Government is pumping money into big data analytics innovation. But unless you know where to look, you might be missing out on the resources and backing that could get your project off the ground. David Reed identifies three of the key agencies you need to know about.
If you are not involved with the public sector, it is easy to get the impression that it is too busy running the country to focus on growing the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Written deep into government policy are some heavyweight funding plans that are intended to stimulate interaction between the public, private and academic sectors, driving innovation and building sustainable new revenue streams as a result.
Big data and analytics are one of the eight supporting pillars of this policy, attracting streams of government funding that are distributed through a range of different organisations. Like much in the public sector, you have to wade through a thicket of acronyms and navigate oceans of overlapping bodies. But at the end of that journey, you may just find a pot of gold that could get your company’s project up and running.
Here are three public sector bodies that may be able to offer the support you need for your own data and analytics project:
STFC and The Hartree Centre
One of the jewels in the crown of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is The Hartree Centre, a high-performance computing asset which is looking to partner with industry to drive innovation through research and development. With IBM, it has created the Big Data Innovation Hub aimed at SMEs who need support for complex business problems from skilled data scientists and advanced super-computing facilities.
Michael Gleaves, head of business development at STFC Hartree Centre, says it is vital to economic growth to bring those skills closer to a broader section of industry. “For high-value engineering like Jaguar Land Rover, for example, it is very expensive to physically stage a crash test and capture the necessary information. For £12 you can replicate that virtually and in real-time. That business models hasn’t touched a lot of sectors for their product development, like FMCG or pharmaceutical,” he says.
For The Hartree Centre, having received £170 million in government funding since it was launched, there is a focus on changing that model. “In the US, 30 to 40 per cent of technologies and new science comes out of university research and into business. In the UK, that figure is still in single digits,” says Gleaves.
Through the team of six business development managers that he leads, Hartree looks for opportunities to collaborate on commercial R&D projects. It supplies the data scientists and their analytical skills together with computing power and visualisation tools, but running to commercial timescales. Algorithm development to optimise big data computing is another service, as is providing access to its platform as a service and giving training via more than 30 courses.
Says Gleaves: “Our goal is to deliver economic impact to an organisation by making high-performance computing and big data analytics techniques available to business. We help them to develop their projects, identify where they need to invest and hope they adopt that into their operating culture.”
Hartree has worked on over 90 projects so far, including working with Democrata using open data to predict where archaeological sites might overlap with construction sites and with KnowNow Information to predict weather-related emergency blackspots in order to optimise the siting of response resources.
Gleaves hopes that being able to access such cutting edge technology and techniques could lead to a change in how innovation and big data fuel economic growth. “It might be difficult to ‘fast-follow’ in this economy. Once you are first to market, you can get rapid adoption. With data and analytics, you can get a competitive advantage for years to come,” he says.
Democratisation of data and analytics is a guiding principle for the Centre. “To drive economic impact, it is no use if only one person is an expert in how to use the output. So part of what we look at in a project is how to democratise in a way that can roll out that knowledge and skills,” he says.
This has already been done with Unilever to transform its approach to product formulation. Whereas it used to have a six to eight-week development cycle which required a research chemist to validate new formulas as viable products, it now runs virtual simulations which product development teams can build via an iPad app. Says Gleaves: “That means innovation is democratised without those users having to become experts in chemical analysis.”
With government funds covering its capital expenditure, The Hartree Centre sells these services on a running cost-recovery basis and does not take a slice of any intellectual property that gets created. A business can start by using the platform-as-a-service for a few hundred pounds, get involved with hands-on data scientist support for £10,000 upwards, then once it has a proof of concept, scale out with no upper limit on capacity. For commercial organisations who are canny (and perhaps brave) enough to get involved, this could super-charge their analytics-driven innovation.
Data Lab Scotland
As one of the eight innovation centres set up by the Scottish Funding Council, Data Lab Scotland is tasked with working across industry and the public sector to help create high-value jobs and grow the knowledge economy in Scotland. “Our founding principle is to be industry-driven - we need to understand industry’s requirements and challenges in using data analytics to innovate and develop products and services,” says CEO Gillian Docherty.
“We’re there to help build the combination of skills and capability that will enable them to grow, creating a healthy bottom line and contributing to Scotland’s economy,” she adds. The agency is pursuing this through three strategies. The first is with collaborative industry projects in which a private sector business sets out a commercial challenge and Data Lab Scotland finds the appropriate PhD, reader or professor to work on it.
This has already seen a full-time academic assigned to developing a machine-learning algorithm, although Docherty notes that, “they don’t have to come from informatics or data science, they could have other domains of expertise such as law or economics. It is about finding the right projects that have challenges in terms of data and innovation.”
Companies provide funding in cash or kind to match the academic resource which the lab puts in place. These projects can be pitched ad hoc to the agency, or they may be in response to a themed challenge which it has set up. Currently, it is running a call for projects in financial technology - a key sector in the Scottish economy.
“We have got to create demand. If organisations don’t have access to skills and talent, the growth potential is limited,” she says. That has seen the second strategy being realised in the form of 40 graduate students starting an MSc in Data Science created in partnership with the University of Dundee and industry partners who are offering placements.
“In the short time we have been active, we have seen huge interest. I am not surprised we have had industry partners asking how many they can take from the course. That allows us to say we do need our funding to support industry by delivering that talent,” says Docherty. The lab is also co-funding 25 PhD places with matching funds from industry partners. Those students will spend half of their time working in the commercial environment and half on research to ensure their skills are aligned with real-world needs.
The third strategy is to develop a community of big data analytics practitioners in Scotland. “It is about becoming a go-to organisation, putting Scotland on the map for external organisations looking to invest here and who want to go after the European market. We are saying the right skills and talent are here,” she says.
Innovate UK is the “UK’s innovation agency” with a mission to bring together people, companies and partner organisations to drive science and technology innovations. It has so far matched £1.5 billion in funds with equal business backing as part of a five-point plan for economic growth. The agency also acts as the gateway to the €79 billion Horizon 2020 European funding programme for research and innovation.
Currently, it is running a funding challenge which is offering six businesses the chance to win £35,000 each in backing for a value-driving data solution in either education, finance, advertising, sustainability or travel. Novel data analysis techniques that win out will be partnered with one of the public and private organisations that have joined with Innovate UK on this project.
Another initiative is the Digital Catapult Centre which is aimed at unlocking new value from sharing proprietary data. Four challenges are being tackled: creating secure environments in which UK companies can share their data and allow access to innovators; examining the issue of creating trust in the use of personal data; being a “convening force” for large-scale Internet of Things demonstrators; and supporting easier re-use of creative content.
To understand the scale of its vision, the Digital Catapult Centre is aiming to have generated £365 million of incremental economic revenue and to have helped 10,000 organisations by 2018. It does this across a wide range of activities, including open calls for funding competitions and through knowledge sharing. As part of that, it has also set up the Personal Data and Trust Network (pdtn.org) which is looking to build a community of industry, researchers, funders and public sector to ensure the UK becomes the global leader in trust and responsible innovation with personal data.