EPSRC Associate Peer Review College Membership

I have been invited to become a member of the EPSRC Associate Peer Review College.

The EPSRC has a budget of £0.8 billion, which it uses to fund research in engineering and the physical sciences.

These research grants are awarded on a competitive basis, and a pool of reviewers decide on which proposals should be funded.  The process should be an interesting one, particularly for keeping up to date and influencing priority research areas for UK science and engineering.


ADD – Addis Ababa: The Yellow and Green of Development

14311199_10101720993257879_98756789663023947_o-1Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, is undergoing a development revolution.  In common with much of Africa, Chinese-funded development is changing the city.  Everywhere you look, the green and yellow hoardings show which blocks are 14372044_10101720993512369_5735790636051623343_obeing developed or are about to be so.

I last visited Addis four years ago in 2012, and the changes are clear.  There is a new metro, run by Schenzen metro (and using their logo) opened in 2015, there 14310445_10101720994565259_9120893785537070562_ois a new railway to Djibouti, and signs to a new Ethio-China Friendship Square in the heart of the city.

Things are changing – fast, and Ethiopia, with its excellent national airline, is a fascinating country to watch.

Why do the Roads at London’s Heathrow Airport have strange names?

If you have ever driven around Heathrow Airport in London, you may have noticed that the road names have an interesting pattern.

Roads in the central area – such as Croydon Road, Cambourne Crescent all begin with ‘C’; roads near Terminal 5 – such as Walrus Road, Wayfarer Road all begin with ‘W’; roads near Terminal 4 – Stratford Road, Salisbury Road all begin with ‘S’, while roads to the north of the terminals all begin with ‘N’ and roads to the East all begin with ‘E’.lhr-centrallhr-west

An obvious pattern when you see it – the reason being that Heathrow has five Rendezvous Points – RVPs – central, east, west, north, and south.  If a plane were to come down on Wayfarer Road, the emergency services would immediately be sent to RVP West.  You can see the importance of the RVP system in the following fascinating ATC video from the British Airways crash on runway 27L – and the air traffic controller declaring ‘the Rendezvous point is SOUTH’ just after the 1 minute mark.


You may have seen the green RVP (N/E/S/W/C) signs near UK airports.  And that’s what they are for.

Parkrun Freedom of Information Act Release: Public Policy Gone Bad

Parkrun is an organization that coordinates a series of 5km runs for the public.  Crucially, there is no charge for participating in these runs, and this has contributed to over 1 million people registering themselves as runners.  It does good, doesn’t take a profit, and generally is regarded as a Good Thing.

Generally, the locations at which these runs take place are happy for the exposure, and local restaurants, coffee shops and pubs are also happy for the passing trade caused by the events.

However, this all changed earlier in the year when Stoke Gifford Parish Council decided to charge for the event.  Quite what the grounds were for the charge were unclear, but the Council have now disclosed to me the grounds for their action.  It is worth noting that the Council did not comply with section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, nor to a first reminder issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The released documents are here.  I have redacted personal email addresses and phone numbers that were included in the documents.  Despite asking for all information, the Council stated: ‘Please note the majority of e-mail communication received was from Parkrun runners personal e-mail addresses, and will therefore not be published.’

The case boils down to a matter of national vs local public policy: the UK government want people to get moving, and the parish council don’t want to pay for it (or rather, want to be paid for it).

Parkrun set out (through their lawyers) the legal basis for their case.  Oddly, the Parish Council does not appear to have disclosed their reply (if any) to the lawyers.  It is good to see letters from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and from the local MP.

The Parish Council set out what at first glance appears to be a rather odd justification of charging under section 19 of the Local Government Act 1976 (which, incidentally, is an act of Parliament of Malaysia – presumably they (the Secretary of State and the Parish Council) mean the Local Government Act (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976): that as the runners run on a cycle track, and as such this gives them a right to charge for this (para 19b); or premises for the use of clubs or societies having athletic, social, or recreational objects (para 19d); or facilities in connection with any other recrational facilities (ps who writes this stuff?) (para 19f).

Pretty weak justifications in my view.  Particularly when HM Secretary of State gives you a pretty big hint that you are out of order.

Parkrun’s lawyers suggest that they may request a judicial review of the decision.  And maybe this would be a good time for Parkrun runners to fund such a review.  Not just for this case, but for the general principle of local authorities’ interests vs. the national interest.


The Curious Case of #TrainGate

Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the Labour Party in the UK, took a train and did/did not sit down.  Or rather did/did not sit down on a comfy chair.

Now, for most of us, that would not be much of a story, but tonight it is the most read story on the BBC website.

And it all comes down to these images:

Virgin press officJC045 - pixilated redactede caption: CCTV footage shows Mr Corbyn returning to Coach H and sitting down at 11.43am, shortly after being filmed while sat on the floor and more than 2hrs before his final destination, Newcastle (I have removed images of other passengers)


Virgin press office caption: CCTJC016 - VTEC#12316 Camera 3#11-08-2016 10_11_37.38 redactedV footage shows Mr Corbyn walking past reserved but empty seats at 11.08am in Coach F (I have removed images of other passengers).

Anyway, the crux of it is that the Labour party implies there were no seats, and Virgin trains implies there were.  The interesting thing is that CCTV images were released into the public domain, and the (presumably) commercial thoughts that went into that decision.

Virgin Trains Privacy Policy

Is here.  And I doubt anyone has read it.  I mean, who decides which train to catch on the basis of a privacy policy?

Anyway, there’s a whole section on CCTV.  The only relevant bit seems to be ‘In certain circumstances we may need to disclose CCTV images for legal reasons.’  A bit weak for disclosing the images on their website to the whole world.  But, some clever privacy person has added:

‘We employ CCTV on our trains and in our stations in order to:

  • prevent, deter and detect crime
  • apprehend and prosecute offenders, and provide evidence to take civil action in the courts
  • help provide a safer environment for our staff
  • protect public safety
  • help to provide improved customer service, for example by enabling staff to see customers requiring assistance
  • monitor operational and safety related incidents
  • assist with the verification of claims.’

More on that later.

The Information Commissioner

The Information Commissioner’s Data protection code of practice for surveillance cameras and personal information sets out that ‘Disclosure of information from surveillance systems must be controlled and consistent with the purpose(s) for which the system was established.’.

‘The method of disclosing information should be secure to ensure they are only seen by the intended recipient.’

Now, you could argue that Virgin intended the recipient to be the whole world.  And that the system was established to assist with the verification of claims.

And there are no criminal issues: the Crown Prosecution Service is only interested if you obtain data without the consent of the data controller.  (Virgin are the data controller, and released the data, so that doesn’t work.)  Or if they sell personal data.  (They didn’t – they gave it away for free.)

The Moral of the Story

Read those privacy policies.  And don’t make a claim against Virgin Trains.  Otherwise you may find yourself on the pages of the tabloid newspapers.

Update 24 August 2016: The Guardian reports that the Information Commissioner is investigating whether the release of CCTV images by Virgin Trains breaches the Act.  Interestingly, they do not say that they did – and it all comes down to interpretation of the Rules.  Given that the bold paragraph is in Virgin’s privacy policy, it will be interesting to see whether this is enough to not be caught by the Rules.  Watch this space, and in the meantime, the EU General Data Protection Regulation is soon to be upon us (at least for the time in which the UK is part of the EU).  With penalties of 4% of worldwide turnover, it would be interesting to see if such a PR gamble would take place under the new regime.

Building the Multiplex: An Agent-Based Model of Formal and Informal Network Relations

EURO Conference 2016 PoznanThis presentation from the EURO 2016 conference in Poznan, Poland, and from the GDN conference in Bellingham, WA, USA, joint work with Leroy White of Warwick Business School, shows how combining formal and informal organizational networks enables decisions to flow more freely around organizations, but at a cost, leading to an optimal size of informal organizational networks.  If organizations can control these, this leads to implications for optimal information flows in companies.

The Brexit Paradox: This is not Representative Democracy

In the UK, voters elect a Member of Parliament who is there to represent the views of their constituents.  This is representative democracy, and the UK has survived pretty well with this form of government.  It is one of the many things that the Romans Have Done For Us.

Members of Parliament are supposed to do what their constituents tell them to do.  They may have loyalty to the political party to which they belong, but they should, at least in theory, represent the views of their constituents.

The recent referendum on whether the UK remains a part of, or leaves, the European Union, has caused a great deal of uncertainty, and it is clear, when you think of it, why this is so.

Consider the stylized map of the UK below, where the country is split into three constituencies.  Each constituency has 1 million electors, who all vote.

Constituency A votes 800,000 Leave : 200,000 Remain;
Constituency B votes 400,000 Leave : 600,000 Remain; and
Constituency C votes 400,000 Leave : 600,000 Remain.

This means that there is a total of 800,000 + 400,000 + 400,000 = 1,600,000 voting for Leave; and 200,000 + 600,000 + 600,000 = 1,400,000 voting for Remain.


This is democratic.  The will of the people is that, by a sizeable majority, Leave wins.

However, when this is ratified in Parliament*, by the representatives of the people, the consituents’ MPs, the following happens:

The MP for Consituency A votes Leave;
The MP for Consitutency B votes Remain;
The MP for Consituency C votes Remain.

We are then left in the paradoxical position that a referendum result‡ cannot – under a representative democracy system – be implemented by the MPs.

This is a key constitutional question, and one that cannot be solved by Parliament or the Judiciary†.  This is a fundamental issue for British (and European) democracy.  And its importance cannot be overstated.

* there is a fierce debate on which body needs to invoke Article 50(2) of the Treaty of European Union, but let us assume that Parliament would make this decision ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’ under Article 50(1).
† it is clear that the decision will be the subject of Judicial review, right up to the Supreme court, but this will merely be a judicial rather than a democratic decision.
‡ this is not quite the situation in the actual Brexit referendum result (although there is no way of telling, as MPs’ constituencies are different from referendum counting districts), but the fact remains that the result of a referendum can be inconsistent with implementation under representative democracy.


Update 3 November 2016: The High Court (subject to appeal to the Supreme Court) has confirmed that Parliament should decide how to implement withdrawal, as the powers of Royal Perogative would have an impact on Statute, which is not normally the case when treaties are made or revoked.  Brexit is a special case, as it would overturn Statute in a way that was not envisaged in the European Communities Act 1972.  The full judgment is here).

What proportion of an airline ticket is made up of the cost of the aeroplane?

aiga-40_departingflightsAircraft aren’t cheap.  Neither are airline tickets.  But how much of that airline ticket is made up of the cost of the aeroplane?

If we assume a relatively efficient modern airliner, say a 777, a 30-year lifetime, 3500 hours per year, and an average speed of 500mph, that produces a  total distance of 52,500,000 miles.  Which is quite a lot.

If you were to knock on Boeing’s door, they could sell you one for $320 million.  Volume discounts are, I am told, available.

So, assuming straight line depreciation, along with many, many other assumptions, that’s $6.10 per mile.  At 350 or so passengers, that is around

2 cents per mile

Or, for a 3000 mile (transcontinental or transoceanic) flight, a total of sixty dollars.  Which is perhaps more than I expected.

Stacking Shelves the Amazon way

Amazon2Amazon FC are playing in the Euros (the UEFA football championship).  Or at least that’s what could be inferred from my name badge.

In fact, Amazon FC is one of the Amazon fulfilment centres, located in the Polish town of Poznań, location of the 28th European conference on Operational Research.

The fulfilment centre is huge – with a million separate items stocked, and up to a million items being processed every day – and is just one of a network of existing sites around Europe and around the world, the locations of which are themselves optimized to minimize cost.

AmazonMapOne of the many interesting facts about the tour was the way that Amazon store stock on their shelves.  Like any other business, they want to minimize fixed costs.  One way they can do this is to maximize the density of items stored on their shelves.  Unlike in my Mini factory visit (which will be the subject of a later post), Amazon does not run a just-in-time stock system.  They are happy(ish) to hold stock on the basis that their customer will have it quickly and will not have to wait for it to be backordered.  Amazon was founded on the basis of being able to supply items that only a few people will want – the so-called long tail – itself the subject of a book available on, where else, Amazon… the upshot of which is that if you rank the most popular to the least popular items sold on one axis, and take a logarithm of the number of these items sold on the other, it will make a nice straight line (a Zipf distribution for those interested).  So, Amazon will hold on to some items for years on the basis that someone, somewhere, sometime, will want to buy it.


So, Amazon needs to store these millions of items.  While most things are controlled and optimized by computer, they leave it down to human intuition as to where to store items – albeit guided by optimization algorithms.


Instead of giving a specific destination for each stock item (basically a very large grid reference), they give their employees a general area into where to store items.  The idea behind this is that when you first fill a location with stock, the space-packing density will be high as items fit next to each other.  But as items are removed and sold, spaces will be created meaning that you are effectively paying to store air.  So Amazon allows its employees to use these spaces to store more items – even if they are unrelated to each other.  Of course, the system keeps track of stock locations, but by doing things this way, the efficiency of the operations is improved, and less space is required for storage.

There is a similar example of adaptive organization used by Southwest airlines in my article The Complexity of the Corporation.

The Complexity of the Corporation

HSMIn my paper, The Complexity of the Corporation, I introduce complexity science applied to management, discussing complex adaptive systems, emergence, co-evolution, and power laws.

“We discuss the notion of complexity as applied to firms and corporations. We introduce the background to complex adaptive systems, and discuss whether this presents an appropriate model or metaphor to be used within management science. We consider whether a corporation should be thought of as a complex system, and conclude that a firm within an industry can be defined as a complex system within a complex system.Whether we can say that the use of complexity research will fundamentally improve firm performance will depend on the effect on success derived from its application.”