Can data be the answer to everything?

  • Gareth Kelly, Data and Analytics partner at EY, speaks about the advancements in the field and how diversity is the key to tech evolving.

    Q. With nearly 2 decades working in data analytics what do you consider to be the most important technological development in the field during this period?

    It’s extremely difficult to pick just one technological development above all others. Throughout my career, I have seen so much change right across the spectrum of technology and data. I have narrowed it down to 2 innovations that I feel have transformed not only our profession, but the world we live in.

    1)      AI – AI has actually been around for a long time with some of its founding principles being discussed by early philosophers in an attempt to symbolically describe the human thought process.  Modern AI really began to gather pace in the mid 1950’s and by 1997, IBM's Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a chess champion when it defeated Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov. The pace at which AI has evolved has been staggering with GPT-3/GPT-4, the latest in technology known as "large language model tools", really capturing the world’s imagination.

    Chat GTP and its competitors represent a real step in human augmentation providing access to vast amounts of information curated through an intelligent interface. Chat GTP can perform tasks like writing papers to creating poems and can even help a savvy student do their homework. Teachers are not happy!

    To most, the only perceived limitation of these tools is a human’s capacity to process and utilise the outputs. Human bandwidth, upload and processing rates can’t keep pace! However, these tools do not speak with sentience and do not "think" the way people do. They consume vast amounts of knowledge at pace and process and respond to commands accordingly. I believe we are safe from computer self-awareness and a Skynet takeover…for now.

    2)      Cloud - Cloud has transformed how we use software, store data and access computer processing power. It has made advancements in AI possible through almost infinite scalability. It has helped businesses to increase their agility, reduce costs and improve their security and reliability, making it an attractive option for small start-ups right up to the largest companies in the world.

           Cloud computing offers numerous benefits, including:

    • Scalability: It allows businesses to scale their computing resources up or down as needed, without having to invest in additional hardware or software.
    • Cost Savings: Companies can avoid the high costs associated with purchasing and maintaining their own hardware and software. This can result in significant cost savings for businesses of all sizes.
    • Accessibility: It allows users to access their applications and data from anywhere in the world, as long as they have an internet connection.
    • Disaster Recovery: Cloud computing providers typically have multiple data centres, which means that data can be easily backed up and restored in the event of a disaster.
    • Flexibility: Cloud computing offers a range of deployment models, from public clouds to private clouds and hybrid clouds, allowing businesses to choose the model that best meets their needs.
    • Security: Cloud computing providers typically invest heavily in security measures to protect their customers' data. This means that businesses can benefit from advanced security features without having to invest in them themselves.

    Q. As more and more data is consolidated in the cloud, has the security risk increased proportionately?

    As more data is consolidated in the cloud, the security risks associated with cloud computing have certainly increased. However, this does not necessarily mean that the risk has increased proportionately.

    Firstly, data regulations, GDPR and freedom of information requests have helped control and govern how data is stored, redacted and shared. This means what reaches the cloud is often well thought through and monitored to adequately manage the risk and the impact of potential data losses. Internal audit procedures have really advanced in this space to help protect our clients and their customers through enhanced processes, data governance and management. We work closely with clients to monitor their first and second lines of defence to support their cyber resilience.

    Secondly, Cloud providers have invested heavily in security measures to protect their customers' data and as the adoption of cloud computing has grown, so too has the focus on cloud security. Today, the success of a cloud provider can rest entirely on their ability to secure your data against cyber threats with an expected service level of almost total infallibility.

    Cloud providers use a range of security measures including encryption, firewalls and intrusion detection and prevention systems to protect data stored in the cloud. However, the security of cloud computing also depends on how cloud services are configured, used and managed by the customer. Poorly configured cloud services, weak passwords and inadequate access controls can all increase the risk of a security breach. We work with clients to build and secure market-leading platforms to underpin their analytics capability.

    Cybercriminals continue to develop more sophisticated attack methods and the security risks associated with cloud computing are ever-evolving. Cloud-based ransomware attacks and supply chain attacks that target cloud service providers are becoming more common. We have experienced such attacks right here in NI and ROI in government and public services! We support our clients through incident response and the processes of recovering and rebuilding their critical cloud services.

    Overall, while the security risks associated with cloud computing have certainly increased, they can be effectively managed through a combination of robust security measures and good security practices by both cloud providers and customers. It is important for businesses to understand the security risks associated with cloud computing and take steps to mitigate those risks

    Q. What part does AI play in modern data analytics?

    Our team at EY is problem led, with a clear focus on value and providing a return on investment for our clients. I spend a lot of time to first understand a client’s problem before we consider the right technology or data-driven approach. AI is a great accelerator for solving problems and in modern data and analytics, it has a role to play in almost every client issue.

    I am a real believer in practical AI and at EY we have been able to embed AI in almost everything we do from transforming the traditional across audit, tax and accounting to pushing the realms of what’s possible in helping companies to make money, save money and manage risk. AI has reduced the cost of prediction, enabled better decision making and, with human input, helped our clients transform the way they work. I still believe we need to put human minds in the machine to train the models, refine their application and deliver even more AI-driven value!

    Some amazing use cases we have delivered in UK and Ireland include:

    • Transport –  route planning, load management and optimisation for a public transport provider
    • Utilities – helping utilities keep their network running through monitoring asset health to deliver more efficient maintenance, workforce planning and capex and opex expenditure.
    • Banking – Risk modelling and automated customer eligibility for financial products
    • Customer – revenue optimisation through improved customer experience, customer acquisition and portfolio optimisation

    Q. Can data ultimately solve every problem and if not, what are the limiting factors?

    I would love to say data can solve every problem but unfortunately, I would be telling you all a lie. However, I would say data has a role to play in the majority of conundrums. We create data every single day via the devices we carry, use and interact with.  This provides us with an immense amount of information to consume, to hypothesise with and to create an evidenced-based approach to solving most problems.

    Google, Meta and Amazon have solved a lot of our day-to-day problems with data. They harness it, use it to understand our needs and preferences, and deliver tailored products and services to us via our phones, tablets and computers. But they also have a huge power to influence, govern and manipulate our behaviour from the information they gather. This can create as many problems as it solves.

    I always like to believe in its purest form, “data doesn’t lie”, but human interaction with data, how it is manipulated, presented and ultimately consumed means we can’t always trust the narrative.

    This is where the power of human judgement comes in. The best solutions are data-driven but human-led. The power of teaming, collective perspective and conversation still plays a huge role in solving our client’s biggest problems. To solve a problem, you need people to buy into the solution, engage with it and adopt it. The power of persuasion, marketing and understanding human nature still requires a little bit of magic that can only be manifested from good old-fashioned human intelligence. Our client relationships, our people and our collective capability are still our biggest assets. When we combine the mind with the machine we are unstoppable.

    Put your phone down, talk to a friend or family member and go for a walk. Create less data but more experiences!

    Q. When managing a team of 200+ analytics professionals what advantages does a diverse workforce provide?  

    We have really grown at pace from 60 people in 2017 to 230+ people now. We are an Island of Ireland practice operating across Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Limerick. We have always had a start-up mentality in that we strive for innovation, rapid growth and disrupting the status quo. This has positioned us as the number 1 analytics practice in the market.

    The key to this success is our people. In our practice, we really believe that you are only as good as the people that stand beside you. Our people are our most important asset. Having a diverse workforce leads to diversity of thought, better culture, increased collaboration and a happier and healthier team. We have made huge strides in hiring a diverse workforce from across the world, investing in talent from across Europe, Asia and Africa. At EY we believe it’s important to feel a sense of belonging, to be your best self and be comfortable in your own being. Be yourself, everyone else is taken!

    We are proud of the work we are doing to address the gender imbalance in our industry, support our LGBT+ colleagues and create an environment suitable for different physical and neuro-diverse abilities. We simply celebrate our differences and bring together people from all backgrounds to solve really difficult problems with data.

    Diversity and inclusiveness (D&I) are core to who we are and how we work. To help EY clients tackle their toughest challenges we need the best ideas from the broadest group of people, who in turn, should feel that they belong, that their unique contributions are valued and their voices are heard.

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