Edinburgh Global

DDI: Doing data right

Data Driven Innovation (DDI) has highlighted the University’s strengths as a global leader in data and multi-disciplinary research, and its growing maturity as a facilitator of innovation partnerships.

The project, part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, is 3 years in to a 15-year mission that will help organisations and individuals on both a global and regional scale benefit from the valuable insights offered by data analytics. It is an ambitious collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University and the Scottish Government to create the physical infrastructure of a research environment that uses excellence to attract academic and industry partners from around the world.

The end goal is to position the City Region as the ‘data capital of Europe’ but if Edinburgh is to compete with the current leaders as a base for data analytics in the UK and Europe it must make a robust offer: that offer is simple – unmatched facilities, financial investment and proximity to leading tech companies like SkyScanner, FanDuel and Amazon.

We met with Jarmo Eskelinen, Executive Director of Data Driven Innovation (DDI), to hear how the University’s ambitions are progressing, to discuss the role international engagement can play in the DDI project, and to understand Edinburgh’s unique offering.

Edinburgh’s legacy in data

We discussed international engagement and Edinburgh’s strength in data, which Jarmo feels has been a well-kept secret for too long – a secret he is working hard to expose.

Most people are unaware of how strong Edinburgh is in data – how long a legacy it has in data. Shining a light on that fact and making it more visible, building platforms and channels where we can share what we already know would be highly beneficial for us in creating new partnerships and collaborations. The post-pandemic world means we have become masters in remote working and that will change the way that we collaborate. Being positioned in the North of a country, on an island, no longer matters if you are good; you can build connections wherever.

Jarmo EskelinenExecutive Director of Data Driven Innovation

Our strength comes from facilities and research infrastructure too. Being the leader in the field or ‘Data Capital of Europe’ means understanding our position. There are some other global institutions who we can compare ourselves to, or who have significant data assets. Jarmo said: “Johns Hopkins University are excellent, Cambridge in the UK – we have all heard of Cambridge Analytica…But we have a strong research infrastructure. The key for Edinburgh is how customer friendly we can be, how well designed the interfaces can be - that is the work in progress.”

The project is halfway through a 6-year phase of preparation during which the focus has been on creating the spaces and teams that will form the backbone of its operation. So far, 5 new data-driven hubs have been created across Edinburgh to support research. We will eventually host 4 of these at the University: Bayes Centre, Edinburgh Futures Institute, Easter Bush campus, and Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics; The National Robotarium is a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh. Having such a wealth of resource means we will be able to position ourselves as the best in 10 forward-thinking industry sectors:

  • Public sector
  • Financial services
  • Fintech
  • Health and social care
  • CreativeTech
  • Tourism and Festivals
  • Agritech
  • Digital technologies
  • Robotics and Autonomous systems
  • Space and satellite

The fact that Edinburgh operates as a ‘big city in miniature’ makes it an attractive testbed for the practical applications of data-science in these sectors, if a solution works well here it can be upscaled and re-deployed elsewhere easily. Jarmo said: “When it comes to different domains – we are very agnostic. We want to connect the technical facility with excellence at the University to combine academic substance with technology. That will let us focus on some key research areas at our University.”

Ethical from the ground up

Being agnostic towards the type of projects that they will support does not mean that DDI are ambivalent towards the responsibilities that their position as a powerful force in data-research can present. Their work is built around ‘Doing Data Right’, a simple ethos that manifests itself in a variety of ways, including its educational mission. Ethics will be embedded in all aspects of the people that DDI train to ensure the generation of data scientists created here will be ethical from the ground up.

‘Doing Data Right’ is demonstrated too through the work of their anchor initiatives – flagship schemes which use data analysis to tackle pressing real world problems. Jarmo said: “A good example of that is the Global Open Finance Centre for Excellence which we have just won from the UKRI. It is a £22.3m grant to build a Global Open Finance Centre for Excellence. The total budget is £54m with the rest coming from industry. They will combine regional, national and international data in a safe, secure data environment in which we can combine data from different sources and make it possible to use real customer data of financial transactions to do data analytics without jeopardising people’s privacy or security.”

Alongside good practice in handling sensitive information they have also used their platform to amplify voices from outside the status-quo that challenge the established norms of data-science. In 2019 Caroline Criado Perez gave the keynote speech at the University’s conference: Doing Data Right: Through People and Partnerships. Caroline is the author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, which shines a light on the data gender gap behind a deep-rooted bias affecting women’s lives.

Amplifying excellent research

This idea of amplification is a good metaphor for the work of DDI. They are gatekeepers to a wealth of insight that can add the weight of empirical data to new ideas to a degree that has never been possible in the past. Jarmo said: “The way to think about DDI is this: It is a tool to get things done. The academics develop the research and we amplify it, support it and connect it to assets that are already available for excellent research. Any activities that deliver spin-outs for the University are in-keeping with our aims. We are mentioned on 5 of the Universities KPIs: talent, in creating data scientists; research, adaptation, helping companies adapt in new ways to of working; data – making data available for innovators and that will be measured by the number of data sets; entrepreneurship – how many companies do we ramp up or scale up.”

International focus

Unsurprisingly, a well-supported project so entwined with the goals of the University is forecast to have considerable success. Over the 15-year lifespan of the DDI project, it will help 100,000 individuals at the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University improve their data skills across a range of qualifications. With such considerable numbers behind it, the output of the program will have significant international interest which staff at the University who are involved in engagement, recruitment or partnership can support. Jarmo said: “Our role is to support the University’s international strategy. Concrete ways for UoE staff to support us might be to seek opportunities to connect international partnerships and then build anchor initiatives or connect partners to a larger anchor initiative. Or to work internationally to connect international collaborations to large scale initiatives like the Advanced Care Research Centre which will become the best place to develop later-life care in the world. We’ll also launch educational research programs and welcome the support to help us attract the best students or by connecting fantastic researchers and collaborations to the hubs.”

In time DDI will grow in reputation through association with the outputs it supports but looking to the near future there is scope for a more direct approach to international promotion. The project has already overseen the creation of its first cohort of DDI ambassadors: alumni with strong ties to Edinburgh and Scotland – an international network of experts acting in the interest of the University. Jarmo said: “We want to build a network of trust amongst these people and have them act as spokespeople of the programme and build bridges for us to future collaboration and connect us to companies or top researchers elsewhere; to form a network who benefit from knowing each other.”

Visit the DDI website to learn more

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