Dr Sue Black on TechMums, Twitter, data security and artificial intelligence

Dr Sue Black

Despite her rising profile internationally as a strong and hugely popular female voice in the technology sector, Dr Sue Black OBE is very modest for someone who has achieved a great deal of personal triumph while exploring what is important to herself.

“It’s a lot easier doing stuff you love than working in a job where you are not in control, yeah I work hard but at the same time it’s a lot easier being charge of myself,” she explains when asked about the numerous projects Black has wholeheartedly embraced, not least her campaign to Saving Bletchley Park, the birthplace of Alan Turing’s Bombe machine, which led to her writing her debut book that has become the fasted crowdfunded book when published in 2016.

Dr Black is a polite and enthusiastic person, and for the UK tech sector she is every bit the rock star it needs.

Having received her OBE from The Queen last May, she has since been recognised by being inducted into Bima’s Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Stephen Fry (co-incidentally one the highest profile champions of @savingbletchley), Dame Stephanie Shirley, Sir Jony Ive and Baroness Joanna Shields.

“It’s really nice to get recognition from organisations outside of academia who realise the potential of the work that I’m trying to do. I’m absolutely honoured and delighted to be recognised in this way because it means that the things that I really care about – other people really care about them as well and that is heart-warming for me that the change I am trying to make in the world is being recognised.”

Most of those familiar with Dr Black may be through her use of social media, especially her preferred platform of Twitter, which she tells The Drum she continues to love for its ability to connect the world to discuss topics of interest. This was a crucial factor of the Saving Bletchley Park campaign, she states.

“I love Twitter for its ability to collect like-mind people, and while it isn’t, it almost feels random when you get to chat to people and have great conversations. I’ve probably met up with around 200 people that I met first on Twitter, maybe even more, particularly around the Bletchley Park stuff early on and working with people you first met through Twitter was so exciting. I’d go to social media meetups in London where others following the campaign would catch up,” Black explains.

This leads to a discussion over the current nervousness around tech platforms over the data security provided to its users, which Black perhaps surprisingly is not overly concerned by, although she concedes it does need to improve.

“It’s obviously important that we need to know our data is secure. There are various things to balance with that; a lot of what is happening is new. Organisations and people don’t know what the best thing to do is, they haven’t been in this situation before, and then at the same time because it’s happening to everyone at the same time on a personal level, it doesn’t matter as much as it did several years ago when it was rare to have lots of information about yourself out there. There is information about a large proportion of the public out there – I got the same feeling when people were worried about having photos of yourself drunk in a gutter, being out there on the internet…Not to completely dismiss worries about fears of security, but because it affects everybody I don’t think it matters as much.”

Black’s current project, the Nominet-funded platform called TechMums, is further evidence of her passion to make a difference and it may yet prove to be her most valuable contribution yet. This is an online forum that connects mothers and allows them to spend time together to talk and learn about technology.

“I love changing people’s lives for the better – that’s the thing that gives me the biggest buzz,” she explains.

In order to grow the community, which she has ambitiously set at reaching 1 million people one day, Facebook has partnered with Black to create TechMums TV, a live show broadcast from one of the social media giant’s studio in London, in order to connect with mums who can’t make a meet-up at a local Home Start venue, through their smartphones. There they talk about their lives and their use and experience of technology. So far, the show, which recently finished its first series, has achieved 150,000 views with a second series primed to begin in the coming weeks.

“We’re really trying to show how technology can change your life and help you reach your potential in a supporting and encouraging way,” she adds before revealing that various offers have been made internationally to extend TechMums outside of the UK, including a number of African countries and most recently Puerto Rico, which Black is seeking funding in order to attend.

Of current tech-trends, Black offers her views on the potential of artificial intelligence, a concept she initially encountered during her degree project in the early 90s, which she explains was aiming to connect people to humans and to programme computers to understand what people said to it.

“I just see it as a good way to get computers to work in a more user-friendly way,” she states of what value the technology could offer.

“Everyone thinks that some kind of artificial intelligence thing has to look like a person – why would that happen? I watched the Cybermen in the Sixties – have we really not moved on from that idea? The great thing about computing is that it can do lots of things quickly and do really boring things really quickly and give us answers. It can take a way a lot of the jobs no one wants to do and aren’t that interesting or are repetitive, you see computers used in factories along production lines, it can take on the more repetitive aspects of lots of jobs, so some jobs are going to go but potentially the most boring ones that computers can do in some way. That means they also create jobs that are more interesting and are about interacting with people, rather than doing some robotic, mundane task.”

Dr Black is an important figure for a number of reasons to the tech sector, not least in her ability to make technology accessible, and through her high engaged social media use, and her hugely likeable persona, there is little doubt that she will bring many people to technology, not just the mothers she meets through TechMums, that might have perhaps kept a distance without her infectious energy and influence.

Another inductee into this year's Bima Hall of Fame was LoveFilm co-founder Saul Klein, who also spoke to The Drum about his views on current technology trends.

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