The future of data in Scotland: using all our Collective Intelligence
After only a month as the Scottish Government's Chief Data Officer, I've already found myself exposed more deeply to more diverse public policy than in a decade working across five UK Government departments and a childhood with parents balancing Welsh local politics with family and work. This more diverse challenge is exactly what I was looking for when I left my role as Head of Data Science for the UK's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), but that doesn't stop it being daunting. As I’m not long in the role, I’ll avoid being overly specific on how I'll help Scottish Government fulfil the potential of data in Scotland. But I can already guess where my experience and expertise will complement my excellent colleagues' existing efforts.
You might call me a specialist in the developing field of Collective Intelligence, building digital tools to help networks of people and computers make better decisions than any one individual can: that is, fostering the wisdom of crowds instead of mindless herding or the madness of mobs. A team, an organisation, a community or a society can only use everyone's wisdom well if it can share the right information efficiently. That's where doing data right is key, whether it's standards and tools helping people find and share information or AI (Artificial Intelligence) distilling messy information into something easier to absorb (like the infamous ChatGPT). We have published a series of data blogs which gives a flavour of the varied, important and innovative work we do to maximise the value of Scotland’s data.
Scotland has an ambition for seamless services online where citizens don't repeatedly have to input similar information, like retyping their address as they move between services. At the former Department for International Development (DFID) I convened and captured the deep knowledge of specialists to derive common languages for sharing what they do ("data architecture"). Essential to Scotland's ambition will be finding common languages for public organisations' data, through standards and catalogues, while helping those organisations get mature enough to translate what they’re doing. Scotland has been leading the UK on promoting data maturity and I hope to grow that and join it up with wider transformation initiatives. But making seamless online services isn't just a technical challenge. I think we also need an informed and balanced conversation with the public, about how they weigh convenient and efficient services against limiting public bodies' ability to share data with one another, which could help the officials charged with protecting citizens’ data unlock the value of new technologies for them.
I’d argue that the way big public and private organisations work evolved in a world where we had to ask people to do boring repetitive tasks, which computers now do much better. This means that they are structured to use lots of people only as an extension of one decision-maker’s body, checking and stamping more forms, rather than empowering those people as extensions of our leaders’ minds, processing information and solving problems for them. For several governments and National Statistics Offices around the world I led the coaching of civil servants to automate routine data handling and analysis, creating efficiency and informing decision making. Meanwhile, for the FCDO I used my specialist knowledge of how to measure collaboration for developing digital tools to objectively observe and guide Civil Service culture change. I’d like to make sure Scottish Government continues to evolve past old organisational structures: automating more menial data handling, while using the world-leading tools I’ve designed and developed elsewhere for measuring and promoting effective collaboration, empowering its staff to do what people do best.
Scotland has been an international leader in publishing its AI Strategy and promoting ethical and inclusive use of these exciting but sometimes scary new technologies through its AI Playbook and recently published AI Register. Whether it is better informing users of public services or our leaders’ decisions, there will be so much more that AI can help us with that we can’t rest on our laurels. For the Office of National Statistics and Home Office I led teams and in FCDO I advised our academic partners to use innovative AI for forecasting events clearly from messy data, like measuring traffic levels from satellite images and predicting conflict from global news articles. I also drafted the UK Government’s first professional and recruitment frameworks for the Data Scientists who find opportunities to harness AI. Our AI Strategy must evolve to ever-changing technological possibilities by continuing the AI Alliance’s bridging of private and third sector expertise to the deep knowledge of public needs within the Civil Service.
Scottish Government has an impressive record for its Open Data and commitments to Open Government, and turning data into accessible information like maps. As well as for AI, throughout my career I’ve advised UK government departments, connected official interests, and allocated UK research funding for the decentralising BlockChain technologies which could potentially empower citizens in new public services. Across FCDO and the UK Ministry of Justice I also created tools and services for more participatory policy making. I hope that we can use all technologies available to lead the world in meeting our Open Government commitments, fostering public discussions and innovation, informed by accessible data and balanced between different interest groups while avoiding echo chambers and misinformation, making the most of our society’s Collective Intelligence.
Of course, in the spirit of Collective Intelligence any experience and expertise I can bring will only be useful if it can be combined effectively with that of my diverse colleagues and targeted at the genuine needs of our public. Together, we will ensure Scotland gets more from data, for a brighter and smarter future.