Transforming research and innovation through digital technology

In this Inside Track article, Professor Neil Morris, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation, showcases some excellent examples of digital transformation from our research community.

Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Freeing up our time with digital technologies. November 2020

As researchers, we focus on questions that tackle global challenges aimed at improving life, health, society and work. And we all use digital technologies, approaches and data – to some extent – to conduct our research, disseminate our findings and translate it into societal impact.

As the use of digital technology increases throughout the research process, the University needs to provide the necessary infrastructure, data capabilities, platforms and support to meet these challenges. We also need to plan strategically to be able to support researchers using specialised computing facilities and new technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

Ongoing research across the University demonstrates that new digital technologies and their adoption will also have profound implications for how we live as a society, how we feel about privacy and ethics, and how we explore and interact with culture. This will enable new avenues of research that cut across digital, society and its intersectionality. And, of course, all our research informs the education we offer to our students on campus, and around the globe, through fully online education.

Through the consultation process on the new Digital Transformation Strategy, we’ve been gathering case studies illustrating our existing uses of digital technology to enrich students’ learning, our research activities and our operational activity.

Here, our Faculty Pro-Deans for Research and Innovation highlight how digital technology is at the heart of some of our major research success stories. 

Global forest data pipeline

In the Faculty of Environment, makes leading contributions to University priorities of internationalisation, research excellence and impact, as well as wider societal change. It is encouraging inclusive science among the global south and north and bringing forests into climate policy.

Built on a global forest data pipeline and advanced programming, it delivers innovative tools for contributors and users to manage, share and analyse records together. By originating a hyper-collaborative, worldwide network, is now connecting scientists, students, forest managers and policy-makers as never before – something that wouldn’t be possible without digital approaches.

Key evidence of success include:

  • 2,200 colleagues from 54 nations managing data with the initiative
  • more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific outputs this REF cycle, involving more than a thousand authors worldwide, half now led by tropical researchers; and
  • sustained support to impact studies on carbon sinks and stores, as well as national submissions for Paris Agreement Forest Reference Emission Levels.

Improving cycling provision

Also in Environment, in the Institute of Transport Studies, the ‘Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT)’ is a planning support system to improve cycling provision at many levels, from regions to specific points on the road network. PCT provides an evidence base to inform cycling investment by answering the questions ‘where is cycling currently common’ and ‘where does it have the greatest potential to grow’? 

PCT is an online tool – free to use, copy and modify. PCT’s Rapid Cycleway Prioritisation Tool has been used by many local authorities to inform their infrastructure investment (supported by a £250 million Active Travel Fund from the Government) and planning to encourage cycling during the covid-19 pandemic. The project is now in phase three and has generated many spin-offs funded by, among others, local authorities, the Welsh Government, cycling charity Sustrans and the Norwegian Research Centre.

Understanding criminal behaviours

In the Faculty of Social Sciences, researchers in the School of Law and Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, in collaboration with the Safer Leeds Partnership, explored how natural language processing techniques – algorithms that can extract knowledge from written text – might be used by crime reduction agencies to better understand specific types of criminal behaviours affecting our communities.

Researchers built a software platform capable of ingesting and analysing tens of thousands of crime reports written by police officers and automatically identify patterns of similar offences – something that would have been logistically impossible for human analysts. Patterns of offences were then visualised using a dashboard designed to help operational crime analysts better understand local crime problems and, in turn, aid in developing problem-specific solutions to try and resolve them.

Mapping climate change movement data

Also in Social Sciences, researchers are using Twitter data that contains millions of tweets from the climate change movement, such as Fridays for Future, their supporters and opponents. This data is being mapped to understand the normative arguments of the movement, promoting change in response to the climate crisis and the responses this discourse generates in the wider public.

With the data collected in real time over a prolonged period, researchers can also study the evolution of this discourse over time. Traditional methods, such as surveys or interviews, aren’t able to capture the full range of voices involved in important political discourse, or the dynamic nature of discourses as they evolve in response to various events. Digital methods also allow colleagues to continue research and collect data even under challenging circumstances, such as those presented by the covid-19 pandemic.

Revolutionising medical and healthcare

Systematic change has effectively embedded the use of digital technologies in research and innovation activities to enable the Faculty of Medicine and Health to realise its vision and achieve its goals. The transformation has encompassed a shift in culture, processes, people and impact to improve resilience, increase flexibility and maintain relevance.

Digital technologies are revolutionising medical and healthcare, and been used to enable robotic surgery and home-based robotic rehabilitation. Data is a major strategic initiative in medical and healthcare, and projects such as the electronic frailty index (eFI) in GP electronic patient records and the Health Data Research UK North are set to have a transformational impact on healthcare.

Using drones and robots for farming

There’s a range of ongoing research in the Faculty of Biological Sciences that seeks to improve agriculture using digital technologies. On the farm, for example, they’re working on various aspects of digital sensing, including fixed sensors, drones and robots, measuring things like soil temperature, humidity, crop status, weather and light.

There’s a very advanced pig research unit on the farm, where the livestock are monitored and their conditions optimised for performance, feed, behaviour and health. Looking on a bigger, more ecological scale, colleagues are using weather radar to track insects and birds, and this can be related to the prediction of pest outbreaks and also conservation.

Research collaborations across FBS are also seeking to develop sensors to monitor water pathogens and parasites, for example. 

These are just a selection of the great research stories across the University that demonstrate the role digital technology can have to enhance innovative, global, research activity.

Focusing on our core technology and data infrastructure

The clear message received from researchers across the University has been that we should focus our digital transformation efforts on the foundational projects, to ensure we have the core technology and data infrastructure in place to support research and innovation.

For this reason, the current objectives specifically around research and innovation in the draft Digital Transformation Strategy include:

  • providing high-quality, flexible, secure, interoperable, user-focused technology and development environments
  • providing secure environments in which our researchers and partners can use large data sets, enabling sharing and effective data analysis
  • providing platforms and support for specialised research in areas including high-performance computing, artificial intelligence/deep learning, blockchain, Internet of Things, robotics, extended (immersive) realities, simulations and programming
  • increasing use of open research practice, digital library research and scholarship practices, and using digital approaches for publication, dissemination and impact activities; and
  • establishing and extending research in evidence-based practice in digital pedagogies, new and emerging digital technologies, digital humanities, online education and digital transformation.

These priorities are being developed into actionable projects that can be delivered to enhance the technology and data infrastructure available to support the great research and innovation activities across the University. These plans will be developed in collaboration with researchers, so please get involved when you get the opportunity.

Showcasing your case studies

We will be showcasing more digital transformation case studies across the University during the coming months.

Please contact the digital transformation team if you’d like to share a case study from your area of work or provide feedback on the Digital Transformation Strategy.

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