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Data Lab CEO Gillian Docherty on how data can boost Scottish economy

Gillian Docherty, CEO of The Data Lab, outlines the organisation’s mission to turn analytics and artificial intelligence to benefit Scotland’s economy

Scotland is rich in oil. But is it also rich in data – the new oil, according to so many conference talks?

The country also has a close association with the first industrial revolution, and some of the earliest theorisations of capitalism as an economic system. The 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment boasted Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, philosopher David Hume and a galaxy of others who benefited from the country’s peculiar combination of modernity and the pre-modern clan society of the Highlands and Islands: a broad socio-economic panorama on one’s doorstep to analyse.

Scotland also enjoys a reputation as a forcing house of engineering innovation, from the steam engine to television and the telephone.

Gillian Docherty is CEO at The Data Lab, a Scottish government-backed innovation centre tasked with enhancing the country’s economic output using data, and with creating 250 high-value data jobs. She is confident that the agency’s efforts are having a positive impact, pointing out that the projects it has been involved with have boosted client companies revenues by about £80m.

It has also sponsored three cohorts of MSc students at Scottish universities so far – a larger number each time. Since 2015, more than 500 students have been exposed to The Data Lab’s education programme, which includes industrial doctorates and executive education activities as well as support for students on MSc courses.

And it organises a week-long data festival, DataFest, which stages events across Scotland, and will next take place in March 2018.

The Data Lab is one of eight innovation centres set up by the Scottish government and its regional enterprise agencies, and backed by further and higher education funding body the Scottish Funding Council. The other innovation centres are in sensor and imaging systems, construction, digital health and care, industrial biotechnology, oil and gas, and “stratified” medicine.

The innovation centre programme was launched in 2012, partly because of a view, says Docherty, that “not enough money was going into companies’ R&D in Scotland, as a percentage of turnover”.

“The mission of all the agencies is to create social and economic benefit for Scotland and create high-value jobs”

Gillian Docherty, The Data Lab

She adds: “And yet we have, in Scotland, some of the world’s best academics in certain fields. The mission of all the agencies is to create social and economic benefit for Scotland and create high-value jobs.”

Docherty herself is an alumna of the University of Glasgow, with a computer science degree. She joined IBM in the university “milk round” in 1993 and went on to hold a range of leadership roles at Big Blue in England and Scotland. She paid tribute to the training and education she received at the supplier, and its exhortation to “Think”.

Docherty took up the CEO role at The Data Lab in 2015, after 22 years at IBM, with the goal of creating 250 new high-value jobs and generating £100m-plus for the Scottish economy.

The Lab is based in Edinburgh, with satellite offices in Glasgow and Aberdeen. It has an in-house team of four data scientists and a handful of business development staff. Since its inception two and a half years ago, it has been involved in 65 projects, invested £2.4m, with an £80m uplift in revenue for the organisations involved, and created 280 jobs.

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Among the projects the Lab has been engaged with is one for NHS Scotland, developing algorithms to predict better which patients will end up bed blocking.

Another is a “Fit Homes” project being developed by Albyn Housing Society in partnership with Carbon Dynamic – which makes sustainable, modular homes that are craned into position – and NHS Highland. The idea is to build 15 assisted living houses, replete with sensors.

The Data Lab comes in by buying time from researchers at Robert Gordon University Aberdeen. The researchers there are developing predictive analytics software that will, for example, predict when someone is likely have a fall by way of gait analysis (through sensors in the carpets) or water consumption analysis (dehydration makes a fall more likely). One home has been installed so far.

The intellectual property (IP) model behind the projects is such that The Data Lab “does not take any IP – and that is crucial”, says Docherty. The universities, organisations, and companies are vested with the IP, and the details of those arrangements – such as how bounded the rights to use the IP commercially might be – are agreed up front, she says.

On the education front, the Lab funds courses for students on a variety of masters degree courses in data science, data engineering and artificial intelligence (AI). In the first year, they funded 40 students at three universities, in the second year 90 at seven, and in the third year, 130 at 11 universities on 17 courses.

But the key, says Docherty, is to pull these cohorts of students together for soft skills training, hackathons for specific industrial data problems, and so on. They meet up in October, and are drawn together for the Data Talent Scotland part of Data Fest. Many of the students also receive help to place them in internships in companies based in Scotland.

“The idea is to create more talent and anchoring that in Scotland,” she says. “There is a network effect – they get to know each other across the different universities.”

Why Edinburgh? Why Scotland?

It is not just the Scottish capital that is the locus of what could be called a certain renaissance of data analytics and AI in Scotland, says Docherty. Nevertheless, Edinburgh is the home of the Scottish parliament and a financial services sector that has shadowed the City of London since even before the Act of Union in 1707. The Bank of England itself included among its founders a Scot, William Paterson.

According to Stack Overflow’s fourth-quarter Developer ecosystem report, the number of software developers in Edinburgh grew by 8% in the second half of 2017, bringing the total population to almost 20,000. There was also a jump of 19% in the number of data scientists working in Edinburgh over the same period.

The work/life balance afforded by the city and the cheaper housing, compared with London and southeast England, are contributing to a pull north, says Docherty. Scotland also voted to remain part of the European Union, and first minister Nicola Sturgeon has been vocal in saying EU citizens are welcome to stay, and that the Scottish government will pay their settled status fee if they work in the public sector, in the event of Brexit.

“There is a well-publicised desire to attract and retail talent globally to Scotland, and that is very important,” says Docherty.

“Though speaking as a Glaswegian, I’d say the tech scene in Edinburgh is really buzzing. There is Brainwave, which has 18 data scientists in Edinburgh, though London and Jersey based. They are focused on making the world’s datasets accessible. Then there’s Spiritus Partners from the US, focused on blockchain for the healthcare industry. And they are just two of a dozen or so [new entrants to Edinburgh] in the last year.”

Docherty adds: “And over in the financial district in Glasgow, [London-based] Previse, which is using AI for automated payments, is building a data science team. Glasgow’s got a real buzz, too. The council has invested in the Tontine incubator. And you’ve got Barclays, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, who are huge tech employers.

“Glasgow University is making a billion-pound investment in a new campus where the old Western Infirmary used to be. Strathclyde University also has many projects with us, and has always been very engaged with, and understood, industry. It opened its Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) building in 2015.

“So, it’s not just one university or one place. If we do this properly, it will create a rising tide for the whole country. That’s my dream, anyway.”

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