Mobilising public data in the Covid-19 fight

Albert King was appointed Chief Data Officer (CDO) for Scotland during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis. We caught up with Albert to find out how he feels Scotland’s public sector has managed the huge data challenges posed by the pandemic.

Listen to our podcast with Albert here.

What main data challenges were presented by Covid-19 and how has Scotland responded, especially in terms of joined-up working?

The main challenges were understanding exactly what data we had and bringing it together very quickly to fulfil a thirst for data and evidence. Everyone across the public sector and beyond wanted to rise to the challenge of addressing that need at pace during a period of massive change.

In late May, Research Data Scotland announced a new data taskforce, chaired by Chief Statistician Roger Halliday, bringing together existing and emerging data infrastructure – resources, expertise and capabilities, as well as key data sets – to advise Ministers making important Covid-19 decisions. This involved Scottish Government, Public Health Scotland [PHS], National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre [EPCC, the University’s international centre of excellence in high-performance computing] and Health Data Research UK, plus six universities, including Edinburgh.

The aim was to maintain privacy and security while delivering outputs quickly. Researchers are able to carry out collaborative research and analysis to provide evidence for important Covid-19 related decisions, initially to support decisions on lifting social restrictions. The group identified key datasets to help research and a plan for securing the datasets, including data on: use of healthcare services; testing; care home residents; vulnerable groups; school pupils; and census data on work, family structures and commuting.

An infrastructure was established to hold and link data securely, and provide secure online access for collaborative research. This has been developed by PHS and EPCC, and offers a virtual analytical workbench to allow researchers to work on the same datasets from different locations. It’s about operating quickly, while ensuring data is accessed legally and ethically.

Earlier in the crisis, the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government created a data taskforce, which I chair – including local government, Scottish Government, NHS, police, enterprise agencies and others. It’s a great example of connecting various interests Scotland-wide to assemble data from across the public sector for analysis.


How has data sharing helped people in Scotland in a practical way?

I think bringing together health and local government data was really important in enabling us to work together to identify and support people who were shielding.

I’d also highlight Connecting Scotland, which is working to support thousands of the most vulnerable (those on low incomes and considered clinically at high risk) to get online. It’s helping them to access services and support and connect with friends and family during the pandemic.

Both examples meant cooperation to understand who needed support and where – between national and local government, health and social care and the voluntary sector.


How do you balance handling and analysing data quickly during a crisis with the need to do that safely and effectively?

If we need to assemble data about people, we have to handle it efficiently and with great care. It is critical that we maintain people’s privacy and sustain public trust. If we make mistakes we lose trust and that is something we cannot afford to do if we are to use data to improve the lives of citizens in the sorts of ways we’ve been talking about. Fortunately, we were able to draw on well-established and trusted systems and structures to manage those risks.

It’s also important to realise that not all data we need to assemble at pace is personal. It could be location-based information or aggregated data.


How did you adapt your own working life during the pandemic?

I was made CDO early in the crisis, so there’s been lots to get to grips with, not least developing a profile in a situation where I can’t meet people face to face. It’s also really important to sustain critical pieces of work, to position Scotland strongly for the future, because we really need data and data innovation to drive us forward.

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy is critical, and that project is carrying on, albeit at a different pace. It’s called an AI Strategy, but it’s all about delivering a citizen-centric approach to AI to assist in terms of better public services and a stronger economy.


Are the principles of Research Data Scotland (RDS) more important than ever – “to  improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing in Scotland by enabling access to and linkage of data about people, places and businesses for research in the public good”? How quickly can it support policy-making?

Longer term, we are continuing to develop RDS, but the taskforce demonstrates we can work at pace to deliver a service directly informing policy and decision-making.

Simply publishing lots of data has potential value but it’s not a smart use of resources – it has to add value, not just noise. We need to constantly align our thinking of what data will create economic, social and environmental value and direct our efforts towards that.


How well do we understand data held across the public sector in Scotland? How can you help different organisations work together to better share data for public benefit?

It’s a challenge because different public services describe data in different ways.

Operating on contemporary, digital, platform-based business models, as set out in our Digital Strategy, helps to address this – and is reflected in the approach we are taking to digital identity and payments.  Underpinning that, adoption of common data standards and platforms reduces the cost and time of delivering digital products and services.

So, we have to build a National Data Infrastructure with the right technical foundations, skills, vision and leadership to make it happen across our public sector and wider economy.


How do you think Scottish people view the use of sharing personal data to support decisions made by public bodies?

I think it’s really important that we are open and transparent with people about how their data is used, and that they also get something positive if their data is used to provide better quality public services.

Of course, people can be sensitive about the use of their own data – but there is also an expectation that data will be used smartly to deliver better public services. There is an opportunity, I think, to build public understanding of how data can benefit us and we’re raising the profile of research that shapes policy and saves lives using public sector data.  We have to say that – to help people understand the value of that data.

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