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Andrew Sephton, head of information and data management, Civil Aviation Authority

Andrew Sephton, head of information and data management, Civil Aviation Authority

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?

 

As the regulator of civil aviation in the UK, we have two primary asset - the subject matter experts we employ and the data those subject matter experts use to make our regulatory decisions.

 

As a result, data and analytics are fundamental to our purpose. Without gathering, processing and analysing data, we cannot fulfil are our business purpose. Data is at the core of how we regulate aviation safety within the UK.

 

2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?

 

The aviation industry was, like many others, severely impacted in 2020. As the aviation regulator, we are not funded by the taxpayer, we are funded through the charges we levy on the industry, and, as a result, our income for 2020 dropped significantly and planned activities were put on hold, recruitment frozen and many other cost-saving measures were put in place.

 

The knock-on effect was that the planned activity for 2020 certainly changed. From a data aspect, this didn’t mean we stopped delivery, it meant we adapted the approach around the resources available. My original plan for 2020 was to get solid data management foundations in place in a number of key areas, specifically modelling our databases and creating a new analytics platform. This plan still continued but was adapted to what could be delivered relative to resource available and new priorities.

 

Prioritisation was key for 2020, we had to respond quickly in order to support the changing needs of industry, these could change daily, and we had to adapt accordingly and accept 2020 was not going to go as planned.

 

A further significant change this year was the UK exit from the EU. I was the UK representative on a project for a “central repository of aviation safety data”, but due to the Brexit, my participation had to end. The personal frustration was that this work was heavily focused around setting standards around data sharing between EU countries, and due to it being European law, we would need to adhere to the standard.

 

Selfishly, as a data management professional, this was a fantastic conduit for forcing standards into data we process, it would not just be good practice, it would be law – this change to our relationship has a significant impact to this approach.

 

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?

 

In 2021, I expect to see data and analytics become even more important at the CAA. We exist to regulate the industry, but we are also here to support that industry. More than ever, 2021 will see aviation adapting and changing to respond to the evolving situation and the expectations of its customers. The industry will need the support of its regulator, and the more usable data we have available with regards to what is happening in industry, the more we can support them in their recovery.

 

Brexit will be another significant change for aviation, and the CAA will also become the UK regulator for spaceflight. Both of these changes can only be supported effectively through the significant use of data and analytics.

 

Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?

 

Data for good is certainly part of my personal agenda, but as yet, I’m not sure what form that will take. It is on the “to-do-list”, but is something I don’t want to rush - I’m keen to ensure I take the right approach.

 

2020 certainly proved what is possible with the outstanding work performed on vaccine development and the ability to use data to understand, support, share, track and monitor a global situation - it would be fantastic to see the lessons from this move to support the unprecedented social and environmental challenges currently facing the world.

 

It is well understood that aviation is a significant cause of carbon emissions, and, as the regulator, we follow government policy and guidelines. However, we also have an advisory role to the Government in this area on the reduction of the industry’s carbon emissions and, undoubtedly, data will play a key role in this.

 

What has been your path to power?

 

I kicked off a career in this field with a degree in Business Information Systems Management, a fantastic foundation covering all aspects of information systems, foundations I still return to every day of my working career.

 

My first role after university was in the not-for-profit sector, developing small database-driven applications. I ended up staying there for ten years, progressing through to a DBA in the Oracle and Unix world and the on to a career as a data architect. I then switched to the defence industry working in similar roles, a brief stint in the pure commercial world followed and then I returned to where I feel most comfortable, to an organisation with a purpose, initially working on a project to improve information management, and following an IS strategy review, I was offered my current role.

 

I almost forgot the most important step in my career history, I took a six-month sabbatical to travel the world in 2010, something I would highly recommend to anyone!

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

This is an interesting question that made me pause and review what makes me proud in my career, and it reminded me of scenario back in 2018. Around that time, a change to the EU regulation on aviation took place, around the concept of a “European central repository of aviation safety data”.

 

I became the UK representative working on the project to design and implement this for the 28 EU countries, and I remember being sat one cold winter morning in Cologne, discussing data standards to be used in the sharing of this safety data, and the team had just agreed to apply a standard and approach I had argued for.

 

I remember sitting back and thinking, maybe, one day, this work will have had a direct safety impact preventing an aviation incident, and, I have to admit, I allowed myself, just for a moment, to feel quite proud. I will never know that for sure, but it reinforced my feeling of working for an organisation that has a purpose.

 

Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?

 

My main goal at present is, I suspect like most, helping the organisation get through this current global crisis. The organisation – and the industry we support – is going through unprecedented change and supporting delivery through data and analytics initiatives in this period of change is a key goal.

 

I would very much like to embed my passion for what data can do for the organisation and the individual roles within it, so to eventually become an organisation “powered by data”. This is the ultimate goal I wish to pursue.

 

How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?

 

The aviation industry is driven by data, from the day to day operation of the industry through to the tens of thousands of data sensors on modern aircraft, collecting terabytes of data per flight. It’s fair to say, within this industry, data and analytics are closely aligned to the business, without it, they do not operate.

 

Within our organisation, I feel data and analytics are best described as a partner to the business, although I have a vision for the organisation to be “powered by data”, really, this only works in close collaboration with the aviation experts – it’s a partnership between people and data, the two don’t work independently. There are always the sensationalist press articles about technologies such as AI removing the need for humans, in reality, humans and data technologies work in partnership to deliver.

 

What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?

 

At the CAA, data literacy is seen as one of our key capabilities, in fact, we have more than 30 people from across the business on a data analyst apprenticeship, with the key driver being upping the data literacy across the whole business, not just in our analyst community.

 

This kind of training and skill set is key in developing a data culture – embedding the knowledge at all levels, executive level downwards, is key to enabling the “data-first” thinking.

 

I also strongly encourage an approach of providing access to data to people. If they have access to data, they explore, they investigate – how can an analyst analyse if they don’t have data to analyse? It’s impossible to develop a data culture if people are starved of access to data. Yes, the data must be managed, it must have appropriate security, the lineage and meaning must be well understood and published, but the efforts to do this are far outweighed by the benefits it can bring.

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