From apes to algorithms

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

Johanna Hutchinson, head of data at The Pensions Regulator, talked to me about her career trajectory, how data workplaces can be more flexible and accommodating to all workers regardless of their family circumstances, and the challenge the UK faces in becoming more data literate.

Tell me about your career and how you came to work in data in the public sector.

When I was a little girl I wanted to be like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. I wanted to work with gorillas and chimpanzees in the forests of Africa. The one thing that has followed me through my career is persistence so there was no way I was ever going to not do that.

Gorilla looking contemplativeAt 18 I was living in Uganda and working with gorillas in rainforests throughout my gap year. That followed on to my degree in biology and psychology, my master’s degree in applied ecology and conservation and my PhD was in comparative psychology on gorilla social development.

"I loved data better than traipsing round the rainforest."

By the time I was 30 I wanted different things from career. I found that I loved the data and the analysis more than traipsing round the rainforest trying to find a gorilla.

When I had a family and wanted to work part-time, and be stretched to tackle large data sets and complex problems, the Civil Service enabled that.

When did you join The Pensions Regulator?

Fifteen months ago. It's an amazing opportunity. The value of being in a smaller organisation is that because we have support from the top and we are in a transformation of the organisation, we are able to embed data into the functions relatively quickly. And see that change to becoming a more data driven regulator in a shorter period of time. That is really attractive me; to see what it looks like to embed the data, that culture and see those changes.

What does ‘data-driven regulator’ mean to you?

There are two main areas. The first is evidence-based decision making. As a scientist, you are trained to find what the data is telling you. And it's the same in government. We're looking at what the evidence tells us about the pensions sector that enables us to regulate it.

Secondly, efficiency saving. Any business at the moment that is using data is spending an awful lot of time editing its data up to a certain level of quality, ensuring there is correct governance around it and managing it in different ways. Many organisations have data in silos that can't be extracted and brought together and that causes inefficiency, Individuals then have to manage the data to get the outputs out of it.

"We're bringing data together and centrally managing it."

The value of some of the work that we're doing in bringing data together into one area and centrally managing it enables analysts, actuarial modellers, and the intelligence team to do the real work that adds value rather than some of the grunt work that four or five people could be replicating across the organisation.

You were able to work part-time at the Civil Service. How is your organisation helping to support employees who have to care for family members, a responsibility that often falls on women?

The huge benefit for working in government is that all the family-friendly policies that it sets are incorporated in the government departments. We can work on flexible schedules, so we are able to change start and finish times day by day to fit with our routines, but within core hours. We have shared parental leave and it is possible to take periods of time off for various reasons.

Man holding baby with spit ragAnd caring responsibilities are recognised. It is not just when you have children but potentially women who are often caught into looking after elderly family members.

"Flexible working is not [just] targetted at women."

I quite like that flexible working is not targeted at women. It is something that is targeted across the organisation. In my team, something that I always really value is that a lot of the men are doing the school run as well, so will use that flexi time to support their own family, and indeed to support their partners who have careers in other industries.

What are the advantages of being a woman in data?

Women are very good at these roles. There's a lot of traditional skills that women are associated with: having the sociality, being able to talk to people, being able to explain complex principles which really come into this game very well.

Johanna Hutchinson, head of data, The Pensions RegulatorWhat is a challenge you are facing as a data leader?

Working with data is a daily challenge. The UK is one of the most innumerate countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development put us as 33 out of 35 countries for numeracy. A large proportion of society do not like number and actively avoid number. You encounter that across the office, from the executive and the board, all the way down to people working on the phones.

So, the challenge is to be able to get number across to people without it seeming like number. A lot of the new technology has really enabled that. Many businesses struggle to identify a data requirement from a business requirement. You have to work with people to really understand what that is - getting people to think and work in a different way and accept you as somebody who can help them.


Knowledge-based content manager, DataIQ
Toni is the senior features editor responsible for the origination of DataIQ's interviews, articles and blogs.