Connected Nation - Interview: Advaith Siddharthan, University of Aberdeen

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Advaith Siddharthan's research focuses on Text Analytics and Natural Language Processing. He is a Senior Lecturer in Computing Science at the University of Aberdeen and is particularly interested in the effective communication of information to diverse users.

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Advaith Siddharthan, University of Aberdeen

Hello I’m Advaith Siddharthan. I'm a Senior Lecturer in Computing Science at the University of Aberdeen. This is research in collaboration with ecologists at the University of Aberdeen, principally Rene Van Der Wal, and also collaborators at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The research is around; can digital technologies help people connect with nature? In particular can we find ways to help people engage with ecological data through technology?

And we’re demo-ing two applications in this area, one’s called BeeWatch and one’s called Blogging Birds. This is citizen science, so we started off wanting to engage people - and we did. We engaged people in many different ways, we did these café-scientific type talks in cafes; we did the Café Connect, we went to rural parts of Scotland and spoke to village audiences. We engaged people through our research, through our websites, through the mailing list of a partner organisations the RSPB and the BBCT. It's been all quite a positive experience because there is a huge demand among the public to know about what we doing - and to know how they can help. And people do actually want to help, and they're willing to help, so it's all good.

It's kind of interesting because this is the only real demo here in the ecological domain. So it's not necessarily a domain of interest to people here, but the technology is more general and people can see how it might be applied to their problems. So I’ve heard comments about the Internet of Things, because we are really talking about sensor data, and I’ve heard people from other disciplines like economics thinking about ways in which we can communicate data in other areas. So it’s been interesting from that perspective. There are all these academic outcomes, so there's a bunch of papers that have come out, and you can found these on our website.

To some extent these are both quite applied bits of work, so they've been done in collaboration with conservation charities in the UK, and the systems are up and running and they’re being used by the public. So we have thousands of users for BeeWatch who submit photographs of bumblebees, use our online keys to identify them, help with the identification of photos submitted by other people, and read the feedback which we give them which is produced automatically by a computer. The project fits into a, sort of, wider citizen science space, where you're trying to engage people with science and research, and the data collection is one aspect of it.

We have a recent paper out in Ambio which talks about the quality of the data we’re producing through these, I don’t like to use the word but, crowdsourced approaches, compared to more traditional biological recording - and it looks complementary in some sense. So with a crowd-sourced approach, you tend to get data from areas where populations live, and that's often not the case with biological project groups who tend to record in the countryside. So we feel the data is kind of complementary, and the data is all verified so the quality has controls on it.

Well whenever a project ends, there's always a whole bunch of things which you wanted to do before the money ran out. And I think we're at the stage now where we have published most of what we have done, and we need to, sort of, start leveraging that to do the next big thing. What exactly it might be, might or might not be obvious in the immediate, but we do know that having shown this around, at both technology events and conservation events, that there is huge interest in these ideas; in the ideas around being able to communicate data to people directly. One possible next step is to allow people to query the data in more intelligent ways. So not just have the story told about the data, but have the users ask about particular stories; different narratives from the same data.