Summer of Good News

Picture of Qianru on her graduation day

This has been a good summer, not just because the British weather has been somewhat more summery than usual.

Qianru’s Graduation

In June, my first PhD student graduated. Dr Qianru Zhou investigated the use of an ontology to enable a software defined network. Her PhD thesis is “Ontology-driven knowledge based autonomic management for telecommunication networks: Theory, implementation and applications”,


As of today (1 August 2018), I am now an Associate Professor (equivalent to Senior Lecturer in traditional British universities).

Grant Success

Today saw the start of a collaboration with VisionWare, a company based in Glasgow who specialise in record linkage, and is funded as an Interface Voucher. We are investigating combining the data corruption framework that Ahmad has been developing with the synthetic data that VisionWare have been generating. The purpose is to enable us to evaluate, and thus improve, record linkage.


SICSA Digital Humanities Event

On 24 August I attended the SICSA Digital Humanities event hosted at Strathclyde University. The event was organised by Martin Halvey and Frank Hopfgartner. The event brought together cultural heritage practitioners, and researchers from the humanities and computer science.

The day started off with a keynote from Lorna Hughes, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow. She highlighted that there is not a single definition for digital humanities (weblink presents a random definition from a set collected at another event). However, at the core, digital humanities consists of:

  • Digital content
  • Digital methods
  • Tools

The purpose of digitial humanities is to enable better and/or faster outputs as well as conceptualising new research questions.

Lorna showcased several projects that she has been involved with highlighting the issues that were faced before identifying a set of lessons learned and challenges going forward (see her blog and slideshare). She highlighted that only about 10% of content has been transformed into a digital form, and of that only 3% is openly available. Additionally, some artefacts have been digitised in multiple ways at different time points, and the differences in these digital forms tells a story about the object.

Lorna highlighted the following challenges:

  • Enabling better understanding of digital content
  • Developing underlying digital infrastructure
  • Supporting the use of open content
  • Enabling the community
  • Working with born-digital content.

The second part of the day saw us brainstorming ideas in groups. Two potential apps were outlined to support the public get more out of the cultural heritage environment around us.

An interesting panel discussion was had, focused around what you would do with a mythical £350m. It also involved locking up 3D scanners, at least until appropriate methodology and metadata was made available.

The day finished off with an interesting keynote from Daniela Petrelli, Sheffield Hallam University. This was an interesting talk focussing on the outputs of the EU meSch project. A holistic design approach on the visitor experience was proposed that encompassed interaction design, product design, and content design. See the below embedded video for an idea.


There are lots of opportunities for collaboration between digital humanities and computing. From my perspective, there are lots of interesting challenges around capturing data metadata, linking between datasets, and capturing provenance of workflows.

Throughout the day, various participants were tweeting with the #dhfest hashtag.

An Identifier Scheme for the Digitising Scotland Project

The Digitising Scotland project is having the vital records of Scotland transcribed from images of the original handwritten civil registers . Linking the resulting dataset of 24 million vital records covering the lives of 18 million people is a major challenge requiring improved record linkage techniques. Discussions within the multidisciplinary, widely distributed Digitising Scotland project team have been hampered by the teams in each of the institutions using their own identification scheme. To enable fruitful discussions within the Digitising Scotland team, we required a mechanism for uniquely identifying each individual represented on the certificates. From the identifier it should be possible to determine the type of certificate and the role each person played. We have devised a protocol to generate for any individual on the certificate a unique identifier, without using a computer, by exploiting the National Records of Scotland’s registration districts. Importantly, the approach does not rely on the handwritten content of the certificates which reduces the risk of the content being misread resulting in an incorrect identifier. The resulting identifier scheme has improved the internal discussions within the project. This paper discusses the rationale behind the chosen identifier scheme, and presents the format of the different identifiers.

The work reported in the paper was supported by the British ESRC under grants ES/K00574X/1(Digitising Scotland) and ES/L007487/1 (Administrative Data Research Centre – Scotland).

My coauthors are:

  • Özgür Akgün, University of St Andrews
  • Ahamd Alsadeeqi, Heriot-Watt University
  • Peter Christen, Australian National University
  • Tom Dalton, University of St Andrews
  • Alan Dearle, University of St Andrews
  • Chris Dibben, University of Edinburgh
  • Eilidh Garret, University of Essex
  • Graham Kirby, University of St Andrews
  • Alice Reid, University of Cambridge
  • Lee Williamson, University of Edinburgh

The work reported in this talk is the result of the Digitising Scotland Raasay Retreat. Also at the retreat were:

  • Julia Jennings, University of Albany
  • Christine Jones
  • Diego Ramiro-Farinas, Centre for Human and Social Sciences (CCHS) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

New Paper: Reproducibility with Administrative Data

Our journal article [1] looks at encouraging good practice to enable reproducible analysis of data analysis workflows. This is a result of a collaboration between social scientists and a computer scientist with the ADRC-Scotland.

Abstract: Powerful new social science data resources are emerging. One particularly important source is administrative data, which were originally collected for organisational purposes but often contain information that is suitable for social science research. In this paper we outline the concept of reproducible research in relation to micro-level administrative social science data. Our central claim is that a planned and organised workflow is essential for high quality research using micro-level administrative social science data. We argue that it is essential for researchers to share research code, because code sharing enables the elements of reproducible research. First, it enables results to be duplicated and therefore allows the accuracy and validity of analyses to be evaluated. Second, it facilitates further tests of the robustness of the original piece of research. Drawing on insights from computer science and other disciplines that have been engaged in e-Research we discuss and advocate the use of Git repositories to provide a useable and effective solution to research code sharing and rendering social science research using micro-level administrative data reproducible.

[1] Unknown bibtex entry with key [Playford2016BDS]

Celebrating 50 years of Computer Science at HWU

Old hardware

Display of old equipment used within computer science.

This year sees a double celebration in the Department of Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University – it is 50 years since we launched the first BSc Computer Science degree in Scotland, and 50 years since Heriot-Watt was granted university status. To celebrate we had a series of events last week including an open day and dinner for former staff and students.

During the open day we had a variety of displays and activities to highlight the current research taking place in the department. There was a display of some of the old equipment that has been used in the department. While this mostly focused on storage mediums, it also included my first computer – a BBC model B. Admittedly there was a lot of games played on it in my youth.

Pepper robot

Demonstration of the Pepper robot that is being used by the Interaction lab to improve speech interactions.

Each of the labs in the department had displays, including the new Pepper robot in the Interaction Lab and one of the Nao robots from the Robotics Lab. The Interactive and Trustworthy Technologies Lab were demonstrating the interactive games they have developed to help with rehabilitation after falls and knee replacements. The Semantic Web Lab were demonstrating the difficulties of reconstructing a family tree using vital records information.

At the dinner in the evening we had two guest speakers. Alex Balfour, the first head of department and instigator of the degree programme, and Ian Ritchie, entrepreneur and former graduate. Both gave entertaining speeches reflecting their time in the department, and their experiences of the Mountbatten Building, now the Apex Hotel in the Grassmarket where we had the dinner.

See these pages for more about the history of computer science at Heriot-Watt.

Genealogy reconstruction game

Current PhD students attempting to reconstruct a family tree from their entries in the birth, marriage, and death records.


Game to help rehabilitation patients perform their physiotherapy exercises correctly.