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All in - Lessons from the first virtual Government Data Science Festival

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Logo for the Government Data Science Festival 2020

Have you ever heard the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth”? For September’s first virtual Government Data Science Festival that was not true.

The festival week was created by data science community members and the Government Data Science Partnership, and the theme was “Enabling the new normal: The role of data science in moving towards a post-COVID world”.

Making the Festival a full course meal took weeks in preparation. Here’s what we learned about the logistics as well as the use of data science across the public sector during the pandemic.

1. “Sorry, I’m on mute!”

Moving to a fully digital event can’t replicate the grandeur and atmosphere of in-person conferences. However, digital events provide remote access to new audiences and flexibility for work commitments.

To host the festival week we took an agnostic approach, within security guidelines, to decide on the digital conferencing platform. Our festival host teams hosted on platforms they had access to. Where possible, we made attendees aware of the features of the relevant platform, such as live subtitling.

At times we did face technical challenges, for example patchy audio, flickering visuals and the now-commonly heard statement at virtual meetings: “Sorry, I was on mute!” We kept calm, assessed what we could do, responded, then carried on.

2. Knowledge-sharing

Our festival speakers demonstrated how they and their teams have worked together to provide vital analysis for decision makers during the coronavirus pandemic. Presentation topics included using deep learning to forecast localised COVID-19 outbreaks, using data science with crowd and epidemiological modelling to maximise safe rail passenger capacity, and making dashboards compliant with the web accessibility standards (WCAG 2.1).

The festival keynote speakers were Sue Bateman, Deputy Director for data and innovation at the Government Digital Service (GDS), and Jeni Tennison, Vice-president and Chif Strategy Advisor at the Open data Institute (ODI). Both encapsulated the foundational aspect that enables data science to be used in the public sector: without data there can be no science.

Sue first set out the vision for how GDS and partners are transforming the way government uses and shares data. The vision is to build a joined-up, interoperable and trusted data ecosystem for citizens and the government. The plan covers 5 areas:

  • data quality, availability and access
  • standards and assurance
  • capability, leadership and culture
  • accountability and productivity
  • ethics and public trust

Jeni then highlighted the necessity of making data science open and trustworthy. Data science informs policy making, operations and service delivery across the public sector in the UK. Consequently, making data science open, available, and accessible enables scrutiny from Parliament, the public and peers, and enables reuse of code.

We work in challenging contexts and our analysis needs to be trustworthy. Jeni highlighted existing ethics approaches as key to enabling trust. To illustrate this Jeni presented a hierarchy of Trust - imagine a pyramid with compliance as the base, above which ethics, engagement and equity sit in ascending order.

The 'hierarchy of trust' diagram: a tringle with sections from the top representing equity, engagement, ethics, and compliance

In thanks to all our speakers for sharing valuable work, conference attendees were invited to unmute and offer the traditional end-of-session applause in recognition of the speakers’ fantastic efforts.

3. “Can I have the slides please?”

Overall, the festival achieved the objectives of bringing the data science community together in these tough times; to share and reflect on the application of data science in response to the pandemic. The festival wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions from our team members and presenters.

In our festival retrospectives we’ve received some great suggestions from delegates and team members for how we can build on and improve the experience for attendees next year. To help share the learnings, we are hosting some presentations on a closed group on KnowledgeHub. To gain access you need to be a public sector colleague and have a KnowledgeHub account. We also recorded some sessions and will be making those available to the community as soon as possible.

Help shape the community programme in 2021 by filling out our community roadmap consultation. To keep in touch with future community initiatives please sign up to the Government Data Science Festival Week mailing list.

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