How Ofcom helps to promote STEM careers for women

06 December 2019

Ofcom sponsors the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards. We do this as part of our commitment to help increase the number of women and girls working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The awards celebrate diversity in engineering, recognising and awarding outstanding young women engineers in the UK, and this ceremony marks their 42-year anniversary.

Hosted by diversity champions Sandi Toksvig OBE and June Sarpong MBE at IET’s Savoy Place HQ in London, the event kicked off with a tribute to the extraordinary feats of women through the ages, who have moulded the world we live in through the sciences and arts. It also highlighted the need for a ‘collective intelligence’ to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

Ofcom supported as a headline sponsor alongside organisations such as GCHQ, Boeing, BP and Wiley. Ofcom colleagues Laura Iglesias, Sara Salim and Liz Quintana from our spectrum group, and Jill Faure from our technology group also participated in the selection panel for this year’s finalists.

At previous IET events we’ve helped attendees learn about the vital engineering work of our spectrum teams. This year we did things a little differently, thanks to our colleague, senior data scientist Clare Cowie. Based at Ofcom’s Scotland office, Clare created an app to detect and display people’s facial expressions using a webcam, which we demonstrated at the event.

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Clare explains how she came to develop the app, and how it could assist Ofcom’s approach to broadcast regulation in the future.

I built an app which detects people’s emotions in real time using a webcam. It does this by using ‘machine learning’ and ‘deep learning’. These are types of artificial intelligence (AI) that help a computer programme to automatically learn and improve without the need for direct programming by a human.

One of the hardest parts of machine learning and AI training is finding the right datasets, and then getting these datasets into the correct format for the algorithms to process.

I thought it would be fun to show how deep learning can be used – and it gave me a bit of practice with training AI models for ‘computer vision tasks’: making computers ‘see’ what's in an image. Once I'd trained the model, all I had to do was work out how to apply it to my webcam.

Searching for computer code that I can modify comes with my job. I found some code snippets online, and to make the app I applied the code so when the webcam was open it would detect faces. I also modified the code so the app could make predictions on the facial expressions it was ‘seeing’. This was the second hardest element – getting different pieces of code talking to each other properly!

When it all came together, it was great to see it work in real time, and I tested it with colleagues in the Edinburgh office to make sure it didn't just work with my face.

While this was a fun example, the knowledge I've picked up from this project can be applied to some of our work at Ofcom. A good example of a computer vision task at Ofcom would be looking at broadcast content. In theory, an AI algorithm could be trained to look for offensive content and flag where it appeared in a programme.

This would save on time as it would reduce how often our colleagues need to review an entire programme. But of course, an Ofcom colleague would still need to review what the AI flags up and we need to be sure that our processes are ethical.”

Clare Cowie

Clare Cowie, Senior data scientist

Smash Stereotypes to Bits

As well as highlighting the engineering talent of today, the awards process seeks out role models to help address the crisis facing STEM industries in the UK. Find out more about the IET’s #SmashStereotypesToBits campaign, which aims to encourage the next generation of young girls into engineering.

Research has found that just 26% of girls are thinking about pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or maths, compared with 43% of boys. Ofcom passionately supports these efforts to close the gender gap in STEM; we’re currently recruiting for engineers, data scientists and technologists to join our graduate scheme in 2020 – find out more about these opportunities here.