Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The HSE's Covid Tracker App #Analytics

Many people will be worried about the data privacy implications with the new HSE Covid Tracker App. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has stated "Please take two minutes to download the app. It is totally private" - if you are reassured by statements from politicians, then you should be OK. 

Clearly - the motives for creating and using this tracker are morally justified in my view. Anything that can help slow down infection rates, which in turn will save lives, is good for the common good. Nobody wants to get catch this virus, nobody wants to pass it on, nobody wants to die from Covid-19, and I'm certain that nobody wants to be the source of infection for someone who dies. So what's the problem with a tracker app?

No data collected is private. Repeat - no data collected is private.

Data sits on a computer somewhere - everything from phones to servers. In order for this app to work it has to gather data - that means that it can be accessed. No doubt these data will be a valuable source of information for researchers everywhere. Who knows - a data scientist might come up with a cure before a medical scientist looking for a vaccine.

I have installed the App and intend to use it. There are very few age groups listed - the oldest is "60+" which the App tells me is the most vulnerable group. I am in this group, and have in interest in staying alive. During installation I was told "Your identity will never be revealed to other app users" and that "Any personal data you provide will be processed in line with GDPR and data protection law". There were several opportunities to visit data protection sites.

We have to trust this App, the people who created it, and those who protect the data. There will be hackers out there already trying to get their hands on these valuable data. Since I took the screenshot above on my phone 22 minutes ago, the number has gone up to 160,440 Check-Ins today.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Out of the city #Wexford #wfh

It's the end of June and finally the end of the Covid-19 Lockdown, and I have decamped to Wexford for the rest of the summer. I am continuing to work from home thanks to recently installed Vodafone broadband. It's good to be out of the city and be in beautiful Wexford.

One of the first things I did when I got here was to go to Carnew to see my Mum and Dad - I hadn't seen them since St Patrick's Day. It was very hard to confine myself to Dublin and stay away from them - especially when others took risks and broke the Lockdown rules. I was never 100% sure that I would not have the virus - 99% was not good enough for me. So many people have lost parents and grandparents - my family and I are blessed that Phil and Joe were safe and healthy.

Someday I might write about experiences during Lockdown - especially relating to being an educator in the on-line world. But I do notice some things coming back to normal. It was great to be able to drive more than 20 kms though the familiar roads of Wicklow - driving, such a simple pleasure. 

When in Gorey the other day I used cash to pay for parking, 50c got me 30 minutes. It was the first time using cash for over three months. I was only going to be in Gorey for a few minutes, but I did not want to risk a €40 fine. Other simple things like mowing the lawn were also a treat, even though the length of the grass made my lawn look more like a meadow than a manicured green grass carpet. I almost consider it a badge of honour to have my lawn like this. I mow the lawn myself - many of my neighbours use lawn mowing services to keep their grass in a trim condition.

Normally on this week every year, I start my (generously) lengthy summer holidays. This time last year Roma and I were on Day 3 of our Route 66 trip riding from Springfield to St Louis. I'm not taking holidays this year until the last two weeks in July - it's going to be difficult to stay working at my computer while walks on the beach are close at hand.

It is good to be back to some semblance of normality - good riddance to March/April/May/June 2020.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Is now a good time for a gap year from College?

Many new and returning students are facing into uncertain times when the new academic year begins in September. For many students, deferring admission or continuation for a year is suddenly far more attractive. Many Universities and Colleges have still to finalise if classes will be held on campus and/or on-line. 

College of course is as much about campus-life experience as it is about classes. I spent eight years in Trinity and loved (almost) every minute of it. I did not have a gap year - it wasn't really a thing back in the late 70s and early 80s. Today's students must be wondering if it is worth going back to College and inevitable uncertainty, or is it a good time to step away from education and do something else?

Believe it or not - there is a Gap Year Association. It recommends four key components for making a year off before college worthwhile:
  1. Service work or volunteering
  2. Internship or career mentorship
  3. Some amount of paid work
  4. "Free Radical"  - something creative, so that the year is not over-scheduled

In addition to current uncertainty, students may experience burnout from the competitive pressure of College, and  have a desire to know more about themselves. Travel is also a good reason to take a gap year - but this may remain restricted for some time. Why take a gap year if you can't travel the world?

On balance - I think this would be the perfect time for a gap year if you can afford it. While travel may be restricted, and opportunities for casual work in bars and restaurants reduced - there is still plenty to do.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Lecturers - we are no longer in charge of the classroom?

The transition from classroom to on-line lectures has been smooth for some lecturers, and difficult for others. Not all subjects lend themselves to the on-line environment, and as Éanna Ó Caollaí writes about "Coronavirus and the ‘new norm’ at third level" in today's Irish Times: "shoe-horning course content online in response to a crisis might work as a stop-gap but it is not considered to be best practice when it comes to online education". Ó Caollaí also wonders about the "degree to which academic programmes will be redesigned to place online at the core of curriculum delivery still remains to be seen". But the central point of a class/lecture has always been that the treacher/lecturer is in control of what happens - but is this changing?

Kate Roll (Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL) and Marc Ventresca (Said Business School, Oxford) writing in The Guardian this week tell us that "Lecturer and student relationships matter even more online than on campus", and that due to the Pandemic that we have an "unparalleled opportunity to rethink teaching and to refocus on relationships with students". Roll and Ventresca tell us that "lecturers aren’t feeling so in charge anymore" due to the "destabilising" nature of on-line teaching compared to the traditional lecture theatre approach. I firmly agree with them that "standard lecture approaches often fare poorly online" and that both students and lecturers will feel disconnected and demotivated.

The Roll and Ventresca message is that relationships with students matter more than ever. Lecturers are no longer in control of the classroom on-line. I have been teaching on-line as well as in the classroom for the past two years, and there is no doubting that it is a much different experience. While I am in control of the software (I have used the Adobe Connect Virtual Classroom), I cannot see the students, I don't know if they are attending to the class (unless they pop a message into the chat pod), I can't hear them, I cannot read body language to tell if something is not being understood, I have no control over what happens in break-out sessions with Teaching Assistants, and if a students wished to attend a class by watching the recording later - I am not even there.

Building relationships with anyone is not easy, especially when the centuries old tradition of the lecturer as the sage-on-the-stage is being tested like never before. In addition to modifying or even completely changing course resources such as lecture and tutorial notes in response to moving on-line, us lecturers now need to learn how to build virtual relationships. Everything will be different for our students, but it is different for us too.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

1960 Baby

Me in 1960.
The Internet has brought us a lot of wonderful things. People share memories, ideas, make money, connect, and lots of other things. During the lockdown, lots of people are digging into old photos and sharing them online. I am fascinated by photos shared online by the people of Gorey (where my Mum grew up) and Carnew (where my Dad grew up). Lots of wonderful memories and brain taxing efforts to identify people in old photos.

A few years ago I shared photos from my Mum's photo album of her school days - several class photos got a great reaction with many people saying that they had never seen the photos before, and things like "there's my Mum 3rd from right in middle row". It's brilliant to think that others can get such simple enjoyment. As always with these things, the comments and likes died down as the sharing cycle inevitably came to an end.

Right out of the blue last month, I got a comment on a Gorey school photo from the daughter of one of my Mum's best friends (who had not seen the photo before). Much to my surprise, and delight, she also sent me a copy of the photo here. I wasn't certain at first, but it is me as a baby in early 1960 at only 4 or 5 months old - I don't think I would have won a Bonnie Baby competition! I had never seen it before. Imagine, a photo like this lying in someone else's old photo album!

There is so much wrong with how people use the Internet to spread fake news, abuse, and troll others - but it is a wonderful medium for sharing memories that otherwise might have been lost.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Post Boxes

No name on this post box.
I have started to notice things about my neighbourhood, while I am confined to a 5km distance from home during lockdown, that I did not notice before. Dotted around our roads are various post boxes of different shapes and sizes. I started taking pictures while out walking - I show a selection below. 

When Ireland was part of the UK, we obviously followed the tradition of naming our post boxes after the king or queen of England, and painting them red. The first post boxes in Ireland had Victoria's name until 1901 - a simple V R (Victoria Regina). This was followed by Edward VII between 1901 and 1910 - as you can see below there were two different types for Edward Rex. George V was the last king we had here, so post boxes with his name appeared between 1910 and 1921. 

Following independence in 1921, we had no need of such royal insignia, even though the king was nominally our head of state. In 1922, one of the first acts of the new Irish Government was to order that all post boxes be painted green - even though the royal insignia could be clearly seen. One of my favourite post boxes is on Booterstown Avenue - it has a Saorstát Éireann (sé) insignia. This is not as clear as some of the others, and to me it looks like it was either stamped over a royal insignia or in a blank box like the one above. The final one below features p 7 t (Post and Telegraph). The 7 like symbol is shorthand for "agus" - it has a name. It is called a "Tironian et". The Dept of Posts and Telegraphs ceased to exist in 1984 when it as changed to Dept of Communications.

I need to get out more!

Edward VII

George V

Edward VII

Saorstát Éireann

Post and Telegraph

Friday, June 05, 2020

22,000,000 YouTube Views #humbled

A nice million landmark was reached on my YouTube Channel today which passed the 22,000,000 views mark. As always, I am delighted and humbled that so many people have viewed my videos - I never thought that this would happen when I set the channel up on April 7th 2006. As you can see below, there are definite trends that occur year after year:

Sadly, the number of views per day this year are not reaching the heights of last year. There are about 2,000 views per day less. My Statistics videos, with some Excel ones too, are the most popular.

The "Watch time" figure in hours is an interesting one: 981.8k hours is equivalent to about 110 years. That's a long time! I am also looking forward to a Subscribers landmark figure, as I am hoping it will pass 50,000 before the end of the year.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Lecture is Dead, Long Live the Lecture

Prof Patrick Prendergast.
Image source: Trinity College.
I listened with interest on RTÉ radio's Drivetime programme to Professor Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College, discussing the re-opening of Trinity for the next academic year. He is a sensible Wexford man who tells it as he sees it, and points out that the inevitable loss of revenue, due mostly to an expected huge drop in foreign students, will affect not only Trinity, but the entire third level sector. However, I was most interested in his comments about how Trinity will deal with social distancing and classes in the coming academic year. Clearly, we cannot have packed lecture theatres and maintain social distancing. He did offer a "hybrid" model, where a lecture might be held in a theatre with just a few students, and that it would be streamed on-line at the same time. A good idea?

I'm not sure - I can see both positives and negatives. It doesn't make sense to me that a lecturer should walk to (say) a 100-seater theatre with just 20 students, while the remaining 80 students access the lecture on-line. Why not go all the way and just do the whole lecture on-line? No need to worry about social distancing. No need for a technician to be available. No need for an older (and therefore more vulnerable) lecturer to be present in a room where there are younger (and therefore less vulnerable) students present. No need to sanitise equipment like the lectern PC keyboard and mouse after every lecture. No need for a Teaching Assistant to deal with on-line questions. On the plus side, a hundreds of years old tradition of delivering a lecture to a room full of students will at least be partially maintained. And of course there is the extra-curricular activities that make college/university such an enriching learning experience.

An empty Lecture Theatre.
Image source: The Atlantic.
I had some lecturers in my time in Trinity (1979-1987) who, quite frankly, were poor teachers. All they did was come into the lecture theatre, talk at us for 45 minutes, and leave. Some just read out their own notes, while others used the available technology at that time (overhead projectors and/or slide projectors). Even today, I know that many lecturers (not just in Trinity) feel that they should still do the same - the only difference is that PowerPoint is used instead of a projector, and notes are now on Moodle. If this is all you do, there is no difference to student learning whether they are watching you in a lecture theatre, or on a computer screen. It is my sincere hope that the Covd-19 virus will kill this type of lecture. The challenge is to make the on-line lecture into a high class learning experience, and to motivate students to learn while doing so. Topics for another blog post!

Patrick Prendergast does value the learning experience of attending university, as I do. At the end of the interview he tells us that "we shouldn't tell a generation you're not going to have that type of experience, you have to stay at home - it's kind of incumbent upon us to do the best we can, recognising all the difficulties we have with public health, to ensure that our young people can have the kind of education that we had, and that we act appropriately to the constraints that are upon all of us in universities". 

Maybe the lecture is not dead after all?

You can hear Professor Prendergast's interview here.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

On-line College courses are here to stay

There's no going back to the old ways - at least not completely. There are many lessons to be learned from the current Pandemic, and one of them is that classes can be delivered on line much easier than many thought. A few short weeks ago I would not have been allowed to deliver a class from home. Two of my modules were delivered in a classroom computer laboratory - these switched to on-line in the last few weeks of the semester no problem at all. In the past few days I finished grading terminal assessments which replaced exams. While I have not decided if this is a good or bad thing yet - it is complete and it will be interesting to see if overall grades match previous years.

A lecture at the University of Bologna in Italy
in the mid-fourteenth century. The lecturer reads
from a text on the lectern while students in the back sleep.
Image source: Wikipedia.
Lauren Razavi, writing in The Guardian, tells us that "Students like the flexibility" that on-line universities provide. Lectures have been around for a long time, and not much has changed in hundreds of years. On-line options provide the flexibility like never before. The need to group students in a physical room for all classes is extinct.

While many of us with e-Learning backgrounds have been championing the use of technology in education for many years, we never quite got to the point of a revolution in education.  As Razavi points out in her article, the challenge now is "the scale and pace of change", and that the pandemic finally represents “a revolutionary moment".

Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) - get used to it!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

No more face-to-face lectures at Cambridge University until summer of 2021

News today that Cambridge University, and all its Colleges, are moving all lectures on-line for the 2020/2021 academic year. The immediate questions are: If Cambridge are doing it, should the rest of us follow? If it is good enough for a hallowed and respected institution like Cambridge - is it good enough for the rest of us?

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Image source: Wikipedia.
The start of Semester I in September is just four months away - we will not be out of lockdown for another two months. The European Union coronavirus response chief,  Dr Andrea Ammon, warns us also today that "Europe should brace itself for second wave" of Covid-19 infections after people return from summer holidays. Without wishing to alarmist, I feel that more universities and colleges will follow Cambridge. I guess most third level institutions are already planning for the possibility of no return to face-to-face lectures, but pressure will grow in the next few weeks for clarity. The student accommodation crisis is with us every late summer - so prospective students will want to know where they stand (landlords too). College Faculty will also need to be ready, and will need to know several weeks in advance of a new semester whether they are teaching on-line or in a physical classroom.

I applaud Cambridge for their foresight and being first out of the blocks with this - students and staff know exactly where they stand for the coming academic year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Drive to Working from Home #wfh

Empty for years - The Seamark Building, Dublin.
Image source: CBRE.
I'm glad I am not a property developer building a new office block, or a landlord sitting on an empty building right now. I am wondering if some companies who are considering expanding their workforce still feel the need to rent/buy new offices. Perhaps there is even another property crash ahead? Some offices in Dublin have been empty for years already!

Twitter have announced in a company Blog Post yesterday that if their employees are "in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen". Note the word "forever"! And this is for everyone in Twitter! The Irish Times reports today the "Google and Facebook extended their work-from-home policies into 2021. Amazon extended its work-from-home policy until at least early October". These of course are high-tech companies that have the technology to do this. It is obviously working for them right now, and this is the way they see the future. 

Image source: Information is Beautiful.
Schools and Colleges in Ireland are not expected to reopen until September - I agree with most people that this is a sensible thing to do, and hopefully this will happen at that time. But I for one am not comfortable going back into a building with hundreds of people in it at a time. I am not comfortable going into a classroom with 50 students, neither am I comfortable going into a reduced class of 10 - 15 students. On-line is more than OK by me, and I'm certain that prudent Colleges are already preparing for the possibility that classes might have to restart on-line in September.

Much of my reticence comes from now being over 60 years of age. The figures (based on Italy and UK) tell us that the over 60s are at most risk of dying if they get the infection. Compare this to 20 to 40 year olds (ages of most students) where the rate is less than 1%. Imagine working in an environment where one person has a 10% of dying, while everyone else is relatively safe at 1% if infection breaks out. The over 60s will benefit the most from new working from home policies.

I'm not ageist, but Covid-19 is.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Covid-19 Data Visualizations #TheBestSoFar #InformationIsBeautiful #Analytics

The excellent David McCandless has taken on the task of illustrating Covid-19 data in a very colourful and interactive way. He is author of the "Information is Beautiful" text book that is on our Reading List for the Higher Diploma in Data Analytics at NCI. While the source of the data (Johns Hopkins) is the same as that used by many other web sites (eg, The Irish Times Dashboard), McCandless's visualizations far outstrip others I have seen. the use of colour, shape, variety of charts, interactivity shows how big Data can be displayed in an interesting and effective way. Here's one of the best:

Image source: Information is Beautiful.

Choosing the right colours and shapes is an art, but it can be learned. You have to take into account the semantics of colour, what it is that you want to show, and how viewers will interact with your visualization. McCandless shows how far this can be taken to produce some wonderful visualizations - be sure to check them out.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Places I've been to in April #Lockdown.

I allow Google Maps to keep track of my phone. I'm not too bothered about how or what they use this data for - it is often interesting to look back over a month and recollect where I have been. I am often stuck by the accuracy of this tracking, even at times telling me what shop I went into.

According to latest map - I have been to one place: Dublin. When I drill into this it show locations around where I live - I guess most others who are obeying the Lockdown will have a similar experience. Covid-19 Tracking Apps may have a role in the near future in the fight against the virus using technology similar to Google Maps. Of course not all people will have smartphones, many who do have tracking turned off - in the end it might just be a small proportion of the population who will do this. My mind is made up to get the tracking app when it becomes available - it might only be a few bytes in a vast lake of data, but every little bit helps!

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Smoothing the Covid-19 Curve #Analytics

Lots of talk still about flattening the curve of Covid-19 infections. There now is clear evidence that the curves have flattened in many countries (see the excellent "Has the curve flattened?" page at Johns Hopkins). Much of the data is still what we call "noisy" - going up and down.

Data source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

One method that researchers use to detect trends in "noisy" data is to use a moving average to smooth the data. In the diagram above the blue line represents actual daily data for the number of confirmed new cases of Covid-19 in Ireland - as you can see it does jump up and down a bit over time, though a trend is still visible. By applying a moving average (I have used a 5-day average), the smoothing red dotted line is much clearer in displaying the downward trend since the peak in mid-April. It still has a long way to go, but let's hope that we do not see the trend going upwards again.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Getting Bored of People Stating the Obvious

"Unprecedented", "things will never be the same", "Covid-19 is a deadly virus", "these are uncertain times", "wash your hands", "the safety of our customers is our highest priority" - I am getting fed up hearing people stating the obvious. We already know all this - but why do people online, in meetings, in calls, in the media feel the need to say this stuff over and over? 

Also, there has been an increase in the level of moaning about what will happen after the lockdown is ended. Nobody knows for sure, but that doesn't stop some people falling onto a "What have the Government ever done for us" trance.

Here's an example from yesterday's Irish Times, where Éanna Ó Caollaí and Carl O'Brien report that "University lecturers warn of ‘enrolment chaos’ in autumn". Like - has no one in the Department of Education not already thought of this? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (which I am not a member of) is warning us that the Government must begin consulting with colleges, staff and students in order to avoid escalating uncertainty and the threat of “enrolment chaos” in the autumn, and that students and university teachers are being left in an “ongoing limbo” amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Well d'uh!

Universities and Colleges are already aware that there is a pandemic on - I know this 'cos I work in one. Ó Caollaí and O'Brien do report in their article there are actually discussions taking place. I know that in my own College that several discussions and projections have already taken place. Yet - we have to endure more warnings stating the obvious that something must be done. IFUT is demanding that they need clear and detailed discussion on a roadmap from Government on issues like when and how colleges will be allowed to reopen in a time when we have an interim Government who not surprisingly are focussing on saving lives.

Rant over.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Assignments replacing exams

So far, I'm not a big fan of the situation that Covid-19 has forced us all into replacing end of semester  exams with assignments/projects. Exams designed to assess learning outcomes are not being used, and it has not been easy coming up with replacements in the form of an assignment to to the same thing. Add in the fact that we had to create replacement assessments in a short time, I feel as though this situation is not ideal. But, it is-what-it-is! 

Replacing exams with assignments has an impact for educators grading them. It takes a lot longer! Most students will write between 8 - 12 pages during a two hour exam. Some who perform badly in an exam, may only write a few pages - these scripts take just a few minutes to grade. Very few will write 20/30/40 pages. But this is what I am getting with the replacement assignments - and the time taken to review and grade is very lengthy. This will inevitably put pressure on deadlines for us to get results published. 

No doubt there will be a sector review of assessment. Simply substituting an assignment (which we have had to do for obvious reasons) for an exam is a crude mechanism not designed for assessment. Assessment needs to be carefully planned regardless of whether it is an assignment or an exam. Students should be assured that no matter what mechanism is used, they are being assessed in a fair and sure manner. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

What Flattening the Covid-19 Curve is Starting to Look Like

Data published daily by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control allows us to examine Covid-19 data ourselves - Data Democracy in action! There has been much talk over the past few weeks about "flattening the curve", and how important following the HSE's guidelines on staying safe can help to do this. We are all praying and hoping that the feckin' curve will revert to zero quickly, but flattening also means that we prolong the infection. 

I think we can at last see evidence that the curve is flattening. Here's a bar chart showing daily reported new cases in Ireland since 1st March when the first case was reported here:

Click/Tap to Enlarge.
While the curve is not smooth, we can definitely see the slow growth in the number of cases since the first one was recorded, followed by a downward trend over the past few days. However, yesterday's new cases figure (631) bucks the trend and shows us how easy it is for the curve to start to go up again. Based on the shape of the curve above, it will take at least 3 to 4 weeks more from today before the curve reaches less than 200 new cases per day. A sobering thought given cries for the lockdown to be eased on 5th May!

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Last Class of Semester

It's always a weird feeling when I reach the last class in a semester. Last evening I held my final class on the "Programming for Big Data" module which is part of our on-line Higher Diploma in Data Analytics course. This course was delivered on-line from the beginning, so it is not one of our courses that had to switch from the classroom to on-line. 

Finishing up a module is always tinged with a little sadness for me, especially at the end of the academic year. In most cases it means that I will not see students again, I do like to get to know them throughout the semester. Finishing a semester in April also usually means for academics that their next class is in September - five months away! The next 6-8 weeks are really busy ones with grading and Exam Boards - so no slacking allowed yet.

This semester was my 36th at the National College of Ireland, and perhaps with the Covid-19 crisis to deal with, it was a semester like no other. For the last five weeks of the semester, I and my students have not set foot in the College - all our dealings have been on-line. Traditional barriers like 9 to 5 availability are broken and gone - hopefully forever. Working from home has meant that I have started work some mornings before 07:00, done work on Saturdays and Sundays, finished early or late, and taken lunch breaks longer that an hour. Never before have I had my work email open at all times (I use Outlook for this, and Gmail for private mail) - usually I used to try my best to keep the distinction between the workplace and home. There's no such distinction any more. 

We can only speculate if next September will see a return to what we had before. Will we be able to pack students into a classroom or computer laboratory if social distancing is still recommended? Many lessons will have been learned over the past few weeks about Learning and Teaching in third-level. I can only hope that we learn from these lessons.

Semester II is dead, long live Semester I.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Where to find the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 Datasets #Analytics

The data repository for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Visual Dashboard operated by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (JHU CSSE) is freely available at Github. JHU have become one of the Go To places on the Internet for information and data on Covid-19, and they have some wonderful dashboards and data visualizations. Lots of my data analytics students will naturally be interested doing projects on these types of data - looking for links, trends, patterns, relationships, and to build models to make predictions and classifications.

This is Data Democracy in action. Data gives us insight, and insight in turn gives us foresight, which we can act upon. I am absolutely convinced that data analysis is helping greatly in the fight against Covid-19. Together with scientific research into treating the disease and efforts to find a vaccine - data has a vital role to play.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

How To... Plot Covid-19 Cases and Deaths as Two Lines on the Same Chart

Like a lot of people I have been looking at some of the impressive charts and diagrams related to Covid-19 in the papers - epecially The Irish Times. The Time used Datawrapper to plot its charts, so I wondered how to do some of them in Excel. The chart show rising cases and rising deaths is easy to draw- once you get the knack of selecting the right data. So I made a quick video on how to draw the chart with two lines, and posted it to YouTube. Here it is...

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Four Weeks Out of the Office #wfh

It's four weeks exactly since I last set foot in my office in the College. Even that was just to collect my folders of notes so that I could deliver my remaining classes on-line from home. Now four weeks later, with at least three to go before I get back, I am missing a lot of the daily interation with students and colleagues. It is feeling more distant with each passing day. 

We are currently in the Easter Reading Week - our last week of semester II takes place next week, as welcome an end-of-semester as ever there was. However, in a month's time we will be starting semester III and we will be planning for that soon. We are also gearing up for grading assignments and projects instead of exams which will be due in over the next few weeks. 

I made a video for the NCI Marketing Department a couple of weeks ago, as part of a series with some of my colleagues, showing off my home office. This is where I am spending most of my time. It is at the front of my house and I am slowly turning into the neighbourhood watch as I see everything that happens outside on my street. 

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Interesting Dataset from 1693 #Analytics #Data

While attending a Data Analytics Institute Inspire on-line event this morning, I was particularly interested about a very old data set in the form of a Life Table. One of the presenters used this as part of the introduction. In 1693 Edmond Halley, he of Halley's Comet fame, created a life (population) table. It was based on data collected for the years 1687 - 1691 from the city of Breslau, which is now called Wrocław in Poland. The data that Halley used were the numbers of births and deaths recorded in the parish registers of the town. He was interested in debunking some superstitions about multiples of 7 - apparently people feared reaching the age of 63 (9 x 7) as it was thought to be an age at which you were more likely to die.

Here's what the original table looked like:

Edmond Halley.
Image source:
New World Encyclopedia

Wow - this is from 1693, Data Science was in its infancy! In 2011, David Bellhouse wrote a paper taking "A new look at Halley’s life table", which explains among other things how Halley used to round numbers and that the original data set is no longer available. You can see that every age from 1 to 84 is listed, and that they are presented in groups of seven. For R programmers, this dataset is available in the "HistData" library - here's the code to load the data and plot "Age" against "Persons Surviving" in stair steps format, and a plot showing the probability of surviving one more year:

plot(HalleyLifeTable$age, HalleyLifeTable$number, 
     main = "Halley's Life Table",
     xlab = "Age", ylab = "Number surviving",
     type = "s")
# Conditional probability of survival, one more year
plot(ratio ~ age, data=HalleyLifeTable, 
     main = "Halley's Life Table",
     xlab = "Age", 
     ylab = "Probability survive one more year")

The code above generates the following two charts:

Nice to be able to examine a dataset that is 327 years old!

Bellhouse, D. R. (2011) A new look at Halley’s life table. J. R. Statist. Soc. A 174, Part 3, pp. 823–832

Halley, E. (1693) An estimate of the degrees of mortality of mankind, drawn from the curious tables of births and funerals in the City of Breslaw; with an attempt to ascertain the price of annuities upon lives. Phil. Trans., 17, 596–610.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Using Spare Time During Lockdown

April 2020.
Last summer I got my brother Joe to cut a slice of wood from an oak tree taken from  my Dad's farm in Ballingate, Co Wicklow (where I grew up). The plan was to turn this into a coffee table for my daughter Vicki. I had never done anything like this before. The photo to the right was taken today, while the one below was taken 9 months ago in July last summer. During the fine summer holidays I spent quite a bit of time sanding it down. The timber was not completely dry, so I left in in a dry place - this caused it to crack and warp slightly. I stopped the warping by putting lead weights on top - and left it like this for most of the winter.

Throughout the winter I watched loads of YouTube videos on how to deal with cracks - there are literally hundreds showing you how to fill them with resin, which is what I ended up doing. I had to learn how to mix and pour resin - but I made quite a mess doing this (it leaked everywhere). Once it hardened it was back to sanding - lots of it. These past few weeks I was able to use my Covid-19 extended spare time to do this. Eventually yesterday I was satisfied and I painted it with Danish Oak Oil to shine it up a bit. Then I added legs (taken from another table), and et voila!

The location where the 100+ year old oak tree was felled was once part of the Coollattin Estate. Oaks from this estate were famous - it was the last native oak forest in Ireland. The estate supplied oak for the English fleet, the Stadt House in Amsterdam, Westminster Hall, Trinity College, and St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin (see: A wonder of nature in Wicklow). I have taken many acorns from the ground near this tree and planted them successfully to replace trees like this we have felled. I am quietly pleased with myself and am happy with the result. The only problem now is that I can't travel to get more timber!
    July 2019.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Working from home and the #NCIstayathomechallenge @ncirl @NCISport

A bit of light-heartedness never hurt anyone and the good folks NCI Sport started out to check on the College's student and staff on how they have been keeping active during this Covid-19 crisis. Check the #NCIstayathomechallenge hashtag and you see super contributions from many students as well as my academic colleagues @cormackd and @derbrad - both issuing challenges to me. I decided to make my own contribution, though it is not in the least sporty. I have not been out for a ride on my bike for three weeks, and I miss it terribly - so I had to find a way to fit it into my video.

For fun only, and not my real home office...

Friday, April 03, 2020

Covid-19 Data Sets #Analytics #Covid19

It has taken a while, but data on Covid-19 is now becoming available. While a huge amount of data obviously already exists, availability has been a different thing. Data scientists everywhere are itching to get their algorithms on these data. As stated by Jeni Tennison writing in The Guardian yesterday: "Wherever we look, there is a demand for data about Covid-19. We devour dashboards, graphs and visualisations. We want to know about the numbers of tests, cases and deaths; how many beds and ventilators are available, how many NHS workers are off sick. When information is missing, we speculate about what the government might be hiding, or fill in the gaps with anecdotes".

Now there are several sources - here's a selection that I am aware of:

Trusted Coronavirus (COVID-19) global data from our community experts

Search results for search in data uploads

World Health Organisation
Database of publications on coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

UK Office of National Statistics
Registered deaths (only published on a weekly basis, and with a delay)

Mobility Index using Citymapper App

Fill out a request to access their data which is aggregated from other courses

The Italians have been publishing data on Github since the beginning of March (in Italian)

The Irish Times
No data published, but excellent Corona Virus Dashboard

The Belgians have been publishing data at Sciensano on cases and deaths, broken down by gender and age group, and numbers of people in hospital, ICU, and receiving respiratory support

Happy data analysing everybody!

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Why is Median Age More Important than Average Age? #Statistics #Analytics #Covid19

By the end of the Covid19 crisis, we will all become more data literate. Every day new figures are being thrown at us and we are learning new terms and expressions such as "flattening the curve". Today I want to give attention to the word "median".

The median is a measure of central tendency - it is the middle value of a data set when it is ranked from lowest to highest (or vice versa). In other words, half the values in the data set are higher than the median, and half are lower. In a normal distribution of data, the median will be the same or similar to the mean (average). In 1955, R.R. Sokal and P.E. Hunter (who obviously had nothing better to do) measured the wing lengths of 100 house flies (in 0.1 mm). They found that when they plotted the results in a histogram - they had shown an almost perfectly normal distribution, which educators in statistics have been using since as an example of a perfect normal distribution. In this data set, the mean (average) is 45.5, and the median is also 45.5 - here's what the distribution looks like:

Data source: Sokal & Hunter (1955)

Now let's take a look at some Covid-19 data. We are hearing a lot about the median age of death of Covid-19 victims - why not use the mean (average)? First, let's take a look at the distribution for the ages at death of 32 males and 16 females in South Korea:

Data source: DS4C: Data Science for COVID-19 in South Korea.

You can see straight away that the shape of the histogram differs a lot from the house fly data above. This histogram tells us at a glance that more older people are dying from Covid-19 than middle aged or younger people. The mean (average) age at death is 73.6, but the median age is 75 - a good bit higher. The median gives us a clearer picture of age at death than the mean. If you use the mean as an indicator, it gives a false picture. You can see in the histogram above that the shape is skewed by one person under 40 - this one value alone lowers the mean, but has very little impact on the median.

If you would like to learn more about median values, check out my YouTube video below:

Monday, March 30, 2020

Kurtosis, and flattening the curve #Statistics #Analytics #Covid19

Covid 19 has thrown up lots of new concepts that many people will not have heard about before. There has been much mention of "flattening the curve" in the hope that doing so will ease the burden on hospitals with a lesser surge of cases.

Well - there is a name for the shape of a curve: Kurtosis. It is also a descriptive statistic, a value of zero indicates a normal distribution (the middle curve below). Any deviation from this can be measured with kurtosis. A high positive value indicates a peaked, or leptokurtic, curve. A high negative value indicates a flattened, or Platykurtic, curve.

Image Source: ResearchGate.

Increasing the sample size often compresses and narrows the curve, making it more peaked. So part of "flattening the curve" in the current crisis is all about keeping the number of cases down. You can see from above that this results in a wider as well as a flat curve, making the duration longer. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

First Full Week of On-line Classes - How was it?

Phew! Last week was my first ever doing all my classes on-line. Many colleagues have done the same, and from those that I have been in contact with - all seems to have gone well. It is a major achievement for everybody to turn around from delivering classes in lecture theatres and computer laboratories, to a totally on-line environment - all in just one week. Adobe Connect and Microsoft Teams, with a lot of help from Moodle, are the main tools being employed. In a short while, education is being revolutionized - I fervently hope that we do not go back to the way things were, and instead start to make use of more on-line learning and teaching.

Last week flew by, and I'm sure I am not alone in wondering what day it is. It is Sunday afternoon as I write this and I am taking a break from grading assignments. There is no structure to my day any more, so it doesn't seem to matter when I do things. I do have a timetable to adhere to for the next three weeks - so at least there is something regular for me. Going back to 9 to 5 will not be the same again - I certainly feel that I could do a lot more of my work at home. I do miss my colleagues and the chats in the corridor and staff canteen. The College is always buzzing with activity, and I miss this too. As the College has made the decision to finish out the semester on-line, there will be many students that I will not see again, and I am a bit sad about that.

For our 4th year School of Computing students (I have this class for Statistics) this coming week is their last in College. Their world has been turned upside down from just a few weeks ago when they could confidently look forward to a career in IT, to a very uncertain future indeed. I feel for them - I have just two more classes with them. There will be lots of new opportunities as a result of the current crisis - some optimism I hope.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

One of the Lucky Ones #wfh

Being able to work from home is a blessing in the current crisis, and I am one of the lucky ones to be able to continue working (and getting paid to do it!). I am also lucky that where I live, there is fantastic broadband speed. Added to this is the fact that I have been teaching on-line for the past two years. Converting all classes to on-line learning has been relatively straight forward. 

I'm hearing a lot on the radio and from newspapers about efforts by educators everywhere to get classes for their students on-line - not all are as lucky as me. It will be a huge transition for teachers/lecturers at every level to get the School/College academic year completed. Yet when all of this is done, educators everywhere will be tooled up in the latest technology. Pedagogy will be revolutionalized as we all realize that what we have been doing in the classroom for years can be done just as easily and effectively on-line. We will ask questions about the need for students to attend classes in lecture theatres and labs for a small, medium, large, or all parts of a course. As the population grows, and there is a need for more places at schools and colleges - perhaps the solution to shortages is right in front of us?

Will this be the lecture theatre of the future...

My Home Office Set Up.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Declining Views - Top Five Countries

The United States, India, Phillipines, UK, and Canada account for 60.9% of all views this year on my YouTube Channel. As I posted yesterday, there is a sharp decline visible in the number of views over the past two weeks - and I was quite surprised by this. Could it be related to the Covid 19 crisis? 

I decided to dig a little deeper into the decline in views by Geography, and was surprised to find that the decline started earlier than I had thought. In the chart below from YouTube Analytics, you can see the peak views for the blue line (USA, 24.4% of views) was in mid February:

Click/tap image to enlarge.

From mid February there is a gradual decline by week - almost halving the number of views for the US. The green line (India, 18.5% of views) doesn't start to decline until mid March - but is dropping now too.

I have no insight into why this is happening - there are many possiblilites. Obviously, people could simply be choosing not to view my videos anymore, YouTube may have made modifications to the algorithms that recommend videos, I still have a warning on my channel for violation of terms, and some of my videos are getting quite old now. One thing that I feel may be a reason is that all over the world Colleges are dropping exams and replacing them with assignments/projects. Suddenly the requirement to perform something like a t-Test and many other calculations during a two hour period in an exam hall no longer exists. I know from comments in the channel that many students use my videos to prepare for exams - this pressure is now gone.

Whatever the reason, I hope that the channel can bounce back. It is ironic that the number of views for my existing on-line material is declining when at the same time I am switching all my classes to the on-line environment.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Sudden Fall Off in YouTube Views

I'm sure that there are many side effects of the Covid 19 crisis, and one for me is the rapid decline of YouTube views last week. Usually there is a gradual increase each week from the beginning of January up to month of May before dropping off slighly for the summer. The overall performance of the channel this year has been less than last year, but the regular patterns of weekly views and gradual increase was maintained. Until last week.

The chart below of views since 1st January. The gradual weekly increase reversed slightly two weeks ago, but last week it dropped by an average of about 2,000 views per day. I did not expect this at all, in fact I would have expected views to increase. More details tomorrow on the geographic breakdown of the data below.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Reading Week Relief

Never was a week free of classes so welcome. Even though our St Patrick’s Day is more like a Doomsday, it too is a welcome break for everyone in Ireland - for one day at least we don’t have to worry about going to work.

Reading week offers students an opportunity to draw breath after 8 weeks in a busy semester. We have another Reading week after Easter - more welcome relief before the last week of the semester. It is a time for students to work on assignments, catch up on essential reading, study for exams, meet with project supervisors, and revise. For Faculty it is also a welcome break from class - most of the time during Reading week spent by me is on grading assignments.

For many students, study at College will be the last thing on their minds, or at least it will be way down their list of priorities right now. While it might be tempting to give up and drop out, I would encourage students to hold fast and finish out the semester as we are so close to the end. Many students may be considering deferring completion, and Colleges everywhere will have to consider this possibility and allow it. Many Colleges are in the midst of replacing exams with projects/assignments - this should make it easier for students to complete their studies.

Image Source: Reddit.
Most third-level institutions can continue to function using virtual classrooms - next week all my classes will be conducted through Adobe Connect virtual classroom software. This facility is not available to all Lecturers. Some colleagues are planning to record lectures, others plan to use voice-over PowerPoints, some will use Microsoft Teams, while I’m sure that many will not be in a position to provide a technical solution due to broadband/home computer issues, as well as lack of knowledge/training on how on-line classrooms work. It will not be easy for everyone to switch from a lifetime of standing in front of students in a lecture theatre, to suddenly switch to on-line delivery.

Please note: Views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own personal views, and not those of NCI or any other academic institution.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Making the Switch

This morning I had my first on-line class in a module that is usually delivered in a classroom. Attendance was excellent, and all students who tuned in were able to see and hear what I was doing. I used the familiar Adobe Connect and all its feature - my students seemed happy enough at the end of class. My five year old home computer stood up to the task very well.

The College closed at 18:00 yesterday, but some quick-off-the mark lecturers were in a position to deliver their regular classes online at 18:30. I will be moving all classes online for the remainder of the closure, which I predict will be extended into at least after Easter. I also attended a training session this morning on the use of Microsoft Meetings. While it seems like an excellent tool, I'm sticking to Adobe Connect. At minimum, we are advised to make sure all learning resources are added to Moodle and to be available during class time for questions.

So that's the first day of the closure over. We have a Reading Week next week, so no classes anyway. But I'm confident that I can continue the week after on-line when classes resume. It will be an interesting research topic for when this is all over to see how College closures impact on learning and teaching.

Please note: Views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own personal views, and not those of NCI or any other academic institution.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Covid-19 - a Breakthrough for Technology in Education? #CoronaVirus

There is already a lot of Technology in education - we have become so reliant on it that most of us can no longer envisage learning without some kind of technology in the classroom. Despite some setbacks (eg, see: Co Meath school to reverse iPads-only policy after review), students everywhere are using their computers for learning. There's no going back on this.

With some Schools and Colleges already closed, and I'm certain - more to follow, the use of technology to replace face-to-face classrooms is on the agenda as we struggle to contain the Covid-19 virus. I'll only comment on the third level sector, as this is where I work. We of course use the likes of Moodle and Blackboard to manage content such as lecture notes, sample assessments, exercises, model answers, and links to relevant on-line material. But lecturers everywhere are wondering about or asking questions about virtual classrooms and how to use them. Since I already teach one of my modules on-line - I feel that I could easily move my other modules on-line for the rest of the semester. I may have to make different arrangements for students who do not have broadband access, but this may not be the problem it once was. I use Adobe Connect, which is excellent for on-line delivery of a class. A warning to others thinking that just because an old guy like me can do it, how tough can it be! Also a warning to educational institutions' management who think that moving everything on-line is the solution to the current crisis.

It is two years since my first on-line class and I am still learning the trade. From a Learning and Teaching point of view, it is a very different environment than the classroom. Way back in 2003, Morten Flate Paulsen*, Professor at Sør-Trøndelag University College in Norway, was one of the first scholars to research the distinction between on-line and classroom education. A simple summary of what he wrote to compare the two types of education:

Classroom Education:
  • Controlled by “bell”
  • Boundaries are socially accepted

On-line Education:
  • 24 x 7 x 365
  • More demand from students
  • Heavier workload for on-line teachers

In short, on-line education has a heavier workload than the classroom equivalent. Paulsen proposed the following strategies to reduce teacher workload in on-line education:
  1. Form a group of experienced and well-trained teachers
  2. Establish a system for technical and administrative support
  3. Shift attention from spontaneous interactive teaching to deliberate course design
  4. Pay special attention to the assessment workload per student when designing course assignments
  5. Restrict teacher interaction with individual students and small groups of students
  6. Encourage and facilitate interaction among students
  7. Automate response
  8. Develop a scheme to handle the demand for expedient responses
Sound advice indeed! However, we have to consider that we are two thirds of the way thought the last semester of the academic year and there is not the time, resource, or knowledge to implement above (written 17 years ago). We are also in the middle of a crisis (though not all education authorities see this yet) and we must put our students' learning first. Most will be understanding of the difficulties Colleges will encounter, and be sympathetic of our efforts to finish courses. But many (if not all) are already concerned about finishing modules and sitting exams. They are waiting.

Please note: Views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own personal views, and not those of NCI or any other academic institution.

* Paulsen, M.F., (2003). Online education: Learning management systems - Global E-Learning in a Scandinavian Perspective.