Silicon Valley ethics of AI academic to head up Scotland’s Data Delivery Group

Prof. Shannon Vallor will chair Scotland’s Data Delivery Group

An advisor to Google on the ethics of artificial intelligence is to chair the Scottish Government’s data delivery group.

Professor Shannon Vallor, who is about to begin a new academic role focused on ethics and AI at the University of Edinburgh, will take on the additional responsibility of helping to shape Scotland’s ‘data vision’.

Prof. Vallor, who was previously based at Santa Clara University in California’s Silicon Valley, was unveiled last year as the first Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), a post that starts this month.

She was described as the “ideal” candidate to take on the public-facing role by Colin Cook, Director Digital at The Scottish Government, in order to steer the work of the group, which aims to achieve the national vision: ‘To use Scotland’s data to its full potential by driving innovation, improving public services and unlocking economic value – saving time, money and lives.’

Cook said in a blog post: “I have had the privilege in recent months of chairing the group on an interim basis. I’m now delighted to announce that we have secured the ideal chair to drive the work forward with a focus on serving the public interest at the heart of all we do in using data in Scotland. This is Professor Shannon Vallor, who will in February take up the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University.

“Shannon is moving to Scotland from Santa Clara University. She has significant expertise in understand the impact of emerging technologies–particularly those involving automation and artificial intelligence–on the moral and intellectual habits, skills and virtues of human beings. This will be ideal as we wrestle with some difficult challenges as these technologies develop. Having public trust in all we do around data and digital is vital to achieving the benefits to wellbeing that this offers.”

Cook said that he will retain ‘a keen and direct interest in the work of the Group and the data innovation agenda more broadly’, adding: “I remain keen that we continue the Open Government approach to how we take forward work to create value from data. So expect to hear more from colleagues around Scotland who are working hard to turn these priorities and ideas to tangible products and services that improve all our lives.”

Cook said the overarching vision needs to be ‘rooted in public trust, shaped by an ethical vision and approaches that focus first on public interest and people’s rights’.

He added the potential scale of achieving this vision is “enormous for the wellbeing of people in Scotland”, with an estimated £1bn-per-year saving for the public sector and £4bn of additional value for the Scottish economy.

The work of the group will be informed by the high level delivery plan for data; Cook emphasised that there is “lots to do” and areas to prioritise. At a recent meeting the group outlined the following areas for focus in 2020:

  • Delivering a world class offer on access to data through Research Data Scotland, in particular to develop a commercial model acceptable to the public and data owners.
  • Launch an employer, provider skills group to drive development of data skills offer across schools, further and higher education sectors.
  • Develop a programme to foster adoption of data standards in local government to improve the quality, interoperability and availability of data at national level, focussing on non-personal data.


This builds on the priorities for 2019 that were:

  • Developing an AI Strategy for Scotland. This is in production and due to be launched in September.
  • Working up a shared approach to telling Scotland’s Data Story as a way of securing inward investment. An initial round table meeting happened recently and approach with be formalised in the next few months.
  • Reform of Information Governance. This is complex and ongoing through 2020.
  • Review of privacy principles and ethics framework. This is being progressed, linked to the AI strategy.