The need for technology and mathematical skills in a Smarter Planet with Open Data

In amongst all the great discussions of Smarter Water, Smarter Transportation, Open Data and other themes at this week’s Science of Smarter Cities Colloquium in IBM’s new Research Lab in Dublin, an interesting theme has emerged that’s been on my mind for some time.

Many discussions have focussed on the huge importance of processing, analysis and acting on data and information in the Smarter Planet that’s gradually emerging around us as more and more of the physical world is instrumented, interconnected and automated. Imperial College’s work on disruptive business platforms includes the new commercial opportunities – some of them highly disruptive – that this information is making possible. And McKinsey recently wrote a fascinating paper on a similar subject – the emerging “Information Economy”.

A vital consequence of this is renewed – or even wholly new – demand for the skills required to manipulate and understand information. I’m talking about mathematics, statistics and computer programming here, amongst others. Unless it’s prepared by a numerate communication expert, data is often very difficult to understand and interpret. And communication experts may also have their own agenda in determining how they prepare data. And quite simply, we need more people able to undertake that sort of work – people with mathematical and technical skills. Some of the speakers from transport organisations at the colloquium this week have spoken directly of needing more of those skills.

The problem is that in the UK, we’re not producing enough of them. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt recently lambasted the British Education system for not producing enough computer programmers to feed demand in the creative industries vital for economic growth; and the recent Nesta report on the UK’s computer gaming industry cited the same issue as a reason for that industry’s recent decline in the global market.

City leaders understand this; Hanna Zdanowska, the Mayor of Lodz in Poland, spoke this morning of the importance of young skilled people to city economies, particularly as european populations age. (Lodz have amazing plans for regenerating their physical infrastructure and optimising their city systems, by the way, it was a great talk).

So what can we do about this? In yesterday’s Open Data discussion, Christopher Gutteridge, who’s behind Southampton University’s Open Data programme, said that we needed to encourage more “playful coding”. I think that phrase hit the nail on the head.

Our world is at the stage where technologies that can be manipulated by any human being who learns the basics of computing programming are becoming terrifically powerful. At the same time, the information that those technologies control is the lifeblood of our economy and society. For us to educate people without giving them the ability to participate in that system is surely a terrible folly for our children and our economy.

A fellow visiting academic at the University of Warwick, Jonnie Turpie who’s the Digital Media Director of Maverick TV, introduced me recently to the Birmingham Ormiston Academy. BOA is a new school that’s intended to teach creative and digital arts by exposing young people directly to small enterprises in that industry. I think it’s a great idea, and an example of the sort of way we could teach young people the skills to exploit information and technology in a way that’s exciting, challenging – and directly builds the skills we will need for the future.

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About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK's largest engineering and infrastructure services companies, and part of the Ferrovial Group. Previously, I was IBM UK's Executive Architect for Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

2 Responses to The need for technology and mathematical skills in a Smarter Planet with Open Data

  1. Pingback: Who will be the next generation of technology millionaires? « meme-too

  2. Pingback: Open Data isn’t free data « meme-too

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