Interview with Debrah Harding - This month's MRS Analytics Spotlight
Interviewed by Lisa Cowie, Freelance Researcher, and a member of the MRS Advanced Insights and Analytics Council.

With over twenty years’ experience in business management, standards and compliance, Debrah is one of the country’s leading experts on market and social research, data privacy, GDPR and data standards. Frequently speaking, consulting, presenting, training and offering technical guidance on key data-related issues - data privacy, GDPR, data protection - to market & social research and business professionals, companies and public bodies in the UK, Europe and globally.

Q: What is your current role?

A: I wear a few different hats.  Alongside my role as Managing Director of MRS, I am also Vice President of the European Federation of Associations of Market Research Organisations (EFAMRO). I’m also the current Chair of the Global Research Business Network (GRBN).

Q: How did you start in the market research industry?

A: I was initially recruited by MRS in 1999 to establish a standards and policy function to help promote best practice in the sector.  Before that I worked in accountancy and publishing - so very different sectors from research!

Q: What attracted you to work in market research?

A: The innovation and variety of research attracted me, and continues to do so.  I was, and still am, struck by the amount of excellent and creative work being done across the sector.

Q: What's the role of data analytics or data science for research purposes within your company?

A: Within MRS, one of my responsibilities is creating ethical guidelines and standards for data analytics, including activities such as AI, which can be found here. I am also leading discussions with Government and regulators to ensure that any new rules and legislation recognise the MRS Code of Conduct and the sector's self-regulator approach − enabling research, insight and analytics to flourish.

Q: Have you seen a shift in the nature of market research during your career?

A: Since I started, I have seen continuous innovation, as research, data methodologies and technologies have developed significantly.  The standards and ethics of the MRS Code have remained at the core of these developments.

Q: How do you see advanced data analytics (and perhaps even machine learning / AI) impacting your business in the future?

A: As the professional body, trade association and regulator for the sector, MRS will continue to innovate, providing researchers with products and services to support them to make the most of developments such as advanced data analytics.  We’re running training courses on AI, such as the OnDemand course Generative Artificial Intelligence, and we recently published the Delphi Report on AI, BEST Framework for Gen AI, to help researchers understand when and how best to use new technologies.

Q: Why is it important research uses data analytics/ science in your opinion?

A: To ensure that the sector continues to innovate and remains relevant, it must lead on the ethical adoption of technological developments, including data analytics and data science.  Clients expect practitioners to understand and use these tools, and want the assurance that when they’re being used, researchers are adhering to the relevant legal and ethical requirements. This is why buying data analytics services from MRS members and MRS Company Partners is so important. Our Research Buyers Guide is a great tool to use. 

Q: What are the key challenges for data scientists working in market research rather than other industries?

A: Within research, data science practitioners aren’t solely focused on the numbers – the people behind those numbers, the research participants, are also essential to the success of their work . In my view, this is less a challenge and more of an opportunity as it enables practitioners to get to the root of why people behave the way they do.

Q: What data science problems are you working on at the moment?

A: I’m currently liaising with Government and regulators about the role of self-regulatory standards, such as the MRS Code of Conduct, and how these can be used to support any new legislation on AI and associated technologies. I am also chairing the ISO Technical Committee responsible for research standards, ISO 20252.  As part of this role, I’m leading an update to ensure that the standard is compatible with new technologies, such as AI, and is also robust in supporting data integrity and quality.

Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to a data scientist entering market research?

A: My number one piece of advice would be to learn about the techniques at researchers’ disposal, and how these can be used alongside data science. Secondly, remember there’s a person behind every piece of personal data.   Last but by no means least, become an MRS member and follow the MRS Code of Conduct in all data activities.

Q: Have the research questions that your clients bring to you changed over time? How have the solutions changed?

A: MRS receives queries all the time, and whilst the technologies and methodologies are very different, the concerns are the same: how to protect participants, what can and cannot be done with personal data and how to be on the right side of the legal and ethical requirements.  The solution is always work according to the MRS Code of Conduct.


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