Jude McCorry: Investing in data skills can boost public services

Data has the power to improve public services. Picture: John Devlin
Data has the power to improve public services. Picture: John Devlin
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Smart use of data can make tangible differences to people’s lives in Scotland, says Jude McCorry

With global institutions like the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the World Bank waking up to the potential for data to help change the world for the better, it’s worth looking at how Scotland is benefiting from this data revolution.

Data is an enabler. While there is a lot of hype around how data insights are increasingly driving commercial gains, it is worth giving more appreciation to how data and statistics are progressing and informing evidence-based policy decisions.

The explosion of accessible data means there is now human behavioral data available to analyse and so much scope to make better decisions. It’s about using data for good.

In Scotland there are numerous examples of this in practice. The prevalence of such exciting projects on our door step is largely down to the presence of ‘data warriors’ – the people with the skills and passion to identify the potential benefits and see such projects through.

Scotland-based Brainnwave recently partnered with UNICEF to provide access to geospatial data and analytics to help track refugees in Somalia and allocate resources and refuge for displaced populations. (The relationship was established following Brainnwave’s participation in a Scottish Development International and Data Lab funded trade trip to New York).

Closer to home a collaborative project aimed at addressing the challenges of so-called ‘bed-blocking’ in Scotland has not only seen impressive results but won an industry award. With around 1,200 patients delayed from leaving hospital each month, the Scottish Government and NHS/NSS worked in partnership with The Data Lab to use data analysis to come up with a way to assess the future risk of delayed discharge when a patient is first admitted to hospital.

In using real patient data from health and social care, this challenging project has the potential to make a real difference to how Scotland’s healthcare system identifies and manages the risk of a patient’s discharge from hospital becoming delayed. Everyone worked hard to resolve data access issues, to quality assure data and to produce a successful algorithm for the proof of concept. The project is now well placed to move to the next phase.

Another project which has the potential to positively affect people’s lives relates to predicting falls in social housing. With falls costing NHS Scotland £471 million a year, there is also potential for substantial economic benefit to health and social care services.

The idea is to capture data using a range of sensors installed in specially-designed, technology-enabled ‘Fit Homes’. Targeting specific activities identified as pre-cursors to falls, the system will analyse data derived from these sensors to identify patterns of activity, and changes in these patterns, that are linked to increased risk of falling. It is hoped that evidence-based alerts will enable families and agencies to intervene with preventative measures before incidents occur.

It will exploit synergies between the artificial intelligence and data science expertise at Robert Gordon University and technology-enabled ‘Fit Homes’ being developed by Albyn Housing Society in partnership with Carbon Dynamic (a manufacturer of sustainable, modular homes) and NHS Highland. The system could empower individuals, care providers, social landlords and a range of health professionals to reduce the health impact of falls and target intervention resources more efficiently.

The importance of research in health and disease developments is clear. But it is worth noting that the data revolution can complement existing focus.

For instance Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) remains the main cause of death in Scotland. It is one of the most researched, evidence-based areas of medicine in terms of treatment options. That said, the extent of the adoption of evidence-based treatments and their influence on health outcomes in hospital and post-discharge, and how this contributes to the variation in outcome between hospitals across Scotland, is unknown.

This gap in knowledge for healthcare providers, patients and society as a whole, can be filled with a cardiovascular ‘e-registry’, essentially an electronic file of documents containing uniform information about individual persons, collected in a systematic and comprehensive way.

NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde, AstraZeneca and the University of Glasgow is seeking to build a contemporary and continuous database collating data automatically from the appropriate sources and a flexible suite of on-demand reporting functions running against this – essentially an e-registry.

Cancer Research UK has suggested that half of the UK’s population will get cancer in their lifetime. That’s what makes the work of the Cancer Innovation Challenge so important. Funded by The Scottish Funding Council and launched in March 2017, it seeks to help Scotland become a world leading carer for people with cancer through open innovation using data science. It brings together three Innovation Centres - Digital Health and Care Institute (DHI), Stratified Medicine Scotland (SMS) and The Data Lab. It will fund projects focused on identifying innovative cancer data science solutions and also projects to develop new tools and approaches for patient reported outcomes and experiences.

There are so many ways data can be used. There is real potential to make tangible differences to the lives and wellbeing of Scotland’s people. Decisions about future policy can truly be evidence-based like never before. It is therefore essential we understand that potential, champion key projects and continue to invest in data skills and talent.

Jude McCorry is business development director of The Data Lab