How Data Impacts Industries & Ethics
An Interview with Data Natives’ Managing Director Elena Poughia
When 2000 data enthusiasts meet at Berlin’s Kühlhaus on November 25th & 26th, the natural question is why? What attracts diverse data scientists, writers, AI experts, investors, big corporates and small startups to gather at this former ice factory? What makes people curious about exploring data’s impact on our lives?
The answer lies partly in the magnetic vision of the Data Natives (#DN19) conference team and its Managing Director, Elena Poughia.
Accompanying two of NBT’s data scientists Daniel Hopp and Shashank Srivastava to this data-focused event, I had the opportunity to interview Elena about what makes #DN19's edition impactful. We discussed a first-time, pre-conference, data-related hackathon as well as disruptions across multiple industries.
Read on for Elena’s insights and values which I’ve summarized from the interview. Discover her unique perspective on where data is leading us, as well as my conference takeaways at the end!
Elena spoke about how data is disrupting real estate, healthcare, and logistics — creating new business opportunities for using insights to advance how we get things done. She says “data is the new Internet” and that’s causing us to rethink our values and interactions.
Why a hackathon?
DN19 featured a constellation of satellite events. Elena calls these ‘tiny planets orbiting’ the sun of the conference itself. They allow the DN team to “co-create with the community”, which to-date has grown to 75,000+ members.
One such exciting yet challenging event was a Hackathon held at Berlin’s Maschinenraum. The hackathon featured a partnership with a local startup bunch.ai, who is building a data-driven organizational development platform to empower leaders to manage their company culture using data, and Viessman, one of the leading international manufacturers of heating, industrial and refrigeration systems.
Elena takes it as a positive sign that a heating company like Viessman is committed to changing the way they work and think. A hackathon, Elena admits, is risky though since it relies on people to volunteer free time for an unknown outcome. The results were worth it! The hackathon became a game, filled with problem-solving; this focus on ‘action’ also contrasts with the conference’s ‘talking’ approach.
The event resulted in 50 participants, 13 teams, and great solutions to two challenges. 1) With bunch: removing AI bias to create more diverse working environment and 2) With Viessman: Integrating Viessmann’s heating devices in innovative smart living solutions.
It held surprises, too. For example, one team wanted to use computer vision and machine learning to understand how to modulate the temperature in the room, based on assessing the status (presence, age, clothes) of people in the room. Elena mentioned this echoes an innovative proptech example of a smart building in Amsterdam, that ‘reads the room,’ adjusting lights and coffee supply based on data about occupants.
How can we optimize healthcare in new ways?
With the buzz in Germany over the Digital Care Act, I am especially curious about unexpected ways data can be used in healthcare, too. Elena’s take is that data not only helps with disease-prevention but also should help us improve operationally. How so? She’s noticing more data companies popping up to help doctors via voice assistance, with laboratory procedures, or helping hospitals function better in emergency circumstances.
What benefits can we expect from logistics automation?
From a logistics standpoint, Elena is convinced that data brings traceability and automation of procedures via the supply chain. This is particularly important for avoiding fraud and tampering with sensitive materials, like drugs for instance. With the new levels of accountability and automation that data enables for supply chain and logistics, we can expect to see machine learning (training machines to do processes without us) applied to administrative tasks.
This ideally should free up our time to focus on executing projects better. It also could allow us a more abstract view of what we are doing so frenetically, which leads me to the last part of the chat: the importance of reflection.
What core values define you?
From a personal level, Elena is happily surprised to see how FAR the conference has come since its inception in 2015. Data Natives is continually fine-tuning how they operate and grow their community. She listed her team and their values as a core element of this success namely: inclusivity, diversity, transparency, community, and collaboration. She’s proud that they “live their values and don’t sacrifice them” in order to achieve goals.
She specifically mentioned two themes that guided and excited her, which she aims to communicate through this year’s conference:
- Our hyperconnectivity has led to where we are in terms of society. She strongly suggests the need to slow down and get more introspective. Editorial note: This was apparent on the startup stage when at least 2 speakers emphasized self-care via meditation for startup founders, as well as turning down the consumption of media in order to turn up our own ability to create more of what we want to see in the world.
- Business is not only about making money but also about having impact. Elena says “impact is the new money.” It’s important to understand that we have to be responsible for our actions. People are hiring data scientists for a reason, too. Companies want to do something with the raw information and transform that into insights because data unlocks potential and increases organizational value.
What are my own DN19 takeaways to share with you?
Taking Elena’s keynote as a cue, we need to achieve a new level of ‘data literacy’ and make data and AI part of public discourse, because it affects us all — whether we are aware or not. DN is part of a necessary push to get people discussing and grappling with data.
What struck me personally about DN19 was the diversity of angles on data: from ethics involved in AI, visualizing data and investing in AI startups, to other areas where data will impact — for example, our work environments.
- Data Scientists continue to be in high demand as organizations struggle to make sense of, and often monetize, data. Along with developers, data scientists will face new ethical challenges and must be prepared accordingly. A panel on the ethics in AI indicates that “ethics starts where policy ends,” meaning that we have to equip people to respond well to the challenges that data presents. A good example where this matters is when startups take a “move fast, and break things” approach. In that case, ask yourself: “Is this data inclusive enough for current deployment?”
- We also should acknowledge that biased data is everywhere, and for that, we need proper data collection from a broader spectrum of people. Presenter Vince Madai from Charité pointed out the technological fact that if there’s bias in data input, the same bias is present in data output. (Companies who are smart enough to take care of data ethics can challenge this to their advantage, creating new products that run counter to this and leveraging them as unbiased.)
- When visualizing data, presenter Adam James recommends deeply considering your goal: Is is to explore (find something out), analyze (detect the frequency of a trend), or presentation (tell a story)? Consider your audience’s motivation and level of knowledge when presenting data and avoid creating what Edward Tufte famously termed as “chart junk.”
- A panel of investors interested in AI and moderated by Mali Baum indicated that “even a beautiful AI algorithm doesn’t matter unless the data is verified behind it.” They stressed that one of the key features of AI will be blockchain integration. This is because in order to utilize data to make informed decisions, you need access to real-time, actionable and trusted data. Furthermore, your algorithms should be scalable.
- A panel on the future of work, featuring Catherine Bischoff from Factory Berlin among other forward-thinkers, urged the audience to consider how automation will take away menial tasks and free up time for creativity. This means you should be thinking less about job titles and more about skills you want to learn and teach. They encouraged us to learn, break, and reinvent the rules. The panel discussed how best to coach remote workers, and communicate clearly across diverse channels of communication — like conveying emotion and leadership on Slack.
That’s a Wrap!
In sum, this year I was especially glad to join Daniel from PropTech venture METR, and Shashank from NBT’s engineering team, for making new meaningful connections at Data Natives. At NBT, we believe data can be harnessed to build and scale new businesses.
It’s excellent to have a forum like Data Natives to meet like-minded folks, and expand perspectives even wider. If you’re curious to see what we’re developing, then reach out to build with us. If you want to discover insights on the startup scene in Berlin, then please follow NBT’s Medium publication and yours truly, Elisheva Marcus.
Thank you for reading, 👏 , and sharing!
All images courtesy of Data Natives, copyright 2019.