How many social scientists does it take to transform a lightbulb?

I was invited to contribute to a round-table meeting to discuss Computational and Transformational Social Science which took place at the University of Oxford on Monday 18th February.  In the background papers for the meeting I learned that the International Panel for the Review of the e-Science Programme, commissioned by the UK Research Councils in 2009, had reported that:

“Social science is on the verge of being transformed … in a way even more fundamental than research in the physical and life sciences”.

It continues in a similarly reasonable vein:

“… the ability to capture vast amounts of data on human interactions in a manner unimaginable from traditional survey data and related processes should, in the near term, transform social science research … (t)he impact of social science on both economic and social policy could be transformed as a result of new abilities to collect and analyse real-time data in far more granular fashion than from survey data.”

In this context, the participants were asked to comment (briefly!) on three questions:

  1. What is the state of the art in ‘transformative’ digital (social) research?
  2. Are there examples of transformative potential in the next few years?
  3. What are the special e-Infrastructural needs of the social science community to achieve that potential?

My first observation about these questions is that they are in the wrong order.  Before anything else we need to think about examples where digital research can really start to make a difference.  I would assert that such cases are abundant in the spatial domains with which TALISMAN concerns itself.  For instance the challenge of monitoring individual movement patterns in real-time, of understanding and simulating the underlying behaviour, and translating this into benefit, such as in policy arenas relating to health, crime or transport.

In relation to the state of the art I am somewhat less sanguine.  My notes read that ‘the academic sector is falling behind every day’ – think Tesco Clubcard, Oystercard, SmartSteps, even Twitter as data sets to which our community either lacks access or is in imminent danger of losing access.  How do we stay competitive with the groups who own and control these data?  In relation to current trends in funding I ask whether it is our destiny to become producers of the researchers but no longer of the research itself?

As regards e-Infrastructure, my views are if anything even more pessimistic.  After N years of digital social research in the UK (where N>=10) are there really people who still believe that the provision of even more exaflops of computational capacity is key?  While data infrastructure could be of some significance, the people issues remain fundamental here – how do we engage a bigger community in these crucial projects (and why have we failed so abjectly to date?), and how do we fire the imagination of the next generation of researchers to achieve more?

Mark 1 Spider Bee

Following on from the Hex Bug Spiders that we were running at Leeds City Museum, I have modified our third spider to use an XBee module for wireless control via a laptop using the 802.15.4 protocol for mesh networks. This gives me a two way channel to the spider, so we can now add sensors to it, or even a camera module.


The following clips show the spider walking (turn the sound on to really appreciate these):

Construction details will follow in a later post, but the way this has been constructed is to take a regular Hex Bug spider and remove the carapace containing the battery cover and battery box. The three securing screws are then used to mount some prototyping board onto the body of the hex bug. Two of these white plastic bits can be seen in the picture attaching the board to the green plastic case. The first board contains a Lithium Ion camera battery (3.7v 950mAH). On top of that is a thin black plastic rectangle secured using four 2mm bolts at the corners of the battery board. Onto this is mounted two further prototype boards containing the H-Bridge driver (lower) and XBee board (upper). The upper board has a further daughter board attached to take the XBee module which sits at the very top along with the red and green LEDs. The blinking red LED shows that the network is connected while the green LED indicates received packets. The main reason for having the XBee plugged in to this adapter is to convert the 2mm spacing pins of the XBee to the 0.1 inch holes of the prototype board. The XBee adapter is actually plugged in to a chip holder that is mounted on the top board. Ideally I would have re-used the motor driver electronics of the existing Hex Bug controller, but it turned out to be too fiddly to modify, so it was easier just to construct new circuitry. This is only a prototype, but using a double-sided PCB it would be quite easy to mount everything onto a single board that would sit neatly above the battery.

In terms of software, the controller is built using Java and the XBee API that can be downloaded from Google Code:

The coordinator XBee connects to the laptop via a USB cable and is plugged in to an XBee serial adapter. This runs in API mode (escaped) while the router XBee on the spider is in AT mode. Both use the Series 2 firmware with the coordinator sending commands to the spider using Remote AT command packets (which are only available in API mode).

Now that this is running, we have the potential to run more than two spiders at once so we can build a more complex agent simulation. With the code all using Java, there is the potential to link this to NetLogo, but the missing link is the vision software which I’m still working on.