Staying curious: Reflections on six years as the Hartree Centre Director

As the longest serving Director of the Hartree Centre, Alison Kennedy has taken the Hartree Centre from strength to strength during her six years of leadership. In 2021, she led the team to successfully secure over £200 million of government funding to run the Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation (HNCDI) programme, applying advanced digital technologies such as high performance computing, data analytics and AI to enhance productivity in the UK industry.

On Alison’s departure, we asked her to share some of her thoughts and experiences advancing the industry application of digital technologies and look forward to what the future might hold.

Where are we now?

This year, 2022, marks the ten year anniversary of the Hartree Centre. It’s an interesting year for us, seeing how far we’ve come, and for me particularly it marks a transition in my career as I move on from my Directorship of the Hartree Centre.

The Hartree Centre had 12 staff when I started, and now we have a team of over 110 people and growing. We’re in a strong position as a department of STFC’s National Laboratories but we’ve had to work hard to transition from being dependent on funding from a series of fixed-term projects to becoming a sustainable entity with a distinct role in the UKRI landscape. Our current status reflects a recognition and appreciation of  the value of our work at the intersection of HPC research, business networks and national and regional government infrastructure. Being at that intersection is what makes us unique and what makes us strong.

“The practical application of science is fundamental to its value.”

 The importance of the Hartree Centre, a department specifically dedicated to supporting businesses and public sector organisations to adopt and apply new digital technologies cannot be overstated. We allow organisations to experiment and learn in a safe environment to ensure they know what technology works for them before they fully invest in it – de-risking that process of exploration. We’re flexible in our approach to emerging technologies – even beginning to investigate the potential of quantum computing for industry in collaboration with the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC). But what makes us unique and what really matters to us is that we work very closely with businesses, technology partners and the public sector to ensure that solutions and applications we develop are useful and usable.

Embracing change

One of the things that’s difficult to immediately grasp is that when the Hartree Centre was founded, the notion that high performance computing could be adopted and being used by industry in a whole range of areas was really novel and exciting. Supercomputers were primarily a tool for scientific research, and they were portrayed as being very expensive, very difficult to use, and suitable only for a adoption by a small minority of scientists with long experience in difficult computing simulation and modelling problems.

So for the Hartree Centre, one of the key motivators for us has been the challenge of “democratisation” of high-end novel technology.  How can we make it much more accessible to a much wider range of people? How can we understand what some of these industrial challenges are so we can apply it effectively?

Alison Kennedy taking part in a panel session at STFC’s Digital Tech Cluster launch event.

In the last decade, the world has moved forward in immeasurable ways. We’ve seen profound changes in both the technologies and the language we use to describe them. When I started working at the Hartree Centre, we talked about cognitive computing – now the world is more comfortable with terms like artificial intelligence and AI being used in the workplace. These technologies are no longer the preserve of science fiction and people have learned and begun to accept that these technologies don’t mean fewer jobs – just that everyone’s job spec will change.

“I think that the best piece of advice I’d give to anyone at the start of their career is to stay curious and be adaptable.”

When I look back at the changes in technologies and opportunities over the past 40 years, I’d say it’s very, very unlikely that if you work in technology, that you’ll be doing a similar job in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years’ time. Many of the jobs that we are now recruiting for at the Hartree Centre really didn’t exist in their current form five or ten years ago. If you can stay adaptable, and think about where the technology is going and how you can apply it in other areas, you’ll be set to succeed. Think about what you are interested in, think about what skills you can develop, be enthusiastic, be open to learning new ideas and you will then definitely be part of the solution.

Making digital technologies work for businesses

I think one of the first things we realised early on working with businesses is that it is easy for people who are excited by technology to engage with people in industry who are excited by technology.

However, if you want that technology to be adopted and to be used, then you need to engage the hearts and minds of a whole range of people who are working in industry, from their funders and executives to their customers and their supply chains.

“It’s not just about having a good technology solution. It’s about ensuring that the people you work with understand the power of digital transformation and how adopting digital solutions will benefit their businesses.”

Our projects are not about somebody coming in and doing something for a company using our “super technology powers”. We build multi-skilled teams with professional project management that work collaboratively with our partners so that we can get the best results for them. By talking to our teams and answering their questions, the company is part of the project development not just the “end user”.

Hear more from Alison Kennedy in her recent interview with Cambium LLP.

Acknowledging the power of diverse, multidisciplinary teams

I’ve always thought it’s important that our technology teams reflect society at large. If we’re going to effectively tackle a whole range of challenges, from environmental to societal to economic, then we need to have people who understand what these challenges are who come from a variety of backgrounds and who reflect our society.

Also, from a practical point of view, the areas that we are working in – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) – have a shortage of applicants. There’s not enough people in the UK with these skills to meet the demand in research and industry sectors. We need to be as open as possible to say: “What’s absolutely essential for this job vs. what can we teach people when they get here?” I’m really pleased that over the years I’ve been at the Hartree Centre, we’ve developed into a more diverse team of people working on our projects – I think this has really benefited us in terms of being able to understand and contribute to some of the challenges that we’re working with – but there’s still a way to go.

Alison Kennedy with Hartree Centre staff at Supercomputing 2019 in Denver, Colorado.

I’m also interested in the way we are moving beyond thinking just about STEM skills in the UK – I’ve noticed more of a focus to add the arts into that mix. It’s important that we are able to illustrate to people in industry and government what the possibilities are. We need to be creative to make it as easy as possible for them to understand what the results of a particular project might be. So, when we look to recruit new team members at the Hartree Centre, we are not just looking for people who have good technical skills. We are also looking for people who are good communicators, who can manage projects to high standards, who have an interest in challenges and who understand the impact of solving them. Our people don’t just want to develop very deep expertise in one area.

To this end, we also have people on our team in the Hartree Centre who have an understanding of digital communications and social media who can interpret our work in a more creative way to engage with different audiences, as well as people who work on the data visualisation side of things. One of our big investments at the Hartree Centre has been a visualisation suite, where we can bring the results of many of our projects to life in a really visual way. We know that for the vast majority of people, this makes it much easier to understand than looking at statistics and formulae.

We use everything from infographics to advanced visualisation to films about our work, anything which helps to convey the power of these new technologies and to spark interest in people to inspire them.

“We want people to think: Wow, that’s really great! I wonder if these technologies could be applied to my particular problem.”

Looking forward, I think there’s a huge amount to be excited about. We’re seeing new applications of existing technologies in an increasing number of areas, alongside the advent of emerging technologies like quantum computing, which is radically different from traditional computing and will enable us to look at problems that cannot be solved on current mainstream computers.

From developing more personalised medicine and healthcare treatments to applying AI in conjunction with simulation and modelling to speed up the refinement of an aeroplane wing design, we have truly only touched the tip of the iceberg. And I for one am excited to see what the Hartree Centre does next!

Alison will be succeeded by Professor Katherine Royse in April 2022.

What our customers think | Managing our Impact

Hear from our Head of Impact Management Karen Lee and find out about her role at the Hartree Centre and her highlights from our recent commercial outcomes survey.

Karen Lee, Head of Impact Management

Anyone working in the research and innovation eco-system will be very familiar with the concept of ‘impact’ and generating benefits to the UK economy and its people.

As an applied research centre focused on supporting industry in their adoption of transformational digital technologies such as AI and data analytics, this one word, impact, summarises what the Hartree Centre is all about. My role is to help us show it.

The recent AI Activity in UK Businesses report estimates that companies’ annual expenditure on AI technologies was over £62 billion in 2020. With the right conditions in place (for example by reducing the barriers to adoption… which is what we do), they predict that total AI expenditure could grow 11-17% annually over the next five years. Whilst the Impact of AI on Jobs report estimates that such technologies could boost our economy by as much as 10% of GDP by 2030. So we are talking pretty significant numbers here!

It’s exciting that the Hartree Centre (and therefore my talented colleagues) is one of the delivery mechanisms to achieve this. As their Head of Impact Management, my focus is on demonstrating the benefits from our portfolio of projects and programmes by helping us to measure and understand the value we contribute to the organisations we collaborate with, as well as to the wider economy and society.

One way this is done is by capturing information – via surveys and interviews – on customers’ experiences of working with us and tracking this over time. We’ve just published an independent report which has provided useful insight into our portfolio of commercial projects.


The key findings from the report are based on 31% of past user organisations engaging in commercial projects completed up to the end of January 2021.

The Commercial Beneficiary Outcomes report is interesting to me on a number of levels. First off, I want to put a shout out to all of the people that make the Hartree Centre ‘work’ and I am proud that 94% of respondents stated they already had, or would, recommend us to others. The work my colleagues do is remarkable – it is right on the cutting-edge and more often than not beyond my realm of understanding.

Back to the organisations… even if you just look at the sectors they operate in, it really does show that digital technologies pretty much touch every part of the economy.

And these businesses are not all at the same stage of their digital transformation journey either. Some are just starting out, with an idea in mind but unsure of whether it would work or where it might take their business, whilst others are optimising processes or product development. I think this is demonstrated in the range of outcomes reported, which indicate important improvements in productivity, performance, skills and R&D investment. For example:

  • 76% reported that the strategic importance of adopting and applying digital technologies had increased
  • 65% have seen an increased investment in R&D within their organisation
  • 84% have improved the extent to which their organisation uses or exploits data.
  • 89% have increased their in-house technical expertise and capabilities

Other benefits reported included:

  • Enhanced confi­dence in products and services
  • Improved effectiveness of product development
  • Optimised processes
  • Reduced product development costs
  • Reduced time to market
  • Increased sales or profi­tability
  • Enhanced reputation

Although after a project you’ll get a picture of the early outcomes and future potential, the nature of innovation is such that full benefits often take time to be realised. Our survey reflects this in that 79% of participants said that they expect to see further commercial benefits over the next 1-3 years.

Following this research, as part of the Hartree Centre’s continuous improvement work, we’ve enhanced our evidence collection so that we capture information before, after and 2-3 years after our projects to track how benefits accrue to achieve impact over time.

If you’d like to find out more, take a look at the public summary of the report or our infographic. We also have some fantastic case studies which tell a powerful story of some of our individual client projects.


Caught in the data loop?

Fresh from the Open Data Institute (ODI) Summit 2019 and bursting with questions, Holly Halford, Science and Business Engagement Manager for the STFC Hartree Centre, explores the use of personal data for online marketing and asks: how do we stop ourselves getting stuck in the data loop?

So, your friend is getting married. You post a few harmless pictures on Instagram, throwing in a few #wedding tags for good measure. The next day, you’re scrolling through your social media feeds and perusing news sites only to find that every sponsored post, every inch of ad space is now trying to sell you wedding dresses. Wedding venues. Wedding fayres. Decorative wedding trees. Things you didn’t even know existed – all useless to you and, presumably, the advertiser – but the ads are still there, taking up precious mindshare.

But you asked for this – you were the one who carelessly hashtagged your way into the echo chamber… right?

From targeted advertising to political persuasion, whether to help or hinder us, our personal data is being used on a daily basis to effect changes in our behaviour. From the extra purchase you didn’t really need to make, to the life milestones you are forced to start thinking about because your data fits a certain demographic.

New research, conducted by the ODI and YouGov and published to coincide with the recent ODI Summit 2019, concluded that nearly 9 in 10 people (87%) feel it is important that organisations they interact with use data about them ethically – but ethical means different things in different contexts to different people. In discussion at the conference, Prof. Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee highlighted that research shows people are reasonably accepting of personal data being used for targeted advertising, but less amenable to it being used for political advertising. Tim proposed a possible reasoning for this, positioning himself as in favour of targeted commercial advertising – at least towards himself – as it generally helps to find the things you want faster, and also helps companies to make the sales that keep them in business. A “win-win” for both consumer and economy, then.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee in conversation with Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Zoe Kleinman at the ODI Summit 2019.

He suggested that political advertising is different in nature because it may make people act in a way that isn’t truly in their own personal best interest due to a manipulation or misrepresentation of information. It’s of course, possible to argue that the same can be true of misleading commercial advertising but the potential impacts are almost always limited to being purely financial – spending money you didn’t need to, getting into debt etc – and these ramifications are not significantly different to the pitfalls of marketing via any other route. Traditional print media, billboards or television advertising have all probably promised you a better life at some point, if you just buy that car, that smartphone or that deodorant.

Tim has a point – targeted advertising can be useful and makes some logical sense, especially if we have actively searched for related terms or shown our interest in a certain product or service by interacting with content related to it. Despite how 1984 it can feel sometimes, I’m actually personally much more comfortable with data-driven advertising based around our active behaviors as opposed to the other option – the demographic based approach, which I feel has the potential to be far more insidious.

There’s a beauty product advert in my Facebook feed. If I click on the “why am I seeing this” feature, I am quickly informed that Company X “is trying to reach females aged 25 to 54”. Whilst the transparency is a welcome change, it doesn’t fill me with hope that a significant proportion of the media thrust upon us each day is tailored based on nothing more than gender or other divisive demographics. I often wonder how many men have beauty product adverts showing up in their feeds compared to say… cars, watches, sporting equipment? (I unscientifically and anecdotally tested this theory on a colleague recently, a man in a similar age bracket to myself. He reported an unusually high capacity of DIY ads.)

Credit: Death To Stock

The data bias is there, entrenched in historic trends that have potentially damaging consequences in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and more – if your demographic fits the initial (and undoubtedly biased) statistical trend, do we now, via data-driven marketing, perpetuate it for all eternity?

But how do we address the very fundamentals of marketing and communications without perpetuating stereotypes and pushing conformity to social norms? As a marketing and communications professional, I confess that the commonly used concept of developing “personas” to describe your target audience and help articulate your message more clearly to them has never sat well with me, because those personas by nature are based on stereotypes and assumptions. Knowing your audience is an absolutely crucial pillar of marketing, but if you only ever acknowledge an existing or expected audience, how do you access new markets and prevent alienating potential customers outside of that bracket? Not to mention the ethical concerns this approach flags up. We need to take a more creative approach to get messages heard without excluding anyone. It may not be the easiest route but I’m certain that it is possible, more ethical and when executed successfully, more effective.

So, what can we, as consumers, do to prevent trapping ourselves with our own hashtags and search terms? The current options seem fairly lacking. Perhaps we can turn to AI-driven discovery of “things you might enjoy”. Features like this can be found on most common media platforms, with varying degrees of success. But as the algorithms get more accurate, the tighter the loop closes. As Tim purported, the intention is to be helpful and save us time – if only to provide a good user experience that keeps you invested in using the platform, of course – but everything it suggests will be based on existing tastes and activity. If you’re predisposed to playing Irish folk music, good luck getting Spotify to suggest you might have an undiscovered a passion for post-progressive rock.

Credit: Death To Stock

This presents a bigger problem when considering the landscape of opinions, causes and politics. The idea of social media curating our own personal echo chambers and arenas of confirmation bias is not a new one. It’s true that we can subscribe to contrasting interest groups, a tactic some journalists have been using – but how many of us have the patience to subject ourselves to a cacophony of largely irrelevant content, if it’s not a professional requirement? A more pressing question is: if we don’t interact positively (or at all) with that “alternate” content, does another algorithm begin to de-prioritise it until we no longer see it anyway and we’re back where we started?

Is the answer in a change of algorithms, then? The tactic of ignoring trends and demographics seems to be entirely at odds with the notion of creating better, more accurate AI algorithms and data-driven technologies. Whether we like it or not, they are meant to do exactly that – generate accurate predictions based on statistically evidenced trends and demographics. I feel quite strongly that a great deal more creative thought is required to ensure that ethical practices and regulations are instigated in line with the pace of technological advancement, and prevent data-driven marketing from driving us round in circles for the foreseeable future.

Afterword: I wrote the majority of this blog post before the launch of the Contract for the Web recently announced by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It presents an encouraging and much needed first step towards safeguarding all the opportunities the internet presents and championing fairness, safety and empowerment. Now, let’s act on it.

Better Software, Bigger Impact

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. 

Introducing some members of the Hartree Centre RSE team.

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:

We’re still recruiting – if you want be part of the Hartree RSE journey please apply here, we’d love to hear from you!

*Full disclosure: I’m a founding trustee of the society.

Creating value for business and the UK economy – evaluating our impact

Karen Lee, Head of Impact, discusses the importance of understanding and measuring impact following the publication of the Hartree Centre’s first evaluation study.

The Hartree Centre is transforming UK industry through high performance computing, big data and cognitive technologies.

That’s our mission. But how do we know whether the research and innovation support we provide to businesses actually creates any value to them or the UK economy? Do we really need to know?

The quick answers to these questions are ‘through impact evaluation’ and ‘yes, we do’. But I would urge you to humour me a little and read on… Continue reading “Creating value for business and the UK economy – evaluating our impact”