Celina Belotti is Privacy and Ethics Lead at Precis Digital, a prestigious digital marketing agency. She talks to Johanna Hamilton about data, ethics and finding your passion.

Tell me a little bit about your background?

I got into this field because I originally studied psychology in Brazil. I then moved to London to pursue a Master’s degree in social sciences. During my studies, I became very interested in analytics and how data circulates in our lives through the interfaces we interact with. I wanted to learn more about it, which eventually led me to working in analytics.

So, does data drive every decision?

It’s not necessarily that data drives every decision, but rather we collect data with the intention of making decisions based on it. Advertisers, companies, and people in general tend to believe they can base every decision in their lives on data. But, what we fail to realise is that data only presents a picture. It captures the world, but interpreting that picture becomes more and more fragmented.

What are the implications of using data on privacy?

When you go out in the street, you’re used to CCTV cameras and the knowledge that you might be observed. In Brazil, we used to have signs saying, “Smile, you’re on camera”. It’s something we are becoming more accustomed to – data being collected in our lives both outside and online. When we go online, we know our data is being collected.

It would be great if people not only got used to this idea but also realised they have the power to decide who they share their data with. They should put pressure on advertisers, brands, websites, and newspapers to provide a positive experience. It would be wonderful if we could reach that point.

Data is very much a global issue – how does it differ from region to region?

Currently, there are at least three distinct realities when it comes to data usage and privacy: the US, Europe, and China. Transferring data between these regions is a topic of debate that’s been quite heated in the last year. Social Media platforms and tech companies, in particular, have been widely discussed in relation to these three regions.

It’s hard to say whether China or the US will get ahead, but the EU is definitely putting up a fight. A big challenge in the last two years has been data transfers between Europe and the US. Recently, Facebook received a significant fine from the EU court in Ireland under the GDPR regulations. It was the largest fine ever applied to any company based on GDPR grounds. The issue lies in the differences between data protection laws in the US and the EU.

Now the EU has reached an adequacy decision around the data transfers so for the time being, the problem is solved, but it’s a bit of a whack-a-mole, you fix one issue here and another issue comes up there.

The fragmentation of the technology sector across different regions has a considerable impact on advertisers and the decisions they have to make. I think that it would be weird if this wasn’t the case. Another interesting point to consider is that we often think of data as a theoretical concept, this magical flow from one place to another. However, we tend to overlook the fact that data is physically stored in specific locations. It is transferred to the US through satellites and cables. Data has a materiality to it, and it becomes geopolitical as well.

Data has a material aspect and storage demands. How do we cope with storage in the future?

Data indeed has a material existence; it is physically stored somewhere. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the economic factor involved. Businesses have the flexibility to increase their storage capacities easily. For example, if you need more storage on your phone, you can pay a small fee and get more terabytes on Google Photos. But from a personal perspective, how often do we actually revisit all the pictures we store on our phones? Should we be storing everything? It’s a big question.

Moving onto your career, what do you enjoy most about your job?

I think what I enjoy most about working at Precis is being surrounded by curious people. The reason I was able to transition from psychology to analytics, and have this unconventional career path, is because I found a company that values curiosity and believes that curious individuals are successful in the field of data and analytics. Being curious and questioning why things work the way they do is crucial. I find it very fulfilling to dig into problems, understand them, and come up with innovative solutions.

While that sounds very scientific, is there also an artistic aspect to it?

Absolutely. I think there is an artistic side to it as well. Personally, I find joy in creating and understanding things, building models, and comprehending how things work. It’s about outputting that knowledge and effectively communicating it to my colleagues. Building a shared understanding is an essential part of the process.

What would you say is the biggest challenge in your job?

When it comes to AI, for example, it’s a game-changer, and I don’t think I need to emphasise that because it’s widely known. However, the challenge lies in convincing people to stop and think about the implications and ethics surrounding AI. When privacy and ethics are brought up, many people perceive it as boring or regulatory-focused. But, it should be seen as an opportunity for businesses and individuals alike. We need to learn how to use AI and ethics to support our values and consider it as a chance for growth rather than an obstacle.

In Brazil, I worked in a small programmatic job, which is a part of digital marketing. I wanted to deepen my understanding of how things work, which led me to move to London and pursue my Master’s degree in Social Sciences of Data and Technology. During my studies, I developed a keen interest in data, individuals, and analytics, eventually leading me to specialise in analytics.

The topic of privacy also caught my attention. I realised that we need to really explore the ethical questions to ensure we are always on the right side of the equation. Through my studies, I gained knowledge in privacy, which allowed me to work with the connection between privacy and strategy, at Precis.

What advice would you give to another woman looking to start or transition into a career in data science?

For another woman looking to pursue a career in this field, I would say that although there is still a male bias, it’s important not to let that discourage you. Many women feel insecure if they don’t have the same technical background or extensive knowledge in maths, algebra, or coding. I personally experienced this feeling intensely when starting my first job. However, it took me a while to realise that my unique skill set and background could be valuable and interesting. Believe in yourself and the skills you bring to the table. Self-confidence is key.

Lastly, what is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

The best career advice I’ve received came from my boss, who told me to focus on the things I’m passionate about in order to find my way in my career. This advice resonated with me, and I’m grateful to work for a company like Precis that values curiosity and encourages pursuing one’s passions. It’s crucial to find fulfillment in what you do.