Connected Nation - Interview: James Goulding, University of Nottingham

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James Goulding leads the neo-demographics data science programme at the EPSRC-led Horizon Digital Economy Hub at the University of Nottingham, researching in the field of machine learning with Big Data.

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James Goulding, University of Nottingham

So my name is James Goulding, and I work at the University of Nottingham. I am representing the EPSRC Neo-Demographics project. So the Neo-Demographics project is about taking streams of big data - that we work with private sector companies with - and seeing what insight and good, you can do with those data streams. So we originally started working with lots of companies in the UK, companies like Boots, and Marks and Spencer’s and so on; looking at new ways you can understand behaviour from those datasets which is locked away and siloed at the moment.

So another key part of the project though is working in the developing world. Lots of UK business struggles when it goes abroad, because the cultures are different and there’s very little information in those places. So we've been looking at Malaysia, China and East Africa. We've been working with companies there as well, where there is no real demographic infrastructure in those places; so less market intelligence, so it’s hard to make social policy decisions and business decisions when there's no information.

So East Africa, for example, we’ve been working in Dar es Salaam, and there’s between 5 and 7 million people; they're not entirely sure because there hasn’t been a Census since 1988. So no-one really understands the traffic flows, mobility, those sorts of factors; but companies like telecommunications companies - they do understand what’s going on. They have it there in the data, but it’s currently kept in siloes. So part of the project is about working with loads of companies to release the insight from these data sets and understand what's going on in those cities. So today we have been showing some visualisations, specifically in Tanzania. So we’ve been working in Dar there, and we've built up a collage of understanding of the city of Dar es Salaam, that didn’t exist before the project started.

So by working with those digital footprints and data streams, you can understand areas of mobility, and that can inform things like transport and other planning. We’ve been working with the World Bank about how you can take those of research aspects and bring them into real-world impact. So we've been showing those, and what we've learned during the project as well is that you can do all the analysis, but you have to tell the story with it as well. So we have some visualization techniques, a system called Palm which can project directly onto 3D maps. There we can show the different makeup of the cities and areas in the country and how they change over time, and that's a really useful aspect of that part of the project.

In the UK we've been working with companies where we've actually had an impact on their business processes. So with companies like Boots, we’ve worked on new product development. And while we are researching and developing new techniques in collaboration with them, we're also feeding back into what they’re actually doing in their business processes. That’s in the UK - abroad in areas like East Africa, we’re actually having a physical impact on all sorts of social policy, which we’re very proud of. So some of the maps that we have helped produce and supported in Dar have been used for the treatment cholera recently.

Other analysis - mobility analysis - that has come out of the project is being used in collaboration with the World Bank for transport and urban planning. So it's nice to have real, actual impact from the research. We do research, so we develop new techniques. The core of our research is pushing the boundaries of what can be done with big data analytics; but as part of that, I think you only make the real impact if you find things that are useful in the real world. You can do theoretical analysis, but when you actually engage with businesses and social policy makers, and you produce things that have a positive feedback into those communities, and planning regimes; then that's really useful. I think that loop of connecting with social planning communities back into academia, round in a circle, is really useful.

The best thing about the Neo-Demographics project is that it’s brought together computer scientists, mathematicians, geospatial scientists, and business researchers. It's very easy in academia for those areas to get siloed, and the team that’s been built up has produced more insight, and more analysis, and better research than we could have done separately, and we could have done that without the project. I think, for me, that's a key part of what we’ve done. We couldn’t be making the impact we have been in East Africa if we didn’t have that full, across-the-board group of people; that’s been really useful.