The first tranche of data scientists to complete the new, defined standard of professionalism from the Alliance for Data Science Professionals received their awards at a special ceremony at the Royal Society. The UK’s National Statistician welcomed the initiative. Claire Penketh reports.

Thirteen data professionals achieved accreditation, with a roughly fifty-fifty split between genders. The candidates came from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and industries, including BT, Sellafield and the HMRC, to private consultancy firms.

The AfDSP was set up in 2020 to address the multidisciplinary nature of data science. This new industry-wide standard covers a lot of ground, including good data management and effective problem solving with data through managing risks such as data breaches, misuse, or bias in datasets.

Collaboration

The Alliance comprises six organisations: 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).

Each organisation awarded the standard to two to five candidates, and the Alliance's societies developed the standard collaboratively following an earlier discussion between the RSS and BCS.

The AfDSP chairperson, and the RSS Vice-president for Professional Affairs, Professor Rachel Hilliam, CStat, CMath, said: “Whilst we all had members in our individual societies who were data scientists, it was felt that we didn't have anything that really identified their professionalism.”

She added: “It's fantastic that this first cohort of candidates has successfully completed our new standard - a validation of their expertise, ethics, and professionalism.

“But this is just the beginning; we would like to see this level of quantifiable professionalism become the accepted norm and essential for ongoing career development in the sector, ensuring that our data is in safe hands.”

Royal Society report

The learned societies formed the Alliance following a 2019 report by the Royal Society, The Dynamics of Data Science Skills.

Professor Andrew Blake, the former Research Director of The Alan Turing Institute, chaired the expert panel which produced the report.

At the awards, Professor Blake said: “Data scientists have a sacred duty. In this increasingly complex world, we’ve seen more than ever, over the past two- or three-years public discussions around COVID, the complexities of politics, and global warming.”

That was why, he added, good data was required by everyone, from citizens through to practitioners, and it needed to be produced and safeguarded to the highest professional level.

He made the point that just as engineers had to obtain professional accreditation to ensure trust in their work, a similar mechanism was ‘absolutely crucial’ now for data scientists.

The founding of AfDSP was supported by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said: “The work of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals is very welcome. Industry-wide standards and certification can play an important role in ensuring that ethics and good governance are properly embedded across the data science profession.

“They have the potential to both raise the quality of data-driven insights and provide confidence to the public over how their data is being used.”

Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng, FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Our Academy has highlighted the important role of data in creating social and economic value, and indeed that value depends on skilled data scientists who can derive insight from data in a robust and trustworthy way.

“We welcome the role of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals in setting necessary standards, promoting good data governance, and celebrating best practice for the data science profession.”

All bases covered

Speaking at the awards, one of those who achieved the standard, Marina Romanchikova, Principal Research Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), said she was ‘very satisfied’ with the process. “You work in the profession for many years, but you don't know whether you can count yourself as a data scientist because this is a very new profession,” she said.

Marina went through the accreditation process with BCS. She said it was 'very thorough' and added: “The standard covered all bases; technical skills, ethics and due diligence - nothing was left out.”

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Another candidate, Dr Rob Mastrodomenco, founder of Alchemax Analytics, said: “Formalising professional development is essential to me. When the RSS asked me to get involved, it seemed like a natural progression as I'm more a data scientist than a data statistician.

“Data science is so varied it makes sense to have something like this, with all the learned societies involved, as it's not as clear cut as with certain disciplines.

“Data science is a mass of many different skills, so having the individual institutes involved will allow many people to achieve formal recognition of their skills in a way that hasn't been possible before.”

BCS member, Stephanie Kiss, who is a BT Data Science Researcher in Applied Research went through the process with The OR Society. She said: “It’s really good there is a continuous professional development path in this field because it’s so new. It’s great to understand where I am amongst my peers, what skills are needed to achieve the standard, and it will allow me to progress my career. Data matters because it’s everywhere, we all use it. For companies promoting the use of data, it's good they are thinking about the consequences of how to use it ethically, with best practice.”

Transformational benefits

The National Statistician Sir Ian Diamond welcomed the initiative. He said: “In recent years, there has been exponential growth in the use of data science in the public sector.

“Innovations in data science can reap great rewards and enable better use of data in decision making and analysis that can benefit everyone - as the Office for National Statistics' Data Science Campus has recently shown on topics as diverse as the cost of living and tracking the busyness of urban centres in real-time using machine learning!

“To this end, data scientists have never been more needed or more helpful in delivering for the public good. I am delighted to see the launch of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals.

“This will help develop and provide the data science skills we need to deliver transformational benefits in the public sector. It will bring together data scientists from across many disciplines and professions where it is currently being incubated.

“I ultimately hope that this will help us better harness data science for good in the public sector.

Learned societies working together

Stian Westlake, Chief Executive of the RSS, added: “The first cohort of data scientists to receive this award are true trailblazers. The standard they have met is a powerful signal of their technical skill, quantitative expertise, and professional values.

“The RSS is confident that these standards will thrive and grow and will be a valuable resource to data scientists everywhere.”

Mayank Prakash, President of the BCS, said: “Data science is the foundation of the upcoming era of AI and Machine learning. This will inspire confidence as we use technology to solve our biggest challenges, such as sustainability and climate security, health and longevity, food and water, and peace and literacy.

“Data scientists work across many different disciplines, and it's fantastic that the Alliance brings together professional standards to ensure ethical and well-governed data.”

This was echoed by Gavin Blackett FORS, Executive Director of The OR Society, who said: “This is a really exciting initiative that reaches across different professions. The fact that we're offering a professional validation that spans different business functions within both large and small organisations is a hugely compelling proposition.”

Professor Paul Glendinning FRSE FIMA, the IMA President, said that mathematics underpins much of data science. “Therefore,” he said, “a framework of industry-wide standards for data science professions is of great importance to the IMA, and that's why we are founding members of the Alliance.

“We look forward to welcoming the first Advanced Data Science Professionals to our community and continuing to work with Alliance members.”

Dr Matt Forshaw, Senior Advisor for Skills at The Alan Turing Institute and Reader in Data Science at Newcastle University, said: “The Alliance is already playing a significant role in establishing and upholding the professional values necessary to ensure ethical, fair, and safe professional practices around data and AI.

“Together, the Alliance will maintain the high standards required to work in a field crucial to understanding important issues like tracking the spread of diseases and the impact of climate change.

Dr Peter Thompson, FREng, FInstP, FRSC, CEO of NPL, said he was “delighted at the achievements and expertise of the inaugural cohort, including many data scientists at NPL”.

He added: “The role of data and data scientists has never been more prevalent as our world continues to transform digitally.

“Generating trusted data and providing the confidence needed to make decisions is vital for industry and government, as well as the public, to be assured of how data is used. Implementing new industry-wide standards underpins our ability to deliver this confidence.”

Full list of those who achieved the new AfDSP standard

  • Sophie Carr, Bays Consulting
  • Elizabeth Cooke, NPL
  • Paul Duncan, NPL
  • Rebecca Killick, Lancaster University
  • Robert Mastrodomenico, Alchemax Analytics
  • Tom Barnard, Sellafield Ltd
  • Rachel Basnett, Sellafield Ltd
  • Shakeel Khan, HMRC
  • Stephanie Kiss, BT
  • Paul Taylor, BT
  • Daniel Cook, Money Hub
  • Marina Romanchikova, NPL
  • Reece Saint, NPL