So what?

The academic’s favourite question. Why am I doing this? What is the point? Who cares? I love research and learning new things every day. Keeping my mind active. But I could be doing this outside of academia without having to justify the learning.

Fast forward to the Today programme on Radio 4 at 8.50am yesterday. I am almost stopped in my tracks as I approached my office and words such as “galaxies”, “algorithm”, “patterns”, “volunteers” hit my ears. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have trained a computer algorithm (full paper here, pretty pictures here) to classify new galaxies at very high speeds. Karen Masters of the University of Portsmouth was fortunately on hand to point out that volunteers have been doing this successfully on Galaxy Zoo for almost eight years now. In 18 months, in fact, 150,000 volunteers identified 50 million galaxies in images from all the major astronomical surveys, exploiting their ability to identify/recognise these patterns. The algorithm groups parts of an image that have similar properties in much the same way. So are these volunteers now redundant?

As Karen articulated, not necessarily. I think it does usefully remind us, however, to be mindful of, and pay attention to, the volunteers’ role within the process of knowledge construction that underpins Citizen Science projects. The number of galaxies that future astronomical surveys contain will be, well, astronomical. There remains potential for man and machine to collaborate, whereby machines classify the easy (often boring) features and humans apply their judgment to the more interesting, weird patterns in these images. Considering the petabytes these new surveys will reach, if only 1% of a billion objects is weird then many, many images will still contain patterns no algorithm could discern. We could reasonably envisage an effective task flow consisting of an algorithm that reports to a human what it finds, who then interprets it to grow our knowledge of the astrophysics of galaxies or stars. The iMars project, however, offers an opportunity to explore the interplay between man and machine in more detail, so that the skills and expertise of man/machine are optimised throughout. 1.4 million volunteers are registered on the Zooniverse and it’s incumbent upon us to respect the time that they donate. Finally, as humans, individual task performance cannot be expected to be consistent so we have to consider how they experience and carry out tasks over extended time periods; what is best for science may not be best for the volunteer. Expect to hear more from me on this (and eventually some pictures!) as the project progresses.

Longer term, what is especially exciting is that, these algorithms do not care what they look at; they could even applied to medical, Earth observation and security imagery. In medical imagery, for example, they could diagnose certain diseases much earlier than currently possible by identifying structures in images that a human could potentially miss. I’m looking forward to ZooCon this weekend where I will meet the developers and volunteers who are driving all of these innovations.



National Women in Engineering Day

Earlier this week I was asked to speak to a group of Year 10 girls (aged 14-15) about careers in Engineering, in honour of National Women in Engineering Day. I was in two minds, mostly because I only had 24 hours to think about it but also, because I often wonder about the impact that these National Days have. Why that day? Would I not be able to present the same message on any other day just as effectively?! Anyway, after Tim Hunt’s comments about women working in laboratories, and since it provided me with the opportunity to speak, I decided to put myself into the lionesses’ den.

I asked the girls to start by writing down the first word that sprung to their mind when I said “Engineering” and they came up with the following:beforeAt the end of the half hour I asked them to do the same exercise and these are the words they wrote:


Now, I don’t remember mentioning curry or telling them it was boring, but the rest of this represents a reasonable result to me. During the session, one girl quite rightly asked me to explain the link between maps and Engineering. I only hope my answer was convincing because this is a bit of a swampy area not only in her head but mine too.

Fundamentally, as an Engineer I apply scientific/mathematical methods to solve problems that people have every day and, in the process I hope make the world a better place. So if you want to label me as an Engineer then please go ahead (I have an Engineering Doctorate after all!), even if I don’t always define myself as one. You’ll just have to forgive me from putting on a different hat from time to time. For me, however, discussions about Engineering do not acknowledge often enough that humans are at its core. And sometimes, Tim Hunt, humans fall in love and cry. Engineering is problem solving by people for people and this is where I strongly believe that women can and should contribute to Engineering projects/teams, aside from the variety of interesting (dare I say it, sometimes fun!) work it offers.

A significant amount of my work as a Usability Engineer (if you want to call me an Engineer!) involves communication: translating science into words that non-experts can understand, asking “So What?”, working in teams, finding common understanding of complex problems, and translating what people say they require into technology that they often use in totally tangential ways to their original needs. I know there are many, many men out there who do these things very well but please allow me to 1) say that women can also be especially strong in these areas, and 2) think it’s unfortunate that, as the girls demonstrated yesterday, they aren’t typically associated with Engineering or appear in job descriptions labelled with the word Engineer.

I’m not an Engineer now because I sat down at the age of 15 and decided that I wanted to be an Engineer. This is what I really wanted to tell that girl. It just happens that what part of what I love to do, and am now lucky enough to be paid to do, is called Engineering by some people. I hope that the girls I met yesterday (feel they can) pursue whatever dreams they have anyway, whether those dreams involve Engineering or otherwise.

(If it’s of interest to others giving a similar talk, I highly recommend the resources on the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.)

I spy with my little i(Mars)

The i in the name of the iMars project could easily stand for ‘inter-disciplinary’ and I am enjoying learning about the science behind the project as well as the part of the project for which I am responsible. My thesis was full of acronyms from the NHS (sorry, National Health Service) and now I am learning the language of imagery and planetary science. iMars largely exploits images taken by three cameras that circle Mars. To aid my own understanding I will now attempt to describe these cameras and how the iMars team are using their images.*

Contestant 1: High Resolution Imaging Science Equipment (HiRISE)

Launched in August 2005, on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, HiRISE‘s 50 cm aperture reflecting telescope enables it to take pictures in the visible wavelength with 25 to 60 cm/pixel resolutions, and thus capture features on the surface of Mars that are smaller than a metre across. Not bad from 200-400 kilometres (km) above the planet! HiRISE reimages locations of special interest with different spacecraft rolls (to the left or right of the groundtrack) to acquire stereo pairs or 3D views of the surface that are typically 5-6 km  wide. Since it is still in orbit, you can see the images it captures, and DTMs created with the images, online. To date HiRISE has acquired 960 stereo pairs of images to create over 50 digital terrain models (DTMs) of the Martian surface.

An image taken by HiRISE taken on 3rd June 2015.

An image taken by HiRISE taken on 3rd June 2015.

Contestant 2: Context (CTX)

The CTX camera, also on the MRO, takes images to complement the high-resolution images collected by HiRISE and mineral data collected by MRO‘s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). From 400 kilometres above Mars, CTX has imaged terrain of 30 kilometres across at a resolution of six metres per pixel for over 50% of the planet. Whilst not matching the detail of HiRISE images, CTX images can still be used to study aeolian features with a better field of view, as beautifully illustrated here.

Contestant 3: High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC)

Finally, iMars exploits images taken by the European Space Agency’s HRSC, on board the Mars Express Orbiter that launched in 2003 along with the fabled and failed Beagle 2 Lander. Its online documentation is comprehensive, so I will be brief here.

The camera comprises of two parts: 1) the Camera Head, contains nine lines of light-sensitive cells perpendicular to the flight path that acquire nine strips of ten metres per pixel images for each operation of variable frequency (including three channels in stereo for the creation of DTMs), and 2) the Super Resolution Channel, which takes pictures of 1024 X 1032 (2.3 metre) pixel areas, each corresponding to a 2.35 km square on the Martian surface from its altitude of 250 km.

Co-registration: the Best of All Three

Now, just for a moment, imagine that you are a detective and three witnesses have come forward to report the same crime. Each saw the scene at different times, from different distances and in different lighting; because of this, they provide different details about the crime with different levels of certainty. In this situation, a detective needs as many concrete details as they can get and the sum of all witness accounts will be more valuable than one on its own. It is the same for images taken by the three cameras I have just described. The iMars team has developed algorithms that not only match the 2D images to their location on the surface of Mars, but combine/triangulate the data from all three cameras to provide a “co-registered” image that represents the most accurate and precise information from all three. It is these co-registered images that we will display on the iMars website for visitors to mark and analyse changes in geological features on Mars.

*Credit for this post must also go to James Sprinks, who is the PhD student on the project and explained to me that the co-registered images have been created by data acquired by much older missions to Mars, but for my purposes of understanding we are most interested in the three highlighted here. You can follow James on Twitter here.

Life on Mars

It’s now a week since my viva, which flouted all my expectations in every possible way. I could not have prepared myself for so many of the questions I was asked or being so lost for words. I will forever be grateful to my examiners for reading my thesis and their suggestions/corrections; as its writer I often felt like I was stirring a sauce that would never thicken. Now that it’s thickened I can have some fun over the summer with the flavouring as I work through the corrections they gave me. My arms might ache like crazy from all the stirring but I can finally say that I’m just a few seasonings short of being able to let other people eat it and move on to making the next course.

By this I mean my new project. So far I have really enjoyed immersing myself in fresh literature (recommendations will be forthcoming) and playing on several citizen science websites (again, recommendations will be forthcoming, with any guilt about the hours eaten up assuaged by their contribution to science). I’ve also had the pleasure of coming across some breath taking images of Mars. I am now looking forward to Zoocon in July and consecutive weekends in Snowdonia and France without my thesis in my luggage.

In the mean time I am having fun thinking of posts I want to write when I get back from France. Some that immediately spring to mind are ‘Martian Imagery for Dummies’, the composition and Power of the “Crowd” (which I was questioned about in Snowdonia), in addition to my favourite CitSci projects, online resources for design and thoughts on the papers I have read so far. I will share some of my favourite pictures of Mars too.

Curiosity landing

I will be defending my thesis on Monday. In preparation for this I had a mock viva (which seems an appropriate name given how mocked I came out feeling!). The lengthiest and most bruising discussion we had concerned the methodological approach I used. How do you assess the quality of an Action Research project? On what basis would you contend that the Action Research approach you performed was effective? I am now in the postdoctoral world of citizen science and find myself asking similar questions. What defines the success of a citizen science project?

For my doctoral research, I had the privilege to engage with an organisation for such a long time and follow their journey. It was important to me throughout that I did not abuse this privilege and that all parties benefited from the collaboration at all times. Practically, I did this by reflecting on the research questions at regular intervals, obtaining the perspective and permission of all parties before performing any study, and interviewing both colleagues and customers to elicit their opinions, what they had learned, what they felt the legacy of my studies would be (which of course time is only beginning to tell). Ultimately, the organisation benefited from an increased visibility of usability work, empowerment of their employees and customers and previously unimaginable linkages between separate teams. In addition, the university can celebrate numerous publications and connections that the collaboration created, not to mention how it furthered my own career and professional development.

Compared with Action Research, these lines are slightly more blurred within citizen science projects because participation is voluntary. However loosely written, my doctoral research had contractual, legal foundations. Citizen Science projects take similar, but looser, approaches and, for example, provide participants with updates on the project, generate volumes of (arguably) scientifically interesting data, whilst also educating (often all) stakeholders in the project on the issue at hand. I am excited by the potential of the iMars project and look forward to contributing to its success, however its definition evolves.

Hello World. Hello Mars.

If you’re surprised to find that I have created this blog, my surprise is ten times greater. I intend to use this blog to report, not only the latest on iMars and citizen science more generally but, as an experiment. Just to see what happens. I have always been of the “nothing to lose” attitude, which has stood me in good stead for 95% of my life, and I don’t intend to let the other 5% to get in the way of that. I have also often thought that my fingers tapping on a computer keyboard produce something so much more melodic and harmonious than anything my vocal chords could ever do. Whilst I have every intention to use this blog for my research, I give you prior warning that I cannot be held accountable if I sometimes stray.

Have a wonderful weekend, folks.