Building a diverse digital economy

Posted by Des Higham and Madeline Balaam on 16 October 2015

Ahead of EPSRC's Connected Nation: Thriving in a Digital World conference, leading researchers Des Higham and Madeline Balaam show how digital innovation is improving diverse areas of modern life.

Digital technologies have the potential to bring positive change across our communities, our culture and our economy.

Over the past seven years, The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), The Economic and Social Reasearch Council (ESRC) and The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have collaboratively invested more than £170 million to rapidly realise this transformational impact.

This long-term investment in the Digital Economy has fostered a unique community of talented interdisciplinary researchers who are working with more than 400 businesses, charities and public organisations to find solutions to real challenges including those in social inclusion, the rural economy, personal data, security and health.

The outcomes and innovation from their work is delivering value and enhancing life in the UK. We have asked a few of these researchers to tell their story.

Two appear below and more will feature on our Connected Nation: Thriving in a Digital World mini-site up until December - when we bring together an invited audience of influential policy makers, leading businesses and third sector organisations to meet some of these researchers, celebrate the achievements of this investment and explore future priorities.

Maths, Marketing and Thierry Henry

Behind successful campaigns is mathematics on an industrial scale

Des Higham, University of Strathclyde

For many of us, the term ‘industrial maths’ conjures up images of the complicated formulas used to build aircraft engines, or to crack secret codes to follow in the footsteps of Alan Turing.

But, perhaps surprisingly, mathematics also plays an increasingly important role in marketing and advertising. Sophisticated analytics underpins some of the most iconic campaigns of 2015, including the Sky Sports campaign to celebrate its partnership with the Premier League, featuring Thierry Henry.

Successful marketers are turning to mathematical models in order to understand the behaviour of individuals and communities. And with the numbers behind them, they can help brands to interact with their target audiences in a way that’s positive - and fruitful.

In fact the models are now so sophisticated that they can be used to help brands and agencies predict and measure Return On Investment (ROI) - which can really help a brand when it needs to decide what to do next, and how best to go about it.

Bloom Agency in Leeds is operating at this cutting edge, using pioneering mathematical methods to provide a range of services, including analytics consultancy, customer segmentation and profiling, and real-time social analysis.

Bloom collaborates extensively with universities in the UK and beyond, and funds scholarships that encourage students to learn more about the opportunities in customer-facing, digital analytics.

In particular, Bloom’s flagship analytics tool Whisper builds on public domain research from my group, and Professor Peter Grindrod’s group (University of Oxford), both funded through the UK Research and Innovation Digital Economy theme. With follow-on investment from Innovate UK, Peter Laflin, Chief Data Scientist at Bloom, led the development of Whisper, a tool for analysing social media data. Whisper was launched in 2012 at the International Conference on Social Informatics, Switzerland as a best in class example of world-leading innovation in mathematics.

Whisper has benefited from the RCUK-funded academic outputs that have demonstrated the effectiveness of tools from network science, dynamical systems and applied statistics. And, by exposing mathematicians to realistic large-scale data sets and challenging client-focused tasks, new and highly applicable mathematical research has been developed.

Whisper has been used across Bloom’s broad portfolio of clients, including Sky, Jewson, Emirates, KMPG, ITV, Hitachi and LA Fitness. Case studies describing work with Yorkshire Tea, Kit Kat, Very, Lakeland and Dolce Vita are also available online.

The future of industrial maths is exciting - particularly since it has become so integrated in the world of marketing. Now we have a generation that’s learning about maths and marketing side by side, and it will be fascinating to see where this emerging knowledge will take adventurous brands.

Digital innovation supporting mothers in breastfeeding

Madeline Balaam, University of Newcastle

FeedFinder is a mobile phone app that supports women in finding, reviewing and sharing places for public breastfeeding.

Based upon insights from our research at Newcastle University, it was a direct response to supporting mothers in breastfeeding their infants.

We at Open Lab worked with mothers in and around Newcastle and Gateshead to explore some of the social and cultural issues that hinder women breastfeeding in the UK. Mothers told us that they felt trapped in the house during the early weeks and months, unsure when their baby might need to be fed next. They found the prospect of breastfeeding in public nerve-wracking, not least because of the possibility of exposure, but also because they were unsure how the public would respond.

Our app works much in the same way as Trip Advisor, encouraging women to leave reviews for places where they have breastfed, as well as add new venues when they breastfeed somewhere that isn’t already listed on the map.

It is free to download both for iOS and Android and since its release in 2013 it has registered over 4,000 users, who have collectively mapped and reviewed over 2000 locations in the UK. Adoption in the North East has been particularly good, with the region currently listing 325 venues and 551 reviews.

We are extremely proud that several NHS Trusts now use and recommend FeedFinder to new mothers as part of their community midwifery service. Over the last few years we’ve heard from women who have told us the app has helped them plan for, and feel confident about, their first public feeds. We have recently analysed FeedFinder’s reviews, finding that 85% of the experiences mapped by women tell of a positive public breastfeeding experience. The UK is supportive of breastfeeding women and we will be doing our best to make sure this message is heard loud and clear.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Dr Des Higham


Name: Des Higham
Organisation: University of Strathclyde

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Dr Madeline Balaam


Name: Madeline Balaam
Organisation: University of Newcastle