Robin Wilson

Airplane by Tracy Hunter.By Robin Wilson, Geography and Environment & Institute for Complex Systems Simulation, University of Southampton.

This is the third in a series of articles by the Institute's Fellows, each covering an area of interest that relates directly both to their own work and the wider issue of software's role in research.

1. What is remote sensing?

Remote sensing broadly refers to the acquisition of information about an object remotely (that is, with no physical contact). The academic field of remote sensing, however, is generally focused on acquiring information about the Earth (or other planetary bodies) using measurements of electromagnetic radiation taken from airborne or satellite sensors. These measurements are usually acquired in the form of large images, often containing measurements in a number of different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum (for example, in the blue, green, red and near-infrared), known as wavebands. These images can be processed to generate…

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By Oliva Guest, University of Oxford, Robin Wilson, University of Southampton, Martin Jones, Python for biologists and Craig MacLachlan, Met Office Hadley Centre.

A speed blog from the Collaborations Workshop 2016 (CW16).

Why are sustainable software practices difficult to teach?

Programming is a difficult thing to learn for students who have not been exposed to it before. However, for general programming there are at least some factors that help to make it easier. Feedback is generally very rapid; after writing and running a piece of code, students can see the result straight away. This isn't true for e.g. automated testing; the payoff for writing a test suite comes long after the fact, when it helps to catch a bug. The same goes for version control — until students have encountered one of the problems that version control is designed to solve, it seems like an unnecessary extra step in development.

Increasingly, programming is becoming a necessary tool for students who don't have a computer science background (represented in this discussion group: meteorologists, biologists, psychologists and physicists). Students coming to programming for the first time are often lacking in computer…

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By Robin Wilson, Researcher, University of Southampton.

As a Fellow of the Software Sustainability Institute in 2013, I attended the Collaborations Workshop 2013. To be honest, I did so rather reluctantly: I was in a very busy stage of my PhD at the time, and although it was seemed like a reasonable way to spend a few days, I felt that it was unlikely to produce anything of direct benefit to me. I couldn't have been more wrong.

In the first session at that year's workshop I met someone from the IT as a Utility Network+ and showed off a proof of concept instrument that I'd been developing during my PhD (in all honesty, I'd brought it with me so that if the conference was boring I could slip back to my room and test the instrument!). He was fascinated by it, and strongly suggested that we apply for a IT as a Utility Network+ pilot project to get some funding to continue development. We did so, and won £50,000 of funding – which was enough to employ a post-doc for six months and develop a full prototype instrument. The Collaborations Workshop was living up to its name: within an hour of the start of the conference I'd developed a collaboration which led to significant funding!

The rest of the conference was also fascinating (unfortunately no-one else I met wanted to give me £50,000!). I met three other people who were working on satellite imaging and Earth observation research – albeit in different areas including snow, vegetation…

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Research Fellow, Geography & Environment, University of Southampton


Satellite imaging; Geographic Information Systems; Air pollution; Open-source geographic software; Reproducible research; Software citation


I am currently a research fellow at the University of Southampton, where my main work is developing new methods to monitor air pollution (specifically PM2.5) from satellite data. My other research activities sit alongside this, either focusing on new methods for quantitatively processing satellite data to produce useful information, or contributing further to research on air pollution and its effects.  Alongside this, I am working with the Flowminder Foundation on the use of mobile phone data to understand human mobility, and I led their response to the Nepal earthquake.

My background is a mixture of geography and computing: I did a pre-university gap year writing software to control nuclear power stations (yes, really!), an undergraduate degree in Geography, followed by a PhD in Complex Systems Simulation & Geography.

All of my work is carried out computationally, and can involve processing data ranging from a tiny CSV file to a stack of many 20Gb satellite images. I write most of my code in Python, but will use whatever language is necessary for the job - and have written relatively-large code bases in R, C++ and the .NET framework…

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QuoteMarks.jpgBy Robin Wilson, Fellow and postgraduate at the University of Southampton.

Put a plaintext file named CITATION in the root directory of your code, and put information in it about how to cite your software. Go on, do it now: it’ll only take two minutes!

Software is very important in science – but good software takes time and effort that could be used to do other work instead. I believe that it is important to do this work, but to make it worthwhile, people need to get credit for their work, and in academia that means citations. However, it is often very difficult to find out how to cite a piece of software – sometimes it is hidden away somewhere in the manual or on the web-page, but often it requires sending an email to the author asking them how they want it cited. The effort that this requires means that many people don’t bother to cite the software they use, and thus the authors don’t get the credit that they need. We need to change this, so that software – which underlies a huge amount of important scientific work – gets the recognition it deserves.

As with many things relating to software sustainability in science, the R project does this very well: if you want to find out how to cite the R software itself you simply run…

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Cleaning.jpgBy Robin Wilson, Fellow and postgraduate at the University of Southampton. Reposted from Robin's Blog.

This is a first of a number of posts based upon discussions I had while at the Collaborations Workshop 2013 (#CollabW13 on Twitter) in Oxford last week. During one of the sessions I described a simple technique that I try and use to increase the sustainability, reproducibility and releasability of code that I write, data I collect and the results of my work – and people thought this idea was great, and that I should blog about it…

So, what is this wonderful technique?

On Friday afternoon (when you’re bored and can’t be bothered to do any hard work) spend an hour or two cleaning up and documenting your work from that week.

It’s a very simple idea, but it really does work – and it also gives you something to do during the last afternoon of the week when you’re feeling tired and can’t really be bothered. If you can’t commit to doing a clean up every week, you can try every fortnight or month – and I even go as far as adding it as an event to my calendar, to try and stop people arranging…

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