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‘Data analytics isn’t all about building magic models’

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Data analytics researcher María Isabel Meza Silva is helping Irish manufacturing businesses step into the era of industry 4.0, and hopes to see the industry in Colombia follow suit.

Originally from Colombia, María Isabel Meza Silva holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from University of Los Andes. In 2017, she came to Ireland and joined Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR) as a data analytics intern.

IMR is an Enterprise Ireland and IDA-supported research and technology centre with labs and industrial pilot lines in Dublin and Mullingar. Following a few months back at University of Los Andes, Meza Silva returned to Ireland in 2018 and has been working as a fully fledged data analytics researcher at IMR since then.

Her main role is to help small and medium manufacturing businesses discover the value in their data. She does this by identifying key metrics and transforming raw data into meaningful and actionable insights.

Meza Silva also leads IMR’s outreach programmes with primary and secondary schools, immersing young students in new technologies such as the internet of things, AI, augmented reality and collaborative robots.

‘A common misconception is that analytics only works in large organisations with large resources’
– MARÍA ISABEL MEZA SILVA

What inspired you to become a researcher?

To be honest, it was not part of my plan to become a researcher when I was in university and I knew very little about what working as a researcher entailed. All I knew back then is that I wanted to work in manufacturing and have an impact in society. Since my dad brought me to the place where my favourite cereal was produced, I have always enjoyed going to factories and figured out how things are made and how machines work.

When I joined IMR as an intern, I realised the importance of applied research. IMR’s research is focused on using new technologies to help small and medium Irish companies improve their industrial processes. And if we can make these processes better for companies, why wouldn’t we? At the end of the day, manufacturing companies are the ones that provide us with the food we eat, the phones we use or the clothes we wear.

What research are you currently working on?

Some of the research projects we are currently working on were born as part of the Industrial Data Analytics Framework (IDAF) research project. During this project we realised that the main barriers to the adoption of analytics are generally managerial in nature and they probably stem from the lack of understanding around where to start and how to manage an analytics project, which also translates into a lack of understanding on how to go about solving problems using data science and inherent analytics capabilities.

In order to tackle this, the analytics team developed an industrial data analytics framework that aims to abstract the process that IMR has done with many companies, to produce a knowledge base that could be used as a self-service or guided tool for companies. This would provide an assessment of current analytics capability; a review of projects and techniques that are relevant for the present capability, infrastructure or culture; and the incremental steps that could be taken to bring value through new data analysis capabilities.

Based on the assessment, we have worked with companies to implement analytics initiatives that can bring value according to their current capabilities, and have established steps to increase their analytics capabilities. Understanding the current capabilities and process is key for companies to unlock the value in their data.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

As I mentioned, manufacturing companies are essential for the functioning of society. Think about the impact they have had during the Covid-19 pandemic. Several manufacturing companies repurposed their lines to start producing personal protective equipment while pharmaceutical companies are working non-stop to supply vaccines.

However, some of the processes that are used in manufacturing have not changed in decades because there has not been any need, and the fourth industrial revolution has brought advances that industry cannot ignore.

IMR aims to demystify, de-risk and deliver these emerging technologies that represent an opportunity for companies to make their industrial processes work better. Within the analytics team we work closely with industry to show them how data can be best used to increase revenue, customer satisfaction and product quality, and to make informed decisions.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

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There are three areas that companies have shown particular interest in when it comes to using data: predictive maintenance, defect analysis and overall equipment efficiency.

Predictive maintenance allows companies to decrease costs by foreseeing when a machine will fail and take actions before it happens, while defect analysis is being used to increase product quality by understanding the root cause of defects.

We have to work closely with industry in these areas to understand their business and concerns and we have developed and transferred technologies and applications to SMEs and multinational companies that can be potentially scaled up to manufacturing companies in Ireland and internationally.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a data analytics researcher?

I would say the main challenge is getting industry to see the importance or effectiveness of our research. In general, research is only effective when it is applied to processes that are changed considerably enough to have an impact. When it comes to analytics, most of our projects are based on data that companies may neither have nor use. Thus, getting the right data and showing the value in it is the first step, and the most important one, to get companies involved.

It is like trying to convince someone to change their habits knowing that they have always worked. The only way to do so it is by showing them with numbers and facts that there is always room for improvement.

Are there any common misconceptions about data analytics research?

The most common misconception about data analytics is that it is all about building ‘magic’ models. In fact, building a model is a single layer within the multiple phases that comprise a data analytics project.

For instance, delivering an analytics project includes data collection, data cleansing, verification of the data, data visualisation, exploratory data analysis, etc. At the end, all these steps can take up to 90pc of the time invested in the project with the other 10pc in developing the model.

Another common misconception is that analytics only works in large organisations with large resources. Analytics projects do not require sophisticated infrastructure to process and get the most value out of the data. In contrast, what matters is how data is used and interpreted to extract valuable information that will benefit business practices. This and the belief that access to large volume of data produces better and more accurate results often become barriers when engaging with small and medium enterprises. The best way to address these myths is by showing companies what they are capable of with the resources they have.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see where the concept of smart manufacturing will head. Will industry 4.0 and the technologies developed in it be embraced by the manufacturing sector? I think that is a question that will take a long time to answer, especially if we consider the technological differences and acceptance rate between the countries. I believe the adoption process is something industry and academia have to closely work together on if we want to make the most of it.

And, personally, now that I have seen the impact it can have, I would love to see some of the technologies adopted by Irish industry – such as collaborative robots, augmented reality or artificial intelligence – being implemented in Colombia.

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Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

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Irish student wins $40,000 at global entrepreneurship competition

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Nick Cotter co-founded Cotter Agritech with his brother Jack. The Limerick-based start-up has been picking up prizes at home and abroad.

University College Cork student Nick Cotter has scooped the top prize at this year’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.

Cotter is the CEO and co-founder of Cotter Agritech, a Limerick-based business that specialises in targeted tech and treatment systems for sheep.

The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards are an annual competition for students around the world who own and operate a business while attending college or university.

The 22-year-old law and business student saw off competition from more than 1,000 applicants in 40 countries following a year-long nomination, application and pitch process.

His prize is $40,000 courtesy of the competition’s organisers, Entrepreneurs’ Organization, to invest in his business.

“It’s much more than I ever thought was possible, becoming global champion,” said Cotter, commenting on his win.

“Each stage of the competition is quite intense, and you hope. It’s an incredible achievement and pure joy for me,” he added, thanking his mentors and the judges.

This is not Cotter’s first time to be recognised for the business he started with his brother Jack.

The pair won the Engineers Ireland Student Innovator of The Year Award in 2019 and best agri-engineering start-up at the 2019 Enterprise Ireland Innovation Arena Awards.

More recently, Cotter placed third in this year’s Ideate Ireland business competition, which rewards entrepreneurial skills and new ideas from undergraduate and postgraduate students. He shared his third-place prize of €5,000 with Dr Fiona McGillicuddy and Dr Rachel Byrne of MetHealth.

Earlier in the year, Cotter Agritech participated in the inaugural AgTechUCD Agccelerator Programme, which was dedicated to early-stage agritech and food-tech start-ups. At the end of the 12-week programme, Cotter Agritech was named the winner of the AIB and Yield Lab AgTech Start-up 2022 Award, winning €10,000.

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EU moves to rein in ‘wild west’ of crypto assets with new rules | Cryptocurrencies

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The EU has moved to rein in the “wild west” of crypto assets by agreeing a groundbreaking set of rules for the sector, adding to pressure on the UK and US to introduce their own curbs.

Representatives from the European parliament and EU states inked an agreement late on Thursday that contains measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, as well as requiring that crypto firms provide details of the environmental impact of their assets.

“Today, we put order in the wild west of crypto assets and set clear rules for a harmonised market,” said Stefan Berger, the German MEP who led negotiations on behalf of the parliament.

Referring to the recent slump in cryptocurrency prices – the total value of the market has fallen from $3tn (£2.5tn) last year to less than $900bn – Berger added: “The recent fall in the value of digital currencies shows us how highly risky and speculative they are and that it is fundamental to act.”

The markets in crypto assets (MiCA) law is expected to come into force at about the end of 2023. Globally, crypto assets are largely unregulated, with national operators in the EU required only to show controls for combating money laundering.

Cryptocurrency is the term for a group of digital assets that share the same underlying structure as bitcoin: a publicly available “blockchain” that records ownership without having any central authority in control.

The sector’s supporters have said it represents a good investment because, for instance, it carries low fees and, unlike conventional currencies, is not tied to governments. Nevertheless, its detractors say a lack of regulatory oversight or implicit government support, because of crypto and bitcoin’s independent origins, make it susceptible to scams and wild fluctuations in price.

MiCA will be the first comprehensive regime for crypto assets in the world and will contain strong measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, Ernest Urtasun, a Green party MEP, said.

The new law gives issuers of crypto assets and providers of related services a “passport” to serve clients across the EU from a single base, while meeting capital and consumer protection rules. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a $40bn market last year, are not covered by MiCA.

The EU negotiations on Thursday also focused on issues such as supervision and energy consumption of crypto assets. “We have agreed that crypto asset providers should in future disclose the energy consumption and environmental impact of assets,” Berger said.

The UK and US, two significant crypto centres, have yet to approve similar rules, although regulators in both countries have warned of the need for stronger safeguards in the sector.

The MiCA law is expected to set a benchmark for other regulatory regimes for crypto globally, although one expert said the all-encompassing nature of the EU regime might not be replicated.

Harry Eddis, the global co-head of fintech at Linklaters, a London-based law firm, said the EU had “nailed its crypto colours to the mast” with the law.

“Other jurisdictions have shown little appetite to date in following their lead in implementing such an all-encompassing regulation, although we can surely expect to see other financial services centres upping their game in regulating the crypto community, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion.”

Q&A

What is a stablecoin?

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A stablecoin, like the name suggests, is a type of cryptocurrency that is supposed to have a stable value, such as US$1 per token. How they achieve that varies: the largest, such as tether and USD Coin, are effectively banks. They hold large reserves in cash, liquid assets, and other investments, and simply use those reserves to maintain a stable price.

Others, known as “algorithmic stablecoins”, attempt to do the same thing but without any reserves. They have been criticised as effectively being backed by Ponzi schemes, since they require continuous inflows of cash to ensure they don’t collapse.

Stablecoins are an important part of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. They provide a safer place for investors to store capital without going through the hassle of cashing out entirely, and allow assets to be denominated in conventional currency, rather than other extremely volatile tokens.

Thank you for your feedback.

In the UK, the financial watchdog is weighing proposals on marketing crypto products to consumers that could lead to significant restrictions on crypto exchanges operating in the country.

In May, the Treasury declared it wants a regime in place for dealing the collapse of a stablecoin, a cryptocurrency that is backed by traditional assets such as short-term debt and therefore could pose a risk to the wider financial system.

Crypto assets came under pressure after the collapse of the TerraUSD stablecoin project in May, with the major US cryptocurrency lending company Celsius Network freezing withdrawals and transfers. However, the sector has also proven susceptible to wider economic factors.

These include stock market declines linked to rising inflation and ensuing increases in interest by central banks. Raising rates – a path taken by the US, UK and Swiss central banks last month – can make risky assets less attractive.

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For instance, certain tech stocks, whose price can be based on expectations of strong future earnings over many decades, can be less appealing than the fixed returns on offer immediately from investments such as bonds, which become more attractive in a higher lending rate environment.

The regulatory breakthrough came as India’s central bank said cryptocurrencies were based on “make believe”. The bank’s latest financial stability report said cryptocurrencies were no more than “sophisticated speculation”.

The bank’s governor, Shaktikanta Das, wrote: “Cryptocurrencies are a clear danger. Anything that derives value based on make believe, without any underlying [value], is just speculation under a sophisticated name.”

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Dundee Satellite Station to host Optical Ground Station • The Register

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Dundee Satellite Station’s home turf at Scotland’s Errol Aerodrome is to host an Optical Ground Station to test and demonstrate satellite quantum secure communications.

The name may sound familiar. Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the University of Dundee Satellite Receiving Station (DSRS), which was axed in 2019 after more than 40 years of operations.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) cut funding for the facility in 2019 and, despite protestations from the likes of NASA, the lights went out when Dundee University refused to underwrite the annual costs of £338,000. As a reminder, the Principal of the University (paid nearly £300,000 including pension contributions) departed later that year under somewhat of a cloud.

The services provided by DSRS have proven invaluable over the years, with a vast archive of data collected from satellites by its receivers available to the public and industry alike. However, and despite repeated claims from politicians of the importance of space technology to the country’s economy, it appeared to be all over.

Or not. In 2020 former staffer Neil Lonie told The Register that plans were afoot to rescue the tracking antennas and reconstruct the facility at the RAF Errol airfied. The Register took a trip to the site this year, and we were impressed by the achievement of the small team in bringing the service back online.

Neil Lonie and Paul Crawford

Station operations director Neil Lonie and technical director Paul Crawford

The story of how Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. rose from the ashes of the Dundee Satellite Receiving Station is one of ingenuity and tenacity, particularly considering the pandemic. Having made the decision to proceed, the team were able to commence commercial operations in the opening months of 2021 (the first imagery was received by the 3.7m antenna in September 2020). Fiber has since been laid to keep the satellite data flowing.

The decision to host the quantum Optical Ground Station (OGS) at Errol is further testament to the effort that has gone into the resurrection of the facility.

The system will consist of a quantum signal transmitter payload on a satellite and a quantum signal receiver attached to the OGS on the ground. A reflective 70cm telescope will be used to track the Low Earth Orbit satellite with high precision. Quantum secure communications (another weapon in the armory against cyber attacks) usually run along terrestrial fiber links, but are limited by distance. The hope is that the use of satellites will allow quantum communications to be sent securely all over the world.

The project is a joint venture between Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. and researchers at Heriot-Watt University. The Errol site, located on the bank of the River Tay, benefited from excellent sight lines and low light pollution. Having visited, we’ll have to take the researchers word for cloud cover.

There are four antennas erected so far; 3.7-meter and 2.4-meter tracking antennas and a further two 2.8-meter antennas. Upgrades, the refurbishment of a another 2.8m antenna and a pair of geostationary antenna are in the pipeline, and now the OGS telescope. Reception and transmission in VHF, UHF, L-band, S-band, X-band, Ku-band, and the ground station support options are also on tap, and also handy for Scotland’s burgeoning vertical launch industry as well as satellite tracking.

Going forwards, there are plans afoot for an additional site and power backups beyond UPS units. While the site can be mostly remotely managed, the size of the team means round-the-clock coverage is tricky and depends on the needs of customers. “The goal is to have enough staff that we can actually do 24-hour support,” technical director Paul Crawford told us.

All of which require commercial contracts and revenues. The Dundee Satellite Station has been quietly notching up customers during its first year and a half of operations, and the OGS project is a further demonstration of the determination of a team unwilling to be parted from their antennas.

Oh, and just round the corner from site is the winner of the world’s best bacon sandwich (if you’re so inclined).

Satellites and fried food. What’s not to like? ®

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