Campus close-up: University of Southampton

Web Science Institute aims to produce multidisciplinary research and graduates ready to play key roles in the digital economy

July 17, 2014

Source: Getty

Open source: scholars would have brokered ‘private’ conversation had Edward Snowden offered them NSA data

What would the country’s leading web and computer science academics have done had Edward Snowden come to them, rather than to journalists, with classified information about the US National Security Agency’s activities online?

It’s a question that Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the institution, grappled with during a round-table discussion at the Royal Society last month.

“We’d have sat there and thought about it quite hard,” said Sir Nigel. “The fact that [NSA snooping] is happening was not perhaps a great surprise…but this comes back to issues of accountability. What’s reasonable, and how much should the organisations that are there to keep us safe lift their skirts and declare some of the things they are doing?

“And where is that debate to be had? I think, actually, that an organisation like ours could at least have had a view about getting that conversation off the ground.”

“I’d like to think we’d have brokered a conversation,” added Dame Wendy. But would it have happened publicly or privately? “Well, initially privately,” she said.

The pair were speaking at the launch of Southampton’s Web Science Institute, a multidisciplinary venture that aims – according to its website – to harness the “analytical power of researchers from disciplines as diverse as mathematics, sociology, economics, psychology, law and computer science to understand and explain the Web”.

By doing so it hopes to produce research and graduates that will be at the forefront of developments in the new digital economy. The institute includes a Centre for Doctoral Training funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council that will train 65 PhD students over five years.

How to handle the Snowden leak, Dame Wendy said, “is exactly the sort of question we’d set our web science students”. She said the institute’s determination to tackle difficult issues was among the reasons Liam Maxwell, chief technology officer to the British government, was a visiting professor there and media figures were supporting its doctoral training centre.

Addressing the question himself, Professor Maxwell, who also took part in the round-table discussion, said there were “certain things by law that I would have to do” if he was aware of information such as the Snowden data being held. But he suggested that there might not be a situation where the security services forced hard drives to be destroyed, as at The Guardian, as there was a “continual engagement anyway with academics, with businesses in those areas”.

Sir Nigel, who said that “we are not a newspaper, that’s not our role”, pointed out that in both the UK and US the press exists as a “separate estate” to protect free speech. But he said that as far as web science is concerned, “it’s very interesting how often [the area of study] comes back to these fundamental value questions”.

Also speaking at the launch, Susan Halford, head of sociology and social policy at Southampton and a co-director of the new institute, emphasised the importance both of the university’s pedigree in computer science and the interdisciplinary approach for the goal of making the venture a success.

She said it may “take time” for the institute to become recognised as the key centre for study in the field as “there are hierarchies in higher education, there are different ways of seeing things, there are some disciplines that think there is only one way of seeing the world”.

But she added: “Southampton is five or six years ahead of where a lot of universities would like to be [in the field of computer and web science]…We have put a lot of investment into this area.”

In numbers

65 PhD students will train at the institute’s Centre for Doctoral Training over five years

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Liverpool Hope University/Newman University/St Mary’s University, Twickenham
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University of Wolverhampton
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University of Dundee
A Scottish and a Brazilian university are to look into how the Fifa World Cup in Brazil has affected the human rights of children in the country. The University of Dundee and the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro are to report by the end of the year on whether the fallout from the tournament, such as extra security, construction work and other changes, has impacted on children, particularly those who are most marginalised.

University of Manchester
A 400 million-year-old arachnid has been brought back to life in an animated video. Researchers from the University of Manchester and the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin used fossils from the Natural History Museum to work out the range of motion in the limbs of the creature, one of the first land predators. The video was then created using open source software.

Anglia Ruskin University/University of St Andrews
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University of Greenwich
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