Data students come up with plan to tackle Scotland’s fly-tipping problem

Cynthia Morel, Peter Henriksen and Robert Hamlet.

A team of MSc students has worked with Zero Waste Scotland to analyse data from three local authorities and develop a prototype data platform that will detect, predict and prevent future fly-tipping across Scotland – an issue that is estimated to cost the country £2.5m.

The project was won by Robert Hamlet, Peter Henriksen and Cynthia Morel from Stirling University, at the inaugural Data Lab MSc Challenge Competition. The competition brought all 90 students funded by The Data Lab’s pioneering MSc programme from seven Scottish universities together and challenged them to develop new insights, services or products that have a social or economic benefit using datasets unique to Scotland. The Challenge culminated last weekend with a 48 hour hackathon and judging ceremony.

“This year’s challenge provided a snapshot of the potential impact data science can have in Scotland if harnessed in the right way,” said Joshua Ryan-Saha, skills lead at The Data Lab. “Central to this opportunity are the skills and knowledge to support and exploit the potential for business and Scotland as a whole. But we’ve got a way to go to rebalance the ongoing issue of supply versus demand in skills.

“The judges were impressed by all the teams that sought to address issues ranging from over prescribing of medicine to eco bus routes and pollution hot-spots to encouraging Scottish tourism. The [winner’s] proposition was technically accomplished demonstrating a robustness that can be applied across different councils, ultimately achieving the end goal of delivering social and economic value to Scotland.”

The students won £3,000 in funding to support their careers in Scotland through data training courses and conferences. Runners-up were Richard Main, Matej Poliacek, both from Glasgow University, and Euan T. Walls, of the University of West of Scotland, who won £1,000, for their project to tackle air pollution in Scotland. The challenge competition awards come with confirmation that The Data Lab is increasing its MSc programme by 45% from 90 to 130 funded places with support from The European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council, as part of the Innovation Centre’s commitment to address Scotland’s data skills shortage.

The MSc is just one element of the innovation centre’s dynamic education programme, which also includes industrial doctorates and a series of executive education courses and workshops, has already seen over 500 aspiring or established data scientists trained or up-skilled since 2015.

Ryan-Saha added: “The programme is designed to address the skills shortage and ensure students are prepared with the technical, creative and business skills to make an impact as soon as they step through the door of their first job. Ultimately, a growing workforce will attract new businesses to Scotland and contribute to the impressive levels of innovation and excellence in the sector seen so far.”

One of the businesses that is already seeing the benefits of the Data Lab’s education initiative is Virgin Money. It interviewed one of the current MSc cohort, Neil Garry, for a fixed term MSc industry placement. He impressed the company so much that he was put forward for a full-time, skilled role and got the job.

Bill Percy, Customer Experience Director at Virgin Money, said: “We were instantly impressed with the skills, knowledge and competency Neil demonstrated when he came in to interview for the placement. So much so that we decided to consider him for a full time research vacancy, which we were pleased to offer him after he exceeded our expectations during the application process. Being an industry partner for The Data Lab MSc has been a very rewarding experience which has already delivered a really positive result for both Neil and our business.”

The MSc programme is core to The Data Lab’s aim to unlock the estimated £20bn value of data to Scotland and generate 248 high-value jobs. Over 500 students have benefitted from The Data Lab’s education programme which includes the MSc, industrial doctorates and executive education programmes among other training opportunities running since 2015.