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Grand Impacts


UCL Grand Challenges making an impact


160 Characters: Peer-to-peer support via text message for adolescents living with HIV

By Siobhan Morris, on 9 November 2018

In the second example drawn from Grand Challenges’ recent Adolescent Lives initiative, Siobhan Morris reveals the impact of the 160 Characters project and its role in providing peer-to-peer support via text message to adolescents living with HIV in South Africa.

In adolescents aged 10 to 19 years old, HIV is the leading cause of death in Africa and the second leading cause of death of adolescents globally. In South Africa, over 15% of young women and 5% of young men aged 15-24 are infected with HIV. Moreover, research shows that HIV positive adolescents are at increased risk of mental health problems, which can in turn lead to poor health outcomes. Given the large number of adolescents living with HIV, there is an urgent need to develop approaches to provide ongoing support that is immediate and accessible to all HIV positive adolescents. Therefore, as part of Grand Challenges’ Adolescent Lives initiative, Dr Geordan Shannon of UCL’s Institute of Global Health partnered with The SHM Foundation to develop a solution to provide support for adolescents living with HIV in South Africa.

To do so, the team used data generated by Project Khuluma – a psycho-social support intervention that provides closed, peer-to-peer support groups to adolescents living with HIV via text message. Launched in 2013, Project Khuluma has supported 160 adolescents in Cape Town and Pretoria, generated more than 60,000 text messages, and recorded increased social support and self-reported medical adherence, and decreased internalised stigma. However, the impact of the intervention had never been comprehensively evaluated, leveraging the rich data source of the text messages. The 160 Characters Project therefore sought to bring together the insights of adolescent service users, medical science, social science, implementation science, literature, and technology to generate innovative methodologies ‘to crack’ and unlock the Khuluma text message data.

Adopting a cross-disciplinary approach, as championed by UCL’s Grand Challenges initiative, was key. As the project team noted, “adolescent lives are complex and no single discipline in isolation can fully address the often complex cultural, health and social needs of this vulnerable group.” The project therefore pioneered the use of a ‘six voices’ research framework in order to develop a methodology for analysing the text message data. Each of these six voices represented a member of the research team, bringing together insights to develop a participatory, interdisciplinary methodology. The six voices represent – adolescent service users, medical science, literature, socio-cultural, implementors, and technology.

The project was developed around the perspectives of nine Khuluma Peer Mentors – adolescents living with HIV in South Africa – who were included in the research through a participatory research cycle to make sure their voices were heard and that solutions were sustainable and appropriate. As Malebo Ngobeni, a Project Manager for The SHM Foundation in South Africa, notes, “Mentors are easily able to see beyond what is said in a text because they have lived many of the experiences that are being discussed.”

The project ran two cross-disciplinary workshops where each of the ‘six voices’ was represented by a member of the collaborating research team. In summarising discussions, it was noted that each of the different ‘voices’ took different approaches to the texts:

• Literature was interested in how communication doesn’t work more than how it works; the comic events that lead to resolution, or the tragic events that lead to miscommunication.
• Medical Science was interested in the hard end points like change to immunological states, these correlate with soft end points like self-reported adherence.
• Social Scientists looked at the individual voices and how they contribute to and are shaped by broader social issues, thinking about how best to build social dynamics so as to meet, often
measurable, outcomes.
• Technologists who focus on design look at how we might replicate effective interactions in real life through technology; mathematicians take a naïve approach and build systems from the
data based on mathematical language.
• Implementation Scientists thought about where this intervention fits into the health system, what does it provide that other services don’t?
• Adolescent Service Users saw the potential to change attitudes toward HIV through sharing personal experiences and building self-confidence.

Overall analysis showed that there were five key thematic concerns that arose when workshop participants analysed the data. These included self & identity; relationships & responsibility; community & acknowledgement; society & influences; and HIV. At the centre of the project, however, was the input and validation from adolescent service users themselves. The analysis highlighted that adolescents didn’t explicitly discuss or bring up HIV directly very often. Whilst the stigma of living with HIV manifests in all interactions, speaking about the issues associated with it without speaking directly allows adolescents to have a new attitude toward the virus. As the project’s final report notes, “it is precisely the fact that these [text message] support groups are removed from the anxiety and stigma of their relationships and day to day interactions inflected by their status, that makes this a space where they can explore new identities.”

Alongside the workshops, the 160 Characters Project also delivered a range of outputs over the course of the Grand Challenges’ small grant period. These included: drafting two academic papers; development of a 160 Characters website to house information, blogs, future research results, and help build a network of like-minded practitioners; a dissemination workshop to discuss next steps; and submission of two grant applications to the Medical Research Council and British Academy respectively to allow the team to pursue in-depth analysis of the data corpus from each of the ‘six voices’.

Ultimately, the 160 Characters Project aims to develop an interdisciplinary methodology for evaluating the effectiveness of online communities and digital support groups globally. In the long term, it will involve adapting and implementing the methodology to other existing online communities in partnership with governments, NGOs and national health services that use different platforms such as Facebook, forums, chat rooms, Whatsapp, or other bespoke mobile applications to meet the mental health and well-being needs of vulnerable populations. As Nikita Simpson from The SHM Foundation has remarked, “the 160 Characters Project was one of the most fascinating and innovative projects I have ever worked on. The mixed bag of people from different disciplines and geographies brought such colourful insights to the table, and really opened up the layers of meaning within the text message data. My existing interpretations of meaning within the messages was both challenged and enriched. I see this methodology now being applied to sticky problems in global health across the field.”

Similarly, Dr Geordan Shannon concluded, “the 160 Characters project means a lot to everyone involved. It is innovative, participatory, & exciting. It brings together a dynamic interdisciplinary team, puts adolescents at the heart of the project, and challenges us to redefine what healthcare really means. We are now looking to take this project to scale.”

Find out more about the project here, on The SHM Foundation blog, and read the project’s findings report, in full, here.

How can we tackle inequalities embedded in society?

By Siobhan Morris, on 5 November 2018

UCL Grand Challenges invites proposals to address the theme of Embedded Inequalities. Despite the demographic, socio-economic, and cultural transformations that have occurred over the past decades, vast inequalities remain both within and among countries. We’re looking for innovative scholarly thinking to tackle these injustices, with funding of up to £2,500 available for cross-disciplinary projects.

With the recent centenary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK, the UK’s first transgender conference being held in September, and more than fifty years after equality commissions were first established in the UK and other European and North American states, there has been increased attention on issues of structural and relational inequality in society. Despite the demographic, socio-economic, and cultural transformations that have occurred over the past decades, vast inequalities remain both within and among countries.

Paraisópolis (Paradise City), Sao Paulo, Brazil. Copyright: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (Tuca Vieira). Photograph: Tuca Viera/Tuca Vieira

Injustice and inequity are therefore becoming increasingly prominent in political debates, particularly concerning access to social goods, education, technology and resources. With recent reporting showing 13.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK and of these, 60% are in households including an inadequately paid full-time worker; close to eight in ten companies and public-sector bodies in the UK paying men more than women; and disadvantage on the basis of ethnicity remaining prevalent in the UK labour market, to what extent can there be said to have been real progress made since the emergence of equality commissions and legislation, or are we witnessing a return to the inequalities of the past?

Such inequalities often overlap and are experienced in relation to one another. In this context, cross-disciplinary discussion and interdisciplinary scholarship can shed light on ways in which research can examine these issues, identifying new ways and effective solutions to tackle the inequalities and injustices that remain entrenched throughout society.

The Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality therefore invites researchers, at postdoctoral level or above, to apply for funding for activities under the theme of Embedded Inequalities. In total, £10,000 of funding is available to support activities through the initiative, costing up to £2,500 each for expenditure before 31 July 2019. External non-academic partners are welcome as a third partner, particularly community or other organisations with experience of the social issues around inequality, however first and second applicants must be UCL-based and must represent different disciplines. Full details are available in the Call for Proposals and guidance on how to apply can be found here.

The deadline for completed applications is 9am Monday 3 December 2018 – apply here.

For further information, advice regarding submissions, or for an informal discussion of the initiative, please contact Siobhan Morris.

Thrown Away or Fresh Start? Life After Permanent School Exclusion

By Siobhan Morris, on 31 October 2018

In the first of a series of posts reflecting on Grand Challenges’ recent Adolescent Lives initiative, revealing the impact of the research undertaken on this topic, Siobhan Morris finds out what happens to adolescents who are permanently excluded from school in England today.

As part of the Grand Challenges Adolescent Lives initiative, Dr Alison Macdonald from UCL’s Department of Anthropology recently collaborated with Lasse Johansson, a documentary filmmaker at UCL and Sally Dennehy a state school teacher in Somerset, on a project entitled, ‘Beyond the “Engagement” Paradigm: Participating in young lives in rural Somerset‘. The project sought to understand adolescence in the context of permanent school exclusion in non-selective state schools and to challenge societal misconceptions about the ‘excluded kid’.

The project examined what happens to ‘forgotten kids’ who are permanently excluded from school, unpacking the social and personal complexity of social ‘re-engagement’ amongst young adults as they strive to carve out a life for themselves in rural England today.

To address these questions, the team spent time conducting interviews and ethnographic research with adolescents who had been permanently excluded from school. These interviews formed the basis for a film capturing the story of two young men, aged 20, living in the rural west of England who were permanently excluded from school at the age of 14 and received the remainder of their education in a Pupil Referral Unit. The film explores their reflections on the experience of school, their memories of the journey through exclusion, and ends with a portrait of their lives and ambitions today.

The project has identified significant implications for education policy. In England, exclusions have risen by 40% over the past three years, with 35 children being told to permanently leave their school every day. The project’s findings have shown that communication between schools and alternative provision academies is essential for the well-being of vulnerable students. However, they argue that this should not be achieved solely by preventing exclusion in the first place. Instead, noting that we need to re-think the role and meaning of exclusion and understand that exclusion can sometimes be the start of a positive process of re-engagement.

Consequently, the project highlights the need to move away from polar thinking around inclusion and exclusion towards a more holistic understanding of adolescent learning. In addition, they advocate that the voices of young people themselves must be included in such debates and should be influential in shaping policy.

As Dr Macdonald explains, such conclusions were arrived at as “bringing together our different disciplines of film, anthropology and education challenged us to think about research in new ways. Putting the participants’ voices and ideas at the centre of the film was an important goal, and Lasse helped us to engage in film techniques that empowered our participants to have their say and dictate the terms of filming. The process of making the documentary also became a structure and activity through which we got to know the participants, combining ethnographic research with participatory film techniques. This was an especially effective mode of conducting research because it was by thinking through the film content that the qualitative data on lived experience of school exclusion came to life.”

Adopting UCL Grand Challenges’ cross-disciplinary approach enabled the project to develop participatory research with young people by making a film in conjunction with them that captures their views of education and everyday life. “Going beyond our single disciplines opened up a research space that not only pushed our individual knowledge bases as we shared a great deal of skills and expertise, but it also enabled us to address several aspects of our project aims at the same time: produce ethnographic data; produce a social impact film; shift previously held assumptions (including our own) and engage in participatory research methods.”

Following the project’s success, Dr Macdonald has subsequently gained ethics clearance to continue the project’s ethnographic work for another year. The film has also been presented at a teachers’ inset day to inform teaching on this topic. Looking to the future, the project team plans to promote the film among teachers and make it available for teacher training and inset days, publish the project findings in both a public engagement forum and anthropology journal, and substantially develop the project in preparation for a larger funding bid.

Further information about the project is available here.

New funding opportunity for doctoral students

By Nina Quach, on 22 October 2018

As part of our collaboration with the UCL Doctoral School, UCL Grand Challenges invites proposals to support activities relating to two recently-created Research Domains: Space and Microbiology. We will fund cross-disciplinary projects up to £2,000, pursued by pairs of UCL doctoral research students.

The Grand Challenges Doctoral Students’ small grant scheme is a partnership between the UCL Doctoral School and UCL Grand Challenges. The scheme supports cross-disciplinary activities pursued by pairs of UCL doctoral research students from different Faculties, addressing issues of relevance to UCL’s six Grand Challenges – Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Cultural Understanding, Human Wellbeing, Transformative Technology or Justice & Equality.

The 1st Call for proposals, announced in the Spring Term of 2016-17, resulted in 16 awards for joint activity in 2017-18. Early outcomes featured in the 18 April 2018 Grand Challenges Showcase event. The 2nd Call, for joint activities in 2018-19, resulted in ten awards.

The current ‘Supplementary Call’ promotes cross-disciplinary interaction between researchers at doctoral and post-doctoral levels, whose interests relate to two recently-created Domains – ‘Space’ and ‘Microbiology’. Successful bids will be those that clearly explain how working between disciplines will help to resolve important questions in fundamental research and/or in the translation of novel research discoveries for societal benefit. Examples of activity suitable for support include: pilot project generating data/evidence for a potential research grant application; early-stage testing of an innovation or enterprise idea; or other research-informed activities of relevance to society, including through public engagement.
Awards up to a value of £2,000 each are available for activities relating to the Space and Microbiology Research Domains, with a maximum of three awards are available per Domain.

Collaborating research students and postdoc researchers supported by this initiative should aim to gain insights of value to their own particular area of research, providing a step on the pathway to research impact or societal benefit. The GC Doctoral Students’ small grants scheme, and the current Supplementary Call focused on two Research Domains, respond to the fundraising Campaign for UCL ‘Disruptive Thinking’ theme, asking ‘How do the people of this world find solutions that enable them safely to reach the 22nd Century?’

The deadline for applications is 09:00, Monday 26 November 2018 – apply here.

Tackling Inequalities: A way forward

By Siobhan Morris, on 22 October 2018

Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality coordinator Siobhan Morris reports on the recent launch of the UK2070 Commission into city and regional inequalities in the UK. This post originally appeared on UCL Public Policy’s ‘Policy Postings‘ blog. 

Adobe Stock

With the recent debates in the UK around the roll-out of Universal Credit, levels of inward and outward migration post Brexit, and gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting, injustice and inequity have become increasingly prominent in political discourse. As a range of reports have highlighted, 13.5 million people in the UK are living in poverty and the percentage of children in relative low income has increased in recent years. Similarly, close to eight in ten companies and public-sector bodies in the UK pay men more than womenand disadvantage on the basis of ethnicity remains an entrenched feature in the UK labour market. It is therefore clear that despite demographic, socio-economic, and cultural transformations that have occurred over the past decades, vast inequalities remain in UK society. In addition, the state of the UK is now increasingly characterised by deep disparities both between and within the regions and nations of the UK.

Whilst undoubtedly topical, none of these issues, are however new. For example, it has been more than fifty years since equality commissions were first established in the UK and other European and North American states. Nonetheless, the question remains as to what extent has there been real progress in tackling embedded inequalities in UK society since the emergence of equality legislation, and if there is in fact a risk that inequalities across the UK will instead worsen.

Such questions are at the heart of UCL’s Public Policy and Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality’s work seeking to examine and research the deep rooted, structural, and relational inequalities that persist in UK society. Cross-disciplinary research can help to shed light on ways in which academic scholarship can examine these issues and how we may work towards solutions and inform policy to tackle the inequalities and injustices that remain entrenched in society.

As part of our work in connecting researchers with policy professionals, last week I had the privilege of attending the launch of the UK2070 Commission at the House of Lords. Chaired by Lord Kerslake, the Commission is an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities in the UK which will conduct a review of the policy and spatial issues related to the UK’s long-term city and regional development.

As the Commission sets out, “the persistent inequalities between the cities and regions of the nation need to be challenged. Cities and regions are increasingly taking ownership of this challenge through the devolution agenda, yet deeper structural inequalities cannot be tackled by local action alone. A national framework is needed. This need is heightened by the political and economic uncertainties brought by Brexit and the global challenges of technological and climate change. A sustainable and people-centred approach to urban and regional development in the UK is needed to provide a clearer vision of their common future.” Indeed, during the invited responses from Lord Jim O’Neill, Prof Denise Lievesley (Prinicpal of Green Templeton College, Oxford University), and Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive, The RSA), the need to re-evaluate the relationship between town hall and Whitehall was emphasised and means by which to do so suggested.

The inquiry therefore states its aims are to:

· Reinforce the devolution agenda for cities, regions and nations to maximise their potential for sustainable and inclusive growth;

· Add value to the emerging range of national strategies for planning, housing, industry, land use, environment and infrastructure — through greater integration and clarity in their place-based implications;

· Develop more inclusive and empowering approaches to national and strategic decision-making; and investment for regions, cities, towns and communities; and

· Draw on UK and international experience in tackling issues of spatial inequalities.

At the launch, it was also noted that the Commission will be looking back fifty years, as well as forward fifty years, with the titular 2070 acting as recognition that timescales for successfully tackling inequalities and enacting city and regional development plans are often long, in contrast to the short-termism of political cycles. As Dr Lucy Natarajan (UCL Bartlett School of Planning), who is supporting UCL’s contribution to the Commission, has remarked: “The time frame of the Commission’s work — looking to 2070 — is a direct challenge to short-term approaches to decision-making and narrow ways of thinking about ‘the public’. In responding to present spatial inequality in the UK, we need to understand shared priorities for the future and the needs of individual places and communities. We are supporting the Commission through our research on how to build knowledge that can help to collectively make choices.”

A number of UCL researchers will be contributing to the Commission, alongside academic colleagues from the University of Manchester, the University of Sheffield, the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool and the University of Cambridge. The call for evidence is now open and will remain so until 16 November 2018.

For more information see: http://uk2070.org.uk/contribute/. The Commission’s 10 propositions on which evidence would be welcomed can be accessed here.

UCL BiLingo: A Bilingualism/Multilingualism Information and Education Service

By Siobhan Morris, on 2 October 2018

In the second example drawn from our recent Showcase event, Grand Challenges coordinator Siobhan Morris finds out about UCL’s information and education service for childhood bilingualism and multilingualism.

UCL BiLingo is a UCL-based Bilingualism/Multilingualism Education and Information Service that aims to provide the community and key agencies with the most up-to-date research-based advice, information, support and training on childhood bilingualism/multilingualism and learning English as an Additional Language.

Developed by Dr Froso Argyri (UCL Institute of Education), Dr Merle Mahon (UCL Psychology and Language Sciences), and Prof Li Wei (UCL Institute of Education), BiLingo was kick-started by a small grant from UCL’s Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding. Since then, the project’s activities have included: 

  • Conducting a UCL staff language survey, showing the incredible linguistic diversity at UCL (right)
  • Curating stories and songs from multilingual Londoners
  • Organising an event exploring multiculturalism in London at the UCL Festival of Culture

UCL BiLingo has led to new collaborations between disciplines, public engagement through work with parents and teachers of bilingual and multilingual children, and community and business links, with parents’ networks, schools, local authorities and speech and language therapists, among others. As Dr Argyri has commented, “Grand Challenges has been useful for enabling me to come in close proximity with the participants of my research, talking with bilingual families and what sort of concerns bilingual families may have about raising bilingual, or multilingual children.”

One of the key objectives is to bridge the gap between researchers and the wider London community by disseminating recent research findings which highlight the cognitive, educational, and social advantages associated with the experience of acquiring two or more languages in childhood, including the importance of maintaining the child’s home language(s). The team note that, “the unique thing about BiLingo is that we provide research led workshops so we bring research to the community. People feel empowered that any decisions they make in terms of bringing up their children multi-lingually are based on the most recent research evidence.”

Participants at a BiLingo workshop

Participants at a BiLingo workshop

The project has grown and UCL BiLingo is now well-established with the initiative benefiting extensively from its members’ ability to work across disciplines. Cross-disciplinary interaction is highly valued and continues to inspire, shape and nurture the team’s work. This interdisciplinary initiative has led to new collaborations with UCL colleagues in different disciplines and the formation of successful links to the community.

Whilst the money from UCL’s Grand Challenges small grants scheme enabled the team to develop and build a comprehensive website, the award also prompted the team to consider further research grant proposals. Recently, Dr Argyri and Dr Wei were awarded a major grant from the Leverhulme Trust to examine the effects of early childhood bilingualism on the brain function and brain structure, in conjunction with the UCL Institute of Child Health. This idea was born after a UCL BiLingo session.

In April 2018, the project participated in the UCL Grand Challenges Showcase Event, where Li Wei presented the project’s work. Further details of the event are available here.

For further information and a comprehensive list of resources visit: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bi-multilingualism/welcome-ucl-bilingo. The team are active on Facebook and Twitter and you can contact them via email at bilingo@ucl.ac.uk.

Is globalisation really improving our lives?

By Siobhan Morris, on 5 September 2018

UCL Grand Challenges invites proposals to address the priority theme of Dynamics of Globalisation. We will fund cross-disciplinary projects up to £2,500. With rising concern about the effects of globalisation, we’re looking for innovative scholarly thinking to explore this fascinating topic.

The processes of circulation of people, objects, ideas and capital subsumed under the term ‘globalisation’ are not new. Globalisation has long presented many challenges and opportunities to societies, communities and economies around the world with the increased flow of peoples across national boundaries, the free movement of capital, and the exponential growth of global communication technologies.

The late twentieth century excitement over the multiple transformations made possible by accelerated circulation has given way to concern over concomitant processes of withdrawal. Globalisation seems to be producing friction as much as flow; local and regional identities are being revived, states are attempting to reassert their sovereignty by controlling the movement of people and goods, and everywhere the ability of global capitalism to improve lives is being questioned. It can be argued that recent political events such as the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism across Europe are direct consequences of the impact of globalisation. Ideologies of ‘purity’ are gaining traction in the face of radical uncertainty.

In this context, cross-disciplinary discussion and interdisciplinary scholarship can shed light on how these processes interact, and on how we may improve our ability to live with difference in meaningful and sustainable ways.

UCL’s Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding therefore invites researchers, at postdoctoral level or above, to apply for funding for activities under the theme of Dynamics of Globalisation. £10,000 of funding is available through the initiative to support four or five activities costing up to £2,500 each for expenditure before 31 July 2019. The 1st and 2nd UCL applicants must clearly represent different areas of disciplinary and methodological expertise. External non-academic partners are also welcome.

The deadline for completed applications is Friday 12 October 2018 – apply here.

To inspire and facilitate collaborations, the Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding’s Working Group co-chairs Professor Doug Bourn and Dr Hélène Neveu Kringelbach, will be hosting a networking workshop on Tuesday 2 October from 12.00-13.30. The workshop will provide an opportunity for researchers to meet potential partners from different schools, disciplines, and fields across UCL. To attend, please email Kasia Koprowska-Diez by Friday 28 September.

For further information, advice regarding submissions, or for an informal discussion of the initiative, please contact GCCU coordinator Siobhan Morris.

Routes to Opportunity: Addressing the non-university skills gap in England

By Siobhan Morris, on 23 August 2018

Panel discussion at the launch of the report

In this new blog from the UCL Grand Challenges, we are going to share some of the many stories of exciting impacts that have come from cross-disciplinary research at UCL. The first example was introduced to the world at the recent Showcase event. Grand Challenges co-ordinator Siobhan Morris finds out about the skills gap affecting the life chances of those who don’t go to University.

In 2017 UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality, under the initiative of co-ordinator Rebecca Taylor and the GCJE working group, commissioned a report on access to vocational and technical education for the over- 25s in England.  The report, Routes to Opportunity: Addressing the non-university skills gap in England, was authored by Institute of Education Doctoral candidate Aly Colman. It was launched at a reception at UCL’s Institute of Education (IoE) in December 2017, with speakers including IoE Director Professor Becky Francis, Sir Vince Cable MP, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and report author Aly Colman.

The report documents that there is a growing skills gap in England, with a critical shortage of skilled trades in the existing workforce. The findings indicate that those who would benefit the most from upskilling or retraining, such as low paid workers in unskilled jobs (the so-called “missing middle”), are often unable to do so because insufficient opportunities and funding are available. Even where support and funding is available, such as advanced learner loans, many potential learners are unaware of it.

The report states that ‘vulnerable and disadvantaged groups have much to gain and much to offer from further retraining that could lead to undertaking more skilled employment. The “missing middle” too, have the potential to play a significant role in the critical skills shortages currently being faced. Explicit and widely available information about access to retraining and upskilling is therefore crucial. That these groups currently miss out on opportunities is both a squandering of human potential and a missed opportunity to address the skills gap.’

Sir Vince Cable speaking at the report’s launch at the IoE

The report also warns that the Brexit vote is discouraging EU workers in medium skilled occupations from staying in the UK or moving to the UK. Should hiring EU workers with mid-level skills become more difficult in future, this could exacerbate the problems currently faced.

The report and the launch event brought together people from a wide range of disciplines and skills areas to discuss a pressing but under-reported political issue. As the report’s author, Aly Colman, noted, “The Routes to Opportunity Report has enabled, through Grand Challenges, the opportunities to disseminate my research in really quite a big way…At the end of the launch event, a lot of people came up to me and spoke about their roles and the ways in which their particular job may interact with what I had done through the Grand Challenges report. So that was really useful and I’ve been able to develop those links and I’ve been connecting with people so that I’m able to follow this project up with connections that are really valuable and really useful.”

This was the first time that new research, commissioned by Grand Challenges, had been brought into the public policy arena and it acts an example for other work from the programme to follow.

Further information about the report is available here.

The report’s author, Aly Colman, also spoke about the report and her work at the recent Grand Challenges Showcase event:


The Social Issues Around Artificial Intelligence: A UCL Town Meeting

By James Paskins, on 13 July 2018

The Social Issues Around Artificial Intelligence was a UCL town meeting on AI, organised under the auspices of UCL’s Grand Challenge of Transformative Technology (GCTT). It was held on Wednesday 6 June 2018 from 5.30-7.00pm in the UCL Roberts 106 Lecture Theatre.

This town meeting, hosted by the UCL Grand Challenge of Transformative Technology, addressed ‘The Social Issues Around Artificial Intelligence’. It brought together UCL academics from philosophy, science, statistics, education and law to present short provocations on the impact of artificial intelligence on society.

Opening remarks were made by Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science & Technology Studies and Co-Chair of the UCL Grand Challenge of Transformative Technology Working Group) who highlighted expectations of the prominent role that UK will play as a world leader in AI and its underpinning technologies. He noted that public and academic discourse on AI was frequently framed in terms of concerns about its impact on privacy and social cohesion. However, the use and impact of AI in society can be much brighter and positive.

Professor Noreena Hertz described how her interest in AI came from co-developing a social media-based system to predict the winner of the X-Factor, and how from this experience her concerns grew on the impact that AI has on privacy.


The first panel provocation was delivered by Dr Jack Stilgoe (UCL Science & Technology Studies) on ‘Responsible research and innovation’. Stilgoe opened with a reflection on the terminology used for and in AI, and raised a question on how we can make good decisions with emerging technologies? He highlighted how technology is a work-in-progress, and that many lessons are learnt through the deployment of a new technology. Sometimes these lessons are learnt in ‘the wild’, with the general public participating in real-life experiments, for example as represented by the fatal collision of an Uber vehicle in autonomous drive mode with a cyclist in Arizona. Through this accident, a number of engineering assumptions were revealed and tested. This accident also exemplified how a member of the public had unknowingly participated in a test without their consent. Stilgoe also suggested that technological transitions involved political choices based on expected beneficiaries from the implementation of a new technology. Stilgoe concluded that AI learnt whilst doing, and that machine learning is happy in ‘the wild’. However, both are largely private enterprises which need to be democratised.

Dr James Wilson (UCL Philosophy) gave the second provocation on the theme of ‘Personal data’. Wilson contextualised the concept of personal data with the use of Samaritans Radar as a case study. Samaritans Radar, an online app that tracked the tweets of its users and the user’s Twitter network to detect tweets that indicated or showed someone struggling to cope or showed signs of mental difficulties, raised questions on consent and whether the use of public tweets in the app needed the consent of the tweeter. Wilson also suggested that privacy was highly contextual, and relied on harm and exposure.

The third provocation, which was on ‘Algorithmic fairness and AI’ in the context of the interaction between AI and large data-sets’, was made by Professor Sofia Olhede (UCL Statistics; Big Data Institute). Olhede opened by explaining why data were collected (to address ways to complete a task or make better decisions), and how data can be used in either a predictive framework or an explanatory framework. Olhede raised three areas that are an issue for AI: transparency, fairness and bias. The bias issue links to the data sets used, which includes preferential data samples. The issues of fairness and bias link to the training method used for AI. As training relies on human decisions, biases are included, and therefore learnt and mimicked by AI. As it is hard to determine and call a bias, transparency is needed. Olhede mentioned how ‘transparency’ is a new concept and function to introduce in AI, and that it is hard to put into practice for many reasons. Olhede concluded by highlighting that predictive algorithms mainly reiterate steps, thus making it hard to disentangle the reasons why an algorithm-based system has failed, noting that that they are based on average performances.

 Dr Mutlu Cukurova (UCL Institute of Education) made the fourth provocation on ‘Innovation with educational technology’. Cukurova presented two themes: the first on AI and automation in education, and the second on AI in the design of education. Under the first theme, Cukurova suggested that all citizens should know the basics of AI (on what AI can and cannot do). Cukurova raised the issue of what skills young people needed to adopt in order to flourish in an AI world? He also raised whether, in the knowledge-based versus skills-based education debate, a few coding sessions will really equip young people with the necessary knowledge or skills for an AI world. He suggested that attention should be weighted towards skills development, in particular human development and intelligence. Regarding the use of AI in the design of education, Cukurova raised concerns on the use of big data to create and organise pedagogy/education, in particular the use of technologies that have embedded qualities. He also proposed using data to help learners and teachers understand their behaviour in order to learn how to adapt to different scenarios.

The final provocation was delivered by Professor Jonathan Montgomery (UCL Laws) on ‘Law and the professions’. Montgomery posed an opening question on the meaning of ‘profession’: scholastic knowledge versus the ability to apply the knowledge, and the use of autonomous interpretation of the knowledge. This question was exemplified through Montgomery’s case study of the reading of medical diagnostic scans in healthcare. Clinicians have held the role of interpreting scans to make a diagnosis, but now computers can deliver the diagnosis and leave the treatment plan to the clinician. Montgomery also highlighted that professional expertise has dwindled because materials have become easier to find, and that knowledge has become more accessible. He suggested that the role of professionals could be to perform social functions, also maintaining human accountability. The Regarding the problem of fairness, he suggested that it depended on an individual’s feelings on whether the process or decision is exploiting them or if it is being used to their benefit.

After the five provocations, Hertz chaired an audience Q&A session. The panel received questions on flexibility in AI, whether some decisions should be made solely by AI, and accountability. An audience member suggested that “AI is the new plastic”, and that the public will only face the reality of the consequences of AI decades later. Further questions were received on the hackability of AI, whether a moral framework system is needed, and who controls cloud systems and data.

Nenna Chuku
Grand Challenges Research Assistant


Photographs by James Paskins