Annual Report 2020: HIIT Overview

Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT was established in 1999, when Helsinki University of Technology (nowadays Aalto University) and the University of Helsinki decided to pool their resources together and form the most significant competence hub of ICT research in Finland. According to the regulations of HIIT, the mission of the joint institute is to act as a Finnish flagship of ICT research and to enhance the quality, visibility and impact of Finnish research on information technology so as to make it meet the highest international standards of excellence, thus facilitating more intensive cooperation between the information industry and universities in Finland and the key international research institutes and universities in this field.

In 2020, HIIT wittnessed several organizational developments. First, Prof. Janne Lindqvist from Aalto university was appointed by the Board of HIIT in their meeting on 7th of October, 2020, to be a new Vice Director of HIIT. Docent Patrik Floreen from University of Helsinki will also continue as a Vice Director of HIIT. Second, the Scientific Advisory Board of HIIT was renewed to contain more members with AI expertise, allowing the same SAB to serve not only HIIT, but also FCAI as well (more about the relationship between HIIT and FCAI, and the rationale for a joint SAB later below). The new SAB was invited for a two-day meeting on November 5-6, 2020, with the goal of providing critical guidance for supporting strategic planning of HIIT and its activities. The SAB 2020 meeting, organized as a fully remote event because of the pandemic, provided invaluable feedback which is now being used for revising the instruments and operational practices of HIIT as described below.

Professor Nicolò Cesa-Bianchi, the Chair of the SAB, summarized the key findings of the SAB to the HIIT community in an open web meeting on 2 December 2020, and noted that

HIIT contributes to a strong local tradition of research and education on computer science and information technologies and has a strong potential for breakthroughs in fundamental research across focus areas. Current programs strike a good balance between traditional and emerging topics.” In their report to the Board of HIIT, the SAB “…congratulates HIIT for continuing outstanding work at high international standards, reflected by publications at top tier international conferences. This was strengthened in recent years by the acquisition of excellent and talented new faculty.”

As a concrete proposal for strengthening HIIT even further they pointed out that in the current extremely international competitive environment, every focus area of HIIT must distinguish itself from similar programs around the world. Each area should aspire to identify what is unique about their research, making their local “brand” more identifiable.

The SAB also noted that since the previous HIIT SAB meeting in 2016, there has been a lot of new developments in the landscape of information technology research in the Helsinki region. Most importantly, HIIT has actively supported the creation of several new joint units (see the section on organization structure):

  • Helsinki Centre for Data Science (HiData)
  • Helsinki-Aalto Institute for Cybersecurity (HAIC)
  • Finnish Center for AI (FCAI)

Many of these units stem from the research programmes of HIIT, and It is natural to ask what the exact relationship between these units and HIIT is, and for the SAB, the (new) organizational structure of HIIT was presented as follows. Unlike in the past, in the future HIIT does not plan to maintain research programmes with clear research agendas and lists of research groups who have been selected to run the research programme. Instead, HIIT maintains strategically chosen research focus areas that are open so that all researchers of the HIIT community working in that area can regard themselves as a member of the HIIT focus area. The HIIT (Helsinki ICT) community is currently defined as the research groups working in the following departments:

  • Computer science (University of Helsinki, Faculty of Science),
  • Computer science (Aalto, School of Science),
  • Communications and Networking (Aalto, School of Electrical Engineering),
  • Signal Processing and Acoustics (Aalto, School of Electrical Engineering).

This means that HIIT does not assess the relevance of individual researchers with respect to ICT but defines the community (scope of HIIT) on the level of departments. Here the rough idea is to define the ICT community as the people entitled to supervise doctoral dissertations in ICT, not as a community of people applying ICT in their own scientific field, no matter how sophisticated or refined their application of ICT may be.

Moreover, when the strategic focus of HIIT is defined via inclusive, thematic focus areas, and not via units with explicit research agendas, this means that any member of the Helsinki ICT community defined above, who is working in one these fields, can automatically consider her/himself as a member of the HIIT focus area, and no pre-enrolment is required. When considering recruitment proposals, the HIIT SG will case-by-case assess the relevance of the proposal with respect to the focus areas. On the other hand, while the focus areas are prioritized in the long-term strategic postdoc recruitment, HIIT provides shorter-term support for the community more broadly also outside the focus areas.

The current focus areas of research of HIIT are Artificial Intelligence, Computational Health, Cybersecurity and Data Science. In addition to the focus areas, we acknowledge the existence of the joint units that heavily overlap with the focus areas, but they are not considered directly part of HIIT for several reasons: first of all, many of the units coordinate teaching in the relevant area, and this is not in the scope of a research institute like HIIT. Secondly, HIIT is an institute for information technology research, while some of the units have broader mission: for example, in FCAI not all research is information technology research, since for instance ethical, societal and legal aspects of artificial intelligence require contributions from different disciplines. For HIIT, collaboration with other sciences outside the ICT community is highly desirable, but HIIT supports only ICT research while FCAI has a broader mandate. Thirdly, HIIT as a joint institute of Aalto University and University of Helsinki operates in the capital area, while FCAI as a national flagship has a broader mission, and besides, has VTT also as a third founding organization. For these reasons, the above units cannot directly be seen as HIIT departments or programmes, although whenever ICT research is concerned, they are very much aligned with the HIIT focus areas. In the new organization chart, these units are presented as “affiliated units” (FCAI is listed as an affiliated unit of Computational Health as health is one of the most important application areas in FCAI).

The organization of HIIT is built to make the alignment of the HIIT focus areas and the affiliated units as seamless and synergistic as possible: the HIIT focus areas are led by key people in the affiliated units, and the third host organization of FCAI, VTT, has been taken into account by inviting a VTT representative in the Board so that HIIT and FCAI can share the same Board, and what is more, HIIT and FCAI also share the Scientific Advisory Board. For FCAI with its flagship status, it was vital to get the SAB feedback before the Academy of Finland flagship evaluation taking place in 2021. As the HIIT SAB meeting was due 2020 in any case, it made a lot of sense to take the very high-profile SAB of HIIT as a starting point and add new members with expertise in AI, so that the same SAB can serve both HIIT and FCAI. This made the process even more demanding than before, in particular considering the fact that in the current situation, the event had to be organized fully remotely, but the SAB did a remarkable job and provided valuable insights for both HIIT and FCAI.

The SAB was quite happy with the new organizational structure and the line of thinking supporting interplay and the synergies between the HIIT and FCAI:

The SAB also praises the successful collaboration between the two entities, set in a complex and dynamic ecosystem including the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, and the VTT Technical Center of Finland.”

The organizational setup was accepted in the Board meeting on December 4th, 2020, as part of HIIT’s annual action plan.

What does this mean in practise? First of all, special focus is given on recruitment in strategic focus areas where the impact potential is considered to be highest, but HIIT wishes to be able to support also the broader HIIT community, taking into account the fact that as a strategic initiative of two universities, the HIIT funding cannot be used just as an extension of the department funding, but it has to produce clear added value. In the open postdoc call launched in December 2020, the recruitment policy was defined as follows:

  • The mission of the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT is to enhance the quality, visibility and impact of research on information technology and support cooperation between ICT researchers, researchers in other fields, industry and public organisations. All excellent researchers in any area of ICT will be considered, but
    • priority is given to candidates who support one (or more) of the strategic focus areas listed below.
    • In addition, we also welcome candidates who can work as a link between two or several areas supporting collaboration that has high impact potential. Collaboration can be within the Helsinki ICT community, or between ICT and some other scientific discipline, or between ICT and an industrial or public sector.
    • In addition to recruitments, HIIT supports short-term activities that enhance the quality, collaborative activities, impact and visibility of the HIIT community.

HIIT has published new guidelines for applying for support for short-term activities. In the future we will be improving the instructions and processes further and try to make them more widely known within the HIIT community.

Finally, considering the year 2020, it is understandable that the activities of HIIT were severely affected by the global Covid pandemic, like it affected virtually all areas of life. For HIIT this means that many planned events were cancelled or changed to a virtual event, and our mobility activities were severely hampered. On the positive side, we can note that many of the events were surprisingly successful as remote meetings: for example, the SAB meeting mentioned earlier turned out to be by the end of the day quite productive, despite the challenges imposed by remote participation. We were also happy to note that we managed to continue active recruitment of new talents to Finland, although travel restrictions made the process much more demanding than normally.

Petri Myllymäki
Director of HIIT