On Thursday 3 September, the closing ceremony for the 2020 Summer projects of the Data Science for Social Good UK programme (DSSGx UK) took place, bringing together participants from across the globe as the nine DSSGx UK researchers presented their pathbreaking research to the public for the first time.

DSSGx UK is led by The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and AI, in partnership with the University of Warwick and the Office of National Statistics. This 12-week programme teaches students to create data science products in collaboration with government agencies and NGOs, to create positive social impact.

The content-packed closing celebration served as a fitting end to a programme full of creative and innovative proposals on how to use data science to shape a better world. We were also honoured to be joined by several inspirational keynote speakers, each at the forefront of the effort to improve society through data science, including Indra Joshi from the NHS AI Lab (NHSX) and Data Science for Social Good founder Rayid Ghani.

Compèred by DSSG UK’s technical lead Carmine Paolino, the ceremony began with introductory remarks from the Director of Data Study Groups Dr Sebastian Vollmer, and Professor Andy Lockett from Warwick Business School. Dr Vollmer highlighted how few academic papers actually have a tangible policy impact, and stated the mission of DSSGx UK to change that “by combining teaching and delivery of data science solutions”. Professor Lockett agreed, commending DSSGx UK’s goal to combine “excellence in training with creating real world social impact”.

Next came the keynote speakers, kicking off with DSSG founder Rayid Ghani, Professor of Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon University, and Chief Scientist for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. Professor Ghani underlined just how vital programmes such as DSSG are for innovating solutions to pressing social issues, “tackling the problems of today, not just the hypothetical problems of the future”. He spoke of the need to balance the longer-term theoretical rewards of research with “short-term practical impacts” to affect positive social change.

Picking up on Professor Ghani’s theme, Dr Indra Joshi, the Director of AI for NHSX, stressed the importance of integrating the latest AI and machine learning innovations into the frontline of healthcare, rather than having them isolated in a lab or a research environment. Her work with the NHS AI Lab has prioritised creating the infrastructure and regulatory framework to get the latest products and tools to healthcare workers as quickly as possible, without compromising on safety or ethics.

This was followed by a presentation by Pablo Seitz, from the National Directorate of Public Procurement of Paraguay, showcasing how data science tools are being harnessed to fight corruption in the Paraguayan public procurement process. As with Dr Joshi’s NHS AI Lab, this served as a vivid demonstration of how AI and data science research can make an immediate and positive impact on society and the economy.

These short but fascinating keynote speeches perfectly set the tone for the real stars of the show, the DSSGx UK researchers, who each presented their group projects in turn. First up was the Ofsted group, who have pioneered a new risk model for use by Ofsted nursery inspection teams. This model crunches huge data sets to ensure that poorly performing or inadequate nurseries are quickly brought to the attention of inspectors, thus ensuring that more under-5s receive the quality of education and care they require at such a crucial stage in their development.

Next came the World Bank group, whose research has been focused on combating corruption in public procurement processes around the world. The group showed how by adding asset declaration data to the standard data sets used in the procurement process, and then using machine learning tools to find patterns in the data, they are able to expose previously hidden conflicts of interest. Similar to the important work Pablo Seitz has been doing in Paraguay—only scaled up to a global level—the World Bank group deftly demonstrated how data science and machine learning tools can illuminate the corrupt practices which thrive in the shadows.

The closing comments came from Turing Institute Director Adrian Smith, who praised the DSSGx UK programme for fostering “the talent and the skills to bring to bear on social and public good”, as well as for sparking enduring friendships and academic collaborations, which may lead to the next big data science breakthrough in healthcare, education, or the fight against corruption.