New paper: “Facilitating collaborative learning between two primary schools using large multi-touch devices”

This week we had a paper published in Springer’s Journal of Computers in Education, entitled: Facilitating collaborative learning between two primary schools using large multi-touch devices. This paper is the first output from a collaborative project between Durham University’s School of Education (led by Andrew Joyce-Gibbons) and Cardiff Metropolitan University (led by Gary Beauchamp), focusing on computer-supported collaborative learning through multi-touch devices.

The abstract of the paper is below; you can read the full paper (or download a PDF) online:

Facilitating collaborative learning between two primary schools using large multi-touch devices

James McNaughton, Tom Crick, Andrew Joyce-Gibbons, Gary Beauchamp, Nick Young and Elaine Tan

This paper presents a technical case study and the associated research software/hardware underpinning an educational research trial in which large touchscreen interfaces were used to facilitate collaborative interactions between primary school students at separate locations. As part of the trial, an application for supporting a collaborative classroom activity was created which allowed students at either location to transfer resources to the students at the other via a ‘flick’ gesture. The trial required several novel innovations to the existing SynergyNet software framework to enable it to support synchronous remote collaboration. The innovations enabled the first successful classroom collaboration activities between two separate locations within the United Kingdom using large touchscreen interfaces. This paper details the challenges encountered in implementing these innovations and their solutions.

Keywords: Multi-touch devices; Gestures; Computer-supported collaborative learning; SynergyNet; Networking; ICT

DOI: 10.1007/s40692-017-0081-x

(also see: Publications)

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Come and work with me: SL in Computer Games Development

Come and work with me in the Department of Computing & Information Systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University!

We are currently advertising for a Senior Lecturer in Computer Games Development; this full-time permanent post will contribute to research and enterprise activities within the department, as well as a leading role in undergraduate learning and teaching on our new BSc (Hons) Computer Games Design & Development degree programme starting in September 2017.

For informal enquiries, please contact our Head of Department Dr Jason Williams; further information on the application process can be found here. The closing date for applications is 9 December 2016, with interviews expected in late December.

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The wrong lizard might get in

Apropos of nothing, from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Chapter 36), HHGTTG:

[An extraterrestrial robot and spaceship has just landed on Earth. The robot steps out of the spaceship…]

‘I come in peace,’ it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, ‘take me to your Lizard.’

Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.

‘It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…’

‘You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?’

‘No,’ said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, ‘nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.’

‘Odd,’ said Arthur, ‘I thought you said it was a democracy.’

‘I did,’ said Ford. ‘It is.’

‘So,’ said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, ‘why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?’

‘It honestly doesn’t occur to them,’ said Ford. ‘They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.’

‘You mean they actually vote for the lizards?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Ford with a shrug, `of course.’

‘But,’ said Arthur, going for the big one again, ‘why?’

‘Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,’ said Ford, ‘the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?’


‘I said,’ said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, ‘have you got any gin?’

‘I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.’

Ford shrugged again.

‘Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,’ he said. ‘They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.’

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Coining the word “software”


Computing pioneer Paul Niquette’s memoir begins with the tale of how he came to coin the term software in 1953 — to the ridicule of his colleagues — and how the idea of a computer whose code was separate from its machinery took hold and changed the way we think about computing forever.

When I first said `software’ out loud, people around me said, “Huh?” From the very beginning I found the word too informal to write and often embarrassing to say. Nevertheless, with smirking trepidation I did occasionally feature the word `software’ in speeches and lectures and media interviews throughout the fifties.

It was just a throw-away thing. The word `software’ was hardly my most notable invention, even back then. Nothing to write home about (I was only 19 years old and still living at home). The word `software’ did not belong in a technical paper (besides, an undergraduate is but a ghostwriter for principal researchers). Then too, I had a reputation at UCLA as a practical joker. Colleagues and friends simply shrugged, no doubt regarding each utterance as a tiresome prank or worse, another offbeat neologism, for which I was also becoming noted.

Nobody in 1953 would have guessed that the silly word would take hold, that within a few decades `software’ would enter the general vocabulary for products and for professions — that a worldwide industry would wear it as a solemn name. You can be sure that if my ego and I had harbored any such glorious visions, then…then, what?

(reblogged from Boing Boing)

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Commons Education Select Committee inquiry: The impact of exiting the European Union on HE


The Commons Education Committee has today launched an inquiry into the impact of Brexit on higher education. This inquiry follows the expansion of the Committee’s remit to include higher education, further education and skills in response to changes at the Department for Education.

The inquiry will explore the implications of UK’s exit from the European Union for EU students and staff in the UK, as well as the ramifications for Britons who want to work and study at higher education institutions in the EU. The Committee also aims to examine the effect of Brexit on the reputation of England’s universities and ask how they can remain competitive; the future of the Erasmus+ student exchange programme is also be examined as part of the inquiry.

The impact of Brexit on university research and funding is not covered by the inquiry as these policy areas are the responsibility of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; the Commons Science and Technology Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the implications and opportunities stemming from the UK’s exit from the EU on science and research.

The Committee thus invites submissions on the following issues:

  • The likely impact of the UK exiting the EU on EU students studying in England
  • What protections should be in place for existing EU students and staff
  • The future of the Erasmus+ programme following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU
  • Risks and opportunities for UK students
  • How changes to freedom of movement rules may affect students and academics in English higher education institutions
  • How to ensure UK universities remain competitive after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU
  • What the Government’s priorities should be during negotiations for the UK to exit the EU with regard to students and staff at higher education institutions
  • What steps the Government should take to mitigate any possible risks and take advantage of any opportunities

The deadline for written submissions is Friday 11 November 2016.

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CPHC Statement on UK withdrawal from the EU

Today, the Council for Professors and Heads of Computing have issued a statement (which I have supported) on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union:

Before last week’s referendum, commentators expressed serious concerns about the impact of the UK withdrawal from the EU, and the inevitable uncertainty leading up to it, on the UK’s academic and industrial computer science sectors. CPHC believes it is vital that withdrawal negotiations are based on the best possible information about the current state of the various sectors and what is at stake under various options. The withdrawal of the UK from the Union could have a potentially profound impact on UK Computer Science education, research and industry. CPHC recognises that the referendum was the first step in a potential withdrawal from the EU, and that many discussions, decisions and negotiations are required before any exit is complete, indeed before Article 50 is even invoked. We aim to contribute to the information that will form the basis of any discussions and below we provide an overview of the potential impact of UK withdrawal, issues to be considered in any post-exit plan, and issues to consider in withdrawal negotiations.

Please see the full CPHC statement, which includes an overview of the potential impact and issues to consider for computer science and the wider UK technology sector.

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Public consultation on the Digital Competence Framework

Further to last year’s announcements on the creation of a Digital Competence Framework for all schools in Wales, we have seen marked progress in the development of the Framework. An update shared in April detailed the progress made so far, including how the main components of the Framework have been developed, as well as how the Digital Pioneers have been iterating drafts with the QA Group that I chair. We have been through a number of iterations since the end of last year, identifying and structuring the main themes and content, as well as looking at exemplification across the curriculum, progression and consistency of terminology.

As part of the stakeholder engagement and quality assurance process, the Welsh Government have published the latest draft and have opened up a public consultation to allow wider scrutiny of the Framework and its structure and contents, as well as collect feedback outside of the Digital Pioneer network and curriculum stakeholder groups.

The survey is now open until the end of June; we very much welcome any comments or feedback regarding any aspect of the DCF, as well as potential issues with its implementation going forward from September 2016.

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Call for nominations for BCS Distinguished Fellowships

From time to time, BCS considers the award of a Distinguished Fellowship to members of the computing profession who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of computing. The Award was first approved in 1969 and the first election was made in 1971 to Edsger Dijkstra; see the full roll of BCS Distinguished Fellows.

I sit on the BCS Distinguished Fellowship Committee and had the pleasure (alongside the BCS Patron, HRH The Duke of Kent) of presenting the awards to last year’s Distinguished Fellows: Dame Wendy Hall and Martha Lane Fox, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho. Once again, we wish to open the call for nominations as wide as possible, as well as reflecting the recently updated criteria to recognise contributions to the wider BCS theme of “Making IT good for society”. The relevant regulations specify that the Award may be made even if the individual in question is not already a member of BCS and may not be eligible for any other class of membership. Any candidate for Distinguished Fellowship should be considered against the following criteria:

  • The contribution to computing should be seen in terms of major importance to the overall development of computing, with substantial personal recognition through peer review over a substantial and sustained career. This could include furthering the principles expressed in the BCS strategy of “Making IT good for society”.
  • There is no restriction on nomination on the grounds of nationality or of existing membership of BCS and nominations from business, industrial, research or academic backgrounds are equally acceptable and work of either a practical or theoretical nature may be equally valid.
  • At any time, both the work and the stature of the individual nominated should be commensurate with the standards set by previous recipients.

Nominations for BCS Distinguished Fellowships are made online and close at noon (GMT) on 24 June 2016.

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Come and work with me: Data Scientist (KTP Associate)

Fancy working with me on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) project in collaboration with Yard Associates, funded by Innovate UK with support from the Welsh Government?

A Data Scientist/KTP Associate position is available to develop an adaptable web analytics framework for predicting future purchasing behaviours and recommended marketing strategies based on attributed visitor history and interaction data, using hybrid machine learning and big social data analytics. Emerging research — and the development of practical toolchains — leveraging machine learning, social network analysis, natural language processing, sentiment analysis, data science and big data analytics are making a significant impact on a wide range of sectors. However, there exists a significant translational research problem: in applying and developing these emerging research advances into intelligent, adaptable and usable toolchains for a wide range of markets. This project thus aims to new products and services in the web analytics space for Yard, based upon novel and hybrid machine learning/big data analytical approaches.

This is a two year project, with a pro-rata salary of £21,000 (as well as a generous budget for professional development, including an opportunity to complete a funded MPhil at Cardiff Met). For informal enquiries, please drop me an email:; further information and how to apply can be found on the Cardiff Met website.

Deadline for applications: Wednesday 15 June.

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Come and work with me: L/SL in Information Systems

Another position: come and work with me in the Department of Computing & Information Systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University!

We are also advertising for a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Information Systems; this full-time permanent post will contribute to undergraduate and postgraduate learning and teaching, as well as wider scholarship and research activities in the department.

For informal enquiries, please contact our Head of Department Dr Jason Williams; further information on the application process can be found here. The closing date for applications is 27 May 2016 (with interviews expected in early June).

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The beauty of a good mathematical proof

Throughout his life, John von Neumann, the Hungarian-American polymath, leaned towards pure mathematics, or pure mathematics with recognised applications. In his 1947 essay entitled The Mathematician, he described his personal concept of mathematics, showing him to be thoughtful and original concerning the philosophical underpinnings of the discipline. One word von Neumann repeatedly uses is aesthetical; he defends mathematics for mathematics’ sake, consciously posting analogies to the visual arts. For example, in listing the qualities of a good mathematical proof:

One also expects “elegance” in its “architectural,” structural make-up. Ease in stating the problem, great difficulty in getting hold of it and in all attempts at approaching it, then again some surprising twist by which the approach, or some part of the approach, becomes easy, etc. Also, if the deductions are lengthy or complicated, there should be some simple general principle involved, which ”explains” the complications and detours, reduces the apparent arbitrariness to a few simple guiding motivations, etc. These criteria are clearly those of any creative art, and the existence of some underlying empirical, worldly motif in the background — overgrown by aestheticizing developments and followed by a multitude of labyrinthine variants — all this is much more akin to the atmosphere of art pure and simple than to that of the empirical sciences.

Nevertheless, von Neumann insisted that the best mathematics was usually inspired by practical problems, perhaps in partial defence of game theory from fellow mathematicians who at the time deprecated it as an applied field.

(also see: Feynman, Bethe and the beauty of mathematics)

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Come and work with me: Senior Lecturer in Data Science

Come and work with me in the Department of Computing & Information Systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University!

We are advertising for a Senior Lecturer in Data Science; this full-time permanent post will contribute to research and enterprise activities within the department, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate learning and teaching (especially on our new MSc Data Science programme starting in September 2016).

For informal enquiries, please contact me or our Head of Department Dr Jason Williams; further information on the application process can be found here. The closing date for applications is 25 April 2016 (with interviews expected in early May).

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Open letter to the UK Government on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill

I have joined a number of politicians, academics and policymakers in signing an open letter to the UK Government published in The Telegraph today, warning of the potential dangers of rushing through the Investigatory Powers Bill:

SIR — Intelligence agencies and the police require strong surveillance powers. Their powers and responsibilities — as well as their limits — must be clear to be effective.

All three parliamentary reports on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill concluded that it does not meet the requirements of clarity, consistency and coherence. They call for new drafting, further safeguards, further evidence and further consultation.

Given these recommendations, the Government’s intention to pass the Investigatory Powers Bill this year is not in the nation’s interest. There is no need to be bound by this time frame. The powers, which expire this year, to give law enforcement access to data could be dealt with as a separate Bill. This would allow a comprehensive Investigatory Powers Act to follow next year after adequate consultation.

Surveillance is a global concern, and this new law, if done right, could lead the world. It will affect security, freedom and commerce. We must give the Bill the time it needs — not rush it through Parliament. We urge the Government to think again.

You can see the full list of signatories of the letter; also, support the Open Rights Group’s IP Bill campaign.

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Nearly every example of faulty reasoning that has been published is accompanied by the phrase `of course’ or its equivalent.

Donald Knuth


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Best of 2015

Here are the most popular posts of 2015*; as always, a combination of research, education, policy and general ranting. Most of my visitors came from the UK, with the US and Germany not far behind (157 countries in total), with the majority of referrals coming from Twitter and Facebook. The busiest day of the year was 28 November, with lots of traffic to this post from 2013.

Top five posts (only 14 this year, 286 in total):

  1. The Art of Programming
  2. A set of books to read in 2015
  3. Paper submitted to CAV 2015: “Dear CAV, We Need to Talk About Reproducibility
  4. New paper: “Top Tips to Make Your Research Irreproducible”
  5. Digital Competencies in the new Curriculum for Wales

Nothing of particular interest in the search terms this year; however, I am delighted to be the fourth hit on Google for the wonderful phrase “eddies in the space time continuum”…

Thank you all for reading! See you back here in 2016.

*also see best of: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011


I love work

Do you know that saying from Jerome K. Jerome? He wrote Three Men in a Boat and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. He said “I love work. I can sit and watch it for hours.”

John Conway as quoted in Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway (2015) by Siobhan Roberts

 (also see: DNA on deadlines)

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Further to a recent discussion on natural language processing on the comp.compilers usenet news group, I was reminded of how the following sentence is grammatically correct in American English:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

As explained in further detail on Wikipedia, this sentence is an example of how homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) and homophones (words that are pronounced the same, but differ in meaning, and may differ in spelling) can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs. The above sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word “buffalo”; in order of their first use, these are:

  • a. the city of Buffalo, New York, USA, which is used as a noun adjunct in the sentence;
  • n. the noun buffalo (American bison), an animal, in the plural (equivalent to “buffaloes” or “buffalos”), in order to avoid articles;
  • v. the verb “buffalo” meaning to outwit, confuse, deceive, intimidate or baffle.

While the above sentence is syntactically ambiguous, one possible parse would be as follows — a claim that bison who are intimidated or bullied by bison are themselves intimidating or bullying bison (at least in the city of Buffalo):

Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.

Finally, there is nothing special about eight “buffalos”; any sentence consisting solely of the word “buffalo” repeated any number of times is grammatically correct (and is also a useful mechanism for illustrating rewrite rules). The shortest is “Buffalo!”, which can be taken as an imperative instruction (“[You] buffalo!”). Versions of this linguistic oddity can be constructed with other words which similarly simultaneously serve as collective noun, adjective, and verb, some of which need no capitalisation (e.g. “police”).

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Paper in SNAM: “Measuring UK crime gangs: a social network problem”

In July, we had a paper accepted for publication in Springer’s Social Network Analysis and Mining, entitled: Measuring UK crime gangs: a social network problem. This paper builds upon our previous work on social networks and crime analytics, using an interesting gun and gang crime dataset from Greater Manchester Police over a seven-year period.

The abstract of the paper is below; you can access it via Springer’s SharedIt service or our final pre-print on GitHub:

Measuring UK crime gangs: a social network problem

Giles Oatley and Tom Crick

This paper describes the output of a study to tackle the problem of gang-related crime in the UK; we present the intelligence and routinely-gathered data available to a UK regional police force, and describe an initial social network analysis of gangs in the Greater Manchester area of the UK between 2000 and 2006. By applying social network analysis techniques, we attempt to detect the birth of two new gangs based on local features (modularity, cliques) and global features (clustering coefficients). Thus for the future, identifying the changes in these can help us identify the possible birth of new gangs (sub-networks) in the social system. Furthermore, we study the dynamics of these networks globally and locally, and have identified the global characteristics that tell us that they are not random graphs—they are small world graphs—implying that the formation of gangs is not a random event. However, we are not yet able to conclude anything significant about scale-free characteristics due to insufficient sample size. A final analysis looks at gang roles and develops further insight into the nature of the different link types, referring to Klerks’ ‘third generation’ analysis, as well as a brief discussion of the potential UK policy applications of this work.

Keywords: Gangs; Gun crime; Scale-free networks; Small-world networks; Social distance; Communities; Crime policy

DOI: 10.1007/s13278-015-0265-1

(also see: Publications)

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What skills will we need to live in future smart cities?

Last week, I co-authored a piece with Theo Tryfonas, a colleague from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, on the Government Office for Science’s Future of Cities blog, looking at digital skills and competencies in the context of future smart cities.

A summary of the post is below, with the full report available to read online.

Today, the idea that data can play a key role in the design and management of cities is widely recognised. Architects, planners and engineers are already considering how data can improve the planning and operational aspects of cities. However, we believe it’s now time to consider the skills that people will need to live in these smart cities.

The increasing digitisation of information, coupled with the impact of innovations such as the Internet of Things, will have a profound effect on all aspects of city life. This will include anything, from transport planning and energy use reduction, to care provision and assisted living. But it will also include new ways of social innovation, new ways of organising communities, and increased access to political processes. So, familiarity, if not proficiency, in `digital era’ skills will be an essential part of future citizenship.

This doesn’t only mean people should have the necessary digital consumption skills to help them make full use of emerging technologies. They should also have digital creation skills such as design, technology awareness, computational thinking and programming skills, as well as a risk-informed perception of data privacy and security. The challenges of delivering such a skillset are many, from designing a 21st century curriculum for schools and universities, to ensuring fair access to digital technology for everyone.

We believe that taking the time to consider these skills issues now is just as important as resolving the design and operational issues of the emerging technologies themselves.


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