Thursday, 16 February 2012

Visit to the Oxford Internet Institute

In December I spent a week at the Oxford Internet Institute where there's lots of research afoot concerning the social implications of the Internet, on topics as diverse as e-government, broadband access in developing countries and Internet dating - not to forget the awesome zombie map of the world.

Of particular interest to me are the Oxford Internet Surveys which they carry out every two years. Around 2,000 people complete each survey, which gathers demographic data and details of access to Internet technologies and other media and asks questions about what people are using the Internet for, their attitudes towards it and how it is affecting their lives in terms of entertainment, commerce, education, social relationships and access to services and information. As part of my PhD, I'm analysing the differences between rural and urban respondents' perceptions of the impact of the Internet on their social connections, so it was really helpful to meet Dr Grant Blank, Survey Research Fellow at OII, who spent some time with me talking about the data and helping me shape my analysis plans. It must have been the push I needed because a month after returning to Aberdeen I finished the analysis - with some interesting findings - and it's now being worked into a chapter of my thesis.

Oxford itself was very pretty and was busy with prospective students attending interviews. I had a wander around St John's College and the Ashmolean Museum, and saw the pub where Tolkien, CS Lewis and the other Inklings used to meet. I wrote my undergrad dissertation on The Lord of the Rings, so the Tolkien nerd in me took a photo:

I failed to visit the Bodleian for the second time in my life (shameful for someone with a background in librarianship).

Thanks to Grant, Darja, Laura, Yana, Ornella and Pauline for making me feel welcome at OII, and to John Farrington for his supervision during this time. Next stop the opposite end of the country for some interviews!

Monday, 21 November 2011

SICSA DEMOfest 2011

Hien, David, Cheng, and Geeth attended the SICSA DemoFest 2011 event recently, presenting various dot.rural projects to fellow academics, industry members, and entrepreneurs from across Scotland and beyond.

The dot.rural stand

As one would expect from a DemoFest, the team demonstrated various pieces of software being developed as part of the natural resource conservation, healthcare, and accessibility and mobilities themes. Hien grabbed the big screen to demonstrate the natural language generation work being done on the Bumble Bee and MIME projects; Cheng and Geeth demonstrated the on-demand transport planning services being developed as part of FITS; and David demonstrated the GetThere mobile app, part of the crowd-sourced passenger information system being developed within the IRP project.

Hien demonstrating MIME

All demos received great feedback from those attending, with several people asking things like "I want it," "when will it be available," and "great idea: have you thought of commercialising it" which is always great to hear. Overall, it was a very busy but great event, and we are looking forward to DemoFest 2012!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

British Science Festival 2011

I checked into the impressive student accommodation, The Green, University of Bradford. A student social dinner was held on September 10th so that we could meet other bursary students. The following week was full of interesting science and engineering related lectures, exhibitions and workshops. I was introduced to new ideas as well as interesting people from various disciplines. It was a wonderful experience with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and I am eagerly looking forward to the 2012 British Science Festival hosted by Aberdeen. A day-to-day report of the events would be too long for me to write up and too boring for many to wade through. In any case, it was such an exciting and interactive event that mere words will not be able to encapsulate the event in its entirety. Thus, I am only reporting the events that I found both interesting and thought-provoking.


· Plants as Medicines – Most pharmaceutical companies do not use natural plant-extracts in their medicinal products. This exhibit gave an introduction to the vast potential and ongoing research in testing and validating the use of extracts from plants found in the Amazon Rainforest to treat various maladies.

· Tissue Regenix – This exhibit introduced the research at the University of Leeds where a regenerative treatment to tackle common debilitating conditions is being developed. Natural sources are used for tissue regeneration – soft tissues like knee joints are currently focused upon.

· A musical exhibit on how pipe-organs work was organized. Their history, development and various technicalities like tone and pitch was showcased.

· A thought-provoking exhibit connected lifestyle effects to changes in human DNA.

· The Evlaon Project was showcased. Renewable energy is of huge current interest and relevance. This project aims at designing and producing energy efficient, environment-friendly and cost-effective solar roofs. Large establishments and structures such as supermarkets are mainly targeted for the installation of these roofs.

· Scientific Heroes- This exhibition showcased alumni from Bradford College who have given an outstanding contribution to Science.

· Portraits of Outstanding Women: Showcased the professional portraits of the seven 2011 "Women of Outstanding Achievement in Science, Engineering and Technology" award winners

· Monte-carlo Tree Search - Analysing all possible strategies for most games is difficult. Hence, only the most promising strategies should be concentrated on. This exhibition showcased the basics of Monte-Carlo Tree Search method and how it is useful for deciding strategies while playing games.

· Robotics and Control - This exhibition showcased the research on robotics control at University of Bradford. An eye-controlled robot was exhibited.

· Additionally, there were a number engineering, basic science, maths related workshops for kids.


· How to Protect Yourself Online - DR. D.R.W. Holton, Dr. Yang Lan, Dr. Daniel Neagu, Mr. Mick Ridley and Dr. Gill Waters from the University of Bradford are working on a project called "The Artemis Project" to provide young users and their parents/guardians and educators with information on how to evaluate their online vulnerability. Various real-life examples of identity-theft and cyber-bullying were given. Dr. Gill Waters also explained the psychology of group behaviour and how likes, comments and status messages demonstrate the personality of the user even if he/she does not share any information about him/her. It is possible to login to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites through Artemis project. It is a non-invasive method to assess and highlight vulnerability of users and their friends by extracting profile details, check real-time online postings, provide warnings at early stages. This software might be useful for parents of young users to know what their child id up to :)

· Genetic Engineering - In this workshop, the isolation of DNA from E-coli cells was expounded. After the workshop, there was a short seminar talking about history of genetic engineering, importance of genetic engineering in medicine and how genetic engineering will shape our future.


· Plasma - A mysterious fourth state matter – Arthur Turrel, Ph.D. student at the Imperial College, London. An introduction to plasma was given citing examples of various objects composed of plasma e.g. the Sun and all the stars. Aurora lighting was explained briefly. Ongoing research on using plasma to carry out nuclear fusion and generate energy was presented.

· Vital Statistics - Dr. John Haigh from University of Sussex explained statistics in the context of sport. Various models about predicting results of various sports like tennis, Olympic, football and golf were explained. Models are based on population, wealth and resources of the country. Prof. Bill Gerrard talked about Statistical Performance Analysis (SPA) project. SPA is ongoing development of existing coach-specific metric system to support evidence-based coaching. Nathan Leamon from England and Wales cricket board talked about how statistics can improve performance in cricket, by developing strategy. Dr. Georgia Harts from Atass sports ltd. spoke about how to predict football results.

· Engineering Routes Out of Poverty - This was an inspiring and interesting seminar that introduced the work of an international NGO called Practical Action. Millions of people in the world do not have access to basic services like food, health, clean water, sanitation, adequate housing, electricity, communication etc. Practical Action is active in 13 countries and uses simple technologies get basic service and improve life. Along with explaining simple techniques that can be used to improve peoples' lives we played a small game called "Technology Bingo" where several problems were described to us and we were supposed to choose the simple techniques that can solve the problem from the given pictures. After attending this seminar I have started believing that engineering is not about developing faster and cheaper devices but it is about supplying basic services to underprivileged by formulating viable solutions to address these fundamental-necessicity shortages through simple technology.

· Mindreading: Humans, Brain Scanners and Computers - An interesting seminar that explained several aspects of mindreading. Steve Butterfill from Warwick University explained mindreading from the philosophical angle and explained that in day-to-day life people perceive the state of others' mind by facial expressions an gestures and not mindreading. Ian Apperly from University of Birmingham explained some of the mindreading experiments on young children (2 to 5 years). A speaker from UCL explained how mindreading is performed during brain scanning also explained how lie detectors are used during interrogations. Chris Peters from Coventry University talked about mindreading by machines, requiring anticipation of user's state and perception of behaviour. The challenges faced by mindreading machines are adaptation/learning, flexibility and robustness.

· If Only a Monkey Shaved - This was an interesting and impressive lecture about similarities and differences between animals and human beings. Todd Rae from University of Roehampton, London, explained the difference between plants and animals, characteristics of mammals, primates and humans. Timothy Taylor talked about human evolution and how technology has changed the course of human evolution. Jamie Lawson from Durham University talked about sex and attraction in humans and other animals. He addressed the questions listed below and explained how symmetry is important in human attractiveness.

1. Is monogamy a myth?

2. Are the humans only animals who have sex for pleasure?

3. What about love?

4. Is it all about symmetry?

· Maths Makes Waves - This seminar was about Wave Theory and how mathematics helps understand waves better. Chris Budd from University of Bath spoke about waves as a universal phenomena in science, at all scales. He spoke about various waves and their functions. Prof. Nicholas Mitchell from University of Bath talked about waves in atmosphere e.g. Acoustic waves, internal atmospheric gravity, planetary waves, global-scale atmospheric tides, etc. Prof. Alan Champneys from University of Bristol talked about theory of solitary waves, the first cousins of Tsunami waves. He described how a Scottish naval Engineer, John Scott Russell had discovered the phenomena of solitary waves.

· An Overview of Intellectual Property - This seminar was conducted by Appleyard Lees, European patents and trademark attorneys. The importance of intellectual property and various subtleties of how, where and when to get patents, trademarks, design and brand names, copyrights were explained with the help of a case study

· Environmental Science - Barry Noble from Bradford College spoke about social housing and low carbon agenda. He spoke about increasing in fuel poverty which is proportional to income, increase in fuel price, and energy performance of dwelling. He talked about different methods of making the heating system efficient and energy affordable. He also talked about technologies to generate renewable energy e.g. photovoltaic solar panel, heat pumps etc.

· The Science of Social Interaction - In this seminar various researchers spoke about social interaction with different perspectives. Katie Slocombe from University of York spoke about social interactions with a view from the primates. She explained the advantages and disadvantages of group living and different ways to overcome the disadvantages such as establishing dominance structures and making friends etc. Prof Sarah Jayne Blakemore from UCL talked about social interaction from developmental perspective. She explained various experiments performed for studying development of the brain, development of social emotions during adolescence. She explained theory of mind, reading gestures and understanding people's mind. Social interaction depends upon generating and interpreting facial and vocal expressions. Prof. Simon Garrod from University of Glasgow explained the cognitive neuroscience approach towards social interaction. He talked about experiments performed for modelling trust and dominance in voices (both male and female).

· Quantum Computing and Quantum Technologies - A.Vourdas from University of Bradford gave an introductory seminar to quantum computing and quantum technologies. He talked about classical computers, probabilistic computers and quantum computers. He elaborated upon various concepts in quantum computing and quantum technologies like decoherence, quantum parallelism, superposition, measurement, entanglement etc. He spoke about applications, hardware and research related to quantum computing.

· The Whole New World at Your Doorstep - Professor Joseph Holden from University of Leeds and Robin Gray from The Watershade Landscape Project spoke about conservation of uplands. Uplands provide 70% of water resources in the UK and is mainly covered by peat. Protecting peat can take carbon out of atmosphere to counteract climate change. They also spoke about saving money and energy spent on water treatment. Brown colour in the natural water is caused due to dissolved carbon. Discoloration of water has doubled in the past 30 years. Drain blocking, underground natural pipes improve water colour and such water requires less treatment to become drinkable. Uplands are also important from an ecological perspective. They are probably the greatest concentration of complex reservoirs and home to ground nesting birds.

· Fly Me to the Moon and Beyond - Since this year marked 50 years in the space, in this session Jerry Stone from Spacelift UK talked about next 50 years in the Space and how should we go about planning a mission on Mars. Arthur Clarke talked about the Space Elevator Challenge where he explained the fascinating idea of space colonization. Duncan Law-Green spoke about the commercial spaceflights. They are innovative, low-cost and efficiently managed programs. Commercial spaceflights can open the space frontier to all mankind. He also spoke about various space tourism trips and various commercial spaceships.

And finally ................. The Magic Show!!!

Peter McOwen and Matt Parker from Queen Mary, University of London demonstrated various tricks using mathematics, computing and engineering concepts. For more information we were asked to visit

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Innovate '11

Yan Wang and David Corsar joined colleagues from the SiDE and Horizon Digital Economy Research Hubs exhibiting at the TSB Innovate ’11 event, held in London at the Business Design Centre on October 11th 2011. Along with informingdelegates from academia, industry, and Government about the research being carried out at dot.rural, we also demonstrated software from the Informed Rural Passenger and ASSURE projects (GetThere and the Rural Connections Scotland website respectively), and, thanks to Avanti who provided us with a satellite terminal, described how the DART project would work with the actual hardware we will be giving to participants. There was great interest from those people we spoke to (and those we didn’t manage to speak to – all of our promotional materials were taken), particularly due to the rural focus of our work and the unique challenges that brings. Given the wide variety of backgrounds of those attending, people were interested in projects in all themes and the associated technological challenges. Several business cards were exchanged, and contacts will be followed up.

Yan Wang also took this opportunity to meet the key contacts to explore the potential collaborations and funding opportunities. For example, the Director of KTP program in TSB: Debbie Buckley-Golder, the Head of Digital Economy Program in EPSRC: John Baird, the Head of Partnerships and Strategic Research of BT: Jonathan Legh-Smith, the Lead of Assisted Living program in TSB: Michael Biddle. The further discussions in which dot.rural directors and academics may be involved will be arranged.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

SpeedScience @ TechFest Activity WeekEnd

Hello all,
As you all know, dot.rural events attract people people of every age with innovative and interesting activities all over Scotland and the UK.

Over the last couple of weeks the dot.rural team have been involved in different events for TechFest. Gina and Hien represented dot.rural in the Highland Schools Tour... see here for more news. Rob, Leanne and Nimbe brightened up lunch breaks with talks about our cutting edge research in dot.rural, while a number of us were involved in the TechFest Activity Week End in Aberdeen.

To start with .... What's TechFest in September?
TechFest in September is a festival that aims to promote Science, Technology and Mathematics among young people and the community. Techfest is a great opportunity for dot.rural to show its activities to a diverse audience; from very young children to people of every age and background. It happens every year in September.. and this year's programme can be found here.

... and the Activity WeekEnd?
It is an event designed mainly for families that takes place at the Beach Ballroom and Science Stratosphere Centre in Aberdeen. Last year a Technology Museum was built for this occasion by our team. This year on the menu we had SpeedScience a new activity, piloted for the first time in a pub (see here) and re-set for the special audience of TechFest. The idea of SpeedScience is for each researcher to deliver a 3 minute 'pitch' about their research and then hand over to some other researchers. It's a real challenge against the clock, however, given the interest shown by the audience.. for this time and only for this time ...we allowed our researchers to talk a bit longer. The concept remained the same ... a "bite of science", engaging, cutting edge and ....quick!!

Who and How?

Our multidisciplinary SpeedScience team was formed by: Konstantinos, Alice, Andy, John Paul, Henry, Ziaul, Cheng, Nico and Leanne, with additional help from the PolicyGrid researchers: Kapila, Alan, and Thomas, all coordinated by our manager Dr. Yan Wang. The dot.rural team of researchers engaged with over 100 people over the two days and discussed new technologies for rural areas; from healthcare to satellite broadband, trust issues, flexible transportation and so on ....

The interesting characteristic of our audience was their variety - children of every age but also teenagers, parents and adult people.... it was a challenging and interesting opportunity for each of us to rethink and explain our research in a creative way. We had to re-invent the talk for each person in order to make sure that everyone could go home with an idea of what dot.rural is all about in a funny environment.

And here you can see our team in action!!! Ready ...Steady... GO!!! tick tack.. tick tack..

From TechFest 2011

Check out for our next SpeedScience Event in November!!

Friday, 9 September 2011

From Cells to Cellphones

Last week saw the return of the Techfest
Highland Schools Tour.Dot.rural’s Hien Nguyen and Gina Maffey were joined by Sean McMahon to give secondary school pupils a taste of what science has to offer. With a mix of backgrounds in Computing Science (Hien), Ecology (Gina) and Geology (Sean) it seemed natural to explore the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective in science.

As an icebreaker, we asked three volunteers to imagine that they worked in one of our respective roles. We then gave them nine objects that they had to divide among themselves according to whom they thought used the object in their line of work. On offer were a computer, a deer antler, a compass, a fossil, a pair of binoculars, an iPhone, a book on bumblebees, a copy of Microbiology Today and a blood glucose meter. Can you determine who owns which items? Answers at the end of the blogpost!

Having broken the ice and highlighted the importance of looking to different disciplines for creativity in research projects, we aimed to get students thinking about the interaction between humans, nature and technology.

Hien kicked things off with a look at biomimicry and how we can borrow from nature’s design when considering our own technological development. Buildings based on termite mounds, trains based on kingfishers and cars based on yellow boxfish started to get the creative juices flowing. Although, it was ‘rex’ a six-legged robot from University of Michigan and University of California, Berkely, developed from studies of insect movement that captured most people’s attention. Hien rounded off his part with a look at evolution, but not quite as Darwin saw it. He showed how genetic programming can allow a programme to adapt in order to solve a problem, although still within a strict set of rules.

Having established the link between nature and technology it was up to Sean to point out how useful technology can be when trying to understand us. Using the parts of a computer to show how the complex modules of the brain operate, Sean was able to take an intriguing look at the similarities we share. Despite our comparable capacity for memory, problem solving and information movement, many of the students still (thankfully) refused to accept that we are merely computers. This section culminated in an exploration of why we are not just machines, with an all too brief philosophical consideration of human creativity and emotion.

Gina concluded each session by adding the final link to our topic triangle and looking at how technology can impact on our understanding of nature in the future. Before looking to the future students were asked to consider the past with… a toilet roll. 200 sheets of toilet roll were used to present a scale of the 4.55 billion years since the Earth’s creation, with the last 0.5mm representing the 100,000 years that Homo sapiens have been around. Students were asked to consider all the things that we have created or discovered in that relatively short space of time and the subsequent impact that this has had on our planet. To conclude serious consideration was made as to the challenges that scientists face in the future with an inspirational recording about the importance of our ‘pale blue dot’ from Carl Sagan .

The tour visited five schools beginning in the village of Kinlochbervie, before moving to Ullapool, Gairloch, Portree and finishing in Plockton. Without exception each school was welcoming and enthusiastic about the material presented, and we received positive feedback throughout. As presenters there were some intriguing patterns in behaviour with each age group and much to our surprise some of the toughest questions and most thoughtful answers came from the youngest students. We hope that the talk was able to get some individuals thinking about how nature, technology and humans can interact to address some of the problems society will face in the future. We challenge you to let your imagination run wild and think about what technology you would invent to help preserve our planet?

Answers to the icebreaker:

Hien – Computer, glucose meter and a book on bumblebees

Sean – Fossil, compass and a copy of ‘Microbiology Today’

Gina – Deer antler, Binoculars and an iPhone

Thursday, 21 July 2011

docfest: RCUK Digital Economy Summer School 2011

A ten strong group of dot.rural PhD students made their way to Lancaster University to take part in the RCUK digital economy summer school, docfest, hosted by HighWire DTC. With a programme of creativity, risk, leadership, collaboration and serendipitous jelly beans there was something in there for everyone.

DAY ONE: 13th July

Day one began with random groups assigned according to jelly beans distributed as everyone entered the impressive Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts building on campus.

Prof. Alan Dix began the activities with a creative angle on critiquing ideas. Distinctly bad ideas were thought up by each group, including, custard bricks, ice pokers and spiky cushions. These bad ideas were then swapped between groups and thoroughly assessed to establish the exact properties that them a bad idea. Flipping things round it was then asked what was good about this bad idea. Readopting these good properties the bad idea was promoted as a good idea.
Any other bad ideas in mind? ...Wind-up fridge, self-lubricating floor tiles, door with hinges on all 4 sides, and the worst mesh condoms... now try to think of anything good about them ?!?!?!?!

In his following lecture Alan emphasised the importance of critical assessment, and really asking what makes your own ideas good or bad. The bad ideas are the sparkling points that allow us to think out of the boundaries and they lead to generate new good ideas. Taking this theoretical understanding and putting it together with a practical application makes for a winning combination in the PhD.

"Blame yourself for what you do, but not for what who you are" - Alan Dix.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi from Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a mixture of amusing anecdotes from his own career to highlight the importance of personal, intellectual and professional risk in the creative process. Chris' talk was followed by a disclaimer that HighWire DTC were not promoting anyone take on activities that would result in arrest during their PhD. This was swiftly followed by a reply from Chris that ' Yes, yes, do get arrested'. With this in mind groups began looking at their own PhDs to ask how risky their ideas were. Discussions then looked at opportunities to increase the level of risk in the PhD, creating a fantasy PhD where anything is possible. Despite the light hearted take on this activity it did highlight the importance of standing back and questioning how much you were pushing the boundaries of your ideas. Chris concluded his talk with a video to explain that taking a risk can be valuable where Werner Herzog is eating his shoe. Werner had promised to “eat his shoe” if Errol Morris would ever finish a film. Well, Morris did it and Werner kept the promise concluding that:

"To eat a shoe is a foolish signal, but it was worthwhile and once in a while we should be foolish enough to do things like that. More shoes, more boots, more garlic." - Werner Herzog

Sir Chris Bonington the mountaineer rounded off the afternoon with an inspiring look at leadership and team work. Giving a gripping account of his trials whilst climbing Everest he demonstrated the qualities of good leadership as well as every team member being aware of each others strengths and weaknesses. Enthused and motivated by Sir Chris' tales we left the session to sit in the sun and enjoy a fantastic BBQ.

"True leaders provide opportunities for others rather than trying to grab them for themselves." - Chris Bonington

After dinner thoughts turned to the future as Mark Huijbregts, the worldwide digital director of Saatchi and Saatchi, explored the impact that the individual is having on branding and design, and ultimately how this is changing the digital realm.

DAY TWO: 14th July

Again jelly beans were the order of the day to facilitate serendipitous connections throughout the day. The mornings activities started with an update on the breadth of intriguing research being conducted across the hubs and digital training centres throughout the UK. This was followed by a lecture from an interdisciplinary artist, Jane Prophet who has collaborated across the sciences, arts and computing to produce a diverse range of visual media. Jane highlighted the importance of recognising creativity and different working practices to make multi-disciplinary collaborations successful.

The final activity for the two days drew on all the topics covered and pitched teams against one another against the clock. Each group was issued with a locked box containing instructions for the rest of the afternoon and a key. The twist being that the key did not unlock the box currently owned by a team. A rapid flurry of box swapping began across the room with the fastest team locating their box in only 5secs! Teams then relaxed a little over lunch to create a Haiku of just 17 syllables, producing a mixture of comical and abstract poetry. After refuelling a fast and furious treasure hunt ensued where teams had to answer a combination of mathematical problems whilst searching for hidden locations around the university campus. With some devious and tactical game play being brought into action there were disqualifications and point deductions dished out. However, the final winning group contained none other than one of dot.rural's newest recruits Danny Heptinstall.

Although tiring, the two days were fun filled and it was great to have an opportunity to stand back and take a look at the PhD from a fresh angle. A big thank you to our hosts HighWire, they will be a hard act to follow at next years docfest.

..happy people at docfest...

and the dot.rural delegation: