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Grow your own

While Scotland is a keen consumer of data services, we can do more to give our workforce the skills to compete in this growing part of the economy, writes Kevin Collins, Assistant Principal for Industry Engagement at the University of Edinburgh

When I look around the train carriage on my daily commute to Edinburgh, I see passengers using their phones; working, shopping and socialising. Today, nearly 70% of the UK population owns a smart phone and over 50% of internet traffic is from mobile devices.

These online interactions create data that give ambitious tech start-ups and, of course, the established global behemoths fresh insight into our personal habits.

But much of the current expertise to capture value from data is based outside Scotland, and in this respect we risk becoming a consumer of services which others sell to us rather than producing them ourselves. To compete in this global market, we must tackle skills gaps, fragmented datasets, and failure to unlock value.

The Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal wants to address these challenges. In Edinburgh, companies like Skyscanner demonstrate that the right mix of ideas and talent can succeed. Its staff have the know-how to turn data into an attractive service.

These ‘data literacy’ skills are essential to creating a new labour market where talent generates growth and attracts investment. To futureproof our workforce against the inevitable changes brought by automation, we must accelerate the teaching of data skills in schools, further and higher education, and in the workforce.

To unlock fresh insights, we need to consider appropriate ways to link regional and national data assets. Recruitment companies could join forces with employers to bring training and job opportunities to those excluded from the labour market. Tourism and festivals data that is currently fragmented could be linked, revealing trends to help Visit Scotland persuade visitors to stay longer, do more, and tell their friends.

All of this will take effort over the next decade. The City Region Deal has set a target to train 100,000 with these skills. To help deliver that, we’ve committed to work with 1000 employers and support 400 start-up companies. New students should be trained to acquire data capabilities relevant to different sectors. Lawyers, accountants, marketers, and more, will have data skills as part of the professional ‘kit bag’. The economic argument is simple: those abilities will mean better employability and wages.

The bigger ambition is to create a tipping point at which the City Region becomes globally associated with data in the same way we are known for heritage, festivals, financial services or golf. We are setting off on the journey to become data capital of Europe.

Much of the current expertise to capture value from data is based outside Scotland, and in this respect we risk becoming a consumer of services which others sell to us rather than producing them ourselves