Maximising data the Scottish way

24 Jan 2019

Maximising data the Scottish way

If data is the key to unlocking innovation in every aspect of our lives, has Scotland’s Data Lab got something to teach the rest of the UK about maximising the data opportunity?

In general, the UK does too little R&D, and the excellent brains produced by our world-leading local universities all-too-often head overseas to do their research and further their careers. That’s true across most sectors, including data. So, what’s to be done?

Michael Drew of Odgers Berndtson's Global Tech Practice sat down with Gillian Docherty, CEO of Scotland’s Data Lab, to hear about Scotland’s particular response to those twin brakes on innovation.

Data fest Scotland

The Data Lab team.

Is there such a thing as a specifically Scottish approach?

In Scotland, the approach to these problems is to create opportunities for innovation via direct three-way collaborations. That means bringing together Government (local and national), the Universities, and the private sector, with the minimum of red tape for the maximum of effect. Collaborative innovation, you might call it.

This means that things can get done faster in the ‘real world’, applying leading technology like AI directly to projects, tackling some very difficult problems.

What’s the Data Lab’s role?

Top-line, our mission is to help Scotland maximise its data potential.

So, besides helping to transfer Scotland’s world-leading research in informatics and computer science into the local and global marketplace, we have another two complementary roles.

One is to ensure we have a strong pipeline of data scientists and other essential skills. And the final one is to build the communities that connect local industry and public sector organisations with the researchers and data scientists who can help them.

Could you give us some examples of the Data Lab’s work?

Amongst the 86 ‘live’ projects that the Data Lab is currently involved in, there are a couple of good examples of our collaborative approach. Like the work to utilise computer vision technology to support oncologists identify complex neck cancers with the Beatson Cancer Centre.

Another application of data has led to the building of fifteen ‘Fit’ homes for social housing for vulnerable people, some of whom have never been able to live independently because of their disabilities. In these new homes, sensors gather data and help build algorithms that can, for example, predict falls or other health deteriorations, and signal for early intervention.

How do you find the talent for Scotland’s ‘data mission’?

We think it’s important to stay open-minded when it comes to filling the talent pipeline we need. Through our partnership with 13 Scottish Universities, we’re paying studentships for 155 graduates to get their MScs in data sciences and specialisms like AI and Robotics.

Many of these MScs are conversions from other subject areas such as social science and economics because we believe we need more diversity of thought. In fact, one of our first data scientists at The Data Lab was a biologist!

There’s an ethical point at stake here too. It’s important to avoid the unintended consequences of using biased data to train algorithms that perpetuate the things we are trying to eliminate from society. That’s why you need a diverse group from as many different backgrounds as possible to start with, asking the right questions from the very beginning.

We also help those students find internship opportunities in Industry and the Public Sector where we can.

Is Scotland attractive enough to hold onto the talent you are producing locally?

Definitely. It’s a good time to have a Data Science or AI MSc in Scotland. Edinburgh has a great tech scene, second only to London. There’s also just been a £661 million investment committed to make the city and region the data-driven capital of Europe.

The supporting eco-system across the country is a strong one, with plenty of encouragement from locally-grown unicorns like Skyscanner. And, of course, the quality of life in Scotland is always mentioned by those who have made their home here.

You know they describe Scotland as having the size of the economy that’s not too big, not too small, but just right, like Goldilocks! So it’s possible to get your arms wrapped around opportunities for innovation more easily. So I suppose, we at the Data Lab are a bit like the fairy godmothers, helping to make the magic happen.”

In the second part of this interview series coming soon, Gillian Docherty reflects on her path to the top as a female CEO in the tech field and offers her thoughts on how to ensure the next generation of women have the opportunities to fulfil their talents.