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Is the government addressing the wrong skills gap?

The government has its focus on analytics as the skills area the UK most needs to address. Professor Michael Luck, Dean of Faculty of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, King’s College London, disagrees

The power and potential of Big Data have been argued for again and again. Reports at both national and global levels repeatedly demonstrate the benefits that this can have for our economy in the billions and trillions, respectively. In the UK alone the value of our data is massive; The Shakespeare Review, an independent review of public sector information, put the value of the UK’s public data at £6.8bn.

With this large pool of information at the government’s disposal, our public sector organisations have a great opportunity to extract business value from this data and make huge strides in the way that they work, and in the way that they operate and manage public services and our country as a whole. But is enough being done to make the most of the data available to them?

This was the aim of the Government’s Science and Technology Committee’s recent report into Big Data. The Big Data Dilemma, which was published in February, contained several important recommendations for those ready to peruse the 56-page document, but it also showed that there are major challenges that must be addressed more fully if we are to make the most of the  opportunity.

Skills

The report states there is a drastic skills shortage in the digital market. This is not a new problem and is something that the industry has been talking about for a long time. The paper also makes clear that this is an issue that will not go away anytime soon and needs to be addressed as a priority.

However, this is where it seems that the report struggles in finding a solution. While it makes the valid point that there is a skills shortage that needs addressing, as we delve deeper into the document it becomes clear that the government’s solution may actually limit our country’s technical capability in the long term.

The report places much emphasis on ‘analytics’, while only limited consideration is given to infrastructure, data warehousing and curation. Identifying the skills gap as simply a need for experts in ‘analytics’ demonstrates a narrow understanding by the government of how vast the ‘Big Data’ spectrum actually is, and what it entails. It is not just the analytics capability that is needed to successfully use data. The underlying technologies required to harvest data before any analytics can be applied must also be considered, as well as the skills needed in taking results from analysis and applying them to the real world.

Direction

Yet while the solutions provided may not be complete, there are elements in the report that show the government is becoming aware of this and is moving in the right direction. For example, it acknowledges that data science is not a one size fits all subject and requires a range of skills from multiple disciplines. The reality is that Data Science is a hugely complex and specialised field that encompasses key aspects from different areas of science and technology such as Computer Science and Statistics, as well as raising legal, social and ethical issues.

The way the government can contribute to this challenge is by changing its rhetoric regarding the data supply chain. This will ensure the wider skills we need are not marginalised, helping educational institutions like ours successfully train enough people in all aspects of Big Data. Those studying for a career in the data industry must be exposed to the wide range of skills needed in the sector, which will give them the ability to appreciate and contribute across the whole data spectrum. This means not simply training people in analytics, but also teaching them how to develop software that can appropriately harvest and collate data, or how to engineer robust data warehouses. In addition to these technical aspects we also require relevant legal expertise for crafting policy and regulation around the challenges Big Data will raise, and social expertise to consider an increasingly complex cloud of societal issues. Understanding the full range of the problems and issues surrounding Big Data is thus vital if we are to fully exploit it for the benefit of the country. At the very least the Big Data Dilemma report is a useful tool that succeeds in moving in the right direction while also identifying blind spots and starting to suggest ways to address them. Data is a constantly changing and complex area, and with government organisations on their own producing astronomical amounts of information, the government does have much to do.

To help it, government departments should be looking to work with a range of institutions to help them deal with the issues that currently surround Big Data, as well as those that will arise in the future, and the need for talent that can deal with such things. For example, King’s is addressing these issues by educating the next generation of data scientists, developing and delivering Big Data courses that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries and involve collaboration from across multiple academic departments. In this way, as well as developing technical data skills, our students gain an understanding of how to apply these skills in real-world scenarios. This will help public and private sector organisations alike understand and access the skills they need to operate in today’s data intensive world. Until we do this more effectively, as a nation we risk creating a generation of narrowly focussed technicians, not rounded and capable data scientists.