Steven Adler came by – Københavns Universitet

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25. oktober 2016

Steven Adler came by


IBM Chief Data Strategist is giving a course on Open Data Science at IVA this semester. On his way to the classroom, he stopped by for an interview about magic data and outdoor data shows in Colombia.

You have been engaged in quite a number of exciting projects – could you point out a project of particular interest?
I worked as chief data officer for the city of Medellín in Colombia, learning about unique requirements and issues that a city faces in the developing world. It is a very innovative city trying to overcome its historical legacy of drugs. I wanted to come and see how we can use data to improve sustainable development in the city – to lift up many parts of the city that are not using data at all. I gave them three weeks of my time to develop a data strategy and I continued to engage remotely by Skype and calls.

The city was not doing very much for the poor people, so they decided to invest significantly in the poor parts, building metro lines, cable cars and escalators to connect the different parts of the town. They built a remarkable first world library in the poorest part of the city, as well as museums and parks.

The wanted the city to grow their GDP by 50 % before 2020-2025. It was a very aggressive target, and the Mayor asked me, what data can contribute to this growth target? My answer was that we are constrained by the lack of skills. Building IT universities will take a decade. Given the constraints, how would we use data to improve GDP? My answer was that it would be easier to lift up people in use of every day data of their lives – so why don’t we try to give them a little bit of data skills? To focus on the bottom instead of the top?

Then we developed the idea of a data show in public spaces. Like an outdoor drive-in theatre, we set up a data show in which we could engage the public in an interactive dialogue about their city. We were using comparative analytics about pollution compared to different parts of their city. We set out tables and chairs, and offered beer and pizza and engaged the public in a dialogue about data of their city. My goal is to teach them and make data exciting, give them a different perspective on their own lives, zoom out and zoom in and show them data about traffic, garbage, health etc.

It's important to engage and create dialogue. Can we trust those data? Where is the source? Data is magic, but we do not spend enough time on talking about what data mean. And I wanted to make an entire population aware of it.

How did you find your way to IVA?
Three years ago, I was teaching at ITU, and then I was contacted by Professor Jens-Erik Mai. I lived in Denmark many years ago, my wife is Danish and my two sons live here. I especially like teaching in Europe, the class diversity is greater. Students are older and Europe does a greater job of doing critical thinking. We teach too much to test in the US. You learn as much as you teach, so it's an opportunity for me to test ideas with a consistent audience.

Did you know anything about IVA before coming here?
I believe you face an interesting challenge. The changing role of public libraries is interesting. People still enjoy reading books, but the number of people coming in the libraries are inclining. They are becoming meeting places, meet ups, where people self-organize about different issues and political subjects. It's a kind of free place and at the same time focal points for IT and multimedia places. I think we need a redefinition of what information is in itself. What is the role of librarians? Are they digital intermediaries, who have to be constantly at the edge? It's a different role for libraries and information science.

I know you are moving to the University of Copenhagen this winter. In my opinion, it's an opportunity to be closer to other disciplines. Transformation happens when you interact with people with a different idea set, when you have the opportunity to talk to people who are not in your echo chamber. Maybe this will provide interesting ideas and create a new curriculum between library science, information management, business, data management, history etc.

In my point of view, there are two types of culture. The culture of literature and art, and the culture of the way you do things. By being exposed to modern culture and to different fields, IVA can enhance the education and the cultural aspects of information. This is a unique value proposition that the school brings to the table – interesting to many people. In intellectual circles, you often discuss if information management is a physical discipline. IVA brings an intellectual cultural aspect, which all will find fascinating, but only if you bring it to them. You have to combine. But you have to bring it to them. Do not lose it, bring it up – work together with the others.