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A day out at the Public Sector Data Science Summit

Andy Powell
Dec 6, 2018 · 10 min read

I was lucky enough to spend yesterday at the Public Sector Data Science Summit in London. It turned out to be a really good day — lots of great talks and really interesting content. I live-tweeted the day (is that still a thing?) and my tweets are interspersed in the summary below:

  • looking forward to today’s sessions at the Public Sector Data Science Summit in London #psdata18

The first and second sessions, chaired by Lord Clement-Jones, covered updates from The Office for Artificial Intelligence, the Robotic Process Automation Unit of Cabinet Office and the London Office for Technology & Innovation at the GLA:

  • the Office for AI is a joint initiative of @beisgovuk and @DCMS — remember that D is for Digital these days #psdata18

Following the break, the second session was made up of talks by Sir Anthony Seldon of the University of Buckingham, Tom Smith of the ONS and Professor Helen Margetts of the Alan Turing Institute:

  • “the most important thing we can all do at the moment [in this AI/AR/VR/digital/social media world] is to remember what it means to be human” — Sir Anthony Seldon @AnthonySeldon of @UniOfBuckingham speaking at #psdata18

After suggesting that if the public sector doesn’t step up to make education fit for the 21st century then the private sector certainly will, Anthony Seldon went on to say:

  • “people who work for the big tech providers aren’t bad people but they are driven by forces that are not necessarily in the best interests of ordinary people and our towns and cities” — @AnthonySeldon speaking at #psdata18

My thoughts…

  • interesting/ironic that we are here to talk about data and AI and yet one of the major failings of UK government around the provision of education at all levels is that they haven’t taken any notice of what the data is telling them #psdata18

At this point I realised I’d been tweeting Anthony Seldon’s name wrongly. Bit embarrassing (and I have corrected it in the above but still a bit embarrassing!). Note that in order to illustrate the failing of the IQ measure of intelligence, Anthony Seldon had partitioned the audience into three equal parts — the intelligent people, the average people, and the dullards.

  • Apologies… Anthony Seldon (not Sheldon) :-( — @AnthonySeldon — in my defence… I was sitting in the section of the audience labelled as idiots #psdata18

Cough. Back to the ONS:

  • building world-leading expertise in the innovative application of data science — the @ONS Data Science Campus — see https://t.co/aHyYuDYjOa #psdata18

Lunch break.

The first part of the afternoon was a panel session chaired by Eddie Copeland (Nesta’s Director of Government Innovation) and including Emma Presley (DWP), Tim East (HMRC) and Andy Wall (ONS):

  • based on a quick show of hands, the vast majority of the room at #psdata18 say they are data scientists working in the public sector — I’m surprised… only because I didn’t realise there were so many data scientists out there!

Probably just me!

  • “data science is not just about playing with data — it’s about understanding the wider context within which data sits and the ethical issues about how that data should be used” — @AndyWallONS speaking at #psdata18

Despite these comments, I have to say that I was surprised at the level of diversity in the audience. Coupled with quite a large proportion of (how should I say this) younger practitioners, which was great to see.

The day ended with three breakout sessions, of which I chose to go to the one on Data Analytics, including talks by Mike Molloy (HMRC), Katie Davidson (DHSC) and Neil Crump (Worcestershire Office for Data Analytics):

  • “in @HMRCgovuk, the most creative ideas happen when we bring together data scientists with people who have an investigative background” — Mike Molloy speaking at #psdata18

Referring to Matt Hancock, Katie Davidson quipped:

  • one shortcut to improving adoption of AI with a government department is to “get a secretary of state who is passionate about AI and tech” :-) — @KatieDa7a5 of @DHSCgovuk speaking at #psdata18

But she then returned to a more serious note:

  • “Google searches for chest infection and pleurisy correlate really well with hospital admissions for pneumonia but peaks about a week before — so can be used to make near term predictions for hospital admissions” — @KatieDa7a5 of @DHSCgovuk at #psdata18

Finally, Neil Crump spoke about the work being done in Worcestershire to increase data sharing and use:

  • “there are fundamental data sharing building blocks that need to be in place in the context of local government before you can even begin to think about the value of data science” — @neillcrump of WODA speaking at #psdata18 — https://t.co/YTDV6g4npD

If there was anything disappointing about the day it was the number of talks that were basically, “we’re a new government body, we’ve been created to do X (where X was some aspect of data science or AI), and here’s an outline of what we propose to do about it”. I was hoping for a little more practical experience (which really only got covered in the final sessions).

There was quite a lot of discussion about the ethics of data and AI and about the need to create a meaningful ‘data science’ career path within the civil service (coupled with the challenges of competing for staff with the private sector). This latter topic, I imagine, echoed similar debates around digital in the early days of GDS.

Finally, there was a recurring theme about the fact that data scientists do not exist (or work) in isolation and that the best / most exciting / most innovative results happen when you mix the skills of data scientists with those of others in the organisation.

None of that is intended to be critical. Overall it was a really interesting day:

  • really good day at #psdata18 — loads of interesting presentations — over and out!

Final thought… I was surprised at the very limited use of Twitter as a back-channel during the event. I doubt that there were more than 10 of us tweeting — possibly fewer. Maybe Twitter has fallen out of favour? Clearly, this is a significant and pretty vibrant community of data scientists and related professions. Yet, there was almost no evidence of any level of collaboration or community from the Twitter hashtag. Yet I guess these people must be talking to each other in some way. I’m genuinely interested if that is happening and, if so, how?

There’s no doubt that data, data science, AI and ML are flavour of the month right now. Probably flavour of the year. Probably flavour of the next 5 years! There was a big crowd for this event and lots of evidence of ambition to use these technologies to transform the public sector, and the services it delivers, for the better. Great stuff.

Foundations

A blog by andypowe11

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