Right place, right time? My experience of policy engagement on secondment with the National Food Strategy

A few weeks ago, I handed in my thesis. I’m part of the first cohort of students to go through the Data Analytics and Society CDT programme. As I come through the other side, I’ve found myself at a crossroads in my career. My thesis explores the utility of supermarket transaction records for population dietary monitoring and I have been lucky enough to work in partnership with a large UK retailer during my PhD. So where to next? Academia? Industry? Third sector?

As I look ahead to my next steps, it’s also an opportunity to reflect upon the experiences which have shaped my growth and built my confidence as a researcher over the last four years. One of those experiences was my secondment with the National Food Strategy Team at DEFRA. I share my reflections with you now in the form of four key lessons that I learnt along the way. By sharing these four lessons, I hope they may inspire other PhD students and early career researchers to engage with policy issues outside of the University space, and to reap the rewards that it can bring.

I am grateful that the CDT supports and actively encourages its students to work in different settings – through internships, overseas institutional visits, and secondments. For any students considering a placement or internship opportunity during their studies, I would say – go for it! It will offer exposure to another sector and widen your professional network immensely.

My secondment wasn’t planned, but it wasn’t simply luck either. As with many things, it was an example of how we can create our own luck, through strategic thinking, networking, and harnessing our skills. In a way, you could say I was in the right place at the right time, but importantly, with the right message. The four lessons I’m sharing here, helped me to build an environment for opportunities to happen, and to grab one with both hands.

Right time

The opportunity to work with DEFRA arose from my dissertation on the Data Analytics and Society MSc programme. I’d become familiar with retail product nutrition data, and had come across plans for forthcoming legislation to restrict promotions of food considered high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). My MSc analysis highlighted how a mis-match in data availability and data requirements contributed challenges to implementation of the legislation which could potentially hinder its success.

I could have left it there. I’d done what I needed to do to complete my MSc, and I had a PhD to work on. But then nobody would read it. The policy landscape was changing right now. The conversation was happening right now, and I had something to contribute.

Lesson 1: strike while the iron is hot. In other words, when your research aligns with a moment of policy change or national interest, your audience will be at their most receptive. Shuffle your priorities if you can to join the active conversation.

With support from my PhD supervisors, I followed my dissertation with two papers published in Nutrition Bulletin which highlighted the data-related challenges, and the perspectives of industry stakeholders for how they could be overcome.

Right message

Journal articles are a great output, but policymakers are unlikely to read them. To reach policy circles, I needed something punchier and more digestible. This is when I learnt a second important lesson.

Lesson 2: make the most of the wider university network. As academics, we become adept at communicating with other academics, through journal articles and conference presentations. But translating our findings for other audiences can be a challenge. I was grateful to discover that the University has a brilliant support network of experienced colleagues with the skills to help give your work a wider reach. Working with communications colleagues at the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA), the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), and Policy Leeds, I developed a policy brief which summarised my findings, and devised an actionable dissemination plan.

Right place

Combining my own contacts with those of my PhD supervisors and policy and communications colleagues, I now had a much wider network of contacts with whom to share my work. I’ve never felt particularly comfortable with networking, and find it difficult to put myself out there. But my dissemination plan gave me the confidence to go for it and taught me another important lesson.

Lesson 3: don’t be afraid to reach out to old and new contacts. Even if you haven’t met before or you haven’t been in touch for a while, if your message is of interest, they will be glad to hear from you. Generally, there is nothing to lose, and you never know where it might lead.

I was particularly fortunate to have a champion in the form of my lead supervisor, Dr Michelle Morris. A champion is someone with influence, who can advocate for you, throw your name into the ring, and open doors. Thanks to Michelle, my policy brief got in front of DEFRA and conversations with the National Food Strategy team started.

My secondment with the National Food Strategy

I was in the right place, at the right time, and with the right message. The National Food Strategy has been described as a once in a generation opportunity to influence the UK’s food system for the better. And they were talking to me!

Lesson 4: take opportunities when they arise even if they weren’t part of your original plan. By pursuing something I believed in at a time when people were prepared to listen, having a message that was accessible and easily shared in the form of a policy brief backed up by academic papers, and spreading that message among a network of contacts, a door had opened for me.

The National Food Strategy (NFS) team were exploring different policy approaches to ‘break the junk food cycle’ and improve the nation’s diet. What might different strategies look like, how might they be implemented, and how effective would they be? The team was interested in my insight on the HFSS legislation and how the challenges I had identified could be avoided. It turned out I had the right mix of data science skills, food industry experience and research competence that they needed, and I was asked to join the team. I hadn’t planned it, but here I had an amazing opportunity to work with policymakers on the inside.

I worked with the NFS team at DEFRA for four months at the beginning of 2021. During that time, I gained a fantastic insight into how the policy world works, and developed a lot of contacts across government, academia, industry and the charity sector. Mainly I worked on a project to model the impacts of a food manufacturer’s levy on added salt and sugar, and contributed to an Institute for Fiscal Studies working paper which supported the strategy’s first recommendation: to introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. I also contributed to other areas of the strategy, analysing and sourcing data to inform recommendations. During my secondment I worked with the NFS expert advisory group on health, which exposed me to how researchers can interact with policymakers, and the importance of critically evaluating a policy idea from many different perspectives. I also developed my communication skills, with practice in pitching ideas and translating research to senior members of the team. My experience with DEFRA showed me that the skills I have gained during my PhD are transferrable to other sectors, expanding my future employment possibilities.

My secondment has strengthened my desire to work across sectors and create wider impact through my work where possible. Knowing that I have contributed in a small way to a set of national food system recommendations is incredibly rewarding. Like the rest of the nation, I must wait and see whether the NFS recommendations will be taken forward by government, but I continue to be involved in conversations around the role of data to create a healthier food system as a result of the secondment. In particular, I represented the University of Leeds in the N8 Agrifood response to the NFS report, commenting on recommendation 2: to introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies; and recommendation 12: to create a National Food System Data programme and remain part of a network of Leeds researchers engaged in this space.

I don’t know what’s next for me, but I will continue to apply the four lessons I learned on the journey to my secondment, and am excited to see where they will take me.

  1. Strike while the iron is hot
  2. Make the most of the wider university network
  3. Don’t be afraid to reach out to old and new contacts
  4. Take opportunities when they arise

 

This piece was written by Vicki Jenneson, BSc, MPH, MSc, ANutr, a member of our first cohort of students, graduating in 2022. Vicki is now a Research Associate for the Consumer Data Research Centre, University of Leeds.

University of Sheffield projects 2022

The following projects are now available to apply to at the University of Sheffield:

SH61 Patterns of Engagement: Commonalities and Distinctions Within Arts Attendance Online and In-Person with The Audience Agency

SH62 Geographies of Engagement: Spatial Understanding of Arts Attendance with The Audience Agency

SH63 Exploring the impact of digital technologies on health and wellbeing outcomes with Hampshire County Council

SH64 Young Carers: Care experiences, service use and outcomes with Sheffield Young Carers

SH65 Child protection and criminalisation: A data analytics approach with Thames Valley Together / Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit

 

University of Manchester projects 2022

The following projects are now available to apply to at the University of Manchester:

MN61 Adaptive AI Decision Agents for Holistic Supply Chain Optimisation: Merging Societal and Business Objectives with Peak AI

MN62 Using social network analysis to understand offending and victimisation with the Metropolitan Police

MN63 Development of bilateral negotiation protocols and testing them in a geodesign context with Geodesignhub

MN64 Details to follow

University of Liverpool projects 2022

The following projects are now available to apply to at the University of Liverpool:

LV61 Understanding Population Dynamics for Health and Safety Risk Assessment with the Health and Safety Executive

LV62 Detecting Population and Built Environment Change from Space and their Impacts on Buried Utility Assets with MGISS

LV63 A Digital Twin of Resilient Future Retail Centres for Post Pandemic Social and Economic Recovery with Liverpool City region combined authority

LV64 A Digital Twin of Future Inclusive and Decarbonised Public Transportation Services with Liverpool City region combined authority

Please see https://datacdt.org/entry-criteria-applying/ for details of eligibility and how to apply

Deadline 1st April 2022

The first CDAS graduate is…

Eugeni Vidal Tortosa!

On 18th November 2021, Leeds student Eugeni passed his PhD viva subject to minor deficiencies. The PhD was supervised by Robin Lovelace, Eva Heinen and Richard Mann. Eugeni’s PhD was a thesis via publication with the title “Cycling and socioeconomic disadvantage”. The three papers that contributed to the thesis are now published in high ranking journals:

Vidal Tortosa, E., Lovelace, R., Heinen, E., Mann, R.P., 2021. Socioeconomic inequalities in cycling safety: An analysis of cycling injury risk by residential deprivation level in England. Journal of Transport & Health 23, 101291. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2021.101291

Vidal Tortosa, E., Lovelace, R., Heinen, E., Mann, R.P., 2021. Cycling behaviour and socioeconomic disadvantage: An investigation based on the English National Travel Survey. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 152, 173–185. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tra.2021.08.004

Vidal Tortosa, E., Lovelace, R., Heinen, E., Mann, R.P., 2021.
Infrastructure is not enough: interactions between the environment, socioeconomic disadvantage and cycling participation in England. Journal of Transport and Land Use. https://doi.org/10.5198/jtlu.2021.1781

 

End of year update from our fourth CDAS cohort

Hello again from the fourth cohort of the CDT Data Analytics & Society (CDAS) program. Today we will be sharing our experience of our journey through the second semester of our time here at the CDAS (in case you missed the post about the first semester, it’s here!). We (Javiera and Mushtahid) have structured this blog post in basically two parts. In the first part, each of us will describe our favourite part(s) of this semester, while in the second part we will describe our journey through this semester from a more global perspective.

Javiera: “My favourite part of the second semester was the internship experience with my sponsor company, the Office for National Statistics (ONS). I worked with data from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) which was created to understand the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on British society. I collaborated with the social care team to study the impacts of COVID-19 on unpaid carers during the month of April 2021. I used the programming language R to analyse the data: the results were the basis for a publication released on the ONS website earlier this month. It was rewarding to have been involved in the project and seen it evolve from beginning to end. The internship was also an excellent way to meet and engage with the social care team at the ONS. It was interesting to learn about how a data provider like the ONS works. And although the internship was completed online, the experience felt very social. It was extremely motivating to work as part of a team after a year of little interaction with peers.”

Mushtahid: “My favourite part of the second semester was most probably when I learned about neural networks and their vast array of applications in solving real-life problems. Neural networks could play a huge role in my PhD – which at this stage is mostly focused on measuring physical activity and other wellbeing behaviours of people in urban spaces using digital tools. Therefore, I could certainly see myself using neural networks to analyse video recordings to detect people and recognise their different physical activities in urban areas. In fact, my internship this semester involved working with a dataset provided by a tech company that specialises in building real-time object detection systems via deep learning to capture different road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. The internship was certainly an enriching experience as it involved me collaborating with my industry partner Buro Happold and the tech company. Similar to Javiera’s experience, my internship felt social despite it being done entirely online.”

During this semester, we also learned about the importance and application of metadata, privacy, confidentiality and anonymisation in today’s data-driven world through the module “Understanding Data and its Environment” taught by Prof Mark Elliot and Dr Nuno Pinto at the University of Manchester. In the same module, we were taught about data pre-processing by Dr Pradyumn Shukla and were tasked to pre-process a dataset and subsequently build a predictive model to solve a real-life business problem – which enabled us to gain valuable insight on how to properly prepare datasets so that they are ready for analysis.

Currently, we are going through our final module for this semester – “Social Analytics & Visualisation” taught by Dr Mark Taylor, Prof Paul Clough and Dr Griffith Rees at the University of Sheffield. In this module, we are being taught how to do data visualisation, textual analysis, machine learning and social network analysis using R. Although it is being conducted online (similar to the other modules) because of the pandemic, we are grateful to have an excellent academic staff and a fantastic CDAS team to ensure that our journey is as smooth as possible. For example, Hayley Irving has been conducting regular “Shut Up and Write!” sessions to help us focus on our studies while working from home, and Claudia Rogers has been conducting regular drop-in sessions where students can talk to her about anything they are struggling with. Moreover, we have also had a buddy system set up through which senior CDAS students are guiding us through this journey. They have also written helpful blog posts such as PhDing in a pandemic: a guide on surviving. We want to thank them for their continued support.

Article by Javiera Leemhuis Arnes (University of Sheffield) & Md Mushtahid Salam (University of Manchester)

Introducing our fourth student cohort

Hello! We are the fourth cohort of the CDT Data Analytics & Society program. Navigating our first semester on this integrated masters and PhD course has been a very different experience, but we have adapted successfully to online teaching. We have found it challenging as a cohort to connect, considering many of us have never even met in person!

Our first module was named Programming for Social Scientists with The University of Leeds. This was a two-week intensive module taught by Andy Turner who brought our group together, as well as equipping us with the necessary Python programming skills which our PhD projects will require. Even though this two-week intensive course tested our limits, we can all agree we gained valuable skills including introduction to Agent Based Modelling, creating our own website and learning how to use GitHub. We began our social research modules taught by our home universities – either Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool or Manchester. Since our undergraduate backgrounds varied from Mathematics to Psychology these modules introduced us to new ways of thinking, preparing us for undertaking our own research in the coming years.

We are excited to continue our journey of learning with the upcoming Data Science Studio module delivered by Dr. Daniel Arribas-Bel at The University of Liverpool. Although, sadly we cannot live and learn in Liverpool as many of us were expecting, we are still looking forward to supporting each other online.

We would also like to give a huge thank you to all the team members who have supported us and helped us to integrate into the Data Analytics & Society program. We are all looking forward to starting semester 2 in January!

Article by Cameron Ward (University of Liverpool) & Shivani Sickotra (University of Sheffield)

 

PhDing in a pandemic: a guide on surviving

There is no escaping the fact that 2020 has been an unprecedented year. One way or another we have all been affected, some of us more than others. It is important for us to recognise that things are not business as usual and to try to adjust working arrangements to fit into the ‘new normal’.

PhDing has always been known to be a lonely venture. For us in the Data and Analytics CDT, however, it came with the advantage of having a cohort of people going through a similar journey. This alleviates some of the loneliness that can come with working on a solo project. Some of the advantages of being in a cohort – grabbing coffee breaks together, asking for help for the coding error, or just breathing the same air – have been lost with the pandemic and all of us working remotely; some on ironing boards, others on dining tables and a few with a dedicated home office. Regardless of our working conditions, there are two key changes that we have faced: we are mostly doing our reading, writing and analysis in a confined space, and many of us are now doing this alone (possibly surrounded by family but this still does not equate to being surrounded by colleagues).

Figure 1: PhDing in a Pandemic – powered by candles

With this in mind, I asked fellow CDT colleagues to share some of the things they found made working from home easier, and thanks to all of those who responded, I have definitely picked up a few tips. I hope you find them as helpful as I did.

  • Create a suitable working pattern– one of us says they are maintaining a proper working week, so working 9-5 and no work over the weekend or evenings. This I think is very useful, as routine and consistency is a sure way of getting things done. For me, a 9-5 workday isn’t possible, so I typically work from 10pm until about 12 midnight as my kids are all in bed and I have few to no distractions.
  • Adopt the Pomodoro technique – this has been found to increase productivity. The technique, in summary, means you work four 25 minutes slots with 5 minutes break. After the fourth pomodoro, take a longer 20 minutes break and then start the cycle again. Another colleague advised the use of Kanban Flow which is an app with an inbuilt pomodoro clock and the ability to itemise and track a to-do list. With this, you can track what tasks has been completed (this gives a feeling of accomplishment) and you can document interruptions (this may give you insights to identify better a working pattern). I have just started using Kanban Flow myself (see below screenshot) and it has been very helpful in keeping me on track.

Figure 2: Kaban Flow Task list and Pomodoro Record

Pro tip – shut all socials down during work sessions (there are apps that help with this too).

  • If you can, get a proper workspace which includes a desk, chair, monitor and/or laptop stand, keyboard, mouse, back support, basically the whole nine yards if possible. AND KEEP IT OUT OF YOUR BEDROOM (if you can).
  • Change your work environment. This may be instead of working on your dining table, working outside, or using an ironing board in another room. With universities gradually opening up and some letting us book in days to work in the office and libraries, this should act as a good second location. Otherwise you might want to consider visiting a local café.
  • Don’t feel guilty when you have less productive days, or you engage in things you love that are outside your PhD. Make it a habit to take weeklong breaks – we are entitled to annual leave.
  • Join a shut up and write session with other PhDers – I want to try this; I probably won’t shut up though😜
  • Identify things (PhD and non-PhD related) to look forward to, both short term – end of the day – and long term – a month or more.
  • Another common tip shared is to Exercise. This helps to break up your day and keep you reenergised, it can be Zumba, yoga, walking, running. One of us said “Going for a run at lunchtime to distract myself has broken many a (code-related, writing) wall”. It works!
  • Create some dope playlists to keep yourself company.
  • Be kind to yourself!

 

I hope some of these make PhDing easier for you.

Article by Noelyn Onah 

Project available with Global Law firm Taylor Wessing

We have a project available at the University of Liverpool working with a global law firm looking at using data science in the area of legal decision making.

The deadline for applications is the 21st August and full details can be found here – https://datacdt.org/projects/legal-decision-making/

Please note that this opportunity is only available to UK and EU applicants.

For details on how to apply please see here – https://datacdt.org/entry-criteria-applying/

If you have already submitted an application to the Centre, please email datacdt@leeds.ac.uk to express interest in this project, please do not submit a new application.

New project advertised at Leeds with Procter & Gamble – deadline 21st August

P&G Logo

A further PhD opportunity has been made available at Leeds working with one of the largest consumer goods companies worldwide, Procter & Gamble. The deadline for applications is the 21st August and full details can be found here – https://datacdt.org/projects/rasch-theory-and-application-to-consumer-goods/

Please note that this opportunity is only available to UK and EU applicants.

For details on how to apply please see here – https://datacdt.org/entry-criteria-applying/

If you have already submitted an application to the Centre, please email datacdt@leeds.ac.uk to express interest in this project, please do not submit a new application.