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Alex Hutchison

Picture by Lesley Martin, Interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Alex Hutchison

Delivery Director of the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF, The Data Lab

That’s the driver for me; the social purpose element and having impact both locally and globally

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey to your current role?

My background is primarily in banking. I have been working at RBS for the past 11 years and the job that I’m in now, as Delivery Director of the Data for Children Collaborative, is a year’s secondment from RBS.

Originally I did a Management with Marketing degree at Heriot-Watt University followed by insurance, specifically independent financial advice, working for a company in Leeds. I then joined RBS and have been working in their finance function.

Over the last four or five years, I’ve moved more into the data sphere, still within the finance function but looking at data management and data governance and it was during discussions with my boss at RBS on what I wanted to do next, something with more social purpose, that I got the idea to contact The Data Lab and see what jobs they had available – so that’s what I did.

I got in touch and said I want to work with you! We looked at what jobs would be on the horizon and the prospect of potentially working to deliver this collaboration with UNICEF seemed like an opportunity not to be missed.

 RBS were happy as well, because I can bring back learnings on data science-based innovation as well as support their values on corporate social responsibility.

 

Can you tell us about what typical day about work looks like for you now?

At the moment it’s effectively like starting up a whole new business. I’ve got a flavour of every part of that in my day-to-day job. There’s the legal side, the communications side, the website and social media aspect, the project delivery side – so making sure we’ve got the right membership of working groups running and working groups identifying problems and questions that we want to develop in to actual projects. We’re setting up governance bodies and inviting people to be members on boards, influencing and networking to get people on board.

We’re setting up an operating model which shows the project life-cycle and working out the responsibilities that goes with working on children’s data. There’s the information governance and ethical side. There’s safeguarding training for anyone that interacts with the Collaborative and familiarising everyone with the Rights of the Child. As I say, it feels like my role covers every aspect of starting up a new business.

 

What drove you to do something more socially-minded?

When you work in banking for 11 years, you feel very distant from society and citizens. Working in finance, I felt even further away from the human side of what we were doing. That was definitely the driver for me, the social purpose element. Not just to do academic projects that produce publications but getting valuable actionable insights and having an impact on children locally, nationally and globally. That really drives me forward and makes us want to get this right.

 

Can you tell us more about the specific data sets or analysis techniques that you use with UNICEF?

One existing project, kicked off by The Data Lab, uses machine learning to forage across global datasets to understand more about childhood obesity. We are moving towards looking at more health data, particularly NHS Scotland data, and we’re currently looking at the necessary stages of approvals for that. We’re looking at education data and looking at linking those together to identify where interventions might be useful.

We may be looking at private sector data and possibly, retail. For example, your Sainsbury’s loyalty card or banking can reveal spending and shopping habits. Even telephone data can be harvested to understand more about populations and their characteristics.

The scope of datasets is endless. What we’re trying to do within our working groups, which focus on specific themes, is to work out which pieces of data will allow us to have impact. This first segment work is about getting those questions right so we can be quite focused on what data we need and why we need it.

We want to be innovative in use disruptive data sets to look at existing problems in new ways. The data science methodologies that we will use will vary from project to project. It may be about linking data sets that have never been joined together before or using Natural Language Processing to gain a greater understanding of an issue using social media.

 

Is there anything that you could wish that you wish you could do more of in your work?

Well, I’d love more time!

But in terms of the next step of development, we’ll be recruiting more people at the Hub to support me. We’ll be working collaboratively across the three main organisations of UNICEF, and the Scottish government and the University of Edinburgh. I’ll be recruiting a project manager to assist with the delivery of the portfolio of projects that we will have.

 

Do you find your work supportive of women?

Absolutely. My work are leaders in the field in how women are treated and respected in the workplace. It helps that our CEO is female. We’ve got a really vast mix of people within the office. The set of stakeholders I’m working with at the moment are very progressive and forward thinking and I would never really think about whether I was a woman or not in my job. It’s fantastic, everyone working together towards common goals.

 

In your fields, what do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls?

From my experience, I think the biggest challenge is balancing motherhood with work. If I was 20 years younger coming into the workplace now I think everything would be more accessible to me. The transition that goes around maternity and returning to work – it is hard work and it’s hard to get the balance right. I’m not sure there ever is a perfect balance.

 I’ve tried various combinations of my work/home life – flexible working, compressed hours. I’ve tried different combinations of childcare, using nurseries, nannies, au pairs. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be one way to get that right for people and it’s got to be based on their individual circumstances. What’s important is that they have access to and information about those options.

 I think, for me, the balance lies less in the workplace and more at home. Do men at work worry so much about the home stuff? I don’t know. That’s a generalisation, but my gender policy would be in the home, not work.

 

What does ‘doing data right’ look like to you?

Two different angles spring to mind in terms of getting data right. The first one is the ethical mind-set and framework that needs to come with any data usage. It’s a hotly debated topic [ethics] but I’m not sure there’s a lot of action in getting the frameworks and codes of conduct set up and understood because it’s such a subjective topic. People are afraid to pin their colours to the mast on it but we need to be a bit bolder about making ethical statements transparent, consumable and accessible for everybody.

Number two is making everybody, as in corporate sector, private sector, third sector, academics, citizens, feel accountable for getting data used for the right reasons. There’s a lot of data available out there and people can rightly feel very protective of it. But while they’re protecting it from being mis-used then they’re perhaps inadvertently preventing it being used for good purposes. There’s suspicion around data usage. We forget that transformational change isn’t really about individual’s data, it’s the mass data that can make a difference. We can get strung up by governance and approvals, where there can be many barriers to getting the data used. Governance and approvals are absolutely necessary but should be established in a way that enables data usage for the right purposes.

 

What’s your biggest learning from your secondment so far?

A sense of national pride in Scotland. I’ve come out of my RBS institutional bubble and come to see the best of the public sector – the intent and the will of what the Civil Service wants to do in terms of both putting Scotland on the map from a data point to it but also doing the right thing with data. It makes me very proud.

 

What will you take back to RBS?

I will take back a lot of confidence in myself and my ability to do a different role. I’m excited about the new network of contacts I have across Scotland. I also have a strong belief in my own transferrable skills from working in the field of data science.

 

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of bringing together these massive organisations and getting them to agree on steps forward. It is a very challenging task and I hope I have done this in a non-fussy, simplified but respectful way.

 

What would you recommend to women and girls who would like to go into any aspect of what you’re doing?

I recently did a talk at a Women in Data Science at the Data Lab with S2 and primary school girls and I gave two pieces of advice.

One was ‘just ask’. There is never ever any harm in asking a question – my example I just asked the Data Lab ‘what jobs do you have, I want to come work with you!’ The other piece is say yes to every opportunity, you just don’t know what might happen.

 

Do you have a fun fact about yourself?

I got to the final of the Independent Newspaper Sudoku Grandmasters Championship competition in 2006. 

 

Do you have a hero or heroine?

I have countless heroes and heroines from my friendship group for many different reasons – many of them women!

 

What do you tend to do when you’re not saving the world?

Sauvignon blanc! (laughs)