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Professor David Ford, Professor of Informatics, Swansea University

Professor David Ford, Professor of Informatics, Swansea University

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

 

As a research organisation, Swansea University, and especially its Population Data Science group, are committed to improving the health and wellbeing of people in the UK by conducting research, the findings from which can inform policy and improve practice.

 

My group’s special interest is improving the way in which data collected by public services – central and local government, national agencies, and the NHS – can be better used within government and more widely by the research community in the UK and beyond. These data, when linked together and analysed carefully, can provide enormously potent insights that can lead to real improvement in people’s lives.

 

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

 

Like everyone, Covid-19 took us by surprise. We have multiple large-scale projects and programmes all working toward improving data quality and availability, targeting research themes of national importance. Covid swept across all of these externally funded commitments very fast.

 

Fortunately, our funders were very understanding and supported us completely in turning our attentions towards the challenge of the epidemic. Our infrastructure, data, systems, and people were perfectly positioned to start trying to get a handle on the spread, the impact, and later possible routes to recovery from Covid-19. Working as part of national teams, both within Wales, with Welsh Government and with the Welsh NHS, as well as UK-wide initiatives, coordinated by entities such as HDR UK, ADR UK, and many others, we were able to quickly make our data, technology, and our approaches available to address the challenge, feeding analyses and insights to decision makers, as well as incorporating unprecedented levels of new data, linking it together to enhance its usefulness.

 

It’s been tough on our staff. We moved to working from home with barely a complaint or drop in efficiency, but a massive increase in workload. I’m pleased to say, however, all feel they are doing their bit in this time of a global emergency and are proud to be making a contribution.

 

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

 

While Covid-19 has been a global tragedy, it has emphasised to many, including the public, politicians and those that head public service organisations, that good quality, well curated, timely data is essential. While this lesson has been learnt well about data in times of national crises such as Covid-19, I am optimistic that, once things have returned to something like normal, the value of thoughtfully and safely using data to steer our country to success, however you define it, will continue to be remembered and pursued.

 

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

 

Using public data for public good has been a crusade of mine for more than 20 years. In fact, we hosted a large international conference on this very topic only a couple of years ago. Critical to increasing the amount of data linked together and available, is ensuring that public trust is maintained throughout. Only with the assent of the public can data about them be used.

 

A huge part of my work has involved developing state-of-the-art approaches to deal with potentially sensitive personal data such that we can guarantee privacy and safety. Alongside this, we do our best to demonstrate that using data in this way is effective, that positive change for people on the street can and will occur. This, coupled with ongoing conversations with people and the public, as a way of working, unlocks data’s potential, soothes data owners, and reassures patients and citizens.

 

What has been your path to power?

 

With a background as an information scientist, for the past 25 years I have worked within the university sector, using my skills to support research in one way or another. In 2005, working within Swansea University Medical School, I was given leave to pursue my interests in data to support research. I soon partnered with my dear friend and colleague, Ronan Lyons, to develop a programme of research looking at ways of systematically acquiring, linking, and making available health data (at this time from Wales), for use in health research and policymaking.

 

That was the beginning of the SAIL Databank, which we both still lead to this day. SAIL has become known as an archetype of good practice, its model copied many times across the world, and the technology we have developed to support its operations – the Secure eResearch Platform (SeRP) - has been shared and used widely in the UK and internationally.

 

Developing SAIL as Wales’ national platform for safe data re-use has been hard work, but it now provides its services well beyond Wales, as well as curating data from right across public service, supporting all types of researchers from the social sciences as well as medicine health. From this base, I have been fortunate to lead a range of projects developing the field and spreading our knowledge, as well as taking a number of international positions all aiming for the same important outcomes.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

I’m incredibly proud of the SAIL Databank and our SeRP technology (led ably by my colleague Simon Thompson); our work as ADR Wales partnering so effectively with Welsh Government; and our involvement within ADR UK, the ESRC supported national programme for administrative data for research in the UK.

 

I’m so pleased to be deeply involved in the work of HDR UK, which is making a difference to the use of health data at a national scale and delighted with our other high-profile flagship programmes. including the UK Multiple Sclerosis Register and the Family Justice Data Partnership.

 

But, if I am honest, I am by far and away most proud of the fantastic, talented, and tireless team we have built over the last 15 years. The 150 or so people in Population Data Science at Swansea University are remarkable and are the ones that should be receiving any plaudits.

 

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

 

As a research-based organisation, most of our work is within the context of externally funded programmes, for which we have to bid and win in competitive circumstances. While time-consuming, this does seem the best way of making sure UK PLC gets the best bang for the taxpayer buck.

 

However, it does make it more challenging to resource internally devised programmes, linked to our over-arching strategy. Finding additional income sources that allow us degrees of freedom to work on what we believe are the most important topics for the UK and the world would be liberating and is something on which I’m working hard.

 

Linked to this, I’m working with our University to ensure each of our incredibly valuable, hard to replace people can expect a long and rewarding career with us, whatever their field, specialism, or professional background.

 

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?

 

Despite the focus Covid-19 has brought to the role of data and analytics in government policymaking and healthcare planning, we are still a long way away from public services using data as well as they might. Things are moving, but slowly.

 

Government departments of all types, across all the four UK countries, are still wary about letting their data be linked with data from elsewhere, and for others to be able, safely, and securely of course, to use it too.

 

There are multiple reasons for this, some historic, some cultural, some technical and some more contemporary, such as resources. Pretty much all of the work my team and I have been doing is to try and understand and address these impediments and collaboratively with all those involved, including the public, build approaches that can move things forward.

 

While it sounds glib, building trust is the key. Great technology can help, smart people can make a big difference, but if there is no trust, there is no progress. Our approach focusses on making trustworthiness evident, transparent, and auditable. Making sure accountability lies where it should, and that systems and processes make things fully predictable.

 

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

 

Reflecting on my discussions with colleagues working within government, for example, many do not have much background in data and, possibly as a consequence, little faith in what it might be able to do to transform their work and their decisions.

 

While improving data awareness and skills through training and development is obviously warranted, it will not make much difference if you cannot show evidence of what data, when used well, can do for an organisation. I believe you have to show the art of the possible, not in abstract aspirational terms, but hard examples, grounded within the organisation, and show that it can be done by current teams.

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