I have been a Data Science Intern at LIDA for three months now but still I find it hard to answer my friends’ question of “So, what exactly do you do?”. Say the words ‘data science’ to people outside of the industry and it conjures the image of us sat in a dark room, tapping away at our keyboards, coffee in hand as code scrolls down the screen matrix-style. While sometimes I’d like to encourage this image to bolster my intrigue, it’s pretty far from the truth. Although the internship does entail a large amount of coding and keyboards our office is pretty well-lit and the job is incredibly varied.
Last Friday all the LIDA interns had the amazing opportunity of attending the one-day workshop ‘Improving Lives Through Place-Based Urban Analytics’ which was put on by the University of Leeds in collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute. The event exemplifies exactly what brought me into the field of data science and the LIDA internship – looking beyond the numbers on the computer screen to see them as people, places and lives. I started this LIDA internship after completing a degree in Politics and International Relations and I constantly apply the skills I learnt during this time to my new role. What really interests me is how data can tell us stories about the complex social systems we live in.
My first LIDA project, working with the Department for Education, also has people at its core and I feel very fortunate to be involved with something that matches my interests so well. For this project I am using data science to understand the issues with the secondary school admissions process in Bradford. By using Spatial Interaction Modelling (SIM) and data visualisation I hope to gain new insights which can inform positive policy changes. This is really important as in Bradford social mobility is low and disadvantaged students often aren’t accessing ‘Good’ schools. The Improving Lives Through Place-Based Urban Analytics workshop was an especially brilliant opportunity for me as I was asked to present my first LIDA intern project as part of the introductory talks. Being able to share my passion with others and increase the visibility of my project was therefore invaluable and doing so also pushed me, both personally and professionally, to embrace public speaking (even if it is a little scary).
To begin the day of the workshop the LIDA interns all crammed on to a rush-hour train and headed over to the Wolfson Centre in Leeds’ neighbouring city Bradford. Here over 120 attendees packed this shiny building – digging into some complementary (and delicious) pastries and excited for the event to begin.
At the centre of this event was Holme Wood – one of the most deprived areas in Bradford and the country. The aim was to bring people who live and work in this community (the whole spectrum of public service providers, the voluntary sector and even a Bishop!) together with strategists, policy makers and experts in data science to explore how data might be used to tackle some of the issues facing this area. As a data scientist, it is sometimes easy to think about issues abstractly, so one of the highlights of the day for me was listening to community members talk about their lived experiences of Holme Wood. From their words, it is clear that the challenges for this place are far-reaching and interlinked; from high crime-rates and low aspirations to poor dental health and childhood obesity, amongst others. However, it was inspiring to hear community members also talk about resilience and the amazing grass-roots work being done to tackle issues despite adversity.
The task at hand for the data scientists was to answer the question of “How can we utilise the rich bank of data in Bradford to improve lives in Holme Wood?” Bradford is home to the ‘Born in Bradford’ project, offering a treasure-trove of longitudinal data about children as they grow up. The Holme Wood project also offers the rare chance of bringing data together from different government service providers. Add this to a room full of experts in AI, Machine Learning, Urban Analytics and Data Visualisation as well as community experts from Holme Wood and you are bound to have some good results!
The day was structured around bringing the attendees’ diverse skill sets together so that issues could be understood and explored deeply. Focus groups were broken up by coffee breaks to fuel us all with caffeine throughout the day. Ultimately this created a buzzing atmosphere with healthy debate and outlines for some fantastic projects, co-produced by data scientists and Holme Wood representatives, that could be springboarded off the back of the event.
From the position of an early career data-scientist, it was fascinating to absorb the expertise of academics from top universities across the UK and hear people pick up the issues Holme Wood representatives were describing and transform them into potential data-science projects. I listened with open ears as people talked about how they were modelling the impacts of austerity or using VR to help people understand pollution levels and how their methods might be used in a different context. As LIDA interns we have great links with supervisors undertaking cutting edge research here at Leeds University but this was a real chance to expand our networks further. Looking towards entering the job-market following our years as interns, this event also exemplified how we might work with external agencies as many data science jobs include collaboration and consultancy. This is especially true as service providers from education, social care, health, the police, housing and transport were all in attendance and data science is opening up as a new and exciting field within many of these areas.
Returning back to the question of “So, what exactly do you do?”, it’s still pretty hard to answer. Yet events like Friday’s workshop show that data science is about a lot more than writing code and crunching numbers. It’s about listening to problems, debating ideas, finding patterns and proposing solutions. In just the three months that I have been a LIDA intern I’ve learnt so much and I’m excited about the opportunities this internship provides to continue developing my data science skills, which hopefully will enable me to tackle big issues like the ones that face Holme Wood.