The Data Lab
Big data is the next big thing for business…
Profile: The Data Lab
ADMIN HUB: University of Edinburgh
FUNDING: £11.3 million (initial investment)
Big data is the next big thing for business
Almost every aspect of today’s society is influenced by data. Data – and the information locked inside – is now recognised as the definitive source for competitive advantage in every sector of the economy. This recent trend has been headlined as “Big Data,” but volume is only one of the defining characteristics of emerging trends in the information age. The velocity, veracity, variability and associated value in data are also important and we are seeing a more accurate term emerge – namely, data science. Simply put, data science helps us to understand data and enables us to unlock the value within.
One of the key elements that gives data science its power, however, is the human dimension. New informatics and analytical methods will ultimately generate new innovation, but perhaps the more spectacular breakthroughs will come from a range of new partnerships across various industry sectors, government departments and academic institutions. And that is why The Data Lab is being established.
Announced in April 2014, this new innovation centre funded by the Scottish Funding Council is dedicated to helping Scotland capitalise on the growing market in analytics and ‘big data’ technology. The Centre will transform the nature of collaboration between industry, public sector and academic partners, providing new ways of benefiting from the innovation and expertise within Scotland’s world-leading university sector. With hubs in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, The Data Lab’s primary focus will be on the digital technology, energy, financial services, healthcare and public sector markets, delivering a range of industry-led programmes across its three main themes: collaborative innovation, community building and skills and training.
“One of the biggest opportunities for The Data Lab is in enabling new partnerships across industry, public sector and academia. Building the right multi-disciplinary team is very important when it comes to tackling data science challenges,” says David Richardson (left), the Chief Operating Officer of The Data Lab. “Our universities have a wealth of world-leading informatics and computer science research and The Data Lab is focused on helping industry realise the value of this. We are industry-led from the start and our activities have been created in consultation with industry and public sector partners.”
Before its funding was approved, The Data Lab bid team conducted market research across a range of key industry sectors, to find out how businesses and public sector bodies had previously worked with academia, and how they innovate. It also met with a number of local companies to understand what were perceived to be the big opportunities for Scotland.
The results of these discussions then helped shape the structure of the organisation as well as its budget profile, with a large amount dedicated to funding collaborative projects with universities that “deliver economic and social benefit through the application of data science.”
The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) estimates that the Big Data marketplace could see 58,000 new jobs created within the UK alone, and the cumulative benefits to the economy are estimated to reach £216 billion over the years 2012–17.
Many of the new applications made possible by data science have previously been too costly or too challenging to implement – for example, using social care and fuel poverty analysis to benefit major industries such as utilities or financial services, as well as government policy and planning. Retailers have been using big data for years to analyse customer needs, using information from online transactions and loyalty cards to personalise their relationships with customers, but future innovation will come in the form of joining up people and organisations which may never have collaborated ever before.
Developing new technology solutions will also be a key focus of The Data Lab, but ultimately it will be concerned with solutions which help to improve a company’s bottom line and/or lead to better products/services that deliver increased social value.
Innovation centres are primarily focused on delivering economic impact, but The Data Lab could also help shape future social, education and welfare policies. A key element of this will involve using data linkage to bring together disparate data sources, as well as making use of existing information. This allows data to be re-used repeatedly for a range of new applications. For example, using analytics on linked data may reveal a geographic or a demographic cluster where the government needs to intervene or can develop new policies that better serve its citizens.
For companies, it may mean they need to develop a new business model or redefine their marketing strategy to address a newly-identified customer segment. Data science may also reveal where the system is failing, or when it is about to fail. By using new high-frequency data sources such as data from smart energy meters, or even personal wearable fitness devices, analytics could allow us to predict something is about to go wrong, enabling preventative measures to be taken.
For applications such as energy consumption, by predicting future supply and demand, utilities can offer new incentives for customers which alter behaviour and avoid them having to build expensive capacity for energy storage into their infrastructure.
What makes data science even more exciting is that “nobody's an expert and to tackle many of these problems requires a multi-disciplinary team with a range of different skillsets,” says Richardson. “No one person or institution has all the answers.” Data science is a blend of statistics and visualisation with data management and many other disciplines, but no matter what disciplines get involved, and no matter what solutions are developed, data is always at the heart of it all – whether it's production from an oil field or the number of phone calls received by a bank, or the billions of heartbeats recorded by wearable healthcare devices. With the growing use of ever-more-sophisticated sensors in so many aspects of everyday business and ordinary life, there is little doubt that the volume of data will continue to grow, and the need for data science will become even greater than ever.
The big idea
As the innovation centre for data science, The Data Lab was set up to “capitalise on the growing market in analytics and ‘big data’ technology,” and the investment is expected to generate 345 new jobs and add £155 million of value to the Scottish economy. New companies will also emerge in the sector, specialising in data science, as well as new jobs in the more established companies and government departments, plus university researchers. The economic impact will also go far beyond the science itself – for example, boosting oil recovery in the North Sea or saving billions in the healthcare sector.
Neil Logan (left), Chair of The Data Lab and Chief Technology Officer for Lockheed Martin BTS, says: “The amount of data in the world is estimated to be doubling every two years and many organisations are struggling to cope. The Data Lab will help Scottish industry unlock value from data and enable new opportunities to be developed in collaboration with our world-leading universities. I’m excited at the opportunity of partnering with organisations across a number of sectors, including: digital technology; energy and utilities; financial services; health; and public services. The SFC’s investment, together with support from Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, helps ensure that Scotland takes a leading role in this exciting growth market.”
Malcolm Dobson (right), Group Chief Technology Officer, DC Thomson, adds: “The Data Lab offers a fantastic opportunity for businesses such as brightsolid to help bridge the gap between Scotland's world-leading university research in data science and the commercial potential for Scotland to be a leader in this fast-growing global market. I think it is a game-changer.”
Professor Aaron Quigley, Director for Knowledge Exchange for the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance, says: “The data science innovation centre presents us with a vital opportunity to connect growing, data-attuned industries with world-leading academic expertise in all areas of data science. It positions The Data Lab to become a world leader in data science, and the place academia and industry look towards for data science innovation and leadership. Across 14 Universities, we are looking forward to working with industry on breakthrough innovation, by drawing on cutting-edge research to produce new products, jobs, services and insights.”
The Data Lab will focus on the application of data science and develop new data science tools and technologies required by industry. It aims to deliver 100+ collaborative innovation projects, educating 1,000+ professionals, and organising workshops and high-profile events for academia and industry, in line with its emphasis on collaborative innovation, community building and skills and training, including the funding of new university courses and industry placements. Online learning also features in its plans, providing courses in data science for people interested in continuous professional development (CPD) or wishing to apply new skills to their own business. “We also want to educate business about the opportunities,” says Richardson.
“Our primary focus will be on helping industry connect with the talent and expertise within Scottish universities,” says Richardson. He also sees The Data Lab as like another start-up, with the big difference that it is funded for five years as soon as it's open for business. Richardson and his team also plan to have academic researchers working side by side with business partners in The Data Lab, developing new applications for projects.
“This is new territory for everyone,” Richardson says. “The technology and basic science are out there. What makes it all so innovative is how people come together and develop new solutions that tackle real problems and deliver real value.”
Scotland already has several examples of companies leading the way in big data, including Skyscanner (fast emerging as a major global player in the tourism sector), Aridhia (a world leader in bioinformatics) and Blackford Analysis, a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh which develops software solutions for the medical, oil and gas and defence industries, “using cutting edge algorithmic solutions to problems requiring real-time analysis of datasets.”
Other areas identified by Richardson are manufacturing, fraud detection, climate change and logistics – all of which could benefit greatly from data analytics. He also anticipates scientists getting involved from areas such as physics, geoscience and mathematics.
“We expect the unexpected,” he says. “We will go out and meet people, find out what they want and understand how we can help collaborate to deliver value, but it's impossible to know exactly how The Data Lab will develop over time, as new partnerships form and we learn from each other. But although it is hard to predict exactly what the future may bring, we do know that our job is getting value from data. If there's no value, what is the point? We don't want innovation for innovation's sake. We want results, short-term and long-term. We want to be the go-to place for data analytics in Scotland.”
Big data, big numbers
According to IBM, 90 per cent of the world's total data was created during the last two years, and every day we add 2.5 quintillion (1018) bytes of data to the total.
“Big data” uses the latest computing techniques and the most powerful computers to make sense of this huge explosion of data. But the challenge is not just to crunch all the numbers but also to pull all the data together from disparate systems which may not even talk to each other, at the same time as respecting data privacy and confidentiality, whether it affects the individual, government or corporation. Sometimes, the problem is to know where to look for the data to start with.
The primary aim is to get clean, high-quality data and add it all together for analysis which helps us make better decisions and also detect problems under the surface. This enables companies to improve their efficiency and boost their bottom line, or helps a government deliver better services such as social and healthcare – in all cases, using advanced analytics to get extra value from data.
Images by Gary Doak