Research Fellow Adrian Letchford, WBS
Published May 2015
What does your work in data science at Warwick entail?
I love stories. There is nothing more rewarding than telling a good story to an engaged audience - whether live on stage or in print. I study how scientists tell the story of their ideas. Scientists generally tell the detailed story of their idea by writing papers. I'm looking for common patterns in how influential papers are written so that everyone can apply those patterns to their own papers.
What are the dangers present in big data research?
I think the main danger is a fear of big data among the public. When I tell people about exciting work by Google in predicting the level of flu based on the Google searches of individuals, I am often met with a touch of fear, "yes, but where will it end?" Their tone reveals the thought that one day computers will not only know whether we have the flu or not, but also know everything about us, down to our private thoughts. While these conversations are hardly scientific in any sense, I do believe that this fear is generally misplaced. Big data certainly has it's privacy concerns. Primarily, these privacy concerns are dealt with by using aggregated statistics. But benefits such as low cost, real time, and en masse health statistics really do make a difference. That difference shouldn't be ignored.
How important is it to develop big data research and skills?
Very. Take the example of an election poll. We ask a group of people who they will vote for. Then, we can use traditional statistics to figure out how everyone will vote with some margin for error. The group of people that we talked to are called the "sample" while everyone that votes is called the "population". This is an example of using a sample to figure out something about the population. By using the latest technologies, we often find ourselves in the situation of having data on an entire population. The size of a population can be very very big; so big that special skills in computation are needed to be able to process all of that data. These massive datasets are becoming so common and valuable that I think big data skills are very important.
In your opinion where does big data have the potential to create the biggest impact?
I think that big data will have the biggest impact in the health industry. Just simply being able to monitor health en masse, in real time, has incredible potential to not only save lives, but to increase the quality of life.
What can data science and big data do for the average citizen?
The results of data science are already working their magic in our day to day lives. Just consider the internet. There are more websites than I can imagine (a quick google search suggests 1 billion which I cannot imagine). Every time you use Google to search, data science is working in the background to sift through those 1 billion websites to bring you the information you want. Data science brings us Facebook and Twitter. For our own health, scientists are working on personal monitoring devices that might allow doctors and emergency services to be alerted before something dangerous happens, such as a heart attack.
How important is wider understanding of big data and data science?
I think everyone should know what big data and data science does for them. Perhaps they should also understand what life would be like without big data and data science. I for one, could not live without Google! We should be educated on the trade-off between privacy and benefits. If a device existed that allowed doctors and emergency services to know when you might have a heart attack, they're going to need to see live data on your heart. That's a big privacy issue. But perhaps it's a trade that's worth making. Big data is not scary, it's just another tool to see us through another day.