Digital Engagement 2011

AngelOfNorth.jpgNewcastle, 15-17  November 2011

Conference website.

Report by Laura Moss, Agent and Honorary Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen.


  • Important technology themes from the conference include: the interpretation of sensor data, computer tools to help elderly people, crowdsourcing, and the use of open and linked datasets.
  • Interdisciplinary research with a large impact on society was confirmed as becoming increasingly important to the research councils
  • Industry is generally interested in research software as they ‘don’t know, what they don’t know’.

Conference report

The 2nd All Hands meeting of the Digital Economy community was recently held in Newcastle in a rather unusual location, the home of Newcastle United football team! The majority of attendees were promoting their research activities which had been funded by the Digital Economy theme of RCUK (one of the six multidisciplinary themes of the research councils (RCUK)). John Baird, head of the Digital Economy theme, started the conference by describing the Digital Economy theme as driven by research that has a "real need" and rapidly realises the impact of this technology on society; technology alone is no longer enough. The Digital Economy theme has already distributed £120 million pounds over the past couple of years including the funding of seven doctoral training centres and three digital economy hubs (awarded £12 million each) at the University of Aberdeen (dot.Rural), University of Nottingham (Horizon), and the University of Newcastle & University of Dundee (inclusion through the Digital Economy).

Work presented from these hubs ranged from the use of crowdsourcing technology to identify bees to the tracking of Red Kites using sensor data. Key technology themes appeared to be the interpretation of sensor data, computer tools to help elderly people, crowdsourcing, and the use of open & linked datasets. Many projects collected data from sensors and then used the data to drive intelligent applications, for example the generation of real-time public transport alerts.

In the MIME (Managing Information in Medical Emergencies) project, part of the dot.Rural hub, researchers are exploring how a network of sensors (or monitoring equipment) can be used to provide advice to first responders in medical emergencies. The predicted increase in people living longer seemed to also provide the context for many projects which help people to stay in their home for longer and assist with problems such as dementia. The Portrait System (University of Dundee) allowed carers of patients with dementia to learn more about their patient by displaying family photos in an intuitive manner enabling busy carers to interact with their patients better.

The Telling Tales of Engagement prize of £10,000 (donated by EPSRC) was won by the developer of the Portrait System. The use of crowdsourcing, in particular addressing challenges in persuading people to participate in such activities, appeared to be particularly popular. For example, Dominic Price (University of Nottingham) proposed a framework to overcome problems with crowd sourcing sensitive, personal data. As more government data is being published under open data initiatives (currently 6000 datasets are available on increasingly sophisticated systems are being developed which allow the public to interact with this data (e.g. and FourSquare). Several of the issues regarding this open data, for example, how to trust the data and understand the provenance of the data were discussed.

The two keynote speeches were given by Professor James Hollan and Professor Don Marinelli. James Hollan provided an interesting talk on history enriched computing and described several of his research projects which use technology to capture human activity generating feedback which can be used to enhance our understanding of what we do. Don Marinelli, previously an actor, now an Executive Producer of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a commanding talk on his approach to teaching computing students. He advocated that computing science should be considered as a performing act and made "as cool as possible". His revolutionary approach to teaching encompasses a curriculum consisting of: storytelling (covering a variety of topics including problem-solving, probabilistic & teleological reasoning, and cause & effect understanding), architecture (real vs. virtual spaces), technology (game playing) and experience. Students are encouraged to attend at least one conference per semester and to consider spending each semester on a different continent. The course is run as a business: all students pay fees ($38,000), businesses are charged $75,000 for a student project, no government funding is received, and after paying the university their 20% cut, any profits are kept by the lecturers.

Following the keynote speaker on the first day was an industrial panel discussion. The panel consisted of: Gary Moulton (Microsoft), Ian Marshall (Business & Decision), Dave Sharpe (Binary Asylum), Alan Whitmore (e-Therapeutics PLC), and Aart Van Halteren (Philips Research). The main concerns discussed by the panel included how to increase uptake of technology (e.g. Philips were keen to increase adoption of their activity monitoring & elderly alerts technology) and a general feeling that academia is not producing graduates with the right skills to meet their business demands. Dave Sharpe was particularly critical of academic research, explaining that academia generates a lot of good ideas but doesn’t move at a fast enough pace for commercial companies. Both Alan Whitmore and Dave Sharpe expressed a requirement for graduates to have a combination of skills rather than just those associated with a ‘traditional’ programmer. Alan Whitmore was interested in hiring staff with an understanding of medical and/or chemistry knowledge and analytical processes to help develop new drug treatments. A general consensus of the panel was that graduates do not have enough vocational and practical skills. When asked to respond to the question why does industry need academic institutions the panel responded by explaining that companies "don’t know, what they don’t know" and can get caught up in a product program. Even in companies with large research departments (e.g. Philips Research) they are still interested in new opportunities or the acquisition of expertise that they don’t have.

During the conference, 14 workshops were held during the lunch breaks. One of the workshops I attended was on the research Impact, in particular, the impact of activities the research councils are looking for. Currently, all proposals to any of the main research councils are judged (amongst other things) on their research impact. It is not good enough to just propose a good research idea. It was suggested during the workshop that the discussion of impact activities in proposals should be considered at the start of the project, not just at the end, and different impact aspects should be covered throughout the proposal. Examples of such activities include: people movement (e.g. secondments, industry placements), workshops (seminars, networking), engagement events within industry, employing specialist staff, public engagement activities, and more traditional impact areas such as quality of life, policy, wealth creation, jobs, and society issues.

Unfortunately, funding for future projects under the Digital Economy theme has now been significantly reduced to £6 million. The four future funding priorities of the Digital Economy are: Communities & Culture (digital interaction enhancing communication), IT as a utility (digital infrastructure that is invisible and reliable), New Economic Models (new business models for a digital world), and the Sustainable Society (allowing the public to make informed choices). Currently there is a call out for networks to form under each of the funding priorities. It is expected that these networks will be multidisciplinary.