In the right hands, data can be a force for good. Two Yorkshire business leaders believe data can raise aspirations and protect vulnerable people. Greg Wright reports
To sceptics, the devil is lurking within our data. Every time we engage with a social media giant or a public body, we leave a trace which provides clues about our strengths, weaknesses, hopes and desires. In the wrong hands, this data can be used for dark purposes.
But if you spend a few minutes in the company of Ed Thewlis from the fast-growing Leeds data company The Data Shed, your fears will soon ease. Data can transform and save lives, he believes, provided it only finds its way into benevolent hands. You just have to remember the case of the kindly Yorkshireman, Dr Snow and the water-pump.
“Ever since the days of John Snow in the 19th century, data has been used to help improve the lives of those around us,” says Mr Thewlis.
A man far ahead of his time, Dr Snow used data to identify the source of a cholera outbreak.
“His use of data was, by today’s standards, simple,” says Mr Thewlis. “Dr Snow plotted cases of a cholera outbreak and the points centred around a single water-pump, providing water to local residents.
“As cases weren’t emerging around other water-pumps, Dr Snow deduced that this was the source of the outbreak and took direct action to remove the handle of the pump to prevent any further contamination.”
Dr Snow’s work improved understanding of cholera, leading to Dr Robert Koch eventually isolating the cause of the disease later that century.
“The misuse of data also has a rich history, although this has become increasingly frequent over the last few years, now that personal data has greater power in terms of managing, controlling and governing our lives,” says Mr Thewlis.
“We are starting to understand the huge power of data, and the dangers of its misuse. At the time Facebook emerged, the general population didn’t realise that, rather than receiving the use of a service for free, they were actually trading all their personal data in exchange for the use of the service.”
The Data Shed is unquestionably on the side of the angels. It has expanded its offices in Leeds to accommodate its growing numbers of staff.
The business, which had six staff three years ago, is projected to have 46 employees by the end of the year as it services clients including Australian airline Qantas and national gambling self-exclusion service GAMSTOP. The business was established in 2014 by chief technology officer Ed Thewlis and CEO Anna Sutton and provides data consultancy services which improve the health and well-being of thousands of people.
“Ever since the advent of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, we are becoming increasingly opinionated about how our data should be used.”
Mr Thewlis adds: “It is reassuring and refreshing to hear of many ‘data for good’ campaigns and initiatives in the region; however, these are simply the start of something very exciting.
“With data, we can understand what caused events in the past and use this data to predict what might occur in the future.
“Through a better fundamental understanding of past events, we have the potential to meaningfully improve everyone’s daily lives, whether that be by better balancing supply and demand of electricity to reduce our drain on the planet, improved predictions of natural disasters, or simply by helping people better predict when their fridge is likely to break and leave them short of cash in a particular month.”
The Data Shed is helping the health professionals to improve diagnosis, patient experience and prevention of disease.
“Through the use of data and analytics, individuals’ lives are being positively impacted; however, some adjustments need to be made before many more advancements can be made outside of this domain,” says Mr Thewlis.
“Without a genuine openness of data, shared reciprocally between multiple organisations, our data analytics can only achieve so much,” he adds.
“With healthcare data, we can understand causes of disease from symptoms and individual’s characteristics. However, without corresponding social care, police, finance, education and other data, we will only ever understand a fragment of a person’s life.
“If all these data sets were combined, and the dots joined, perhaps we might be able to find the proverbial water-pump like Dr Snow.”
But how does Data Shed’s technology work to improve people’s lives?
“Most of the work we do with data has small, almost unnoticeable impacts,” says Mr Thewlis
“We work to automate certain aspects of business, driven by insight and good-quality data.
“The impact of these elements of our work reduces the time for certain things to happen, improving customer experience and ultimately, the cost of the service they are using.
“In other areas, we have a much more noticeable impact, such as on the GAMSTOP product. On this product, we are the technology partner for the organisation providing the only self-exclusion scheme for consumers within the UK online gambling industry.
“Our job here is to design, build, run and support a system where individuals who wish to stop online gambling can simply register, and within a short period of time, be prevented from logging in or registering with the vast majority of UK licensed gambling operators.”
Everyday The Data Shed responds to millions of requests from operators, at each consumer registration or log-in, to check whether the individual is on the GAMSTOP self-exclusion register.
In South Yorkshire, technology tycoon David Richards is passionate about the potential for data to be used in ways that serve the greater good.
Sheffield-based WANdisco is a big-data specialist which helps some of the world’s largest firms transfer information from servers into the cloud.
Mr Richards, WANdisco’s CEO and co-founder, recently revealed he was spending more than £1m of his own money on a foundation to boost computer science in local schools.
The company has offices in the Electric Works in Sheffield, California and China, Japan, Belfast, Australia and India.
Mr Richards says: “Healthcare will become increasingly data focused with analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence helping to treat illness and support healthy lifestyles.
“We have a number of healthcare companies using our products every day and it’s enabling them to do just that. We are helping to find cures for cancers and all kinds of diseases. This is just the beginning of this process.”
Mr Richards adds: “We don’t want our software to be used for applications that have questionable benefits like social media or gambling, which are not good for society.
“Everyone knows now that big data can be used in ways that manipulate or encourage behaviours that can be harmful. Licensing software for good is an important way to influence the world around us for the better.
“When we started WANdisco in 2005, our focus was to change the way the internet works. It wasn’t a small goal. Today, our LiveData cloud technology powers hundreds of the world’s biggest companies. We want our technology to have a positive impact on people and the planet.
“Personally, I want to help level the playing field for people to succeed in life, whatever their background demographic or geography. I know from growing up in Sheffield that talent is evenly distributed but opportunities are not.
“We launched the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation to address this gap. We are helping more young people to understand their career potential”
The spirit of Dr Snow is alive and well in his home county as data is sifted at lightning pace.
Yorkshire has all the raw materials to become a centre for data excellence, according to WANdisco CEO David Richards.
He is proud of the giant strides being made by his home county to gain recognition on a global stage.
He says: “Yorkshire has huge talent; its universities are moving in the right direction and children from all sorts of backgrounds are excelling in their chosen subjects.”
But he adds: “What concerns me is the lack of private investment going into companies in the Yorkshire region.
“Everything is in place with the exception of venture capital. I see signs of improvement but we need to catch up with the United States. People with good ideas need access to finance to turn them into great businesses.”
To Ed Thewlis of the Data Shed, it is vital to get the management culture right.
“Treating people’s data right starts with ensuring you build a culture where looking after each other as people is job number one,” he says.
“We look for, and find, value within data which will help improve customers’ experience and lives. And we take care of the fundamentals – it’s the little things that make the difference. Every piece of data relates to a person. Not getting it right for one person can undermine everything else you do.”