Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read some of our other articles:

Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles:

Smarter tourism: solving the data problem to boost tourism and create better cities

By Steven McGinty

On 22 March, I attended ‘Smarter Tourism: Shaping Glasgow’s Data Plan’, an event held as part of DataFest 2017, a week-long festival of data innovation with events hosted across Scotland.

Daniel MacIntyre, from Glasgow City Marketing Bureau (the city’s official marketing organisation), opened the event by highlighting Glasgow’s ambitious target of increasing visitor numbers from two million to three million by 2023.

To achieve this goal, Mr MacIntyre explained that the city would be looking to develop a city data plan, which would outline how the city should use data to solve its challenges and to provide a better experience for tourists.

In many ways, Glasgow’s tourism goal set the context for the presentations that followed, providing the attendees – who included professionals from the technology and tourism sectors, as well as academia and local government – with an understanding of the city’s data needs and how it could be used.

Identifying the problem

From very early on, there was a consensus in the room that tourism bodies have to identify their problems before seeking out data.

A key challenge for Glasgow, Mr MacIntyre explained, was a lack of real time data. Much of the data available to the city’s marketing bureau was historic (sometimes three years old), and gathered through passenger or visitor experience surveys. It was clear that Mr MacIntrye felt that this approach was rather limiting in the 21st century, highlighting that businesses, including restaurants, attractions, and transport providers were all collecting data, and if marketing authorities could work in collaboration and share this data, it could bring a number of benefits.

In essence, Mr MacIntyre saw Glasgow using data in two ways. Firstly, to provide a range of insights, which could support decision making in destination monitoring, development, and marketing. For instance, having data on refuse collection could help ensure timely collections and cleaner streets. A greater understanding of restaurant, bar, and event attendances could help develop Glasgow’s £5.4 million a year night time economy by producing more informed licensing policies. And the effectiveness of the city’s marketing could be improved by capturing insights from social media data, creating more targeted campaigns.

Secondly, data could be used to monitor or evaluate events. For example, the impact of sporting events such as Champions League matches – which increase visitor numbers to Glasgow and provide an economic boost to the city – could be far better understood.

Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC)

One potential solution to Glasgow City Marketing Bureau’s need for data may be organisations such as the Urban Big Data Centre.

Keith Dingwall, Senior Business Manager for the UBDC, explained that the centre supports researchers, policymakers, businesses, third sector organisations, and citizens by providing access to a wide variety of urban data. Example datasets include: housing; health and social care data; transport data; geospatial data; and physical data.

The UBCD is also involved in a number of projects, including the integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project. One interesting aspect of this work involved the extraction of Glasgow-related data streams from multiple online sources, particularly Twitter. The data covers a one year period (1 Dec 2015 – 30 Nov 2015) and could provide insights into the behaviour of citizens or their reaction to particular events; all of which, could be potentially useful for tourism bodies.

Predictive analytics

Predictive analytics, i.e. the combination of data and statistical techniques to make predictions about future events, was a major theme of the day.

Faical Allou, Business Development Manager at Skyscanner, and Dr John Wilson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, presented their Predictive Analytics for Tourism project, which attempted to predict future hotel occupancy rates for Glasgow using travel data from Glasgow and Edinburgh airport.

Glasgow City Marketing Bureau also collaborated on the project – which is not too surprising as there a number of useful applications for travel data, including helping businesses respond better to changing events, understanding the travel patterns of visitors to Glasgow, and recommending personalised products and services that enhance the traveller’s experience (increasing visitor spending in the city).

However, Dr Wilson advised caution, explaining that although patterns could be identified from the data (including spikes in occupancy rates), there were limitations due to the low number of datasets available. In addition, one delegate, highlighted a ‘data gap’, suggesting that the data didn’t cover travellers who flew into Glasgow or Edinburgh but then made onward journeys to other cities.

Uber

Technology-enabled transport company, Uber, has been very successful at using data to provide a more customer oriented service. Although much of Uber’s growth has come from its core app – which allows users to hire a taxi service – they are also introducing innovative new services and integrating their app into platforms such as Google Maps, making it easier for customers to request taxi services.

And in some locations, whilst Uber users are travelling, they will receive local maps, as well as information on nearby eateries through their UberEATS app.

Uber Movement, an initiative which provides access to the anonymised data of over two billion urban trips, has the potential to improve urban planning in cities. It includes data which helps tourism officials, city planners, policymakers and citizens understand the impact of rush hours, events, and road closures in their city.

Chris Yiu, General Manager at Uber, highlighted that people lose weeks of their lives waiting in traffic jams. He suggested that the future of urban travel will involve a combination of good public transport services and car sharing services, such as uberPOOL (an app which allows the user to find local people who are going in their direction), providing the first and last mile of journeys.

Final thoughts

The event was a great opportunity to find out about the data challenges for tourism bodies, as well as initiatives that could potentially provide solutions.

Although a number of interesting issues were raised throughout the day, two key points kept coming to the forefront. These were:

  1. The need to clarify problems and outcomes – Many felt it was important that cities identified the challenges they were looking to address. This could be looked at in many ways, from addressing the need for more real-time data, to a more outcome-based approach, such as the need to achieve a 20% reduction in traffic congestion.
  2. Industry collaboration – Much of a city’s valuable data is held by private sector organisations. It’s therefore important that cities (and their tourism bodies) encourage collaboration for the mutual benefit of all partners involved. Achieving a proposition that provides value to industry will be key to achieving smarter tourism for cities.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in: 

Making science fun … 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

british-science-weekBritish Science Week 2017 is in full swing and the theme this year is change. Whether it’s climate change or the changing seasons, transformative new materials or energy, there are changes happening all around us, all of the time. And British Science Week is also a chance to encourage young people to consider the changes they can enact to have a positive impact on the future. This may include choosing a career in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Getting children and young people interested in STEM can be tricky, though. The British Science Week website includes lots of resources, and this year is promoting a citizen science ‘penguin-spotting’ project. Parents can also help, and what better way for kids to learn about STEM than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device?

There are some great examples of apps and computer-based games to help young people explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products.

We’ve highlighted some of these below – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look, be inspired and think about using them in school or at home.


Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

The research for this blog was originally done by April Bowman, who joined us in July 2016 for a voluntary work experience placement, while studying for a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism was education policy and teaching practice.

Read some of our other blogs on education:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Future City Glasgow: successes, challenges and legacy

By Steven McGinty

In 2013, Glasgow City Council won £24 million worth of funding from Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) that would see the city become a ‘living lab’ for smart city projects.

Although Glasgow has been more synonymous with low life expectancies (the so called ‘Glasgow Effect’) and urban deprivation, the funding was intended to transform Glasgow into a world leading smart city, with the technologies piloted by Glasgow eventually being used in other cities.

The projects proposed by Glasgow City Council were designed to explore innovative ways to use technology and data to make the city ‘safer, smarter and more sustainable’.

However, three years on, with the majority of the work complete, has the programme been a success?

Managing a future city

From the beginning, Future City Glasgow set out an ambitious programme for change. However, it wasn’t just the experimental nature of the technologies or implementing them in such a short space of time which caused challenges. The programme also had an important role to play in the security of the 2014 Commonwealth Games – a major international event for the city.

Just under half of the programme’s funding was spent on a new state-of-the-art Operations Centre,  integrating traffic and public safety management systems, and bringing together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence.

Although this has required significant investment, the centre has enabled Glasgow to take a ‘proactive’ approach to traffic management and public safety. Video analytics tools, for example, provide operation centre operators with better information to help respond to emerging events. And traffic operators have control over the city’s signalling, allowing them to prioritise late-running public transport. CCTV cameras have also been upgraded to full HD, providing better images for operators and an important source of evidence for Police Scotland.

Demonstrator projects

A major part of Future City Glasgow’s work has been introducing a number of demonstrator projects. According to Gary Walker, programme director at Future City Glasgow, these focus on four main themes: energy; active travel (encouraging people to walk and cycle); public safety; and transport. Some of the most notable projects, include:

  • Intelligent street lighting – the Riverside Walkway has lighting which switches on when people walk by, and Gordon Street has lighting which provides real time data on noise levels, footfall, and air pollution.
  • Sensor technology in retrofitting – low cost sensors (the BuildAx and the Eltek GC-05) have been deployed in buildings throughout Glasgow to evaluate the impact of insulation projects.
  • The Glasgow Cycling App – an easy to use platform has been created to encourage cyclists to share their experiences of cycling and to generate data that could help citizens plan journeys or highlight areas the council should target for improvement.

The challenge of data

Much of Future City Glasgow has been underpinned by data sharing – including traffic data gathered by the Operations Centre and citizen-generated data from the Glasgow Cycling App.

However, ‘freeing’ this data proved challenging, as sharing data went against the traditional working culture of local government. As Gary Walker explained to the Guardian newspaper:

“Change can be challenging – especially when you are driving something that appears to contradict everything you’ve had drummed into you for years. Initially, organisations were nervous when we asked them to release their data because people know they must protect it. But once they realised that we were not asking for sensitive or personal data they began to relax a little and appreciate the value in creating a data hub.”

After some awareness raising and reassurance, the Glasgow Data Launchpad, a publicly available repository for the city’s data, now has over 400 datasets from 60 organisations, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life (which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council), and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Looking to the future

As Gary Walker noted at a recent Smart Cities event, Future City Glasgow has received a lot of international interest. The programme has also won a number of awards, including:

  • Winner – Geospatial World Excellence Awards 2015
  • Winner – NextGen Digital Challenge (Digital Innovation) 2015
  • Winner – Holyrood Connect ICT (Innovation) 2015

However, it’s important that the city doesn’t become complacent and continues to progress with smart city initiatives. Alan Robertson, in an article for Holyrood magazine, suggests that financial pressures facing local councils may put initiatives in jeopardy. For instance, he highlights that Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety has warned that the city faces “impossible budget cuts”.

There are, however, some positive signs that work will continue. Last year, the Scottish Government introduced Smart Cities Scotland, a new programme which aims to make Scotland’s cities more efficient and greener, and more attractive to potential investors. The programme received £10 million in European funding and will involve a collaboration between Scotland’s seven cities and the Scottish Government.

Final thoughts

Future City Glasgow has had many successes since it was launched three years ago. Although Smart Cities Scotland promises less funding, Future Cities Glasgow has provided the smart city infrastructure capable of supporting new projects.

In terms of driving growth, it will also be interesting to see how Glasgow City Council responds to new forces within future cities, including disruptive business models and technologies, such as controversial tech companies Uber and Airbnb.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

Highlighting policy and practice: research briefings from The Knowledge Exchange

p1670586

So far this year, our team of Research Officers in The Knowledge Exchange have researched and written more than 30 policy and research briefings on a diverse range of subjects, from housing and planning to technology and training. Written in a clear and concise style, each briefing brings together examples of recently published evidence, alerts readers to new and continuing developments and signposts sources of further information. New briefings are available exclusively to members of our Information Service, and the choice of topics is driven by what our members are asking us about.

Today’s blog post offers a flavour of just some of the topics we’ve been covering during the year.

Housing

In many parts of the UK, people are struggling to buy or rent affordable housing. One consequence is a rise in homelessness. Our briefing – Delivering solutions to tackle homelessness – describes the complexities involved in defining homelessness, and the subsequent difficulties in measuring the scale of the problem. The causes of homelessness are no less complex, and the briefing lists some of the factors that lead to people finding themselves on the street, such as eviction, unemployment, health problems and relationship breakdowns. It also highlights approaches to tackling homelessness, such as social impact bonds and homeless health peer advocacy.

Planning

Closely related to housing is the role of planning in ensuring that individuals and families not only have adequate homes, but the infrastructure and services needed to support communities. One of the significant developments in this area has been the UK government’s policy on devolving more powers (including planning) to England’s cities and regions. Our briefing – Devolution of planning powers to city-regions – explains that each devolution deal agreed between the UK government and local authorities is tailored to the local area. In the West Midlands, for example, a directly-elected mayor will be given planning powers to drive housing delivery and improvements.

The briefing notes that, while there is widespread agreement that devolution of planning powers to local areas is a positive step, there is also concern that local areas won’t be able to deliver what they need to in terms of planning without control of expenditure, much of which is still retained by central government.

Technology

Our “Ideas in Practice” series of briefings presents case studies of projects and initiatives that have tackled a range of social issues, often resulting in reduced costs or improved efficiency. Our smart cities briefing on MK: Smart outlines a technology-led urban innovation project in Milton Keynes that aims to improve the town’s key infrastructure in areas such as transport, energy, and water. One of MK:Smart’s success stories is its Smart Parking initiative, which has encouraged drivers to use limited parking spaces more effectively, as well as providing the council with a better understanding of parking behaviour.

Another technology-focused briefing looks at the increasing development of “serious games” in the domains of planning, education, health and cultural heritage. Serious games in the policy field have borrowed elements from the video games sector, such as virtual reality, simulations and digital game-based learning. As well as improving skills and engagement among individuals, serious games have been used as a powerful way of introducing new concepts to the public, and providing people with an understanding of different points of view. The briefing showcases some examples of the application of serious games, including ‘B3— Design your Marketplace!’ which created an immersive and playful environment to encourage citizens to give their views on the design of a marketplace in Billstedt, a district of Hamburg.

Education, training and skills

A number of our briefings this year have focused on the all-important areas of education, training and skills. The Ideas in Practice briefing on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education considers key trends and practical applications. Among the initiatives highlighted in the briefing is Third Space Learning, which connects primary schools in England and Wales with maths specialists via one-to-one online sessions.

In August, we published a briefing focusing on the impact of outdoor learning on educational attainment. It includes information on the implementation of the Forest School initiative in the UK, which places emphasis on children having contact with nature from an early age. The briefing highlights evidence that pupils with the highest connection to nature have been found to perform better in exams, and notes the positive impact on the attainment of those from deprived backgrounds.

Crime

Our briefing on urban gang crime highlights some of the ways that local authorities and organisations have sought to tackle the problem. One of the case studies focused on the exploitation of young women by gangs in Manchester. Delivered by women who have survived gang exploitation, it provides one-to-one support, allowing both mentors and victims to create lasting relationships and networks of support which help them as they transition from life within a gang. In 2013, the project won the Women in Housing award for best community/ training project for its work in rebuilding women’s lives.

Further information

This is just a taster of the variety of subjects addressed in The Knowledge Exchange’s policy and research briefings. A fuller list of briefings is provided here, and members of the Idox Information Service can keep up-to-date with newly-published briefings via our weekly Bulletin.

Coding in Glasgow’s public libraries

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the annual CILIPS Autumn Gathering take place in Glasgow. CILIPS is the Scottish branch of the professional body for librarians and information professionals in the UK (CILIP). The Autumn Gathering provides professionals in Scotland with an opportunity to get together to discuss issues and trends within the sector and share best practice.

The day saw a range of sessions alongside two keynote addresses from Marc Lambert, CEO of the Scottish Book Trust, and Diane Bruxvoort from the University of Aberdeen. One of the most interesting talks I attended was given by Martin Goodfellow, who is the Coder in Residence at Glasgow Life. Martin previously worked on the Future Makers project, providing 5-17 year olds in Glasgow with the opportunity to learn digital making skills. The project was made possible due to the city winning Innovate UK’s Future Cities Demonstrator competition, and £24m in funding to explore ways to improve the city and the quality of life for its residents through technology.

For the uninitiated, Martin explained that coding=programming. It’s a form of computational thinking: something we all use in everyday life, e.g. in deciding when to stop looking for something, be it when shopping or looking for information.

Coding in Libraries

Martin’s remit is to support the creation of coding clubs in Glasgow’s public libraries. Glasgow is the first library service in the UK to have a Coder in Residence, and Martin is based at the city’s Mitchell Library, which has its own Digital Making Space and recently opened Scotland’s first Google Digital Garage.

In partnership with CoderDojo Scotland and Virgin Media, the first Glasgow coding club was set up in the Mitchell’s Digital Making Space. The club hosts regular CoderDojo events, and the clubs have started to roll out to several of Glasgow’s local libraries.

The events are aimed at young people aged 8-17 and operate democratically, in that there is no set curriculum in place at the clubs. Instead, participants work on their own projects or suggest ideas for the club to take part in. Martin described some of the projects the club have been involved in, noting that these are sometimes in collaboration with other cultural events in Glasgow. For example, during the last Celtic Connections festival, some of the young coders were involved in building a program that saw Scotland the Brave remixed using various different effects. He also showed off a 3D printed Mitchell Library created by the club in Mindcraft as part of the BBC’s Build it Scotland event, which is to be included in a forthcoming visual map of Scotland.

Making not consuming

Martin explained that club had used Sonic Pi in order to create the music program. This is just one of the software packages that participants can access at the clubs, alongside tools including Raspberry Pi and Scratch. He also demonstrated one of the outcomes of the club’s use of Twine, which had resulted in the creation of a ‘choose your own adventure’ style game, which sees players either going from the Mitchell to a secret Biffy Clyro gig, or missing out on the gig, depending on their choices.

Here, Martin placed an emphasis on public libraries being seen as not only a space where people can use technology to access resources, but also learn how to use technology: digital making, not just digital consumption. This is similar to the makerspace movement in libraries, which we looked at on the blog last month.

Teaching children how to code is part of the gamificiation of education trend, which takes concepts that children are used to in video games and uses these to support educational attainment. Gamification in general is a key trend at the moment, as seen in apps like Pokémon Go which is suggested to produce physical health benefits for players.

Martin highlighted that the clubs have worked with the STEMnet Ambassador programme, in which people volunteer to support and encourage young people to participate in, and enjoy, STEM subjects, both in and outside of the school setting. With the UK facing an estimated shortfall of 40,000 STEM workers per year (often blamed on societal stereotypes which can discourage certain groups  particularly girls   from studying STEM subjects), the work that the programme and initiatives like the coding clubs do is vital.

The future

The fact that there has been no real need to promote the coding clubs in Glasgow beyond using social media shows that young people are interested in STEM subjects, if they are presented in a way that is enjoyable and accessible to them. Martin spoke about Glasgow’s participation in National Coding Week last month, during which the clubs hosted a range of events including intergenerational sessions, which saw parents come in and learn from their kids about coding. The idea of ‘teaching an adult to code’ is one that is hoped to be continued in the coding clubs. The other key aims include having a club running in every one of the city’s public libraries, expanding the clubs into schools, and ensuring their sustainability.

If you liked this, you might like our other posts on STEM and digital participation:

Introducing 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

Guest blog by April Bowman

Originally from Kansas, USA, April taught elementary school children before coming to Scotland to continue her academic study. She is currently in her final semester of study of the Master’s in Public Policy  programme at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism has been education policy and teaching practice. April joined our Knowledge Exchange team for two weeks in July on a voluntary work experience placement.


What better way for kids to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device? There are some great examples of apps and computer-based programs to help students explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products. I thought it would be useful to to highlight some of these – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look and think about using them in school or at home.

Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

Read some of our other blogs on digital skills:

Members of the Idox Information Service can also read the In Practice research briefing written by April, looking at the teaching of STEM subjects in UK schools for more information on using digital platforms in teaching.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Hacking against homelessness: how technology is rising to the housing challenge

Startup Stock Photos

Our recent “Ideas in practice” briefing for our members highlighted the difficulties in calculating the numbers of homeless people. And, as we’ve previously reported, the official figures don’t reflect the full scale of the problem.

But there’s little doubt that homelessness continues to affect large numbers of people. Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter. And figures published last month suggest that in the UK homelessness is a long way from being beaten.

Local and central government, along with homelessness charities are working hard to tackle the problem, but new approaches are needed to prevent and address the issue. One of these is the idea of hackathons.

Applying technology to help the homeless

Hackathons are collaborative challenges where teams of skilled technology developers (or ‘hackers’) compete to solve a given problem or demonstrate innovative use of technology under a tight time constraint.

They originated in Silicon Valley, and have often been used by technology companies such as Google and Apple to develop commercial ideas. The “like” button on Facebook was one such idea to emerge from a hackathon in 2007.

However, social enterprises and charities have also been exploring the possibilities of hackathons, and some have specifically focused on homelessness. Recent examples emerging from the US include:

  • A 2014 hackathon where teams of digital developers and designers got together to brainstorm, prototype and pitch ideas on tackling homelessness in Seattle. The winning idea centred on a system to allow homeless people to digitise personal identity documents.
  • An app developed by coders in New York to help keep homeless people off the streets and give them the care that they need.
  • A weekend-long hackathon in Tampa, Florida, which developed a smartphone app to help the homeless population more easily find resources such as shelters and soup kitchens, and a web-based survey to help calculate the scale of homelessness in Tampa.

UK hackathons

The hackathon idea has also taken hold in the UK. In 2012, Westminster City Council brought together a group of digital developers and housing charities to apply their minds and skills to tackling homelessness.  The stakeholders set out their objectives, challenging the developers to build something useful and accessible, either for homeless people themselves, for the charities and local authorities supporting them, or for members of the public:

  • Homeless Link wanted to offer people a means to act when they see a rough sleeper, to prompt support services, and to inform people of what is offered to rough sleepers locally.
  • The Single Homeless Project (SHP) charity was looking for a way of enabling its clients to be inspired and motivated to use digital technology and to learn how to use it in a cost effective way.
  • Westminster City Council highlighted the need for rough sleepers to be shown they were valued members of the community.

Among the ideas to emerge from that first hackathon were:

  • an app allowing the public to submit information about people they see who are sleeping rough
  • an application connecting Homeless Link’s data with geo-location data to identify the nearest suitable service for a homeless person to contact
  • a personal organizer for homeless people to log their contact with government agencies and track their applications for benefits

The homelesshack website has continued to report on how these and other applications have been developed and updated.

In April this year, the Business Rocks festival in Manchester included a homelessness hackathon that challenged participants with the question: ‘How Can Tech Solve Global Homelessness?’ Contestants were asked to focus on mental health service solutions through social media, and were made aware of the everyday challenges and systematic needs of the homeless and most vulnerable, in the UK and across the world.

The winning idea was an app to encourage, support and help find work opportunities for homeless and vulnerably housed people. Other pitches included a website to connect homeless people with relevant support services, an app to facilitate crowdfunding for homeless support projects and a remote postal service for people with no fixed address.

And this coming weekend, teams of coders, designers and housing professionals will take part in a hackathon in Edinburgh. They aim to come up with creative solutions to support people facing homelessness or poor housing.

Making it happen?

As these examples demonstrate, there is no shortage of good ideas on how technology can be leveraged in the cause of addressing homelessness. It remains to be seen whether these imaginative and innovative solutions can be developed to tackle one of the world’s greatest social problems.


Further reading