Technology is an integral - and some might say pervasive - part of all our lives. Together with the advantages of speed, efficiency and connectivity it brings, there are also problems around privacy, security and digital addiction. Bournemouth University’s Professor Raian Ali heads the ESOTICS (Engineering and Social Informatics) research group, which looks at how to improve the complex interrelationship between software and the social contexts in which we use it.
One of the areas he focuses on is the emerging and rapidly developing problem of digital addiction. Together with Dr Emily Arden-Close (Psychology), Dr Sarah Hodge (Psychology) and Dr Elvira Bolat (Marketing), Professor Ali and Dr McAlaney are running four main projects in the area funded by GambleAware (UK), Kindred Group (Malta), Zayed University (UAE) and National Centre of Responsible Gambling (USA). He defines this as behaviour that is obsessive, excessive, compulsive, impulsive and hasty.
“Although there is a growing recognition of the problem of digital addiction, users are still not aware of exactly how technology is designed to actually make addiction easier,” explains Professor Ali, “At the moment, the tools that enable people to be in control of their online experience, presence and online interaction remain very primitive. We are looking at using the technology itself to help inform people of their use, and help prevent problematic behaviour.”
Professor Ali arrived at BU in 2012 as a postdoctoral researcher from Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre, and applied for a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant. With help from Grants Academy, run by the Research Development & Support team, his bid was successful. His first project, Social Adaptation: When Software Gives Users a Voice, was the beginning of his interdisciplinary style of research, involving a team of PhD students and colleagues from computing, psychology and marketing.
“This was a significant milestone – it was the first fund I applied for and it helped shape my profile as a researcher. The grant covered two PhD studentships and I was also able to attract other self-funded PhD students to work with me.”
Fusion Funds and a mobility grant from BU further helped strengthen contacts with academic colleagues at Birmingham, Leeds, Utrecht and Valencia universities, as well as the Simula Research Laboratory in Norway and the National Rehabilitation Centre, Abu Dhabi, among other external partners. Around the same time, BU’s Associate Professor in Psychology Dr John McAlaney and Professor Ali started combining their expertise in cyberpsychology and software engineering and human factors and formed the ESOTICS group.
“Dr McAlaney understood that technology provides unprecedented opportunities to apply psychology in unique ways, benefitting from its real-time and interactive nature,” says Professor Ali, “We are using psychology to inform software engineering. By its nature, the work is very much interdisciplinary. Interestingly, I actually wanted to study psychology at university – but for pragmatic reasons, I ended up studying computing - so that interest has definitely shaped my focus on areas such as digital addiction.”
In 2013 Professor Ali delivered an event as part of BU’s Festival of Learning (FoL), with the aim of reaching out to other potential stakeholders. He explains: “We took part in FoL for three years in a row and it really helped us with our exposure to other sections of society, as well as the public. It was from those events that we gained a lot of involvement from charities, including StreetScene [a Bournemouth-based organisation which offers rehabilitation and support for various forms of addiction]. As a result of the FoL events, the BBC also picked up on the work we were doing on the idea of digital addiction labels and our research started receiving more media attention.
They also came to the notice of the UK’s Gambling Commission and, from that, developed a new project, EROGamb (Enabling Responsible Online Gambling), jointly funded by BU and gambling charity GambleAware. The project has recently received further funding from the charity to continue its work. Professor Ali says: “Through EROGamb, we are trying to produce tools which can take the real-time data the online gambling companies already collect to target online customers and use it to help people monitor and regulate their behaviour so they do not slip into harmful use or addiction.”
With help from BU’s Policy team and the Research Development & Support team, Professor Ali is currently lobbying policymakers to get the gambling industry to allow the tools to be implemented across all online gambling sites. This recently culminated in Professor Ali and Dr McAlaney talking to Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson about their research on the day that Watson made a speech calling for better regulation of the online gambling industry.
Professor Ali is clear that BU’s Fusion approach has helped researchers like himself think about the potential impact on society their work can have: “I really think that the concept of Fusion has helped emphasise those societal needs. We should, of course, foster basic and fundamental research but we do need to ensure that at least some of it has a direct influence on people’s lives.”
Last September, the then Dr Ali became a Professor, six years after first arriving at BU to develop his research career. “I liked the openness of the system at BU,” he says. “I had my first permanent job here and I was able to have the time to pursue my research.”
“To anyone starting out as an early career researcher, I would advise them to build a track record and area of speciality, with publications and outreach, apply for the larger funds, look at timely topics – and be persistent.”