Data: how can it be used effectively?

Firas Khnaisser discusses why diverse teams help organisations get the most from their data

However good your data is, you won’t get the best from it unless you have the right people dealing with it
However good your data is, you won’t get the best from it unless you have the right people dealing with it

More often than not, when we talk about data, we’re actually talking about people. Yet perceptions of data couldn’t be further from being human.

This means we’re often scared, bored or mistrusting of data. The word “data” has come to encompass so many things that we don’t know what people mean when they say it. Pundits tout it is as the solution to everything (much like everything else they’re selling). So it’s no wonder folk have become sceptical – it is high time we shifted the emphasis from data back to people.

If I gave two identical, clean, relevant datasets to two separate teams, will Team One derive the same insights from the data as Team Two? Will Team Two share the insights in the same way to allow for improved decision-making or operational efficiency? Will Team One be able to take action on this data? And if it did, does it have the right people to make happen?

Firas Khnaisser is chairman of DMA Scotland

All of those things are dependent on skillsets, outlooks and experience – attributes that people bring. Yet for too long we’ve had a very linear focus on those attributes, defining teams based on their skillsets and not necessarily on their outlook and experience.

To be truly people-centric when working with data (or should I say people?), you need diverse teams that reflect society at large. Only by democratising talent can we truly democratise data and make sure we’re doing the right thing by society.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not underplaying the role of having good data – I’m trying to illustrate the point that the value doesn’t necessarily lie in the data itself but in how you use it.

This reminds me of Information is Beautiful author David McCandless’ reference to “data as the new soil”. I love that positioning because it’s active, not passive. The much more famous notion of data being “the new oil” is passive and assumes that by finding this magical resource all your wishes will come true, which we all know couldn’t be further from the truth. The soil analogy puts the onus back on people – that we ultimately reap what we sow – and that’s very important.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about ethics in artificial intelligence, or AI. That’s great but equally puzzling to me. How did the chat about ethics in data and AI go mainstream?

Then I got my answer from Dr Ewa Luger, Chancellor’s Fellow in Digital Arts and Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. She has argued that AI, and technology more broadly, is moving at such a fast pace that regulation cannot keep up. Regulation tells you what you have to do, whereas ethics helps you understand what you should do. So, in the absence of regulation we have to fall back on ethics for answers – which also translates to falling back on us, the people and the organisations we work for.

For example, AI algorithms are now widely used in sensitive social spheres – including credit scoring, employment, education, policing, criminal justice, mental health. We now know that black people are particularly disadvantaged by these algorithms due to inherent bias in the historical data used to build these algorithms. This means that if these algorithms are not examined, historical injustices that have happened to black communities will not only persist in the present but continue into the future.

So it’s up to people and organisations in the private and public spheres to collectively tackle these injustices by waking up to their responsibilities.

So what exactly are your responsibilities? What are your values as an individual? And what are the values of the organisations that you work for? And how do you bring these with you to your workplace? What changes are you able to bring in your role? How does that affect your business and how does that reflect on your customers?

I’ve been the chairman of DMA Scotland for two years now and we run a campaign called The Value of Data. We’re trying to help organisations find where the value is in their data, to sustain their investment in this asset and – more importantly – in the people that support it.

I always get asked, ‘Have you been successful at attributing a value to data yet?’ My answer is simple: I’ve known the answer all along. You guessed it … it’s in the people.

Firas Khnaisser is chairman of DMA Scotland and head of decisioning with Standard Life Aberdeen