Fiona Tweedie was recently appointed The Australian Ballet's new data scientist. She tells share how she got there and what she hopes to achieve in the role.
Data science is an unexpected place for a Roman historian to end up, and it certainly wasn't what I was planning when I started my PhD. Indeed, while the research and communication skills I learned during my PhD have been useful to me, it wasn't until after I finished my studies that I came to appreciate the importance of data.
Between 2010 and 2012, I worked as a policy advisor at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, where I learned to love data and believe strongly in the value of effective use and reuse. Thus inspired, in 2012 I joined the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). An insistent data advocate (some might say pest), my proudest achievement was publishing the raw data from the Australian charities register to data.gov.au, where it can be downloaded for analysis.
I have always benefited from the enthusiasm and generosity of the data community. Through events such as GovHack, I met people who care deeply about data and want to share their knowledge. The energy in this community makes the dry-sounding endeavour of managing and sharing data really rewarding.
After leaving the ACNC, I worked at the University of Melbourne's Research Platforms Services on their Research Bazaar program. Given my background in the humanities, one of my main focuses was developing training in digital humanities. I felt this was a chance to create the sort of training I wish I had as a graduate student and teach the next generation to 'think data'.
Managing data effectively
The key lesson, I believe, is that identifying and managing data effectively saves time, not to mention pain! But this is just a means to an end. Effective use of digital tools enables new avenues of research, and again understanding how data works is critical to getting the best results. Data literacy is one of the most important skills universities can be teaching, whether or not students go on to research careers.
This year, I was thrilled to join The Australian Ballet in the newly-created role of data scientist where I'll be combining my loves of data and culture. The Ballet recognises that it holds a wealth of information about both its community and its company, which it uses to understand its audience and monitor the success of performances. My role was created to go both wider and deeper than the current analysis and look for new ways to extract value from the data.
The Australian Ballet has a proud history as a leading dance company, and I'll be helping to support both their artists and audience. The long-term subscribers love 'their' ballet, so I'm looking forward to building on that relationship by sharing more information about the company with them. There will also be opportunities to use data to support internal decision-making and make life easier for the staff. Looking further afield, I believe that greater analysis of the work of the Ballet and the reach of its programs will help demonstrate the value of the cultural sector to life in Australia. I want to help build a culture of data throughout the Ballet, where it is valued and well-managed at every point of the information life-cycle.
I would encourage aspiring data scientists to embrace every opportunity to play with data and expand their tool-box. I feel that my grounding in policy has been invaluable as I developed my practice as an analyst, so don't limit the scope of your work. Finally, the data community is an amazing resource – make the most of them!
Fiona Tweedie is the data scientist at The Australian Ballet.
Image: Fiona Tweedie, the data scientist among the tutus! (Photo courtesy of Kate Longley)