If you’re looking for an event that brings Europe’s communities of data science, machine learning and all data-infused tech together in one single place, then there’s no way around Data Natives. And as the annual edition for 2022 kicks off at the end of August – seeking to explore how data can transform economies and create opportunities – it was only right to have a chat with its founder Elena Poughia.
Hi Elena, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you please introduce yourself?
I'm the founder and CEO of Dataconomy, Europe’s leading media and events platform for the data-driven generation. I'm Greek-born and UK-educated, but nowadays I live in Berlin, so I guess I’m a whole mix of cultures! Having started my career working in the arts, I’ve seen both sides of the business coin and it’s given me a real passion for advocacy. I mentor women-led startups, and also campaign for more accountability regarding what control we have over our data.
At the moment, however, the project I’m most excited about is our upcoming Data Natives Conference, which takes place from the 31st August to the 2nd September 2022. I founded Data Natives as the sister-company to Dataconomy, and it’s now the largest online community of data experts in the world. Our yearly conference is the place to be for the latest from the world of tech.
You chose Berlin as your base for Dataconomy and Data Natives when you set it up initially. What were the deciding factors? And do those aspects hold true today?
I’d visited Berlin a couple of times as a student and loved it. Not only is it really fast-growing as Europe’s tech capital, but the people there are changemakers. It’s an incredibly vibrant, dynamic city to work in; you get the feeling that Berlin is on the cusp of something incredible and I wanted to be a part of it. Of course, developments in the arts throughout the last couple of years have pushed it even further into the realm of crazy and brilliant, and on the tech side of things, there’s a great base here for startups – it feels like a community of people working together to make the future happen. Another thing about the Berlin scene that's quite unique is the overlap between data science and art. With my background, I fit right in.
At Data Natives, Europe’s biggest data science conference, you bring your digital audience together at a series of meet ups every year. Tell us a little bit about the annual event, how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced it for 2 years (and counting) and what will this year’s edition be looking like?
The Data Natives Conference began in 2015 as a way to widen the conversation happening in our online community. It was a natural next step to bring together some of Europe’s best thinkers on tech and AI for constructive debate and we aimed to push the boundaries in terms of discussion. Since then, it’s really gone stratospheric, and this year there’ll be over 5000 attendees and 5 stages of panels and talks. There’s a very human edge to Data Natives; we also examine the social factors that dictate tech and who controls the industry. I think the fact that we’re so dependent on the meaningful nature of face-to-face discussion means that taking the Conference online during COVID was a tough choice, but a necessary one. I’ll say this much, though: we’re glad to be back live and in-person for 2022!
Data Natives in 2022 is all about venturing into worlds unknown and exploring new approaches – namely dipping your toes into the Blockchain waters. How did that come about?
This year’s theme is all about going where we’ve never gone before, pushing the envelope and exploring the outer limits of current tech; it's a little bit sci-fi, a little bit offbeat, but I think that’s what Data Natives should be. As an industry, data, tech, and AI sit at the far edge of possibility; it’s a bit like an iceberg, and most people don’t realise quite how much goes on below the surface that they don’t know about. So I think that Dataconomy and Data Natives, as a conference, wouldn’t be fit for purpose if it didn’t at least begin to broaden the conversation around subjects like Blockchain, which we anticipate to be the next big thing. I think we have a responsibility to demystify this for people. After all, when you have some of the world’s most renowned tech experts together in one room, why would you not ask them what the future looks like?
What do you think is Berlin’s strength as an AI hub and how does it set itself apart from other cities like San Francisco, New York or London? And what role can regional ecosystems play in the bigger AI picture?
Berlin is a fusion of ideas and cultures; it’s a meeting point between East and West, and it’s still evolving. Obviously, with New York, San Francisco and London, they’re well-established identities and their tech scene is highly developed, which is a feeling you don’t get in Berlin. I think Berlin as a city is closer to that old cliché – you know “act local, think global”? Berlin embodies that. It’s growing as a community, which is why it’s a great place for startups. There’s a real feeling of cooperation here, which is where regional ecosystems come in. Smaller communities allow you to explore the whole remit of startups and ideas, which is harder to do in larger tech hubs like New York and San Francisco, where large firms tend to suck the development potential out of very small startups. In Berlin, you feel that the ecosystem is in the sweet spot of being large enough to progress via friendly cooperation between ventures, but not so large as to shut out the guy experimenting with AI in his spare bedroom.
You’ve got an interdisciplinary background with a strong focus on modern and contemporary art. What influence does AI have on digital arts or art in general?
For one, art and AI have a lot in common, namely that, if you don’t understand them, they’re both pretty intimidating. But most of all, I think it’s the idea that art is about pushing the boundaries of what the human mind can create; how can you retrain yourself to see and expand on the details that most people never notice? AI has the ability to help us do that. Of course, AI learns from us, and in the case of art, it can synthesise more material than we ever could, just by virtue of its ability to process data. So the thing that excites me most about the interaction between tech and art is the fact that it has the ability to redefine art as we know it. It also means that more people will be able to understand AI as a creative force beyond the slightly scary concept of an Alexa in the corner of a room who is always listening. AI-generated art means that AI is knowable, that it creates tangible, credible output, and I think that people who otherwise might feel slightly resistant to AI will be more receptive to seeing it produce something they can look at and understand on their own terms.
You’re campaigning for the empowerment of women to get into tech and data science and challenge the status quo. Especially in the field of AI gender imbalance and bias is a crucial issue. Is there a collective change of thinking happening in the industry or is it still trailing far behind?
It’s an ongoing process. A lot of people work very hard to raise the profile of women in tech, but ultimately there's more to be done. There’s a huge amount of unconscious bias in the tech industry, which is a particular issue because unconscious bias can be so subtle that it’s hard to root out. You can’t change long-standing behaviours when nobody ever owns up to them. The truth remains, however, that there’s still a lack of women not only at entry level, but at executive levels too. Classically, tech is a male-dominated industry. There’s that old idea of “boys and their toys” which nowadays doesn’t hold true at all, but the stereotype still persists. All we can do is encourage more female graduates into the tech industry, and to make it an inclusive sector to work for by opening the conversation around the female experience in male-centric spaces. I also work with women-led startups to help them navigate the often difficult path to getting seen and heard at work. Still, it’s not enough, and all we can do is continue to make noise and support the women who find themselves excluded from the tech industry simply because of their gender.
As the Head Curator of Data Natives it’s fair to say you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in data and technology. What does the future hold for AI? What chances and challenges are we facing in 10, 20 or even 40 years?
Well, for one, I think we're only just beginning to understand the potential of AI. The possibilities are astounding and we've not even scratched the surface of how far we can develop it. Is it something we'll see really revolutionise the way we live in the next 10, 20, 40 years? I believe so. My hope is that we can use AI for the collective good. There are so many brilliant startups which are helping to combat climate change through the use of data science. So I can see AI coexisting with us in perhaps a less obvious way. Maybe it won't be something we expect to see more of in our homes in a futuristic, Star Wars-y type hologram sense, but through quicker, more accurate healthcare, or how we manage our money, for example. Of course, we're starting to see this happen already with ideas like cryptocurrency, but I think it will eventually become more accessible to everyone. Then again, I think it has to. I expect that, more than anything, we'll see a lot of education in schools, universities, workplaces and beyond to get people comfortable with, and prepared for the increased presence of AI in society.
Thanks for your time, Elena!