One of a kind
As New South Wales’ (NSW) first Chief Data Scientist and CEO of the Government’s Data Analytics Centre (DAC), Dr Ian Oppermann is a man on a mission.
He and his team are using data to help government agencies reimagine social and cultural problems, and look at the world in new ways. “We want to change how government thinks”, he explains.
We meet over an early Friday breakfast at Bambini Trust on the edge of Sydney’s Hyde Park. It’s one of his favourite haunts, although he believes Sydneysiders are spoiled for choice when it comes to good places and good coffee. Dr Oppermann grew up in Sydney and it very much remains home, although his time working and studying in Europe has given him a very international outlook. “I’m
a 6th generation Australian, but I also love the idea of being a global citizen.”
Old problems, new perspectives
The NSW Government was the first and, to date, still the only government in Australia to appoint a Chief Data Scientist. Created in 2015 by the Department of Finance,
Services and Innovation, the role underlines the state’s commitment to being a world leader in the application of whole of government data analytics.
The DAC itself is also unique in terms of its remit. “There are teams in the US, the UK and Canada doing similar things in terms of linking and visualising data to create insights”, says Dr Oppermann, “but we’re taking it a step further.”
As well as showing what the data reveals, the team are using that data to benchmark, make predictions and create ‘what if?’ scenarios that can help improve decision-making.
“Our primary goal is to bring new perspectives to what are known as ‘wicked challenges’”, explains Dr Oppermann.
“These are subtle, complex challenges with people’s behaviour at the heart, and they range from domestic violence and childhood obesity, to optimisation of public services and transport.”
A feature of ‘wicked challenges’ is that they have multiple, interconnected issues that span a number of agencies, even if ultimate responsibility sits with a single agency. So they require an integrated approach and response.
Having started with 10 priority projects in 2015, the team now has 25 currently in play. Once they started getting results, and demonstrating the art of the possible, they had Ministers knocking on their door.
These Ministers are now asking the team to help explore questions such as: ‘What are the drivers of contact with the juvenile justice system?’ and ‘How big a role does mental health play in domestic violence?’
The team at the DAC are providing new tools for analysing agencies’ existing data, and working with those agencies to identify what additional data would be useful to help shape a response or a new policy. Together they establish which questions they should ask of that data to better understand the problem and lead them to potential new solutions.
Dr Oppermann was approached to head up the DAC in 2015, when he was working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s
national science agency. As one of the organisation’s Entrepreneurs in Residence, he was responsible for bringing digital technologies to market through new ventures, external investment and partnerships.
In between two spells at CSIRO, he was CEO at global data analytics company RoZetta Technology, and prior to that spent eight years in Finland working with Nokia and a self-funded wireless research centre (the CWC). All this after running his own telecoms consulting and software company for six years.
Such a varied resume means he brings a unique perspective on the link between research and industry. “Australia has no shortage of good ideas or funding for research, but we’re not seeing that
translate often enough into new commercial products and technologies that can move the needle for our economy.” Here he sees a potential opportunity for IEEE.
A long-term member and Fellow of the Institute, he is a staunch advocate. “People expect to get value from the associations they belong to, and IEEE has always provided that. It has successfully adapted and continued to add value as many members have switched their area of focus and expertise from hardware to software and, subsequently, to data.”
But now he sees a chance for IEEE to help forge closer ties between those who study data and those who benefit from its application.
“The beauty of data is that is can be used in so many different ways by different groups, and can be valuable to all of them. The creative industries use it. Marketers use it. Cinematographers use it. Those people would never see themselves as engineers or data scientists but they are heavily involved in using data and understand more of the terms that we as ‘experts’ use to talk about it.”
“IEEE is doing some fantastic work in the area of big data, as part of its ‘Future Directions’ initiative. I think it now has a chance to look at how it can provide value to that broader group who use data, rather than just those with a specific qualification who understand the deeper fundamentals of that data.”
Setting new standards
Of course, a fundamental challenge for anyone working with data is how to protect that data. “Security and privacy are two things we have to get right”, Dr Oppermann says emphatically.
“These are equally important but fundamentally different challenges. Security is about making sure the data can’t fall into the wrong hands. It underpins everything we do, and the DAC has no future without it. Privacy is a much more complex issue, and one that is the subject of much debate in the data world right now.”
When combined, data sets can help uncover new insights, reveal connections and highlight cause and effect relationships. But this can also create difficulties when it comes to keeping that data anonymous. Out of a number of seemingly innocuous data sets, you can potentially create personal information.
Nowhere is this issue more prevalent than the Internet of Things (IOT), which is ultimately about connecting everything through data. This creates both incredible opportunities, but also a new set of
challenges that those working with data have never faced before. The fundamental question is whether data analysts will ever be able to guarantee that combining a series of data sets won’t leave them with a cohort size of one, and so reveal personal information. “Personally, I’m not sure we will”, says Dr Oppermann.
What he does believe can — and must — be done is to create a series of frameworks to avoid getting to that cohort size of one, or detail how to manage the situation should it happen.
Changes are happening so fast, he says, that legislation has not kept up with what is now technically possible. As the Institute is responsible for around one-third of the world’s standards, he believes it is ideally-placed to create new trust and privacy-preserving frameworks that allow data scientists and analysts to manage the information created from the vast number of data sets they can source.
The power of congregation
As if the day job wasn’t big enough, Dr Oppermann has also spent the past 12 months as honorary chair of the organising committee for the 2017 IEEE Vehicular Technology Conference, which
took place in Sydney in early June. “It was a great four days, and very rewarding to see everything come together.”
A long-time advocate and regular attendee of conferences, he doesn’t subscribe to the view that they no longer have a place in today’s digital world — where virtual meetings and collaboration online are so prominent.
“There is just no substitute for bringing people together. What people sometimes forget is that a lot of the value of conferences comes from what happens outside the formal sessions. The networking; the conversations over dinner. That’s something that can’t be replicated in a digital format, however sophisticated. After all, it’s no fun having a beer with someone in the same chat room or at the
other end of a conference call!”
Given his recent experience, we asked what he believes makes a successful conference. “Plan early and never take your eyes off the ball. The best conferences focus on the detail, as much as the high-level theme, ideas and approach.”
With those final words of wisdom, he drains the last of his coffee and bids us goodbye. Moments later he is on his way to his next appointment. It will be another day full of meetings for a man much in demand. He has, however, managed to carve out time over the weekend to indulge two of his other passions — camping and stargazing. He assures us that once the stars come out, he goes off the grid and swaps contemplating the secrets in the data with contemplating the ‘deeper secrets of the universe.’
If enough data becomes available, you wouldn’t bet against him unlocking them!