High pressure data potentially kills people!

It is as important to ensure that public harm is avoided through the misuse or misinterpretation of data, as it was to ensure that railway passengers were not killed by exploding boilers in the early days of steam.

I love this quote (bottom of page 493) from Professor Malcolm Atkinson‘s chapter on Data-Rich Futures in the book he co-edited on The Data Bonanza. It doesn’t deserve to remain buried away in a textbook and illustrates perfectly the immaturity of the current wave of “Big Data” R&D activity.

In his work in the late 18th Century, James Watt, the well known steam engineer avoided using high pressure steam because he believed boiler technology to be insufficiently advanced for safe operation. Only through subsequent innovations in boiler-making, combined with professional qualifications and codes of practice has high pressure steam become a safe tool of modern industry.

As Malcolm makes clear, today’s knowledge engineers and data scientists have a professional obligation to ensure, as far as possible responsible use of the information they generate. They have to make clear its limitations and fitness for purpose. They have to develop and promote appropriate educational routes that train people how to use and place reliance (or not) on data; including perhaps new professional qualifications such as Chartered Knowledge Engineer. Data engineering talent has to be nurtured as a profession by a proper institution, just as mechanical engineers have been nurtured for 160 years. For data and information can be safety critical, financially critical, health critical, environmentally critical in many areas of modern society. In the 21st Century society places increasing reliance upon intensive data.

We may not need yet another professional institution, which could take 20 years to become properly established and recognised. Far better for one of the existing institutions, like BCS or the IET to take on the mantle. Better still for BCS and the IET to take it on jointly and co-develop what is needed, working with Higher Education sector and Industry.

University schools and departments of computer science (and /or informatics) have a role to play too. They should not only research technical and formal computing aspects of working with data, of processing data, of new algorithms and methods. They also have a responsibility to adapt to tackle (and to be recognised for tackling) work in the social, ethical, legal and moral aspects of data intensive futures, as well as in the applications of Big Data. This demands new skills beyond those of the traditional computer scientist or computer engineer. It is not sufficient just to form cooperations with social scientists, lawyers, philosophers. It requires new trans-disciplinary skills, with new thinking in strategic development and leadership of new institutes of study, research and teaching.

Industry has a role as well. Of course, industry’s primary role is to deliver products and services based on data, on information, and to make profit for shareholders/owners. There are already many successful examples. A new breed of information consultancy companies, specialising in applying information and knowledge across the whole range of industrial sectors will likely emerge. This nascent industry has a responsibility to train, to develop, to nurture people with the right data and knowledge engineering skills, to encourage them towards the right qualifications, even to make it mandatory to qualify to practice – just as accountants, lawyers, architects and doctors have to qualify to practice, to be trusted, to be accountable. Industry has to contribute too towards sector wide codes of practice for data and information usage, where such usage informs far-reaching decisions that affect people, their health, their safety and their environment. Government has the responsibility to encourage industry to behave like this, and to regulate it if it doesn’t.

Would you trust an amateur steam engine modeller to engineer your high pressure steam system for your nuclear reactor project?

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