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Archive: September 2014 (Features)

Monday, 8 Sep 2014
Cara Quinton

One of the distinguished guest speakers at this year’s Developments in Advanced Analytics and Big Data event held at the BMA in London on April 30th was Sir Mark Walport, the Government's Chief Science Adviser. 

The topic of his talk was: “The age of analytics: how governments can make the most of the data opportunity." He began by saying he came from the world of scientific research and funding science, and was aware that questions can generate data and data can generate questions.  Equally, he believed there was a case for both scientists and Research Councils asking questions.

He also said the interesting “thing you come across in government” was the stark divide so often found between analysis and policy making, though it seemed to him these were two sides to the same coin. “How can you do analysis if you don’t know what the question is and equally how can you make policy if you don’t understand something about the analytic methods”. He also said that one of the things he had inherited when he became the Government Science Adviser was the “horizon scanning foresight” that had been done for the government for many years of which the “Blackett reviews” formed an important part.

 Blackett had advocated having scientists in close touch with [naval] operational staff to provide them with a quantitative basis for decision making. The resultant success of putting such mechanisms in place during the war, not only helped us to win it, but also placed strong emphasis on the value for government of obtaining scientific advice. He added “That’s a pretty good job description for what the Government Science Officer hopes to do”.

 Sir Mark thought in general that data collected by government agencies (such as via medical studies) should be freely available to researchers provided privacy and confidentiality are taken into account. He then went on to talk about a Foresight Project regarding what cities will look like in 2065. “Of course”, he said, “everyone talks about Smart cities and I don’t think anyone wants to live in a dumb city. How does one turn that morass of [big data] into useful information for running a city in real time and into planning on a longer time scale, how do we use that information to plan for liveability, planning tends to be done in a very fragmented way?”

The answer of course lay in the application of Operational Research which could make sense of the fact that cities had by and large developed in unstructured ways. He thought that those of us interested and involved in Operational Research could “perhaps do something better” about planning future cities by “applying the power of analysis” and deriving insight from unstructured data.


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