With everybody from the Government downwards keen to develop their analytical capabilities, things need to change in the world of education. David Reed spoke to Nesta about its new policy briefing aimed at improving the pipeline of candidates.
From David Cameron to the (potentially at the time of writing) new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, politicians of all colours say one thing about the economy of the United Kingdom - it must become based around highly-skilled knowledge workers. It is a classic “motherhood and apple pie” statement, as the Americans call them. After all, who would argue we should be a low-wage, basic skills country?
You hear the same argument coming from commercial organisations undergoing digital transformations. They need data analysts to process the raw material of customer, sales, price, behaviour and the rest into the gold they have been promised. Proof of the value to be discovered by doing this emerged from the research project carried out by Nesta in 2014, called “Inside the Datavores”. It found that a one percentage point increase in the use of online data made companies 8 per cent more productive
Saying you want this to happen and making it so are very different things (as many businesses in the middle of adopting data and analytics will profess). For politicians, it is easier to make the feel-good statements than to agree the policies and funding which might make them become a reality.
To keep the government on the hook to deliver against its promises about data and digital skills, Nesta has revisited its findings and undertaken a major new research project into the framework required to realise UK plc’s data-enriched future. The result is a policy briefing, “Analytic Britain: Securing the right skills for the data-driven economy”, which contains 14 topline recommendations (see box).
“Our research into data analytics was part of the previous government’s Data Skills Strategy. One of the actions from that strategy was the need for better evidence of the skills shortage to ensure it could deliver its policies,” recalls Juan Mateos-Garcia, economics research fellow, creative and digital economy at Nesta. Discovering that Datavores perform better than other companies and that there was a skills shortage - the leaders in data and analytics represent just 18 per cent of UK companies - identified a problem which needed careful definition.
At the same time, the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS) and Universities UK had been looking into the shortage of STEM-qualified students and graduates. “So we decided to go the extra mile by not just identifying policy implications, which are not very actionable, but developing actual policy recommendations,” he says.
Mateos-Garcia spent several months interviewing a wide range of stakeholders - the briefing document identifies dozens of organisations which are capable of making a real impact on the problem - and said the exercise “felt like I was pushing on open doors. There was an acknowledgment of the issue in different parts of the eco-system, from universities to trade bodies, and a realisation that nobody has all the answers.”
Think-tanks regularly issue policy documents which rarely lead to any action, which is why Nesta focused on very specific, achievable goals. A good example is the proposal for a cross-cutting taskforce around data analytics which would bring together stakeholders ranging from the Tech Partnership and the Royal Statistical Society through to techUK and the Open Data Institute. The aim would be to spur collaboration and develop best practices for education and skills provision.
One of the findings from Mateos-Garcia’s research was just how diverse is the landscape for data analytics supply and demand. It covers the education of science and maths in schools through to the research projects being undertaken by PhDs and how these align with what industry needs. “A lot is down to what happens in schools and the early stages of education or the pipeline is not sustainable - there are still a lot of educators who don’t realise the range of analytics careers available to their pupils,” he says.
“That is an area where industry can pull its weight, for example by offering data analyst degree apprenticeships so that skills are configured to what business needs. There are initiatives around, but they are not as visible as they could be,” argues Mateos-Garcia. It continues to be the case that many PhDs and data scientists doing research in technical subjects do not realise that they have skills which are highly-transferrable into the commercial world. (See the example of Blue Yonder and its former CERN physicists in the article on analytics start-ups on page 21.)
On the other side of that problem, a third of UK businesses are still “Dataphobes” who are hesitant about adopting data analytics in the first place. Nesta argues that local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships are well placed to support and run workshops providing knowledge transfer into these companies. It highlights initiatives like the Cabinet Office 2015 Open Data Champions which recognised the efforts of 16 local and regional councils which were data pioneers creating opportunities for innovation and growth.
Mateos-Garcia admits that, “I hadn’t realised there were local authorities acting as drivers of analytics skills around them in schools and communities, becoming hubs through their use of open data, secondments and the like. They can play a strong role in areas where industry is less well developed in data analytics.”
Smart cities and growth hubs are a very fashionable public sector focus right now, while elsewhere the Open Data Institute is in a very hot spot and viewed globally as a leading example of how to do things. “The whole approach it has adopted is optimistic,” he notes.
Having produced two research reports and a policy briefing, Nesta is not content to just sit back and hope they trigger a response. Instead, it will be aligning with other groups that have focused on the data analytics space, like the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to collaborate on projects which will drive the supply of analysts and realise their value to business.
“As a consequence, we will start to develop an organic system for the provision of data analytics skills at all levels, instead of a top-down, rigid model,” says Mateos-Garcia. “That will enable it to be flexible and ensure a flow of analysts with the right skills as the market changes and technology develops. We are looking at having a network of organisations sharing information across disciplines to ensure the sustainability and employability of analysts.”
In early Autumn, that cross-cutting task force will come together to discuss an action plan that embraces industry bodies, like techUK, government departments, like BIS, as well as the academic community. The task it needs to undertake is clear and has been well set out by Nesta - if they get it right, the UK’s politicians will have every reason to be confident that they are transforming the country’s skills base.
(The full report can be found at http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/analytic-britain-securing-right-skills-data-driven-economy)