Datacentres and energy, top women in tech – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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We discuss the run-in to the announcement of the Most Influential Women in UK Technology 2022 list, the datacentre market and the energy crisis, and the Alliance for Data Science Professionals

In this episode, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna discuss the Most Influential Women in UK Technology 2022 list as it reaches its final judging phase, and the imminence of the event itself, which takes place on 19 October 2022 at NatWest headquarters in London.

They also discuss how the datacentre industry is responding to accusations of sucking dry the energy supply in west London, and environs. And they talk about the early stages of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals, a relatively recent initiative that draws together the Royal Statistical Society, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, the Operational Research Society, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the Alan Turing Institute, and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in a bid to accredit data science professionals.

Since the last podcast team episode, CW’s managing editor (technology), Cliff Saran, has published a fistful of podcasts under the CW Downtime Upload banner, and Brian refers to those in the episode, highlighting one, especially, about the quantum computing revolution. This was an interview with Ilyas Khan, CEO of Quantinuum.

This current episode was recorded on Friday 16 September, ahead of the UK Bank Holiday to mark the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. The trio start by reflecting on that and on their plans for the day.

Clare gets the episode on the open road with an update on the 2022 Most Influential Woman in UK Tech programme that Computer Weekly runs annually in partnership with recruitment specialist Nash Squared. This is the 11th year of the list, and more than 600 nominated women have been whittled down to 50 by a panel of expert judges. As Clare notes on the podcast, this year’s diversity and inclusion event, which culminates with the announcement of the Most Influential Woman in UK Technology and the order of the top 50, is focused on how inclusion can make a tech workplace better for everyone. She is keen to expand on the theme of allyship too.

Since the last CWDU team pod episode, the Computer Weekly Women in Tech Hall of Fame has been announced, and the three discuss that in the episode. Clare notes how the Hall of Fame gets bigger every year, as do the main list and the list of Rising Stars, but also that the scope of the lists and the event widens. This year’s event will be the first in person since 2019.

Datacentres – energy vampires or Van Helsings?

Caroline opens the next segment of the podcast with the story of a controversy stoked by the national press – chiefly the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph – about how the datacentre industry is allegedly sucking energy out of the electricity grid.

The centrepiece of her narrative is a detailed analysis contained in her article Datacentre sector hits back at claims that West London electricity grid capacity crunch is its fault.

This story originally took flight on the wings of a briefing note, distributed to property developers and trade associations on 22 July by the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Development Service. This was titled West London electrical capacity constraints, and said a “rapid influx” of server farms along the M4 corridor had left the electricity transmission and distribution networks in the London boroughs of Ealing, Hillingdon and Hounslow suffering capacity difficulties.

Caroline takes the controversy apart in the episode. The Daily Telegraph was especially lurid, with its article about the GLA’s note, in which it described datacentres as being “energy vampires” that are “sucking Britain’s grid dry”.

Caroline cites an example to the credit of the datacentre industry, of Colt Datacentre Services, which got approval from Hillingdon Council’s Major Applications Planning Committee in April to go ahead with plans to build a £400m campus comprising two datacentre buildings in Hayes, West London.

An infrastructure assessment carried out as part of the planning process concluded that there was “insufficient electrical capacity to meet the requirements of the new datacentre”. However, Colt has agreed to fund the “reinforcement” of a local electricity substation and to cover the cost of new cables and connections at another substation closer to its proposed datacentre.

Caroline explains how the datacentre industry is in a bind in that it necessarily has to fly somewhat under the radar because it is so critical to the functioning of a digital society and economy, but it also has to educate the public about this very role. And how it is being scapegoated for historical underinvestment in the electricity grid by government.

Energy price rises is also a critical issue for datacentres, and for enterprise IT more broadly, she comments. It will become more expensive to run IT, whether running your own server estate in-house or with a colocation provider, whose costs will be going up also, and the same rule applies to public cloud providers. This may have the benefit of making enterprise IT more green, due to this relatively new energy cost imperative.

The topic of how the datacentre industry relates to the climate emergency is one this podcast has explored often before, for example regarding the water consumption habits of datacentres.

A bridging discussion about the role data analysis might be playing in the efforts of datacentre operators to be more eco-efficient then leads to the third main segment of the episode.

Recognising data science professionals as the real deal

In this segment, Brian talks about an interview with Rachel Hilliam, chair of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals, professor of statistics at the Open University, and a vice-president at the Royal Statistical Society.

The alliance brings together the six abovementioned organisations and membership societies in a drive to certify data scientists as bonafide professionals who can contribute to the growth of the UK’s data economy. All six have elaborated a standard of competencies against which the societies can certify data science professionals.

It is early days for this effort, which accredited its first cohort of advanced data science professionals in July 2022, with, notes Brian, a roughly 50/50 gender split.

Hilliam draws attention, says Brian, to the design and storytelling dimensions to data science which might render it more attractive to young women.

Clare also makes a connection with the value of having a more diverse workforce, with different people bringing different skills and perspectives, and the necessarily inter-disciplinary nature of data science teams.

The AfDSP plans, says Hilliam, more entry-level certification efforts for early career data science professionals.

For sure, sourcing bonafide data scientists is and will continue to be a challenge for CIOs, and the team puts this into context with some talk about accreditation in other fields – such as dog training, accountancy, et al.

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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