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Scotland’s Data Lab CEO Brian Hills on its ambition to change lives

Brian Hills, chief executive of The Data Lab in Scotland, on why he thinks the organisation’s mission is less about data and more about changing lives by giving people career opportunities

The Data Lab in Scotland is ambitious to change lives, not merely to launch and promote the careers of people with the word “data” in their job titles.

Brian Hills took over as CEO of the Scottish government-supported organisation from Gillian Docherty earlier this year. He has spent almost eight years at The Data Lab, joining in 2015 as head of product and data. He was formerly head of business intelligence at Skyscanner and, prior to that, an analyst, eventually head of analytics, at IT consultancy Sumerian.

The Data Lab employs around 50 people, largely in Edinburgh, but also in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, with remote workers as far flung as Manchester and Stornoway.

It was founded in 2014 as part of an innovation centres programme in Scotland, funded by Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Government.

The lab is based at the University of Edinburgh, and, among other activities, supports students through Masters degrees in data science across the 12 Scottish universities. It also organises the annual DataFest event across the country, with the Data Summit conference at the heart of that – which is happening this week in Edinburgh.

Now in its second phase of funding – some £24m from the Scottish Funding Council over five years – and emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, Hills says the lab’s staff felt a need to redefine its mission, and “that was to change lives and make Scotland and the wider world a more productive and sustainable place, by transforming the way we use data”.

Photo by Phil Wilkinson

“[For] DataFest and the Data Summit we curate some of the best speakers and the best ideas that we’ve seen from our travels, recognising that most people in Scotland are not going to have that opportunity. For us, it’s not about data at all. It is fundamentally about changing people’s lives”

Brian Hills, The Data Lab

The Data Lab facilitates the placement of students in private and public sector organisations, during and after their studies. Beyond that, says Hills, it supports organisations to innovate with data.

“Some of our funding is leveraged into universities to pay for academic time to collaborate with industry and the public sector,” he adds. “Over the past seven years, we’ve funded over 130 projects, with an estimated £200m of increased revenue for those businesses and 650 high-value jobs created.”

The students supported by the lab are have been filling out an alumni network that is enriching a growing data science community in Scotland and beyond, he says. As an example, Hills cites an organisation called Data Kirk, which helps black and other ethnic minority communities get involved in data-related careers and activities. That was started by someone from one of its first cohorts of students, Fash Fasoro, whom the lab funded through Stirling University.

This is one example of the skills work The Data Lab is involved with. The organisation is also leading The Data Skills for Work programme based out of the University of Edinburgh.

“That’s partly about upskilling people at risk of redundancy from automation and AI [artificial intelligence], to give them data literacy skills that they can either use within their organisation or create options for new jobs. We’re also looking at minority groups. We are collaborating with Code Clan [a digital bootcamp] and Equate Scotland [which militates for women in science, technology, engineering and maths] for the upskilling of women in data science,” says Hills.

“We also do a lot of executive leadership education, because we believe to unlock the potential of data, leaders need to have an awareness of what the value of it is, or could be, to their organisations. So far, we have put 4,000 leaders through our training, online and in person.”

The Data Lab puts emphasis on training for data ethics. “A lot of Masters courses are very intense, and you learn a technical toolbox of algorithms and all that good stuff. There’s not enough time in these types of programmes to cover everything,” he says.

“One thing we thought wasn’t covered well was data ethics. It is now mandatory that if we fund you, you have to do this online course on data ethics that we created with the University of Edinburgh, to ensure you’ve got a good grounding in this before you go into the workforce.”

Now that international travel is opening up again, Hills sees big opportunities for promotion of the lab and bringing learning back home to Scotland.

“When I get the privilege of going on trips with Scottish Development International to San Francisco, New York, Singapore, and the like, we’ll go to the conferences and see really inspiring speakers and meet companies to get a sense of what’s happening around the world. Then we bring that back into this country to inspire other people,” he says.

“That’s why we created DataFest and the Data Summit. We curate some of the best speakers and the best ideas that we’ve seen from our travels, recognising that most people in Scotland are not going to have that opportunity. For us, it’s not about data at all. It is fundamentally about changing people’s lives.”

Data Lab model for the rest of the UK?

Hills does not feel there is an exact counterpart of The Data Lab anywhere else in the UK.

“Could you do a Data Lab in England? One of the reflections we’ve had is that we have been successful because of the scale of where we’re operating. We’re quite a small ecosystem, compared to the rest of the UK,” he says.

“There’s an inflection point now. Seven to nine years ago, it was all big data. Nobody talks about big data anymore. It’s gone AI. But...you have to get the data sorted before you can do the advanced piece”
Brian Hills, The Data Lab

“Within England, there are regions where you could do something like navigating the politics of 12 universities, as we have done. But maybe one of the unique things for Scotland is actually its size. It’s like a Petri dish that you can run these experiments in, and then do more of it, if it’s successful, in an ecosystem.”

Hills also see a distinct evolution of data science within the Scottish universities, away from computer science. “When we first started, we were asked to collaborate with the computing or informatics departments. We did a tour of all universities at the beginning to present ourselves to them. But over the seven years, all faculties have learned how to use data within their specific academic areas,” he says.

“One of the first projects we funded was in mechanical engineering at Strathclyde University to develop machine learning expertise. That’s a big evolution in the universities that I’ve seen over the years – that data capability and AI capability is within different areas now. Climate and environmental science, but also in divinity, doing natural language processing, because of all the understanding they have of textual structures, and the reading of different ancient languages.

“There’s an inflection point now. Seven to nine years ago, it was all big data. Nobody talks about big data anymore. It’s gone AI. But fundamentally, for most organisations, you have to get the data sorted before you can do the advanced piece.”

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