Blog post: The stories behind the data

From breeding algorithms for cows to a speech recogniser for spoken Gaelic, Lucy Saddler (pictured) got to grips with the breadth of the DDI programme during her 2021 summer internship.

When I saw that the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative were recruiting a communications intern in February 2021, I was intrigued by the sheer scale of the DDI – a programme office that had set up a network of innovation hubs, that are in turn powering data driven projects across the university and industry.

As a third-year English Literature student who is active in student journalism, I already had the sense that I was becoming boxed in with regards to both my learning and writing. I was looking for an opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone and broaden my knowledge. The DDI communications internship provided the perfect opportunity to write about and understand better the worlds of technology and data, all whilst contributing towards a programme that aims to use data to tackle the world’s challenges.

 

Complex problems, intricate solutions  

I was tasked with writing case studies about DDI projects, ranging from a data centric breeding algorithm for cows through to a speech recogniser that can transcribe spoken Gaelic. Initially the diversity and size of the DDI and its network of data hubs was difficult to get my head around, but this is testament to the ambition of the programme – complex problems demand intricate solutions. Over the course of my twelve-week internships, I became used to going quickly from a tentative introductory email to an interview and fully edited case study.

With little experience in writing about data and technology, I was at first nervous about interviewing experts and academics. But I quickly realised that my job was to ‘play dumb’ during interviews to ensure that my case studies were understandable to a lay audience. The enthusiasm of the academics, industry experts and entrepreneurs that I interviewed meant that they were more than happy to answer the many questions that I peppered them with. I also realised that although data was the commonality in all the projects, they varied massively in their use of the data and were not confined to sectors and disciplines traditionally associated with data, which meant that you didn’t need to be a programming expert to understand what was going on. I enjoyed the process of going from research to interview to written case study equally as much as I enjoyed learning about the world of data and the Scottish technology ecosystem.

The ongoing pandemic meant that I did the internship virtually but having done an entire year of university online, I didn’t feel daunted by the spectre of working from home. Undoubtedly working from home has its benefits. I was far more efficient and productive than I would ever have been in an office, and it made me more resourceful. Although everyone was very easily contactable, not having colleagues sitting right next to me has made me more of an independent problem solver and I hope that this will stand me in good stead for whatever happens next. I would have obviously much preferred meeting all my colleagues in person regularly, but this internship was a good lesson in making the best of circumstances that were out with my control.

 

Reflection on importance of data skills

During my internship, I was fortunate enough to speak to learners that were using the DDI Skills Gateway to take data upskilling courses or data science degrees. In my interviews with these learners, a common theme emerged – they all previously thought that you had to be a seasoned data expert, with extensive programming expertise, to pursue a career in data science. They had felt that data and data science were elite subject areas. But their experiences doing data centric courses through the DDI Skills Gateway prompted them to think again. Although data education is mostly aimed at giving workers the data skills that employers are looking for, it is also pivotal in boosting confidence and making data and its applications more accessible. The thinking of the learners and the way they had used data education to re-evaluate their preconceptions resonated with my previous thinking too. If I once thought that data was narrow and niche, the DDI and its associated projects have demonstrated to me that data is instead interdisciplinary with endless applications.

Lucy Saddler was a student intern for the Data-Driven Innovation initiative in summer 2021, writing a series of case studies about DDI-supported projects at the University of Edinburgh.

 

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