by Dr Milan Markovic, University of Aberdeen
10 January 2018
The PECE Travel Bursary
Recently, I had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be awarded the PECE Travel Bursary by SICSA, which can be used to fund visits to academic institutions in the USA, EU, India, and China. This grant is aimed at early career researchers like myself, who will gladly take the opportunity to hone their grant writing skills and broaden their professional networks.
And the interesting part?
This is not the kind of funding that would fund your travel to a conference where you have limited time for networking and always have to compete with other people eagerly trying to promote their ideas. No, this one is different. This is the opportunity to spend weeks at foreign institutions and really experience the culture and different approaches to research.
My visits were designed to align closely with my work on the TrustLens project (http://trustlens.org) at the University of Aberdeen. TrustLens is an interdisciplinary project that adopts a socio-technical approach to explore what it means to realise Internet of Things (IoT) solutions that are transparent, accountable, and which empower end-users.
Our ambition is to create a means by which a user can review the characteristics of an IoT device in terms of its impact on their personal data, answering questions such as: What type of data is it capturing? For what purpose? Who sees it? What are the (potential) benefits and risks? They also should be able to exert a degree of control over their data, and be guided to assess its reliability and accuracy.
The overall aim for the visits was to leverage the expertise of overseas researchers and to establish a mutually beneficial forum for discussions around issues related to transparency and privacy in IoT that may lead to future collaboration.
ISI (USC), Los Angeles, USA
First stop was the famous city of angels. I am not sure if there is much to add to all the information about LA that can already be found online. However, I can confirm that LA is a unique city with its special atmosphere and sunny weather.
People at the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI) that I had the pleasure to work with are great. Highly motivated and ready to dedicate long hours of work split across multiple projects (as you would expect from a US institution). They also have access to excellent resources for research which can range from high profile seminar speakers to a real quantum computer (D-Wave) occupying half of a room somewhere in the building.
Although the name and reputation of the institute could seem a little bit intimidating to some, there is no need to worry. The atmosphere is quite relaxed yet still very productive. After being allowed to attend a few of their internal project meetings I was also happy to see that the research project culture is very similar. We had some great discussions about our work on transparency in IoT and how this might also overlap with their interests. As it turns out, finding the overlaps was easier than I thought. During the visit, we identified a number of extension requirements for a model that both of our groups use to describe plans captured in a provenance record. The extension focuses on enhancing the current version of the model with additional concepts such as constraints, agents and communication channels used to exchange data. As one would expect, whiteboards were filled with ideas, and plans for future publications were made.
Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China
I have never visited China before and I must say, I was impressed. After arriving in Shanghai you have an immediate opportunity to experience a very futuristic way of travel – magnetic train. Maglev is an impressive piece of technology and when you are travelling at 430 km/h you can’t help but to wonder why the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh has to take 2.5 hours!
Suzhou is a major city some 70 miles from Shanghai. The Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) is based in its newly developed industrial area (SIP), which continues to impress with its modern buildings and good infrastructure. XJTLU is a young university founded in 2006. It has experienced a rapid expansion in recent years and the student population is rising rapidly. Its close ties with UK institutions are immediately noticeable during the first discussions with the faculty staff. Most of them spent years working in UK institutions and therefore there is hardly anything foreign about the internal system at this university which is thousands of miles away from the UK.
This visit was also very successful in terms of generating new ideas for future work. I guess, the change of environment really helps when it comes to being creative…
During this visit, discussions were more diverse and covered a range of different topics. I had a great time and learned a lot about the research environment in which Chinese institutions operate. We had some really good discussions on the potential use of machine learning to identify personal data in IoT deployments. The work will focus on designing models for capturing information about people, animals, and objects that can be observed by sensors. Inspired by the recently introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), we intend to capture information that can be used to train a machine learning classifier capable of deciding whether the observations produced by an IoT system are personal or not.
I was very pleased with the plans that were put in place during the visit and although ambitious, this should be a very interesting piece of work. I have also encountered an unexpected demand for my knowledge on crowdsourcing systems gained during my PhD, which might also lead to future collaboration.
Overall, both visits were a great experience that enabled me to widen my perspectives on the international research community. The interaction with researchers outside of my home institution and opportunities to engage with different types of audiences was a great experience. Change of environments also triggered new thinking processes from which fresh and novel ideas have emerged.
I would recommend this kind of experience to any early career researcher.