High level priorities

As new Director of KDL ...
Bunting flags
© Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

After almost exactly five years since I joined King’s Digital Lab (KDL) as Research Software Analyst, I have recently been appointed Director for the next four years, following the departure of KDL first director, James Smithies.

Very aware of the challenges ahead and with a sense of excitement and humility towards this responsibility, I share this post as an opportunity to outline what I see as KDL priorities going forward.

They can be summarised under these overarching headings:


  1. Faculty alignment

    The primary partner for KDL is the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London with its very rich disciplinary breadth embodied by research conducted in and channelled via departments, centres, research groups and professional services units.

  2. eResearch evolution

    In addition to its core mission to design and develop high-quality digital products for research, a Research Software Engineering (RSE) lab can perform many other functions to enhance digital capability, research and scholarship

  3. Community Engagement

    Another important priority for KDL is our continued contribution to the RSE community nationally and internationally as well as participation in the development of robust research methods in Digital Humanities to foster KDL’sprofile and quality of delivery.

  4. Innovation incubation

    A fundamental priority is for KDL to identify paths of innovation leading to an enhanced portfolio of research and co-production including practice-based research activities.

  5. Team culture

    Cognisant that the Director role is a leader-servant, I see these priorities underpinned by a strong sense of Team Culture.

Let me explain what I mean by each of these priorities and how I see them evolving in the next few years...

Faculty alignment

The Faculty is an organic body which regularly changes its governance, structure and priorities. I therefore see it being of particular importance for KDL to periodically and iteratively re-align with the Faculty’s research agenda and, in particular, its digital strategy. During my term as Director, this will entail closer collaboration with Vice Deans and their teams - in particular the newly established teams around Research Culture, Impact and Knowledge Exchange but also the research office - to plan high quality collaborative projects, ensure coordination and improve communication. Part of this priority is a socialised refreshed outlook on KDL mission and activities aligned with a TRAC-based financial model (as used in comparable research facilities across disciplines) and associated allocation of resources.

In addition to its core mission to design and develop high quality digital products for research, a Research Software Engineering (RSE) lab can perform many other functions to enhance digital capability, research and scholarship. Balancing out demand and capacity remains the core challenge here, but ultimately the quality and innovation of the projects KDL will be involved in will depend on this renewed integration of RSE expertise within the faculty. In the short term, this engagement will entail setting up an affiliation scheme with departments as well as increasing KDL input in early concepts proposals (ranging from an advisory role to formal peer review). Mechanisms to bridge KDL RSE expertise with other new Faculty appointments in the area of research data and impact will also be crucial to ensure this alignment. Indeed, RSE expertise typically interacts not only with the research inspirations, directions and aspirations tout court of the settings in which it lives but also other essential functions such as research data management, communication strategy and pathways to impact.

eResearch evolution

KDL integration with this unit as it evolves will ensure, first and foremost, our infrastructure security and sustainability, but also best-in-class operational methods and alignment with relevant institutional actors and policies with respect to the management of a research facility and the development of RSE careers.

Last year KDL completed a long phase of upgrades of all its servers and applications – the backbone of our infrastructure estate - reaching a very important milestone in our archiving and sustainability approach. This work was essential to prepare our physical infrastructure to migrate from the University of London Computing Centre to eResearch at King’s. Tests of this migration are ongoing as I write. Beyond this initial phase of eResearch implementation, KDL’s role will also be important in bridging other eResearch research services to come as well as in contributing to process improvement, benchmarking, strategies and policies. Liaising with eResearch and other College-wide initiatives on relevant strategies (e.g. digital research and data), policies and operations will therefore be also part of this priority.

The eResearch ethos is very much to enable and support local infrastructures located in labs and research groups across the College, such as KDL. Therefore, it is paramount that KDL retains the freedom to focus on its technical strategy informed by RSE best practices and the specialisms of the areas of knowledge and production we operate in (mainly Arts and Humanities, cultural heritage and digital creativity). Our technical strategy is in evolution with a focus to design and develop an archiving-first approach and associated technical stack as well as an attention to refine our overall Software Development Lifecycle design and building methods, for example with respect to (data) modelling workflows and requirements elicitation.

Community engagement

This requires coordination with other relevant actors in the Faculty including the Department of Digital Humanities with its diverse and ever expanding research agenda. It also includes collaboration with other players in the community such as Research Software London, UK Society for Research Software Engineers, DH Tech and including funders with programmes that are increasing sensitive to a holistic digital research infrastructure agenda beyond single-projects funding. Examples of these investments in the Arts and Humanities is the AHRC Towards a National Collection programme and, more broadly, the AHRC infrastructure team.

I also believe that our RSE perspective is relatively unique and useful in the Digital Humanities landscape as we represent the critical makers within that community engaged in producing not only meaningful but functioning and scalable tools for research. So, for example, contributing to relevant follow up activities of the AHRC/IRC-funded UK-Ireland Digital Humanities Network is something I would like to continue. Alignment with relevant international infrastructure initiatives for example via national consortia such as CLARIN UK would also be part of this continued community engagement effort.

While I appreciate that the sense of community proposed here is rather narrow, my hope is that via our mainly publicly-funded projects informed by an evolving human-centred design approach – usually with a substantial open access component - we will continue to serve a wide spectrum of communities beyond our immediate reach.

Innovation incubation

A fundamental priority is for KDL to identify paths of innovation leading to an enhanced portfolio of research and co-production including practice-based research activities. Building on ongoing work initiated by KDL’s first Director, this will be achieved via selected research themes to invest in, such as digital creativity, machine learning and artificial intelligence, design, modelling and visualisation.

Innovation breeding does not happen in a silo so, here again, it will be fundamental for KDL to coordinate our activities with relevant actors in the College (for example, Culture team and the AI institute which recently got support by the Alan Turing Institute to establish a College wide network around artificial intelligence).

During my role as Director I would like to support the definition of what a research theme within our RSE lab means, starting with a template to assess aims, plan resources, strengthen existing and build new partnerships within academia, in the GLAM sector and creative industries in line with our mission and core activities.

Team culture

Underpinning the four priorities above is the recognition and the nurturing of talents within the KDL team that can be supported also via collaboration with extant networks and partners. Via the College Professional Development Reviews scheme and other mechanisms, my aim would be to contribute both to sustaining our collective profile as a lab and to lifting  individual profiles, for example, encouraging individual applications to relevant schemes amenable to RSE careers (our Senior Research Software UI/UX Designer was appointed as Software Sustainability Institute fellow in 2022!) and ideally initiating mentoring schemes beyond the boundaries of the lab across RSE pools, other akin research groups and centres within and outside the College.

Demand for our expertise is high and, at times, challenging to triage despite our consolidating project management methods. We are seeing more and more RSEs being hired within Arts and Humanities as well as Cultural Heritage settings (e.g. The National Archives UKBritish Library and Alan Turing Institute recent hires). I believe KDL has a role in this wider ecosystem whether as advisor and sometimes enabler of very welcome new realities or as interlocutor and broker for better coordination across human research infrastructures at the national and international level.

While KDL is quite versed in building agility in its projects lifecycles, repurposing and scaling up human resources within the Higher Education landscape remains a challenge and a particular pain point for RSE teams of limited size. In alignment with the evolving Faculty and College digital strategy, I am confident, however, that we will be able to assess responsibly if KDL needs further resources to support functions that are currently subsidiary to our core mission but that arguably fall within the remit of RSE groups (e.g. digital research and data methods training for staff).

A people-first approach akin to Ted Lasso’s leadership lessons (but without moustaches!) is the style I would like to foster in the team for my term as Director with full awareness that my role in the forthcoming four years is first and foremost to work with and serve the team.

Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Ted Lasso

If any of these priorities resonate with you as a reader, we'd be excited to collaborate with you, as project partner, affiliate or friend of the lab!