This is part of our ‘Meet Our Delegates’ series where we introduce you to our delegates ahead of the conference.

MEET THEA SNOW

Thea, I’m fascinated by your career path. You studied political theory and graduated with a law degree and then worked as a solicitor for two years before moving into policy. There’s a strong thread of policy throughout your career and you’re currently doing your Masters of Public Policy and Administration at LSE. What draws to you to policy?

I felt that working in policy took me closer to actually influencing the kind of society we want to live in

As you note, I started my career as a lawyer. I wanted to work in human rights law, and began exploring that path but then felt frustrated by the constraints of the laws that I was required to work within. Often laws felt outdated and unjust. But as a lawyer, you just have to work with what’s there.

I realised that if you really want to make a difference in the world, you have to go to what sits below the law, which is policy. I felt that working in policy took me closer to actually influencing the kind of society we want to live in. That’s why I transitioned to working in social policy in Government.

For the past 18 months, you’ve been working in the Government Innovation team at Nesta. Can you tell us a bit about the work you do and what you love about it?

I work on a broad range of projects, which is part of what makes it so interesting! At the moment, I’m leading work on the Government Innovation Summit, which is shaping up to be a really exciting event. I’m also working on a project on Data Trusts, supporting a colleague on a soon-to-be-released publication on Radical Visions for the Future of Government, and am working on a number of projects to do with AI in Government.

I love the breadth of the projects I’m involved with and the amazing people who I work alongside.

Your Masters dissertation is examining the impact that AI is having on how civil servants make decisions. Can you share with us what you’ve found so far in your research?

I don’t think I’m allowed to share my findings yet 🙂 I have to hand in my dissertation first! But I’ve written a blog on the ideas that I’ve been testing through my research, which you can read more about here. In essence, I argue that there are four ways that humans — who are being asked to work with algorithmic decision tools — might be interacting with the tools:

  1. They might be using the tool as designers are asking them to, which is in conjunction with their expert judgment
  2. They might be using the tool in conjunction with irrational intuition (i.e. drawing on bias and heuristics to inform their decision-making)
  3. They might be deferring to the tool entirely
  4. They might be ignoring the tool.

Understanding how practitioners are working with tools is critical because it influences the impact the tool is able to have. For example, if civil servants are ignoring an algorithmic tool, the tool won’t be having any impact at all! Or if civil servants are using the tool together with irrational intuition, this challenges claims that the tool reduces bias and increases objectivity in decision-making.

My dissertation explores both how civil servants (specifically, practitioners working in children’s social care) are using these tools and also explores the different conditions that appear to support different use-types.

It’s been a fascinating piece of research and I look forward to sharing findings in a few months!

You wrote an article on the Nesta blog about cross-disciplinary collaboration in which you said, “the most interesting innovations emerge when two unlikely disciplines intersect”. Obviously we couldn’t agree more as this conference aims to encourage a multi-disciplinary approach to technology design and development, particularly on emerging technology projects. For the benefit of those who haven’t read your article (go read it!), can you briefly share your thoughts with us?

Cross-disciplinary collaboration can unearth unexpected synergies which create opportunities for radical innovation

The article argues that great things can happen when disciplines that don’t usually work together come together to collaborate and/or learn from each other. This is because each discipline can offer the other:

  • new ways of framing problems and understanding the world
  • different skills and practices
  • new methods and toolkits
  • alternative theoretical frameworks

As I suggest in the article, cross-disciplinary collaboration can unearth unexpected synergies which create opportunities for radical innovation. The article specifically focuses on systems change and big data as an example of two fields which — I believe — have a lot to offer each other, and should be working more closely together. But I think the broad principle is actually the more interesting and important point of the article — as well as the point of this conference!

Why are you excited to attend the conference and what do you hope to get from attending?

I’m really excited about attending a conference which has been designed with the ethos of supporting multi-disciplinary collaboration at its core

At the end of the article I’ve just described above, I turn to the question of how: how can we best encourage and support cross-sectoral, or multidisciplinary collaboration? I make a number of suggestions, including a conference like this!

I’m really excited about attending a conference which has been designed with the ethos of supporting multi-disciplinary collaboration at its core. I’m keen to observe what works really well, and where the challenges might lie.

In your opinion, why do you think technologists should attend the conference?

Stepping outside the walls of the tech world is absolutely essential to building the best possible technology

Technologists cannot create the best technology unless they’re thinking about how humans think and behave (this is ultimately what my dissertation is all about). Stepping outside the walls of the tech world is absolutely essential to building the best possible technology.

This conference offers a chance to step outside the walls of the echo-chambers that we all normally operate within.

The intersection between technology and anthropology is, I believe, one of the most important conversations we need to be having as a society. It can’t happen without technologists there!

Thanks so much, Thea, we look forward to meeting you in October!