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Data Summit 2021 | How Will Data Inform Scottish Decision-making?

Graham Turner

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Data Summit 2021
Five keynotes, two panels and a very special guest made for a busy schedule as the sun set on The Data Lab’s 2021 iteration of Data Fest.

Data Fest 2021 came to a crescendo on Wednesday November 24 with Data Summit, presenting five keynote speakers to a small physical audience, as well as a formidable online presence.

Presented deftly by writer Gemma Milne, the keynotes were punctuated with lively panel discussions parsing the salient issues around the ever more ubiquitous reach of data and the increasing presence of AI and the intersection that is reaching between culture, society and policy.

Nina Schick – Deepfakes and The Synthetic Media

“The synthetic future is a future that’s being moulded by our data – we are the cusp of an AI revolution that will change how humans think about themselves and what they think is even real.”

So says Nina Schick – celebrated author and consultant who kicked off Data Summit with an engaging talk that presents a stark look at the seemingly overnight rise of deepfakes, as well the predicted proliferation of synthetic media.

“We are all wired to believe something that looks real, to be real.” Schick demonstrated this mechanism, known as processing fluency, through a deepfake project, Dali Lives – a synthetic creation made from footage taken throughout the artists’ life. Schick posited, “if you didn’t know Dali was dead, would you know that this is fake?”

The idea that AI can make media is so visceral that it’s captured the public imagination. And that is, in no small part, down to the largely pernicious applications of the tech, thus far. The first-use case of deepfakes was the creation of pornography, creating an exploitation issue that’s proliferated at the expense of, largely, women.

Furthermore, as the generative algorithms behind deepfakes become more refined and accessible, pretty much anyone will be able to create a deepfake as good as or better than a Hollywood recreation.

From there, Schick moves into the more broad applications of synthetic media, and how it’s on course to become central to how we consume content.

She says: “Media has a long history of shaping the collective human perception. This precedes the advent of digital media and now, with the rise of deepfakes and proliferation of fake news, it’s a more pertinent concern than ever.

“We’re at a time when AI is going to start creating more and more digital content.”

With 1.4tn photos taken last year, 82% of internet traffic to be driven by streams and downloads in 2022 and 5.6bn people to be producing and sharing visual content next year, there’s no arguing when Schick says “we’re heading to a place where digital media is becoming ubiquitous”.

So what does a future, where the content you watch and read isn’t conceived, written or checked by a human, look like?

It raises profound philosophical questions regarding morality and perception, as the lines become more blurred how to do we define what is real?

If you think this is a future that we have time to ponder and consider, that’s unfortunately not the case.

“90% of videos online could be synthetically created by 2030.”


Professor Kevin Fong OBE – The Anatomy of Hope

Professor Fong’s talk was hung on a narrative framework which detailed a running timeline, describing how pandemic unfolded from the storied medical professional’s perspective.

It’s a clever narrative framework, as the professor attempted to describe the juxtaposition between the hard statistics splashed on news screens with the actual scenes on the frontline of the pandemic. Or, as Fong describes it, “data versus information”.

It serves as a cautionary tale about both the benefits and shortfalls of data, and why data can not taken on its own – it has to inform information. “You can look at all the data in the world, but until you’re in the back of an ambulance with someone spewing and you’re praying your PPE protects you – you don’t really know the whole story”.

He analogously describes the COVID threat and why it’s so difficult to defeat – it presented so little data, the virus had no ‘centre of command’, it presented emergent behaviour that had been seen before but as it unfolded so rapidly, the knee jerk attempts were superseded by the rapid movement and clustering of the virus.

“The early days of the pandemic were war-like, there was a need to make very difficult decisions based on very little information.”

What eventually turned that tide was a confluence of physics and medical data science. Physicists were able to create a rough 3D model of the virus – a huge breakthrough that was only missing a perspective from a dedicated medical practitioner that was able to iterate on the data.

From this, a model was created that could be used to predict and understand transmission through contact, infection rates and how waves of the virus travelled.

“This was data at its best. We were able to give timely and strategic advice.”

Fong is very clear however that data can only take you so far. In fact, the way data was presented is why so much animosity has garnered from the public at various points throughout the pandemic.

On this, Fong once again refers to the earlier distinction: “Data and information are not the same thing, what we were seeing was a reduction in truth of the situation until we went out and saw the units (hospitals) for ourselves.

“There has to be a humility in how we deal with data.”


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Reema Patel – Post-pandemic Data Futures 

Representing the Ada Lovelace Institution, Reema Patel’s talk dove into the data divide and discusses if the pandemic has created a new normal for data an AI.

“Could a vaccine passport become a post pandemic health passport?” says Patel. While on paper, this may seem like a horrible encroachment on privacy, having a passport that details every aspect of your health could potentially create new data infrastructures, facilitating new research – something that could prove too appealing for governments to ignore.

Patel posits: “To what extent was the change (the introduction of vaccine passports) justified or deemed appropriate,” as a result of the pandemic and do the same rules apply after its over?

It’s an issue that brings further spotlight on the ever-encroaching data divide. Governments and businesses can’t be the only beneficiaries of the data revolution.

As Patel puts it: “We have to close the data divide so there’s equitable benefits for everyone during the proliferation of data and the move into a more digital Scotland.”

To move forward with how we use data, there has to be a recognition of the limitations of data sets and technology, “these things must inform the discourse, not dictate it”.

Clear frameworks and standards need to be introduced with regards to data, particularly through the pandemic when sensitive information is required through things like track and trace and vaccine passports and health data.

On a final note, Patel adds: “One thing the pandemic will do is inform the relationship between data and people.”


Professor Mike Berners-Lee – What Numbers Can and Can’t Tell Us About Sustainability

A leading author, academic, and advisor on climate change and sustainability, Mike Berners-Lee presented an incredibly compelling argument on the vast shortfalls on climate change narratives. Namely, the obfuscation and misrepresentation of data hiding the stark lack of progress – on a global scale – with regards to this issue.

What does the exponential increase of annual carbon emissions from 1850 to today – under 1,000 million tonnes of carbon a year to over 10,000 million tell us about attitudes towards climate change? Bar some world-shaking events such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union, World Wars – the evidence supports an overwhelming agnosticism towards climate change.

On this, Berners-Lee says: “For all the conferences we’ve had around the subject over the last 10, 15, 20 years, we still don’t notice climate change,” the exponential emissions curve hasn’t changed, despite whatever efforts we think we may have made towards addressing the issue.

Berners-Lee claims that, despite efforts the UK has made in offsetting its emissions, the slack is always picked up elsewhere, offsetting any progress made. For example, much of the emission-creating activities in the country has now been offloaded to China.

Essentially, all the data we’ve managed to parse with regards to tracking emissions, setting goals that we deem palatable mean nothing if there’s no impact on the exponential curve. “We’ve had 26 COPS, and yet the curve of emissions is unshaken.” It’s a dose of reality in the wake of endless self-congratulatory messaging with regards to climate change.

Berners-Lee ends by offering his take on the energy debate. According to Berners-Lee, our energy consumption follows a similar trend to our carbon emissions, increasing around 2% a year and doubling roughly every 30 years.

Energy companies have invested millions in developing and marketing renewables as the solution, and while this isn’t inherently bad, there is a disingenuous aspect to this. As it stands, renewables are simply supplementing our ever-increasing demand for energy, they’re not having any impact on the curve, as it were.

On this, Berners-Lee says: “Renewables will only help us if we stop using fossil fuels, it can’t be used just to subsidise our increasing energy use.”


Nicola Sturgeon

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a special guest appearance as she weighed in on the topic of data and how it has impacted – and in many ways – defined her time in Scottish politics’ biggest seat.

“I don’t think fast and high quality data has ever been more important in my role than it is now… I’ve relied on high quality data to make difficult decisions over the last two years.”

The First Minister reflected on how data has not only shaped Scottish governance, but has changed how the public interacts and informs themselves with salient issues.

“Since July last year, the Covid dashboard has had more than 45 million views,” says Sturgeon. It’s reflective of how data doesn’t just have to serve a sub-sect of society, it can arm people with the tools they need to reach conclusions and make decisions regarding their own lives.

The fact that data has – in essence – become the world’s most valuable resource has raised huge debate around the ethics of what data is gathered, how it’s parsed, what’s done with it and how much of these processes do we actually know about.

“Ethics are so central to the data strategy we are currently developing.”

The First Minister went on to outline the support that Scottish Government has committed to the country’s tech sector – aiming to expand the use of AI and data across the economy, as well as ensuring that AI and data are used ethically by the private and public sector to build trust.

During her address, the First Minister also stressed that ethical data will be vital in informing future health and care policy, in addition to highlighting data’s role in fighting climate change through better energy-usage predictions and aiding future infrastructure investment decisions.

Expanding on the Scottish Government’s commitment to ethical data, the First Minister said: “At the core of our approach always has been, and always will be, the need to use data and AI ethically and in a way which ensures and retains public trust.”

However, in an informal survey of more than 180 delegates, attendees were split on whether Scotland was on track to achieve its vision of becoming a world leader in the development or use of ethical and inclusive AI – with 57% agreeing and 43% disagreeing.

Following her address, the First Minister engaged in a lively panel discussion with Professor Mike Berners-Lee and CEO of The Data Lab, Gillian Docherty OBE.


Chris Moon

In an interesting tonal pivot, the summit ended with Chris Moon, who took the thematic narrative of the day’s discourse to much, much broader heights.

Hoping to perhaps ground the audience in messages that are much more ubiquitous – the philosophies of being thankful, working hard and owning your mental and physical space – offered some easily digestible affirmation.

It was ending note that dovetailed into the deserved recognition of the efforts of The Data Lab CEO, Gillian Docherty, who will leave her post in January after six years. It was poignant end to a day where the difficult issues were parsed and presented with measure and poise.

Graham Turner

Sub Editor

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