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Co-producing world-leading research with young people to improve environment, education and health outcomes in Bradford and beyond

Digital Makers, a new programme led by the Bradford Institute for Health Research (BIHR) in partnership with researchers at LIDA and the Centre for Immersive Technologies at the University of Leeds with colleagues at the University of Bradford, is combining data science, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality to generate learning of national and international importance in digital education.

This comprehensive research programme, the brainchild of Professor John Wright at the BIHR housed in the new Wolfson Centre for Applied Health Research, is a collaboration between scientists, large corporations and the community, and is allowing young people to become directly involved in the research that shapes their environment, education, and health outcomes.

Two hundred years ago, literacy was the major determining factor on life outcomes, but in today’s connected world it is digital literacy that is critical for social mobility. With its youthful population, Bradford could be at the heart of a digital revolution, but the city is one of the areas in the UK suffering from education and skills deprivation – which is amplifying the digital skills gap that already exists. This work aims to combat this by providing opportunities for young people to access and gain confidence using digital resources whilst also providing teachers and policy makers with a better understanding of the barriers to digital teaching and learning.

Dr Faisal Mushtaq, Associate Professor in Psychology and Associate Director at the Centre for Immersive Technologies says: “We are building on the pioneering Born in Bradford project, and seeing how we can use the infrastructure to deliver large-scale, city-wide access in digital skills training whilst making use of revolutions in AI and big data.”

Born in Bradford tracks the lives of 13,500 children born at Bradford Royal Infirmary between March 2007 and December 2010, and their parents to find out what influences the health and wellbeing of families.

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, Director of the Centre for Applied Education Research explains: “This project lies at the heart of the work LIDA is doing with the Born in Bradford project, which is the biggest study of its kind in the world. It’s engaging with children and putting evidence-based technologies in schools to improve the life chances of children from across the city.”

This vast data from Born in Bradford is layered with the unique Connected Yorkshire data set which links routine anonymised data on 1.4 million people across the county’s NHS and social care providers, to create a new digital data stream. The Digital Makers programme will augment these datasets by engaging with every secondary school in the district and allow researchers to pinpoint the contributions of digital across development.

“Through a coordinated city-wide digital architecture we will be able to link a wide range of data – from typing speed and its relationship to classroom level performance, to physical activity and cognitive health” says Dr Faisal Mushtaq.

As well as having access to and using the technology, it means these children have multiple opportunities to shape and participate in the research, making it one of the world’s largest ever co-produced science programmes.

Through a citizen approach, young participants learn about digital security, and become informed digital consumers who benefit from the physical, mental, and financial aspects of electronic services. Data are then collected from the willing participants’ smartphones, so it’s possible to look at mental health measures and see how that’s related to other factors such as where they live or school performance.

This connected data structure combined with research expertise and industry partners makes it a truly world leading project.

At a local level it provides packages for teachers and students which enhance the digital learning environment and means that the next generation of school leavers are able to prosper in a digital world, and that local businesses have a stream of talent which will help close the digital skills gap and help improve the local economy. By participating in the project young people will learn to interrogate a large data set and understand machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as learn coding skills, how to create films using digital technologies and much more.

The work is not limited to Bradford and has far reaching impact. “The programme will provide an evidence-based approach that can inform government policy by providing data on a variety of subjects – from making sure AI is integrated into society in a responsible way, to combating cyber bullying,” adds Dr Mushtaq. “Some immediate examples include modelling the digital divide and examining how to address potential lockdowns and deliver effective online learning in the future. This work allows us as researchers to sample thousands of people and map the information against health outcomes, attainment data and much more.”

It’s clear that benefits from Digital Makers are widespread for academics, researchers and the wider society and this work will have implications for employers and policy makers around the world.

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