This afternoon I am delighted to be at the Inaugeral Lecture of Prof. Jonathan Silvertown from the School of Biological Sciences here at the University of Edinburgh.
Vice Chancellor Tim O’Shea is introducing Jonathan, who is Professor of Evolutionary Ecology and Chair in Technology Enhanced Science Education, and who came to Edinburgh from the Open University.
Now to Jonathan:
Imagine an entire city turned into an interactive learning environment. Where you can learn about the birds in the trees, the rock beneath your feet. And not just learn about them, but contribute back to citizen science, to research taking place in and about the city. I refer to A City of Learning… As it happens Robert Louis Stevenson used to do something similar, carrying two books in their pocket: one for reading, one for writing. That’s the idea here. Why do this in Edinburgh? We have the most fantastic history, culture and place.
Edinburgh has an increadible history of enlightenment, and The Enlightenment. Indeed it was said that you could, at one point, stand on the High Street and shake the hands of 50 men of genius. On the High Street now you can shake Hume (his statue) by the toe and I shall risk quoting him: “There is nothing to be learned from a professor which is not to be met within books”. Others you might have met then include Joseph Black, and also James Hutton, known as the “father of modern geology” and he walked up along the crags and a section now known as “Huttons section” (an unconformity to geologists) where he noted sandstone, and above it volcanic rock. He interpreted this as showing that rocks accumulate by ongoing processes that can be observed now. That’s science. You can work out what happened in the past by understanding what is happening now. And from that he concluded that the earth was more than 6000 years old, as Bishop Usher had calculated. In his book The Theory of the Earth he coined this phrase “No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”. And that supported the emerging idea of evolutionary biology which requires a long history to work. That all happened in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh also has a wealth of culture. It is (in the New Town) a UNESCO World Heritage site. Edinburgh has the Fringe Festival, the International Festival, the Book Festival, the Jazz Festival… And then there is the rich literary heritage of Edinburgh – as J.K. Rowling says “Its impossible to live in Edinburgh without sensing it’s literary heritage”. Indeed if you walk in the Meadows you will see a wall painting celebrating The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And you can explore this heritage yourself through the LitLong Website and App. He took thousands of books with textmining and a gazeteer of Edinburgh Places, extracting 40,000 snippets of text associated with pinpoints on the map. And you can do this on an app on your phone. Edinburgh is an extraordinary place for all sorts of reasons…
And a place has to be mapped. When you think of maps these days, you tend to think of Google. But I have something better… Open Street Map is to a map what Wikipedia is to the Encyclopedia Britannica. So, when my wife and I moved into a house in Edinburgh which wasn’t on Ordnance Survey, wasn’t on Google Maps, but was almost immediately on OpenStreetMap. It’s Open because there are no restrictions on use so we can use it in our work. Not all cities are so blessed… Geographic misconceptions are legion, if you look at one of th emaps in the British Library you will see the Cable and Wireless Great Circle Map – a map that is both out of date and prescient. It is old and outdated but does display the cable and wireless links across the world… The UK isn’t the centre of the globe as this map shows, wherever you are standing is the centre of the globe now. And Edinburgh is international. At least year’s Edinburgh festival the Deep Time event projected the words “Welcome, World” just after the EU Referendum. Edinburgh is a global city, University of Edinburgh is a global university.
Before we go any further I want to clarify what I mean by learning when I talk about making a city of learning… Kolb (1984) is “How we transform experience into knowledge”, it is learning by discovery. And, wearing my evolutionary hat, it’s a major process of human adaptation. Kolb’s learning cycle takes us from Experience, to Reflect (observe), Conceptualise (Ideas), Experiment (Test), and back to Experience. It is of course also the process of scientific discovery.
So, lets apply that cycle of learning to iSpot, to show how that experiential learning and discovery and what extraordinary things that can do. iSpot is designed to crowdsource the identification of organisms (see Silvertown, Harvey, Greenwood, Dodd, Rosewell, Rebelo, Ansine, McConway 2015). If I see “a white bird” it’s not that exciting, but if I know its a Kittywake then that’s interesting – has it been seen before? Are they nesting elsewhere? You can learn more from that. So you observe an orgnism, you reflect, you start to get comment from others.
So, we have over 60,000 registered users of iSpot, 685k observations, 1.3 million photos, and we have identified over 30,000 species. There are many many stories contained within that. But I will share one of these. So this observation came in from South Africa. It was a picture of some seeds with a note “some children in Zululand just ate some of these seeds and are really ill”. 35 seconds later someone thousands of miles away in Capetown, others agreed on the id. And the next day the doctor who posted the image replied to say that the children were ok, but that it happens a lot and knowing what plant they were from helps them to do something. It wasn’t what we set this up to do but that’s a great thing to happen…
So, I take forward to this city of learning, the lessons of a borderless community; the virtuous circle of learning which empowers and engages people to find out more; and encourage repurposing – use the space as they want and need (we have added extra functions to support that over time in iSpot).
Learning and discovery lends itself to research… So I will show you two projects demonstrating this which gives us lessons to take forward into Edinburgh City of Learning. Evolution Megalab.org was created at the Open University to mark Darwins double centenary in 2009, but we also wanted to show that evolution is happening right now in your own garden… So the snails in your garden have colours and banding patterns, and they have known genetic patterns… And we know about evolution in the field. We know what conditions favour which snails. So, we asked the public to help us test the hypothesis about the snails. So we had about 10,000 populations of snails captured, half of which was there already, half of which was contributed by citizens over a single year. We had seen, over the last 50 years, an increase in yellow shelled snails which do not warm up too quickly. We would expect brown snails further north, yellow snails further south. So was that correct? Yes and No. There was an increase in sanddunes, but not elsewhere. But we also saw a change in patterns of banding patterns, and we didn’t know why… So we went back to pre Megalab data and that issue was provable before, but hadn’t previously been looked for.
Lessons from Megalab included that all can contribute, that it must be about real science and real questions, and that data quality matters. If you are ingenious about how you design your project, then all people can engage and contribute.
Third project, briefly, this is Treezilla, the monster map of trees – which we started in 2014 just before I came here – and the idea is that we have a map of the identity, size and location of trees and, with that, we can start to look at ecosystem impact of these trees, they capture carbon, they can ameliorate floods… And luckily my colleague Mike Dodd spotted some software that could be used to make this happen. So one of the lessons here is that you should build on existing systems, building projects on top of projects, rather than having to happen at the same time.
So, this is the Edinburgh Living Lab, and this is a collaboration between schools and the kinds of projects they do include bike counters and traffic – visualised and analysed – which gives the Council information on traffic in a really immediate way that can allow them to take action. This set of projects around the Living Lab really highlighted the importance of students being let loose on data, on ideas around the city. The lessons here is that we should be addressing real world problems, public engagement is an important part of this, and we are no longer interdisiplinary, we are “post disciplinary” – as is much of the wider world of work and these skills will go with these students from the Living Lab for instance.
And so to Edinburgh Cityscope, a project with synergy across learning, research and engagement. Edinburgh Cityscope is NOT an app, it is an infrastructure. It is the stuff out of which other apps and projects will be built.
So, the first thing we had to do was made Cityscope futureproof. When we built iSpot the iPhone hadn’t been heard of, now maybe 40% of you here have one. And we’ve probably already had peak iPhone. We don’t know what will be used in 5 years time. But there are aspects they will always need… They will need Data. What kinds of data? For synergy and place we need maps. And maps can have layers – you can relate the nitrogen dioxide to traffic, you can compare the trees…. So Edinburgh Cityscope is mapable. And you need a way to bring these things together, you need a workbench. Right now that includes Jupyter, but we are not locked in, so we can change in future if we want to. And we have our data and our code open on Github. And then finally you need to have a presentation layer – a place to disseminate what we do to our students and colleagues, and what they have done.
So, in the last six months we’ve made progress in data – using Scottish Government open data portal we have Lung Cancer registrations that can be mapped and changes seen. We can compare and investigate and our students can do that. We have the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) map… I won’t show you a comparison as it has hardly changed in decades – one area has been in poverty since around 1900. My colleague Leslia McAra is working in public engagement, with colleagues here, to engage in ways that make this better, that makes changes.
The workbench has been built. It isn’t pretty yet… You can press a button to create a Notebook. You can send your data to a phone app – pulling data from Cityscope and show it in an app. You can start a new tour blog – which anybody can do. And you create a survey for used for new information…
So let me introduce one of these apps. Curious Edinburgh is an app that allows you to learn about the history of science in Edinburgh, to explore the city. The genius idea – and I can say genius because I didn’t build it, Niki and the folks at EDINA did – is that you can create this tour from a blog. You fill in forms essentially. And there is an app which you can download for iOS, and a test version for Android – full one coming for the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. Because this is an Edinburgh Cityscope project I’ve been able to use the same technology to create a tour of the botanical gardens for use in my teaching. We used to give out paper, now we have this app we can use in teaching, in teaching in new ways… And I think this will be very popular.
And the other app we have is Fieldtrip, a survey tool borrowed from EDINA’s FieldTrip Open. And that allows anyone to set up a data collection form – for research, for social data, for whatever. It is already open, but we are integrating this all into Edinburgh Cityscope.
So, this seems a good moment to talk about the funding for this work. We have had sizable funding from Information Services. The AHRC has funded some of the Curious Edinburgh work, and ESRC have funded work which a small part of which Edinburgh Cityscope will be using in building the community.
So, what next? We are piloting Cityscope with students – in the Festival of Creative Learning this week, in Informatics. And then we want to reach out to form a community of practice, including schools, community groups and citizens. And we want to connect with cultural institutions and industry – already working with the National Museum of Scotland. And we want to interface with the Internet of Things – anything with a chip in it really. You can interact with your heating systems from anywhere in the world – that’s the internet of things, things connected to the web. And I’m keen on creating an Internet of Living Things. The Atlas of Living Scotland displays all the biological data of Scotland on the map. But data gets out of date. It would be better to updated in real time. So my friend Kate Jones from UCL is working with Intel creating real time data from bats – allowing real time data to be captured through connected sensors. And also in that space Graham Stone (Edinburgh) is working on a project called Edinburgh Living Landscape which is about connecting up green spaces, improve biodiversity…
So, I think what we should be going for is for recognition of Edinburgh as the First UNESCO City of Learning. Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature and the people who did that are around, we can make our case for our status as City of Learning in much the same way.
So that’s pretty much the end. Nothing like this happens without lots and lots of help. So a big thanks here to Edinburgh Cityscope’s steering group and the many people in Information Services who have been actually building it.
And the final words are written for me: Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”