Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Capgemini's Innovators Race - Team Rainbow

After winning the UK finals of Capgemini’s Innovators Race, Hertfordshire Business School students Trevor Yu and Fiona Huynh went through to the international round competing against students from Brazil, France, the Netherlands, India and the USA.

The Innovators Race is a competition which requires competitors to come up with solutions to a real business challenge set by a national business. Trevor and Fiona were tasked by Barclays to find a way to improve customer and client experience using innovative and emerging technologies.
Unfortunately Team Rainbow narrowly missed out to France in the International voting round however we caught up with Fiona and Trevor to get a deeper understanding of their own innovative idea and how the competition had been for them.

What made you apply for this competition?
Trevor: I wasn't aware of the competition until Fiona approached me and asked if I would like to join in the race as a team of two.
Fiona: Last year I competed in the University Business Challenge, where I recruited and lead a team to successfully progress to the semi-finals. My team and I also were the first representing Hertfordshire Business School to progress to this stage, which made the achievement even more striking! Ever since that adventure, I have sought after competitive events, which led me to pursue the innovation and technology influenced Innovators Race.

What’s the innovative idea and how did you come up with it?
Trevor: We broke down the brief and tried to identify a solution that would help Barclays’ customers and clients achieve their ambitions using emerging innovative technology. We found that customer demand was for information based on their financial lives and that by using the personal details and spending patterns of Barclays’ customers, we could create a personal platform to help them meet their saving goals.
Fiona: I've always been interested in the technology industry and I try to keep up-to-date with the latest gadgets and computing skills, one of which is data interpretation. So when we thought about this, we began thinking more innovatively about how we could develop a personalised service. Our solution then, was to create a service tailored to customers based on their specific user profile, which we named ‘Scylia’.

What was it like presenting your solution during the UK finals?
Trevor: It was overwhelming. We had spent a lot of time in the preparation stage so I was confident that whatever happened we had tried our best. On the day, the eighteen finalists were split into three groups to present our ideas to senior officers from Capgemini. We received some great feedback afterwards and we were excited to hear that we were the best pairing in our group. Then Fiona and I and the two other teams had five minutes to prepare for a two minute elevator pitch in front of all the teams, senior officers, and Barclays CTO - Michael Harte, which was over forty people. I can only thank the presentations I had done during first and second year, which prepared me to present confidently and professionally in front of a big audience.
Fiona: Intense! The competition was fierce, and with Barclay's CTO and senior members of Capgemini judging us, the pressure was definitely on! Nevertheless, through all the hard work we put into the presentation, we managed to impress.

How did it feel to get through to the International round?
Fiona: It felt surreal! I was confident in our team, but I still couldn't believe it when they called our names. To get this far in such a big competition is definitely overwhelming.
Trevor: Fiona and I felt it was very close between us and the other two UK finalists, as their ideas were great. I felt proud of what we had achieved so far and being able to win showed that the hard work and time spent preparing for the UK Finals, had paid off. Winning the UK Finals and now representing the UK is a real achievement. Not only because it will improve my own skillset, but I believe it will also open doors for us in the future.

What has this stage of the competition been like for you both?
Trevor: It has been difficult to balance placement work and the competition work, so we’ve had to use our holidays to work with Capgemini, but it has been a welcome sacrifice. The Innovators Race has been a great experience so far and we’ve been rewarded the opportunity to meet incredible people, go inside the Barclays office at Canary Wharf and even become actors for 3 days. 
Fiona: This stage required more effort and hours invested than expected as trying to get from our initial idea to reality was very tough! However, it has been a valuable learning curve and a fun competition, full of networking and meeting lots of new people!

Watch Team Rainbow’s solution in full: 

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Sugar: it's not just the calories that are bad for you

Richard Hoffman, School of Life and Medical Sciences

The main aim of the UK’s new tax on sugary soft drinks is to reduce obesity in children. But, apart from causing child – and adult – obesity, too much sugar also increases the risk of many serious diseases, from cancer to heart disease. And sugar’s calories provide only part of the explanation.

Just as important is insulin. When glucose levels in the blood rise, the pancreas produces insulin, the key that opens doors on cells to allow the glucose in. But too many sugary snacks can keep blood glucose levels high, and so more insulin is also produced. In response to the continual bombardment with insulin, cells change their locks so the insulin key no longer works. With cells desensitised to insulin, blood glucose levels rise even more and the pancreas responds by producing even more insulin. This dangerous state of high blood glucose and insulin can persist undiagnosed for years and is a driving force behind many diseases, even in those of normal body weight.

Why are elevated glucose and insulin so dangerous? High blood glucose is a well-established risk factor for type 2 diabetes. It also leads to free radicals being produced that damage blood vessels. The tradition of three meals a day allows time between meals for antioxidants to repair the damage. With snacking on sugary foods there may be less reprieve. The result is an increased likelihood of a heart attack.

No reprieve. www.shutterstock.com

What’s more, insulin – glucose’s partner in crime – is a cell “fertiliser” promoting the growth of cells, and making it more likely that a normal cell will cross the threshold into cancer. Raised insulin levels are linked to many cancers and may be an important risk factor for breast cancer in postmenopausal women. So the double whammy of high glucose and high insulin is an insidious driver of many diseases.


The health significance of elevated blood glucose is sufficient for it to have acquired a new medical term: prediabetes. According to one report, a staggering one in three adults in the UK now has this condition – a figure that has tripled since 2003. But most don’t even know they are living with this pre-disease state and so take no remedial action. Being obese increases the risk of prediabetes, but a quarter of prediabetic people in the UK are of normal weight.

Each year, about one in 20 people with prediabetes cross the threshold into type 2 diabetes. And a recent review of a large number of studies also found that being prediabetic was associated with an increased risk, albeit small, for many different cancers. So detecting and treating this condition has huge implications for public health. In the UK, the NHS Health Check (a prevention programme for 40-74 year olds) will detect prediabetes, enabling patients to reverse it by adopting a healthier lifestyle. But far better to prevent it occurring by adopting that healthy lifestyle now.

Cutting down on sugary food and drinks is an obvious way to help prevent the dangerous cocktail of high blood glucose and insulin. Sugar added to processed foods is particularly harmful. But natural sources like fruit, though high in sugars, contain fibre, and fibre reduces glucose spikes in the blood by slowing the emptying of the stomach. It also gives a feeling of fullness, preventing over-consumption, whereas there is no such regulator in sugary drinks. Fruit also has the redeeming benefits of vitamins and other nutrients, while sugary drinks provide only empty calories devoid of nutrients. And studies show that fruit (but not fruit juice) is linked to a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Another way to reduce spikes in blood glucose is by having sweet foods only after eating foods rich in fibre such as vegetables, beans or cereals. Some plant foods also contain natural chemicals that help further by blocking glucose uptake from the gut. Apples are a good example – and my research shows that onions also contain chemicals that can reduce spikes in blood glucose. This ability of various plant foods to reduce blood glucose may be one reason why the plant-based Mediterranean diet, even though it includes some sweet foods, is very effective at preventing and managing diabetes.

Makers of sugary soft drinks now complain that their products are being victimised by the new tax. Yes, many other sources of added sugar are also contributing to the epidemic of sugar-related diseases. But this is an opportunity for food manufacturers to do more to reformulate their sugary food products, not less.
The Conversation

Richard Hoffman, Lecturer in Nutritional Biochemistry, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Notion of alien megastructure blocking light from distant star bites the dust

James Geach, School of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics
The star KIC 8462852 rose to fame this year when astronomers discovered that its light occasionally dimmed in a really weird way. At the time, no one explanation could describe the star’s odd “light curve”. Several possibilities for causing this were proposed – even including the potential of an alien megastructure around the star, blocking the light.

With our latest observations of the star, submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, we show that the most promising explanation is that the starlight is being obscured by the remnants of a family of smashed-up comets. A cloud of dusty debris, circling the star on an eccentric orbit, would block out some of the light when it crosses our line of sight. This scenario is now supported by many astronomers.

I’d be delighted if the Kepler space telescope has discovered a civilisation in our galaxy that has built a gigantic artificial structure – such as a Dyson Sphere – to harvest the energy of their sun. In fact, I’m sure that advanced space-faring societies do exist in the Milky Way. However, part of being a good scientist is to be a good sceptic. To infer the presence of an alien megastructure requires a lot of assumptions.

The importance of dust

One of the key things we need to know about the KIC 8462852 system is the amount of emission at long wavelengths of light – particularly the sub-millimetre and millimetre part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This light would be a signature of dust around the star, glowing when heated by starlight.

In astronomical terms, dust refers to particles or small grains composed mainly of carbon and silicon. This material is formed within stars and dispersed into interstellar space when they die. Along with other heavy elements it forms the basis of new solar systems. We owe the existence of Earth to such material.

To carry out the analysis we used data from the Submillimeter Array and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. We did not detect any millimetre or sub-millimetre emission at all around the star. This does not mean that there is no dust, but it allows us to place sensitive upper limits on how much dust is present.

Star KIC 8462852 seen in infrared and ultraviolet respectively. NASA

In the inner solar system, within a radius of about 2-8 AU (1 AU is the average Sun-Earth distance), we estimated that there must be less dust than a few millionths of the Earth’s mass. This helped us eliminate one theory about what’s causing the dimming: a huge cloud of debris from the collision of two or more planets that is now orbiting the star – there’s simply not enough dust present to support that idea.

However, analysis of the light curve suggested that just a billionth of an Earth-mass of dust could explain the dimming, provided that the dust is on the correct orbit around the star. This rather small amount of dust was not ruled out by our observations, and we estimated that the complete disintegration of the equivalent of about 30 Halley’s Comets on highly elliptical orbits between 0.1 and 26 AU could explain the dimming of the starlight. At the moment, this is the best bet to explain KIC 8462852’s weird light curve, and is supported by other data too.

Can we rule out aliens?

A Dyson-like structure would be expected to glow infrared at shorter wavelengths than the long wavelengths we observed. This is because its temperature would be fairly hot in comparison to the temperature of the dust. In fact, no Dyson-like infrared signature from KIC 8462852 has been detected in other data.

Also, assuming some sort of radiation-harvesting megastructure was located in the inner solar system, the construction process would presumably generate a fair amount of dusty debris, since it would require extensive mining of a large number of asteroids and small planets. Considering the very low mass of dust present within 8 AU of the star constrained by our observations, it seems unlikely. So, if a megastructure does exist around this star, the civilisation that made it is incredibly tidy.


Oh, and there’s something else. As often happens in science, our measurements may have accidentally led us to another discovery. The observation happened to cover another star, called TYC 3162-977-1. Straddling its position are two bright sources of sub-millimetre light that we believe might be a dusty debris disc – a flattened, rotating, dusty environment around a star from which planets form.

The cross marks the position of the star TYC 3162-977-1. The two blobs straddling it are bright sub-millimetre detections that could be the signature of the largest debris disc ever found. Thompson et al. (2015)

We calculated that the chance of finding such an alignment by chance is less than 0.6%. We know of lots of debris discs, but what makes this one interesting is its size. The distance to the star is something between 200 and 650 light years. This means that the size of this debris disc is something like 1000 AU. This would make it the largest such disc ever discovered … watch this space.

The Conversation
James Geach, Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What will Italy's discerning coffee drinkers make of Starbucks?

Jonathan Morris, School of Humanities
“With great humility and respect” Starbucks has announced it intends to open its first outlets in Italy in 2017. For Howard Schultz, who transformed the Seattle roaster from 17 stores focused on selling coffee beans into a global chain with more than 22,500 outlets, this latest opening is different. It was in Milan in 1983 that Schultz first experienced the theatre of Italian espresso bars and conceived the notion of opening similar establishments in the US: 34 years later Starbucks is coming to its spiritual home.

Italians see it differently. The announcement provoked predictable reactions – an affront to the nation’s coffee culture, another example of American imperialism – accompanied by the usual lament that Italy’s entrepreneurs failed to seize the opportunities created by its culinary genius. The fact that there are no coffee shop chains in Italy suggest they could be right.

Italian origins

The typical Starbucks customer experience certainly has little in common with that of the average Italian coffee bar. Schultz realised that his first attempts to create a supposedly “authentic” Italian experience – coffee consumed standing up, prepared by baristas in bow ties with opera music in the background – needed to be translated into a more American approach. Jazz on the speakers, sofas to sit on, and, most importantly, a change of emphasis within the coffee menu were introduced.

Italian style. Julien Lagarde, CC BY-NC-ND

Customers had little interest in espresso. They wanted to spend longer sipping larger-sized beverages, while either socialising within the store, or taking them away to drink on the go. Milk and syrups provided the solution, sweetening the drinks, while increasing their volume. A small cappuccino in Starbucks was soon twice the size of the same drink in Italy, while caffè latte was introduced for those who didn’t appreciate froth – in effect an espresso au lait. To these were added an ever-expanding range of syrups and sprinklings; the more successful Starbucks became, the less Italian it appeared.

Starbucks, however, exercised a hugely positive influence upon the Italian coffee industry. Until 1999 the company bought all its coffee machines from La Marzocco, an artisan operation based near Florence. As a result of this visibility, it became one of the most highly regarded manufacturers in the world, exporting more than 95% of its machines.

Indeed, the global growth in coffee shop culture inspired by Starbucks generated a massive expansion in export earnings throughout the Italian coffee sector. In 1988 Italy exported 12,000 tonnes of roasted coffee – by 2013 that had risen to 191,000 tonnes, and 36% of all the beans roasted in the country are now exported, generating a remarkable 84% of the total value of coffee sales. More than 70% of espresso machines made by Italian companies are sold outside the country.

Made in Italy. Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

Italian roasters have set up their own coffee shop chains and licensing operations abroad – Segafredo, for example, operates in 37 countries. And they have not hesitated to change their offerings to suit local tastes as the introduction of “instant espresso” coffee by Illy and Lavazza in the UK demonstrates. Autogrill, the leading Italian catering group, even runs licensed Starbucks outlets in its overseas airports concessions including in the US. Yet no coffee chain stores have ever been established in Italy.

A different coffee culture

Italian coffee culture is distinctive in many ways, which goes some way to explaining why no chain has ever established itself. Starbucks will have to decide whether it tries to mimic the existing style of coffee drinking, or import its American hybrid coffee culture.

The vast majority of coffee sales in Italy are of straight espresso, consumed standing at the bar, during a break during the working day. People do not hang about in coffee shops, as an espresso can be drunk in a few sips, while a cappuccino is rarely taken beyond breakfast time.

Old school. Waywuwei, CC BY-ND

These habits were shaped by legislation introduced in 1911 allowing councils to introduce a maximum price for a single cup of coffee without service, set in conjunction with the local proprietors associations. This has evolved over time, but a standard price for an espresso of around €0.94 still applies across most cities today. Compare that price with the UK where a standard Starbucks espresso costs £1.70 – that is €2.21.

Neighbourhood coffee bars sprung up during the “economic miracle” of the 1950s and 1960s, when many Italians moved from the countryside to the city in search of work. These still operate as family businesses, economising on labour costs. Coffee comes from local roasters who offer espresso machines and all the accoutrements needed to operate a bar on extremely favourable credit terms to secure the contract.

The result is an extremely fragmented sector operating with low sales volumes, low service and low profit margins. And, frequently, low-quality coffee. Roasters incorporate cheaper robusta beans into their blends, masking taste defects by using the highly caramelised roasts associated with espresso.

Sitting room only in Starbucks. Sorbis / Shutterstock.com

Starbucks operates on the reverse principles to this. It seeks high footfall locations, generating large volumes of customers who are offered high levels of service (sofas, wi-fi, bathrooms) in return for paying a substantial premium for their Italian-style beverages.

So what should Starbucks’ strategy be in Italy? The chain claims it will adapt to local tastes, serving a specially created blend of espresso to customers standing at a bar. Even so, it is difficult to see how Starbucks can expect to charge a premium for its Italian-style coffees. The reverse approach – seeking to leverage value on its American-style filter coffees and non-traditional drinks such as chai lattes – might prove more attractive to an Italian youth market keen for a taste of contemporary America, and places to hang out.
Initially, however, I expect Starbucks' progress in Italy to mimic its experience in France where the company largely confined itself to serving tourists in strategic locations. Only after the 2008 crash has it gained traction, as much as a low-cost eatery as a coffee shop.

Starbucks intends to license its Italian outlets to local operator Percassi, which is better known for its retail and real estate holdings. This suggests a reluctance to assume the entry costs at its own risk, and awareness that they are embarking on a long game.

The Conversation
Jonathan Morris, Professor of History, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How police witnesses could be misled by a simple wave of the hand

Daniel Gurney, School of Life and Medical Sciences
How easy do you think it would be for someone to convince you that you’d seen something that never really happened? What about them doing this without actually saying anything misleading? That would almost be impossible, surely? Well, research into verbal and nonverbal influence suggests this can happen, and that we’re actually far more suggestible than we might like to think.

We know that people easily can be misled through words, and that changing the way we phrase a question can affect how somebody answers it. For instance, if you ask someone “how tall was the man?”, they will probably say he was taller on average than if you asked “how short was the man?” A cleverly-worded question that implies something was present can make people believe they saw it, and biased questions can implant false memories in people, causing them to remember something fictional as if it were real.

But speech isn’t the only way we communicate with people. We also give lots of information away through our nonverbal behaviour, especially our hand gestures. When we talk, we tend to gesture a lot, and the people we’re speaking to can use these gestures to make sense of what we’re saying.

Handy hints

Imagine you’re telling a friend that you hurt your arm recently. You might say “I hurt myself last week” and rub your arm while doing so. Here, you communicate part of the message through your speech (“hurt”) and the other part through your gesture (“arm”). A listener will combine these two pieces of information to get one full story, and probably won’t even realise the information came from two different places.

Giving somebody helpful information through gesture is one thing, but what about if we gave them some misleading information? Could a misleading gesture implant a suggestion in someone, and cause them to believe something that isn’t true? These questions sparked my research into the “gestural misinformation effect”.

In one of my first academic studies, I wanted to see if people would misremember seeing something if false information was given to them through a hand gesture. To test this, I showed participants a video (a man coming into my office and stealing a phone from my desk) and arranged for them to be interviewed on what they could remember afterwards.

After softening them up with a few distractor questions, the interviewer asked if they could describe the man’s face. We found that if the interviewer stroked his chin while asking this, significantly more participants would claim that the man had a beard or stubble than if he didn’t gesture.

Watch my hands. Shutterstock

We tried this with other questions, too. If the interviewer pinched his finger while asking if the man was wearing any jewellery, the participants remembered him wearing a ring. If he grasped his wrist, they remembered a watch. People seemed to remember parts of the video differently according to what was suggested to them through the interviewer’s hand gestures.

In my original set of studies, our participants were largely psychology students but, since then, we’ve replicated the effect in children, members of the general public and even lawyers. In light of this, the gestural misinformation effect seems to be quite robust.

But are people aware of how much influence these gestures have on them? Even if we can remember what has been said to us in speech, we often cannot identify when extra information has been given to us through gestures, so nonverbal influence is a bit more subtle. Typically, we’re not really aware of when we gesture, and listeners don’t generally see our gestures either.

Because of this, people can extract information from gestures without even realising it. In a follow-up study, I found suggestions made through gesture can be just as effective as those made through speech, but that people were less likely to know when they’d been misled by a gesture compared to speech.

Forensic implications

The fact that people can be misled through gesture so easily is very interesting (if not a little scary), but there are some clear implications for this research, particularly in forensic psychology, too. Because witnesses are so prone to misleading questions, police officers have to be very careful not to suggest any leading information to them through their questions.

To make sure no unwanted influence has occurred, interviews are also audio-recorded. However, currently, there is very little training on how our gestures can influence others in interviews and, without a video recording of an interview, it’s possible for a witness to be misled by gestures without a record of this happening.

These findings on nonverbal suggestion can extend to any interview situation, or any dialogue between two people. There may be times when we’ve been influenced by someone’s hand gestures, and without even knowing it. Because of this, we should be aware of the power of nonverbal suggestion and how susceptible we can be to its effects.

The Conversation
Daniel Gurney, Senior lecturer in psychology, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We love ready meals ... but what are they doing to our health?

Richard Hoffman, University of Hertfordshire
Who doesn’t like a ready meal once in a while? People in the UK certainly do: consumption of ready meals and convenience meat products has increased five-fold over the last 40 years, according to the latest National Food Survey on UK food-buying habits. High levels of calories and fat in some of these products can be spotted on the label. But there are other concerns about the nutritional value of some ready meals – things you won’t find on the label.

Lost nutrients

One concern is the way these foods are cooked. Cooking processes can be just as important for our health as the sugar, salt and fat content. Beetroot turning cooking water purple is a vivid example of how nutrients (antioxidants called betalains) can be lost. But other nutrients disappear unnoticed into the cooking water, such as B vitamins from leafy vegetables, and anticancer glucosinolates from members of the cabbage family. At home, we can minimise this by steaming vegetables or using the cooking water. But we have no control over the making of convenience foods and ready meals. Do firms that make these products take care to prepare ready meals in ways that preserve the nutrients? We simply don’t know.

Labelling on ready meals tends to be limited to fat, sugar and salt. Makers of ready meals don’t have to label total vitamin content, and probably don’t bother figuring out how many of the myriad of cancer-preventing compounds in plant foods are lost during production. Even when they do mention vitamins on their labels, this can just mean that the vitamins were in the raw ingredients. It’s not an indication of what remains in the end product.

Some makers of ready meals compromise health by substituting healthy ingredients with less healthy ones. For instance, rapeseed oil is common in ready-prepared Mediterranean dishes such as hummus and pizzas, even though they are traditionally made using virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil has well-established health benefits against cardiovascular disease and possibly even against breast cancer, but there is no evidence for these benefits with rapeseed oil.

Another example is the way olives are processed. Beneficial antioxidants that lower the risk of cardiovascular disease are lost during the processing of some cheap black olives. Fortunately, the shopper can identify these nutritionally-depleted olives by the ferrous gluconate (added to stabilise the black colour) mentioned on the label.

Mmm … ferrous gluconate. www.shutterstock.com

The nutritional value of ready meals matters since groups such as the single elderly rely on them for a lot of their nourishment. Surveys regularly find that elderly people aren’t getting enough heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, vitamin D or minerals such as calcium, magnesium and selenium.
Supplements might be one answer, but they don’t provide all the nutrients – including fibre and cancer-preventing compounds – needed for overall health. So health authorities generally recommend eating a healthy diet rather than relying on supplements. And if ready meals are a significant part of the diet, it’s important that they preserve the nutrients that were present in the raw ingredients.

It’s not just what’s taken out

Lost nutrients aren’t the only concern. Other potential perils lurk on the ready meals counter. Carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines are produced in meats roasted or grilled at high temperatures. So reducing consumption of ready meals containing these meats could be a good idea. Also, popular meat products such as chicken nuggets and kebabs have high levels of substances known as AGEs (advanced glycation endproducts). These are linked to an increased risk of diabetes and also possibly of dementia. People with diabetes or kidney disease (who are less able to excrete AGEs) are advised to limit their intake of foods containing these substances.

Poor diet is the main reason – ahead of smoking and lack of exercise – for the epidemic of chronic diseases in developed countries such as the UK. Firms that make ready meals could help the fight against these chronic diseases by providing nutrient-rich meals. Concern over poor diet often focuses on sugar, salt and fat, but nutrient levels are also important. For example, new research indicates that an optimal combination of nutrients can help prevent diseases as seemingly intractable as Alzheimer’s disease. But to achieve these nutrient-levels, those eating ready meals should be able to rely on them being produced to a high nutritional standard.

The Conversation
Richard Hoffman, Lecturer in Nutritional Biochemistry, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Are treatment guidelines on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder just plain wrong?

Keith Laws, School of Life and Medical Sciences and Sameer Jauhar, King's College London
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has become a byword for unbiased, evidence-based healthcare advice. Its recommendations strongly influence which treatments are made available on the NHS. We wouldn’t expect NICE to make recommendations that are unsupported by evidence or, worse, contain contradictory evidence. However, two recent NICE publications recommend psychological therapies for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia despite a lack of robust evidence for their effectiveness.

Bipolar disorder

The NICE guideline for bipolar disorder recommends psychological therapy for adults who are seeing their GP for treatment. And for those being treated in hospital, NICE puts psychotherapy on a par with drugs, such as antidepressants and lithium. We recently published a paper in Lancet Psychiatry reassessing the evidence used by NICE in the guideline.

NICE recommendations are mainly based on evidence from studies known as meta-analyses. A meta-analysis is where data from several studies are combined and analysed in order to arrive at more reliable estimates of treatment effects.

The first thing that struck us about the NICE guideline was the sheer number of meta-analyses performed. There were over 170 – but they used just 55 trials, meaning that most analyses contained very few trials and many of the analyses were looking at the same trials. The largest meta-analysis looked at just six trials, but even more worryingly, over half of all meta-analyses in the NICE guideline looked at a single trial. This form of “data mining” contradicts the purpose of meta-analysis. And such an approach inevitably reduces the probability of obtaining reliable findings and increases the possibility of false discoveries.

NICE recommends a number of therapies for the treatment of bipolar disorder, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Six of their meta-analyses tested whether CBT reduces the symptoms of depression in bipolar disorder – but the results were mixed. One analysis reported a significant reduction of depressive symptoms at the end of therapy. But another showed that improvements disappeared after therapy ended. Two other studies found that CBT is less successful at reducing depression than an “active control”, such as supportive counselling, which has no known therapeutic effect.

NICE assessed the quality of the psychological therapy trials used in these metanalyses and almost all (96%) were rated “low” or “very low” quality. The remaining 4% were rated “moderate”. We might think then that NICE would have been cautious when interpreting the findings, especially since low-quality studies often inflate the reported effects. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Indeed, where high-quality evidence was not available, the guide says that the committee adopted “an informal consensus process”. In other words, NICE shifted from evidence to opinion.

A lot of the evidence was of low quality. www.shutterstock.com


Turning to schizophrenia, NICE has repeatedly made strong claims for the effectiveness of CBT. In their 2009 guideline, the agency recommended that doctors: “Offer CBT to all people with psychosis or schizophrenia”. Similar data mining is apparent in this guideline, with 110 meta-analyses conducted on a mere 31 trials. Around half of the meta-analyses contain only one or two studies. There were very few positive findings and NICE didn’t pay much attention to the quality of the studies included in the guideline.

In what seems to be a major oversight, NICE decided not to update the 2014 guideline with the latest evidence. Although NICE declares that it is “committed to keeping guidelines current", with updates undertaken every four years at least, the 2014 NICE meta-analyses contain no trials published after 2008.

A different view

In 2014, we published our own meta-analysis of all the available evidence and came to more cautious conclusions about the effectiveness of CBT at reducing the symptoms of schizophrenia. Similarly, a Cochrane Review, published in 2012, found “no clear and convincing advantage for cognitive behavioural therapy”.

These shortcomings have begun to raise concerns. A recent editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Professor Mark Taylor, former chair of Scotland’s equivalent of the NICE group, said that the NICE guideline on schizophrenia “promotes some psychosocial interventions, especially CBT, beyond the evidence”.

Is NICE achieving its stated aims of unbiased and evidence-based recommendations? Or are poor-quality, unconvincing and outdated evidence being employed in the political urgency to promote psychological therapies? Some argue that psychological therapies are what people want and that they are cost effective, but both claims rely on first showing that they are effective.

The Conversation
Keith Laws, Professor, University of Hertfordshire and Sameer Jauhar, , King's College London
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How did Britain fall out of love with privatisation?

Hulya Dagdeviren, Hertfordshire Business School
When Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn flagged up the potential re-nationalisation of British railways, and later made similar comments about the energy industry, his ideas were dismissed as a return to the past. But the evidence is that the public has bought into it. YouGov polls show that a majority of British people now support the nationalisation of the railways (66%) and energy sector (68%).

From the end of the 1970s, the British electorate voted four times in a row to give the Conservative Party a mandate to implement an extensive privatisation programme. So why has public opinion turned around so sharply?

Ideological views

Privatisation, in many cases, was an ideological programme which promoted solutions driven by the private sector and financial markets. It was a simplistic rationale: self interest and competition would bring about the much desired outcome of efficiency. This has been promoted as sensible economic policy by both Conservative and New Labour governments.

In the background, there was the financial downturn of the 1970s and 1980s that had knock-on effects on public services and utilities, which implied poor financial performance and created the ideal conditions for arguments in favour of privatisation.

The emerging view was that public enterprises only helped self-interested bureaucrats, inhibited cost cutting and innovation and distorted the allocation of resources. Privatisation was supposed to reduce the burden on the taxpayer and force these sectors to become more competitive, efficient and deliver better value for “customers”.

Clinging on to an ideology. REUTERS/Phil Noble

As early as 1984, at the Conservative Party conference, Margaret Thatcher proudly announced:
… again and again, denationalisation has brought greater motivation to managers and workforce, higher profits and rising investment, and what is more, many in industry now have a share in the firm for which they work.

Building evidence

The ideological basis of neoliberal views around privatisation has gradually become clearer with the arrival of more and more evidence in the last two decades. Research has laid bare the myth that privatisation is somehow a panacea for improving public services and utilities.

Britain did see short-term improvements in some cases such as energy. But over the long term, it has become clear that private services do not deliver good value. Charges have remained high and service quality is often dismissed as poor or indifferent. Research commissioned by the TUC, a federation of trade unions, looked at the £358 monthly rail ticket for the 35-minute journey from Chelmsford, Essex, to London and compared it to the cost of similar European examples. The results were startling: £37 in Italy, £56 in Spain, £95 in Germany, and £234 in France. In these countries a large majority of railways remain under public control.
Moreover, meeting the investment needs (which is where the real risks lie) to ensure safe, regular and high-quality service has been a challenge. Where there were failures as in the case of Metronet, the public sector was forced to pick up the pieces. It can appear that private companies acquire the benefits, without fully taking on the risks.

In the energy sector, average UK domestic electricity prices outstrip the average of OECD countries, as shown in the chart below. In an ongoing investigation of the UK’s six large energy companies, one of the initial conclusions of the Competition and Market Authority was that the companies used their unilateral market power to overcharge domestic customers to the tune of £1.2 billion a year between 2009-2013.

IEA, Author provided

Health check

There are clear failures then in both rail and energy privatisation – enough to drive the sharp turnaround in public opinion. This is only reinforced by the role of the private sector in the National Health Service.

The National Audit Office found that the use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) was one of the major reasons for deficits at hospitals that provide acute healthcare services. PFI deals with private firms reduce the investment cost for the public sector in the short term, but they introduce an annual unitary charge (a sort of debt repayment) which has to be paid over a long period of time.

The most recent data show that for Department of Health projects which delivered over £11 billion of capital investment, the undiscounted cost of the unitary charges to be paid until the end of these projects was around £80 billion.

It’s not just about the headline numbers. PFIs may involve considerable differences between projected and actual outcomes, and can be beset by cost overruns and delays. And skills are often not in place to negotiate and administer PFI contracts successfully. And so we end up with disagreements about contract terms, price reviews which rarely lead to price reductions, limited use of penalties for poor performance and a failure to share future savings or efficiency gains.

Tapping the market. Water as a social resource. IUCNweb, CC BY

And it’s not just a UK problem. A wide range of research shows similar results in other parts of the world and our own research at the University of Hertfordshire Business School has confirmed these findings for the water and sanitation sector in developing countries. High profile examples include Argentina cancelling a large number of contracts with multinational water companies after a major economic crisis in 2001. It is still counting the cost.

Sectors such as health, education, energy, transport and water provide essential services where there are social and developmental consequences to ownership. Access to and affordability of these services cannot be treated as secondary to efficiency objectives and profitability. The private sector usually has no inherent motivation to achieve these social goals unless they are incentivised by measures which often dump the cost on taxpayers or users.

In fact, the surprise shouldn’t be that the public appear to have rejected the rationale for private ownership in these sectors, but that they ever voted for it in the first place.

The Conversation
Hulya Dagdeviren, Professor of Economic Development, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Philosophy's influence on technology design – and why it needs to change

Constantine Sandis, School of Humanities
Philosophy often appears abstract and other-worldly, particularly when compared to the practical technology in our everyday lives. But there is much that technology can learn from philosophy, and vice versa.

Software is typically designed with the efficiency of communicating in mind – whether communication within the software, or software that allows communication between people. But communication is much more than the mere exchange of information. Humans talk or write for a variety of reasons, often simply to stay in touch or just because they are friends.

The history of philosophy and psychology is full of attempts to reduce all human motivation to one ultimate principle or drive – be it survival, sex, power, or desire or satisfaction. Similar approaches are taken to communication: the 16th century English philosopher John Locke suggested we communicate in order to obtain information about each other, which in turn helps us to satisfy our desires.

Locke’s view remains prevalent in the way information communication technology is designed today. But we would do better to replace this and other reductivist accounts with a more pluralistic view of why we do the things we do. Perhaps philosophers would do well to pay greater attention to human behaviour.

How we communicate is as important as why

Communication technology has tapped into a very human need to be liked and appreciated. Through social media we like, share, re-tweet, and comment on others – actions that are not predominantly geared towards conveying information. Precious data is given away of course, data which can be mined by advertisers for information, but it’s a mistake to equate data with information. When I make a joke, I’m not typically attempting to inform anyone of anything, though I may inadvertently reveal all sorts of things about my sense of humour.

The entire greeting card industry – whatever you might make of it – has been built on the understanding that we often want to express (or be seen to express) good wishes on auspicious days. The linguistic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, taught us that the public expression of a desire, wish, sentiment or belief is not a description of our mental life. This is why “this app is faulty but I don’t believe that it’s faulty” may be a true statement of fact, even though it sounds paradoxical.

Why should any of this matter to designers, manufacturers, and users of technology? A narrow view of why we communicate inevitably limits the sorts of communication technologies we build. Interestingly, many of the things we do with technology are byproducts of what they were originally designed for (e.g. the internet emerged as the result of a US Defence project researching possibilities for network packets). Once we drop our preconceived ideas that transmitting information is their only purpose – an assumption that carries with it a shortsighted vision – the possibilities of what we could create are endless.

Don’t leave me hanging. bykst

From communication to understanding

This misconception of communication also applies to our sense of understanding. Neither understanding nor communication can be reduced to simply the acquisition of new facts. There is a difference between understanding the words a speaker has said, and understanding the speaker – understanding the “why” as well as the “what”.

Wittgenstein famously said: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand it”. Not because of an insurmountable language barrier, but because we wouldn’t know what it was aiming to do with its words. Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, which support voice-activation and interaction, make use of artificial intelligence. Such software stems from the hope of creating technology that can understand us, and be understood by us. But there is no point asking whether such machines currently can or ever could understand us without first asking ourselves what we want these machines for. Why should we want to communicate with them in the first place? The answer is unlikely to require that they understand us in anything but the loosest sense. A good hoover doesn’t need to understand why I might require more powerful suction in order for it to switch to turbo when I press the appropriate button. The same is true of a web mapping service. If anything, understanding is likely to stand in the way of utility.

We need to free ourselves from approaching communication as something geared towards the transmission of information that either enables understanding between humans and machines, or that requires it. The way we design and use the increasingly ubiquitous technology we use to communicate would benefit from an approach that isn’t driven by this unacknowledged assumption.

The Conversation
Constantine Sandis, Professor of Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Interview: Neus Cortes on her Dance Springs Performance

This week marks the beginning of UHArts annual festival Dance Springs 2016. The festival will go out with a bang on Friday 4th of March with Dance Springs: The Show which celebrates the work of upcoming choreographers. We caught up with one of the choreographers, London based dancer, Neus Cortes who along with dancing at Dansateliers Rotterdam has worked with critically acclaimed choreographer Hofesh Schecter. 

“Know what you want and work really hard to get it”

Neus, you’re taking part in the UHArts annual Dance Springs Festival. Tell us a bit about your show?
Our piece is a collaboration between visual artist Nieves Mingueza and myself.  Nieves and I share the same name, in two different languages. It means "snow".
We also come from the same city, Valencia, and both live now in the UK. These life coincidences and connections have loosely inspired the theme of the piece, which is mainly about identity. That is, of course, a massive word, and we are not aiming to do any philosophical essay about it, but instead, we will be using our lives' paths, journeys, changes of scenarios... to present the audience with what we consider "layers" that have been added to our personality.
In other words, every experience that we have had in our life changes us a little bit, adding layers, perhaps breaking some preconceptions or structures and adding new ones. This is specially relevant when moving to a different place, and trying to integrate into a different culture.

What first sparked your interested in dance?
My parents have always been theatre, music and dance lovers. When I was 5 we went to see a performance by CNN, choreographed by Nacho Duato and when it finished I turned around to my parents and said solemnly: “I want to be a dancer”. I repeated it for a whole year till they finally enrolled me in a dance school, and here I am more than 25 years after!

What first attracted you to the genre of contemporary dance and how has your style developed since?
Ever since I started dance school I was attracted to contemporary dance. To me it seemed more current than classical ballet in the sense that contemporary dancers act, in a way, closer to the consciousness that we now have and the way we relate to each other. I also love flamenco and tango, for their strength and depth of emotion but I felt more free in the contemporary dance world.
How has my style developed? I think working with Hofesh Shechter has had a massive influence on me. Up until then I had been searching for a type of movement that wasn't just steps, something that was somewhat more internal and connected to emotions. Hofesh's style is all about an internal feeling, a body “state” that concept gave me the key to create something more “real” to me.  

What advice would you give to Hertfordshire University Students wanting to go into the performing arts?
Know what you want and work really hard to get it. Try to not compare yourself to others too much, because everybody has a different path. Many things don't depend on you and the only thing you can do is to throw your energy in one direction and see what happens. But many others do, so you have to be the best you can be in what is important for you. When you fail at something that's important to you, ask yourself (or others), WHY? And try another approach. Don't give up on your dreams easily.

Why should students/people come and see the show?
I think going to the theatre is always an opportunity to experience something new and unexpected. Regardless of whether you want to be a performer or not, art has the ability to inspire thoughts and feelings that can shake you out of your comfort zone, and that's always exciting! 

Dance Springs: The Show will take place on Friday 4th March in the Weston Auditorium, for tickets or more information click here