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31 August 2018

Interview: CUSP London's Dr Simon Miles and Claire Crowther

Centre for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) London, a partnership between King's College London and the University of Warwick, linked with New York University, is based at Bush House, and uses data to understand, analyse and ultimately improve urban living.

CUSP London written on wall of meeting room
CUSP London

Students can work with CUSP in part by studying for the Centre's new MSc Urban Informatics, which teaches the technical, analytical and communications skills required to conduct effective urban analysis. Elsewhere the Centre is working with a range of London bodies and councils to initiate data science research projects bringing together academic and industry expertise.

We met the Centre's Director, Dr Simon Miles (above), and Centre Manager Claire Crowther, to find out more about CUSP's current projects, cross-London partnerships, critical contemporary relevance and ambitious plans for the future.

Welcome Simon and Claire! Can you give us a snapshot of some of the specific projects CUSP is working on at the moment?

We have a range of exciting projects currently being pursued. First, our new MSc in Urban Informatics starts in September, with the first cohort soon to be inducted. We are setting up a substantial partnership with Westminster City Council to set a framework for a range of data analytics projects to be pursued and drive our research into serving local needs, and we aim to use this activity as a template for our collaborations with our other London council partners.

In March 2019, we hold a cross-university ‘data dive’ hackathon event with plans to analyse data of the London Ambulance Service, helping them to control their resources and dispatch ambulances to best meet emergency care needs. We are a leading part of the London Office for Data Analytics initiative being run by the Greater London Authority, seeking to initiate data science projects across boundaries of London city agencies, and involving academic and industrial expertise.

We are seeding larger research initiatives, as well as improving our students’ education, through collaborative student projects with external partners, such the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and Haringey Council. We have been hosting workshops on a variety of relevant topics including agent-based modelling for public health and smart cities policy strategies.

Can you explain what your respective roles involve day to day, and strategically?
With CUSP London, I aim to combine expertise from across King’s and Warwick to provide a collective offering in urban informatics that individual disciplines could not provide by themselves. This is both in education where, as the lead academic for the MSc Urban Informatics, I work to ensure the programme is of high quality and attracts top students, and in research, where the Centre acts like a cross-discipline research group focused on understanding and improving cities.As such, the Centre draws together academics and researchers from across many disciplines, and so a key part of my role is ensuring these members feel ownership of, contribute to, and benefit from CUSP London. To have a real impact, we also require engaged external partners, particularly from London government agencies, and working with these agencies to devise ways for our education and research to have a positive impact on the city is also essential to my daily activity.

Claire: My day-to-day activities are dominated by communicating with internal and external partners, across departments and even internationally, ensuring that I facilitate the interconnectivity that defines CUSP London. CUSP London champions the combination of theoretical knowledge with real-life scenarios, bringing together academics with multi-national organisations. I enjoy the very human aspect of my role, witnessing the breadth of scope and impact of the Urban Sciences.In a climate of Brexit and business secrecy, I am delighted to be part of championing international and cross-industry collaboration in my day-to-day actions. My role in the overarching strategy combines the internal and external processes of CUSP London, as I boost the visibility of the Centre, connecting CUSP London with key interested parties. After all, Urban Sciences are powered by people and strengthened by wider involvement.As Centre Manager I am the consistent point of contact for all, students, academics and external stakeholders, for our end-to-end mission: from anonymous data to real-world applications of the insights gleaned. My top-level involvement with each aspect of our venture allows me to orchestrate the popular visibility of CUSP London, from prospecting through merchandise, to announcing successes as initiatives eventually come to fruition.

What most excites you about running CUSP in 2018?
This is an ideal time to be initiating a comprehensive offering in urban informatics. In one conversation after another, I find staff from diverse city agencies putting an emphasis on building their data science expertise and working with universities to make real use of the data they collect in understanding and improving the way they provide services to their city.With King’s recognised expertise in key areas, including artificial intelligence, public health, mental health, and so forth, there is a recognition of the value our knowledge can have in serving London and other cities. Within the university there is also enthusiasm, with academics keen to have this route to applying their research in directly benefiting people’s day-to-day lives. CUSP London is an important central point bringing together capacity and demand around a critical, timely topic.

Claire: My background lies in the humanities so I was initially excited to discover the human aspect of the data sciences at CUSP London. Adopting ethnographic research practices, Urban Sciences uses real people and real-world scenarios at its very core; and my hometown of London is the lab! It excites me to play even a small part in the Centre responsible for harnessing the vast data sources available and using them for positive, actionable, and measurable outcomes that affect the day-to-day lives of Londoners and beyond.I am part of something ground-breaking from the very outset and I’m very excited to witness the ongoing outcomes. In modern society, we are overloaded with data in our daily lives; vast data libraries harvest and track our every move and behaviour. Data collection and analysis have shaped the past and, now more than ever, define our future.

Can you explain how CUSP London collaborates with and compliments the CUSP activities in Warwick and New York?
We have a strong relationship with our CUSP partners in Warwick and New York, while each having a distinctive bias to the offer we provide. King’s clear expertise in health and medicine give a particular flavour to the way our part of CUSP London appears to the world, while Warwick places more emphasis on sociocultural studies, and New York on engineering. Of course, all three universities have strengths in all these areas, but the distinct emphasis of each gives students an interesting choice when selecting where to study.The universities come together around events at the Centre, particularly annual ‘data dive’ hackathon, in which teams of students use data to tackle issues such as air pollution, road safety, night-time economy, and diabetes, using London as their testbed. Other cross-university collaborative events include ‘insight sessions’ with London borough councils, where academics and council officers discuss possibilities for applying novel research techniques to pressing borough issues, and mini-conferences at which urban informatics PhD students can practise presenting their topics and find collaborations.

Finally, what are your ambitions for CUSP initiatives that don’t yet exist?
While CUSP London has some great partnerships, has hosted some exciting events and has created an innovative MSc programme, it is still really just starting up. A key ambition in the near future is to build a cohesive, active urban informatics research group, with PhD students and early career researchers from diverse disciplines co-located in our lab to generate a productive, creative research environment, and a good social network between all the academics and researchers at King’s connected to this topic.We are also looking at the best ways to meet the high demand for urban informatics and data science training frequently raised by our city agency partners. Finally, we are always building up processes to help ensure that there is a clear path from the insights from our research and education to policy with public benefit.