Albert King reflects on his time as the Scottish Government's chief data officer
Data-based technologies have found their way into Scottish public services in the last few years. Most notably, NHS Scotland’s track and trace app that was downloaded by 1.6 million Scots by November 2020. Artificial Intelligence has also been introduced into medical operations, some Scottish patients who have received a stent in the last year are already benefiting from AI-guided technology which gives an enhanced visual view of inside an artery for doctors.
A lot has changed since Albert King began working in government in 2007, a time when data was seen as “niche and the preserve of analysts and technical people”. After a few job changes, he landed the top data role in April 2020, heading up the Data & Digital Identity Division.
He has been the chief data officer in the Scottish Government for over two years, this month he left his role to become the NHS National Services Scotland chief data officer.
It was a busy two years, with the launch of the Data and Intelligence Network (D&IN), and Scotland’s AI Strategy, which has been led by the Scottish AI Alliance, while the pandemic put an even greater emphasis on using data to reach efficient and successful outcomes.
Holyrood spoke with King after it was announced that he would be leaving the role for a new challenge.
The chief data officer recalls when he began working for the government 15 years ago: “I arrived fresh-faced, full of ideas and probably more than a little naïve having never worked before in the public sector. I’ve been fortunate to encounter many wise, talented, and patient colleagues to help me on my way.”
The sheer quantity of data collected by the government has dramatically increased in the 15 years that King first started at the Scottish Government.
According to Statista, in 2025 the expected collected amount of data stored worldwide will be one quadrillion, four hundred and forty trillion gigabits, which is over 90 times the amount of data that was stored 15 years prior.
Data continues to become ever more crucial to governments and companies that want to improve operations and services. King reflects on how it changed from being seen as just a metric for analysts, to today a data-driven approach.
Kings says: “Over the time I’ve been in government, I’ve seen how data has moved from being something that is seen too often as niche and the preserve of analysts and technical people to something central to our ambitions – to enable better, higher quality public services; better decision making and better outcomes for Scotland’s people. There is an appreciation of the importance of a data-driven culture and data literacy across our workforce.
“In Scotland, we are fortunate to have amazing data assets about our people, places and economy. So, as data leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that those assets are used to benefit the whole of society.
“We’ve made great progress in many ways. I think of the technology that we’ve built to help collect and assure data for analysts across government, to ensure that we manage data well and to provide the tools for them to analyse that data and share the insights they create.”
Scotland is now able to use its stored data to impact real change. The pandemic put into sharp focus just how important user data is for a government during a period of continued emergency.
King reflects on data-led solutions that have helped improve areas of the Scottish Government’s services, he says: “For me, the importance of data is linked to the outcomes that it enables us to achieve. And so, a big part of my role has been making that connection through Scotland’s Vision for Data is that it is used systematically to improve decision-making to save time, money and lives.
“Whether that’s using data in our education system to empower teachers to improve achievement, in health to make cancer diagnosis timelier and more accurate, or the innovative ways we’re using data to inform economic analysis to support decision making.
“Of course, the events of the last few years have demonstrated how powerful data can be. Whether that has been to support decision making, for example through specialist geospatial analysis to inform decisions on the location of vaccination centres; targeting support to protect the most vulnerable who may be shielding; or driving the development of new businesses and economic opportunities that can help us thrive as a nation.
“All of this tells a powerful story about how we can use data systematically to improve decision making, save time, money and lives and I’m proud to have been part of that.
“And of course, we established the D&IN as a network spanning academia, public sector and the third sector. There is much we can learn from this in how we do business in future and it’s fitting that the D&IN is evolving from its role in the post-pandemic world to foster innovation and collaboration around data across the public sector.”
The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) technology into the Scottish public sector is one that will revolutionise the way that the public interacts with one-and-other, services, and government bodies. Scotland laid out its AI strategy in March 2021 in three steps: establish collective leadership through the Scottish AI Alliance; create the foundations for success; and build an AI powerhouse.
King says: “The launch of the UK’s first national AI Strategy has put Scotland on the map as a nation committed to the trustworthy, ethical and inclusive adoption of AI. This and our approach to realising this ambition through an AI Alliance which brings together diverse perspectives and public engagement has been recognised here in the UK and internationally as distinctive and welcome.
“Alongside getting our technology and data right, getting the policy conditions right, we’re also investing in the skills and capability of our people – and I think a great example of that is the Data Science Accelerator Programme, which has enabled data scientists across the public sector to accelerate their own development at the same time as solving real-world problems. Scotland’s Data & Intelligence Network is fostering innovation and collaboration as it builds community and infrastructure.”
The former chief data officer reflects on his time in various roles over the last 15 years: “As you’ve probably gathered, I’m incredibly proud of what has been achieved over the last few years. There’s more to do of course to ensure good quality, secure and trusted data is the engine that drives public services in the future.
“On that, I’m really excited by the user-led, responsive and flexible approach we’re taking to Scotland’s Data Transformation Framework. It will be built on a foundation of data maturity assessments it helps organisations get smart about their improvement and gives us a picture of the position across the sector to inform our own work. I wish my successor well in building on this approach.
“Reflecting on the last 15 years or so, I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which data is a team activity. It needs people with a whole range of professional backgrounds and perspectives for it to be successful and achieve the benefits we’re striving for. I’m fortunate to have worked with so many people who bring their talents, expertise and commitment to improving the lives of people in Scotland.
“Of course, I’m also looking forward. Scotland is developing its first data strategy for health and social care so it’s an exciting time to be joining National Services Scotland as Chief Data Officer. NSS has an enviable reputation for bringing together great technology, skills and data. That’s a great place to be as part of a thriving and collaborative data eco-system that directly improves the health and wellbeing of the Scottish population through the innovative, collaborative, and ethical use of data.”