Embracing the age of informatics

Edinburgh’s ‘eco-system’ of science and computer centres means it is now well placed to produce companies of scale, writes Colin Adams
University of Edinburgh School of Informatics is the largest single computer science and informatics research group in Europe. Picture: Paul DoddsUniversity of Edinburgh School of Informatics is the largest single computer science and informatics research group in Europe. Picture: Paul Dodds
University of Edinburgh School of Informatics is the largest single computer science and informatics research group in Europe. Picture: Paul Dodds

WE’VE come a long way since 1971, when I was one of the first BSc graduates from Edinburgh University’s newly formed computer science department.

Back then we had to punch our programs up on cards and send them off overnight for processing. The next day we’d get back a big print-out showing us the results. As rudimentary as it sounds, this was cutting-edge stuff, and Edinburgh went on to develop one of the first workable computer operating systems – the Edinburgh Multi Access System. That pioneering spirit has endured and I’m hugely privileged to still be part of it.

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As a board member of Edinburgh Science Triangle, I help to promote the wider city region as a world-class science and technology destination with key strengths including life sciences, informatics, energy and microelectronics. A collaboration of eight science and research locations within 30 minutes of each other, Edinburgh Science Triangle includes universities, research institutes, the NHS and local and national government. It is one of the top-ten research and development locations in Europe and is home to more than 3,000 world-class researchers and 100 market-leading companies.

The informatics and computer science cluster within Edinburgh Science Triangle is particularly strong and is a key contributor to Scotland’s top-five ranking in this field. Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics, for example, is the largest single computer science and informatics research group in Europe, and the best in the UK. As the school’s director of commercialisation, it’s my job to get science out of the lab and in to industry, and we’ve been hugely successful in this regard. Over the last six years we’ve spun out more than 60 companies, making us the UK’s most productive single school for start-ups.

I’m also a director of Informatics Ventures, a Scotland-wide entrepreneurship programme that helps young scientists like these develop entrepreneurial skills, build teams and secure funding. Key successes include FanDuel, which has raised more than $18 million in venture capital to date and is a US leader in fantasy sports leagues. Set up by a couple of Edinburgh University PhD students in 2009, it now employs 80 people and recently opened an office in New York.

Then there’s Quorate, whose searchable audio technology allows users to search recorded speech for key words and generate transcripts. Edinburgh is a world leader in voice recognition technology and another important player is Speech Graphics. Its technology has been used in Hollywood and produces life-like speech for animation, using software that mimics human lip and muscle movements.

Other companies we’ve coached at Informatics Ventures include Kotikan, an award-winning mobile app developer, and Tiger Face Games, which has won awards for its tablet-based learning games.

Heriot-Watt University and Napier University also have large computer science departments and track records in commercialisation. This critical mass gives Edinburgh a vibrant eco-system that is starting to produce companies of scale.

For example Skyscanner, the global travel search provider based in Edinburgh, draws its talent from the city’s rich graduate pool and uses other local tech companies in its supply chain. Kotikan developed Skyscanner’s incredibly successful flagship mobile app, which has been downloaded 30 million times and produced in 34 languages.

Scientists across this dynamic eco-system are now collaborating to solve some of the big issues in areas like health and wellbeing. For example, the Digital Health Institute is a £10m Scottish Funding Council initiative to address the unsustainable demands on health and social care services. The Scottish Funding Council is also behind the £11.3m Data Lab, which aims to extract value from the trillions of bits of data generated daily to make improvements in areas including energy efficiency and more efficient medical care.

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This large-scale number crunching – known as “big data” – is crucial to the development of next-generation products and services and is a key area of focus for informatics scientists. I sometimes describe informatics as “computer science on steroids”. It combines computer science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science and the science of information: how we create, use and store it.

As people become more connected in the future, this is where the next revolution will be. New ways will have to be found to store, extract and manipulate ever-growing volumes of data. We don’t know all the answers yet – but I look forward to finding out.

• Colin Adams is a board member of Edinburgh Science Triangle; director of commercialisation at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics and director of Informatic Ventures