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Interview: Rachel Hilliam, chair, Alliance for Data Science Professionals

Rachel Hilliam talks about the origins, mission and future plans for the Alliance for Data Science Professionals

Rachel Hilliam, chair of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals, says it is unusual for societies like the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), the BCS and the Institute of Maths and its Applications (IMA) to work together in professional accreditation.

Hilliam is a professor of statistics in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the Open University (OU) and is a statistician first and foremost. She has been with the OU since 2011 and before that worked for Derby Hospitals Trust as its sole medical statistician across a plethora of research projects and clinical trials.

She is also a vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, where is focused on professional affairs.

Hilliam recalls that, in 2019, there was a lot of discussion about the rise of data science as an interdisciplinary field between the societies that are backing the new Alliance, principally the RSS, the BCS and the IMA, “and the fact that there was a need for the professionalisation of data scientists”.

She adds: “While as societies we might work together on policy statements, we don’t normally work together in terms of something like accreditation. That was something that was really quite new between the societies to have this sort of working relationship. Indeed, there was a lot of conversation that went on before we got to that process of being able to formalise what the Alliance was, and even whether it was something that we could do between societies.”

The Alliance certified its first cohort of data scientists in July 2022, recognising them as having met the standard for the discipline agreed between the RSS, the BCS and the IMA, but also the Operational Research Society, the Alan Turing Institute, and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). A total of 13 data scientists were accredited, all of them experienced and advanced in their careers – and there was a roughly 50/50 gender split between them.

Later this year, the Alliance hopes to present an early career certificate, but it is early days for the initiative in terms of how it will go to market, says Hilliam.

For its part, the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, flagged the Alliance as an element in the six technology priorities it proposed to new prime minister Liz Truss upon her election by Conservative Party members. The data science profession, it said, was “key to economic growth”.

“What we wanted to do, as a set of societies, rather than setting up a new society in data science, was to come together and have one single professional route”

Rachel Hilliam, Alliance for Data Science Professionals

It drew attention to the Alliance for Data Science Professionals as “co-founded by BCS, which awarded the first group of data scientists with its new standard this year”, adding: “Government should work with the Alliance to ensure the UK has a strong pipeline of trusted data scientists to drive growth in the economy.”

Hilliam says: “The Alliance brings together the different societies where we feel we have members who are data scientists. And while each of those individual societies supports those people and puts on events for those people, what none of the societies had was a professional accreditation route for those individuals.

“In the RSS, we’ve got a ‘chartered statistician’ route, and some of the data scientists will fit into that, but certainly not all of them. There is a similar thing for the BCS, where they’ve got their chartered IT professionals. What we wanted to do, as a set of societies, rather than setting up a new society in data science, was to come together and have one single professional route, which all of those societies could sign up to.

“What the Alliance doesn’t have is chartered status, because that involves quite a long process through the Privy Council. But what we’ve done is set this up as a certificate, in the meantime.”

The Turing Institute and the NPL are partners in the venture, but they are not involved in accreditation, having just been involved in setting the standard.

It is hoped that the certification process will help companies employ people who are bona fide data scientists.

But what is it about data science that goes beyond statistics, does Hilliam think? “The computer people would definitely say that they look very much at the machine learning/artificial intelligence side,” she says. “Now, as a statistician, I would also say that an awful lot of that is underpinned by very deep mathematics.”

Data science is inherently interdisciplinary on this account, she says. “It does definitely go beyond statistics itself in that there is an awful lot of data that’s out there and what you’re trying to do [as a business or other organisation] is mine that data to come up with the questions that you might want answering.

“Whereas mainly from a historical statistical point of view, what you’ve had at the beginning is the question, and then you’ve gone out and collected the data to answer that question. So, there is something of a change of mindset about the data science world.

Read more about professionalism in data science

“I think there’s also something in there about how data scientists are very much embedded within whatever area it is they are working in. That means there’s a whole lot of data science that is very much about the storytelling within the company that you’re working for, whether that be into the C-level or whether from the company out into the public.”

Hilliam maintains that data science is not just the latest flash in the pan. “A few years ago, we had the big data revolution that went very quiet,” she says. “But I think this will endure, partly because it’s not a completely new discipline. It is an interdisciplinary umbrella of those different areas of statistics, applied mathematics and computing.”

There are also undergraduate and master’s degrees in data science that have been developing in recent years, including at the Open University.

But Hilliam also says it is important that teenagers get to see that data science is a highly paid, intellectually fulfilling professional option for them, just like being a medical doctor or a lawyer.

“I think there’s an awful lot of work to do in terms of educating schools, and careers departments in schools, and parents around data science, which just isn’t in the consciousness of 17 to 18-year-olds – because nobody’s talking about it,” she says.

Hilliam also says it might be an area that appeals to girls and young women because it has a huge design and storytelling element to it.

“Look, we have the same problem of gender imbalance in maths as well as IT,” she says. “Slightly less so in statistics, but it’s still not great. People get put off different professions at quite early stages, so if you’re a girl and you say that you’re interested in design, well, design can mean all sorts of things, can’t it?

“And it can definitely mean design within the computer industry, and certainly in data science. Would people push you in that area at school if you said you were interested in design, as a girl? Probably not.

“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to it, but I think with data science, if we worked hard enough, there would be ways of attracting girls into it, partly because of using data for storytelling, partly because there’s a lot of design type of elements in there. I think there are ways that that, if we really thought about it, we could make this profession really attractive to girls.”

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