Naturejobs is celebrating Women in Science. Every day this week we’re interviewing an inspirational female scientist. Yesterday, we spoke to Una Ryan, an angel investor and the chair of the Bay Area Bioeconomy Initiative.
Today we’re in conversation with Edwina Dunn, co-founder of dunnhumby which pioneered Tesco Club card, and is now newly starting an enterprise called Starcount, looking at data analytics in the social media space.
Big Data and social media: two of the biggest buzz words, two of the most complicated concepts of the modern digital era, and Edwina is combining them. “I think we’ve always been in big data and hadn’t really appreciated it.”
When Edwina met her partner Clive Humby they were working on population statistics, studying how people grouped together in neighbourhoods: You are where you live.
“Then we moved onto shopping data and that’s you are what you eat.” When it comes to social media analytics, there are 1.7billion fans Tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, and sharing every day; hence I automatically came out with the phrase: You are what you say. But this isn’t what Starcount is looking at. “You are what you follow: we’re interested in leaders and followers, communities of interest. So what kind of stars, what brands to people follow?”
The volume of data is increasing every day, and the term Big Data has become a buzz word amongst many communities. “The real truth about big data is that it is a rather inert thing until one creates a story out of the data. The journey that we explore is the idea of millions of data points and how you connect them.” To explain this, Edwina uses social media as an example. The behavioural aspects: sharing liking, favourite-ing, reblogging many of us are aware of. Many of us also use social media to connect with friends and families, or even our favourite brands. “Who we connect with is another dimension that creates quite a challenge with the science for understanding that. This is a new kind of maths: discovering how people connect with each other, how networks and communities are made.” This network maths is based on graph theory, which hasn’t previously been used in the marketing sphere. “It’s effectively looking at networks and the importance of nodes and connectors in data.”
When studying an impressive amount of data like this, you’d think Edwina had a background in statistics or data science, but instead, she came at this field with a geography degree. “I would love to say that all of this came about because I was a wonderful scientist, but I wasn’t.” This doesn’t mean that she didn’t get a good grounding in statistics. Edwina was always interested in human behaviour, and studying human geography gave her the grounding that has shaped her career. “I am a very big supporter of geography. It’s never seen as a science. But when you’re dealing with populations, there is quite a degree of spatial analysis in that. So I suppose my science is the data sciences, and patterns, gravity, distributions of populations. There’s some relevance there.”
Edwina was interested in geography because she wanted to learn more about the social elements of the way we behave in communities. “When you’re looking at millions of people and millions, if not billions of interactions, it’s all about pattern recognition. And so, I suppose that’s my interest.”
But this isn’t just an interest at work; this is something that over the years Edwina has become increasingly passionate about. Last year, Edwina launched the What I See project, a social space which started by asking women to answer the question: What do you see when you look in the mirror? The website contains short films in which women open up and share their experiences about life. There are several feature films (including one with Professor Frances Ashcroft who features in this spotlight series too!) of women who have been successful in their chosen careers.
Edwina started this project because she was lucky. She had a very good career and started out in a business that was “very encouraging of women, and gave me a fantastic platform to learn entrepreneurial skills.” Her supervisors encouraged her to make her own world, and to “create a business from nothing.” It was here that she met Clive Humby, and together they took their new skills into the big wide world.
“I’d had quite a lucky path as a woman back in the 80’s when it was quite a sexist world. And I think I was quite protected from it.” When she worked in industry, with businesses, retailers and boards of directors she tended to be in a male-orientated environment, and she started noticing how women communicated. “The way women tend to say something is different to the way men say things. Not better and not worse, but just different.” Edwina started thinking about how women could be encouraged to continue on their chosen career paths. She had noticed that the further up the career ladder you went, the fewer women you saw. So she wanted to share the voices and experiences of women who were successful in all sorts of spheres, “and actually create more, and hopefully better, role models for young women.” Edwina hopes that the feature films that the What I See project created shared in schools and universities so “we fire that ambition as much and as often as possible.”
Another project that Edwina is involved in is the Your Life Campaign, which launched last week at the science museum. The aim of the campaign is to increase the number of students studying physics and maths at school and universities in the UK. “It’s only 2% of women studying physics.” As the world becomes more digital there is a need for people to study these subjects, and Edwina thinks that maths, and particularly applied maths, will become increasingly important in business and marketing. “I don’t think schools today are giving a fair outline of what studying sciences means to your future opportunities. I don’t think people understand how well it sets you up for all sorts of careers.”
The group, made up of entrepreneurs, want to change this, and show that if you have a scientific background, there are plenty of careers available to you.