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.

Meeting the Women of Silicon Roundabout – present and future!

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.

Over 6,000 delegates attended the two day event at ExCeL London.
Image credit: Women of Silicon Roundabout.

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!

Aiman Shaikh | Research Software Engineer | Hartree Centre
Image credit: STFC

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.

From a Computing GCSE to being Deputy Director

“Life is like a large pond, you are surrounded by lilypads and depending on your capabilities and circumstances you have to pick the next one to step onto.”

When I was younger, growing up in Wigan I was mainly interested in three things: football, computers and radio control cars. At school, I decided to study A Levels in maths, physics and chemistry and then went off to study chemistry at the University of Leeds with no fixed idea of what I wanted to do or where I was going afterwards.

After a period of unemployment, I was lucky enough to get a job as a Research Chemist with Crosfield, a Unilever company at the time. This involved working with Crosfield silica to remove protein from beer, essentially increasing the shelf-life of the product. To me, this was great, I was a beer scientist at the age of 21! I enjoyed the challenge of working on new formulations and eventually discovered a way of improving the shelf-life of beer using 50-70% less material than previous methods. At first, the brewers we worked with did not seem to buy in to the idea so the sales staff invited me out with them to explain the process to our customers. That was my first taste of sales and I really enjoyed it so I started to try to go out with the sales team as much as I could.

My next ‘career leap’ was in to telesales and this turned out to be a terrible idea as it really did not suit the way I liked to work and how I liked to develop customer relationships and insight. From there, I went to work for Dionex in a regional sales role with a remit for selling chromatography columns that separate chemical components. It was this position that helped me to recognise that I was actually quite good at sales and learned an important point:

“people do not just buy kit, they buy answers to the problems they want to solve.”

This led me back to my interest in computing where I taught myself how to use a macro-based scripting process that increased the efficiency of the sales process, helping me to match solutions to customer problems.

Continue reading “From a Computing GCSE to being Deputy Director”

Bringing big data to life | TechUK’s Big Data in Action Roadshow comes to Manchester

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http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-information-exchange-image9317559

Last week, the Hartree Centre sponsored TechUK’s Big Data in Action Roadshow in Manchester, held as part of a series of events across the UK to demonstrate the tools and technologies available for businesses to use, explore and get value from their data. Read on to find out how the day unfolded. Continue reading “Bringing big data to life | TechUK’s Big Data in Action Roadshow comes to Manchester”

Through the gears: boosting car industry competitiveness

 

The visualisation facilities at the Hartree Centre have been used to help car manufacturers reduce time and money from their innovation processes

Now that the summer break is pretty much over (what was that I hear some of you shout?), I thought it was time for us to publish another post on here. In this post I touch a little on the automotive industry.

The automotive industry is one of those sectors that countries tend to use as a barometer of their overall industrial and economic performance. In the UK, the sector enjoyed a pretty buoyant 2015 all things considered. Continue reading “Through the gears: boosting car industry competitiveness”

Creating a cognitive eco-system – day one of the Hartree Hack

Twitter Learn create compete

This week sees the Hartree Centre run its first hackathon event at Daresbury. A three day event which brings together developers, designers and companies from a range of sectors all with the aim of creating the next big thing in web or mobile-based applications using IBM Watson APIs.

Duncan Sime introducing the Hartree Centre at the Hartree Hack
Duncan Sime introducing the Hartree Centre at the Hartree Hack

I’m a football fan. A Manchester United supporter for 40 odd years. The football was so poor last night (although we did win 3-1, I prefer a match that lifts you out of your seat), that I ended up having the “what are you doing tomorrow?” conversation with my significant other mid-way through the first half of the match.  Continue reading “Creating a cognitive eco-system – day one of the Hartree Hack”

Introducing the Hartree Centre Chemistry and Materials Programme

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http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-brain-interface-blue-binary-code-digitally-generated-image42555041

In civil and mechanical engineering, the design process is done almost entirely by computer (think about the way bridges are designed). A long-held goal in radical chemical and materials product design is to shift from an ad-hoc, labour intensive and expensive process towards a more robust and adaptive computer aided paradigm.

Continue reading “Introducing the Hartree Centre Chemistry and Materials Programme”

Not just ‘big’ – bringing big data into line

What’s in a name? When it comes to taming big data, it’s easy to just see the challenge as being one of scale – just as the name implies. But as a non-specialist working in this area, I quickly discovered that it’s more complicated than that. And I’d like to use this post to explain why that’s the case.

Continue reading “Not just ‘big’ – bringing big data into line”