In recent years, Scotland has made remarkable strides in advancing its data infrastructure. Thanks to initiatives like the City Region Deal and the £661 million Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) program, Scotland has surged ahead of England and Wales in this domain.

Significant progress has been achieved in building and equipping DDI Innovation Hubs such as the Bayes Centre, Usher Institute, and the Edinburgh International Data Facility. Plus, key projects like the Data Vault, Spatial Hub, and the EPCC are pivotal in helping us reach the goal of making Edinburgh the data capital of Europe.

All this, however, is not enough. 

While there’s no denying the importance of these developments, it’s now time to do more than build physical buildings, develop equipment, and place such immense emphasis on academia.

Thus far, frontline services have been overlooked as the primary focus was on conducting extensive retrospective research rather than improving the critical infrastructure. Naturally, academics aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty, often deemed mundane and unexciting, aspects of engineering. Yet, this is precisely what will yield the greatest results and benefits to society.

We’ve got to get the ‘plumbing’ right by effectively connecting different systems to make a positive impact on actual operations. At the moment, it’s as though we just spent large amounts of money on a water treatment plant but still have a house with blocked pipes.

Academics may want to test all the water from those pipes and conduct research on it, but what we truly need is to fix the blockages and allow water to flow where it needs to. This work may not be flashy, but it’s very necessary.

Let’s take the Scottish Ambulance Service as an example.

In terms of day-to-day operations, the organisation has five distinct IT systems, each functioning independently and without any integration between them. For instance, the equipment situated in the back of an ambulance, used for taking patient measurements, is not integrated with the patient’s medical record.

So, when the patient arrives at the hospital and is admitted to the A&E, the hospital staff can’t access the data recorded in the ambulance and must repeat all the same tests. This is an enormous oversight which poses a significant operational challenge.

The consolidation of patient data across all IT systems typically arises only when a tragic event occurs, such as a patient passing away during transportation. In that case, the Procurator Fiscal’s office makes a request and it takes approximately three weeks for personnel to manually locate and compile the relevant patient data from each of these IT systems.

The current approach is inefficient and costly. So, instead of directing all investment towards the academic community’s analysis of Scotland, it’s worth allocating a portion to practical implementation initiatives that empower frontline staff to effectively use the infrastructure that’s already in place.

It’s time to channel resources towards organisations like Transport Scotland, the Scottish Ambulance Service, and NHS Scotland – the entities that employ and empower those on the frontlines.