Dr Neil Caithness, Senior Researcher

Dr Neil Caithness    

Dr Neil Caithness, Senior Researcher, talks about detecting energy theft, academic freedoms and doing fieldwork on horseback...

When did you start at the Centre and what was your first role here?

I started in November 2006, moving from a post at the University of Reading. My first role here was as Research Facilitator.

What is your background?

I have a PhD in Zoology from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I did my fieldwork in Zimbabwe on horseback. I have at various times been a welder, a barman, a student, a game ranger, a bush guide, a yachtsman and a lecturer.

Summarise the research you are doing / your research interests in a few sentences.

I am a data scientist specialising in machine learning. My current research is developing novel techniques for detecting energy theft using data streamed from smart electricity meters (as part of the DIET project). This is interesting from a machine learning point of view because we are attempting to correctly classify rare and potentially unusual events in large datasets in near real-time.

Why is this important (to the scientific community / the world at large)?

Energy theft is estimated to cost the UK economy about £400 million per year (between £8 and £20 for every UK household). We hope this research will help reduce this loss. We also hope that it builds on related research showing the effectiveness and efficiency of smarter energy networks.

What would you like to do next, funding permitting?

There are several big questions in the fields of biogeography and phylogenetics that remain unresolved. Applying new computing resources to these old problems could provide some very exciting outcomes.

Are you involved in any wider collaborations? Why are these important?

I have been involved in collaboration with other departments at Oxford and also more widely with institutes across Europe. We shouldn't always assume that big collaborations are better - sometimes small collaborations are more effective.

What publication /paper are you most proud of and why?

Yesson C, Brewer PW, Sutton T, Caithness N, Pahwa JS, Burgess M, et al. (2007) How Global Is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility? PLoS ONE 2(11): e1124. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001124. Although nearly 10 years old, this is my most cited paper and the most widely recognised. I essentially did the data science component of the work reported here.

Have you received any awards or fellowships?

I held a prestigious Chapman Fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from 1995-1999.

What do you think the most important issues/challenges in your field will be in the next decade and how is the Centre placed to address them?

Many people will say that it is the scale and speed of the growth of data that represents the biggest challenge. I think the much, much deeper challenge will be to effectively counter the simultaneous rise of a popular anti-intellectualism that says that science no longer requires theory or even intellectual involvement. The Centre, the University, and academics in general will need to defend and assert academic freedoms against pressures to conform. This will be the biggest challenge of all.

What do you think the Centre does best?

It creates a space for interdisciplinary researchers whose combination of fields finds no location in the more conventionally organised departments.