How the DDI initiative helped the south east of Scotland bounce back from Covid

Covid-19 has presented one of the greatest challenges of our time – and Edinburgh has been central to the UK and global response with the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative providing support with funding and infrastructure.

Picture: TSPL

The next 12 months will see an increase in activity across the programme with the National Robotarium and Edinburgh International Data Facility (EIDF) becoming fully operational.

Jarmo Eskelinen, director of the DDI initiative, says: “The main achievement for the programme over the past 12 months has been the speed and impact of the University of Edinburgh and the DDI programme in responding to the challenges of Covid-19 in terms of management of the pandemic and promoting recovery.

Jarmo Eskelinen. Picture: submitted

“The DDI programme has reached the end of the beginning and we are now at the stage of ramping up our activity.”

DATALOCH

Data has been key to fighting the pandemic and the DDI initiative has provided the computing power needed to help the Scottish and UK governments spot emerging trends.

The EPCC and EIDF worked with NHS and Public Health Scotland to set up a secure data and computing environment. This collaboration, which created the Scottish Covid-19 Data Repository, brings together testing data with key clinical datasets to provide approved health researchers with the tools they need to understand how Covid-19 is affecting different demographics.

Eskelinen says the data repository, part of the DataLoch, was not set to be operational yet: “Our DataLoch initiative was fast-forwarded by nine months so that researchers were able to analyse NHS data with analytics around Covid-19.

“The DataLoch helps NHS physicians make sense of Covid-19 by taking data from testing labs and allowing it to be compared with data from other NHS registries.

“This approach allows projects to be run on the data. For example, the study into long Covid, where researchers were able to look into the medical history of patients to see what could explain this.”

The UNCOVER scheme led by the Usher Institute, also made academics from the University of Edinburgh available to policy-makers in the UK and Scottish governments to help with their analysis of emerging Covid-19 data.

Ritchie Somerville, head of strategy at the University of Edinburgh, says the DDI initiative created strong bonds between the university, Westminster and Holyrood, which has helped in the fight against Covid-19.

He says: “The DDI initiative has helped the university respond in a way that it might not have been able to do. It has allowed us to do what we have done and has definitely enhanced our capability.”

OPEN FINANCE

This partnership approach is clearly evident in the Global Open Financial Centre of Excellence (GOFCoE), a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, FDATA Global and FinTech Scotland. The centre, to be based at the Edinburgh Futures Institute once completed, came online earlier this year following £22.5 million of investment from the UK Government’s Strength in Places fund.

During the pandemic, GOFCoE served as an observatory for Covid-19 financial data for the Treasury using real-time data from financial institutions to show its effects on ordinary citizens’ finances.

Somerville says: “When the pandemic came, we were able to provide the UK Government insights about the financial impact of the pandemic. This would not have been possible without the DDI initiative, which helped GOFCoE secure Strength in Places funding.”

DATA CENTRE

The EIDF was activated in July and marked a major milestone in the progress of the physical infrastructure of the DDI project coming online.

Eskelinen says: “The EIDF will provide a very high-powered platform in which the public and private stakeholders can share data and work with data in a safe and secure environment.

“It will be widely accessible for researchers and innovators in the university and elsewhere, while being fully GDPR compliant.

“The EIDF will provide access to an amount of data and a processing capacity not normally seen.”

The National Robotarium, a new world-leading centre for robotics and artificial intelligence research, will open on Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University campus in 2022.

The centre, a partnership between Heriot-Watt and the University of Edinburgh, is part of the DDI initiative and supported by £21m from the UK Government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government, through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

Professor Yvan Petillot, co-academic lead of the National Robotarium, says: “The National Robotarium will translate world-class research into new products and markets for the benefit of the UK.

“It will become a major innovation hub, working across multiple sectors and offering our staff and students the opportunity to co-create new products and businesses to support the net-zero and circular economy of the future.”

BEACON PROJECTS

The DDI initiative has also launched a number of Beacon projects to help the region bounce back from the impact of Covid-19.

The Data Driven Entrepreneurship programme has distributed grants to university staff and students who have come up with entrepreneurial ideas to help the region recover.

In addition to supporting entrepreneurship, exploratory research was also funded through the DDI Initiative's "Building Back Better Open Call", supporting 21 projects, carried out by staff and students at the University of Edinburgh.

Four hubs – the Usher Institute, Bayes Centre, Edinburgh Futures Institute, and the Easter Bush campus – received Beacon funding.

Somerville says: “In a time where there has been concern over the longer-term impact of the pandemic on the economy wehave been able to lean into that challenge and provide opportunity for those wishing to be entrepreneurial, to give them the best foot forward.”

For more information, see ddi.ac.uk