Do the maths: Adding up to be the Silicon Valley of Europe

15 Oct 2018

Image: © jon_chica/

As data becomes the new oil and maths and science give people the career edge, we need to ensure a fair and equal data society that lifts all boats, urges John Kennedy.

It’s Maths Week in Ireland and Data Science Week here on, and I believe everyone needs to share in the rewards of the data age. No one should be excluded by geography, sex, age, background or economic circumstances.

It has often been said that the lingua franca of our digital age is software coding. But, as any computer science graduate or lecturer will tell you, that is underpinned by a core understanding of maths. Lamentably, I often hear how students who manage to get into computer science courses because they and their parents saw technology as glamorous now often spend their first year relearning maths. It is no surprise that dropout rates are very high. The Higher Education Authority said it was concerned at high dropout rates in maths-related courses, where up to 80pc of students are failing to progress beyond first year.

This is a huge concern for Ireland’s data economy, which is estimated to be worth almost €10bn a year, according to Digital Realty’s Valerie Walsh. There are hundreds of digital businesses as well as 46 data centres in Ireland, and investment in the construction of data centres could reach €9bn by 2021.

Without a grasp of fundamental maths and engineering, though, young people will be unable to participate in the burgeoning data economy. Maths Week in Ireland aims to foster a love of maths, and some fascinating events are planned. But the sad thing is that not everyone loves maths, and I believe this is down to how it is taught.

As the education policy world realises that the majority of students don’t respond well to rote learning and that everyone learns at a different pace, the purpose and fun of maths need to be better communicated. For example, as students go from the long-division world of primary school to suddenly being doused in algebra and trigonometry with little or no explanation of their real-world application, a bridge needs to be built into their imagination.

Fact: you cannot build an actual bridge without algebra, trigonometry or geometry, nor can you create the tiniest nanocircuit on the most cutting-edge chip to power a smartphone.

Fact: quaternions, the complex numbering system for everything from the software for the latest video games to the algorithms that make search engines and social networks work, were first described by Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton in the form of graffiti on Broom Bridge in Dublin in 1843. The genius graffiti has been since cut into stone on the bridge that can be still seen to this day:

i² = j² = k² = ijk = -1

Europe’s data crown

In recent weeks, I spoke with Carl Grivner, CEO of Colt Technology Services. Grivner was in Dublin last week to announce that Colt was investing in doubling its fibre footprint around the city with an additional 150km of 100Gbps fibre. He told me that Colt had assessed more than 250 cities around the world for potential expansion and narrowed the list down to a final 18. He said that Dublin came out in the top five cities globally that Colt felt would continue to grow rapidly as the digital world takes form.

Indeed, when it comes to data and digital, Ireland has form.

In 1985, Microsoft came to Dublin to manufacture and package software discs. Today, the company not only has massive data centres in Dublin that represent an investment of more than $1bn, hosting core products we all use such as Office 365, but it also has more than 2,000 people at a newly constructed €134m campus in Sandyford. Just a month ago, Microsoft announced 200 more jobs in Dublin and half of those jobs will be in engineering and areas such as artificial intelligence.

Google came to Dublin in 2003 to hire 200 people. It is now the largest private sector employer in Dublin with more than 7,000 people. Likewise, Facebook came to Dublin in 2008 to hire around 80 people; it now employs around 2,500 in the city.

About a month ago, I was in Boston, where I met the CEO of HubSpot, Brian Halligan, who also believes Dublin is the Silicon Valley of Europe. HubSpot, whose technology is used by more than 48,000 businesses in hundreds of countries, came to Dublin in 2014 and now employs 500 people, 100 of whom are responsible for engineering the company’s core products.

Intel, which will be celebrating 30 years in Ireland next year, set up its first office in a car showroom in west Dublin in 1989. It now employs more than 4,000 people in Leixlip and Shannon, making the chips that will power not only our computers and data centres, but the very cars we will drive – or that will drive us – in the years ahead. By the mid-1990s, Intel’s Irish operations were producing more than a third of the world’s supply of Pentium processors to power the PC revolution. Today, I have it on good authority that around half of the 14-nanometre chips in the world today come out of Leixlip.

In the past month alone, hundreds of new jobs have been created in digital enterprises in Ireland. These include: 150 new jobs at Soti in Galway, 50 new jobs at blockchain company ConsenSys in Dublin, 50 new biotech jobs at APC in Dublin and 100 jobs at Overstock in Sligo. Not only that, but an Irish software-as-a-service company called Dulann is to hire 32 people in Wexford, a Boston e-commerce company called Wayfair is to create 200 new jobs in Galway and, at the end of summer, software company Qualtrics announced the creation of 350 new digital jobs in Dublin. I could go on …

All of these jobs are being created not only because of corporate tax, as our EU critics would like to pretend, but because Ireland has the talent and also the digital sinews to put us not at the edge of Europe, but at the centre of the global digital revolution.

But the key to this is a data revolution underpinned by maths. The numbers actually do add up.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years