The recent Strata London event was perfectly timed in the first four days of a week that culminated the day that GDPR became effective.
The Strata Data Conference is always an invaluable experience that attracts attendees with diverse experiences and a shared passion to learn that creates a buzz of interaction. London ’18 has been no different. With so much content, it’s impossible to give a full perspective but high level themes were unsurprising: Privacy, Cloud, Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence; but it’s the details and nuances that are the real insightful moments.
The theme of transformation was a consistent, with illustrations of journeys undertaken, planned direction and intended destinations. There is no single option and open source creates even greater choice and opportunity.
In these conferences it’s easy to get too immersed in the bubble of leading-edge technology, and a false impression of a pervasive technical leading edge. The reality outside the conference couldn’t be better summarised by Martha Lane-Fox who closed the keynotes on day two, with a strong message of the need for technology companies to recognise their responsibilities. Whilst 50 percent of a public poll said that “technology helps them every day” only 12 percent of people say “technology is helping society.” In the race to be “the best” business, organisations and government need to keep both a broad view of society, and consider the needs, preferences and rights of the individual.
The analytics journey is accelerating and the spectrum of capability is widened by the revolution of technology advances that makes compute and storage now abundant. Leading organisations can now do and achieve more faster, driven by a generation of employees that ooze curiosity, spontaneity, and a passion to learn, to question, to experiment.
This abundancy of compute and storage, in part driven by cloud capability, creates ongoing governance challenges, managing data and its usage. Google’s Tom Grey talked about the evolving processes of data analytics, with less worry about pre-building data schemas; and with data transformations not being one off, but across multiple streams, for multiple purposes. Data streaming is everywhere, driving business demand for actionable information and real time decision making. With this, data proliferation can become a major issue but cloud helps to safely experiment; to spin up a project, and if unsuccessful to shut it down, quickly, efficiently, and securely.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence were central themes with very practical discussions. It’s often not necessary to pursue the latest techniques. Simple is often more effective. Mikio Braun (Zalando) emphasised that AI is really about the automation of repeatable decisions with solutions trained for a specific problem area, at a scale and latency that is not humanly possible. With new capabilities that mean “you don’t need a PhD to build the required data sets,” the ML/AI journey is only just starting.
The expansion of data sets and specifically “open data” was emphasized by strategic advisor Louise Beaumont; highlighting not just Open Banking initiatives, but also similar initiatives in Australia in telco and energy data. Another example of the objective for technology to be a social and public enabler. These changes bring new, emerging services that, as she pointed out, “We didn’t know we want, we didn’t ask for, but yet we can’t live without.”
The people aspect was unusually strong for a technology intensive conference. IBM Analytics’ Jean-François Puget emphasised the human factor in machine learning. It’s not magic, it needs humans – often to execute decisions, but often this is where the problems can arise. Christine Foster from the Alan Turing Institute reflected on the need for algorithms to be fair and not reflect human bias while Beaumont stated the need for Data Artists as a counterpoint to Data Scientists because Data Artists have skills in understanding people and communications.
Pivigo’s Kim Nilsson and Phil Harvey from Microsoft presented a joint session that emphasised the need for analytics to better balance soft and hard skills to encourage empathy in understanding the impact of outcomes and actions, across a range of external and internal participants, from customers through to team members and wider stakeholders. MEP Eva Kaili emphasised the regulatory objective to harmonise the legal certainty of how data could be used, and the principles of privacy, by default and by design. Her comments were one of many references to security and data protection safeguarding sensitive data, protecting valuable assets, taking customers trust as seriously as a brand’s reputation. The situation was summed up by Martha Lane Fox: responsibility needs to be the new norm, to encourage and improve digital understanding.
As the Strata Data conference ends and a new era of data privacy begins its even more important for organisations to consider their data ethics.