The partners in a new deal have banded together to deliver the goods with the ultimate aim of creating a data capital for Europe, writes Fiona Russell
An ambitious data science initiative is predicted to boost the economy in Edinburgh and it’s surrounding region by £20 billion over five years.
The new Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, steered by a Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) Programme and funded to the tune of £270 million by the Scottish and UK governments, is also set to create new jobs, inspire entrepreneurship and attract both investment and new businesses.
There will be several strands to the university’s input to the City Deal, including working with partners in government, commerce and other universities to nurture a fast-evolving data science industry.
New strategies, too, will aim to develop and encourage entrepreneurs to form companies, while also engaging with existing businesses and the public sector to apply data expertise to help to deliver quality products and services. In addition, the university will address a need for a larger and more specifically skilled workforce by collaborating with other educational establishments, local authorities and employers.
A recent development is a data science graduate apprenticeship scheme, launched by accounting and business services giant PwC and backed by Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland (SDS).
The fully-funded training allows people to work while also gaining a BSc degree through the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews.
David Brown, head of government and public sector for PwC in Scotland, says: “With its Data-Driven Innovation programme, Edinburgh is a shining example of progress and of funding going where it is needed. We’re delighted our Data Science Graduate Apprenticeship plays a part in that.
“The graduates will support economic growth across various industries reliant on data, such as financial services, life sciences and advanced manufacturing.
“The ultimate aim of the initiative is to enhance Scotland’s skills base in response to rapid innovations in the data industry.”
A unique and exciting feature of the DDI programme is the creation of five “hubs” across the University of Edinburgh, including the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), the Bayes Centre, the Usher Institute, the Robotarium and Easter Bush campus.
Over the next decade, academic staff will collaborate with ten industries in the private, public and third sectors to ensure people, businesses and the region as a whole benefit from the data economy.
The hubs will have a broader remit than traditional university institutes and will partner education with business to address specific data industry challenges. They have also been set targets in relation to the City Deal.
One of the hubs, the EFI, will focus on the creative industries, tourism and festivals, as well as the public sector (govtech) and financial services (fintech).
Through teaching, research and business engagement, the goal is to “interrogate how data creates disorder” and consider the data opportunities within creative industries, the economy and policy. The EFI will also address job shortages and collaborate directly with industry.
Owen Kelly, director of engagement at the University of Edinburgh Business School, states that the EFI will be in full operation by 2021.
He says: “The EFI will address and anticipate some of the big questions that will inevitably arise from the data-driven change in industries, looking at various challenges for the outside world.
“This might include the effects of data on people’s lives, accountability of businesses and other topics such as ethics and economics. We will be looking for the unexpected and dealing with new issues as they arise.”
Another hub, the Bayes Centre, will be home to a broad group of occupants from across the university, including start-ups, spin-out companies and industrial collaborators.
The focus will be “using data science and artificial intelligence to shape a better future”.
The Bayes Centre, which opens this autumn, will host several existing centres such as the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics and The Data Lab and EPCC.
Jim Ashe, director of commercialisation and industry engagement at the School of Informatics says: “By bringing together multi-disciplinary informatics expertise including robotics, AI, data science and machine learning we will be able to make more sense of the huge amounts of real-world data and to apply it for the benefit of society.
“Among other things, the centre will have an incubation space for academics, as well as an innovation space for industry. We want both to come together in one place and work with each other.
“We are already working with young entrepreneurs too, and have an accelerator programme, offering assistance with plans, mentoring and investors, and we have more people keen to invent and innovate coming on board.”
The three other hubs will also play a vital role in the city region’s data sector. At the Usher Institute, there will be a focus on health and social care, while the Easter Bush will form an AgriTech initiative. The National Robotarium is partnered with Heriot-Watt University to create a research facility for robotics and autonomous systems.
Under-pinning the hubs will be a new supercomputer facility, the World-Class Data Infrastructure (WCDI). In practical terms, the new facility represents an extension to an Advanced Computing Facility at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) at the University of Edinburgh. It is expected to be open by the end of next year.
Professor Mark Parsons, director of the EPCC, says: “What we’re creating with the WCDI is a combined computing and data resource to allow organisations to innovate. This involves the secure hosting and storage of data and the ability to join together and present data to users in novel ways.
“The WCDI will undoubtedly attract more organisations to the region through our new data hosting facility and it will help to produce more data-driven solutions aligned with industry challenges.”
As the City Deal develops and grows, many data industry insiders and observers are excited about the future.
David Brown says: “Industry is going through a monumental change, and technology and data are at the forefront of that.
“Business and government must continue to invest in these areas for the good of the Scottish economy.”
Jim Ashe says: “We’re in the midst of a new industrial revolution and it’s here on our doorstep.”
Kate Forbes, Scottish Government digital economy minister, adds: “The Data-Driven Innovation programme of investment will be key in helping to deliver a significant step-change in regional economic activity, empowering the region to lead the field and establish itself as the data capital of Europe.”
For more information on the City Region Deal click here.