Spotlight Interviews – Mathieu d’Aquin

Mathieu dAquin reduced + cropped portraitDr. d’Aquin is the leader of our Data work stream. He is a Researcher specialising in Semantic Web technology at The Knowledge Media Institute (KMi), The Open University.

What area of MK:Smart do you work on? Highlights so far?

I am leading the project’s focus on ‘Data’. This includes coordinating the creation of MK:Smart’s large data infrastructure – the ‘MK Data Hub’- which is fundamental to the other work streams in the project.  That makes my role not only exciting, but also quite a challenge! Building the data hub involves a lot of technical work, shifting data around, working out the software plumbing needed to get data from sources to applications, and building on our computing facilities to create intelligent analytics processes.  It also requires strong collaboration with MK:Smart’s many partners where I deal daily with for example, application developers, users, and problem owners.

One example of the work we have done so far is the creation of low-cost presence sensors for use in enclosed areas. This came about through collaboration with the ‘Transport’ work stream, who needed to collect data about for example, the density of pedestrians in a commercial area.  Our work has enabled them to produce ‘footfall analytics’ of when and where the pedestrian traffic in such areas is at its busiest. While this is only one development amongst many, it illustrates how a project like MK:Smart can lead to creating something new that addresses a wide range of challenges, from basic low level data collection, to the management of personal data in a privacy-aware way and the creation of new insights that arise from combining sensor data together with a variety of other data and clever new algorithms.

Where do you work?
I am based at the Knowledge Media Institute, which is a research lab at The Open University in Milton Keynes. This is a great environment where I can benefit from the expertise of some of the best researchers in areas such as knowledge technologies, new media or information retrieval, while keeping a strong focus on building technology solutions to  solve concrete problems. In my team, we put a lot of emphasis on transferring the research we do into real-world systems, including in our own environment: The Open University (see for example the project, which enabled the university to ‘open up’ the public data from various institutional repositories, allowing it to be reused by other data users and services.). The other great thing about working there is that I get to travel and meet a lot of people. I often attend (and sometimes organise) academic conferences on various aspects of the Semantic Web, as well as events aimed at a broader audience, such as summer schools or hackathons. Most recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the House of Commons Select Committee on social media analysis. It was definitely nerve-racking, but also a great experience and a chance to help figure out the answers to some important questions (wearing a tie was certainly a change from the everyday black t-shirt and jeans – aka my “developer’s uniform”).

Who do you work with?

I have been working closely with the project leader, Prof. Enrico Motta at KMi for quite a long time on various projects around the common themes of: intelligent processes and models to make sense of data. MK:Smart is a direct continuation of this research collaboration, where we are working alongside a team of technical specialists, young researchers and PhD students, all among the best in their respective areas of interest (knowledge discovery, linked data, data integration, privacy management, data analytics and mining).

In the project, I work very closely with BT on the design and building of the data hub, as well as with UCMK who are hosting the MK Data Hub. We also have strong collaboration with Milton Keynes Council, working on the city’s data streams to ensure that they are exploited to their full potential while embedding privacy and security at the core of our data management infrastructure.

What is happening in the ‘Data’ area of the project over the next couple of months?

This is actually an exciting time for us, the MK Data Hub is progressively being opened up, first to other partners of the project, who will be able to use it and help us in its development, and later to external developers and applications. The next few months will therefore be a time to test our assumptions, with exciting challenges to explore that are really key to MK:Smart and might show the way to other similar city-scale projects. Beyond the large volumes of data we will be handling, the real challenge is in their diversity. Indeed, the creation of automatic, intelligent processes to deal with both the diversity of the data content and the varied ways in which all the different data sources describe, organise and provide access to their data. At a scale of thousands of datasets – it is certainly a big challenge that promises to keep us awake at night!

Any predictions about Smart City developments in the future?

I believe that, like so many technological developments in recent years, the things we currently associate with Smart Cities, such as the use of large volumes of diverse data for analytics, will become embedded in the normal life and functioning of any city. They will quickly become everyday stuff – almost invisible – and part of more agile, flexible and inclusive urban practice that will seamlessly make the life of citizens easier, and their relationship to their city smoother. This is worth getting excited about. With MK:Smart, we might just be creating a prototype for what will become part of the life of the millions of people living and working in cities in the future.