Career Profile: Steve Penson, Data Scientist, Humanitarian Analysis Organisation and MapAction

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Steve studied for a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography at the University of Sheffield and is now a data scientist at a humanitarian analysis organisation and MapAction.

How did you get into your current line of work?

I developed Geographic Information Systems (GIS), data and consultancy skills through working for consultancy companies in Cambridge and London, mainly focused on the water sector. I became involved in the humanitarian sector through Missing Maps, followed by MapAction. I was recommended my current Data Science role through the MapAction network.

What does an average day involve in your job?

  • System design and implementation – Designing, developing and implementing systems, processes and tools to support the humanitarian analysis team in their quantitative and qualitative analysis of global humanitarian crises – ensuring information is presented in a consistent, timely and accurate way through optimising data input, data flow and data visualisation processes.
  • Analysis – Internal and external technical support for data, GIS and earth observation analysis challenges.
  • Project managemennt and data strategy – working with the data team to ensure data projects remain aligned and feed into the wider humanitarian analysis data ecosystem.
  • Partner engagement – establishing partnerships with humanitarian and tech organisations to support the development of new and impactful humanitarian analysis techniques.
  • Stakeholder management – ensuring key stakeholders are kept up to date with projects and work alongside to ensure an impactful implementation of projects.

What sorts of data and data software skills do you need in your job?

  • Database management
  • GIS
  • Systems thinking
  • SQL
  • Python

How and when have you developed your data skills so far?

The majority of my data skills have been developed on the job – this has given me invaluable real-world scenarios work on. Technical and soft skills training have also been offered through employers.

What skills do you need to use alongside your data skills in your job?

  • Soft skills are vital when communicating with non-technical stakeholders
  • Communications and influencing skills
  • Stakeholder management
  • Critical and strategic thinking

What advice would you give undergraduates aspiring to a data-related career in the global development sector?

  • Look for something that interests you that makes you stand out – in my case this was through Missing Maps and MapAction.
  • Network and develop relationships with other people within your sector of interest – you never know how these relationships could turn into a new opportunity.
  • I developed skills outside of the sector and made the move across once I had developed a specialism in GIS.
  • Developing both technical and softer consultancy skills within the private sector has proved invaluable.

A common route for working in the International Development sector appears to be to start as an intern and work up. However, gaining experience and expertise in the private sector then moving across is also a very valid option -disadvantages for this route are the work may be less towards your interest and constrained by profit margins, advantages are the private sector can offer more opportunities for training and development and provide technical and soft skills which are highly transferable and valuable for work in international development.

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