Dr Zena Wood

Published on: 17 September 2014

Computer Science Senior Lecturer Zena Wood has been working with the Emerging Technologies Services as part of her secondment to IBM.

Inspiring the next generation of computer scientists, Dr Zena Wood tells us about working with the with Emerging Technologies Services (ETS) group during her secondment to IBM and her novel research into collectives.

What is your current research about?

My current research focuses very much on collectives, groups of individuals that we treat as a single entity, such as crowds, shoals, flocks, committees and queues. I look at the different types of collectives that exist and how you can classify them. It is becoming increasingly easy to track people via mobile phones and GPS devices. With this tracking data I aim to develop algorithms to identify different types of collectives from the movement patterns of the individuals.

How have you defined what a collective is?

Dr Antony Galton and I have published a paper that proposed a way of classifying different types of collective based on a number of criteria including membership, location and the roles played by the members. For example, for a collective you can look at whether the members can change or if they always have the same members. It was the first taxonomy classification system proposed for collectives and the research is still evolving.

What do you hope to focus your future research on?

At the moment I am interested in the relationship between collectives, motion and the environment they’re moving in, to see if we can develop better spaces. Also can we identify a collective from its movement patterns and can we turn this into a more predictive method?

The first thing to establish is whether different types of collective have different movement patterns. For example an orchestra and an audience are types of collective. The orchestra comes together regularly, but the audience may only come together once and both are stationary. However collectives can also be mobile like a football team; can these types of collective be differentiated according to the movement patterns.

We’re trying to get lots of different data examples, so we can develop methods to analyse motion in an attempt to extract some of the distinct features of collectives.

I think it’s really good to do a secondment, especially if you haven’t had much industrial experience. It ensures that you consider employability when designing new modules and courses.

Dr Zena Wood, Senior Lecturer, Computer Science

You do a lot of computer science engagement with schools; can you tell us more about your work?

We run the Smallpeice Trust Artificial Intelligence Residential each year. Smallpeice Trust is an educational charity designed to promote engineering; computer science can be considered as a form of software engineering.

We have 45, 13 to 14 year olds here for three nights and four days. We introduce them to the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the challenges we face and break a few stereotypes of what computer science is. They get to investigate different areas of AI, talk to chatbots and program robots. At the end of the course they bring together all that they have learnt to program a robot that can travel round an unseen maze.

We started our computer science outreach programme about seven or eight years ago; we started off with one workshop and now we offer a range of workshops and lectures for ages 10 to 18.

What work have you done with IBM so far on your secondment?

I started back in January doing two days a week in ETS, the Emerging Technology Services in Hursley. So far I’ve been getting to know the team, what things they work on and some of their previous projects. IBM is particularly interested in data analytics and the knowledge that I can bring from Computer Science. The secondment is also about facilitating links between people in the university, specifically in the College of Engineering Mathematics and Physical Sciences and people in ETS; there are lots of shared common interests.

What have you enjoyed most about your secondment so far?

The change of scenery actually - the main reason for the secondment is to give academics industrial experience. It has been really nice to experience industry and a different type of working, the ETS team is a very good fit for me as there are many common interests.

Do you think the secondment will improve your work here at Exeter?

I think it will improve on many things. Teaching will be a main focus, so the idea is to bring in some real life case studies into our modules and have a greater understanding of what companies like IBM expect from our graduates. Hopefully it will also benefit the college’s outreach because we can facilitate a stronger link with IBM and they may provide us with some great resources from their Academic Initiative.

Personally I think it will benefit my research because working on slightly different projects, taking a step back from my research and going back to it with a fresh mind and some new ideas will be quite useful.

Would you encourage Exeter academics to seek secondments?

Yes I think it’s really good to do a secondment, especially if you haven’t had much industrial experience. It also ensures that you consider employability when designing new modules and courses.

I have found it very useful, as it is a different environment to exchange research ideas in. The college were really keen for me to take this secondment as they could see the benefits it will bring to the college, the department and the teaching, so they were really supportive. I think promoting secondments internally is a good way to encourage others to do them.

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