Big plans, big money … and even bigger potential

As one of Scotland’s eight innovation centres – convened by the Government to push forward cutting-edge, scientific research and development – the Data Lab has been tasked with unlocking the potential of big data to generate £104m in economic value to the economy and 248 new jobs.

To outsiders the term big data itself is somewhat cloaked in mystery, the preserve of men and women with a head for numbers, and lots of them. In essence it is exactly that, but in reality the crunching of lots of data,in real time, can automate and even predict many business processes.

You only have to look at the likes of online retailers like Amazon and and eBay, who have managed to look at patterns in their consumers’ online purchasing behaviour to suggest what they might like to buy, with an arguably unnerving degree of accuracy.

As we meet at the Data Lab’s Edinburgh base, I ask its CEO, Gillian Docherty, for some practical examples of just how it is supporting the development of Scottish industry in that regard. Immediately, she hits me with three.

She cites Aggreko, the world’s largest temporary power generator, based in Glasgow, who are working with Strathclyde University’s ‘machine learning’ department to come up with an algorithm to predict the maintenance needs of its global assets of 10,000 generators, potentially driving its efficiency to dizzying new heights.

She mentions a firm called Global Surface Intelligence who are working in conjunction with the geosciences team at Edinburgh University to analyse satellite images of farms to predict crop yields, which could have a transformative effect on agricultural methods.

The third is a public sector health project: NHS National Services Scotland (NHS NSS) are working with researchers at Edinburgh’s BioQuarter to build algorithms to produce completely imagined patient data for research purposes, based on real-life anonymised information.

“It can help an SME which is attempting to build a health app, but who cannot access real-life patient data; this allows them to research and test their application,” Docherty explains. “We’ve probably got a pipeline of 60 or so of these projects that are currently working through our approval process, from a variety of industries, working with the very smallest start-ups to large corporates.”

In Terms of its remit, the Data Lab has three obecjtives: the first being to identify and support bona fide big data projects through collaboration with academia and industry, all of which go through rigorous due diligence by an independent advisory panel. The Data Lab has a £12m budget, and expenditure is carefully monitored.

The second area is a skills and talent programme, which includes sponsored MSCs in data science, co-sponsored PhDs or EngDs where it pays 50% of costs, with industry chipping in the remainder; executive education programmes, online learning and a summer school launching in June make up the remainder.

The summer school is a particular focus, and the aim is to attract 25-50 people in data- related employment, to upskill them with three weeks’ of training in the Python programming language, machine learning and data visualisations.

The third objective is a community-building exercise which will see the Data Lab run a series of events to bring together the disparate strands of academia and industry, and also support companies on trips to international gatherings like the Strata+Hadoop data science conferences.

The big focus for Docherty right now, though, is launching the Data Talent Collider event at the As- sembly Rooms in Edinburgh, this Wednesday (16 March). “It’ll be the first data talent event ever in Scotland; we’re looking to bring in 250 grads, 200 data enthusiasts and 50 organisations. It’ll be the largest collection of data specialists we have had. It’s really exciting.”

But the excitement also rests on Docherty’s ability to translate government targets into an economic reality. With her experience of working at IBM, I ask her what cultural qualities she has sought to bring to the Data Lab, which is still barely a year old as an organisation.

“I’ve tried to bring some of the best parts of the IBM culture to the team; in a small and new organisation we’re finding our way and every month there’s different challenges and changes, and we’re navigating that as best we can. The pace of change is extremely quick but we’re able to be nimble and agile. But, for me, it’s about taking personal responsibility and having trust in your colleagues.”

Factfile

The eight innovation centres were set up after research showed Scotland underinvested in research and development by 0.34% compared with its European counterparts.

Neil Logan, Chief Technology Officer of Amor Group, later Lockheed Martin, led the pitch to the Government to establish the Data Lab for the data science industry. He is now its Chairman.

The Data Lab is funded through the Government’s Scottish Funding Council and was formally opened by Finance Secretary John Swinney in November 2014.

CEO Gillian Docherty joined in June 2015 after a 22-year career with IBM, which included roles in technical sales, nancial services, hardware and software.