You heard it here first! Professional opinions and insights from Hartree Centre staff and collaborators as they go about their day helping UK industry to benefit from the adoption and integration of advanced digital technologies.
Aiman Shaikh, one of our Research Software Engineers tells us more about the steps she has taken to tackle feelings of isolation during the pandemic by organising walks, playing badminton and exploring nature with friends and colleagues across the North West.
For people like me who live far away from families, the current situation of lockdown certainly started to take a negative effect. Since everything started back in March when we switched to working from home, I had a very limited social contact with colleagues and friends. After the peak of the virus, as soon as it was safe to do so, I planned to organise walks. Initially, in July, this was limited to local parks with only one or two other people, following social distancing. Gradually, I extended it to more colleagues who live by themselves, assuring them that we would be abiding by all recommended safety measures as I completely understand anxiety during this time. After organising various local parks walk, we ventured further to do a walk exploring West Kirby and a walk across Rhyl beach in Wales with a small group.
My first walking trip was to Delamere forest over the August
bank holiday. It was a very lovely sunny day, and I managed to gather Charlotte
Freeman, David Bray, Helen Newton and family, Judicael Grasset (SCD), Benjamin Breig
(Quantum Science Ltd at Daresbury) as well as my friend, Kanchan. It was a
success after planning a sequence of trails to walk on. The group was so happy
and it was great to see everyone and enjoy nature! Benjamin went on to plan a Snowdonia trip on
the following weekend and we did Y Garn via Devil’s Kitchen from the Ogwen
trail. We have spotted things like Amanita muscaria commonly known as the fly
agaric or fly amanita as well as a Royal Air Force Red Arrows flight!
Apart from walking and hiking, I have been actively
participating in playing Badminton at leisure clubs in Warrington. This was Judicael
s idea to start with but I have to say that I am really enjoying it and am now
inviting more people to join us. This all prompted me to participate in the
Virgin Go challenge and I’ll be organising more walks with colleagues in the
coming autumn months. If anybody would like to join us, please let me know and
I’ll add you to the email or WhatsApp group.
I know the situation at the moment is not great but activities like this have really helped me and others to get fresh air and feel active, forgetting our anxiety and worries for a while. I have many great plans for our future walks, of course following local rules and regulations and precautions. I am also planning to do some kind of virtual walk due to lockdown which I hope will involve local groups walking at different places but starting at the same time and sharing their experience at the end of the day.
Claire Ward and Jeremy Campbell from the Institute of Collaborative Working (ICW) set the scene for the day with their “Delivering more through collaboration” presentation highlighting how embedding collaborative working in to organisations assists in building long term, sustainable relationships which help to deliver projects. They mentioned the House of Commons and UK Home Office had particularly been enthusiastic in their adoption of collaborative working while also discussing reasons that collaboration can fail. Often this is due to perception of collaborative working, some see it as a selling technique or don’t understand the requirements leading to individuals acting in silos and not demonstrating the appropriate skills or behaviours.
session was led by Ben Cross who shared lessons learned from delivering the
£1.5billion A4 road programme – collaboration was key to this, not only between
three main contractors but also between a myriad of subcontractors to ensure
project success. Actions taken throughout the project to encourage a culture of
Common procurement, reducing
stoppages and securing better pricing for materials and machinery
Open book reporting for all
Board members for collaboration,
procurement and stakeholder management
A commitment to recruit or develop
excellent project leaders throughout
vision connecting teams to a purpose and ensuring sufficient resources and
training were embedded throughout the actions above, ultimately helping the
team to deliver the project to cost, with minimum traffic disruption and a low
Next up was
something a little more practical, led by John Doyle to demonstrate working
towards shared objectives with shared benefits. The exercise saw us work in
teams of six to design and build part-sections of paper bridges to transport a
table tennis ball over three metres but using only A4 paper, sellotape and
scissors! Our team enjoyed this and were successful in putting our project
management expertise to the test by quickly identifying and filling the
necessary roles, working well as a team and overcoming last minute obstacles
while still achieving a win-win situation with both client and supplier
Jonathan Canioni from Warwick Business School offered an academic perspective to the conference discussions, quoting several successful examples of collaboration including ‘Food for the Soul’ – a programme between an established chef, the Catholic church, local markets and supermarkets in Naples to provide food to those living in poverty. Discussions continued to examples where collaboration had failed – a private banking app that misunderstood the relationship between bank and customer – when even best intentions and aligned incentives can be administered ineffectively. Key learning points from Jonathan’s talk were that collaboration and coordination are bound together in a number of ways, therefore, although coordination is not quite as valuable as collaboration, it is a necessary step on the way and worth striving for if collaboration is unattainable.
“Hartree Centre places tremendous value on and recognises the benefit of collaborative work and we embed this in many ways. From multi-partner grant funded consortia, to individual collaborative research projects with SMEs or larger national organisations, to our most recent 5 year collaborative Innovation Return on Research programme which partners with IBM Research and UK plc. The workshop was a great opportunity to step away from the day to day and reflect on how we achieve our collaborations and opportunities for us to improve on these in the future. The presentations throughout the day gave great insight, especially on how to define collaboration behaviours up front and as Neil highlights, the criticality of great leadership in supporting this. I really enjoyed the practical exercise as well, although I think our session was slightly more chaotic than Neil’s! However the same is often true in real life, and it is how chaos and uncertainty is managed that is also key to success.”
Claire Trinder, Head of Programmes
“For me, this was an interesting day full of sharing experiences and offering new perspectives. I found Ben Cross’ presentation particularly worthwhile as it offered learning points that are directly applicable to complex projects with multiple suppliers while also highlighting the wide benefits of great leadership. I would have appreciated hearing a contractor’s view of collaboration to ensure a balanced view of the reality of collaborating to deliver projects.”
In this post, we hear from two of our 2019 Summer Placement students as they share their experiences of working at the Hartree Centre. Read on to find out more about the projects they got involved with during their time as part of our Research Software Engineering team.
“I applied to the Hartree Centre having heard about STFC’s excellent culture and people from a friend who had worked with them previously. After completing the placement, I have been left excited to finish university in the hope to return to the Hartree Centre and its excellent RSE team in the future. The skills and knowledge I have gained working with HPiC have been innumerable and will all be incredibly valuable assets for me to use during the final two years of my computer science degree. I am thankful for the opportunity given to me by the Hartree Centre and the help and support given by all its staff.”
James Beck, 2nd year Computer Science student, University of Sheffield
“I decided to work at the Hartree Centre this summer because as a physicist, I am very aware of the crucial role that computing, and in particular HPC, plays in multiple areas of current research and I wanted to learn more about how it works and how it can be used. Whilst I had done some programming with python in the first two years of my degree course, I am not from a computer science background, so this placement was definitely a steep learning curve for me. I was amazed by the amount of help and support my colleagues were able to offer me, and I have learnt so much from this experience. Now I am going back for the final year of my BSc and I am keen to find ways to apply my new skills to the rest of my degree and my career, in particular for my BSc project, which I hope to undertake using applications of HPC in space physics.”
Elizabeth Porter, 2nd year Physics student, Imperial College London
One of our first tasks was to learn how to use MPI (message passing interface). Neither of us previously had any background in HPC nor parallel computing so this would be essential knowledge for coding on HPiC. MPI is used as a standard to enable communication between processes. If you had multiple people working on one task at the same time, they would have to communicate progress or information to one another, parallel code is the same. MPI is important for any work that features parallel computing and is a big part of any code run on the HPC systems and platforms at the Hartree Centre. To get the basic introduction to MPI, we worked through an online course making sure to implement our new knowledge in practice with the course exercises. These exercises ranged from calculating pi, message “ping-pong” and traffic modelling. We both enjoyed learning MPI and now feel confident using it in future projects or throughout our studies.
Our first coded project was to design and build a (GUI)
Graphical User Interface to allow people to easily select demos they may want
to run on HPiC. At the start of our placement demos were run with a command
line input in the terminal. These were still in the early stages of development
and we were looking to develop their usability and interface. It was important
that the GUI looked professional and was easy to understand, to achieve this we
used large pictures which gave a demo preview, making them stand out against a
black background. This was a great first project as we learnt to work together
using Git and had a chance to retrain our Python programming muscles. The GUI
came out great – we’ve also documented it so that it can be extended by future
HPiC Demo developers.
Testing our learning
The next challenge was a test of everything we had learnt so far.
We were tasked with designing and testing a demo based on a NLP (Natural
Language Processing) project completed by the Hartree Centre Data Science team.
The goal of this project had been to provide annotations on structural
biochemistry texts. Specifically, surrounding protein chain components at the amino
acid residue level – this is at a “higher resolution” than what is normally carried
out. This project would help future researchers to find papers or research
related to their work instead of having to trawl through lots of existing
buried research. The demo combined our new knowledge of MPI and the creation of
a Python GUI and we went on to suggest that a big part of the demo could be a
real time screen showing the distribution of the papers over the 19 Raspberry Pi’s
that would processing them. This was difficult task and led me (James) to have
to learn Python threads and PyQt5 which is knowledge I’m sure will be useful
going into my third year. The user can then look at the relationships between
the papers highlighting the essence of the project which is to help people find
papers that are linked to one another easily.
Creating a game
In the last few weeks of the summer, I (Lizzie) started work on a demo for a recent project with Weather Logistics – an SME aiming to provide field-level seasonal weather forecasts for growers. The Hartree Centre team had recently worked with Weather Logistics to refactor and parallelise their code base, saving them over two months of compute time in producing 24 years’ worth of historical weather data. My task was to create an interactive demo based on this project, as an example of one application of supercomputing and to demonstrate the Hartree Centre’s capabilities for processing large quantities of data. After brainstorming ideas for a few days, we settled on creating a lettuce farm game, in which the user would select a 5×5 km field location anywhere in the UK. The player would then be shown graphical data for the weather conditions over a three-year time period, and given a score based on how well lettuces would have grown in this location over the time period based on weather data alone. This seemed a good choice because it would show the quantity of data available graphically and demonstrate how the data can be used to help lettuce farmers in a simple and engaging way. To create the demo I used PyQt5, Python bindings for the Qt User Interface framework. Having not used PyQt5 before, and not being very experienced in creating User Interfaces (UIs) either, getting to grips with it in just a couple of weeks was a challenge, but it was fun to create a game like this from scratch and I am now confident in my abilities to create simple UIs in future.
Sharing our work
On the 4 September 2019, towards the end of our placement, we had the opportunity to attend INTERACT 2019, an STFC public engagement symposium hosted at UCLan. In the morning we were able to attend workshop sessions discussing various aspects of public engagement and outreach, including how we can combat stereotypes of scientists and encourage more young people to pursue STEM subjects to higher education. Then over lunch, we ran a stall showcasing HPiC and its demos (including the new Weather Logistics demo, which was received really well) to the other delegates present. It was fantastic to be able to present our work and to get productive feedback on our demos, while also taking the opportunity to hone our presentation skills. In the afternoon we explored some of the other stalls that had been on display which covered a wide range of engagement activities in STEM, from Harry Potter-themed experiments to space and light shows in the Explorer Dome. The whole day was a great chance to engage with a wide range of people interested and/or working in outreach within STEM and to find out what research and activities other people are doing to further public engagement, as well as to show off 8 weeks of work on HPiC.
Thanks for the experience, we’ll hopefully see you all again
Since the term was first coined in 2012 , Research Software Engineering has experienced a rapid growth, first in the UK and then overseas. Today there are at least 20 RSE groups at Universities and Research Institutes across the UK alone, alongside thousands of self-identifying RSEs, numerous national RSE associations, and since earlier this year, a registered Society of Research Software Engineering* to promote the role of RSEs in supporting research.
The core proposition of RSEs is “Better Software, Better Research” – by improving the quality of software developed by researchers, we enable higher quality research. Software quality is a broad topic, but the most common benefits of academic RSEs are:
improved reliability – fewer software errors leading to incorrect results
better performance – enabling more accurate and/or bigger science
reproducibility – increasing confidence in scientific results.
Since early 2018 the Hartree Centre has been building up an RSE capability of its own, but for slightly different reasons. Rather than being measured on research output, Hartree Centre’s mission is to create economic impact through the application of HPC, data analytics and AI. Most often this means taking existing research software, and applying it to solve industrial challenges. One of the key challenges we have is crossing the “valley of death” from a proof-of-concept, where we demonstrate that a given tool, algorithm or method can in principle be used to solve a problem, to actual industry adoption of this approach. While reliability and performance are still important here, often the key issues for a company adopting new software are usability, portability and security.
In practice, while our RSE team shares many skills in common with academic RSEs – such as employing best practices for use of version control, code review and automated testing – we specialise in areas like building simple User Interfaces for complex software, automating workflows involving HPC and deploying web applications securely to the cloud ready for industry use.
Our team has grown to 14 staff, comprising a range of roles from Degree Apprentices, RSEs with specialisms in HPC, AI and data analytics, to Full Stack Developers and a Software Architect.
Just like academic RSEs, we’re at our best when working in collaboration, whether that’s with the other technology teams across the Hartree Centre, commercial clients, or our technology partners like IBM Research.
Some of the projects we’ve been working on recently include:
Aiman Shaikh, one of our Research Software Engineers recently attended Women of Silicon Roundabout 2019 – one of the largest gatherings of female technologists in Europe – held at ExCeL London. In this blog post, Aiman tells us more about her motivations for attending the two day event aiming to make an impact on the gender gap and boost careers of attendees.
My main motivation for attending the conference was the
opportunity to be among 6,000 attendees who were all like me: eager to connect,
learn and take action on gender diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Women
of Silicon Roundabout 2019 brought together a programme of inspirational
keynotes, panel discussions, networking opportunities, technical classes, and
career development workshops – it was the first and only conference I have
attended where female technical speakers took centre stage.
For me, the chance to hear from inspirational leaders – many of whom were women – about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, blockchain and cloud computing. This coupled with the strong messages throughout the conference about the importance of diversity and inclusion was truly incredible.
One of the many worthwhile sessions I attended was from Denise Jones, Senior Product Manager, LetGo. Denise discussed whether AI has given rise to new and distinctive ethical issues and she challenged the group with statements like “algorithms can predict user preference based on previous activity and based on other users who are like them” raising important questions about how we as technologists can be mindful of bias in our work with AI. It made me really consider the balance of collecting data to provide a better user experience and product personalisation as good thing but collecting too much data and over-targeting audiences can go wrong and be frustrating for users if it’s not relevant.
I also attended the “Confident Speaking for Women” workshop led by Sarah Palmer, Director of European Business Development at PowerSpeaking. This was an incredibly useful 60 minutes packed full of exercises specifically designed to improve presentation skills. It gave loads of helpful tips for ‘presentation newbies’ like myself such as the importance of trying things out in advance and how to project confidence and credibility, especially through using effective nonverbal language. I’m looking forward to implementing several of these strategies in my own conference talks!
Another real highlight of the conference was the Women of Colour networking lunch on the second day of the event. Organised by Google, it was a chance to ‘inspire and be inspired.’ I was fortunate enough to meet with so many role models in tech and find out from them how they progressed in their career, how they managed their work/life balance and grow my own professional networks. I was also lucky to be able to meet with groups of fantastic early career women who were keen to find out more about my job and the Hartree Centre. I really enjoyed telling them more about my role and day to day life as part of the Research Software Engineering team – I hope to see some of them apply for some of our job vacancies as they would be great assets to any team!
I loved this conference – it provided a much-needed, necessary platform to women in technology, inspiring attendees to talk and network with women working across different industries and using a variety of emerging technologies in their day to day jobs. I’ll certainly be taking many of the lessons learned back to the Hartree Centre – it has inspired me to think about AI and data analytics in some of my upcoming projects and how I can make sure I continue to incorporate diversity and inclusion in to my work and professional networks.
On 3rd September the peaceful campus of Birmingham University came alive with bubbling groups of research software engineers, talking in excited tones about their latest optimisation tool and favourite python library, as the third annual conference of Research Software Engineers was started!
A real global affair, #RSE18 had 314 delegates from 12 countries. That represents a nearly 50% increase over last year’s attendance and also a 7% increase in women attending compared to 2017.
UK RSE Association is turning into the Society of Research Software Engineering! A legal, independent, professional organisation!
The UK RSE Association has seen significant growth since its inception in 2013, to over 1000 members. The community’s growth has made the informal, volunteer run format unsustainable. The move will enable the society to hold funds, employ staff, and operate as an independent organisation to represent the interests of the RSE community. Visit the RSE website for more information and sign up to receive updates.
To mark International Women’s Day, Hartree Centre Data Scientist, Simon Goodchild writes a blog post to celebrate the work of a pioneering epidemiologist and doctor Janet Lane-Claypon. At the time of writing the post, Simon was studying medical statistics for the first time as part of a statistical society diploma and was surprised to have not previously heard about a woman who had invented two of the key techniques he was learning about!
How do you know that your treatment actually works?
How do you know whether something in the environment may impact upon your health?
These are some of the most basic and most important questions in medicine and epidemiology. Getting good answers is vital, and nowadays there are established procedures for finding sensible answers. Several of these can be traced back to the under-recognised work of Janet Lane-Claypon in the early part of the 20th century.
The last in a series of blog posts from Dave Cable, Head of Service Operations here at The Hartree Centre summarises the steps we have taken to implement IT Service Management.
In previous posts, I described three key components of ITIL infrastructure which we have implemented at the Hartree Centre – Service Operations, Service Design and Service Transition. These are all inter-dependent and equal in stature. However, there is one further area of ITIL which is slightly different because it underpins all of the above – Continual Service Improvement (CSI). Continuous improvement is vital, because it ensures that processes and functions do not remain static. They develop and improve in response to operational lessons learnt, leading to overall improvements in service quality. Continuous improvement provides a feedback mechanism and tools to incorporate that feedback. It can also work with quality management tools.
ITIL provides two complementary tools to implement CSI – the Deming Cycle, and the Seven-step Improvement Process.
The third in a series of blog posts from Dave Cable, Head of Service Operations here at The Hartree Centre gives us an introduction to service design, transition, configuration management and change management.
In my previous post, I described the key aspects of the ITIL Service Operation area that we have implemented at the Hartree Centre. In this post, I’ll move on to Service Design and Service Transition.
What is Service Design?
The ITIL area of Service Strategy considers all the business requirements for IT services, and from them constructs a high-level view of the range of services to be offered. Service Design turns this high-level portfolio into a set of service specifications for inclusion in the organisation’s Service Catalogue. It takes account of the requirements for information security, availability and capacity. Service catalogue entries also include details of standard service levels (SLA metrics) and provide, where appropriate, pricing information. Note that non-standard service levels may be negotiated with individual customers.
High Performance Computing (HPC) and High Performance Data Analytics (HPDA) – the provenance of the Hartree Centre – are rapidly expanding areas of importance to academia and industry, with myriad new employment opportunities arising. It is predicted that the gap between supply and demand of skilled staff will continue to grow. Despite the face that women make up 51% of the population, on average only around 15% of people working in IT are women. The proportion working in HPC and HPDA is even less. When taken in conjunction with recent evidence that diverse teams and organisations outperform less diverse competitors, there are sound business reasons why Diversity and Inclusion is a priority, as well as moral and social imperatives.
I am one of the founders of Women in HPC, which was formed in the UK by a small group of women who were interested in exploring the reasons why so few women were working in all areas of High Performance Computing. From small beginnings, it has grown into an organisation and network with global reach, holding programmes of events at the major international supercomputing and IT conferences.