‘Derry will be an AI, analytics and automation hub - it’s a fantastic flag to plant in sand,’ says Professor Liam Maguire of Magee Cognitive Analytics Research Laboratory (CARL)

The proposed Cognitive Analytics Research Laboratory at Magee could put Derry in the vanguard of big data and AI, according to computing and machine learning expert, Professor Liam Maguire.
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The Executive Dean of the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment at Ulster University, is one of those leading the £20m CARL project which is a central plank of Derry’s City Deal.

The applied research centre will use data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve the lives of citizens, inform public policy and make local industry more competitive and efficient.

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Prof. Maguire, speaking to the ‘Journal’ after Heads of Terms were signed on the £250m City Deal, explained how the centre will use powerful computers to harness ever increasing amounts of data for the benefit of the city.

SCANi-hub. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)SCANi-hub. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)
SCANi-hub. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

“The amount of data doubles every two years. There are just vast amounts of data being generated with everybody using their phones, and companies producing vast amounts. Using AI techniques data science allows you to process high amounts and you will be using human-based intelligence techniques to do that. Hopefully putting those things together will be of benefit to industry,” he declared.

CARL, it’s envisaged, will utilise high performance computing power to apply AI and machine learning to a range of challenges and opportunities across sectors as diverse as health, financial technology, media, energy and public policy. It’s hoped this will equip industry to grasp global opportunities and deliver positive impacts on their businesses, creating more high value jobs.

“The techniques have been around for a while but because computers are getting more powerful it helps. We can actually apply these techniques on larger data sets because we have more powerful computers that can process all this stuff. We can recreate lots of these algorithms and do them in real time. The benefit that that has is fantastic for companies,” said Prof. Maguire.

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All of this will have a practical impact on real world problems in Derry in the short to medium term future. Prof. Maguire suggested that as the Derry City & Strabane District Council-led SMART City project proceeds and the benefits of next generation technologies like 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) become more noticeable, opportunities will abound.

Liam MaguireLiam Maguire
Liam Maguire

Hope, pride and ambition the watchwords as £250m Derry City Deal moves to delivery phase with promise of 7,000 jobs and £210m-a-year boon to local economy“The more 5G we have, the more digitally-enabled the city is, the more data we have and the more we can interrogate that. From a civic perspective you might be looking at air pollution on the Culmore Road with traffic congestion or how do you get traffic moving from Creggan down into the city. There are things you can practically do if you have more data that you can look at and drive those benefits.

“The great benefit is that if you combine data from different sources - data on air quality, data on transport and traffic, data on health, data on wealth generation, data on the prosperity index for the region - if you put all those together you can get lots of information and uncover things you might not have thought of before.”

Data analytics and AI are already being used in the city to improve health outcomes at the Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC) at Altnagelvin. With CARL there is the potential to take this to the next level.

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“We would do this a lot with health data. If you look at different people’s health records we can get information out of that and actually say to someone, ‘look don’t do that because we know if you’ve done that this could end up as a different disease’. There are things you can do to improve practice by just looking at data.”

Diabetes researcher using a microscope at Ulster Universityâ€TMs Centre for Molecular Biosciences.  (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)Diabetes researcher using a microscope at Ulster Universityâ€TMs Centre for Molecular Biosciences.  (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)
Diabetes researcher using a microscope at Ulster Universityâ€TMs Centre for Molecular Biosciences. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

Big data has not been without its negative press. Controversy has surrounded the use of social media generated data for the purposes of advertising and alleged electoral interference for instance. There are also concerns around data protection. But for Prof. Maguire the CARL project is all about improving the lives of citizens, creating jobs and solving problems.

“It shouldn’t be in any way threatening or impinging on anybody’s rights. That’s not what it is about. It is just about getting useful information to help others,” he said.

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“We’re trying to work with the FinTech sector in Derry. Companies have lots and lots of information. We can use our techniques to make them more efficient and effective and allow them to compete internationally and create more jobs in Derry. We talked to industry at the start when these projects were being thought of. We were very keen that we’re not sitting off in a university doings things that are not relevant to industry. This involves industry and the university working much closer together. It’s about using innovation to improve job creation.”

The signing of Heads of Terms on the City Deal was a major vote of confidence.

“When you get the signal that you’ve that infrastructure and that equipment it makes it more attractive for people. We can generate work with companies, find space for companies to come. It will allow us to attract investment in from research grants for people to come in and then hopefully that collides together with huge benefit back into the companies. It’s a huge signal. We are saying - Derry as a city is going to be a centre of expertise in AI, automation and health care analytics. That’s a fantastic flag in the sand for the city. It’s going to attract things here.”

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