The policy briefing Analytic Britain laid out a series of recommendations that would see the the UK to make the most of the data revolution. At a recent event at the Nesta innovation centre Joshua Ryan-Saha set out how those recommendations are being implemented in Scotland through The Data Lab, the innovation centre where he leads skills development.
Ryan-Saha is responsible for development of data science skills in Scotland and operates from The Data Lab, the Edinburgh-based innovation centre. It was set up to help Scottish industry capitalise on data science and Ryan-Saha explained that it is doing so in three ways.
The first is through collaborative innovation whereby it funds projects between academia and industry, using Scottish academics to solve industry’s data science problems. The second is the development of data science skills in Scotland. The third is the cultivation of a community around data science, including data scientists, industry, government and students. These paths of action are ways in which is it addressing the recommendations of Analytic Britain.
The first recommendation from the policy briefing is "we need stronger teaching of mathematics and statistics in schools and colleges." Ryan-Saha explained that, currently, The Data Lab is developing an online course with the University of Glasgow that will train teachers and lecturers to embed data science techniques across the curriculum. Furthermore, the Edinburgh City Deal will see universities partnering with schools and employers to increase data skills among young people.
One of the recommendations of Analytic Britain in relation to universities and vocational education is "to increase the supply of high-end talent". To that end, The Data Lab is funding a course with the University of Glasgow around environmental modelling and another at the University of Edinburgh around stratified medicine. It has also set up a fund for industrial and engineering doctorates.
The innovation centre successfully increased the number of Masters’ course places it is funding from 40 to 130. In addition, it has set up a challenge competition in which students, including the 130 it is funding, are invited to work on real data sets from Scotland. “They work over a long innovation week and will develop products that can get rolled out. The winning students from this years’ competition developed a platform that can predict fly-tipping around Scotland,” said Ryan-Saha.
On the recommendation of "actively convening industry and analytics networks" through events such as hackathons and meet-ups, The Data Lab is making clear progress. Ryan-Saha said that the innovation centre is hosting monthly meet-ups, including a recent job matching event with students and companies with data science vacancies. It is also runs the annual, week-long DataFest which comprises a summit, an executive dinner as well as fringe events.
In order to "raise awareness of the value of data for business," The Data Lab has set up an executive education programme led by the former digital manager of Clydesdale Bank, in which he tells Scottish companies how they can embrace data, said Ryan-Saha. The Data Lab is also doing its part to "deliver innovative solutions for data analytics training" as it has set up a fund to develop online data training courses and has also worked in collaboration with The Data Incubator from New York to create one- and two-day training sessions.
Ryan-Saha did point out that there are still areas for improvement. “The gender gap is still prominent at the undergraduate level in data science. I think we need to do some catch-up courses in coding and programming to help get a better gender balance at Masters’ level,” he said. The data science skills lead said that establishing apprenticeship should also be an important focus because increasing the number of routes into a data science career will increase diversity within the data science industry. “There is a risk that you are only getting data scientists from a certain subsection of the population. Apprenticeships are very good at bringing in and training up people from a range of different backgrounds.”