Pandemic diary 83: Covid-19 – our teensy tiny part in its hopeful downfall

Bunnies by day, big data by night.

Tonight I thought I'd rope Pete in and jointly write about two technology-based efforts to help with coronavirus study and research that we've been involved with.

We each sat on our sofas and typed… to music by a band called Felt (an indie pop band, formed in 1979 in Water Orton, Warwickshire). In case you wanted to picture the scene.

Pete – scientific protein modelling via Folding@Home

About three years ago, when I was exploring the artistic potential of AI systems, I bought a computer with a fairly powerful graphics processor, or GPU. These are designed to render those detailed 3D games the kids play these days, and they do this by doing lots and lots of simple maths at an incredible speed. So if you need to do lots and lots of simple maths for some other reason they can be repurposed for that, too. I no longer do anything with AI systems, because the artistic potential never really emerged for me, but I still have this computer with its fairly powerful GPU, just sitting there. 

Mid-April, and while doomscrolling through the coronavirus news, something catches my eye. It's a project called Folding@Home where people run calculations on their home or business computers during idle periods (like when you go for lunch or are just typing text and all that processing potential is just sitting there) on behalf of scientific researchers attempting to cure diseases. They do this by building models of the the proteins that make up viruses and the like so they can test potential cures. Specifically they need to model how the proteins "fold", hence Folding@Home. 

Maths is FUN!

To get involved you download some lightweight software which in turn downloads a job to process. This can take a few hours or a couple of days and when it's done the results are uploaded for the scientists to play with and you get some points! Other than putting you on a leader board the points mean nothing, but what the hell! Points! On its own your contribution is tiny, but when you combine hundreds or thousands of tiny contributions you get an incredibly powerful computer that would impossible for any one institution to build. 

Folding@Home has been running since 2007 so is pretty vintage and the interfaces can be somewhat dated, but the urgent need to understand how this novel coronavirus works has seen take-up soar to the point where, for a short while, they ran out of jobs, which is a nice problem to have. After reading the article I downloaded it to my MacBook and ran a couple of jobs.

Then I remembered I had this computer with a fairly powerful GPU, just sitting there. I wondered if it would run these jobs any faster, and by golly it could. In fact there were plenty of jobs specifically designed for GPUs and the points you were rewarded with… Let's just say that out of 2,717,135 contributors I'm number 192,903. In other words, in the top 7% with a score of 1,229,401. And if you're reading this in the future you can check my progress on this page

I take no pride in this. All I do is switch the computer on and leave it running all night. It's burning electricity, of course, but my expenses are way down thanks to lockdown and we use an eco supplier. Have I made a difference? I have no bloody idea. But does the humble ant, carrying his piece of leaf, know what difference he makes to the nest? What I do know is the ant doesn't get a gnarley certificate. Sucka! 

Fiona – daily self-reporting via Zoe C-19 app

Every day I get a loud ping from my Zoe C-19 daily reporting app on my phone. I answer two questions: Have you had a Covid-19 test? (yes/no) and How do you feel physically right now? (normal/not quite right). It takes a few seconds and I've been self-reporting since it launched back in March. The aim is to study the symptoms and also track the spread of the virus.

Over 3.8 million others have downloaded the app and are also reporting regularly. It is currently the largest public science project of its kind anywhere in the world, with the data being analysed in collaboration with King's College London researchers.

As someone with a data privacy interest, especially where health data is concerned, I was particularly impressed with their data policy transparency and upfront ease of deleting your data. And it has medical pedigree.

It is endorsed by the Welsh Government, NHS Wales, the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland. And it is led by Prof Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London and director of Twins UK, a registry of 12,000 twins with one of the richest collections of genotypic and phenotypic information on twins worldwide, apparently.

Data is also published daily to its website: You can zoom and pan around a map to see how different regions are affected. Birmingham, for example, has 8,400 contributors with an estimated 0.9% of people with Covid symptoms.

It also gathers other data, which shows 4,900 daily new cases of Covid (from the app + swab tests) across the UK – new daily Covid infections fell by almost a half in a week, although this does exclude care homes.

Following the mass protests in the past fortnight, I wrote about feeling conflicted on the risks so it was interesting when researchers tried to use app data to answer the question: "Should I quarantine after protesting?"

Based on their data they estimate that one in 200 people are affected with Covid in the UK population at this point. Of these, one in 400 people you meet are potentially infectious and with mild or no symptoms. Based on mitigated risks, it does further maths and concludes: protestors have a one in 800 chance of themselves becoming infected with Covid-19, although this is likely to be higher in the north (one in 400) and lower in the south (one in 1600) due to the regional differences in number of cases. Ultimately it concludes it is best to err on the side of caution and ideally stay home for a week and avoid meeting others to help slow any potential spread of the virus.

In summary, I do take some pride in keeping this up. It feels as if it is directly useful and providing near real-time data. I think there is great potential for data gathering, done safely, to provide a way out of ongoing lockdowns and a second wave of this virus.

I'm afraid there is no certificate, though. Helping is its own reward, suckas.

>> You can download the app via the App Store or Google Play. Or via the homepage.

Zoe C-19 symptom study app –


I'm grateful today for a visit from my elderly friend and his son. As the sun set, we sat in the garden and sipped tea and reminisced about how my brother blew up his school toilets. But that's another story of scientific exploration and research.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at]

Pandemic diary 28: The freelance life

Clem, the show pony.

I'm not sure a freelancer is ever on holiday but especially not when the economic situation gets shaky and could change overnight. One of the advantages of freelancing over being employed is that you generally have to be more agile when things change. The mindset is already there. Change is inevitable. Nothing is certain or secure. I've freelanced through three recessions in my life – and I'm hoping I'll get through the next one.

Surprisingly, work requests have actually ramped up this month. Communication is in demand right now as businesses try to communicate new information to their customers. Marketing also needs rewriting from a new point of view and tone. And brands still want to appear on page 1 of Google (perhaps for new search terms).

But I've also had a few tabs open of interesting things to apply for. Today I registered with an agency for freelance copywriting, put in a creative photography/walking proposal and scouted a few book publishing call-outs. I also found out I've got a job interview (when the lockdown ends) for some environmental work – I'll keep that under wraps for now so I don't jinx it.

So, yes, today did involve some forward thinking on freelance work, even though I'm on holiday. Also, I love being an editor*. So much more fun than being a writer.

*Actually if I had a genie in a bottle, I'd be reborn as a surfer, ballerina or hacker (now reading Kevin Mitnick's Ghost In The Wires).

Or I'd rather just sing!

Today I am thankful for having work.

Holiday jigsaw, day three:

Commission/hire me: fiona [at]

Dictation mishears and amusing typos

As promised, here is my list (so far) of amusing mistakes from digitising my old diaries using speech recognition technology.

  • Goa trance > dilettantes
  • Novices > offices
  • Wiped out > White doubts
  • Juggler > jugular
  • Bitten to death by mozzies > beaten to death by Moses
  • my old man’s a dustman > mild man’s a Dustman
  • madly > Natalie
  • suckling at their surrogate mum > cycling at Leicester regret mum
  • The Kenyans > the canyons
  • Co-traveller – toe traveller
  • Bus ride to Puri – Best writer Drury
  • White witches – why twitches
  • Moped – nope head
  • Varanasi – baronetcy
  • I’m meeting Indian people – I’m eating Indian people
  • the road to Puri – the road to period

Digitising an old diary

diary cover

I have around 70 diaries and these are an ongoing project for exploration – see The Diary for more info.

Digitising them creates the opportunity for some creative hacks, such as running the text through a data extraction algorithm to create new outputs – some of which are quite poetic. Using code has also allowed me to extract all the swear words from 10,000 words of travel emails. That was fun!

I'm also fascinated by diaries generally and visited The Great Diary Project in London to read some of the submitted diaries from the 1980s. I've bequeathed my own diaries to this project – better than family and friends reading them! The problem is, most people's handwriting is pretty awful and it makes reading and deciphering hard work.

There is also some part of me that thinks there might be a memoir in my own travel diaries somewhere, although I'm not sure I have the emotional distance, the staying power or the skill to write them up as such. Anonymous edits and extractions are far more likely.

For all these reasons, I put digitising a travel diary into my list of goals for this year.

I'm happy to say that the first one is done – 26,000 words all about criss-crossing India, west to east and south to north, for four months in 1996/7. I've already started extracting and playing with the text.

In all there are around three years' worth of travel diaries, so it's an epic challenge, of which this is just the first microchallenge.

For anyone out there thinking of doing anything that involves digital transcription, I highly recommend using speech recognition software or just the dictation facilities on your  phone or computer. It's been a lifesaver and given me a few laughs with misheard typos. I'll stick them in another post (and here it is!).

Hire/commission me: fiona [at]

2013 in review – work

laptop stickersIt's been a pretty busy and fruitful year on the work front – bar the occasional CMS-fuelled RSI resurgence, which I've mostly resolved by working at a stand-up desk since September.

As well as postural changes, there's been a promotion, a lot of public speaking and the setting up of a new company. More on all of this below…

Continue reading "2013 in review – work"

RebelMouse 'social front page' on test

Okay, so I've tried ScoopIt, Bundlr and Storify but not Pinterest. Let's see how the curation element of new RebelMouse works, which is similar to Pinterest. So here's my social media splash page, which pulls in my blog feeds, selected tweets and clipped content, and which I've customised. It looks ok and took about 30 minutes to set up and sort, but there were some glitches and hitches…

Plus points…

Helping print sub-editors go digital


Kings Cross last Saturday – and I delivered my first-ever workshop. While the rest of the UK was firing up the barbecue to make the most of a beautiful sunny afternoon, seven sub-editors were arriving at the very cool Centre for Creative Collaboration to learn some digital editing skills. (C4CC is a brilliant neutral space that exists to foster collaborations between and help improve outcomes for freelance creatives. If you have a creative/collaborative project that fits the bill, I highly recommend getting in touch with them and putting in a proposal.)

My workshop project arose partly because I'd already been approached by a friend whose work was drying up. She asked if she could come to Birmingham for a day and just watch what I did as a web editor. A quick ask around some other friends told me she wasn't the only one who would be up for learning some online publishing skills.

But the idea was further kicked into life after the NME posted a sub-editing job at a below-industry-standard rate on the London Freelance sub-editors forum Subs UK. There was much consternation on the group messageboard with suggestions of setting a minimum rate for those seeking access to Subs UK talent, as well as calls to boycott the job offer.
Continue reading "Helping print sub-editors go digital"

Photo School, Friday School and Social Media Group Therapy

This is obviously the Year of the School. Firstly, there's my moveable cake-fuelled feast of learning, the Friday School, while over on the other office sofa, Pete has just launched Matt and Pete's Photo School.

Photo School is a monthly 'photo club', that's also designed to combine learning with fun. It is based in Birmingham and the idea is to learn more about your camera, the art of photography and how to improve your picture-taking skills both in and out of the classroom. It is all but sold out for the launch session this Sunday but there is more to come in March so book ahead to reserve your spot – here's the flyer: Continue reading "Photo School, Friday School and Social Media Group Therapy"