Alexander Hay

By Alexander Hay, Policy & Communications Consultant, talking with Eric Rexstad, University of St. Andrews.

This article is part of our series: Breaking Software Barriers, in which we investigate how our Research Software Group has helped projects improve their research software. If you would like help with your software, let us know.

Abundance is a good thing not just for animals, but also for the researchers studying them. This study is, however, harder than it sounds, which is why it is an area of particular interest for Eric Rexstad, research fellow at the University of St. Andrews' Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling

The exact term for this is Distance Sampling, where population numbers of a particular species in a certain area are estimated. For example, "how many harbour porpoises live in the North Sea?" as Eric puts it. Yet this leads onto more complex questions - in particular, how do animal populations react to perturbations or changes in the local environment, such as those caused by pollution or development?

Distance gets distant

One attempt to gauge this more complex picture is…

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By Alexander Hay, the Institute’s Policy & Communications Consultant, talking with Andreas Hegar, CGAT.

This article is part of our series: Breaking Software Barriers, in which Alexander Hay investigates how our Research Software Group has helped projects improve their research software. If you would like help with your software, let us know.

Life Sciences often suffer from a lack of programming skills. This isn’t always a problem – you don’t need to know how to code in order to gauge the diurnal eating habits of squirrels, for example – but it does become an issue when you need to work with large datasets.

This is a growing problem. Next Generation sequencing techniques produce vastly more data than ever before, and more people are needed to properly handle this and analyse it. Many life scientists do not need these skills, or at least, have not needed them until recently. The most sensible solution to this, then, is to train biologists these skills.

Enter CGAT

One solution to this problem is Computational Genomics: Analysis and Training, or CGAT, based at the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at the University of Oxford. This is run by a core staff of five, which includes Technical Director Dr Andreas Hegar, and was founded as a…

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This year's Collaboration Workshop took place between March 26th and 28th at the Oxford e-Research Centre, was a great success. Its theme was software and reproducible research, and ended with a special Hackday where competing teams coded against the clock to create the best software.

Our sponsors this year were Microsoft, GitHub and the Oxford e-Research Centre itself, and we would in particular like to thank Kenji Takeda, Arfon Smith and the OeRC staff for all their help, not to mention all our attendees!

Naturally, lots of tweeting relating to the Workshop (and its hashtag, #CW14) took place before, during and after the event. So here are some of the best and most revealing tweets that resulted, including manatees, rabbits, pizza, writing on the walls and "hardcore Python deployment."

Make sure your press release is a right 'ribbiting' read...By Simon Hettrick and Alexander Hay.

Whether you're researching a cure for cancer or the eating habits of the common toad, every now and then you'll want to tell the outside world about your research. It's time for a press release! Here are our five top tips on preparing one.

1. Do you need professional help?

Press releases need to be written in a journalistic style that will appeal to publishers. Most organisations will have press officers whose job it is to write press releases for researchers. This is typically a free service, because it's in your employer's interest to showcase your successes. To find a press officer, ask the faculty member responsible for marketing or contact the marketing department of your university or employer.

Once you've been assigned a press officer, he or she will meet with you and discuss your story. Generally, a draft will be written and you'll get a chance to review it before it is published (nonetheless, always make sure that you tell the press officer that you want to review the release).

This isn't to say that you can't have a shot at writing the press release yourself, but keep in mind that it requires a specific style of writing (see below).

2. What's the story?

Every story needs a hook: something that grabs the reader's attention. Although a press officer…

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monk_1.jpgBy Alexander Hay.

The Humanities matter. To understand why, it’s worth remembering what they are.

Let's start with an analogy. Say a scientist builds a nuclear reactor in his back garden. The physical sciences explain how he built it. The life sciences explain why his teeth are falling out and the birds in the garden have suddenly gained laser vision. The social sciences explain why the rest of the neighbourhood starts moving away very quickly, for cultural as well as financial reasons, and why the scientist is being taken to court.

Yet why is he doing this? Is he a utilitarian, or an existentialist? Would he be doing this if he was a woman or of a different ethnic group or sexuality? What does the language he uses say about him and how his mind works? Why has the news media reported on him in the way that it has? Is there any way of building…

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3dprinta.jpgBy Alexander Hay, Policy & Communications Counsultant.

3D printing is all the rage these days it seems, with all manner of medical applications being mooted, not to mention Maplin now selling the UK's first (relatively) cheap home model.

Needless to say, this has plenty of open-source applications just waiting to be exploited by researchers. According to Michigan Technical University, a 3D printer could save the average home around $2,000 a year, based on what it is being used to make and whether open-source designs are used instead of proprietary equivalents.

That does, of course, factor in the cost of electricity and materials used to knock together a plastic mug, though this depends a great deal on what you choose to make on a regular basis. With that in mind, a 3D printer would start paying for itself between four months and two years.

But as The Register notes, this really does depend on what you’re using that 3D printer to make and whether you want something usable at the end of the process. It also depends on the assumption that 20 or so items are made each year, which adds another caveat to the model. There…

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RecordingStudio.jpgBy Alexander Hay.

Software can be pretty expensive. You won't get much change from £1000 if you want to invest in Photoshop, Final Cut Studio or Pro Tools. But being able to create and edit images, record media and - rather obviously - load it up and play it, are increasingly important in academia. In this post, I'll look at three software packages that give you this functionality - for free!

There are a lot of free software packages - so how do you know which ones are any good? For the most part, the answer is word of mouth, trial and error and knowing where open-source packages are reviewed and tried out by reliable reviewers. Rather than give you a crash course on how to do this via Google, this article will cover three great open-source packages.

Bring out the GIMP

GIMP is an unfortunately named but excellent image-editing package that challenges Photoshop head on. Purists will no doubt argue that Photoshop is still the superior package, being as it is more powerful and versatile. A more nuanced argument, however, is that GIMP lets you do all…

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alexhay.jpgPolicy & Communications Consultant

Alexander is actively involved in all the Institute's media and strategy work. Having been awarded a BA in English and an MA in Journalism, he then undertook a PhD on the subject of reader response theory as it pertained to web journalism, receiving his Doctorate from the University of Southampton in 2009.

Prior to joining the Institute, Alexander has worked extensively as a music writer, having produced hundreds of reviews and features, as well as working in online media for over five years. He has undertaken research work for the NUS and lectured on everything from Chaucer to media law, computing in the Humanities and postcolonial literature. He is also a published author of short fiction, and is presently writing his first novel.

Currently, Alexander is working on improving the Institute’s media output and long-term presence, both online and in the broader research realm.

Read posts on this website by Alexander.

winners_0.jpgBy Alexander Hay.

What is the best open-source software? This is a question I decided to answer, and so began a long and no doubt eventful journey of discovery. One of my first destinations was at an open-source break out session, which took place last month at the Collaborations Workshop 2013. Cue much debate.

It's not possible (and probably not helpful) to decide on the best software overall, so instead I have focussed on open-source software that is exemplary in certain areas. Here follows the first three examples of this software and why we chose them. In future posts, I will work through the other examples on our list.


At first glance, Linux seems almost too obvious. With over 65 million users worldwide, and an ever growing reputation for being effective and free. Less obvious is that the Linux systems are in effect GNU-based, built around the Linux kernel, but using the GNU OS as the main interface since the latter’s inception in 1983. Key to its success has been the ability…

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While exploring the wide, endless vistas of open source software as a mere novice, I came across an interesting question that I felt obliged to answer. How do all the licences work? This is more important than you might think. After all, open source doesn't mean full-on anarchy, and sadly human nature as it presently stands is still in need of someone to paint yellow lines on the road and shout "mind the gap" at tube stations even though you could probably see the gap from orbit.

Likewise with open source. Being able to download for free and edit away is all well and good, but there is always the risk that someone could then take what they have done and copyright it themselves. (As an aside, this is also a problem in the fan fiction community.) There is also the issue of liability. If someone downloads your open source software and splices it with someone else's copyrighted material and then puts up the resulting squealing mutant up on the Web for download, how do you make sure you don't get sued? Licenses also codify the requirement to not discriminate against users, so the open source really is open, and to ensure that no one has to pay for the end product.

This is a controversial subject at the best of times, with some arguing that licenses are inferior to contracts [1], in that the former can be altered by the owner at any time. Others go further, such as GNU founder Richard Stallman, who argues that anything that puts the user 'in chains', including well-meaning licence…

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