How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?
I really love our mission: “Connect the country”. It’s amazing to be part of an origination with a goal of connecting people and communities so that we can create jobs, social opportunities and help businesses and the economy thrive.
How can we use data to connect the country? Well, we first started by using data to connect ourselves better within the organisation. We’ve done that by centring our CDO team around four objectives and trusting our data ninjas with the authority they need to be successful.
These two things have connected our own team, connected our business to each other and, in turn, connects our country.
What I’m most proud of this year is that in addition to using data help achieve our purpose we’ve used data to define our purpose, more specifically what markets we are going to operate in. Earlier this year, we made a very clear statement to our customers and the industry that this is the year we are going to major our efforts in the information provision markets. We want to be advocated by those who use our data and known for providing trusted top-quality data.
2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?
In the immortal words from Star Wars,“stay on target!”
The current climate has not changed what we do, on the contrary, it has given us laser-like focus on making sure we continue what we do. It’s certainly changed how we do things and information and technology is central to that change.
When you can’t have a casual coffee, corridor conversation or a cheeky Nando’s for lunch to float ideas; when you have to present to key individuals remotely to make critical decisions, I think it’s safe to say that data visualisation has never been as important as it is today. Using data to tell compelling stories about complex problems to enable leaders to make decisions and only using one slide of .ppt to do it has given data another boost in terms of its priority.
Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?
It’s going to be massive. Highways England embraces data in a way that is so inspiring. Mainly in part thanks to the fantastic, ever-growing crew of data ninjas I’m privileged to work with. Data will not be a nice-to-have, it will be integral to delivering our objectives and shaping our companies future.
Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?
We are a publicly-owned company, so data for good is central to our thinking. There isn’t a data project or change programme that doesn’t challenge itself to use data to create new value to UK Plc or one that assures itself that we are doing things ethically. The latter is especially important when using machine learning (ML) techniques. If your ML is not explainable, then you shouldn’t be using it because otherwise you literally have no idea what its doing!
What has been your path to power?
I actually started my career a professional guitarist in a heavy metal band. A shady manager and some angry associates resulted in us losing our record deal and leaving me clueless on what to do next. A friend of mine offered me a home on the railway and I worked my way up through the sector, from helping migrate data as part of an insourcing initiative to be being the professional head of GB Mainlines railway system-related data. In 2017, I swapped rail for roads and became Highways England’s first chief data officer at the beginning of the largest investments in roads in a generation.
What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?
Coaching and mentoring. I feel most proud when I’ve been able to make a few people smile, give some hope when people felt lost and was able to put a little more compassion into the universe.
Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?
My Career goal centres around two key areas. I want to drive accounting rules into the 21st Century and get data on to the balance sheet. You can’t manage what you can’t see and considering most of the value of our markets come from intangibles, it’s about time we account for them properly.
I’d also like to help professionalise data as a discipline. Data just isn’t recognised as a profession in the same way as other areas. Lots of chartership status for civil, software, mechanical and electrical engineers - I’d love to see chartered data professionals walk in rooms with their heads held high.
What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?
Leverage the culture you have and use a visual language to create shared meaning aimed at creating discussion around solving complex problems. Systems fail at their boundaries and it’s largely because we think we are having a meaningful conversation because we use the same worlds, only to find out two years into your work you meant something different.
To change culture you have to be accepted into the culture you’re trying to change. It’s important to use the language of the business to describe data concepts to bring people with you. For example, we are an asset management organisation. It is familiar with asset inventories, asset condition and asset performance. We’ve used that language to describe data. You won’t hear us talking about metadata catalogues, you will hear us talking about digital asset inventories. You won’t hear us talk about data quality. You will hear us talk about the condition of our data assets.
If you take the time to learn the language of the culture you are in, it will be open to changing it.