From Lego to silos: Yesim Kunter, Play Expert and Futurist and Reema Patel of the Ada Lovelace Institute, share the very different ways in which IT is being used to cope with emerging change. Blair Melsom AMBCS reports.

Part one: Play - the antibiotic of stress

‘To use an analogy,’ Yesim Kunter explains, ‘play is almost the antibiotic of stress’ and ‘crucial’ in the fight for improving mental health and work/life balance. But what do we actually understand by the term “play”?

‘Play,’ she says, ‘means actually making connections with ourselves, with others and our surroundings.’ And, playfulness helps to bring the world around us into reality: ‘In order to learn,’ she continues, ‘you are trying to observe everything around you and make connections: playfulness makes it so much easier.’

Playfulness has been key in helping people to better understand and cope with the strange and unsettling realities of the coronavirus crisis. Kunter believes that social media has played a vital role and technology has ‘enhanced that playfulness between people.’

To put it simply: ‘It became so much easier for us to connect because of some connections!’. Kunter cites playful online activities such as drawing, singing and dancing as being ‘amazing ways of coming together and sharing hobbies,’ which have all helped people to feel socially connected, despite being apart.

All work and no play?

The importance of maintaining this concept of playfulness beyond our personal and social lives and into the workplace is emphasised by Kunter. She explains that ’stress levels go down three times more’ just through connections made by being playful and smiling; by making positive connections with each other. ‘Positivity,’ she says, also increases people’s willingness ‘to be in once place and work for one reason,’ i.e. for a company: ‘playfulness makes a new culture and a ritual between people.’

Sharing a quote from Dr Stuart Brown, Founder of The National Institute for Play, Kunter further elaborates on the idea of play as a facilitator in the workplace:

"those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capability for humour.” 

Being playful, it seems, is a powerful act of resistance in the face of adversity. The minute you ‘change your mindset and look at things in a more playful way,’ she explains, ‘it becomes so much easier to come up with better ideas.’

Yesim rounded her presentation with one last quote as a reminder for us all:

“we don’t stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.” 

Part two: the wicked problem

Speaking on the difficulty of health data governance in a changing landscape, Reema Patel of the Ada Lovelace Institute, explains how COVID-19 has presented particular challenges for institutions: ‘data is often siloed,’ she says, which means ‘it has been very difficult to use in a rapid response.’ This is exacerbated by ‘not thinking through the ethical ramifications of the use of data,’ including the importance of ‘people feeling that they can trust a data system… even in a crisis.’

Patel describes a term known as the ‘wicked problem’: a situation where trying to solve one problem inadvertently creates another. She explains that the particular wicked problem uncovered in the COVID-19 data store, is that datasets ‘underrepresent particular groups disproportionately impacted (e.g. ethnic minorities),’ but that overrepresentation is also an issue, as it ‘leads to the feeling that a group have been overly target or surveilled; there’s historic mistrust, which contributes to fewer people from these data communities volunteering or wanting to share their data.’ Thus, the cycle of under/over representation continues.

The value of human data

“We need to see the human in the data machine.” - Rebecca Lemov, Big data is people! 

Sharing a quotation from Rebecca Lemov, Associate Professor at Harvard University, Patel describes how COVID-19 has once more brought the value of data to the fore. ‘[Health data] does have economic value (to private sector players, for instance)… which is something we are mindful of,’ she says, ‘but the value of that data isn’t just economic, it enables us to respond do crises such as these.’ Elaborating further, she reaffirms that the value of data to the NHS ‘is quite different to the value to Deep Mind, Amazon or Microsoft.’

Patel spoke to one of the central points regarding data, which is ‘needing to be human’. She reasons that ‘there’s a relationship, which you could argue is one of stewardship between those who govern data and those to whom it relates.’ And it is this relationship which makes the difference in not seeing data ‘as a commodity… and something that is abstract from people.’

Describing the myriad issues still to be addressed, including the transparency of health data, preventing bias and discrimination in AI, reducing health inequalities and giving patients agency, Patel states soberingly: ‘these are not a straightforward set of challenges.’

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