The challenge of data
Its DataFest week here in Edinburgh. Following last year’s very successful inaugural event the Data Lab is hosting Data Talent and Data Summit events as well as a number of satellite events. An exciting range of fringe events are happening around the country, kicked off at the weekend, and a general data buzz is in the air.
This is fantastic to see and be part of. It is demonstrating that Scotland has a vibrant data community, a thirst to use data both for business growth and social good, as well as encouraging new job opportunities to develop this data world to inform decision making, influence thinking and build momentum for our future as a data driven country.
The most exciting aspect of this is the endless possibilities available through using data — data that is derived from so many different sources, sources that are expanding every day, with new data to analyse and provide insight. Of course, this is also one of the challenges of data.
New technologies are generating new data — for example, sensors, drones and wearables, and their analysis is helping us to visualise our environment differently, changing our perceptions and providing new leisure, learning or business opportunities . Challenges in sectors such as health can be understood better than ever through data research and analysis, with research findings and informed insight not only guiding our lifestyle choices but delivering more sustainable and supportable solutions to improve our overall quality of living. There are an ever growing number of projects, SMEs, products and data events driving the value of all this data.
As someone who is working in the middle of this data fulcrum, it’s not always easy to imagine what it might be like if this wasn’t the case. Would I even be aware of the importance of data, and the difference it could make to my life? Would I understand the complexities of data — the need for consistent quality, standards and data protection?
The thing is, data is everywhere. It permeates our lives and, like oxygen, we are breathing, consuming, generating and sharing it. Everyone should have the opportunity to gain benefits from data that might improve their lives. So I wonder — is enough being done to reach out beyond the informed community to the wider population? What does all of this mean for someone who is not currently part of the data community? For people who do not work with data or even understand how they could be doing this but still have questions they wanted answered? What still needs to happen for this to be more likely?
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could have access to data they would find useful? And have the knowledge and skills to use it?
There is an opportunity for everyone in Scotland to get more value from public data. Having access to data should be the same as access to the web. Easy, immediate and usable. We already use data that has been prepared, aggregated and made available through easy to use web interfaces — just think about how we choose our holiday flights and hotels, compare utility providers or shop online. The same is true for house buying, insurance and jobs but the data we use has been largely sourced, assured, packaged and managed through third parties.
We have to move beyond this current landscape to make data both more open and more accessible. Alongside this we need easy approaches to data skills — learning to work with data, understanding and making everyday decisions in more streamlined ways. Think of data like visiting a library — where knowledge is openly and freely available as a public service. Shouldn’t data work in the same way? There is a current reality that data, like the early web, needs to be managed by experts using hardware, software, programming and data tools and therefore its operation is not yet mature enough for a wider audience. Is data like any other specialism — needing experts and practitioners to manage and deliver it?
Our future vision for data use needs to be different. The speed of data innovation is challenging. it means we need to think in evolutionary ways just to keep pace. Data needs to become our new shared language, which we can learn and understand as easily as we learn to read. The existing challenges of universal literacy, and digital literacy to empower an individual’s use of technology, now include the challenge of data literacy. Whilst we are teaching data skills in the school curriculum and encouraging young people to enter data professions, we need to think more widely, reaching out to all ages.
This is the real challenge we face with data— beyond harnessing and realising its value, we need to step back and build easy methods of learning, simple tools and access so that public data is not only available but useful to all.