Informatics Newsletter May 2020

Issue 35 of our School newsletter for students and staff.

A Message from Acting Head of School

Photo of Nigel Topham

Dear colleagues,

As Jane is taking a week of well-deserved annual leave, here is a brief update from me on what’s happened recently in the School.

We held our first Blackboard Collaborate General Meeting on 13th May, with as many as 198 colleagues joining, which is actually more than the seating capacity of G07. If you didn’t manage to attend the meeting, you might be interested in a roundup of the issues that were discussed. A recording of the session is also currently available online:

General Meeting recording

First of all, we have now successfully completed a round of academic recruitment involving virtual interviews and recruitment talks that attracted many colleagues, which was an unexpected benefit of the lockdown. Many thanks to all who participated, but especially to those who set up and ran the talk sessions.

Our buildings remain closed. To prepare for when we are ready to re-open them, if partially, we are reviewing shared office configurations to check distancing and considering measures to be put in place for common/shared areas.

We have seen a very healthy increase in applications to postgraduate research (PGR) programmes, with 66% more applications received up to April 2020 compared with the same point last year. Most of these were received before the Covid‐19 crisis affected the UK. We have been planning to expand the space devoted to PGR students, by converting more rooms for use as shared PGR office, and to improve the ventilation in shared offices. However, as you might expect, the shutdown of our buildings has delayed these building works. However, we have secured temporary space in the Wilkie Building, which we expect to use from September.

In other news there are a couple of successes I would like to highlight:

Congratulations to Mohsen Khadem who was awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship to work on Cyber-Physical Systems for Unified Diagnosis and Treatment of Lung Diseases. The aim of the project is to develop a mechatronic device with a user interface (CPS) to be used in diagnostic and treatment of lung cancer and other lung diseases.

Kobby Nuamah has used his previous work for Ghanaian software start-up to drive a project called the Opine Health Assistant. It is a community-driven initiative which tracks COVID-19 symptoms and provides real time data and visual insights for disease surveillance teams, public health experts and other stakeholders.

With best wishes,


General Meeting slides

Mohsen Kadhem awarded UKRI funding to develop a CPS for Lung Disease diagnosis and treatment

Kwabena Nuamah leads software start-up tracking Covid-19 symptoms in Ghana


Roadmap to re-opening the School

Following the Scottish Government's announcements on Phase 1 on easing the lockdown, the School has mapped up its own route to re-opening of the School of Informatics. So far there will be no major changes to how the majority of us work. See below for key points.

Re-opening the School of Informatics

Online School Project

Judy Robertson and colleagues at Moray House are working on a website aimed at teachers, parents and learners. It will offer resources, blog posts, lessons plans across the curriculum and more to help people with homeschooling during the outbreak. A weekly online seminar to help local teachers get to grips with teaching online was launched in April. Online materials will be curated and developed in due course.

Schools Online Blog

Covid-19 Clinical guideline browser: a tool for sharing and understanding hospital guidelines

Bea Alex and Benjamin Bach joined forced to work on Covid-19 Clinical Guideline Browser: a tool for sharing and understanding hospital guidelines. They combine natural language processing and data visualisation to analyse UK hospital guidelines for treating COVID-19 patients. This is a collaboration between the Edinburgh Language Technology Group (led by Bea), the Visual+Interactive Data group (led by Benjamin) and clinicians at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and across the UK. The main goal is to provide a user interface to clinicians to assist them in accessing, sharing, comparing and writing hospital guidelines.

Project website

Informatics researchers recognised by Guide2Research

Four researchers from Informatics made it onto the Guide2Research list of the top 100 computing researchers in the UK: Phil Wadler, Mirella Lapata, Mark Steedman, and Gordon Plotkin. Congratulations to all!


InfHR Updates

Mental Health First Aiders Network

As you may have been aware there are several colleagues that have attended First Aid Mental Health training run by MHScot which was funded by the School. The aim of this training is to look at ways to help others (and ourselves) in the event of anyone developing a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis, until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis resolves.

Given the current circumstances, we find ourselves in, the Mental Health First Aid trainees have pushed to get this network up and running. The network is aimed at Informatics staff and we encourage students to continue to use their student support contacts who have also, or will be, attending this training.  

Email Student Support Team

Email Mental Health First Aiders

Mental Health First Aiders are there to listen, to understand and to signpost where appropriate. Please be assured that this is strictly confidential and if, for any reason, a Mental Health First Aider is required to share your information it would never be done so without your permission.

The list of Mental Health First Aid trained members are as follows:

  • Sam Inch – Staffing Support Manager
  • Jenny O’Donnell – Staffing Support Officer
  • Nicki Reid – Staffing Support Administrator
  • Carol Dow – Senior Computing Support Officer
  • Jade Gilhooly - Deputy Teaching Organisation Manager
  • Patrick Hudson - Senior Graduate School Coordinator
  • Jonathan MacBride - IGS Administrative Assistant

Awaiting training:

  • Peggy Series - Senior Lecturer

You are welcome to contact our Mental Health First Aiders directly.

Where do you draw the line?

We have run several of these workshops this year and received so much positive feedback. We have been informed that they are now managing to deliver these sessions online, via Teams, and are delighted to announce that we are getting the next session up and running.

This is a 2-hour workshop that offers departments the opportunity to learn about the factors that can create and sustain a work environment in which harassment and bullying occur and empower participants to work collaboratively to address concerns.

The next workshop will be held in June (date to be confirmed). These spaces are very limited and we are looking to get staff from all departments taking place. Please register your interest to InfHR to ensure that you secure a place at the next session. Later dates to be confirmed.

Email InfHR

Research Services updates

While the REF2021 submission has been postponed, Open access policies remain unchanged throughout the current COVID-19 situation, and the expectation is that accepted manuscripts are deposited in Pure within three months of the date of acceptance. If there are concerns about meeting Open Access deadlines, please contact Victoria and Sam on and they will be happy to advise.

As always, please continue to send details of recently accepted papers and open access questions, and Victoria or Sam will respond to your query.

Email RDM Team

Student news

IBM Machine Learning Practical prize-winners

The third IBM Machine Learning Practical prize event took (virtual) place on 4 May to recognise and reward the best group projects among 83 submissions. The event started with an introduction from the course organiser, Hakan Bilen, followed up by two talks from IBM, Mike McNamee and Petrena Prince covering IBM Academic program, recruitment and startup community. Finally, Stefan Aalten-Voogd from IBM announced the winning projects of this year: 1) Subword Modelling in Machine Translation and Automatic Speech Recognition for Diverse Languages by Steven Cassady, Dimitris Papaliouras, Dan Wells, 2) Stock Market Prediction Using Deep Reinforcement Learning by Robbie Aitken, Maysara Hammouda, Kasparas Masiukas, 3) Leveraging Pretrained Transformers for Paraphrase Generation by Anton Whittaker, Oisin Turbitt, Sixten Heekin. The projects were judged by a committee including the course organisers, Pavlos Andreadis, Hakan Bilen, Antreas Antoniou and two external machine learning experts, Steve Renals and Oisin Mac Aodha. Congrats to all the MLP students!

Design Informatics students and staff take part in European hackathon to tackle Covid-19 post-emergency challenges

Students and staff from the Centre of Design Informatics, a collaboration between School of Informatics and Edinburgh College of Art based at the Bayes Centre, took part in a pan-European hackathon which tackled challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. The hackathon UNA.TEN – “Transform Emergency Now! 10 days for change” was organised by Una Europa and presented four challenges to the 19 teams that participated: 1) Rethinking entertainment and culture, 2) Securing privacy and preventing misconceptions in a digital world, 3) Ensuring traveler safety, and 4) Avoiding food waste. Over 100 students from the ten universities that comprise Una Europa took part; two teams competed from the University of Edinburgh, addressing challenges 1 and 3. Team One partnered with the Edinburgh Festivals and Fringe to address the challenge of creating the experience of the Festivals without physically being in Edinburgh. Their  solution, EdinGo, is an immersive experience that connects audiences and performers internationally within virtual but distinctly Edinburgh spaces. Team Three, who looked at traveller safety in partnership with Talbot Rice gallery, came up with a social distancign navigation system called Synergy, which is designed to be adaptable to both indoor and outdoor environments, including museums, galleries, and various social infrastructures. Both teams worked incredibly hard over the ten days and came up with innovative solutions to the challenges posed by Covid-19.

About the UNA.TEN hackathon

Find out more about the Edinburgh teams' projects

Minecraft Appleton Tower

CompSoc launch Minecraft server complete with Appleton Tower

Earlier this month CompSoc, the University's Computing Society, launched their own Minecraft Server. The game is a great way to pass the time while staying at home, especially if you are missing the campus as the server features its very own Appleton Tower (pictured). CompSoc hope to host events and challenges via the server in the near future.

Joining instructions for the CompSoc Minecraft server

Staff news

Stefano Albrecht secures funding from ONR

Stefano Albrecht and collaborators at University of Birmingham and University of Texas at Austin received a $1M grant from the US Office of Naval Research (ONR). The 3-year project will develop new algorithms for explainable reasoning, learning, and interaction for ad-hoc multi-agent collaboration. Research at Edinburgh will focus on algorithms for scalable and robust multi-agent teamwork in complex environments under dynamic team composition and resource constraints, using techniques of deep reinforcement learning, multi-agent learning, and graph neural networks.

Paul Patras will present a paper on vulnerability in the Bluetooth Classic

Paul Patras and colleagues revealed a fundamental vulnerability in the Bluetooth Classic protocol, which enables malicious actors to de-anonymise devices (and thus their users). This affects billions of devices. Bluetooth Classic (BT) remains the de facto connectivity technology in car stereo systems, wireless headsets, laptops, and a plethora of wearables, especially for applications that require high data rates, such as audio streaming, voice calling, tethering, etc. Unlike in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), where address randomization is a feature available to manufactures, BT addresses are not randomized because they are largely believed to be immune to tracking attacks. Researchers test the BT by devising a robust de-anonymization technique and developing the first Software-defined Radio (SDR) based sniffer that allows full BT spectrum analysis (79 MHz) and implements the proposed de-anonymization technique. The study demonstrates that it is possible to track BT devices up to 85 meters from the sniffer, and achieve more than 80% device identification accuracy within less than 1 second of sniffing and 100% detection within less than 4 seconds. The identified privacy attack was studied in the wild, capturing BT traffic at a road junction over 5 days and with the sniffer moving at vehicular speeds, demonstrating that our system can re-identify hundreds of users and infer their commuting patterns. The paper on BT vulnerability was accepted at the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy (Oakland), which is the flagship conference in this field and will be presented there in May 2020.

Barbara Webb has a review paper in Science

Barbara Webb had a review article in Science that summarise the current state of research into insect robotics. The ability to build a machine that replicates insect’s brains functions would be the ultimate test of mechanistic understanding of how it works. Computer models let researchers copy the brain's processes, and robots allow these models to be tested in real bodies interacting with real environments. Prominent examples in the area include the visual target tracking of dragonflies being replicated on a (wheeled) robot platform performing active pursuit or insect target tracking behavior examined in the praying-mantis–inspired “mantisbot”. Future queries may include further insight into the mushroom body (MB), the region of the insect brain known to be involved in associative learning of the value of olfactory stimuli. Multiple modelling studies and some robot applications have shown that it can support pattern learning by encoding inputs as sparse activation of a small subset of a larger neural population and correlating with a reward signal. Modelling the whole insect brain is still on the table: several groups, inspired by detailed D. melanogaster brain wiring diagrams, are now pursuing this target. More detailed brain models however are only likely to lead to insights if they are grounded in understanding behaviour.

Article in Science

Mahesh Marina recognised as a Distinguished Program Committee Member by the IEEE Communications Society

Mahesh Marina has been recognised by the IEEE Communications Society as a Distinguished Program Committee Member for the 2020 edition of IEEE INFOCOM conference, a reputed and long-standing venue in the computer networking field. This distinction is awarded based upon ratings by peer TPC members, fairness in review scores, and promptness in meeting various deadlines during the review process.  Mahesh has also received this distinction previously.

IEEE INFOCOM conference

Leonid Libkin to speak at Gems of PODS event

Leonid Libkin will be one of the speaker at this year's Gems of PODS event, at the SIGMOD/PODS conference, to be held online in place of Portland OR in June. His talk will describe the work of the Edinburgh group on handling incomplete data in relational databases and on eliminating notorious inconsistencies that exist in all commercial systems without incurring significant performance costs. PODS (ACM Symposium on Principles of Database Systems) is the main annual event in the area of foundations of data management. The Gems of PODS event features topics and results in PODS that have been highly influential in the PODS community and beyond. 

Stefano Albrecht co-edited a special issue of Autonomous Agents Modelling Other Agents

A new journal special issue on "Autonomous Agents Modelling Other Agents" has been published in the journal Artificial Intelligence. The special issue was co-edited by Stefano Albrecht with colleagues Peter Stone (University of Texas at Austin) and Michael Wellman (University of Michigan).  The guest editorial provides more details about the special issue and published papers.

Stefano's guest editorial

Mahesh Marina and Mohamed Kassem will present a paper at MobiSys

Mahesh Marina with his PhD student, Mohamed Kassem, and in collaboration with Morteza Kheirkhah (UCL) and Peter Buneman (Edinburgh) have their paper titled “WhiteHaul: An Efficient Spectrum Aggregation System for Low-Cost and High Capacity Backhaul over White Spaces” accepted to ACM MobiSys 2020 conference to be held virtually in June 2020. MobiSys is a top venue for mobile and wireless systems research. The WhiteHaul system aims at affordable and easily deployable backhaul, key to enabling universal fixed/mobile Internet access, especially for rural and developing regions. To this end, WhiteHaul exploits spectrum white spaces (vacant or under-utilised spectrum) in the TV band and efficiently aggregates (even non-contiguous) chunks of them to create backhaul links that can deliver at nearly 600Mbps over long distances, at least an order of magnitude better than state-of-the-art research prototypes and commercial solutions.

ACM MobiSys 2020 

Outreach and Public Engagement

For latest opportunities please check CSE PE blog for more info.

CSE Public Engagement update

Call for contributors - I'm a Scientist / Engineer, Stay at Home - apply by 31st May

Across the UK, school students’ education has been disrupted, classes are split up and science teachers are tasked with providing remote activities. Help pupils stay connected with STEM, their teachers and their classmates using the I’m a Scientist & I’m an Engineer Stay at Home online STEM engagement zones.

Through this tried-and-tested text-based format, answer questions about science/engineering and working in STEM, chat with teachers and pupils, and build your public engagement experience.

Find out more and sign up 

For engineering disciplines

Call for scientists - Scientist Next Door online engagement

Co-founded by the School of Chemistry, this project is aiming to bring communities together during these times of lockdown and home-schooling, by sharing scientists' passions for science with children and young people through a website and Google Hangout discussions. Attempts are being made to engage families from underserved communities as much as possible and help mitigate the potential gap in STEM uptake resulting from socio-economic factors. 

Scientist next door website

Email co-founder Valentina

Call for evidence / input - Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, deadline: 29th May

The Scottish Parliament's Covid-19 committee are actively seeking a wide-range of views on the options for refining or reducing the current lockdown arrangements. Key questions revolve around the decision-making of the Scottish Government, maintaining public confidence and the messaging strategy, and improving the robustness of the data informing policymaker decisions. Therefore, there are many questions that recipients of this email could respond to.

The Scottish Government's framework for decision-making

Details of the process

When emailing your submission, please cc the University's Stakeholder Relations team so they are aware of your contribution.

Email Stuart Tooley

Opportunity - ASCUS and art-science engagement

The ASCUS team, based at Summerhall and specialising in art-science engagement and accessible lab experiences, are still in operation and available for consultations around any potential art-science engagement you are considering. You can get in touch with the team by email:


ASCUS website

Staff Training Courses

We now have a page listing training courses attended by staff. You can submit your own feedback on a particular training you attended. 

List and feedback on training courses

Submit feedback

Informatics Social Events

We are using the weekly Lockdown Bulletin to keep everyone informed of virtual social events happening in Informatics. Keep an eye on your emails to find out how you can get involved!

Best of InfGeneral

This month the best of inf-general award goes to Bob Fisher for telling us about spam request to review an article on the effect of constipation on childhood stereo vision. Bob chose not to review it.

Inf-general is a mailing list used to carry informal discussions, postings, requests to and from staff within Informatics. Not for official purposes. Julian Bradfield is the guardian of inf-general who steps in to point out misuses and confirm when inf-general should most definitely be used. If you’re new to Informatics inf-general emails can be a great source of knowledge for you: ask and you will be informed, but do remember to share the information back with the mailing list users.


Keep in Touch

For all the latest news, keep an eye on our website and social media channels!

Informatics Communications team website





Edinburgh Informatics Alumni group on LinkedIn


The newsletter is produced by the Communications team.

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