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    A tale of two cities, or five

    By Samantha Ahern, on 7 April 2017

    March was a very busy month, 8 events over 31 days in 5 different cities, one of which was on a different continent. My poor suitcase did suffer a little, but I also got to do exciting things for engineers such as travel on different types of aircraft, cross a 150m suspension bridge and hear about pit stop optimisation in Formula 1 racing.  The events themselves were a combination of seminars, workshops and conferences; some academic, others more industry focused.

    The main event: LAK’17, 13-17 March, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

    This was the eight meeting of the International Learning and Knowledge (LAK) Conference organised by the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR). Conference website:

    On the 13th & 14th March I had the opportunity to be involved with the LAK17 Hackathon (GitHub: For the Hackathon I worked with colleagues from the University of British Columbia (UBC), University of Wollongong (UoW) Australia and JISC.  During the Hackathon we created Tableau dashboards to visualise staff and student interactions with courses in a VLE (Tableau workbook can be viewed and downloaded from:!/vizhome/LAKHackathonv1/Student). The staff pages focus on identifying the contents and activities incorporated in a course, when it was created, who it was created/edited or added by and the usage of that content or activity.  The student pages focus on how students interact with and navigate through courses. For the hackathon we used dummy data, initial small files were hand crafted but larger files were generated by JISC’s Michael Webb ( I am hoping to use these dashboards to gain some initial understanding of the structure of UCL’s Moodle courses for taught modules and how students interact with them.

    The main conference ran from 15th to 17th March with inspirational keynotes from Dr. Sanna Järvelä (University of Oulu, Finalnd), Dr Timothy McKay (University of Michigan) and Dr. Sidney D’Mello (University of Notre Dame).  The overall conference theme was Understanding, Informing and Improving Learning with Data. Concurrent session talks were organised by sub-theme, these sub-themes included Modelling Student Behaviour, Understanding Discourse and LA Ethics, the talks on ethics were so popular that there was barely standing room only.  Many of the papers presented still focused on LA research but there is a growing number of implementations. During the conference SoLAR launched the Handbook of Learning Analytics, hard copies were available to preview. This will primarily be freely available as electronic download, for more information please see:

    Data Fest Data Summit #Data Changes Everything, 23rd & 24th March, Edinburgh and Big Data Innovation Summit, 30th & 31st March, London

    Of these two events, the one I probably enjoyed the most was the Edinburgh Data Summit which was part of Data Fest (, a week long series of activities organised by the Data Innovation Lab.  The Data Summit had a nice buzz about it and this was helped along by the hosts Phil Tetlow (Director and Chief Architect, Three Steps Left), Day 1, and Georgie Barratt (Presenter, The Gadget Show), Day 2.  Social good was a key theme of the event with talks from NHS Scotland and Transport for London, with humanitarian applications of data science discussed in talks from Nuria Oliver of Vodafone discussing Data-Pop Alliance and Natalia Adler from Unicef discussing DataCollaboratives. The Big Data Innovation Summit ( also featured a number of public sector talks from HMRC, Department for Work and Pensions and Camden Borough Council.  A highlight was Camden’s approach to open data.

    The key message from both events was that Data Science is not magic, there is no alchemy. Exploratory data analysis is great and has its place, but the main function is to support the decision making process, and in order to this you need to understand the business questions you are trying to answer.  This is echoed in Step 4 of Jisc’s Effective Learning Analytics On-boarding, Institutional Aims (

    And everything else

    Other events attended focused on collaborative working in the sciences (, testing and validation of computational science ( and some more theoretical probability days (

    In summary it was a slightly exhausting but very informative month. Many of the ideas percolated at these events will find their way into the work I am undertaking in Digital Education over the next few months.