Most people get the idea that data science can help you to turn large amounts of complex information into something more digestible that you can understand and use. But it goes further than that. When these large datasets are used in context with each other, data science becomes more than simply a tool that can save some time or money – it becomes a new approach to the way we run public services, businesses and cities.
Take, for example, two ostensibly unrelated datasets – the road traffic counts collected by Transport Scotland, and the health data collected by the NHS. If we combine these datasets, they can give us new insights into how traffic affects air quality, and how this translates into respiratory health. With more data, we can start to ask what this means for other parts of society and the economy, such as healthcare spending, housing and education. We can also make better decisions about the responses that are needed, from traffic management to prescribing medicine.
This use of contextualised information is the guiding principle of an integrated economy, in which public services can be made not just more efficient, but also more personalised and responsive. At the University of Edinburgh, we’re helping the NHS to create a “data loch” in which we’ll pool patient data, securely and privately, in a way that allows us to make those contextual connections. We believe this will allow us to see, in the health data of different demographics across Scotland, trends that wouldn’t otherwise be visible. As any doctor will tell you, the sooner you treat, the better the outcome, and this is as true for populations as it is for individuals.
This approach is becoming a major part of planning Scotland’s future through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, a £1.3bn initiative that includes a £751m investment in research and development – and within that, over £600m towards a programme of data-driven innovation. The aim is not only to make better decisions through data science, but also to create the jobs and economic opportunities that come with a flourishing technology sector.
The University of Edinburgh is a proud signatory to the City Region Deal, along with the six local authorities that cover the region and other educational institutions. As one of the world’s top research universities, our expertise in data science, machine learning and informatics will help to create partnerships between the organisations that will deliver this new era of growth. Just as importantly, we’ll also play a crucial civic role in training a new generation of data scientists, attracting highly skilled people to the area and creating the opportunities in education and employment that will encourage them to settle and prosper in the region.
Scotland’s technology sector is already highly regarded. In a survey, published this month, of 446 senior staff at foreign companies, Scotland’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment was found to have more than doubled in the past year, and the digital economy is the most attractive sector for inward investment. By building on this success, creating new connections in business and the public sector just as we do in data science, we can help to create inclusive, sustainable growth that will bring real benefits to people’s lives.
Jarmo Eskelinen is executive director of the Data-Driven Innovation Programme at the University of Edinburgh.