November 2014

Last night saw the sector come together in London for the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards. One of the most eagerly awaited categories was the Jisc-sponsored Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year - celebrating the use of innovative and strategic digital technologies in universities, with The Open University's OpenScience Laboratory announced as the very deserving winner.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc blog in November 2014]

Jack Dee and Jisc CEO Martyn Harrow with THE Awards winners 2014,
picture courtesy of Times Higher Education

As one of the judges of the THE awards, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the shortlisted institutions and their projects in this category. I will start with the winner, and go on to give attention to each of entries, which I think epitomise some of the excellent digital work that's being done in UK higher education.

Open University

The OpenScience Laboratory from the Open University and Wolfson Foundation gives distance learners the closest possible experience to studying in a real lab by allowing them to conduct 'virtual' experiments using real data.

allowing distance learners to conduct 'virtual' experiments using real data

It strategically supports distance learning at a variety of education levels, providing resources through open access to a wide range of potential audiences. Crucially, it promotes STEM subjects by providing a glimpse of the world and work of the scientist which really engages the learner - you can see its success by the fact it has been accessed by over 10,000 informal learners, which is in addition to the more than 2,000 registered users studying on Open University courses.

The panel felt that it was a genuinely exciting project within an ambitious overall programme with a great roadmap for further development. The project clearly demonstrates the power that technology has to enable people in higher education to perform at the forefront of international practice - which is precisely our mission at Jisc.

University of Aberdeen and partners

The North East of Scotland Shared Data Centre (NESSDC) is a £1.2m joint project to create a shared data centre for regional higher and further education institutions, led by the University of Aberdeen.

creating a shared data centre for regional higher and further education institutions

Recognising that their existing data centres were environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable for future growth requirements, four institutions - the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen College and Banff & Buchan College - came together to create a new state of the art facility where they could share services. The new data centre will save the participating institutions a six figure sum every year whilst also helping them to drastically reduce their carbon emissions.

Bournemouth University

The team at Bournemouth University and Poole NHS Trust wanted to support staff and enhance healthcare delivery during epidurals. Together, they created a fully integrated wireless prototype to guide surgical staff administering injections by determining the position of the needle. They have also developed a training package to help users monitor progress.

supporting staff and enhancing healthcare delivery during epidurals

This project could have huge societal benefits given that complications associated with epidural injections during labour are estimated to affect around 365,000 women and cost the NHS some £15m every year. The team at Bournemouth is now working with NHS Innovations South West, who commercialise new inventions.

De Montfort University

De Montfort University's IT4Free project from its Square Mile community engagement initiative is targeted at maximising digital inclusion in Leicestershire. It aims to close the digital divide through free community IT suites and training.

closing the digital divide through free community IT suites and training

Working in partnership with a number of public and private sector bodies, including HP, the NHS and The Prince's Trust, a team of academics and 50 student volunteers have given their time to make the project a success, with the students also gaining valuable skills and confidence.

International State Crime Initiative

The International State Crime Initiative is an e-testimony project from Queen Mary University of London, University of Ulster and King's College London. It is an online casebook that provides material about criminal state practices, including eye witness testimonies in the form of interviews, film, photographs and other imagery, that is available to those interested in studying these events.

an online casebook that provides material about criminal state practices,
including eye witness testimonies

The results of the project have been widely taken up and used in teaching in the UK, US and Australia, as well as by non-governmental organisations.

University of Leeds

Patients admitted to hospital with acute illness need to receive prompt, effective treatment if their condition gets worse. Recognising and Responding to Acute Patient Illness and Deterioration (RRAPID) from the University of Leeds is a programme that uses technology in a subtle way to support trainee doctors in reacting to emergency situations.

using technology to support trainee doctors in reacting to emergency situations

A suite of interactive resources have been created to support the RRAPID approach including a multimedia e-book that features video demonstrations and photographs and a diagnostic app covering a range of commonly occurring acute scenarios.

The app gives students the ability to self-test how they would respond to a given emergency, and a log book to record their experiences. This approach has had a transformational effect at Leeds and is now integrated into all five years of its medical degree training.

Outstanding practice

The jury was hugely impressed by the quality of the entries, which gave a great snapshot of the kind of innovations in ICT taking place in UK higher education. Of course only one institution can take home the trophy, but all of the institutions shortlisted and the individuals involved in these projects should feel justifiably proud of their achievements.

Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch running Google's Android Wear operating system
“He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake”
– from Santa Claus is Coming to Town,
by Haven Gillespie / J. Fred Coots

Stephen Wolfram made headlines back in 2012 when he revealed that he had been “life logging” for over twenty years. But by now many of us are doing this almost incidentally, through wearable sensors from the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone and smartwatches with health features like Motorola’s Moto360 with its heart rate monitor and pedometer – see photo above. And by dint of knowing where you are and where you’ve been, Google were able to add an activity summary card to Google Now that attempts to guess (with varying degrees of accuracy) how much walking or cycling you have been doing.

And here we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma – by aggregating and applying machine learning to health and activity data (really, as much data as possible) and medical records, we can suggest interventions and lifestyle changes and monitor their effectiveness, potentially across a huge population – think of those billions of Android users. Marry this with cheap $99 next generation gene sequencing from the likes of 23andMe and we are really heading for a step change in public health from a move to a more proactive approach to medicine. However, the potential for abuse is massive, as we’ve recently seen in relation to alleged improprieties at Uber. As one commentator put it: “Deleting Uber? Uber won’t delete you.”

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

‘Never memorize something that you can look up’ – Albert Einstein.
Amazon recently announced the Echo, a personal digital assistant that you converse with – see the video below for some slightly contrived examples. What the Echo and competing technologies like Google Now really highlight for me is that we are entering an age where the act of remembering is increasingly passé. Not only can you find out almost anything if you can craft your search terms well enough, but information tends to come to you ambiently. You could think of the Internet, via these tools, as a sort of neural prosthesis.

It goes without saying that this trend has huge implications for the way we teach and learn, but there is a deeper issue that I touched upon in a recent blog post – we either understand how to control these technologies, or we are controlled by them. This is why I am very interested in projects like Ello, Indie and Unhosted, and in Tim Berners-Lee’s Web We Want campaign. Is it only through surrendering our personal data to the big firms famously described by Bruce Sterling as The Stacks that innovation like Echo can arise? What can we achieve through collective action, and retaining control of our data? Let’s take a bold leap into the unknown, and explore this new frontier together.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]