Guest blog – Data is everywhere

As with all guest blogs on SPICe Spotlight, what follows are the views of the author, Brian Hills, Head of Data at The Data Lab innovation centre, and not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

Data is everywhere. With the rise of the internet economy, mobile technology and the Internet of Things, both business and citizens generate huge volumes of data. Indeed, analysis performed by Scottish Enterprise from CEBR research estimates that the value to Scotland from this data boom could be as much as £20bn.  In addition, SCDI estimates that Scotland could see savings of between £130 million and £200 million through transforming public service delivery using digital transformation and data.

Cutting through the numbers and the hype surrounding Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning the question is how can businesses and citizens alike benefit from this newly emerging asset?

Fundamentally, it’s about enabling all involved to improve their decision making, supported by evidence. For example:

  1. Understanding the behaviour of customers using digital channels to optimise marketing spend
  2. Predicting outages in manufacturing systems, enabling proactive actions to be taken to avoid service issues.
  3. Predicting whether a new hospital patient will be delayed from release, and optimising downstream services to provide the necessary support.

In addition new startup businesses are creating products and services with data at their core For example, BrainnWave, Spiritus Partners, Previse and Cloudwick have launched their businesses in Scotland attracted by the mix of cutting edge research and new talent from our world class universities as well as a strong supporting tech community including centres of expertise in analytics such as The Data Lab, the Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC), Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) and the Farr Institute.

Nevertheless, there are a number of barriers that exist to realising the full potential of data innovation to Scotland’s businesses and public services.  Five of the key challenges are:

  1. Leadership: Many industry and public sector leaders do not understand how data could be leveraged to add value to their organisation.  Without understanding and sponsorship at this level internal data initiatives will be of limited value.
  2. Finding the burning fire: The most impactful use of data science is in the areas of an organisation with significant challenges.  However, many organisations try to launch data innovation projects in small, low risk areas with little value to the organisation.
  3. Developing a culture of experimentation: Most organisations have the capability to produce scheduled KPI reporting.  However, to fully realise the value of data, the culture of an organisation needs to change from developing reporting systems to one of experimentation: forming hypothesis, testing these and feeding back.
  4. Ethical applications of data science: There is increasing debate on the ethical application of data science.  Simply giving data to, and defining a challenge for, a data scientist is fraught with danger.  There are an increasing number of examples from books such as Cathy O’Neils “Weapons of Math Destruction” where technical teams working in isolation are actually driving inequality in society.
  5. Competition for talent: There is global competition for data talent with recent research in the US estimating there will be up to 2.7 million job openings for data talent by 2020 in the US.  Organisations must proactively promote the opportunities for talent to solve complex problems and commit to their ongoing skills development, given the fast pace of the tech environment.

Data Lab

The Data Lab was launched in 2014 as Scotland’s national Innovation Centre for data science.  Our mission is to deliver significant social and economic value to Scotland through the application of Data Science and the development of a thriving ecosystem.The Data Lab acts as a catalyst bringing together all of Scotland’s universities, industry and the public sector to focus on three core 

  1. Collaborative innovation: The Data Lab funds leading researchers to collaborate with industry and the public sector. We also deliver small proof of concepts and mentoring using our own in house data team. To date we have funded over 65 projects across all company sizes and sectors in Scotland.
  2. Skills and Talent: Developing the new talent required and providing opportunities for further professional development for existing employees. In our flagship Masters programme we sponsor 130 students across 11 universities with opportunities to undertake soft skills training, gain a paid industrial placement and meet local employers seeking to recruit. We have also developed leadership training with the objective of addressing the leadership barrier to adoption.
  3. Community Building: To maximise our local and international impact we have developed a significant programme of community engagements including meetups, international learning journeys and DataFest – our annual national festival of Data Innovation run across Scotland. Launched in 2017 we expect around 50 events to run across Scotland w/c 19 March, with the goal to inspire Scottish industry and the public sector to innovate with data and promote Scotland’s standing on the international stage as a location for inward investment.

The key to fully realising the data opportunity for Scotland is partnership across the local ecosystem, and internationally. With an estimated 150 Scottish organisations providing services or products in this space, access to world class research and a collective ambition to be a world leader, Scotland is well positioned to take advantage of the global data opportunity.

Brian Hills, Head of Data at The Data Lab innovation centre