David Beavan

Senior Research Software Engineer David Beavan is using AI to unlock new insights into the Industrial Revolution

In a nutshell, tell us about your work

I’m a Senior Research Software Engineer in the Turing’s Research Engineering Group. We work within research teams to develop cutting-edge code and manipulate big data, helping researchers to make new discoveries. I’ve made a name for myself in the arts & humanities: I am co-investigator (and previously acting principal investigator) for Living with Machines, a project led by the Turing and the British Library that is using data science and AI to reveal new information about the Industrial Revolution.

How can data science and AI shed new light on the Industrial Revolution?

One of the key datasets being explored by Living with Machines is the British Newspaper Archive: 110 billion words from hundreds of digitised local newspapers dating from the 1700s onwards. A lot of my work has gone into making this and other sources ‘research ready’, from working on the Turing’s data safe haven, so we can safely hold this valuable data, to text search tools such as Defoe, so that researchers can quickly find information. Other work has involved joining together datasets, so we can pool insights from historic maps, census records and newspapers to tell more nuanced stories about, for example, the impact of rail development on society, or the changing nature of occupations.

What can humanities professionals teach data scientists?

Humanities is about humans and our culture. It teaches us a great deal about working with data, from the contexts around the creation of a record (its representativeness, bias and uncertainties, for example) to the idea of multiple perspectives on the same dataset. Where data science engages in these areas, its outputs are better for all of us.

What are you most looking forward to at the Living with Machines exhibition?

It’s so exciting to translate the work we do inside our computers to the physical world. I can’t wait to see the weaving loom, and how its careful engineering enabled new garments and productivity – spot the parallels to my profession. Pop along to Leeds City Museum, 29 July 2022 – 8 January 2023 (it’s free).

And finally, when not working what can you be found doing?

I’m learning Finnish and, at my pace, it could be a lifelong endeavour. I tried to meet my Finnish wife halfway with Swedish (which is far closer to English) but understandably that wasn’t good enough. Besides, Finnish brings us concepts like kalsarikännit (look it up yourself).