Exploring data in 2017: Ri Faraday Dinner

Gail Cardew, our Professor of Science, Culture and Society and Director of Science and Education shares highlights from our second annual supporter dinner.

  • panel discussion in the Royal Instution theatre

    James Ball, Prof Helen Margetts, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, and Prof Gail Cardew discuss ths significance of data.

    Credit: Katherine Leedale

On Thursday 9 November, we were thrilled to host our second annual Faraday Dinner, an evening of celebration to thank our many charitable supporters. I was particularly honoured to share the stage with three expert panellists, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder and chairman of the Open Data Institute, Prof Helen Margetts, the Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and James Ball, author and award-winning journalist currently with Buzzfeed. We had a riveting conversation about the significance of data in 2017, particularly in regards to our online interactions and the communication of science.

The evening’s topic was not only relevant to our commitment to the discussion of contemporary science issues and their impact on society, but also to our heritage given that the Ri theatre was the site of the first public display of hacking.   

Sir Nigel, who has been at the forefront of the development of the web as we know it, was able to provide an excellent introduction to our topic for the evening; exactly what do we mean when we say data is ‘open’? We discussed the difference between data and information, and the sometimes complicated process of deriving useful meaning from data in a way that benefits society.

This conversation led nicely into the introduction of our second speaker, Helen Margetts, who researches the effects of digital platforms on society – a major consideration for us at the Ri, as we rely on many forms of social media to reach our audiences, particularly young people. On the subject of ‘openness’ she reminded us that although we spend much of our lives generating data online, much of this data is proprietary and therefore difficult to extract for the purposes of understanding human behaviour in the social media world. 

It was fascinating to also include the insights of journalist and data-expert, James Ball who provided a much-needed opinion into not only how the media industry must adapt for the digital world but how, we as consumers, must also embrace a culture of critical questioning. We discussed at length the role of experts in science communication and, of course, we had to ask James for his thoughts on the rise of ‘BS’ in our ‘post-truth’ society! And in true Ri style we ended the evening with some tough questions for our panellist and a riveting discussion on the nature, lawfulness and morality of data transparency. 

  • dinner guests at the royal institution library

    Credit: Katherine Leedale

  • audience at the royal institution theatre

    Credit: Katherine Leedale

After our food for thought in the lecture theatre, we sat down for a lovely dinner courtesy of Elior and continued the discussion of data, technology and our mission to communicate accurate, relevant and fascinating science with the public.

The evening was an opportunity to celebrate the successes of the Ri over the past year and thank the community of supporters who have made it all possible. Louise Terry, Deputy Chair of the Ri Board of Trustees, said it best when she expressed her confidence that somewhere amongst the thousands of people who have connected with science at the Ri, there are those who will make their own ground-breaking discoveries in the decades to come.

The celebratory mood of the evening perfectly matched the excitement building at the Ri as we prepare for the filming of the 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES next month. This year’s Lectures, titled ‘The language of life’, will serve as an exceptional complement to our Faraday Dinner discussion – exploring one of the fundamentals of human and animal life: the unstoppable urge to communicate.

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