Alex Rutherford, Research Scientist, NYHQ
Tell us a bit about your background.
I spent 7 years studying Physics in the UK, simulating things like what happens to a semiconductor such as silicon when it’s cooled to -270C and a magnetic field and an electric field are applied at right angles to each other (spoiler: the resistance increases in steps rather than smoothly). Although this was fulfilling in a specific way, after traveling and seeing more of the world I wanted to apply these techniques and this way of abstracting and quantifying the world to problems that were more tangible. At the time this kind of work was quite niche compared to today; the only human systems that were being measured and modelled in this way were financial so I had to forge my own path for a while. I spent a few years researching social systems in a quantitative way: can locations of ethnic violence be predicted? How can we mobilise large numbers of distributed people to cooperate in a time-critical manner? What are the incentives for corruption to flourish in society? The last decade I’ve lived between the Middle East and the East Coast.
What do you do?
I use non-traditional data sources to help UNICEF understand and protect vulnerable populations. Non-traditional data is normally produced passively through digital services such as social media, satellite imagery or mobile phones and is sometimes known as Big Data (although I don’t like the resemblance to “Big Oil” or “Big Pharma”). I support UNICEF in using this in every way. That means talking to companies that normally analyse this kind of data as a business and who want to collaborate with UNICEF, staying on top of the latest academic research or talking with UNICEF country offices to understand how we can help them, as well as crunching some data myself.
What’s your working day like?
Unpredictable. There are strong ebbs and flows: when there are events or a sprint of activity on a particular project I might barely leave a meeting room all day. Then some days I will roll up my sleeves, put my headphones in and write some code to analyse and visualise how we expect mosquito born disease will spread.
How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
To be honest, I wouldn’t even try. Unfortunately I know lots of well educated adults who can’t understand my job.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I didn’t have a particular occupation in mind, but I knew I wanted to understand how things worked. That manifested itself in a strange attraction to parts of machines: hugging car jumper leads, sleeping with screws from a train yard next to me in bed and so on.
How/when did you join UNICEF?
I never thought someone who came from physical sciences could work for the UN. So when I heard about a data scientist job posting with UN Global Pulse in the Office of the Secretary General at the NetMob conference, I was pretty excited. After working there for a couple of years I joined UNICEF in 2015.
What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
Quite often getting results from some complex calculation is the end of a long path of setting up a project, acquiring data, cleaning it… So when you finally get to run the regression, test the model or visualise the map you’ve been working towards for weeks or months, it’s a pretty good rush.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
There are a lot of moving parts to this work and a lot of different kinds of people and organisations involved. So making sure that projects don’t get stuck and that technical ideas don’t get lost in translation is tough.
What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
I guess it’s not a UNICEF memory per se, but I recall visiting some old friends and asking them what they do and talk about with their colleagues outside of work. They all answered that they don’t really spend time with their colleagues outside of work and wouldn’t choose to. It was only then that I realised how lucky I was to be constantly stimulated and entertained by the people I work with, to the point that work doesn’t feel like work but more like a really fun and challenging game.
What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
In my final weeks at grad school I bought the Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East having never been before. I spent an hour or so flicking through it and chose Syria. Shortly after handing in my PhD thesis I put some clothes and books in a rucksack and bought a one way ticket to Damascus. Although it was a big risk, it came with a big reward as Damascus became my favourite city in the world and 9 months later I had met and married my wife.
What are your passions?
Quite simply, understanding things. The world is a complex place and the UN is where that complexity manifests itself. But all complex systems have a few processes and parts that really drive their behaviour and others that don’t. It takes patience and tenacity to draw out the things that really, objectively matter that might be languishing in the brain of a few domain experts. But it’s immensely fulfilling and empowering to understand why and how things happen. On a less intellectual level and in no particular order: accents, travel writing and obscure cuisines.
What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Don’t be afraid to do something different to what is expected of you, the people who are worth working with later on will recognise and respect someone who finds their own way. As we all know, the days of working 50 years for the same company doing the same thing every day are gone, so embrace that unpredictability and learn with an interdisciplinary mindset. If that’s too overwhelming, just make sure to drink plenty of water and always put your phone on to charge before you go to bed.
Who do you look towards for inspiration?
Bruce Springsteen; for amazing articularity despite humble beginnings, growing old gracefully and being awesome for 4 decades. No matter what challenges you might be facing, put on Darkness on the Edge of Town and by the end things will be better.
My colleagues don’t know that…
I only know what about 50% of the acronyms we use actually mean.