Hi, I’m Simon, one of the LIDA Data Scientist Interns, in the unique position of splitting my working week between home working and working in one of LIDA’s Safe Rooms (for use when analysing controlled data in secure conditions without internet access). This is because I am currently working on a project with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), funded by Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) – The Local Data Spaces Pilot.
The Local Data Spaces Pilot project aims to develop novel insight for Local Authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing up-to-date, high-quality analysis at granular levels. Principally, we will use health data from the Test and Trace programme, non-health data provisioned by the ONS and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) and Local Authority ingested data to create novel and innovative insights in support of individual Local Authority policy needs. We aim for this work to inform impact monitoring, allocation of resources and a better understanding of the pandemic at local levels.
In this article I’m going to share some initial thoughts and feelings on how I’ve found building new working relationships remotely through the Programme, the ways in which my weekly routine has taken shape and the pros and cons of hybrid working.
At the beginning of this project I felt very overwhelmed at the thought of a newly-appointed Data Scientist Intern being thrown in at the deep end with expert colleagues, so I can only thank the rest of my team for their help and support throughout! The ADR UK Support Team is made up of three other academic researchers, among them Post-Doctoral Researchers and Lecturers. The wider support team spans Research Analysts, Directors and high-level leadership colleagues from the ONS and ADR UK. Across the four stakeholders, we have varying engagement. Typically, the ADR UK Support Team will communicate almost daily, discussing the particular deliverables and current progress. We meet with the JBC, ADR UK and ONS on a fortnightly basis to provide a high-level overview. Insights from these fortnightly meetings are then disseminated to a wider group of stakeholders, and serve as a touch-point for mitigating risks- as it is important to remember this is a pilot study, so there is opportunity to learn what works best!
This project is inherently collaborative; we are working with and for Local Authorities, to provide them with the datasets, code and outputs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. By learning the skills, ways of work, and personalities of the other team members, I believe we have built a strong team dynamic, and one that fosters collaboration, innovation and insight, across the four actors involved.
“I began this LIDA Data Scientist Internship having never had a full-time post, and I still have the bizarre knowledge that my colleagues of nearly 5 months are people I am yet to meet in the flesh.”
However, I really feel I know them well, and feel we all made a concerted effort to gel together. The Data Scientist Interns have a scheduled Friday evening after work social call, for us to chat and wind down after the week, and also scheduled Coffee Breaks in our calendars: a 30-minute break 3 times a week to get away from our work and simply chat to others in a similar position.
Whether this might be an informal discussion on the project itself, asking for help, or what everyone did at the weekend, these Coffee Breaks ensure we don’t feel isolated while working from home alone, foster friendships and work-place groups and enable us to provide help and support to others. Personally, I have been made aware of the Open Data Institute Conference and various training courses, events and online webinars through fellow Data Scientist Interns, and have sought their help with coding issues, and data visualisation techniques in R. The wealth of knowledge across the Data Scientist Interns is fantastic, and by ensuring we all have strong relationships, we know who to talk to for support on a particular issue, ensuring the collaborative aspect of the Data Scientist Internship Programme, even remotely!
At the time of writing this article, I am typically working four days a week in the Safe Room (for use when analysing controlled data on the ONS Secure Research Service without internet access) in LIDA and one day a week from home (the latter without access to the Secure Research Service where our project and data reside).
The routine in the Safe Room is one I am still getting used to and has definitely resulted in a different and perhaps more productivity-driven way of working. This is because I work in the Safe Room alone, and with the knowledge that this is my only opportunity to access the data being used on the project. I really feel productive in the Safe Room – the lack of internet access, distractions, and even colleagues enables me to power through the research. However, I feel the burden to work, all day 9am-5pm, more keenly whilst working in the Safe Room. Whereas in normal office-based employment, I might be stewing over a coding problem during lunch or a quick break, I find that without someone to talk with, or simply get outside for a quick walk with, I miss escapism and time away from a screen, and often find myself forsaking breaks at the expense of continuing research. Before writing this blog post, I hadn’t really put this into words, so this self-reflection has really highlighted this.
Many of you might be wondering how I cope without access to the internet in the Safe Room, particularly when completing research using R. I have to say this has been the biggest challenge of the work. I liken this to completing an R exam, no notes, no internet, simply your own ability! The ONS also allows you to import code into the Secure Research Service, so if I know what I will need to do next, on my day at home I can prepare the code and ask for it to be imported. The need to leave the room to search for the particular syntax of an issue can sometimes be frustrating, but it is at the expense of access to wonderful, highly granular data. However, it does ensure I get in my steps for the day, so that’s a little win!
“The single day I am currently spending at home, without access to the project space is a welcome change. The flexibility to work my hours in a different format enables me to get outdoors for a long walk during daylight, something I sorely miss inside the office.”
This agile method of working, provides a different focus on my home-working days and gives me the freedom to continue personal development and research any techniques or code required, providing a space for more creative thinking around the challenges encountered. I sometimes find that within the Safe Room, your head begins to race around searching for answers and it is easy to get overwhelmed. By allowing myself time away from the screen and time outdoors, I am able to re-focus and consider how best to use the remaining 2 days in the Safe Room.
Hybrid Working – the New Normal?
Having started my first full-time post during the pandemic, I have only worked virtually, or worked alone in an empty office. This pandemic has shown that high-quality research can be completed collaboratively, remotely and across different regions – so I see no reason why this should not be a possibility moving forward. I like the agility of being able to adapt my working hours, particularly during these winter months. The ability to get outside during daylight hours really helps me, but I would also love to see some more faces in the office in the future, and hopefully meet all of my colleagues in the flesh! Finally, I simply hope that, moving forward, working patterns will retain a level of flexibility to enable employees to find a hybrid approach that best suits them.