Perched on the 11th floor above the School of Medicine on Leeds University’s city centre campus you can find an institute that is pioneering cross-discipline research, bridging the gap between academia and the commercial sector and, at the same time, challenging the dominance of the “golden triangle” of Cambridge, London and Oxford.
Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA) could become the crown not just for the University, but for the region as it undegoes an economic transformation. Established in 2014, it initially brought together two existing Research Council Centres - the MRC Medical Bioinformatics Centre and the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre - which between them already had £12 million in funding. By combining their resources and creating a shared state-of-the-art infrastructure, in the form of the Integrated Reseach Campus, as Phil Waywell, LIDA research and innovation manager, explained when DataIQ visited in March, “the University’s view was that it would get more by combining them into one institute.” LIDA may just have achieved the elusive goal of making one plus one equal three, given the subsquent £25 million in research grants which it has been able to win.
"LIDA may just have achieved the elusive goal of making one plus one equal three."
LIDA is inter-disciplinary, drawing from eight faculties covering medical research through to ethics and computer science. “That makes us unique because most centres have a more narrow focus,” noted Waywell. Part of its success has been the centrality of data governance, meeting the NHS Information Governance Toolkit Level 2 for sensitive medical data while also holding ISO 27001 certification for personal information security.
As Waywell pointed out, “our partners need to know, if we are working with their competitors, that appropriate measures are in place, such as different researchers working on each project.” Data is hosted at three levels of security: for research users, subject to registration, verification and a set of rules; under safeguards, where research institutions supply data and have a veto over proposed uses; and secure, where access is only possible to a researcher in person and only at a dumb terminal with no external ports and where all written notes have to be signed off.
An eight-strong in-house data services team, employed by the University, combines academic and technical skills. All incoming data passes through the team to check it is what was expected and to act as a buffer between researchers and data owners. “They are there to prepare the data prior to it being made available to researchers. This step ensures the correct data reaches the intended recipient,” he said.
If this is the technical infrastructure which enables the research being carried out by the Institute’s members, it is the vision for LIDA which is really making a difference. Mark Birkin, LIDA director, said: “I would like LIDA to be at the centre of things. There are people here who understand our vision and the local economy is very diverse, from digital media to fintech. Is there any reason why Leeds shouldn’t be a leader on the global stage for data analytics?” By creating a unique, cross-disciplinary environment, the Institute is aiming to tap into funding streams that otherwise tend to head towards long-established research centres in that “golden triangle”.
"Is there any reason why Leeds shouldn’t be a leader on the global stage for data analytics?”
Putting the resources together and making the necessary investment was no trivial step for the University. Senior-level conversations started in late 2013 involving, among others, Professor Sir Alex Markham, director of the MRC Medical Bioinformatics Centre, Professor Mark Birkin, director of the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre and Professor David Hogg, pro-vice-chancellor for Research and Innovation. “We had both got centres which were working on different, but related domains. MRC was focused on bio-science, which has an element of computer science, as well as environmental science, geography, transportation, business studies,” explained Birkin.
“It was clear that putting it all together made sense and hats off to the senior management of the University for the support they have given. There are a lot of institutions investing in big data, data science and data analytics which are generally focused just on maths, computer science or medical science. We are going for the whole of the data world,” he added.
As an example of what LIDA is aiming at, he looked back 20 years to where medical science and engineering practice used to stand, with one relying on wet labs and animal testing and the other using scale models to test designs to destruction. Nearly all of that has now been replaced by data analytics and data visualisation.
“In astronomy, 20 years ago to find out what is going on you had to build a telescope, look at all the images and hope you’d find a new star. Now, you can capture all the data and analyse it using data science and maths to see what is different. Whether you are a retailer or a hospital, that is what is going on and is why you need data scientists,” said Birkin. “It is hard to imagine what the scientific world will look like in another 20 years.”
“It is hard to imagine what the scientific world will look like in another 20 years.”
Birkin’s own career has shown him the deep value of data analytics to commercial organisations as one of the co-founders of the geographical modelling and planning consultancy GMAP, now part of Callcredit Information Group - a near neighbour to LIDA and a commercial partner. That experience drives his goal of ensuring LIDA is looking at practical outcomes, rather than pure academic research.
It also reassures partners that the Institute understands the sensitivity and commercial value of any data they may share, although this remains a barrier which it has to work hard to overcome. Said Birkin: “I like to think the penny will drop about the benefits and value that can be derived when data is used ethically, rather than the fear and risk-based view.”
Waywell also stressed that this real-world focus is central to LIDA’s funding. “To secure investment, we have to prove that our research is of benefit to society and the economy, so we need to talk to external partners. Over time, we will be working through programmes, developing new insights, publishing - which is a big issue for academics - and demonstrating that LIDA is a good idea. That will bring more partners on board which completes the cycle,” he said.
Building a talent pool to support the rapid expansion of data analytics across academia and industry is another crucial part of the mission. LIDA launched a data scientist internship programme in 2016 giving ten interns the chance to work alongside researchers and gain hands-on experience of a project using real data and tackling real-world challenges. Projects include analysing Twitter data for Parliamentary debate petition requests, using social media analysis to monitor hate crime and analysing predation from fossil records.
“It is intended to bring in the next generation. It is a culture shift.”
The Institute has five data science masters courses on offer: GIS, Business Analytics and Decision Sciences, Consumer Analytics and Marketing Strategy, Data Science and Analytics, and Advanced Computer Science (Data Analytics). The University has also launched a ground-breaking programme, Great Minds, offering a five-year tenure track to Associate Professor for 250 academics, a number of which are linked to LIDA. “It is intended to bring in the next generation. It is a culture shift.” said Waywell.
Looking towards its broader constituency, LIDA also runs regular, non-academic seminars which have attracted over 1,000 delegates from 50 organisations with the aim of building a two-way conversation. This is important when considering, for example, the ethical dimensions of data analytics in medical research, not least in case the media decides to go after the issue.
From its hilltop position, LIDA has been able to gain a commanding view of not only the whole campus at the University of Leeds, but also the business district and the region beyond. In doing so, it is also acting as a beacon for talent, with researchers and funding increasingly flowing towards it. For Birkin, the vision has become a reality: “The good news is that people want to collaborate and interact on cross-boundary projects. So we are pushing at an open door because people want to work like this.”