Professor Alan Smeaton talks about his research with CLARITY and his recent admission to RIA
26th July, 2013
Image caption: 
Prof Alan Smeaton and Prof Luke Drury, President of IRA

An innate sense of the importance of cross collaboration is what has coloured Professor Alan Smeaton’s career to date and made him DCU’s most high profile researcher

Cross collaboration is the haute couture of modern academic research. If you can find a way to bring ancient Aramaic scholars together with sub atomic particle physicists you’ll be onto something.

Of course some subjects lend themselves more easily to this fashion than others. As computing and IT skills are a standard prerequisite in all fields now - even the study of ancient Aramaic - collaboration is easier.

Still it has taken time for some disciplines to appreciate the importance of branching out, something Professor Alan Smeaton, Head of Ireland’s National Data Analytics Centre INSIGHT, has made a career out of. “I’ve worked with the Institute of Ethics, the School of Nursing, the School of Health and Human Performance, Electronic Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Chemistry, and collaborated in Media Studies and in the School of Communications at DCU,” he says. “In fact, the only two schools I haven’t worked with here are Applied Languages and the Business School, although I may be starting something with business in the near future.”

Beginning his studies of computer science with a BSc in UCD back in 1976, Smeaton has been at the forefront of IT technology in Ireland for a very long time. Upon completion of his PhD in 1987 he began lecturing in DCU (at that time known as the National Institute of Higher Education Dublin or NIHE). “I’ve been here ever since,” he says. “I joined the School of Computing and moved up fairly quickly as I was always good at doing research and bringing in funding. I was made Head of School and Executive Dean of Faculty back in the early 2000s.

In 2001 Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was set up and I decided to pursue research funding in a much more focused way.” Having stepped down as Head of School and Dean of Faculty, Smeaton was able to focus more on research and cross collaboration. “It was probably the major turning point of my career,” he says. “I started to work with others in DCU in other departments and disciplines and my career has been characterized with a lot of collaboration across disciplines ever since.”

Examples of Smeaton’s research achievements, old and new, are too varied to mention. But examination of a recent cross section gives a good insight into just how many fingers one man can have in different pies.

“Our SP7 funded project between the school of nursing and CLARITY into life logging for people with early stage dementia is one area getting a lot of attention,” he says. “We can track the behaviour of people with dementia by using wearable sensors to help characterise physical attributes, activity and behaviour. Their movements are fed back to clinicians through cameras and accelerometers. We’re almost at the half way stage of a four year project.”

Smeaton is involved in another dementia-related project into memory. “One of the things about people with early stage dementia is that sufferers might not be able to remember things today, but they can remember a lot about their past,” he says.

“‘Rempad’ is a project encouraging people to remember things about their past. We have built a system to support reminiscence therapy so when you sit down with somebody you can find common things to talk about from the past.”

“Having an individual clinician trying to find trigger memories for each person with dementia is costly and time consuming.” Rempad takes advantage of the massive body of potential memory triggers already widely available on sites such as Youtube and Google. “In collaboration with a hospital in Tallaght, we’ve built a system in clinical trials in nursing homes which groups together people with dementia,” he says. “We bring together small groups and find Youtube videos from a curated library of content: things such as images of Corpus Christi parades, old Guinness ads, John Hinds Photographs, or audio of theme songs from well-known shows such as Green Acres, I Love Lucy or Mister Ed.

“That gets people talking about the past,” he says. “It’s not curing dementia but it does temporarily raise levels of consciousness. That lifts a person’s day and may carry their mood over till they have another reminiscence session.”

On the whole other side of Smeaton’s research spectrum, he has done a lot of work in sports, again through CLARITY. “For one project we’re working within 12 different sports including tennis, hockey, GAA, rugby, boxing, horse racing, golf, darts and archery. In each sport we’ve brought in video sensing combined with wearable sensing. It has proven very profitable for us to develop systems for sporting federations to help maximize training and coaching regimes for athletes using state of the art sensory technologies.”

The list goes on and draws in many other subject areas. Smeaton admits DCU’s openness as a university has played a major part in terms of allowing him and his colleagues to pursue so many varied areas of research. “This institution, probably because of its age, has never been one to put up barriers,” he says. “Being such a young college, DCU has a lot less hang ups or historical norms. It’s so much easier to try new things here than it is elsewhere, and I don’t mean just in other universities in Ireland. I’ve travelled to institutions all over the world and met academics who are often amazed at the different people and disciplines I’ve been able to work with.”

Recognition of his work extends beyond DCU. In June of this year Smeaton was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA). “I was delighted just to be nominated, even more delighted to be admitted,” he says. I’m only the tenth person from DCU to be admitted since it began two centuries ago.”

While admission to the RIA solidifies his achievements amongst his peers, it by no means heralds the end for Smeaton. A number of major projects are still in the pipeline, not least the increased responsibilities of INSIGHT. “SFI funding for the CLARITY vehicle comes to an end this year,” he says. “So we have already started work on a much bigger centre, INSIGHT, which brings together UCD, NUI Galway, DCU and University College Cork.” Centres in each university – such as the Digital Enterprise Research Institute at NUI Galway and CLARITY – will all be blended together to work on data analytics. “A good proportion of the work we have been doing in CLARITY will continue as part of INSIGHT. I see future research in this area being a lot about personal sensing and the science underpinning human behaviour, our engagement with technologies and neural as well as physiological responses.”

The future indeed looks bright for Smeaton and there’s plenty of new areas to keep him interested. “I think I’m going to really enjoy this part of my career,” he says. “I’ve been afforded the opportunity for even more interdisciplinary research than ever. That’s really exciting.”