Applying Big Data to Economics

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck and CSIS PhD candidate Seongil Han report on a recent conference at the Birkbeck Centre for Data Analytics (BIDA).bidaWhat can we learn from Big Data, and how can Big Data analytics be applied to the field of Economics? These were just some of the questions answered by a one-day conference held by Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics (BIDA) on Monday 5 June. The event was organised in collaboration with the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, to bring together researchers from statistics, applied mathematics, computer science, finance and economics to enhance the research environment and promote cross-disciplinary collaboration within the College, and with a wider external audience.

Birkbeck’s Professor Stephen Wright kicked off proceedings with an insightful presentation on the application of Big Data to large-scale surveys and maps. In his research project of residential land supply in 27 EU countries, he examines sources such as Google Maps, ONS/Ordnance Survey and Open Street maps to explain large differences across EU countries and identify whether there are restrictions on residential land. Professor Wright concluded that a large proportion of the regional variation in supply of residential land in the EU can be explained econometrically and is very strongly determined by regional geography and history.

Guest speaker Giovanni Mastrobuoni, Professor of Economics in Department of Economics, University of Essex, provided a unique insight into the role of Big Data analytics on police patrols and crime. Based on recent evidence that police deployment reduces crime, the project was designed to identify whether the elasticity of crime with regard to policing remains the same, and whether it is worth randomly increasing mobile police presence in an area. The results suggest, however, that big data is only useful with good prior identification; elasticity is negligible if identification is low, and random mobile patrolling cannot reduce crime significantly.

The second part of the conference focused on big data in business, economy and strategy. Professor Roger Maull, from the Department of Digital Economy in University of Surrey, discussed business models in relation to the digital economy, introducing 3 new approaches to the economy for big data – digitisation, datafication and digitalisation. He explained business models with industry dynamics and emphasised the following qualities:

  • value proposition, or what the customer pays for;
  • value creation, or how one delivers what the customer pays for;
  • value capture, or how the customer pays for it.

Big data has allowed significant advancements in personalisation and customisation, which also link to HAT (Hub of All Things): an IT business services to store and customise the personal data, as a real business model for personal data.

Final speaker Ernesto Damiani, from the Etisalat British Telecom Innovation Centre, Abu Dhabi, introduced the prospect of big data analytics as a service. He started by highlighting the 5 Vs of big data:

  • Variety in analytics model: static ways vs dynamic ways;
  • Volume;
  • Velocity;
  • Value;

He also compared traditional analytics with big data analytics and explained a change in paradigm for data analytics, which is supported by the example of Google.

The conference succeeded in providing a comprehensive introduction to the many ways in which big data analytics, such as text mining techniques, can be applied to Economics and business. Big data analytics continue to attract a great deal of attention in academia and industry, with an increasing amount of unstructured data available on web; it is vital to apply big data analytics to various problems to supplement qualitative information to conventional descriptive analytics and infer the predictive analytics.

BIDA would like to thank the presenters and all those who attended for their insightful comments and discussion. You can find out more about the Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics on their website.

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Escher and Coxeter: a mathematical conversation

On Monday 5 June 2017, Professor Sarah Hart from Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics gave a prestigious Gresham Lecture at the Museum of London. Andrew Silverman, Learning Development Tutor in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on the lecture.

Gresham College crest in hyperbolic geometry. Credit: Sarah Hart

Gresham College crest in hyperbolic geometry. Credit: Sarah Hart

Gresham College was founded in 1597 and has been providing free lectures within the City of London for over 400 years. Walking down from the dusty roads of the Barbican into the cool and quiet of the Weston Theatre, the audience was transported into a conversation between an artist and a mathematician, Escher and Coxeter. Told with infectious excitement and humour, Professor Hart wove the story of the lives of these two figures and their friendship through the mathematics and the artwork that fed into one another.

Born on 17 June 1898 in Leeuwarden, Holland, the youngest of five brothers and moving with his family to Arnhem when he was five, Maurits Cornelis Escher would eventually go on to study at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. His father was a civil engineer and his brothers all became scientists. Escher himself almost became an architect before switching to graphic arts. He later quipped that it was only by a hair’s breadth that he escaped becoming a useful member of society.

Escher began by producing woodcuts and lithographs featuring mainly landscapes. An example of this was the 1931 lithograph Atranti, Coast of Amalfi. But in 1936 his work went in a new direction, becoming more abstract; according to Escher, he had replaced landscapes with mindscapes. The woodcut Metamorphosis I, produced in 1937, exemplifies this change and is clearly a ‘mindscape’ adapted from the 1931 piece.

What could have triggered this change? In 1922, Escher visited the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain; his second visit was in 1936. The buildings we know today were constructed in the mid-11th century by the Moorish king Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. One of the key points about Moorish art, and Islamic art more generally, is that it is not permitted to contain images of living things; it is instead rich in symmetry and tessellations of tiles. Escher was able to combine this richness of geometric design with images of ‘living’ things (albeit at times mythical living things), thereby leading to works such as Angel and Devils (1941), produced in ink rather than wood.

Donald Coxeter, or Harold Scott Macdonald Coxeter, was born on 9 February 1907. His name was originally going to be Harold Macdonald Scott Coxeter, until they realised that this would have been HMS Coxeter, more a ship name than a baby name, and so the name was changed. As a schoolboy, Coxeter became so engrossed in geometry, at the expense of other subjects, that one teacher told him he was only allowed to think in four dimensions on Sundays.

In 1936, the year Escher’s art took a new direction, Coxeter took up a post at the University of Toronto. When asked what the point of pure mathematics is, Coxeter responded: “No one asks artists why they do what they do. I’m like any artist; it’s just that the obsession that fills my mind is shapes and patterns.”

In 1954, the International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Amsterdam. To coincide with this, a major exhibition of Escher’s work was held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was here that Coxeter and Escher first met, when Coxeter bought a couple of Escher’s prints.

Incidentally, another mathematician who visited the exhibition was Roger Penrose, who was a Reader and then Professor of Applied Mathematics at Birkbeck from 1964 to 1973, and later became Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London. After seeing an impossible staircase in Escher’s Relativity print, he came up with the concept of a ‘Penrose triangle’.

Professor Hart explained the mathematics behind the regular tilings in three geometries: plane (Euclidean), spherical and hyperbolic geometry. She managed to put the concepts across in such a way that even someone with no prior knowledge could walk away with a good basic understanding, and the images presented were an excellent way of getting a more intuitive sense of what was really going on.

Escher learnt a great deal from Coxeter, to the extent that when Escher created a picture based on a new geometrical concept, he would refer to it as ‘Coxetering’. But in turn, Coxeter also learnt from Escher. For example, Escher’s 1959 work, Circle Limit III, led Coxeter to a new understanding of the hyperbolic disc. By looking at the spines of the fish in the image, Coxeter realised that Escher had found equidistant curves and produced them incredibly precisely. In this way their friendship was a true exchange of ideas – a mathematical conversation.

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Qualitative Research Methods in Action

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

birkbeck_qualitative_methods_day_webOn 23 May 2017, Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology was delighted to host a one-day conference to discuss the latest methodologies in the field – Qualitative Research Methods. Qualitative research is an area of growing interest for organizational psychologists because of its ability to provide unique insight into trends in thought and opinions, and dive right to the heart of a problem. The day’s presentations and panel discussions provided a fantastic platform to engage with the work of academic staff, current and recently completed PhD students from the department, with a particular focus on the challenges and opportunities posed by the participant-researcher relationship that develops over the course of a study.

What are Qualitative Methods?

Where both qualitative and quantitative research methods play a pivotal role in contributing to understandings of work and organizations, qualitative research comprises a wide range of methods developed from a variety of theoretical perspectives and underpinned by a range of philosophical stances. These include critical, postmodern and social constructionist perspectives, reflecting the landscape of influential European philosophies.  More traditional positivist quantitative research methods are used to quantify the problem by generating numerical data for statistical analysis, but qualitative research typically applies inductive methods to explore socially constructed reality, focusing on meanings, ideas and practices.  This approach can provide rich data about sense-making, identity, and lived experience that quantitative studies simply cannot match. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches have their strengths and limitations but essentially they are used to address very different research questions. The Department of Organizational Psychology is committed to a plurality of research methods and their underpinning philosophies as a means of enhancing the methodological options available to work psychologists.

The focus of this event was on the participant-researcher relationship in qualitative research with a particular focus on the role of trust, time and technology.

Building the Trust

So – qualitative data collection takes time, but are there other challenges in qualitative research? Certainly, but the biggest challenge can also be considered the biggest opportunity – the relationship that develops between researcher and participant. The audience heard this first-hand from several presenters, like PhD student Jane Setten. She described trust as the ‘central mechanism’ to her longitudinal study, in which she will meet her participants over several years to map changes in their work-life situations. While the relationship between researcher and interviewee could, in the first instance, create a barrier to authentic and useful data if the participant was wary of the researcher, it can become a window to ‘successfully understand a situation or behaviour from an insider’s perspective’. Qualitative research methods rely on the researcher-participant relationship – it is a key part of co-constructing the data to analyse.

The audience also heard from Paula Fitzgerald, who shared not only her experience of qualitative photo-elicitation and interview methods but a great example of how – regardless of discipline – a research journey is rarely linear. Paula’s qualitative data collection resulted in her beginning to analyse her own experience of conducting research, from the researcher’s perspective – ‘an embodied experience’. Her work shed light on the role of the researcher as nuanced and permeable, and the idea that a researcher can be seen by their participants either as an insider or an outsider.

In Pursuit of Publication

The OP Qualitative Methods in Action day succeeded in providing an informal overview of leading-edge, innovative methods that are currently being used by qualitative researchers in the department. However, qualitative research, like longitudinal case studies carried out over a number of years, and visual approaches, like responses to pictures and participant video diaries, are still considered less traditional than quantitative methods. Student and staff presentations were thus augmented by an insightful keynote on the challenges and opportunities in publishing qualitative research, delivered by Professor Bill Lee, from the University of Sheffield Management School. Professor Lee has not only published widely on topics across management and related disciplines, but is also an associate editor for Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management (QROM) and of the European Management Review (EMR). At EMR he has recently established a new section, “Methodology Matters”, which provides a peer-reviewed outlet for articles that make a methodological contribution.

After leading the audience through the development of opportunities for qualitative research, and the context on which the debate on research methods is based, Professor Lee highlighted the importance of perseverance and resilience in pursuit of publication. New sections such as “Methodology Matters” open up new opportunities for people interested in methods and associated fields, helping to bolster accessibility and diversity within all research fields.

The Department of Organizational Psychology would like to thank all participants and attendees for their thought provoking presentations, posters and questions.

You can follow Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology on Twitter @bbk_orgpsych or find out more about upcoming events on their website.

The graphic recording of the day’s proceedings was provided by Laura Sorvala, from Auralab. You can follow her on Twitter @_auralab or visit her website.

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Women and careers in STEMM: challenges, barriers and achievements of pioneers and today’s professionals

This post was contributed by Viviana Meschitti, a member of the Birkbeck TRIGGER team

trigger-pisa-event2On May 22 2017, the two TRIGGER teams from Birkbeck, University of London and the University of Pisa came together to organise an event to discuss the career pathways of women in STEMM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine. The focus of the event was to discuss challenges and barriers to women in STEMM areas, in which they are significantly underrepresented, but also to foreground vital breakthroughs and achievements. The international collaboration of the TRIGGER project serves to show that the importance of gender equality is recognised worldwide, and was emphasised by the commitment expressed by the three male senior executives of the University of Pisa, who welcomed the participants and the audience of more than 30 people to this workshop.

There are nuances within each working environment and within each discipline, but whether it is biology, computer science or the arts and humanities, there are still many problems to overcome on the road to achieving gender equality in the workplace – from unconscious bias and career breaks, to flexible working and promotional opportunities. As many previous TRIGGER workshops have highlighted, the most important point made at this event was that one cannot place a high enough value on collecting data, which can be used as evidence of problems and solutions.

Rita Biancheri, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pisa, kicked off proceedings by providing an overview of the European data that clearly demonstrates an underrepresentation of women in STEMM disciplines. She also focused on the phenomenon of the “leaky pipeline”, an image used to illustrate the number of women decreasing along the academic career path from PhD to Professor. Disciplinary culture plays a pivotal role; Professor Biancheri presented the work that the TRIGGER team conducted at Pisa with a particular focus on engineering and medicine. In engineering, there is already a clear underrepresentation of women at undergraduate level, but the phenomenon of the leaky pipeline is not as significant later on. In the case of medicine, the number of women undergraduates has started to equal and even overcome those of men for many years, but then the leaky pipeline is particularly strong, meaning that a small minority of women occupy positions at the top of the academic sphere.

Representing the Birkbeck TRIGGER team, I shifted the focus to the situation at Birkbeck, and highlighted two points: first, that there is an increased pressure on more junior scholars to succeed in obtaining grants or publishing; and secondly that, independent of their familial situation, women are still the ones expected to “take care”, both within their family and their respective department. She highlighted the case of the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck, which has been recognised historically as an especially good environment for research and for women researchers. The importance of having role models (like Rosalind Franklin, for example), and of the willingness to bring in women, has been reiterated by staff members participating in the TRIGGER research.

Ania Lopez, a mechanical engineer, works for the Italian National Council of Engineers to promote women’s careers and contribution in the engineering sector. She highlighted the achievements of recent years: an increase in women joining the Register of Engineers and the launch of “Ingenio al femminile” – an initiative to promote women’s contribution. An annual event is organised within the framework of this initiative, to discuss research on issues affecting women’s careers, such as the gender pay gap. Last year’s event was attended by equal numbers of men and women, which she considered a great achievement.

Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda, researchers at the Polytechnic of Turin, presented the European project MoMoWo, focused on promoting women’s contributions in Architecture and Design. They discussed the issue of women not being represented in books about the History of Architecture, and have created a database to collect the history of almost 200 hundred women architects active in the last century, to underline their ground-breaking work. They also stressed the importance of raising awareness of the profession in younger generations; in collaboration with several architects, they have organised open days for people interested in visiting ateliers.

A panel discussion followed these presentations to shed light on a number of associated topics. Ania Lopez described women’s feeling of marginalisation, and that their avoidance to voice concern might be difficult if they are in a minority. It is vital to provide women academics with transferable skills to boost their confidence, but also, at a grassroots level, to train parents to educate their children as equals and avoid gender segregating activity. Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda also focused on the family issue – how can women with small children be seen as able to focus solely on their career, when they are always placed in a position requiring challenging negotiation? This prompted discussion on the issue of quotas and meritocracy: Ania Lopez underlined that quotas do not help to promote women’s professional image, while Caterina Franchini suggested the problem must be reframed and seen in the wider context of underrepresentation of some specific groups.

The learned outcomes can be summarised as follows:

  • In different disciplines, the problems in relation to women’s underrepresentation are different: it is important to regularly collect and monitor data and design tailored initiatives
  • Women’s historical contribution within disciplines should be foregrounded
  • It is vital to increase young people’s awareness of the opportunities offered within the professions
  • Both women and men must be educated to consider and discuss the challenges related to gender equality.

The TRIGGER team would like to thank Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics, which provided a funding grant for this event.

You can find out more about the TRIGGER project on our website or follow us on Twitter @TRIGGERbbk

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