Category Archives: Conferences

Prospects in Data Science – A multidisciplinary symposium

For three days in January some of the key thinkers in the field of data science met together in the elegant and inspiring surroundings of the New Forest just outside Southampton to reflect on the current state of play in Data Science.

Prospects in Data Science – A multidisciplinary symposium

The event took place over 12th – 14th January, 2016 at the Cerys Manor conference centre and hotel in Brockenhurst in the heart of the new Forest.

This was a high-level event on Data Science organised by the University of Southampton which aimed to look at the Prospects for Data Science, understood as the interface between Statistics, Mathematics and Computer Science providing new methods for handling, analysing and extracting knowledge from data, including Big Data. There was a good turnout for the event over all of the days.


Anne Trefethen, Chief Information Officer, Pro Vice Chancellor, and Professor of Scientific Computing at the University of Oxford presenting her perspective on data science

Outline programme:

Day 1 (Tuesday 12) 

  • David Hand Imperial College London The roles of models in data science
  • Peter Grindrod University of Oxford   Red Herrings and Wild Goose Chases – Creating Analytics for Impact
  • Wendy Hall    University of Southampton   Observatories and data analytics for Web Science
  • Frank Wood University of Oxford     Probabilistic Programming
  • John Aston University of Cambridge
  • Fai Cheng Lloyd’s Register     Big Data and its Transformational Effects

Day 2 (Wednesday 13)

  • Gunnar Carlsson  Stanford University
  • Vitaly Kurlin Durham University  Topological ComputerVision
  • Jane Naylor Office of National Statistics  Data science and its role within official statistics
  • Anne Trefethen  University of Oxford
  • Sofia Olhede
  • Posters and networking

Day 3 (Thursday 14)

  • Arthur Gretton  University College London  Kernel nonparametric tests of homogeneity, independence and multi-variable interaction
  • Dave Coplin Microsoft UK  The Rise of the Humans: How to Outsmart the Digital Deluge
  • Yike Guo  Imperial College

David Hand, Imperial College London, gave an excellent opening talk which set the scene for the rest of the conference. Data Science and Big Data have been around for a while, understood by mathematicians, but only now are they receiving greater interest from the public, media and politicians.

Peter Grindrod, University of Oxford, presented a provocative reflexion on the challenges and opportunities involved in setting up a Data Science programme. In other words, an examination of the big, high-level issues that have to be tackled in order to achieve a successful educational outcome. One of the key aspects of this is the identification that strong leadership skills are needed at all levels in clouding at the funding bodies themselves.

Overall, there were, to my mind at least, a number of key messages that emerged from the talks and debates that look place over these three days. There is something of fight, or at least competition, to own data science. This is problematic as data science is something of a skill set or approach that spans traditional disciplines which still need to thrive. There has not yet emerged an agreed understanding of what data science is and what skills are needed by practitioners. It is also clear that data science is a fast moving and evolving field. Finally, the call to action for senior policy-makers to grasp this topic and understand the need to provide some subtle steer on the trajectory and velocity of change.

Internet of Things and Food: ITaaU/FSA programme outcomes

The Internet of Things offers great potential benefits for health and well-being in many areas, not least in how we manage the production, transportation and storage of the food that we eat. Understanding how we can and should benefit from the mix of technology and process requires that a number of key sectors share thoughts, knowledge and vision. We see this discussion as needing input from policy-makers, agencies, academics and industry. We welcome participants from such areas to learn about the work of our recently funded pilot projects and to contribute to the debate on future direction of this exciting field.

This event brings together researchers from the recent programme of pilot projects run by the Food Standards Agency and the RCUK-funded IT as a Utility Network+. Key outcomes including the benefits and potential for IoT in improving security across the food chain or network will be presented. The role of data, both open and closed, will figure strongly in these conclusions. The event is targeted at researchers and policy makers in the fields of IoT, food, food security, food transportation and storage, and also wider environmental issues.

The event has been structured to present detailed discussions on Monday with an overview and more strategic discussion on Tuesday. So that policy makers might wish to attend only day 2, and academics and other experts both days or even just day 1. (do let us know if only intersted in partial attendance.)

Event details for the 7-8 March, London – further information

The changing face of official record keeping in UK, Ireland and the Netherlands

Further observations from the Threats to Openness in the Digital World conference, Newcastle 24-25 November, 2015

Extreme weather metaphors were flying around at Northumbria University in Newcastle this week where the Threats to Openness conference was looking at the future of the public record in the digital age. According to the speakers, we’re facing a digital deluge in the coming decade as a result of a perfect storm of technological, political, legal and economic changes.

The fate of government records were at the heart of the discussions due to two major developments that are hitting archivists simultaneously: over a 10 year transition period that began in 2013 and involves releasing two years of records each year, records now have to be transferred to the National Archive after 20 years rather than the previous 30, and, soon, those sets of records will also be the first to be predominately digital. So, in 2016/17, digital records from the early 1990s – not least those dealing with decisions about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – are due to be processed.


This presents challenges at all levels of the transfer process, as David Willcox, digital sensitivity review lead at the National Archives, outlined. Digital records bring increases in both volume and complexity.

“We do not have dockets and files any more. We have blizzards of emails stored on different computers – a morass of stuff. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s data,” explained Tim Gollins, of the National Records of Scotland.

Two thirds of government data is held on shared drives, confirmed David Willcox. Email accounts for 50-70% of content, with one government department revealing that it had an impressive 190TB of email data.

This makes appraisal – the appreciation of the value and historical relevance of a record – more difficult. Even more challenging is sensitivity review – the process by which records are checked for compliance with data protection laws and any risks to national security, damage to international or business relations, personal information and so on. This review determines whether a record is retained by the department, sent to the National Archives as a “closed” record or opened to the public. According to Arthur Lucas, member of the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council, 75% of the documents going into the National Archives are closed, although he pointed out that transferring a document closed is not a way to “bury” a record and it is preferable to it being retained as at least it is indexed and its status can change in the future. Sensitivity review is currently done by humans, page by page, and can be a lengthy process. And it presents a real conundrum in the digital age: the nature of sensitivity review is inherently tricky for computers but sheer volume means that bringing in technology may be the only option.

Technology can certainly assist: eDiscovery tools can be used to apply categorisation or clustering to unstructured information; software can help highlight themes, events and people (which may help with reducing duplication – there is around 40% duplication in government records); 75% of exemptions from leading government departments relate to personal information and this is a good starting point for technological solutions as it should be easier for software to highlight easily identifiable fields such as names and addresses.

Research into this is crucial, and it is underway. Michael Moss, professor of mathematics and information science at Northumbria, and Tim Gollins have been working on an IT as a Utility Network-funded project to look at methods and algorithms that will enable the creation of useful tools. The CIA is working with the University of Texas on tools for CIA records. There is interesting work ongoing at Colombia University (they are “approaching record keeping from a completely different perspective,” commented Moss. “They have reconceptualised the archive from ‘a whole collection of documents’ to ‘data you can analyse’.”)

Why does this matter? “Transparency and openness,” said Willcox. “Good governance,” said Sir Alex Allen, former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice and Cabinet Office and author of the Records Review report into the readiness of government to move from the 30 year to 20 year rule. “Good record management is not just about preserving the historical record. It’s also important for the efficient running of the office.” When civil servants are asked for advice on a particular policy issue and they know that they looked at that same issue a few years ago, they need to be able to find the papers that relate to the discussions and decisions. It is also important for audit and accountability – how do you know if a private sector company contracted to do public sector work is fulfilling its contract if you can’t find the paperwork? – and for provision of evidence to public enquiries and legal proceedings.

A cautionary tale of what happens when it goes wrong was provided by Mary Daly, president of the Royal Irish Academy. She related the woeful story of how a key government decision was made during the Irish banking crisis in 2008. Or, rather, how we don’t know how that key decision was made because the records relating to it are “inadequate. In fact, non-existent. There was a complete lack of proper procedures.”

But the public record – and the huge changes it is undergoing in the digital age – is not restricted to government. According to Jeremy Frey, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Southampton, the scientific record, which is – or should be – also a public record when it is publicly funded, is also evolving.

“We are in a liminal period. Publication is a ritual we all go through but what we’re really about now is moving from paper publication paradigm to a digital one that will allow much more.”

However, there is currently a gap between the opportunities offered by digital and, in many cases, how they are being exploited – or not.

“Scientific papers have become a repository for the argument but most of the data is missing. In the past absolutely everything was in the paper, because it could be. Scale was not a problem. That has changed,” argued Frey. If researchers do not see and value the data then they cannot be sure that they can trust that value chain…and lack of trust in the data can destroy the scientific endeavour. As well as more intelligently accessible data (a scanned copy of data in the form of an image cannot be usefully searched) there needs to be more detail on methods and, to be disseminated effectively, it needs to have a narrative: “the story that you weave around the data that is as important as the data itself.”

For the humanities and social sciences, there is a challenge rearing from a different direction. David Erdos, lecturer in law and open society at the University of Cambridge, gave a rich rundown of the current state of the EU data protection landscape, how it is set to change and why it should concern humanities and social science scholars.

Currently, derogations within the directive allow some wriggle room for particular, special purposes, notably journalism, literature and the arts. The EU is now proposing that these are contained in a “middle area” covering knowledge facilitation more generally. One area of concern for researchers is that there would be no derogation from the proactive duty to provide privacy notices if the purpose of the data use changes. While biomedical research organisations have been busy lobbying about this, Erdos said that such activism needs to extend to the social sciences and humanities research community. “I have been trying to make them aware of it and their obligations around data protection,” he said. “The whole landscape is very confused around this and research ethics and policies. Seemingly, there is very little understanding of the implications of legislation. The community needs to fight for this – that’s what the press and journalists do.” It is likely that research will end up being an area for which a huge amount of discretion is passed to member states and, so, working on a national level will be as important as the European level.

Agnes Jonker, senior lecturer in Archives at the Archiefschool, (the Netherlands Institute for Archival Education and Research), University of Amsterdam, gave an insight into how the Dutch treat access to the public record, and how it compares to the UK. Most notably, the Netherlands’ first FOI law was drafted in 1980 (in the UK the FOI act is from 2005) and so there is, generally, a more relaxed air around the concept. Which is not to say that it is without its critics – a new FOI law was proposed in 2013 (though it will not be in force for a few years) to update legislation in the light of changes to the state: with the shrinking of government through increased privatisation, third parties are escaping FOI scrutiny. However, there is no reference in the proposed new law about the duty to document.

Coming a full circle back to public records and the humanities, Andrew Hoskins is a military historian who is concerned that current developments will render uncertain the record of warfare. He is particularly worried about the reduction from the 30 year rule to 20 years will result in more records being closed. “The buffer protects those potentially subject to embarrassment or danger. But buffering time is under pressure. From 2013 to 2023, two years of records will be processed every year without a doubling of resources. It’s punching holes in the records in demand by historians. It’s not a recipe for careful selection and preservation,” he said.

Hoskins, like Frey, thinks that the “story” is crucial – and risks being lost with the move to digital files. “It shifts away the context that comes from the handling of the physical file. Without the material context, the front and behind of each file, the information might be found but the story might be lost,” he said. “A history of warfare that depends on the official records of the British army has an uncertain future. Over the 2000s we’ve seen a perfect storm of technological, economic and political change at all points from collection to collation and archiving and assessment for declassification through to their being made public by the archives – and some of these pressures result from the culture of openness that has attached itself to current technological changes without adequate resources and understanding of the issues. It’s not a recipe for improved public access. Faster history is not necessarily better history,” he warned.

What’s the answer? The conference concluded by considering potential ways of moving forward and the actions, partnerships and collaborations required for that to happen. In the words of David Thomas of Northumbria University, the ideal is to “take the archival idea and reinvent it in a new context of record making and record keeping in a new social world.” Watch this space.

Written by Michelle Pauli



Threats to Openness in the Digital World

Threats to Openness in the Digital World – 24th – 25th November, 2015

The complex and sometimes contradictary challenges presented by the role of official records in the digital age were eloquently presented and rigorously discussed at a 2-day conference in Newcastle this week. Within the imposing and inspiring ambiance of the Great Hall in the Sutherland Building at Northumbria University, a large audience of interested parties relished the opportunity that this event presented. ITaaU was pleased to act as co-sponsor along with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. The event continued a line of collaboration between ITaaU and the organisers in the form of work on sensitivity review as records, soon to be increasingly digital, become due for release to the public domain. A more substantial report on the event will follow shortly.


Professor Mary Daly, President of the Royal Irish Academy Digital archives, gave an illuminating and enthralling talk on the role of official records in recording decision-making during times of great turmoil, specifically in relation to some recent Irish commissions and inquiries – including the various Banking Inquiries.


The Great Hall provided a perfect setting for the two-day conference.


Professor Julie Mcleod, Professor in Records Management in the Department of Mathematics and Information Science iSchool, Northumbria University, opened and closed the conference and ensured that the talks and panel discussions were timely and lively.

Further information can be found on the @Threat2Openness blog site:

Community Conference 2015, Southampton

From 6th – 7th July we celebrated another successful year with a two-day programme of talks, demonstrations and conversations. In addition to lightning talks and demonstrations from many of our funded projects and other related initiatives, we were very pleased to include the following speakers:

  • Jeremy Frey, University of Southampton: From living labs to digital utilities and services
  • Philip Godsiff, Surrey Business School: The role of crypto-currencies: money as a utility?
  • Tracy Keys, RCUK: A research council’s perspective
  • Nick Long, Southampton Solent University: the art of branding and identity in the digital age
  • Anisah Osman Britton, The Bakery Accelerator Programme: Women in innovation
  • Zoe Philpott, Interactive Storyteller: Ada Lovelace, retelling the story
  • David Rew, University Hospital Southampton: The clinical informatics revolution
  • Alan Scrase, University of Southampton: SETsquared’s hight tech startup support partnership
  • Elena Simperl, University of Southampton: Open data and social machines
  • Amanda Smith, Open Data Institute: Open data – creating partnerships, changing business, connecting cultures
  • Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM: What next for the Internet of Things?
  • Paul Watson, Newcastle University: Healthcare in the Cloud
  • Alana Wood, ustwo: Holacracy, time and design studio culture

The conference took place on the 6-7th July in Southampton at the Solent Conference Centre in the City Centre.

Further reports, photos, slides sets and films will appear shortly.

EGI Community Forum 2013, Manchester

I have just returned from a productive visit to the lively and stimulating EGI Community Forum in Manchester. ITaaU Network+ was invited to contribute to Wednesdays’ series of presentations on sustainability issues. This proved to be a serendipitous follow up to the recent Collaboration Workshop in Oxford as SSI was also included. ITaaU nicely complements the work on applications and middleware components, as the Network+ supports researchers with interests in the more physical interactions and interfaces to networks and infrastructures.

The combined session provided an opportunity to outline the ITaaU Network+ and the various funding schemes that we are able to offer: pilot projects, secondments and workshops where appropriate. In the discussions that ensued at least two viable workshop ideas emerged and we hope to be able to announce these very soon. The funding of current secondments call is unfortunately limited to UK-based researchers, however we are able to support international travel for candidates if they have an institution outside of the UK that is willing to support their work. Similar constraints will be applicable to our forthcoming second Pilot Project call.

The European  Grid Infrastructure supports the Infrastructure needs of the European research community but the IT as a Utility Network+, although currently UK-focussed is gradually reaching out to a wider International audience and will do more so in the future. When it eventually emerges, the Horizon 2020 call will present some interesting opportunites for ITaaU members to join partners from across Europe in developing our activities further.

In the meantime, Manchester represented a fine opportunity to re-acqaint myself with many old friends, former colleagues and new contacts during this challenging but exciting time of transition.