Coronavirus, working from home and cybersecurity

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)

As coronavirus sweeps across the globe all sectors are looking towards governmental bodies to issue statements that outline the next steps to contain this pandemic. Even from its early days, coronavirus demonstrated its far reaching impact on economies through effecting major sectors such as hospitality, tourism, governmental operations, hospitals, exports, imports and education (to name a few).

Italy is on an incredible total lock-down that hasn’t been seen by any developed state in recent memory. Wuhan’s lock-down is an incredible feat albeit too late. The US takes a more relaxed stance but has seen a number of cases where businesses are encouraging or mandating employees to work from home (WFH). In the UK, the Chancellor has just announced a £50b emergency response budget to the national health services, companies with less than 250 staff will be refunded for sick pay (for a period of 2 weeks/employee) and Statutory sick pay will be paid to all those who choose to self-isolate, even if they don’t have symptoms. I have also had conversations with people in the health service who are taking an unpaid leave of up to a month during this time to safeguard themselves. So things are getting serious and business can allow employees to work remotely for at least without suffering financially.

The dilemma with many businesses is that they’re not setup correctly or securely enough to allow remote working. This is no surprise as it costs businesses a great deal of money to secure remote channels that can access their information systems and ties in closely with their existing software and hardware architecture. Plus, it’s a complex operation to roll out and debug.

If your cybersecurity is compromised whilst WFH, sure enough someone (most likely you) will be held accountable. So, what does it mean for you if you’re at small business/start-up/charity/governmental department that’s just implemented a WFH policy.

Before leaping for joy at how convenient this might be for you (cutting out commuting time, money and health risks from mouth breathers) take a beat and consider doing the following:

Safe working space at home

This is a big one. Homes have a lot of distractions so what would this mean for your productivity? Would you end up putting in more time to make up for it? Is there enough structure at your place to allow you to take timely breaks and balance out your professional and private life? Would you remember to lock your device every time you step away or risk your child hopping on and sending out an email you were drafting and cause a formal cyber incident? Would it just mean more work for you? A ‘safe’ space should be your first thought when considering WFH.

Insurance coverage

Check what your company’s insurance policy is. If you (or your cat) accidentally spills something on your company device, is it covered off office premises? You don’t want to be out of access and be out of pocket for a policy implementation that wasn’t well thought out and you didn’t know what the risks would be.

Cybersecurity when WFH

Both elements above involve cybersecurity. Insurance coverage also covers the Availability aspect of cybersecurity and working space at home covers cyber accidents and incidents. Not many people would even know what a VPN is and wouldn’t have this set up for their home broadband. And that’s OK for your personal use! But when working on your home Wi-Fi it could impact your cybersecurity levels when WFH. Before you begin, ask your employer if they have systems in place that ensure your cybersecurity levels while working remotely are equally secure as when you’re on the premises. This could entail things such as encryption that add an additional layer of security when working remotely.

Access

I found out through experience that while small companies offer a ‘basic version’ of working remotely it can come with a lot of lag (you have a portal you go through via a personal device to access your work computer’s desktop). If systems aren’t set up correctly (well configured) your access can hang or crash. This could mean you’ll end up doing the same task for the tenth time! If you’re using your personal device to remotely access your computer and are frustrated with the system not working, you might be tempted to move files to your personal devices (so it all ends before you enter your kill zone) – don’t! This becomes more hassle than it’s worth and it’s much easier to get in touch with your IT department to report the issue to fix before you can begin your work on that task again – so sip some tea in the meantime.

In some cases the drives can be separated so while it all appears normally on your work computer this might not be the case for when you’re working remotely. Check with your employer if there’s a specific drive you need to move your documents to (while on premises) to ensure you have access to them remotely.

If you have a company provided computer such as a laptop then you’re clear of most of the headaches that come with lag, crashing systems and availability of documents – hurrah!

Prefer conversations instead of emails or texts

Try to have as many skype/video/call conversations as possible. This ensures that you are actually speaking to the person who you think you’re speaking to so your communication has what is known as Integrity in cybersecurity. Access through an insecure connection (such as your home Wi-Fi even if it has a strong password) can mean your account gets compromised and you have a man-in-the-middle intercepting and responding to your confidential company communications.

These are just some of the things that came to my mind when thinking about WFH cybersecurity and I hope it helps! If you’re a team leader encourage your team to adopt these practices. If you’re an employer, certainly consider these aspects prior to enforcing remote working. It would be good for companies preparing to have their employees WFH, to have a session that outlines best practice scenarios, remits of liability and answer any concerns or queries while we wait for coronavirus to pass.

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

In the pandemic, cities are scrambling to expand cycling infrastructure: Big Data can help

post by Gregor Engelmann (2014 cohort) and Maria Catalina Ochoa

The coronavirus (COVID-19) and lockdown measures have created immense challenges for urban transport. But they also provide an opportunity for cities to rethink the future of mobility. Cycling, in particular, is enjoying renewed attention. This is not surprising, as biking offers many advantages that make it an attractive form of urban transport both during and after the pandemic: bicycles can ease the pressure on public transit systems, allow for easy social distancing, contribute to better public health, and reduce air pollution.

Yet we have a long way to go before cycling can become a mainstream transport option for urban residents. Motorized transport is often the default choice—even to destinations within easy cycling distance—and most observers are concerned that traffic will come right back once the virus subsides.

One major obstacle is infrastructure… or the lack thereof. Even in cities that have actively promoted cycling, such as Rome, Paris, or Bogotá, cycling networks are often fragmented, forcing cyclists to make use of busy and dangerous roads. Over the past decade, Bogotá has constructed 500 km of bike paths, locally known as ciclorrutas. These have contributed to a big increase in daily cycling trips, from 421,000 in 2011 to 635,000 in 2015. Despite this investment, gaps in the network and maintenance issues continue to affect the paths’ usage and residents’ overall mobility. 

If we’re serious about harnessing the full potential of cycling, it’s essential that cities address these issues and connect disjointed bike paths into cohesive, user-friendly networks. But where do you start? With limited fiscal resources, which parts of your city should you focus on to expand biking infrastructure? How can you ensure cycling investments benefit the highest number of people?

To answer these questions, urban planners traditionally rely on online or household surveys. But these are slow and expensive, often taking months or years from initial data collection to the planning stage. Recent advances in digital technology, however, are creating new ways to collect and analyze data. Insights from anonymized mobile phone data are particularly promising.

In our latest research together with the Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá and UC Berkeley, we used Bogotá as a case study to show how mobile phone data can improve our understanding of mobility patterns and inform the planning of new infrastructure. We first tapped into data from a local fitness app called Biko to analyze how cyclists move around Colombia’s capital and identify the biggest gaps in the ciclorrutas. We also mined data from cell towers to get a better picture of overall mobility across all modes, including private cars, public transport, and walking. We found that there are 4.1 million short- to medium-length journeys across the city every day that could be completed using a bicycle instead of a car. This clearly demonstrates that potential demand for cycling in the city is much higher than the 635,000 average trips in 2015.

Cyclist in Bogota, Colombia. Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad of Bogotá
Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad of Bogotá

Our analysis found a clear link between the presence of bike paths and the number of cycling trips tracked through Biko, while the inclusion of cell tower data highlighted how gaps in the ciclorrutas impacted the volume of potential cycling trips. We also noted that the cycling situation varies significantly from one neighborhood to the next depending on the socioeconomic context: this is particularly evident across low-income areas south of the center, where bike paths are less common and cycling accounts for a smaller proportion of trips vis-a-vis its potential. Hence the paper recommends prioritizing infrastructure investment in the southern area and in a series of specific links throughout the city to address the potential demand, where a lot of short trips are happening that are well-suited for cycling.

Already a cycling champion in its region, Bogotá is now better equipped to design a more comprehensive cycling network that would fit the projected demand and provide citywide connectivity. In an ideal scenario, that means cyclists would be able to complete their journeys safely and seamlessly without having to leave a bike path.

More broadly, our research demonstrates how mobile phone data can help gain insight into mobility trends and anticipate future needs. If used properly, Big Data can lead to better decision-making, improve development outcomes, and help decision-makers respond quickly and effectively to unexpected challenges such as COVID-19. And of course, as more and more people carry phones in their pockets, the approach we piloted in Bogotá can easily be replicated elsewhere.

Whatever the post-COVID reality looks like, it’s safe to say that data-driven planning will become an integral part of our new normal. We are excited to see what Big Data has in store for urban transport, and we stand ready to help cities make the most of it.

–originally posted on World Bank blog

Engaging children with STEM

post by Neeshé Khan (2018 cohort)

Last year I decided to partake in a program that engages primary school children from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage with students from the local university. This provides an opportunity for children to have positive role models or Mentors that can provide support and some sort of a roadmap to whatever they might dream to be when they grow up. I decided to do this to encourage a child to dream about a life in STEM.

As young adults, it is easy and intuitive to explore, experiment, and discover the right choices for your future career. Despite having an aptitude for STEM you might want to explore Arts or Business which is perfectly acceptable. However, when you change your mind STEM doesn’t welcome you back into the fold. There are stringent requirements for the combinations of subjects you must have and the grades you need to be able to start an undergraduate degree. If you have Physics at A-levels (anyone who has done this will tell you that Physics contains more Mathematics than A-Level Mathematics subject) it is required that you must also have Mathematics in A-levels. So if like me, a student also wants to explore economics, business studies, and a language, it means you can no longer enter an Engineering undergraduate degree regardless of your grade in Physics. However, this poses no issues for pursuing a degree in any non-science subjects as all undergraduate degrees will make you relearn the basics, and often lecturers will tell you to forget what you learnt in previous years as it’s mostly inaccurate for truly understanding the subject. Unsurprisingly, I believe that this ‘locking out’ of bright young minds for STEM fields based on ‘desirable combinations’ is in large the main contributor towards the STEM skills crisis that the western world is now facing.

But coming back to the point, I wanted to help a young child strengthen their academic STEM foundations and generate interest where they can see an exciting future in this space. In a few days, I was matched to an 11-year-old (let’s call her “Tara”) who’s interested in STEM and aspires to become a doctor.

While there are several programs available, I really enjoyed this one. It was structured, transparent, had clear expectations and outcomes, and well organised. It offered training and support for the Mentors which meant I would enjoy speaking to Megan (project co-ordinator at the venue) about what my meeting plans were or if I wanted some insights or advice.

I started off the program by providing continuity. I became a staple figure in her life which meant we would meet at a fixed schedule, for the agreed duration, at the agreed time, and follow the agenda that we had agreed in our previous meeting. I always showed up. Much like the gym, showing up (to see this little person waiting for me) meant more than half the effort was already done. We had decided to work on subjects that Tara identified she needed help with, particularly focusing on SATs (Maths, Science, and English). I also allowed Tara to decide what our meetings would look like, empowering her to be in control of our progress. This meant that while she performed very well on tests, we also reflected on what factors contributed to the mistakes and explored tools to overcome them. After a year, Tara ended up achieving one of the top scores in her school and got one of the two scholarships for a private secondary school in the area.

There were also some difficult times. I sometimes struggled to get her attention or interest. Many times this was because she had other things on her mind. Her mom was a qualified nurse from another country who couldn’t practice in the UK without an equivalence which takes time and money, two of the biggest resources for any immigrant. She ended up working two jobs in a profession outside her qualification. Tara discussed her challenges in trying to study in close quarters with her younger siblings. At a young age, she was wise beyond her years and I would often catch myself remembering how little she actually was. We put in the effort to developing skills to overcome the pressure and stress SATs bring to their young lives. We practised exercises to help retain focus in busy environments and relieve stress which included slime making and controlled breathing.

I really enjoyed discovering how the current education system uses new techniques to teach children. For instance, the way we would multiply was completely different! Thankfully our answers almost always matched! When they didn’t, I had to learn her system of understanding and convert my reasoning to fit Tara’s model so it would a) be correct/spot her mistake in her workings and b)make sense to her. I took this as a challenge and found this quite a fun exercise on most days.

Overall, I feel that I made some difference towards Tara achieving her goals and hopefully contributed towards making her STEM career aspirations a real option in her future. I would really encourage everyone to take up this as a rewarding experience to engage the future in any discipline and field you personally care about. Just be consistent and dedicate as much time as you think you can spare. Even a half-hour a week can help contribute to a young life that might need skills you might not know you have.

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

Just write it!

Reflection on my first paper writing experience
post by Natalie Leesakul (2018 cohort)

Citation: Urquhart, L., Reedman-Flint, D. and Leesakul, N. (2019), “Responsible domestic robotics: exploring ethical implications of robots in the home”, Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 246-272. https://doi.org/10.1108/JICES-12-2018-0096

As I was wrapping up my first study and starting to draft the paper, I thought this might be a good time to write a reflection piece on my first paper writing experience. Writing a paper can feel a bit daunting. There are always so many ideas to cover and it is so easy to get consumed by the findings and the need to make the paper perfect – and that is where I’m usually stuck at. So, I have to often remind myself that writing a paper is a journey on its own and it is going to take several drafts and many revisions before arriving at the final document, but even that is not the end!

When I was in my first year, my supervisor, Dr Lachlan Urquhart, invited me to join in on a paper that he was working with another Horizon student, Dominic Reedman-Flint, for ETHICOMP 2018 conference in Sopot, Poland. The motivation of the paper was to introduce empirical observation and conceptual analysis to present how responsible robotics should be built and what people think of life with robots. As the paper focused on exploring challenges and requirements for designing responsible domestic robots, it was very much aligned with my interest in robotics and the law, so I got on board.  Following the submission to the conference, we were invited to submit the paper to Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, and the paper was accepted and published in May 2019. Although it has been over a year since the conference, I still remember the feeling when I gave a presentation at a conference for the first time and the excitement when we found out that the paper was finally in the pipeline for publishing.

For paper preparation, we were working remotely prior to the conference – Lachlan was the lead on this paper while Dom looked at the exploratory study and my responsibility was to support and fill the gaps in some parts of literature review, data analysis and copy editing. We collaborated via email and used Dropbox to keep track of different paper versions and editing (the raw survey data was not stored on here). Through collaboration, the paper started to develop from a rough outline of the paper format to the final draft ready for submission.  Unfortunately, neither Lachlan nor Dom was able to attend the conference. Although it was quite nerve-racking when I found out I would be going to the conference and presenting the paper, this experience really set a good start for my PhD (I’ll save the details for another storytelling!).

After returning from the conference, we took into consideration the questions that were asked during the presentation and addressed this further in our paper. Some of the questions we received were around the main themes of the survey, how the questions were formed, and the general question on how robots can be used for other purposes such as helping those who are socially isolated. In this case, Dom and I were able to work together in person to revise the paper before submitting to the journal. It was definitely easier to collaborate in person as we needed to make some substantial changes to comply with the journal formatting requirements and criteria, decisions could be made faster this way. It took a few days of in-person meetings but intensive email exchanging between all three of us until we had the final draft.

After the paper was accepted and went through peer review process, we received feedback with a minor revision (adding an appendix that includes the statistical analysis). This part of the process allowed us one last chance to edit the paper before publication. It was a very crucial stage to ensure that the paper was airtight which only meant more revision and more back and forth emailing. As I mentioned from the beginning, having a final draft is still not the end of the journey. The paper can always be made better, but it is important to know when to stop. After reading over the paper several times and everyone double, triple, quadruple checked the paper, we then agreed on the final editing.

What I have learned from this experience is very valuable to my PhD journey. For practical skills, I personally think it is a good practice to maintain a record of each revision. I found the recommendation from Lachlan very useful for collaborative writing – so instead of everyone editing the master document, we created a copy of it to add our content to with track changes on. All the revisions must be uploaded onto a shared folder but then only one person compiles all the content onto the master document as this will prevent confusion and corrupted files. For personal development, although I was new to this process, I found that the key for successful collaboration consisted of being flexible and open to new suggestions, respecting each other’s opinions, being supportive, and having good communication, which both Lachlan and Dom have shown me 😊.  It was certainly a good first paper writing experience and a nice reminder to be patient with the process.

Engaging with the peer-review process

Post by Kate (Green) O’Leary (2016 Cohort) 

Ever since I started my research career at Horizon I knew that I wanted to make contributions throughout the PhD process. I have my name attached to two papers as a result of my previous work in education, however, I wanted to go through the process of writing papers and getting them to peer review and (hopefully) accepted.

Firstly, I have to confess that I wildly underestimated two things. The first being how difficult I would find writing academic research papers; and the second, how lengthy the peer review process is for journals. Although I could have submitted works to conferences (and I did), with my work sitting at the intersection between health psychology and human computer interaction, I was struggling to find conferences where my work on privacy fit.

From my first study, my supervisors and I identified two papers that could be made out of it. To this end, I started to draft these papers in early 2019 (one on privacy and another on social media use by online health communities) whilst looking for potential journals to submit to. The study was qualitative and rich with interview data, so I struggled to write robust papers without including lots of supporting quotes. It ultimately meant that my papers were going to be a bit longer than I would have liked. It also meant that the journals, with a respectable impact factor, were limited.

In May 2019 I had a paper accepted at the Digital Economy Network Conference which encouraged submissions of interdisciplinary works. The feedback was extremely helpful, but unfortunately the conference was cancelled and my paper was consequently not published in the proceedings. I decided that this paper could be re-imagined for a journal. “Towards understanding how individuals with Inflammatory Bowel Disease use contemporary social media platforms for health-related communications” was submitted to the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior in September 2019. I was ignorant, to say the least, about the submission process and the requirements for a cover letter and other various documents. I did some research on what a cover letter to a journal editor should look like and I shared mine with my supervisors for review before pressing submit.

In April 2020 I received reviewers comments which outlined how the paper needed some adjustments to clarify the purpose of the study. I was relieved with the feedback because I was more concerned that perhaps there would be some more pressing issues with the study and its outcomes. Taking the comments on board I made changes to the paper; I rewrote large sections pertaining to the research focus, as well as defending why qualitative interviews were adopted.

In the next part of the process, I had to make detailed responses to the reviewers’ comments, outlining what I have changed. In all honesty I was not aware that I had to do this until I was reuploading the paper to the system. I have learned that for next time, I should reflect on my changes concurrently with making them so that I can make this process more efficient.

In mid May I returned my revised manuscript and by mid-June I received a notification of acceptance! I am so thrilled to have my first paper accepted at a prestigious journal before submitting my thesis. I now await confirmation of what volume it will be featured in…

Overall I would definitely recommend that PhD researchers try to get their work peer reviewed. Having people review my work was really scary, but necessary to make sure that ‘good’ research is being published. Ultimately I am going to have to face two reviewers face-to-face who will be reviewing and commenting on my entire PhD thesis. Having at least some experience and practice in defending my decisions and accepting constructive criticism I think will really help me, not only to produce a more refined thesis, but also better prepare me for the viva process.

–originally posted on Kate’s blog

Does our psychology impact our perceptions of COVID-19?

post by Vanja Ljevar (2017 cohort)

We all have a mixture of psychological traits, but we also have similarities with other people. This research was conducted to examine how people with specific psychology characteristics react to COVID-19. Who are they, what are they like and — what are they afraid of the most?


2020 has been marked by Coronavirus and by this point in time we all found our ‘methods’ of dealing with the situation. The motivation behind this research was to highlight different perspectives that exist about Coronavirus: we are all worried about something, but we also have different priorities.

511 people were surveyed and K-Means clustering was made based on their psychological traits, demographics and fears related to COVID-19. These people can be best described with 3 groups and to respond to the question from the title, yes, there are some similarities and differences between them. Everybody is worried the most about dying (as a result of getting and spreading the virus). However, our priorities change after that, depending on what kind of personality we have.

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Critical and reserved care about their finances, paying the mortgage and losing their job more than non-critical people. There are also many implications about why taking care of our mental health during this period is equally important as taking care of our physical health. Anxious people worry about the quality of their relationships and their own mental health much more than calm people. This emphasises the effect of mindfulness. This was described in the segment of ‘Mindful Empaths’, who are worried but dealing with the situation by finding their peace and optimism. On another hand, the ‘Realists’ are worried about pretty much every aspect of the virus, but their worry could arguably quickly grow into anxiety.

As a take away for future interventions, it would be worth examining the segment of ‘Relaxed Players’. This segment of young people (who like to exercise a lot) seems to be the least worried about spreading the virus. However, this research is, first and foremost, an invitation for everyone to reflect on their own traits and needs during these trying times. They are, apparently, different for all of us, but taking care of ourselves has never been so crucial. We all need to listen more closely to what we need to do for ourselves— whether it is to go for a run, invite our friend for a socially-distant walk or simply, make a plan for our finances with a warm cup of tea.

So, which group do you relate the most?

–originally posted on Vanja’s blog

Dtree – Digital Global Health

Maddy’s Reflections

Post by Madeleine Ellis (2016 cohort)

Dtree’s Vision
‘Our vision is a world in which every person has access to high quality health care.’

Dtree’s Mission
‘Our mission is to work with partners to leverage digital tools and data to save lives. We will be as focused as you on your health system goals, while working in partnership with you to implement digital solutions to improve program quality and impact.’

Who are Dtree?
Dtree focuses on a number of different projects on digital global health. Current projects include: Sexual and reproductive health (helping women achieve their reproductive goals), maternal and new-born health (working to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality), child health (preventing treatable childhood deaths) and emergency transport (Where no ambulances are available). With field offices in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar Tanzania, as well as Lilongwe and Malawi and management offices in Boston and Washington DC, Dtree’s projects are engaged in countries throughout Africa. To expand projects Dtree have conducted 2 million area visits and are continuing to expand their engagements. The underlying system for Dtree is based on three main philosophies: Innovation, implementation and Impact. They leverage technologies to support and improve program efficiency in the projects. They use high levels of experience to help partners replicate and scale high impact programs. Finally, they work with partners to continually measure impact and increase efficiency. The core that ensures their success is this incredible collaboration between innovative technology and strong relationships with expert partners and local communities. This project structure is responsible for the high levels of impact they already have and continue to achieve. In a nutshell, this is my main take away from the experience and is something I plan to rely on for all my future ambitions within the field.

D-tree offices which are shared with the Department of Health in Zanzibar

What are we at N/Lab working on with Dtree?
I joined a project on maternal and neonatal care responding to healthcare challenges in Zanzibar. D-Tree International has been working with the Zanzibar Ministry of Health to improve the delivery of community based maternal and neonatal care via innovative and award winning Safer Deliveries program. The project will also hopefully be expanding to include child health, looking at issues such as malnutrition. A critical component of the program is the analysis and use of data for decision making to support and design effective interventions. Using machine learning and advance analytical approaches to find higher risk cases of clients information sharing and education can be better targeted for allocation of limited resources.

Maddy presenting to the Tanzania country manager at D-tree.

So, what did I learn from the visit to Dtree in Zanzibar?

Popping the research bubble
The nature of PhD’s require an intense level of focus on one fine-grained topic. Within this process, that particular topic can become all encompassing; it will gradually start to feel bigger and bigger. This can make it easy to lose the context of your topic. This internship helped remind me that my PhD is a tiny dot within the field I am focused on. More than that, the field itself is also just a tiny dot in the grand scheme of things. Internships provide a wonderful opportunity to pop this research bubble, remind ourselves of the context we are working in and get insight into problem sets, methods and opportunities that we might not have even been aware existed before this. This has not only been an incredible thing for my personal growth through life, but also strengthened my PhD by allowing me to address some elements of my work with newly formed perspectives.  Importance of working with communities

Importance of working with communities
Another key take away is that the importance of working with communities and collaborating with related experts cannot be underestimated. I have always taken the importance of community collaboration as an essential for sustainable change in the other charity work I do, this experience with Dtree has taken that further and helped me to understand different levels of this and the application to academic research. Dtree has an iterative process of developing and applying technologies and programs with numerous assessments from collaborators at each stage. Anything you want to build needs to have the end used in mind at every stage and should utilise as much expert advice as possible on the way. While with Dtree we had a meeting with some of the field workers, the purpose of the meeting was for us to understand the context of the work and for them to understand the basic ideas of the applied machine learning. This shared knowledge allowed an extremely productive conversation about the future steps of the project. By understanding each other’s challenges and capacities we were able to reach novel solutions and approaches to the task at hand.There is a difference between the right solution and the ‘best’ solution.

There is a difference between the right solution and the ‘best’ solution.
This take away is linked to the two reflections above. Researchers working on a thesis are bound to have expert knowledge on a topic, combine this with the academic pressure of technical novelty and it is easy to become focused on finding that ‘incredible new publishable method’. In the real world, these complicated impressive methods are not always going to be the most helpful or appropriate. Sometimes the application of a quick simple existing model will provide the most efficient support for an impactful project. This experience has shown me the importance of addressing this conflict as early as possible in a project. What are the goals of each stakeholder, what do I want my impact to be? This has lead me to reflect on my own goals. Am I looking to publish papers and make mathematical advances, which can provide long-term large scaled impacts, or do I want to make simple technological applications to problems with immediate community impact. Actually, I think I sit somewhere in the middle, I want to be a part of increasing the capacity for long term impact and technical novelty but also I want to prioritize appropriate impactful projects at the present moment.

The future is now
Data and technology are advancing rapidly before our eyes, with every step forward technology takes; the availability of the previous steps becomes more and more accessible to problems sets with limited resources to make change. This is beyond a silver lining for development. Take for example the development of face recognition phone passwords. Before this experience, I wouldn’t have thought that holds much relevance to my work at all, but that’s not true. It’s the butterfly affect, the small improvement will move like a wave through the mobile phone industry making all previous models that little bit more accessible and affordable. Increasing access to these technologies opens opportunities, for examples improved data collection which can advance a project. 

Technology isn’t the only thing which is moving at lightning speed, the older I get the faster time seems to move. I found the work Dtree do extremely inspiring and it has cemented some of my future professional goals. This bridge between mathematical technologies and impactful social good developments is where I want to be. Life is moving fast and although it’s great to have these goals, all of these experiences and moments are part of my goals. As cheesy as its sounds, it really is a journey not a destination. My advice to other PhD students taking internships would be to use this as a time to be reflective, make time to think about the things you haven’t thought of yet!

Side note
I used to think networking was a bit of a buzzword… It isn’t… talk to EVERYONE you can. Ask their advice, ask for their thoughts, ask to hear about their journey and ask for their contact information.

Writing PhD thesis in the middle of a Pandemic

Post by Kate (Green) O’Leary (2016 Cohort)

It’s been a long while since I last blogged; seems like an ongoing theme over the past few years. It’s not that I purposefully don’t, I honestly just forget.

Anyway, here we are, in the middle of a pandemic and boy aren’t we feeling it. In a lot of ways life in my household has not changed a great deal. I have worked from home for over three years and my husband is a keyworker so, for the most part, things are relatively ‘normal’.

That doesn’t mean however, that I am finding writing my PhD thesis a walk in the park. It’s been extremely testing to say the least. I am currently about 4 months away from submission and on paper I am more than on track to finish on time; I am also determined to make that a reality. I still have my discussion, introduction, epistemological position, and appendices left to draft and my goal is to have the discussion written by the end of May.

Something that I find particularly difficult is going from the anxiety-filled, but excited and accomplished feeling when sending a section of chapters to supervisors, to a blank document: the next chapter. After having just finished one roller coaster of emotions the thought of starting it all again with another chapter feels painful. So much so that I don’t even want to get started on it.

I know that the best advice is “to just start” and then when I am in the zone, things will fall into place. Right now, it’s not like I have anything really to do that gives me a legitimate excuse not to do it. I am pretty sure that terraforming my island on Animal Crossing isn’t a good enough reason really.

Knowing that the final 9 months leading up to the submission was going to be a difficult one, in January I organised a writing group that met biweekly in Nottingham. It was organised as a relaxed space for people to write/work together and feel that they can have a ‘blah’ moment if they needed it. Going into lockdown, I knew that people transitioning to working from home constantly was going to rattle with their motivation to work, as having that separation between work and home is so valuable. Having all that roll into one gets messy.

The writing group now meets 3 times a week online. We turn our mics and cameras off for the most part, and work together. There is a chat box and we break (randomly) for chats. Knowing that there is someone on the other end of the line trying to work, brings a sense of community and the feeling that we are all in this together.

Without the encouragement of my friends at the CDT, I honestly don’t know how the past few weeks would have shaped up.

Today was a writing group day. I have grown tired of having no motivation and genuinely wanted to make a dent into this next chapter. With the encouragement of others, I’ve broken ground; two discussion points have been completed. Two of many, many more.

I hope that tomorrow I can tackle one more, hopefully more; but I won’t put too much pressure on myself.

Until next time folks.

–originally posted on Kate’s blog

Covid-19 and Cybercrime

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)

After being in self isolation for what feels like an eternity like many others I am also starting to get warped for what time it is. It’s hard for me to remember when things happened or which day we’re on. I’m experiencing a weird fatigue setting in which is the same for many of the people I’ve been speaking to, despite LinkedIn being on steroids. The fatigue also means that I’m finding it hard to find inspiration to write this blog but here we are – it’s Friday and things must get done. So, welcome to another blog post!

In my earlier posts I wrote about remote working and some pitfalls this could bring for your cybersecurity during Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, as more people have shifted to working from home (WFH) cyberthreats have been on a sharp increase. Some of you might be aware of Zoom (group meet up software) vulnerabilities that allowed hackers or unauthorised users to attend closed sessions which quickly became known as Zoom Bombings. Some kids innocently did some Zoom Bombings to prank their teachers while hackers used this to cause disruptions to virtual classrooms in Singapore.

The National Centre for Cyber Security (NCSC) and the National Centre in the US have issued a joint statement this month to announce that cybercriminals are using Covid-19 themed content to lure in users that are then cyberattacked.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise. There was an interesting mapping done by one of the US universities that showed how the virus moved across the US after spring breakers partied and went back to their respective homes. In the UK there have been several news stories on the BBC talking about an app by the government which will track Covid-19 infections. Given this context it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the easiest bait is for a cybercriminal. To me it’s the same as discussing that you’re planning to upgrade your home with new windows in public places (either online or in real life) and then suddenly seeing adverts that talk about a local window company or worse, getting cold calls from them. Plus, with a pandemic that’s sucker punched economies, had impacts that were unforeseen or unknown and where you have authorities proactively conceal the number of infections, it’s not surprising that Covid-19 becomes an interesting concept to explore, track and be ‘in the know’ for.

So, what can you do to stay safe online. I would suggest reading the news once or twice a day from a trusted source, ideally in static text (such as articles as opposed to interactive graphs), avoid disclosing your location to check the number of cases in your local area and always be wary of clicking links that are from people you don’t know. Even if the links are from people you might frequently speak with, be alert and notice if something ‘doesn’t feel right’ because their account could’ve been hacked. Trust your instincts with content online, listen to that small voice in your head that’s usually right and try to supress (if not temporarily extinguish) your curiosity for the time being. While you’re focusing on suppressing your curiosity, practice some mindfulness or Netflix binge watch the Tiger King.

Stay safe and my best wishes your way. Until next time!

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

Small visit to Big Dat – winter school conference in Ancona

Post by Vanja Ljevar (2017 Cohort) reflecting on her experience at BigDat2020

Big Dat was an international data science winter school that gathered many influential data scientists (currently working in industry), but also a vast number of postgraduate students, lecturers and other data science enthusiasts. This winter school was organised by Politecnico Italia, in Ancona, and lasted for 5 days, during which there were interactive workshops and talks given by international speakers. The concept was: we had an option to chose which morning lectures we were interested in attending; the morning lectures were concluded by a lunch where we had a chance to socialise with other equally minded data scientists. In the evenings we had arranged meetings with other participants for socializing, dining (and even dancing!).

One of the benefits of participating in this winter school was exploring Ancona during our free time. Being a very atypical Italian city, it is a well-kept secret, away from other touristy-crowded Italian attractions. However, this city of barely 100.000 people has a very rich history, maintained through old churches, small Venice-like streets (but no channels) and markets.

Our hotel was located next to a breath-taking monument – Il Passetto. This is an example of fascist architecture, commemorating the second world-war victims.

Apart from Ancona’s beautiful sights, some of the most relevant highlights of this winter school proved to be interesting ideas and concepts that can inspire data scientists to produce more effective, more creative and more ground breaking work. Bellow are only some of the examples.

The power of handwriting

Dr Charles Elkan, from the University in Califonia gave an incredible introductory lecture on deep learning. This lecture was focused on maths behind the concept and shed a new light on backpropagation, name entity recognition and co-reference resolution. However, the highlight of the presentation was the use of PowerPoint slides, in a way I have never seen before. Instead of creating a standard set of slides, Dr Elkan put on a screen his hand-written pages. After going though several (already) written slides, he wrote mathematical formulas in real time and we could see them on the screen. This provided the sense of a more personal, even face-to-face teaching environment, which we used to have with teachers in primary schools. This meant that we could all approach this largely popular, but also inaccessible (and may I add scary) field – from scratch (literally!) and with a more comforting and nurturing approach.

Occan’s razor

Another amazing set of lectures was given on the topic of Process Mining. Process Mining was more business – focused lecture about the family of techniques that support the analysis of business processes based on event logs. Presented as a highly relevant field of research, process mining was introduced though its four main characteristics: generalisation, precision, fitness and simplicity. The explanation about why simplicity is extremely important for process mining, the speaker mentioned the Occan’s razor – the problem-solving principle that states: when presented with competing hypothesis that make the same prediction, one should select the solution with fewer assumptions. The reason why Occan’s razor theory is particularly interesting is because it reflects the fact that this winter school was not only focused on delivering new knowledge about the latest progress in the filed, it also enabled us to share underlying theories and ideas that any data scientist and developer should have in mind during research. To further illustrate similar concept explained in the light of process mining, there was also a mention of the ‘conformance checking’. This is another concept that saves us from the bias of ‘unfairness’. To illustrate, if we ask who is the doctor who killed the most patients, it is highly likely to be the most experienced one (simply because they had seen the most patients!). Process mining takes into account such biases, which makes it fair and efficient.

How to produce nice graphs Be a detective

We walked into this lecture knowing one power of data visualisation: to communicate results in a more engaging and interesting way. Everyone likes nice graphs and we are always in search of new and more powerful softwares that will enable us to create them. However, this lecture was not about pretty graphs, it was about the true power of data visualisation – story telling and detective work. We learned presenting data visually is relevant not only because sometimes there are statistics that are the same, but their underlying data is different. Data visualisation is also a sort of detective work, aimed at creating work that presents several parts combined to respond to questions such are: who, when, what, where. The ultimate goal is finding a response to questions like why and how. To illustrate, the presenter gave us a story about John Snow and 1800’s London during the outbreak of cholera. Even though doctors and scientists believed it was the bad air that was responsible for cholera, John Snow decided to visually present the map of cholera cases in Soho, in 1813. Based on this visual representation of cases, John Snow was able to respond to a very important question – what do all these cases have in common? It turned out that all these patients retrieved water from the local street pump. After removing the pump’s handle John Snow effectively stopped the outbreak and unknowingly unlocked the power of data visualisation that today exists at every data scientists reach.

Summary

Overall, BigDat 2020 was addressed to students, researchers and practitioners who want to keep themselves updated about recent developments and future trends. It was a memorable research training event, with a global scope, aiming at investigating advances in the critical and fast developing area of big data, but also society itself. This was of particular relevance to my PhD as I got a chance to learn more about Natural Language processing, Deep Learning and speak to the leading experts from the field.  In fact, interaction was the main component of the event, reminding us all that we are always in a continuous pursue of knowledge, regardless of whether we are industry practitioners, renowned academics, industry pioneers or merely a 3rd year CDT students.

5 out of 5 stars!

Returning from BigDat2020

post by Maddy Ellis (2016 cohort)
reflecting on her experience at BigDat2020

BigDat 2020

6th International Winter School on BigDat
Department of Information Engineering
Marche Polytechnic University 
Ancona, Italy – January 13-17, 2020

Big Data in a growing field with ties into a number of academic tracks. The variety of sources, applications of Big Data create a large spectrum of challenges and advances which have potential for huge impact on scientific discoveries in business models, society, medicine and numerous other fields. BigDat2020 brought together researchers, academics and industry pioneers to facilitate learning, collaborations and idea sharing. 

During the winter school seminars and lectures were put on in a number of areas such as, major challenges of analytics, infrastructure, management, search and mining, security, privacy and applications. Alongside these courses from a number of inspiring speakers, the event also hosted daily lunches and breaks which motivated active and promising interactions from research students. Below are some reflections of my experience at BigDat2020. 

18th Century Insights into
21st Century Problems


During the winter school Rory Smith (Monash University) ran a series of lectures on ‘Learning from Data, the Bayesian Way’. The goal of these lectures was to take a Bayesian look at statistically optimal ways to detect and extract information in noisy data. This lecture series addressed a range of Bayesian related topics from inference and parameter estimation to sampling methods and hierarchical inference. Coming from a pure mathematics degree these lectures appealed to me the moment I saw them in the schedule. An early slide in the course read “18th Century Insights into 21st Century Problems”. This really resonated with me. My PhD is an interesting hybrid between the application of mathematics into modern issues such as poverty and development. Often in my literature review I have come across papers from over 100 years ago and yet the mathematics not only still hold but is fundamentally routed and often unchanged in work done today. There is something beautiful about this. It’s like visiting an old cathedral and admiring the strength of large pillars which have stayed standing through years of weathering and generations of visitors. 

Bayesian methodology is a statistical tool introduced by Rev.Thomas Bayes in the 18th century, yet it is vital in providing solutions to a variety of statistical issues and problems presented by researchers today. It’s incredible! Bayes approach can be used to compliment a range of statistical methods and I would recommend researchers from any field look into learning some basic Bayesian statistics to see where they could be used in their work.

Accessibility


Another thing which stood out to me at this event was accessibility. Big data is such a broad topic and is applied in so many fields now that scoping an event tailored to all these fields is inevitably difficult. People attending this conference ranged from pure data scientists and statisticians with intricate knowledge of a range of big data areas, to people from humanity schools looking to learn what big data is to apply it to their work. Knowing this I was pleased to see that the schedule of the events include a vast range of understanding requirements for different talks. Everyone was able to pick talks which suited their needs. Many of the talks though-out the week were however given as a follow on to previous talks in the week on the same topic. The meant that there were some big leaps within and in between talks. You could sit in an hour long talk and spend the first 20 mins feeling like you were not learning anything, then be totally lost by the last 20 mins. I think this is an inevitable part of interdisciplinary work, there will be moments when you feel things are too basic and moments of overwhelming confusion. This can really feed into impostor syndrome. What I did like about this event is that there were ample resources online provided after each talk which pointed people in the right direction both for learning the basics and extending topics to more complex levels. PhD can be very isolated, you work on a tiny specific area of what you do, and often you are the only one doing it. Sometimes you might read a paper or article which leaves you totally baffled and not even knowing where to look up the information you would need to understand what the paper was talking about. Events like this help to combat these issues of accessibility and impostor syndrome – they unite people and present an opportunity for experiences to be shared and questions to be asked.

My presentation


During Big Dat I presented a summary of my recent work. One thing I talked about during my presentation was data cleaning. After this presentation someone approached me and explained that they had experienced similar ‘messy data’ issues in a completely different dataset and field of study. This sparked a really interesting conversation about the challenges we have both faced and led to us both going away with various notes on our phone of ‘Things to look into’. Without the opportunity to present this conversation would never have happened. If I could speak to my younger self of future researchers starting on the PhD journey I would encourage them to take every possible opportunity to present their work. Not only will the practice build their confidence presenting and spark useful feedback and discussions but they will also get to know their work better and be pushed to clarify aspects of work.

It’s a boy thing…


Another reflect I had of this week is an ongoing reflection throughout my educational experience. I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics. Many of my lectures, seminars and tutorials showed disproportionally many boys compared to girls. This was also reflected in the teaching staff on the course. At the time I remember questioning it and thinking why is it like this? At what age does this separation start? Who’s responsibility is it to engage young women in the field? Sitting in my first talk at Big Data I was brought right back to all those questions. I picked the more technical of the two morning sessions and in a room of nearly 100 people I could only spot about 5-6 girls. Although not as extreme, the rest of the event also had notably more boys in attendance than girls. The gender gap in the professional world is closing, albeit slowly. However the data science and more broadly tech industry are still lagging behind despite being considered a modern field of work. Problem in the work force such as pay gaps, marginalisation and discrimination are not born in the work place, they grow throughout our education. I am lucky enough to be a part of a number of different projects involving young people. After coming back from this event I am inspired to talk to these children (both boys and girls) about the wonderful world and opportunities in STEM. 

There are big questions around this. What causes these problems? And more importantly, what can people along the education path, and working in the data science industry do to solve it and be more inclusive. It could take a lifetime to answer these questions, but I want to take these thoughts with me in my career. Whatever I end up doing I want to use my research (PhD and beyond) to show young people just one of the many incredible uses of STEM knowledge.

Gratitude


This is the final year of my PhD… the famously dreaded write up year. I am certain there will be points when I wonder “Why did I do this?” “Can I do this?” “Will it all be okay?” I know I will get wrapped up in various bubbles of stress and panic. 

Fact…. It’s gonna be tough! 

That being said, I am currently writing about the reflection of an academic event I attended in Italy. An event where I learnt all sorts of things about statistics, data visualisations and problems of privacy in big data among other things. An event which led me to meet all sorts of fascinating people at various points in their career researching a range of things from road safety to spread of disease. An event which allowed me to see Ancona, a city founded by Greek settlers and today one of the main ports on the Adriatic Sea with a colleague and close friend. An event where I had the opportunity to present my work and get feedback from knowledgeable experts allowing me to improve my work. How wonderful right?! 

This is just one of the many things which had happened to me because I became a PhD candidate. My approach to getting through this year is to pop my stressful bubbles with gratitude. Before writing this Big Data reflection I wrote a list of things which I am grateful for through my PhD. Random items from this list are now scheduled to pop up at various points from now until my completion date, giving me some much needed perspective. No matter how stressful I find this year, it’s a privileged stress to have and I intend to appreciate as much of it as possible. Here are just a few examples of things I am grateful for. 

Coding – Early on in my PhD my supervisor encouraged me to take the time to make friends with Python. I couldn’t have even considered the opportunities and doors this skill will open before I started. 

Mathematics for Development Bridge – However nerdy and cheesy its sounds I love maths and I love helping people. This PhD has shown me that there is a place for both. I can be a part of work with real impact without giving up my love of mathematics.

People – Where to start with this one? The range of wonderful people I have met through this PhD is incredible! I’ve met inspiring people who are doing incredible work, like-minded people, people from totally different lives and fields to me and, people who have become lifelong friends.

These are just three of a long list, but there is so much more; seeing the world, personal growth and awareness among other things. For any fellow PhD students in their final year… we got this! 

Key Take Aways


Maths is timeless and beautiful! (And have a look at Bayesian Statistics) 

Scoping large interdisciplinary events is hard, but worth it! 

There is more to be done in terms of gender equality, and I want to prioritise this in my own career. I wanted to do this PhD – and my gosh am I grateful for the opportunities it has given me! 

 -originally posted on Maddy’s website