Peter Mathieson: DDI project has now shifted into delivery gear

It is now firmly in the delivery stage and is bringing about great progress on a number of fronts – despite the impact of the pandemic.

Picture: TSPL

The University of Edinburgh, as a key partner, is helping to contribute to Scotland and the region’s economic recovery by helping to create new jobs and innovative companies, while the lessons learned from the disruption of Covid are being used to help prepare for the challenges we could face in the future.

PROGRESS

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We have moved from a situation where we were making lots of promises and plans into a place where we can demonstrate solid evidence of delivery.

The City Deal is a 15-year programme and now – three years in – we are starting to see some real tangible evidence of results and, while the pandemic has preoccupied a lot of attention, the projects that were ongoing before the Covid outbreak have continued to bear fruit.

We set ourselves some very stretching key performance indicators (KPI) back in 2018 and we are achieving them with job and company creation numbers ahead of our ambitions, while the number of people receiving data science education, both formal and informal, is ahead of expectations.

PANDEMIC

Our data science expertise enabled us to contribute to the management of the pandemic in a joined up and coherent way, which we might “The City Deal is now firmly in the delivery stage and is bringing about great progress on a number of fronts – despite the impact of the pandemic not have been able to do if we had not put the effort into creating the infrastructure that has powered our response.

Our experts are able to deploy massive data science expertise to analyse Scotland and UK-wide data, and in some cases international data, which has helped in the understanding of the pandemic by gaining a picture of the progress of the infection rate and the impact of the vaccine projects, along with the development of novel treatments and their testing.We have been able to make a contribution to the pandemic response because of the expertise that we have and the linkages that we have created, while we have also been able to think about future pandemic preparedness.

GOFCoE

The Global Open Finance Centre of Excellence (GOFCoE) is evidence of attracting inward investment into Edinburgh and the wider region which, in this case, has been funded by the UK Government’s Strength in Places Fund.

This is an example of concentrating on local strengths, with Edinburgh being an important centre for the financial industry.

What GOFCoE does is bring together the expertise – held at the university, by our collaborative partners and other education institutions – in an innovative and collaborative manner to look at how we can use data science to improve financial management.

It examines how we can deal with all the issues of confidentiality and data security, and how we can become a trusted location for research on what is very sensitive personal and institutional information.

EIDF

In order to answer the problems that supercomputing and data science can answer, you have to have the equipment and the knowledge of how to use that equipment.

This is something we have always had in Edinburgh but have really grown and built on through the work of EPCC (formerly the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre) and the creation of the Edinburgh International Data y (EIDF).

We now have the hardware and expertise to deliver very powerful and sophisticated analysis.

However, this capability on its own is not enough and you have to have trust and be respected as a trustworthy and reliable repository of data. People will not give you permission to use their data based on computing power alone.

You have to build up that trust and credibility and, thanks to EPCC’s work over the past decade with the public sector, that is something we can now claim to have.

SUSTAINABILITY

We are actively trying to reduce our carbon footprint as a university and pay attention to climate change and climate responsibility yet we are bringing in this supercomputing facility which has the same electricity requirement as several towns the size of Penicuik.

We have, however, taken an active decision that, in order to be the university that we want to be, we have to accept that some of our activities will generate a carbon footprint and, what we think is a responsible approach, is to minimise it as much as we can.

As long as we recognise that and try to mitigate it and be responsible for carbon off-setting, then we see a clear justification for doing what we are doing.

NEWBATTLE PROJECT

The Newbattle High School Project, launched three years ago, remains for me a great example of what the City Deal is trying to achieve.

Led by Judy Robertson, the project enabled children at the Midlothian school to get formal training in data science in which they received a certificate once they had completed the course.This was originally a pilot project in one school. There is now a formal National Progression Award in Data Science available to all schools in Scotland, and takeup of this qualification has been very promising. We know that many schools are very interested in offering this award, not just in this part of Scotland but across the whole of the country.

Judy Robertson’s team is supporting learners across the Edinburgh city region, and beyond, to access world-leading expertise and skills that will help them live more effectively in the modern data-rich world.

I think parents and children will be able to see, through this collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and schools, that there is some real benefit in the programme, whetherthey chose to go to this university or any other university.

Through the City Deal, Edinburgh and the South East of Scotland is now more joined up than it ever was before, and it has enabled greater co-operation between colleges, universities and various other stakeholders that did not exist previously.

The message that we can be stronger as a consortium, rather than a collection of individual organisations operating separately, is a particularly strong one.

Peter Mathieson is principal of the University of Edinburgh