Rosa Emerald Fox

Technology, career and lifestyle blogger

Category: event

Living with Intelligent Machines

Today I was incredibly fortune to see Nello Cristianini present on the subject of ‘Living with Intelligent Machines’ at Government Digital Sevice. Nello is a lecturer at Bristol University and has been studying the field of Artificial Intelligence for over 25 years.

The talk focused on ethical considerations surrounding data, AI and machine learning.

In this post I will write about some of my key take aways. Please keep in mind these are my own understandings and interpretations of the presentation. I have used a mixture of Nello’s examples along with those that I have found myself.

The Business of Data 

‘AI’ and ‘Big Data’ have been thrown around as marketing buzzwords over the last few years in order to sell products. Cisco have gone so far as to create promotional images displaying the quote ‘Data is the new oil.

Clearly there is money in data. I am not going to search for stats on how many people use Google search engine, but it’s obviously a lot of people. From what I can gather, Google don’t sell this data, but they do use it to power their own advertising platform which other companies pay to use. Advertisers trust that their ads will be targeting users that are likely to be interested in whatever they are selling.

Due to the perception of data = lots of cash, start ups inevitably start springing up, claiming to offer AI solutions to various problems. It could be far too easy for someone who doesn’t really know what they are doing, to hack together a basic model using some Python libraries, package it up as AI and sell it.

I am starting to learn how to build machine learning models myself, and yes for the most part I will be learning through hacking things together and seeing which results I get. When you are learning it is so important to do this; to experiment, to see what you can build and to practically explore the theory you read. It is equally important to remember that this is not something that should be deployed. By all means share your code as a learning exercise but don’t try and sell things that you don’t fully understand. Nello reiterated that quick solutions are worse than no solutions.

Aggregating data and presenting it to users online has disrupted many industries over the last two decades. Websites such as Compare the Market (comparing and buying insurance) and Skyscanner (finding/comparing/booking flights) save users from trawling through lots of different shops or websites to find the options that best suit us.

Airbnb, ASOS and online food shopping mean that we can choose to make purchases without physically needing to go anywhere. Google Maps helps us find where we need to go. Skype allows us to video call our loved ones from across the world.

These online services convenience our lives and are free so we use them. They have succeeded in removing an intermediate layer. We don’t want to go back to paying to speak to our relatives abroad via landline, but we don’t tend to question wether our Skype video calls are being used to train facial recognition systems (Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote a blog post in 2018 calling out the need for public regulation and corporate responsibility for facial recognition technology).

We have got so used to consuming this technology that it’s virtually impossible to go back. People have been unpleasantly surprised in how companies have used their data, which has resulted in backlash. In 2012 a 26 year old bar manager was refused entry into America because he tweeted “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America”. He meant it in a party sense, but it was interpreted as raising concern and he was sent back to the UK.

Nello showed us an example of Facebook banning the insurance company Admiral from pricing car insurance based on the content of users Facebook posts. Admiral claimed that they were experimenting with ways in which young drivers could prove their sensibility. The idea was that young drivers opted in to sharing their Facebook data and could save up to £350 if they appeared sensible. According to Admiral (…well actually the BBC news article I read about the project…) being sensible involves “writing in short concrete sentences, using lists, and arranging to meet friends at a set time and place, rather than just “tonight””.

Being assessed based on your online activity, throws a spanner in the works of the theory that open and transparent models will eliminate bias. If you act in a certain way to meet the criteria of a model then you can’t live as your authentic self. Nello gave an example of Uber drivers reporting that they felt they had to take abuse from customers in order to maintain a high rating to adhere to the scoring system. We don’t have an ID card scheme in the UK, but for countries that do, could various scores be added to represent people based on their data? Could they be denied opportunities because of a score that may not accurately represent how ‘good’ they are?

Making sense of the digital world

These issues are very complex. The 2016 introduction of GDPR helps through setting regulation in EU law about data protection and privacy, but as users, often we will just accept the cookies and the unknown consequences. 

Listening to Nello has reinforced to me that it is important to check facts and to question proposed ideas. If an article in a magazine claims that a system is bias, look to back this up with academic proof where possible.

Just because the same piece of code can be applied to predict things for completely different use cases, it doesn’t mean that it should be. It is important to consider what the harm could be in developing machine learning models. The pair of jeans that ‘follow me around the internet’ after I have viewed them on ASOS inevitably cause less harm than a system that analyses immigrants to determine if they are lying.

A system could analyse something better than random selection could, better than a human could, but ethically it could be greatly harmful, so shouldn’t be deployed.

It will be important for me to consider and test the quality of training data. In professional practice, I would assume that to select a dataset, it would largely help to be an expert of that subject matter, or to find people who are. There is a popular computer science term ‘garbage in, garbage out’. It is also important to check that using the data abides to privacy regulations.

There isn’t a cookie cutter solution to fix data ethics. Far from it, as for all the positive applications of AI technology, there can be negatives. A possible step towards a solution could be that organisations would have their models reviewed by an internal or external body of experts that would throughly investigate the ethical concerns of any AI technology that was to be deployed. Counteractively, there is the fear that this could stifle innovation.

From the perspective of this blog, for people like me that are just getting started: I feel that obviously technical skills are important, but actively educating yourself about the legality of what you are building and assessing the harm it could cause will be vital for when you are at a stage of producing deployable applications. I am looking forward to understanding more about data ethics, which I believe will greatly influence how I approach my studies.

Mentoring at ThinkNation – Young people creating tech solutions for big social challenges

On October 13th I was a mentor to a group of young people at @thinknat ‘s @brightondigitalfestival event. The aim of the event was for the young people (aged 14-24) to come up with tech solutions for big social challenges.

ThinkNation founder Lizzie kicked off the day with introductions and we broke out into our groups. Within our group, we spent the day discussing and researching our subject, creating ideas for a tech solution and then putting together a pitch style presentation. The young people then presented in the evening, live on stage to an audience of around 70 members of the public… busy day!

The subjects were selected as a result of a vote, in which young people chose the questions they felt had the most impact on their lives. They were:

  • How can tech can help mental health support for young people? (There were actually 2 groups on this as mental health was such a strong concern).

  • How can tech help the homeless in Brighton and Hove?

  • What tech would you invent to eliminate beach pollution?

  • How can Artificial Intelligence (AI) create a fairer housing solution in Brighton and Hove?


The focus was to think creatively about how technology can be applied to help to reduce these problems. Although the technology was important, because we were not actually building the products and didn’t have a budget (ah the dream!) the focus was much more on coming up with creative ideas, thinking big and not limiting the imagination. Despite this, after the presentations, as there were a lot of people from industry with the event being part of Brighton Digital Festival, all of the groups had companies keen to speak to them further about developing the ideas. Even if an idea would have been very big and difficult to implement, a descoped version could still have real impact. We were able to show the young people that often, other technologies are already in place that could be used to help build their idea faster.

My group consisted of five young people, three from Sweden and two from the UK, as well as two other mentors; Andy Cummings, Director or Product Development and Rebecca Willis, BDM International Education Marketing and Management.

Our question was ‘How can Artificial Intelligence (AI) create a fairer housing solution in Brighton and Hove?’. This focused more on poor quality of housing and expensive rent as opposed to homelessness. Though of course lack of housing, expensive rent, high deposits and private landlords being able to tell people to move at a months notice can easily equate to homelessness (a question focused on by another group) so there was some cross over in our initial discussions.

Poor housing conditions in Brighton is an issue that I had a lot of familiarity with, let me tell you! I lived in Brighton for 8 years and I absolutely loved the city, but there seemed to be a constant string of housing issues. Everywhere I lived there was an ongoing battle with mould. I once ended up in A&E due to allergies and the damp conditions. There was the ‘rat flat’, my friend Katie Jane’s dearly beloved ‘cockroach flat’, there was the mushroom crop growing shower in first year uni halls, meaning that whilst it was being replaced we had to have one shower for our twelve person (yep twelve person) flat for a while… I could go on and on.

Although the stories are sort of funny to recall looking back, and of course there are many people much worse off, that don’t have the privilege of living in exciting places like Brighton or London (where I am now… still enduring the less than great conditions!), feeling so unsettled and living in these conditions does take its toll on your happiness and well being, yet landlords are continuing to rake in more and more money whilst taking advantage of people’s desperation.

Young people at the event expressed a lot of concern over not being able to afford to move out. If their option (if they have the luxury of the option and can stay at home) is to spend most of their salary on a place that causes them discomfort, then they are not as likely to be out their learning how to be independent, confident and how to start building lives for themselves, which simply isn’t fair.

Anyway, back to the event… As a group we began by discussing these problems. Having the mix of UK and Swedish backgrounds in our group generated loads of interesting conversations. The Swedish young people expressed that they never really see homelessness so were shocked when they came to Brighton where homelessness is very apparent. Sweden has more space, less people, no ‘let to buy’ and thus high prices charged by private landlords, rental properties are generally let out by large private companies, often there are no deposits and generally low rent. They do however have to pay high taxes and things like food and drink are expensive (I was shocked at spending £13.50 on a single G&T in Stockholm!!).

We identified some of the main issues in Brighton as:

  • Lack of regulation, accountability and monitoring of housing conditions or rent prices for landlords.
  • Lack of space to build in Brighton and Hove due to being between the sea and the Sussex Downs.
  • Lack of affordable materials.
  • Lack of affordable housing.
  • Not enough social housing.
  • Renting from Private landlords.
  • Cost of land.
  • Spaces owned by private companies.
  • Ideologies from people in general. People want more money for themselves, this is destructive.
  • Bad conditions – dangerous, rats, mould, health impacts. Impacts other services such as hospitals.
  • Bad health can affect people going to work. 
  • Feeling unsafe and security.

The discussions covered a range of topics so we narrowed the ideas down to two themes which were ‘regulations’ and ‘physical space’. We moved onto talking about technology. We discussed what we thought Artificial Intelligence (AI) was and the young people were already very clued up on its practical applications.

AI can seem a bit futuristic and scary, despite being around for decades. What it boils down to is a computer performing a task based on information it has been given. The more information it is given, the more the computer ‘learns’ and is able to perform a better output based on being able to predict what usually happens given certain information. Of course there can be grave flaws in computational models (I have been reading ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ by Cathy O’Neill which I would recommend to learn about ethics and computational modelling) as they can often lead to unfair bias towards vulnerable people… but like most technologies there are good and bad applications. Some examples of AI applications could be self driving cars or the software that is used for targeting the ads we see in Instagram.

In thinking about how we could apply technological solutions to our two themes, we hit a fork in the road. One route we could have gone down was our vision to build a ‘smart’ eco island of social housing out on the sea, utilising the energy from the tides and thus solving the problem of there being no space to build… it may sound a bit ‘out there’, but let us not forget the palm tree shaped islands built in Dubai due to lack of space, or the underground city built in Montreal due to above ground being just so cold (the young people thought us building and living underground Brighton might be a bit dark and depressing!).

The other route, and the one the group decided to take, was to focus on regulations and holding landlords accountable. We knew that apps like ‘Rate My Landlord’ already exist, but they depend on the user manually submitting the review through a form. The idea that the young people came up with was an application that connected tenants and their landlords.

Tenants could raise issues with landlords through sending messages, but alerts of potential problems occurring could also be predicted via AI using sensory data. All homes would have sensors hooked up to collect data on moisture levels, water pressure, temperature, air quality, noise, electricity use/if the power is working etc. An algorithm could then make predictions and if it looked like something was about to break it could send alerts to the tenants and landlords. It would also make it easy for landlords to dispatch the relevant handy people. It could tell you how long something was broken for.

Ultimately we thought it would be great if somehow laws could enforce that if the sensors showed that conditions were not up to a high level, then tenants would be able to have their rent capped until the problem was fixed. Realistically this in its entirety would be fairly tough to implement across every home. In steps towards ‘Smart Homes’, currently the Smart Energy GB ‘Smart Meter’ is being rolled out across all homes in the UK in order to put a stop to metered bills and to increase awareness of energy use. It is a very complex and expensive project, but it is happening. As network connections improve and people become more accepting of the permeation of technology in our daily lives, it could all be possible for monitoring through sensory data and AI based predictions to be effective one day at a large scale.  

The young people named the app ‘7th Sense’ and worked together to create a logo and the presentation for their pitch. They portrayed the problem, their solution, who it would benefit, potential issues and a call to action (invest!!). Two young women from the group presented in the evening and answered questions from the audience afterwards. They did an amazing job and I was really proud of them. At the end of the presentations, someone from a company that have developed a smart air brick for tracking indoor air quality/humidity and are installing them in social housing in Hackney, sat down and spoke with the group, so they were able to learn more about how related solutions are being applied in homes which was a great result.

The presentations from the rest of the groups were all really eye opening and the ideas were generally things that would make waves towards solving the problem they were focussed on. There were also screenings of short videos, both made separately by 14 year old boys. One was about homelessness and the other about mental health. To see a 14 year old boy get up on stage to introduce his video and speak openly and confidently about mental health was really inspiring, as it has been such a notoriously taboo subject for previous generations. These young people cared deeply about social issues and were using Youtube as a platform to educate others and themselves. They seemed a lot more clued up about the world around them than I remember ever being at that age and they are making their voices heard.

I hope that by attending the event the young people enjoyed thinking creatively and have confidence that they genuinely have brilliant ideas that could be applied to the real world. If they hadn’t considered working with technology before, I hope attending the event helped them see that it is an exciting avenue for them to potentially take. Personally I loved my experience of mentoring, it was a long day but it went so so fast and it helped me build my own confidence in that I could be some help to the young people in pulling together their fabulous ideas.

If you are ever interested in mentoring at a future ThinkNation event, please get in touch with them through their website. Lizzie the founder is truly inspiring and does an amazing job. It is so important to help raise the voices of young people and I look forward to see what ThinkNation do in 2019.


uncodebar is codebar‘s annual unconference. This year it was hosted at Twitter and gathered 86 developers from our codebar community.

At an unconference there is no specified agenda, meaning that speakers are not booked in advance to present. Instead, at the start of the day, people that attend the event pick up the microphone and pitch sessions that they want to run. There is a show of hands to determine which room size the session will require and it is added to a time slot on the schedule on the wall.

The sessions usually take the format either of a talk with Q&A, a hands on coding workshop or a group discussion around a set topic.

Schedule which took shape as a result of pitches:

I took part in a session about running community meet ups, saw a talk about ‘the art of saying no’, learnt about the highs and lows of @thisisjofrank’s project in which she created a tweet controlled LED wedding dress (it was AMAZING, find out more in Jo’s post here), saw a thought provoking talk about software and ethics by @richardwestenra and finally a talk about coaching software dev ?

Honestly, go along to an unconference if you can. You never know quite what you are going to get, but that is part of the fun. In this post about a Civil Service unconference, Claire writes about the value of moving away from having “speakers” and “listeners” as the collective knowledge of the audience is likely to be more than that of any one speaker.

Huge thanks to the codebar organisers that put this together (I can take no credit as I wasn’t involved in organising this… just attended!), they did a brilliant job. I left feeling very proud of the codebar community and look forward to next year.

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