Alan Turing Institute head Howard Covington has opportunity to boost UK economy

This is a guest blog by David Richards, President, co-founder and CEO of WANdisco

Alan Turing may not have known it at the time, but he was one of the first pioneers of the data science industry. Seventy years on, we’re seeing the rise of the data scientist, fuelled by an increasing realisation by organisations across the world that they require new leadership if they are to get the most out of their data. This is more than just another fickle trend; a quick search on LinkedIn reveals that “data scientist” now appears in roughly 36,000 help-wanted posts.

 If there’s one thing big data can teach business leaders, it’s this: be prepared to challenge your assumptions.

 Take the case of a major US insurance broker who decided, after years in the business, to stress test the actuarial assumptions which had formed the basis of their policies up until that point. Applying big data analysis to their business model showed them that their assumptions had all been wrong — that the policies they had been selling had been flawed all along.

Or that of a global bank, who had identified China as a key market for expansion. After months of planning and investment, their data was too fragmented to run an analysis on the return on investment of the campaign to date – so efforts continued. When the data was brought together and analysed using Hadoop, the result was startling: not only had the bank made no profit, but it had been running its Chinese expansion at a loss.

 With traditional analytics methods rapidly being replaced by big data science, there is a great opportunity for businesses and governments alike.

The first chair of the Alan Turing Institute, Howard Covington has been announced. His task will not be easy: when the government-backed institute was first announced, George Osborne said it should enable Britain to “out-compete, out-smart and out-do the rest of the world” – no walk in the park. But if he plays Covington cards right, this could be a big step in Britain’s big data opportunity.

 The Alan Turing Institute is a move straight from the Silicon Valley playbook, as the government hopes it will be “a world leader in the analysis and application of big data.” Covington, whose background lies in investment banking and asset management, has said that the priority of the institute will be “leading-edge scientific research”, with industry application of that research a close second.

 The Institute won’t be able to do this alone. The strength of UK universities research centres can be amplified tenfold by the application of the private sector – industry experts will be able to throw a little Silicon Valley know-how into the mix.

 Companies like Hortonworks, Pivotal and WANdisco are helping industries from banks and utility providers, to hospitals and government agencies deploy big data strategies. It is something we have been doing for years, and rather than developing our products in isolation, we have been part of a continuous dialogue with customers. The experience of such companies will be invaluable to the Institute as it sets up its priorities, in my view.

 This is all the more important as data science is counted in dog years – the industry is accelerating so fast that, in terms of changes, it’s like packing seven years into one.

 As Covington considers which industry professionals to consult, it is vital that the private sector representatives include vendors rather than end users alone – he will need to consult the companies designing and operating the technology, rather than those simply benefiting from it. Not doing so would be like investigating national spending habits without consulting a single bank.

 It is encouraging to see the UK government realise the importance of big data science, and investing in projects such as the Alan Turing Institute. But it is important that it also appreciates that heavy-handed legislation could do more harm than good in the long run. We need researchers and industry leaders to communicate with policy makers, to ensure innovative thinking is safeguarded from stifling regulation. The Institute is in a prime position to a communicator between these bodies.

 The big data industries are set to be worth £216 billion to the UK economy by 2017, and I expect that the Alan Turing Institute will play an important part in ensuring that the UK delivers on its big data promise. But with limited resources, it needs to make every action count. A focused plan, one that speaks to government as much as it does industry, will be critical in doing this.