Women in Data Science Wellington 2019

The 2019 Women in Data Science (WIDS) conference was fascinating, inspiring, and overwhelming.

I think that this is the intrinsic nature of data science at the moment – as Liz MacPherson, the Chief Executive of Statistics NZ explained, data is reshaping the fundamental structure of society, from how we discover media content, to how governments are organised. Everyone is scrambling to catch up to this new world where data is an organization’s most valuable resource. MacPherson acknowledged that, “I don’t believe we’re reaping the full benefit of it yet”.

Kari Jones, the GM of Data and Analytics for Air New Zealand, was clear that data is the fuel for AI, and “If you’re not ready for AI, then digital Darwinism is unkind to those who wait”. Air New Zealand aims to be “supercharged by data”. They have been rigorously measuring their progress by using the IIA’s Analytics Maturity Assessment, which provides an honest, unbiased, quantitative assessment of a firm’s analytics capabilities.

Data science is used at Trade Me to produce deeper insights of how people behave, and produce innovative products. The Chief Data Scientist of Trade Me, Dr Kathryn Hempstalk, talked about how machine learning has been used automate tasks humans find tedious, like categorising and pricing items. I was surprised to learn that machine learning doesn’t have to rely on super complex algorithms; she demonstrated that the combination of domain knowledge and a simple algorithm can produce massive impact.

There was a strong theme of using data for social good. Kate Kolich from the Social Investment Agency presented research that measured how social housing improved life quality. Dame Diane Robertson, chair of the the Data Futures Partnership Working Group, gave a powerful message of how nonprofits need to stop being “gollums” with their data, and instead share their resources so that better decisions can be made to solve the issues of homelessness and food insecurity, areas that currently have very little quantitative research.

While recognizing the value of data, many speakers focused on the ethical issues attached to data collection and decision making. Amanda Hughes, the Senior Data Scientist of Nicholson Consulting, was impressed with the increased awareness of this area, and spoke about “ethics for algorithms”. However, there are still huge gaps to be filled, Dame Diane warned of how company boards lack crucial data governance, which is equally important as financial governance. Just as the financial goals of the company need to align with its purpose, vision, and values, so does the data collection. Donna Cormack’s work in Māori data sovereignty pointed out that data sets are affected by the biases of the humans that collect it. There is a growing movement to give indigenous groups control over the data that is collected about them and their culture, as that data is used to make decisions that will affect their lives.

The WIDS 2019 talks spanned a huge variety of topics, but a common theme was collaboration. Doing the research and making an algorithm is just one tiny part of the process, data storytelling is crucial, as “it’s the only thing anyone outside your team is going to see” – Kat Greenbrook, Founder of Rogue Penguin. It was interesting to see how analysis skills can complement the work of subject matter experts, Vidette McGregor, Ecosystem Modeller at NIWA, works closely with scientists, her work both challenging and confirming their theories.

Liz MacPherson believes that New Zealand has all the right ingredients to be world leaders in utilizing data. Already, Statistics NZ has won awards for going above and beyond world standards for balancing privacy protection with data quality, presented by data scientist Nasca Peng. WIDS 2019 showcased a range of amazing work done by women in data science, and inspired me to continue on my data science learning journey. I’m looking forward to collaborating with the women I met at this supportive and friendly event!

Note: This summary didn’t include all WIDS 2019 talks. See the full line up and recordings on the official WIDS 2019 site