Thursday, November 28, 2013

Transformed by You (updated)

I spent Saturday in Tunbridge Wells Town Hall with three of our first year students and a whole lot of other participants at the Transformed by You event. The idea of the event was to bring together people interested in building computer systems - often apps - that will have a positive effect on the community. Specifically they should do on of three things

  • encourage people to help each other out - e.g. by doing some gardening for someone;
  • encourage people to get healthier, by eating better, or exercising more;
  • encouraging artistic and cultural activity.


So, what was it like? Our students – Ed Wellbrook, Viorel Tudose and Panayiotis Christofides – had gone along with ideas for
  • a recipe app for students,
  • a "treasure hunt" app for local area events, and
  • an app to help encourage use of the gym.
During the day they worked on presentations of their ideas, in collaboration and comments from other attendees. This gave them useful feedback on their ideas, and helped to focus what they were aiming to do; they also gained experience of building quick prototypes (result: it's not as quick as you would hope … ).

I was also able to spend some time with one of the other projects, ThinkHealth from Gravesham NHS Trust, which was one of the winners of the day. Interesting there to see how an internal NHS project for promoting health among staff might well be rolled out to companies as part of their occupational health schemes.

Finally, we had the archetypical hacker lunch, coke and Pizza from Dominio's – a first for me: I didn't really take to the barbecue sauce instead of tomato on some of the bases :-S

Updated …

On the following Thursday, Noel visited Kent to watch the one minute videos made by our students. Here are our CO334 tutors – Keith, Dan and Minas – watching them too, complete with popcorn:

He also revealed winners among the students, who took all three prizes in the ideas section of the competition organised by public sector organisation Kent Connects.

Their ideas included two mobile phone apps to help motivate people to exercise. One - Exercise Escape, developed by computing students Ruhul Amin and Jacob Fox - involved a game which would encourage users to run from virtual enemies. The other - Motivated by Fiction, developed by computing student Matthew Aldridge - would encourage people to exercise by drip feeding them parts of a story each time they used the app when running or walking. Fault Finders was the third winner in the ideas categories; an app developed by computing student Christina O'Docherty to help businesses find ways they can help their local community.

Carol Patrick, Kent Connects' Head of ICT Partnerships, said: "We were really impressed by the quantity and quality of ideas sent in by people wanting to find ways to improve their local community and we're now looking forward to these ideas and prototypes becoming a reality."

Monday, November 18, 2013

These are a few of our favourite things …

I have the pleasure of convening the module on “Developing as a Researcher in Higher Education” that is part of Kent's qualification for new staff. In the first session participants each gave a one minute presentation – excellent timekeeping, incidentally – on their research. It's fantastic to hear all these diverse topics, and the enthusiasm of the people working on them. Here's a selection

  • how does stand-up comedy work?
  • how to make a performance of taste (of wine)?
  • how is performance affected by place 
  • architecture (practitioner)
  • how to capture what clients of software houses really want?
  • how to improve the efficiency of wireless networks … adaptively
  • what is the role of language in social work?
  • micro-meteorites (≦2mm) … not least, how on earth do you find them?
  • theoretical physics
  • Bayesian decisions in mathematics
  • theoretical syntax, and the disappearance of if/whether in Icelandic
  • a new theoretical / jurisprudential platform for critical legal studies
  • torture and the state, aboriginal art and constitutionalism
  • use of cool materials (in architecture)
  • what makes an action successful?
  • Lea Valley Drift: bringing the immediately available city back into prominence
  • Gender in International Cooperation
  • Is there a pool of talented people being lost [to HE]?
  • Sustainability Research in Business Practice and CSR
  • Modelling faking in high stakes self-assessments and biases in assessments of others
  • Napoleon, The Cardinal and the Prostitute
  • Sociology of the Professions - particular focus is on equality, diversity and inclusion
  • Political psychology, specifically: self-esteem and narcissism
  • the brain basis of remembering

The only disappointing thing is that we don't really have time to talk about them in the sessions for the course.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

REF Factory

Writing the REF submission for Computing at Kent is drawing to a close, agonisingly slowly, but there we are … Now is the time to capture any insights about how it might have been done, and how it could be done next time (I'm not volunteering!). I'll write this now, and then finish revising my first publication for REF 2020: final copy is due to be with the ACM in a couple of days' time.

Kent made the decision to hold a full-scale pilot in 2012, so that we had been through the process of writing all the narrative sections, the impact case studies, and – in the case of computing and a few others – the 100 words accompanying each output, about 120 for us. This had some strong points, and it was particularly good in giving us a deadline by which we had to have written a first draft of everything, so that the last year has been a process of refining those drafts.

On reflection, though, it has – at least for me – meant that we (or I) have conflated two quite different processes:

  • the process of marshalling the arguments, information and data, and 
  • the process of writing that within the constraints of the 100 word limit, or the various templates.

I did have long drafts – essentially compilations of data and info – prior to the pilot, but since then, we've been working on drafts in the form of the final submission. What I'd do if we were doing this again is to keep the separation between the two until much later in the process, and work on the raw information and data until a much later point. Doing that means that we're able to get an overall view of all that might be pertinent, rather than selecting, and then re-selecting, which is what we've done. For example, I had included data on staff study leave in a draft of REF 5 in May, but that was removed in June, only to be re-introduced in November. 

The same applies to the 100 words, I think; a subject I discussed with another REF coordinator recently. Aiming to get all the pertinent information collected for each potential paper (with a few prompts about different kinds of info), and to keep that up to date and reviewed, would allow the final 100 words to be generated close to the deadline, rather than evolving over two years in many cases.

I realise that this may week be a case of the other person's grass always being greener, and that we would most likely find problems with this approach, but this is what I would try were I to do it again. In the case of the pilot submission, if we had to write it in that format, we should see it as a throw-away draft, and keep on marshalling until we write a new final draft from scratch.

Finally, the more I think about this, the more I think that this is very like a problem we come across in writing successful research grant applications. The most useful feedback on an application is at the stage where the ideas begin to be articulated clearly. One way of expressing this is as a “one pager” that summarises the essence of the ideas, the work packages, the methodology and the impact, all on one side of A4. As a reviewer it's possible to engage with this, and say “yes, but it would be so much better if you were to push it in this direction” – it's almost impossible to do this once it has been set in concrete in a complete application. In a roundabout way, that explains why I called this post “REF Factory” – Kent's well-regarded grant application training is called “Grants Factory”, a name coined by Andrew Derrington.