A Year In Data – What I’ve Taken Away

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This year has undoubtedly been THE year that pushed data to the forefront of public consciousness.

From the R-number underpinning our civil freedoms as we’ve transitioned to and from lockdowns, to “mutant algorithms” determining the results of A-Level students in England (for a short while at least), data has been elevated from ‘proof point’ to headline.

So, in a year when data has defined almost everything that we’ve read, every conversation we’ve had, and decision we’ve made –– what lessons can we take away?

 

Here are my five learnings from 2020:

  1. People love data, really – This year has debunked any previous misconceptions that data is niche or only for data scientists. We’ve witnessed the rise of the armchair epidemiologist, and leading scientists like Sir Patrick Vallance and Dr Moncef Slaoui have become personalities in the media and household names. This has demonstrated beyond question in my mind that if you share data with people that is relevant to the decisions they make every day, there’s a massive appetite for it and people understand the value.
  1. Data literacy isn’t just about the enterprise, it’s about finding the truth – A lot of the discussion around data literacy in recent years has centred around enterprise skills, which is perhaps unsurprising given the growing role of data and technology in all our working practices. But with a study by Cambridge University revealing how those with low numerical literacy were more likely to believe misinformation around COVID-19, the importance of arming everyone with the skills to question the information we’re served and to help understand its veracity has never been clearer. Data literacy is now unquestionably a life skill, to be practiced and worked on.
  1. Communication is everything – Over the course of the pandemic – both at home and around the world – we’ve seen both good and bad examples of how political leaders have communicated the data that informed policy decisions. Earlier this year, a clip of Angela Merkel explaining her cautious optimism for taking Germany out of lockdown was shared hundreds of thousands of times and received international acclaim. It was a clear demonstration of the power of data storytelling in helping people understand and trust how important decisions are made. There are some, in all walks of life, that could learn a thing or two from the German Chancellor…
  1. Don’t just accept it when the ‘computer says no’ – As someone that was the outlier in their school, there’s no question that if I was in the position of this year’s English A-Level students my grades would have been significantly downgraded too. So, it’s perhaps no great surprise that I – like many – called on the British government to conduct an inquiry into its approach to algorithmic decision making after concerns around bias went unaddressed both before and immediately after the results were announced. It also serves as an important lesson for anyone that has or plans to embark on machine leaning and artificial intelligence implementations – we must use human understanding and intuition to constantly challenge algorithmic insights to assure their accuracy and reduce bias.
  1. We can do amazing things when we work together – Collaboration around data has been fundamental in battling coronavirus: whether that’s sharing medical data in the development of the vaccine, modelling how the virus spreads, or in identifying better and safer ways to care for patients. I was particularly proud to see the fantastic work of Rob O’Neill and his team at Morecambe Bay NHS Trust in the development of their Analytical Command Centre, which helps them manage patient journeys throughout their emergency department, shared with seven NHS trusts in London to support their response to the virus. The modules enabled them to gain essential visibility into potential COVID-19 risks in incoming ambulances, as well as across every ward with bed management messaging giving staff access to the bed status on any device and flagging where patients have tested positive. It was great to see how Rob’s team, with their partners at QlickiT, were able to not only react so quickly to the situation to build these tailored modules, but also put the powerful technology – without charge – into the hands of other trusts to help them better use data to manage their emergency response.

 

It has been hard to pick just five take-aways, but if there’s one thing that looking back over the year has shown me – with both its immensely impressive and sometimes questionable examples – it is that data has not become more important, but that its importance has become more apparent to many. Will this spark a longer-lasting shift into 2021 with more hunger from the public to understand data and how it affects their lives? I hope so.

Until then, I’m sure there’s many more important learnings that I’ve missed – after all, I didn’t even mention the US election…

So, what are your learnings from this year in data?