People at the Heart of ICT

People engage with and are impacted by ICT, from electronics to communication systems to computer science, in a number of ways as commissioners, direct users and often without even knowing it. The 'People at the Heart of ICT' priority encourages the development of better ICT by asking researchers to acknowledge the relationship that people have with ICT and ICT-enabled systems and the impact these technologies can have on people. We are asking researchers to consider these relationships and impacts throughout the research process from planning to implementation.

EPSRC have led a number of previous initiatives designed to encourage consideration of people in ICT research and there are many examples of this approach in the current portfolio. However, as information communication technologies continue to pervade our lives at an ever increasing pace, now more than ever there is a need for the whole ICT community, to consider the needs of anyone who will interact with and/or be impacted by the technology throughout the research process.

A consideration of end-user requirements is to be encouraged but, researchers are also asked to move beyond abstract notions of 'the user' and develop a more detailed and realistic understanding of the stakeholders in their research and what solutions which address people's needs look like. Researchers are asked to consider the implications of designing ICT systems which meet the different needs of a diverse range of people with varying degrees of expertise and benefit wider society.

Considering people throughout a research project is a behavioural change for many communities but it often also increases the complexity of a research question leading to exciting challenges and opportunities. This priority is not about improved Human Computer Interaction, although this research community can undoubtedly contribute. Rather it is about all researchers across the ICT landscape considering the potential impact of ICT systems on people throughout the lifetime of their research, as part of the core of their methodology, and changing their approach as necessary. The priority encourages applicants to consider all stakeholders, and their needs, perception and experience of ICT, in their research. Researchers are asked to carry out research in a responsible manner, to produce technologies that are trusted, safe and ethical.

Implementation of the Priority

This priority is primarily about encouraging a long term behavioural change in the community. Applicants are encouraged to consider the priority when submitting any proposal to the theme through the council's standard schemes.

Long term behaviour change requires leadership. The ICT theme therefore expects all fellowship and programme grant applicants to the ICT Theme to align their proposals to the priority.

For some elements of the ICT portfolio considering the diverse range of people which are impacted by a given piece of research is a significant change. To help with this, the ICT Theme aims to develop guidance for applicants and examples of best practice. The priority will also be discussed at the upcoming ICT Early Career Researcher workshops and will be a consideration in all other Theme managed activities.

What does this mean for applicants?

The People at the Heart of ICT priority will mean different things for different research projects.

Who?

The priority asks researchers to consider the people which will be affected, positively or negatively, by their research and the ICT and ICT enabled systems that are, or may be, developed as a result. There can be no definitive list of people to think about but applicants might want to consider:

  • The general public and the multitude of groups this includes, such as adults, children, the elderly, rural communities, patients, the disabled etc.
  • Expert users and non-expert users
  • Government and government agencies
  • Service providers (e.g. city councils, NHS, telecommunications companies)
  • Regulators and standards bodies
  • Manufacturers and those involved in maintenance

Researchers are asked to remember that multiple individuals and/or groups might interact with have an interest in, or be affected by their research and to think about the needs, perception and experience of them all, not just a primary 'user' or stakeholder.

The People at the Heart of ICT priority also encourages researchers to consider, throughout the research process, the needs of the multitude of different groups of people who will be affected by the research and not just as part of the impact activities. Indeed, in many cases, considering the full range of real world stakeholders at the beginning of project can reveal added complexity which can represent significant scientific challenges.

How?

How people could be considered as part of a research proposal will vary across the portfolio and from project to project. Different areas of research can be considered to have different levels of impact on people and on different timescales. The level of consideration of the priority in a proposal, and ultimately in a research project, should be proportionate to this: supporting high quality research is still the council's primary aim.

Below are hypothetical examples demonstrating how this priority might be addressed. These do not provide a checklist of what to do and are by no means a complete list of options. They are simply meant to help explain the priority further and give some initial guidance about how to align a proposal with it.

  • A proposal aims to address fundamental computational science research questions and develop a series of general computational algorithms which could be used in any number of applications. Although not directly part of the project the applicant claims potential future uses of the algorithm as part of a National Importance argument. Aligning their proposal with this priority the researcher considered a range of different potential applications of their proposed algorithms and the people who might be impacted by them both positively and negatively, using the Framework for Responsible Innovation. The researchers reflected the outcomes of this analysis in their impact statement. In particular the researchers noted the potential risks of unconsciously introducing bias into the algorithms at this stage and took steps to mitigate this by altering their methodology.
  • An applicant is aiming to research the design, fabrication and characterisation of a new semiconductor device which they predict could increase efficiency ten-fold. The applicants identify potential industries which would make use of the chip and involve a number of relevant companies as project partners. They aim to disseminate the outputs of the research to the partners through workshops as part of the impact plan. However, they also plan to involve them at the start of the project when specifying the requirements of the new design as they realise that different companies, different manufacturers and ultimately different end user applications will have different needs. Flexibility must therefore be designed in from the start.
  • A researcher is proposing to develop a new approach to delivering city wide communication networks for providing municipal services. In this case, it is important when writing the proposal that the applicant identifies a number of potential ways in which both the local government and the public might be affected, both positively and negatively, by a future deployment of their technology as part of a smart city solution. The applicant proposes setting up a lay advisory board and citizen engagement opportunities to provide input as the research develops so that and the potential implications, public perceptions and opportunities become clearer.
  • A proposal aims to develop a new interaction technology to facilitate the communication of autistic children. The applicant identifies a range of stakeholders who will be directly interacting with or affected by this new technology. They identify these in the initial proposal and integrate a participatory design approach throughout the project. The researchers are careful to ensure all stakeholders are represented in this process for example autistic children, parents, teachers, schools and healthcare professionals.

As demonstrated by these examples the priority can, and should, be thought about in a number of sections of a research proposal. It may be expressed in the:

  • Impact statement
  • Pathways to Impact statement
  • National Importance statement
  • research methodology

Fellowships

When applying for a fellowship please detail in the cover letter and in the proposal itself how you have addressed this priority. This should be in terms of your specific research but also in terms of your role as a leader in the community. The fit to this priority will be considered by peer review both at the sift and interview stage.

Programme Grants

When applying for a programme grant please detail in the proposal how you have addressed this priority. The fit to this priority will be queried by the office at the pre-outline stage and assessed by peer review as part of the interview stage.