The government has announced £36m in funding for a trio of research centres that will probe the societal benefits and pitfalls of emerging digital technologies such as Twitter.
The universities of Aberdeen, Newcastle and Nottingham have been selected as the trio of tech hubs charged with investigating issues including digital exclusion, healthcare and transport delivery, and the ethics of data handling in an age of increasing surveillance.
The three will share the cash equally between them, with the only condition attached to the funding being that £2m is earmarked for community outreach work, according to Dr Dave Watson, chair of the Research Councils UK Digital Economy Programme.
Speaking at a press conference in London yesterday, Lord Drayson, science and innovation minister, said investment in the digital economy is vital to secure the UK's economic future.
"The way in which society and the world is changing is being driven by our understanding and use of all things digital, is something which we in the UK have already shown we have real world leadership in. And so it's vitally important that we continue to invest in these areas of technology to make sure that we come out of this really difficult downturn stronger," he said.
"And digital technologies—whether they relate to use of satellites, mobile phones, the use of the internet—these are all fundamental, I believe, to playing an important part of developing an economy which uses science to be a world leader and in doing so creates an economy which will help us succeed in future."
Drayson added that his own "recent experience" tweeting about his ministerial duties—he has around 1,400 followers of his Twitter feed—has led to an appreciation of the transformational potential of digital technologies.
"Real opportunities… exist from the use of these technologies to actually transform the way you work and think and your ability to understand the world around you," he said.
He added that digital technologies will be crucial to delivering universal broadband access by 2012—the commitment set out by comms minister Lord Carter in his interim Digital Britain report. "That's only going to be achieved if we are able to capitalise on some of the developments which we have made recently around, for example, satellite technology," Drayson said.
Another catalyst for setting up digital research centres is the UK's aging population. "As our population is aging we need to be able to find ways to enable people over 65 to be able to also share in the benefits which the digital age can represent," explained Drayson.
Each research hub will focus on a particular theme—with Aberdeen concentrating on rural issues such as broadband access, healthcare delivery and public transport; Newcastle looking at ways to boost digital inclusion in traditionally difficult-to-reach groups such as the elderly or disabled; and Nottingham investigating opportunities for digital tech in retail, the creative industries and transport.
Specific research projects include the University of Aberdeen investigating whether wireless body-systems monitoring kit could help people with chronic health problems live more independent lives; and the University of Nottingham looking at whether social networking could be used to facilitate more car-sharing in cities to help cut carbon emissions. Nottingham is also investigating the control, management and ethical implications of the increasing volumes of data being generated by use of digital technologies.
While the hubs themselves will not be involved in developing commercial propositions, various companies are collaborating with them on the research, including the likes of BT, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle.
Drayson added: "It's often with these sort of areas of scientific development it's not until people start using them that you actually get to understand what are the potential benefits, the opportunities, and what are the potential downsides that you have to think about further so I very much see that this [programme] is something which is research done at the outerface with users and people… It provides the ability for researchers to work with sections of the community that are really cut off at the moment from the use of some of the benefits that digital technology can bring."
The three universities were selected from a shortlist of nine on the grounds of "technical excellence", according to the Research Councils UK Digital Economy Programme's Watson. The digital hubs project is a collaborative cross-research effort between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; the Economic and Social Research Council; the Medical Research Council; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.