Top 10 information management stories of 2021
Data has played an outsized role in public life during the Covid-19 pandemic, and three of the Computer Weekly top 10 information management stories selected here revolve around the impact of the pandemic. The trio selected go from sequencing the virus, through the South Central Ambulance Service’s apprehension of Covid, to the Red Cross’s marshalling of digital mapping to combat the health crisis.
The first three stories below feature three prominenti of the world of data – the head of data science at the Office for National Statistics, and two Silicon Valley CEOs.
The focus then moves back home to a bold programme to turn the London Borough of Newham into a zone of excellence for a data economy.
Two locomotion case studies – from the sphere of Formula 1 and British Railways, are the subject matter of two of the other top 10 articles, rounded off by a conceptual piece about the relationship between predictive analytics and artificial intelligence.
The managing director of the Office of National Statistics’ Data Science Campus, Tom Smith, describes the organisation’s data capability building activities for and across government.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) now has a higher profile than ever before because of its data dissemination role during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Its Data Science Campus, more particularly, is playing an increasing role in ameliorating data capability in government. One element in the government’s national data strategy was the goal of training 500 civil servants in data science tools and techniques during 2021. The ONS beat that target, training almost 700 analysts.
Heading the Data Science Campus is its managing director, Tom Smith, who describes himself as a “lifelong data addict with degrees in physics, artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience”.
Ali Ghodsi, CEO of Databricks, here reflects on the business culture of Silicon Valley, his Iranian-Swedish background, and where big data analytics is going during these early days of machine learning.
He remembers as a child seeing Tehran turning dark as the lights went out and Iraqi aircraft bombed the city during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. One night he believed his family’s house had been bombed. It hadn’t, but neighbouring houses had been.
“I wouldn’t say that sort of experience makes you more resilient, but it does prepare you for anything happening,” he says. “One day, everything can be great; the next, everything can have collapsed. It helps you stay calm in a crisis.”
Ghodsi moved to Sweden with his family and was educated there, from kindergarten to postdoc. And while he says the famously social-democratic culture of Sweden has left an imprint on his thinking, he prefers the risk-taking culture of Silicon Valley. “I always felt Sweden was built for the benefit of the big companies, like Ericsson, Volvo and ABB,” he says. “Not so much for the little guy wanting to launch his own company.”
Gaurav Dhillon, co-founder of Informatica and founder CEO at SnapLogic, comes from a generation of Silicon Valley Indian immigrants who followed a scholarship route and have helped to shape the area’s tech companies. Here, he reflects on his career and the region’s future.
SnapLogic offers a platform as a service for companies and other organisations to join up applications and data, both in the cloud and on-premise, in the cloud.
Dhillon founded the company in 2006, and is known in the data management field, and in the technology industry more broadly, as the co-founder, alongside Diaz Nesamoney, of data integration pioneer Informatica.
The London Borough of Newham is setting out to enable its young, digitally savvy population to build a data economy for sustainable growth.
The borough will have more residents aged under 24 than over 24 in 15 years’ time. At present, 38% of its population is 24 or younger.
It’s one of the most diverse areas in the capital – some 70% of the population is black or from other minority ethnic communities. Its community speaks 242 languages and dialects.
Although jobs have been created in the area in recent years, partly thanks to it being the location hub for the 2012 Olympics, those jobs tend to be in construction or retail, and often on zero-hours contracts.
Rokhsana Fiaz, mayor of Newham, and the borough’s CIO Omid Shiraji are looking to change that, with a “data corridor” that goes under the banner “Newham Sparks”. It was launched at London Tech Week in September 2021.
A consortium of universities and other institutions has harnessed datasets, analytics and cloud computing to sequence Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in a blisteringly short time.
Genomics, the study of genes, is a field of biology that relies on computing. While the ability to sequence the human genome has gained much attention, researchers have been quietly working to use the same techniques to track and analyse diseases. This work stepped into the limelight in 2020 by focusing on Covid-19.
The UK’s work on this has taken place through the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (Cog-UK), which as of 12 April 2021 had sequenced 428,056 samples.
This ambulance service’s business intelligence came into its own during the coronavirus crisis, helping the managers behind the paramedics to deliver the service with fast data flows and joined-up datasets.
The paramedics of the South Central Ambulance Service have been found on the W TV channel, with crews from Oxford and Portsmouth serving the public, in Inside the Ambulance.
Behind the managers of those frontline paramedics sits a business intelligence team of some 20 people. However, Simon Mortimore, assistant director for business information at the South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, is no stranger to the inside of an ambulance. He can sometimes be found carrying things for his paramedic colleagues.
This is perhaps why he reaches for a driving analogy when talking about the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic: “It was like driving in fog at high speed.”
7. How the British Red Cross harnessed digital mapping honed abroad for the domestic Covid-19 crisis
The British Red Cross and the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership has been putting digital mapping to work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to help match human needs to local organisations.
The British Red Cross has been working with the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership and its network of more than 250 organisations.
In doing so, it has been drawing on digital mapping expertise partly developed in emergencies in other countries, using mapping software provided by Esri.
Adam Rowlands, director of digital at the British Red Cross, says the organisation is “proud of its role providing GIS [geographic information system] and information management expertise globally to help those in crisis”, adding that “it is one of the most requested skills following emergencies”.
McLaren Racing selected Alteryx analytics software in pursuit of greater car build efficiency in the face of the Formula 1 cost cap.
Ed Green, head of commercial technology at McLaren Racing, here says the team’s technology partnerships go way beyond logos on the cars and on the drivers’ kit. “Our car won’t go on the track on a Sunday afternoon if our IT systems aren’t running,” he says. “So, those relationships go pretty deep and are meaningful.”
Green was speaking of McLaren’s most recent partnership, with data analytics software supplier Alteryx, an engagement that includes fan outreach as well as making the racing cars more performant. That relationship became publicly more visible at the Belgian Grand Prix on 29 August 2021.
Resonate, a traffic management software provider to UK railways, has built a system using Redis Streams to provide real-time processing of train movements, enabling a whole-system view.
The railway industry is on the move – from moving metal to taking a whole-system view that also takes passengers into account. Although not as well-known as its principal customer, Network Rail, Resonate, a software supplier to the railways, is playing a role in that transition, says Daren Wood, its vision director.
The discipline of predictive analytics is likely to increase in importance as it is complemented by artificial intelligence. NHS and National Express case studies here prove the point.
While in data analytics terms, tools for activities such as data extraction and exploration are quite mature and well adopted, the situation for predictive and prescriptive analytics is quite another story.
Predictive capabilities make it possible to forecast future events based on past and present performance, while prescriptive, or instructive, analytics offerings examine data to enable organisations to answer questions such as “what should we do?”.
But as David Semach, partner and head of artificial intelligence and automation for Infosys Consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, points out: “The adoption of predictive analytics is still relatively low and the technology is maturing, while the take-up of prescriptive tools, which is the next stage on, is almost non-existent.”