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Five minute profile: interview with Liam McAlister

A young white man, Liam McAlister, stands smiling in front of an academic poster
Five minute profiles

Research Data Scotland

09 Jun 2023

Our interview series shines a light on what it’s like to work at RDS. Meet Liam McAlister, Data Analyst at Research Data Scotland.

What’s your role at RDS and what are you working on?

I am a data analyst, assigned to work on the Administrative Data Research Scotland (ADR Scotland) programme of work. I am primarily responsible for the updating of the existing national education datasets in the National Safe Haven – starting with the pupil census data.

What does your typical workday involve?  

My typical workday at the moment involves preparing for performing the education update.

This means that I am reviewing lots of code and process documents, provided by our partners and adapting them into our framework here at RDS so we can work effectively once direct work on data can begin - both now and in the future.

“Data should be represented truthfully, and not manipulated or framed in any ways that are dishonest.”

Liam McAlister

What's your background and how does it give you additional insight into your work at RDS?

My background is fairly unusual for a typical data analyst. I studied an undergraduate degree in Astrophysics at Glasgow University, graduating in 2020. My scientific background and training gives me a lot of experience recording, processing, and presenting data, and has helped me hugely with the more technical parts of my role such as coding and writing reports.

I then worked for two years with National Services Scotland (NSS, part of NHS Scotland) working on high risk COVID cases, risk and quality assurance and liaising with contractors to ensure we could keep on top of sometimes tens of thousands of cases a day. My role at NSS gave me extremely valuable experience working with public sector data, something that is key for us at RDS as it is part of our main remit.

I went back to Glasgow University for a Masters degree in Sustainable Energy (Graduating in January 2023) where I did a research project and thesis on machine learning, researching how different machine learning models could be used to attempt to predict household power usage. I learned that working with data and analysis was something that I both enjoyed and was suited for, so this was a big reason for my initial interest in working with RDS.

What’s a highlight and a challenge of working with data?

Data is an extremely powerful tool if used correctly. Research is the driving force behind improving almost every aspect of modern life, from driving innovation in medicine, electronics, or even in the implementation of policy and laws. In this sense, the highlight of working with data is that it is an opportunity to reveal these insights, and solving challenging problems and puzzles is something I personally find rewarding.

Working with data poses challenges, however. It is vital that care and due diligence is paid to ensure that the integrity of data (especially sensitive or personal data) is maintained, and that data is used for ethical and transparent purposes. Data should be represented truthfully, and not manipulated or framed in any ways that are dishonest. RDS have a clear view on this, and their policy on integrity, transparency and ethics is something that resonates with me.

“I believe that here at RDS we will be able to make incredible improvements to current processes”

Liam McAlister

What difference do you hope RDS will make?

I hope that RDS will be successful in facilitating ease of access to data for researchers. I have been in academia for most of my adult life, and I know personally how much good work gets done by those doing research with public sector data already, and therefore know how much good would be done if access to data was made easier.

It is a challenging topic, as safety and security of data is always the primary concern, but I believe that here at RDS we will be able to make incredible improvements to current processes and help others to innovate and research even more than they already do.

Who, real-life or public figure, has inspired or motivated you in your career or life?

An interesting question! I suppose I have two. I am a very big fan of combat sports and martial arts, so I’d say my sporting idol would be Georges St Pierre, I find his attitude and work ethic very inspirational.

From a more professional and scientific point of view, I would say Nikola Tesla. I am always inspired by those who think outside of the box, and are willing to present challenging ideas against the tide of current thinking.

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