The rise of populism. Electoral interference. Social media bullying. The Brexit effect. It can be quite hard to remain optimistic in the current climate. While much of this is down to perception and fear of the unknown - you are more likely to die of being homeless than of being stabbed, for example - it still conditions our reactions and plans.
Some of these worries are very practical. One online retailer confided that his biggest challenge right now is around tomatoes - where will they come from post-Brexit and how much will they cost? Some politicians are advocating a 80% increase in the tariff applied to them to protect British farmers, while others advocate a 80% reduction to protect British consumers. Planning a home delivery grocery business in these circumstances is fraught.
So, where can we look for a more upbeat response to the world around us? Personally, I found many reasons to see the glass as half-full yesterday - 100 reasons in fact. In the spectacular Science Museum Illuminate space, we celebrated the 2019 edition of the DataIQ 100 and brought together a nec plus ultra gathering of data and analytics practitioners.
During lunchtime conversation with the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, she asked me directly what evidence there was to see a bright future through the apparently approaching gloom. After looking around the room, I realised that all the proof I needed was right in front of me. Every single one of those present believes in using their professional skills to make things better - for their organisations, their customers and society as a whole.
Take the top three people in our Power Ten. Orlando Machado, chief data scientist at Aviva, is bringing the intelligence of his global team of data scientists to making the experience of buying insurance as friction-free as possible. For existing customers, it’s now possible to buy a new policy by answering just three questions. That is a huge step forward for a product that most people don’t really want to think about until they get to their renewal date.
Daniel Ray, director of data at NHS Digital, is working on uses of healthcare data that could transform all of our lives. With one trust, he has helped to create direct access to health records for 23,000 patients which is leading to shifts in the GP-patient relationship and improvements in outcomes.
Directly after the 100 lunch, he was flying to the Middle East to advise one country on its own healthcare data strategy. That has the potential to give its citizens a level of control over a key aspect of their lives which is currently rare in an absolute monarchy. It also underlines how the UK is already a leader in the real-world deployment of data (rather than the unicorn sphere of tech start-ups).
As a third reason for optimism, there is Denham herself. Amid the preparations for GDPR and subsequent gripes about whether it has just been Y2K all over again (it hasn’t, as the next few months will reveal), it is easy to forget that we have such an engaged and dynamic regulator.
The ICO has led the most complex investigation anywhere in the world with its Facebook/Cambridge Analytica work, published as “Democracy Disrupted”, which is now informing further investigations in multiple countries, as well as potential social media regulation in the UK and even a reformation of the Electoral Commission’s powers to bring them out of the analogue era.
From regulation to open data, AI to data science, the UK has world-leaders in every aspect of data and analytics who are tackling problems from the minor (website optimisation) to the major (health and social good). Whichever form Brexit takes, the UK can become the go-to place for both skills and real commercial use cases. As the joyful atmosphere at the DataIQ 100 lunch proved, we have many reasons to be cheerful.