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Christina Finlay, director, insight and data, National Trust

Christina Finlay

Path to power

For me, data and analytics have always been another way to solve big problems. My career has spanned four countries – Canada, France, Singapore and the UK - and I’ve come to data through the need for better insight and human understanding.

 

The realisation that data was the key, came while consulting in Asia ten years ago and helping organisations make sense of their customer data to build their brands – from banks merging their assets in the Philippines to shampoo brands growing their customer base in China.

 

But it’s my role at the National Trust that has had me facing the biggest data opportunities of my career – such as understanding how people move, behave and think in the outdoors. Data is helping NT find ways to engage the UK with nature, so that we can inspire more people to care for it and restore biodiversity – my team’s work played a key role in developing the trust’s ambitious new climate change policy.

 

I balance the team’s work on initiatives to increase productivity and projects to build value. It’s always about getting the most from our charitable funds and doing what we can to further our mission to engage the nation with the places that matter to them. We are using data science to drive customised marketing and econometric modelling to get better ROI on our spend. But many of our projects are “silent helpers” in the organization; implementing new data quality processes this year has helped to quarantine and fix thousands of potential data issues quickly, but most of the organisation doesn’t know it’s happening.

 

Doing this has shifted our ability to get trusted data to the organisation, which we do through Tableau – enabling evidence-based decisions on land management, on understanding audiences, on running a visitor business, on spending effectively.

 

Our 6 million members cross all political, socioeconomic and cultural divides, and the year ahead will see us focusing on the issues they care about. We are releasing five data-driven research reports in collaboration with Derby University to explain how and why we can solve our nation’s well-being challenges, help nature and heal divides by uniting us around things we care deeply about: our coast, our wildlife, our countryside, our heritage.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

It’s people – and specifically the team I have now. Watching a team grow and apply their skills to big problems is so rewarding, and I am so proud of them. Any leader has a duty to nurture young talent, and the data and analytics industry is moving so quickly that we need to grow the next generation of agile, lateral thinking leaders.

 

This year my team has started more industry exchanges – meeting up with other charities to share knowledge and grow together. We are leading in the charity sector with our data and analytics work, so I feel our role is to help and guide smaller charities, sharing our expertise and our failures so they can more easily succeed.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

Greta Thunberg – not for the movement she has created around climate change, although it is amazing – but for her constant, unwavering commitment to facts, to the science. This is the role the data and analytics community has as well – sharing our objective information to make wise decisions in business, in government, in life.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

I feel like the last couple of years of hard work paid off for me and my team in 2019 – we started the year still working on aligning our community, and I’m so glad that we spent that time on people. By mid-year, we were agreed on what we wanted to achieve across many siloed parts of the organisation, and we had executive agreement on our plans, and since then, the momentum has grown, and it’s just easier to get things done.

 

Last year, my direct reports started data-driven marketing optimisation, rolled out Tableau to 3,000 users, structured a new central data office, put in a data governance programme and started a couple of very big projects – replatforming and audience master data management. All the puzzle pieces fell into place in 2019, and it’s was brilliant (and slightly unexpected) to see it all come together so well.

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

This year will be an extraordinary one in the UK, with climate challenges, divisions in society, and a huge need for empathy, humanity and understanding. One of the biggest challenges of our time though is disinformation. The world needs facts, and that’s where our industry can play a leading role. I think the world can lean on us – if there’s something we love as an industry, it’s a statistic.

 

We can use data to enable better decision-making, use AI to discover and cut down on fake news, and we have an opportunity to unite the nation around trusted facts. I also really hope we can crack text analytics on unstructured data.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

Working together and using our skills, tools and data to solve problems that seem unsolvable.

 

Loneliness of the elderly is one that sticks out for me as the type of issue we could tackle; how can we all help Age UK use data and technology to bring people together? For instance, building simple apps that don’t need a smartphone so that elderly people with similar interests can befriend each other; sensors to monitor health and movement; diagnosis apps to help doctors; using smart home technology to get families and friends at a distance feeling closer; and using the systems behind multiplayer gaming to have the elderly watching TV together, but each in their own homes.

 

We can unleash our creativity, but probably more importantly, if we want to solve these types of “unsolvable” problems, we need to work together as an industry.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge you face in ensuring data is at the heart of your digital transformation strategy?

The most important technology-enabled outcome my team and I are facing is the one we all face: data quality and connectedness – MDM and data integrations – especially as we increase data-sets with our digital transformation. We all want the technology silver bullet, which we also all know doesn’t exist. There’s so much hard work, new processes, strategic thinking and stakeholder expectation management that needs to happen around data technology if we’re going to get it right. It’s so important to take the time on the strategy and foundations, because it’s just going to get more and more complex.

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