Chiin-Rui Tan heads up FCO's Data Science capability. She talks about the projects she’s most excited about and the importance of data in government.
What is your role at Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
I am Head of Data Science, which is a new specialist role at the FCO. I’m responsible for establishing and leading data science capability, acting as a catalyst to help transform the Foreign Office into a data-driven department.
What’s your background?
I’ve worked in data-centric jobs for about ten years, but only discovered coding later in my career. I actually have an economics degree from the University of Cambridge, which gave me a solid grounding in statistics and analytical skills.
After graduating I worked in consulting, econometrics, web analytics, data intelligence and business insight at international companies including Deloitte, the Financial Times and the M&C Saatchi group, so quite a range of disciplines! I also studied for a masters in international management at SOAS.
What brought you to government?
During my career break I co-founded a coding community called R-Ladies, which is now a global organisation promoting gender diversity in the R programming community.
It started as free workshops teaching people to code and has grown into a worldwide initiative with around 4,000 members in over 30 cities across 4 continents. There are a lot of cultural stereotypes with programming that held me back and probably hold other people back too, which is what inspired me to start it.
Starting R-Ladies was really meaningful as I saw how it tangibly impacted people’s lives. I wanted a job that solved similar public interest problems and the FCO’s wide ranging influence and international mission really resonated with me. There’s huge potential to make a difference on a large scale, so when this job came up it was perfect.
What projects are you excited about right now?
Being creative with data visualisation. Using maps and network graphs is a really effective way of communicating a lot of the data that’s relevant to the FCO. Using interactive tools like HTML widgets, gephi and Google Earth Engine is a great way to engage people.
What does good data in government look like?
Good data should be relevant, timely, good quality and accurate obviously! It should also be open and shareable where appropriate. Visualising data in creative and engaging ways is also really important.
What do you think of data’s potential to improve public services?
It’s massive! As the UK Government is dealing with true big data, there is huge potential to gain valuable insight by applying data science to all sorts of information. Taking these opportunities would transform decision-making about public services, enabling the government to serve the public more effectively.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Data Science at FCO is all about making people’s jobs easier and making the department more impactful as a whole, so my job is all about enabling people to achieve these goals. As the first Data Scientist in the Foreign Office, a lot of what I do also involves championing new data practices and communicating how data science can be more accessible to our users inside the department and in the wider world.
Are you part of a data community that gives you access to training?
I’m part of the cross-government data science community, we have a Slack channel where we can share ideas and knowledge. There’s loads of opportunities to learn within government, particularly from the Data Science team at GDS, and also through practitioner networks and meetups outside work as part of London’s buzzing tech scene.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from working at FCO?
As I’ve done a lot of work around private sector transformation using data, undertaking a similar challenge but in a new, different environment is fascinating. I can see where I need to adapt to be more effective.
What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a data focused role in government?
Just go for it! The whole application process is a valuable learning experience, whatever happens. Find out everything you can about the role and if it seems interesting then give it your best shot. Think objectively about your strengths and weaknesses and emphasise things you’d be keen to learn if given the opportunity.
Do you have a hidden talent?
I’ve been playing the violin since I was four, and have perfect pitch! I did ballet as a kid, but now I love to dance to old skool tunes and go clubbing - especially throwing shapes at Jazz Cafe in Camden!
What’s your favourite place in London?
Primrose Hill, it’s a great place to reflect and the view is beautiful.
If you weren’t doing your current job what would you be doing?
Follow Chiin-Rui on twitter @AnalyticsPanda