it enables me to create a distance between the thoughts and emotions that I have, and how I am in the present moment. So I’m just kind of enables me to say, Okay, I’m feeling a little bit anxious, or I’m not getting that piece of work done. And just by writing it down, I can just be sitting here and I can say, Okay, well, that’s over there, what am I going to do about it, it just creates a little bit of distance. And I’ve only recently discovered the there’s quite a lot of psychological research studies that have been done on a daily journaling practice. So it’s very, very similar to a mindfulness meditation, where you just kind of like sit, stay in the present and observe feelings, positive or negative feelings that you might be experiencing to create some distance. So that’s been really useful. And the other really useful thing about journaling practice is it encourages you to make small changes on a daily basis. So instead of just going on autopilot, you say, Okay, this is work, this isn’t working for me, I’m going to make this change. And I think this is one of the things that a lot of people are learning. During the pandemic, they were going into an office and all of this discipline was something that was happening outside of themselves. And now they’re managing it all themselves now. So, you know, going into the office, you’re, you’re told when you have to be in the office and and, you know, when you have to travel when you have to get on the tube. These are all of the things that digital nomads ended up trying to reject. But when they, you know, get to Thailand, or when they get to South America, they they start re-enacting all of these things themselves, to keep themselves afloat.

Prof Anna Cox  35:01

It’s been so interesting to talk to you about this. And I will put a link to a copy of your paper and some of the articles you’ve written in the show notes for this episode, because I’m sure that many of our listeners will be really interested to know more about your research. So thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Dave Cook  35:24

Thank you.

Prof Anna Cox  35:26

Thanks so much to Dave Cook. You can find him on twitter @iamdavecook. You can find links and Show Notes for this episode and our other episodes on our website, eWorkLife.co.uk and you can find this and other episodes on SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple and Google podcasts. If you’ve enjoyed listening, then please subscribe. And as ever, we’d love it if you could give us a five star review. Until next time, take care and bye for now. I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @annacox_ If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends, and you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks as always for producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network Plus. Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com.  eWorkLife powered by UCL minds.