The InterView: our new monthly Researcher Spotlight

The InterView is a new series in which we interview our colleagues at Swansea University, to find out a little more about them, their field of research, and its application within industry and non-academic settings.

Our new series kicks off with our first interviewee, Bob Laramee, Associate Professor of Computer Science. Bob, who hails from Boston in the US, started working at Swansea University in 2006. His main research interests are in Data Visualization, including scientific and information visualization and visual analytics.

Picture Bob
Bob Laramee, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Swansea University

Here Bob talks to Jay Doyle, Research Engagement Officer at the CHERISH Digital Economy Centre.

So Bob, how would you explain Data Visualization to a lay audience?
The way I usually explain it is that Data Visualization is the non-fiction version of computer graphics. Computational graphics is normally used for entertainment – movies, games, that kind of thing. Data Visualization is using computer graphics technology to depict and reflect reality.

This involves generating images of complicated data sets. An example would be the weather report; this is data that has been collected by hundreds of weather stations, and then assembled into images. My job is to innovate and come up with new visualization designs and images.

Can you give an example of how your work has been applied outside of academia, say, in industry?
We have developed software that is sold in commercial products. We have developed visualization solutions for a company called AVL, who optimize automotive engine components. Another collaboration that we’re currently working on is with a company called QPC, to visualize call centre data. We have also worked with a local company called We Predict, to visualize automotive warranty data. From this they are able to make recommendations to inform how long an automobile component lasts. This is highly valuable for insurers and manufacturers to indicate when parts are going to fail.

Basically, every company is collecting masses of complicated data, and they are always looking for ways to understand it better and to get the best insight and value from it.

Research culture is often viewed as being rather inward looking. What do you say to that?
I think I agree with that. I think there is a gap between research culture and, let’s say, the private sector. But I would add that I think this is true for all of Higher Education, not just research.

Societal and economic impact are now important measures of academic impact, beyond publications and citations. Do you think we’ve got the balance right?
That’s a real challenge. I don’t think we have the balance quite right. However, to achieve a more balanced real-world impact versus, say, academic impact, we would need more resources because academics are already stretched. So in order to achieve the balance, or more of a balance, some extra help would be needed.

What’s the motivation for you in working with industry, and what are the biggest gains for each side?
A few things come to mind. I like to meet new people and whenever I do, I learn new things. So for me those collaborations are a learning experience. I also enjoy working on things that I know have direct relevance in the world, and real impact in the private sector.

Academics are good at innovation, and industries are always looking for innovation to stay competitive; part of what it means to be competitive is to innovate, so companies may gain by discovering that innovation can come from working with academics. It also adds academic competence to the company – skills which are not readily found in industry.

And what do you think are the biggest challenges to collaborating with industry?
I would say that one of the challenges is matching complimentary interests and skillsets. Industries are looking for certain skillsets and so are the academics, and to get them to align is certainly a challenge. Time management is certainly a challenge too. Each collaboration carries costs in term of time, effort and communication. This can be a barrier. Funding is also a challenge; collaborations require investment, and securing the appropriate level of funding can be a real issue.

From your own experience, what do you think are the most effective ways for researchers to achieve wider impact from their work, outside of academia?
I think one possibility is to publish findings in popular news outlets. Any outlet that has a wider audience beyond the academic community is very beneficial. I think that social media can also be used. YouTube, for example, is quite powerful. I think videos include a lot of useful information that is not available in traditional printed or text based media. At the end of the day, people want to communicate with other people, not necessarily machines, and YouTube brings you a little closer to the person.

Are there any desirable industry sectors to which you have yet to see your work applied?
Yes. I have not yet established collaborative links with the Computational Fluid Dynamics industry in the UK. I see a lot of mutual benefit in aligning our interests.

What impact do you think the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will have on your research?
Well, I can tell you that three of my PhD students are funded by EU money, so it’s going to have a very real impact on my students. There’s a program called KESS, which is jointly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and the EU. They finance a number of MRes and PhD students until 2020. Such a great program will likely be impossible if the UK withdraws from the EU. There will also be a drop in the number of EU students generally, and that has consequences in terms of the number of publications we can produce. The average level of education for students in Higher Education may drop, especially at the MRes and PhD levels.

What are your hobbies?
Exercise, healthy eating, meditation and Latin dance.

What would you do for a career if you weren’t doing this?
I think I would probably start my own business creating digital products for pedagogic and research application. For example, an online Data Visualization class that anyone can pay for and download.

You can find out more about Bob Laramee and his research by visiting his web page at http://www.cs.swan.ac.uk/~csbob/

You can also email Bob directly at r.s.laramee@swansea.ac.uk

Bob’s areas of expertise
Data visualization
Flow visualization
Information visualization
Visual analytics
Big data visualization

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