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Government report reveals a narrow view on data

Dr Elizabeth Sklar of King's College London encourages the government to rethink its approach to digital skills

Posted by Hannah Oakman | February 29, 2016 | Technology

The Government’s Science and Technology Committee published its latest report, 'The big data dilemma' on 12th February. The report states there is a drastic skills shortage in the digital market. This is not a new problem and the industry has been talking about it for a long time. Go On UK, a charity set up to promote digital skills, last year found that over 12 million people and a million small businesses in the UK do not have the skills to prosper in the digital era. The government’s report highlights that the issue is not going away and needs to be addressed urgently.

However, as we delve deeper into the report, it becomes clear that the government’s emphasis may significantly limit how we overcome the digital skills shortage issue. While the report does mention that infrastructure is required for data warehousing and curation, it places a much greater emphasis on ‘analytics.’  Yet to identify our digital skills gap as simply ‘analytics’ demonstrates a weak understanding of 'big data' and the underlying technologies required to harvest data before any analytics can be applied. Analysing data can only be done once the right information has been collected, processed and extracted.

The way that this can be addressed is by making sure that we are developing talent across the data supply chain, not on a narrow piece of it. Those studying for a career in the burgeoning data industry must be exposed to a broad range of topics that will give them the ability to appreciate and contribute across the whole data spectrum. This is not just about providing training in analytics, but also about developing software and hardware engineering talent for data warehousing, tech-savvy legal expertise for crafting policy and regulation and thoughtful perspectives for understanding an increasingly complex cloud of social issues.

As we delve deeper into the report, it becomes clear that the government’s emphasis may significantly limit how we overcome the digital skills shortage issue

This is not going to happen if the Government itself does not truly understand what big data is and where to focus education, but at least the report is a move in the right direction. That the Government has blind spots is to be expected; data is a far more vast and complex area than it was ten, or even two, years ago. Companies and governmental organisations now produce astronomical amounts of information from a range of sectors and harnessing it can be very difficult.

The government should be looking to work with a range of institutions to help them grasp this landscape. King's, as an example, is working hard to address the education issues for the next generation of data scientists, by developing and delivering materials to a cross-disciplinary cohort of students through a collaboration of seven different academic departments. This means not just providing the technical skills, but also the understanding of how to apply those skills in particular real-world domain contexts for particular applications.

King's is also seeking to help public sector organisations, schools and businesses alike understand what is needed as they operate in today's data intensive world. Until we do this, Britain runs the risk of creating a marketplace of people with technical skills focussed on a narrow subset of those required and abilities restricted to datasets that are limited in scope. Education is the route forward, extending the UK's ability beyond 'just' analytics and shaping the future of data science.

Dr Elizabeth Sklar is the Programme Director at the Faculty of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, King’s College London

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