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Why are people working with data?

When people talk about data it’s often pitched as something connected with science or engineering, whether that’s researching cures for cancer or designing a more efficient car.

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In the previous step, we heard from a range of professionals across different kinds of businesses, all of whom work with data. For all of them, data is one of the keys to getting insight, which helps them make better decisions about what their businesses should do.

Just as with a scientist or engineer, people in business use data to understand two things: to gain insight into how a system is currently performing; and to understand how a change might affect performance. For an engineer designing a car, this might involve measuring the wind resistance of a car design in a wind tunnel and then estimating how a change might affect this.

For an entrepreneur like Benedicta, it might involve understanding how a change to her app’s navigation affects how customers move from store to store. In both cases, data allows them to understand behaviour, create a theory about how a change could impact on performance, and then test that theory.

Different kinds of organisations will capture and use data in different ways. In the financial industries, for example, much of the data will be public: share prices, profits and losses of businesses, interest rates, or sales data. Or, for a bank, that information might include highly-private and confidential data, such as the repayment record of someone who had taken out a loan.

Increasingly, financial businesses want to be able to capture more data directly from consumers. Think of insurance companies, which now offer lower-cost policies if drivers agree to have a “black box” fitted in their car which monitors how well they drive. This allows a company to create a policy based on real-world data on how good a driver you are.

In healthcare, data is captured and analysed in a wide variety of ways and at a wide range of scales. For example, Apple allows health researchers access to heart and movement data gathered from its hundreds of millions of Apple Watch customers, with individuals’ consent. This allows the researchers to use big data techniques to understand the connection between types of exercise and heart health.

Governments, too, can use insights derived from data to make better decisions. In a pilot programme, the University of Essex in the UK has worked with the local councils of Suffolk and Essex to create systems which analyse data they hold to predict who is most likely to become homeless. This allows the council to intervene earlier and hopefully prevent homelessness from happening - which is both better for the individual and cheaper for the council.

Even the humble food delivery uses more insight from data than you may think. UK-based meal delivery company Deliveroo uses real-time data gathered from the locations and timings of all its delivery workers and the restaurants they serve, putting this into a system it calls “Frank”. Frank allows Deliveroo to optimise despatching, looking at factors like how quickly a restaurant cooks food after it has been ordered to optimise which rider should pick up an order and when.

According to Dan Webb, the company’s vice president of engineering,

“Frank’s job is, when given a set of orders and a set of riders, to compute the most optimal combination of orders and riders which will result in our food getting to customers as quickly as possible and our riders being able to earn as much money as possible.” [1]

But no matter what kind of business, the principle is the same: form a hypothesis, gather data using as many tools as you can, and use that data to gain insight into a process and optimise it.

If you’d like to learn more about how data is changing work and how you can use data to solve problems, you may find these course interesting: Evidence and Data Collection for Problem Solving and Learning Online: Searching and Researching

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This article is from the free online course:

Evidence and Data Collection for Problem Solving

University of Leeds