Building data science capability

Hi, I am Steven Hopkins, a Data Scientist in the Data Science Campus (DSC) which was officially opened last week,  Monday 27 March.

Joining last November, I was the second Data Scientist to start in the team and the sixth team member all together. In just 4 months the team has grown, welcoming our new Managing Director Tom Smith, several more Data Scientists, our first Data Analytics Apprentices and a few other staff too. We are now 26 in number and still growing.

The DSC has a unique opportunity that keeps it distinct from other bodies involved in similar research and that is our remit around capability-building, something that I am personally very passionate about. In the 4 months that I have been part of the DSC, I have had the chance to contribute to our capability-building activities at several levels and wanted to write this post to talk about some of them.

Firstly, within ONS the campus is providing mentors for the Data Science Learning Academy (DSLA) scheme. This scheme enables ONS staff to work on a problem or project within their team by employing data science techniques with support from their mentor. Through this scheme staff have the opportunity to learn new skills and apply them to benefit their team by delivering something of value and being able to pass on data science skills to colleagues in the future. I am mentoring one of the current candidates who is exploring machine-learning as a means to validate a specific survey response.

For the wider government, the DSC is the south west hub for the Government Digital Service (GDS)-led Accelerator Programme, which is a similar scheme to the DSLA but for other government departments. Ioannis Tsalamanis and Rowena Bailey from the DSC are both mentoring projects for the Accelerator Programme on the next cohort that has candidates from the Department for Education and the NHS. The GDS Accelerator is a good opportunity for us to support other parts of the government by helping them develop skills to get more from the data they hold. We have made good connections with other organisations like the Data Science team at GDS through this scheme.

We have also been supporting ONS’ Learning Academy in providing Introduction to R Coding courses. These sessions help staff to learn the fundamentals of the R language and get familiar with how basic methods for data manipulation are performed in the R environment. Last week I spent 2 days in Drummond Gate running sessions with staff from ONS, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Welsh Government, Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office. The course is a great first step for people who are curious about broadening their statistical skills by including some data science techniques and from conversations with the staff attending these courses, it is apparent that the demand across the wider government for training in R is huge, as more departments gear up to take on the challenges of the future.

During the past few months, I have also had the opportunity to engage with groups within the public to discuss and raise the profile of data science. I gave a talk at a professional development course for teachers at the University of South Wales where the aim was to explain the subject of data science and consider how teachers can enthuse students in schools to pursue it as a career.

Earlier in the year, I visited St John’s College in Cardiff to speak to GCSE and A-Level students. The talk at St John’s began by giving an overview of big data using “the 4 V’s” – Volume, Velocity, Variety, and Veracity. We then discussed data science and its benefits through several case studies. We considered whether or not machines can learn on their own when there is no data to learn from. To demonstrate this I showed a video demo of MarI/O – the neural network that taught itself to play Mario (you can find this on YouTube).

During the questions at the end of the talk I was surprised with the number focused around data ethics. I was not expecting such a young audience to be so interested with the rights and wrongs of how personal data might be used and we had a good discussion on whether data voluntarily published online should be used by the government or companies and whether different uses were more qualified than others. It highlighted to me the importance of the campus running our research by the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Committee (NSDEC), being forthcoming and transparent with our methods and making sure that when there is opportunity to talk about data ethics, we take it, no matter the audience.

I’ve had a great first few months at ONS and have enjoyed being able to take part in the type of activities I’ve written about here and look forward to participating in many more. If you want to know more about Data Science and the campus, please get in touch!

One comment on “Building data science capability”

  1. Dr Gordon M Lickfold -

    I’m a 68 year old retired psychologist (PhD). I’ve been subscribing to ONS updates for some years mainly because I believe in evidence-based policy making in any area of gov, commercial organisations etc.
    I think the DSC is an important step for the future, and I enjoyed reading this blog.
    I also think the idea of “data ethics” (which I’d not heard of before) is very important and needs a lot of debate / public conversation – esp against a backdrop of “big brother” eavesdropping on our personal data just in case we might be terrorists.

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