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CIO interview: Nic Granger, director of corporate and CFO, North Sea Transition Authority

Spending time with penguins in the Falkland Islands may not seem an obvious background for an IT leader, but it's worked for Nic Granger as she sets out to overhaul the way data is used in the oil and gas sector

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Drilling into data to help the UK’s energy transition

Nic Granger isn’t your typical digital leader. Having spent time in the past with penguins on the Falklands Islands, she’s now director of corporate and chief financial officer (CFO) at the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), where she’s responsible for finance and technology. While her blended leadership role might seem unusual, Granger says it’s a good mix.

“Some people find it strange that the data and CFO roles go together, but I don’t,” she says. “I think they’re about delivering the same thing. Both finance and digital are about giving people data to make better decisions, whether through digital solutions or financial information. So for me, the roles are consistent.”

Granger didn’t set out to become a CFO. She has an IT degree but struggled to find a suitable role when she left university. “I went to accountancy for a short time, and then I’ve had a career that has bounced backwards and forwards between the two,” she says.

“There’s always been an underlying finance involvement to my work. The position I went into after leaving accounting practice was in the NHS and it was an IT finance role. It was a blended role, where I ensured finance colleagues had the business intelligence tools to do their jobs.”

After starting her career in the UK, Granger spent almost a decade working for the Falkland Islands Government. “My husband saw a job advert that had penguins on it. He applied for a job in accountancy and we went to the Falklands. I was lucky enough to get a job on day four after arrival,” she says.

“We were there for nine years and it was fantastic. I really enjoyed it. You get a fantastic work-life balance because the country is so small. There’s a huge amount to do outdoors and the wildlife is fantastic. It’s just an interesting place, otherwise we wouldn’t have stayed there for nine years.”

Making data available

NSTA was established as an independent regulator for oil and gas in 2015. Since then, the organisation has been given remits for carbon storage and, most recently, hydrogen. “We regulate and influence the industry on behalf of the country,” she says. “We’re funded predominantly through an industry levy.”

Granger joined NSTA in late 2016 at the start of the organisation’s digital and data efforts. She reports to the chief executive and sits on the board. NSTA also has a chief digital information officer who reports to Granger. She manages a 50-strong internal team and draws in external talent from specialist organisations as required.

Granger explained to Computer Weekly at the recent State of Open Con 24 event from OpenUK in London how her organisation and its partners are making data openly available to accelerate the UK’s energy transition. She says the priority for her team is to help NSTA secure energy supplies and boost sustainability.

“Part of the challenge that we and the industry have is ensuring that we have security of supply for UK energy while reducing the emissions of supplies, decarbonising energy, and then accelerating the energy transition,” she says.

“So, specifically on accelerating the energy transition, we are making huge amounts of data available, both in terms of making our data openly available and also making industry data publicly available, so industry leaders and academics can understand the subsurface much better. And that means we can accelerate the energy transition, too.”

After joining NSTA, Granger wanted to help ensure employees could collect information easily and effectively. The organisation was given powers to collect data from the oil and gas sector through legislation. Her team then started to create digital platforms that allow industry, government, academia or other interested parties to access data openly.

She says her team’s work has helped senior people across the sector develop a deeper sense of the importance of information: “Having these powers that require the industry to submit data to us is has enabled our data management colleagues in the industry to go to their bosses and say, ‘I need more budget’.”

Opening access to information

Granger’s data-led approach is already paying dividends. Her team has helped create the foundations for an open data approach across the industry, including through the implementation of the UK National Data Repository (NDR).

The NDR is a bespoke, cloud-based platform built by technology specialist Osokey. The platform holds information reported by petroleum licensees and offshore infrastructure operators. The NDR holds more than a petabyte of data to help people make smarter decisions. Granger’s team works hard to make sure data is clean and available.

Photo of Nic Granger, director of corporate and chief financial officer at the North Sea Transition Authority

“Our biggest challenge has been making sure the industry data we’re collecting is usable for purpose”

Nic Granger, North Sea Transition Authority

Her team has packaged up data and made it available through an open data site. NSTA’s data has been used for successful offshore wind bids and to support carbon storage licensing. However, providing a technological mechanism, such as application programming interfaces (APIs), to help parties exploit data is the easy part. Granger says the more intractable issue is cultural.

“We’ve got a petabyte of data that people can use for fancy artificial intelligence and machine learning projects, but if your underlying data quality is not good, and the data isn’t machine readable, then it doesn't matter whether you can put an API in place. That’s been our biggest challenge – making sure the industry data we’re collecting is usable for purpose,” she says.

“For example, we have seen data submitted to us that – when we’ve looked at it – has got four black holes down the left-hand side of the page, so it’s been taken out of a folder, scanned, and then it’s not particularly machine readable.”

Granger says the regulations give her team the power to push back to the industry if the data submitted isn’t good enough. The key to success is ensuring everyone knows the benefits of having access to high-quality information. “There’s a huge amount of data. We can’t push back on all of it at once,” she says.

“We’ve targeted geographical areas that we think are important and we’ve gone to companies specifically and said, ‘This data you’ve submitted in this area is not high enough quality’. We’ve also targeted certain types or attributes of data and said, ‘Across the industry, we need you to improve and resubmit this data’. So, it’s a combination of those approaches.”

Transforming the organisation

While NSTA is just under 10 years old, Granger’s team has to manage significant technical debt due to the range of legacy systems the organisation inherited. The scale of the transformation is considerable – her team is running about 80 projects right now.

This work includes redeveloping apps on the Energy Portal, a transactional system between NSTA, industry and other government departments. Granger wants to create a Digital Energy Platform with multiple applications, including one for the National Data Repository, the open data site with geospatial information and the Energy Portal.

“The portal was written in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and perhaps hasn’t had the love, care and attention it could have,” she says. “So, we have a big digital transformation project that’s taking two or three of those apps at a time and redeveloping them in a modern language to ensure they are fit for purpose.”

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However, Granger reiterates that technology is just one element of a successful digital transformation. What’s more important is people know how to exploit information. Granger is working hard to ensure people have the right data skills. She’s created a digital academy at NSTA that provides courses to help people bolster their capabilities.

With the combination of skills development programmes and technology initiatives underway at NSTA, Granger explains her vision for the organisation 24 months from now. “The picture for us is having self-service data at people’s fingertips,” she says.

“We want to have the skills provided or signposted in the organisation so people can use the data. So, whether you’re trying to run data analytics yourself or looking at others’ insight and understanding and interpreting it, that’s our vision.”

Developing a data career

Granger looks back on her career and recognises she’s been able to follow a more interesting career path by not securing the perfect technology role after graduation. She offers advice to up-and-coming professionals.

“Always do things you’re interested in. I could have found an IT role when I came out of university, but it would have been a role that I wasn’t particularly interested in. I’ve never had set career plans and that’s helped me because I haven’t had a fixed focus on my endpoint. So, don’t over plan – do things you enjoy.”

Granger says there are ripe opportunities for professionals who enjoy working with data. She says digital skills are crucial for modern employees. She also feels the IT industry has moved a long way forward during the past two decades. However, NSTA research suggests capable data professionals are still in short supply.

“We ran a survey with some partners recently that showed a surprising number of organisations in the sector don’t feel they’ve got the digital and data skills they need,” she says. “A third of the offshore energy sector felt they could do better regarding their skills for existing technologies, which doubled to two-thirds for emerging technologies.”

Granger has continued to develop her experiences during her career. She’s a non-executive trustee for Falklands Conservation, a non-governmental organisation that aims to conserve wildlife. Fulfilling this role bolsters her skills and allows her to monitor developments in the Falklands. So, given her first-hand experience of wildlife, what are penguins like?

“They’re inquisitive,” she says. “The conservation charity places white, painted stones around the penguin colonies, so people know where they’re not supposed to go. But the penguins don’t know that rule and they’ll come out of the circles and come and sit on you.”

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