Alison Muckersie

Programme Lead for the Data-Driven Innovation Skills Gateway

Tell us about your background

I’m originally from Warwickshire so grew up in Midlands before coming to Scotland for university. I was lucky enough to get a place at the University of Edinburgh, which was quite different to how it is now. Women were in the minority in those days and it wasn’t international – I was seen as exotic because I came from England (laughs).

So I moved up to Edinburgh in the 1980s after taking a gap year and working for all sorts of organisations in central London including Tate Gallery, Oxford Street. I met loads of amazing people and inspirational women during that time – including a hand model and soon-to-be Sky News anchor woman!

I studied Geography in High School Yards. I fell in love with the city and all that it had to offer. It was life-changing, not least because I met my husband on my course – despite on the first day the Prof said “some of you in this room will end up getting married” and I l had looked round the room and thought “no way!”

Geography was a great degree for me and lent itself enormously to the work I am doing now. Data is at the heart of geographical study and the department at the time was a world leader in GIS [Geographic Information Systems].

A summer during that degree was spent in Sierra-Leone, researching educational opportunities for women. That is where my lifelong passion for gender equality really took off, reflecting on the challenges women face around the world. The summer before, I had worked as an au pair in the USA which gave me very  different insight, seeing how women are treated in some affluent societies, especially women undertaking menial roles who are all too often treated appallingly.


Fascinating – so what did you do when you finished university?

I moved in to local government and I spent most of my career there, starting off on a graduate programme in Surrey. I then spent two years working in IT as a programmer. We missed Scotland so my partner and I moved back up and I then worked as a Systems Analyst at Strathclyde Regional Council. That was a massive cultural shift, moving from a right-wing authority that outsourced most of its services, to a Labour stronghold where the Council was at the heart of all provision.

After a couple of years there, I moved to begin a 25-year career in Edinburgh. My experience spans most areas of Local Authority activity – children and families, social work, central services, economic development. I stayed at the Council longer than planned, partially because of the opportunity the organisation provided to work flexibly and also because of their willingness to sponsor me to do an MBA. The public sector was unusual at the time for allowing work flexibility – as a result I was able to combine the role of being a mum to my three children with having a career.

In 2011, I spent four months working in the Scottish Government on the development of a Cities Policy for Scotland, working with Nicola Sturgeon, who was Minister for Cities at that time. We were an all-woman team and really motored!


So can you tell us more about your work at Data-Driven Innovation?

I was appointed as the Project Manager for the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal and I developed the City Deal from a vague concept to pre-signing stage. That activity included bringing the University of Edinburgh on board. I remember meeting Charlie Jeffery in 2014 for a coffee, saying “we’re trying to shape a City Region Deal, do you have any ideas how the university can play in to that?” Originally, data wasn’t the focus – I worked with Charlie and others to take a range of possibilities to government, spanning data, low carbon, and health. We made various pitches to numerous civil servants. Charlie had the brainwave to use data as the common thread cross all sectoral opportunities. I had a brilliant three years bringing the Deal together, working with all the senior players in the city region and at the heart of government discussions.

Something very difficult then happened for me – I was unexpectedly made redundant and it was tough. Fortunately, I was approached by the University and asked to apply my skills to the DDI programme instead – so it turned out ok in the end! I was one of the first people to join the DDI PMO [Project Management Office] and I was tasked with bringing together a business case for the DDI Skills Gateway.


What is that exactly?

The UK government has invested heavily in Data- Driven Innovation. We want this investment to impact the residents of this region and are using the Skills Gateway to develop their data literacy skills and make them DDI-ready! We intend to use opportunities right across the skills pipeline to do this, from school-based learning to in-work upskilling as well as reskilling. It is about ensuring inclusive growth – we are doing this by targeting key client groups including school pupils, college learners, local university students, the unemployed, people with disabilities, people whose roles are at risk from automation, and women returners. We’re trying to increase the pool of potential labour for jobs in the tech sector and beyond.

It’s ambitious. We have £8 million, which isn’t a lot, and the programme will run over 7-8 years. We will be testing concepts rather than upskilling large numbers, and if these approaches work we hope they will then become mainstreamed. We have support from Equate Scotland, and have recruited someone to work with us on equalities and diversity across the programme. They will also do some work with local employers to highlight the risk of unconscious bias in the workplace.

This is an ambitious programme but very exciting and we have some very able and experienced women working on it, like Professor Judy Robertson, Professor Sally Smith, and Heather Thompson from the Data Lab.


What does inclusive growth look like for you?

For me inclusive growth is about making sure that nobody is missed out from the opportunities being created here. When we proposed the Deal for the South-East of Scotland and Edinburgh, there were eyebrows raised by people in government because Edinburgh was regarded as an already very successful economy. Whilst recognising the economic strength of the city, my experience reminds me of the pockets of deprivation right across the region that we must not lose sight of – mid Fife has serious challenges, the Borders struggle from being a rural economy and there are parts of Edinburgh that are amongst the poorest in the UK. For me, “Doing data right” – the DDI programme tagline – is about giving opportunities to those who wouldn’t otherwise benefit from economic growth. We need sustainable growth so we can continue to invest in key services but we need to think very carefully about how to bring the “left-behind” on board.


What are you particularly passionate about and proud of?

I’m proud of the fact that we have managed to get such a range of partners to work together behind a shared vision to take forward the Skills Gateways ambition – all the employers, schools, colleges, universities! We have the vision but we now need to make it happen. I’m also proud that we have a lot of experienced senior women contributing to something very exciting. We have an Advisory Board too for the programme and the majority on that board are women. I’m delighted that we will have a gender focus to the programme and we are looking at innovative ways to bring girls and women on board, from a variety of backgrounds.


Is there anything you wish you could more of?

If we had twice the funding, it would be twice as exciting.


Do you work with any interesting data sets or technologies?

I’d like to pick up on the monitoring and evaluation side of things – we are going to have to demonstrate success. We’re scratching our heads on how to track people throughout the lifetime of this programme and record this on a longitudinal basis in order to measure the impact of our investment. We are working with a range of data sets but we recognise their limitations.


What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in terms of what DDI is delivering?

In our business case we outlined the challenges around girls taking computer science and maths whilst at school. Although the girls who take the subject outperform the boys, uptake is poor – the numbers have decreased – and there are real issues around confidence and role models for girls. There are also few women teachers of computer science. Also, we need to think about how we define data jobs and subjects in ways that don’t exclude women. The curriculum needs to be made more inviting for girls and we need to change the culture in the tech sector. Most programming roles are filled by men and this means that there is an inherent gender bias. There also needs to be more understanding on the impact of AI on jobs traditionally done by women.


What would you recommend to women and girls who would like to do what you’re doing, or go in to data?

Don’t settle for second best! I’m so impressed to see young women and girls calling men out on equality issues now and I wish I’d had the confidence to do the same at their age. Young women are now saying “Hang on! You don’t have any women in your management team and that is not good enough!” I was the first generation of women who were combining family and career, we were at the forefront of it all, and it was tough at times. We didn’t know how to be a good mum and a career woman at the same time; we were conflicted. Also we weren’t always encouraged to believe in ourselves.


Do you have any fun facts about yourself?

I served the Queen, Margaret Thatcher and Robert Maxwell tea at the Commonwealth Games in 1986 in Edinburgh, whilst being a silver service waitress! (laughs) so I’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the most influential women of our time!


That is a very fun! Do you have any heroes or heroines?

Politically, Harriet Harman and Shirley Williams, particularly because of what they have tried to do for women. I saw Harman breastfeed her child between answering questions at a recording of Question Time in London in the late 80s! I also love Barak Obama – I had a lot of faith in him.

Personally, I want to mention my sister in law because she battled cancer whilst also being one of the directors spearheading the “50:50 by 2020” campaign in the Scottish Government. Professionally and personally, she is my heroine. She was doing a lot for women in the workplace and the Scottish Government, as well as all of our family, were devastated when she passed away. My amazing nieces, her children, are to feature alongside David Tennant as part of Children in Need coverage this year, describing what the Maggie’s Centre has done for them since they lost their mum! They are following in her mould for sure.


Wow! Anything else you’d like to add?

My vision is that we get an intersection between the energy and determination of young women and the opportunity that new technology provides. I feed off the energy of these women and I think they are too often ignored. We need to make sure that their energy isn’t wasted.

Image of Alison Muckersie
Picture by Lesley Martin, interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

My vision is to intersect the energy and determination of young women and the opportunity that new technology provides

Read the latest Women in data

Image of Natalie Duffield

Natalie Duffield

CEO of InTechnology Smart Cities Ltd

Photo of Hoppers Society Members

University of Edinburgh Hoppers Society

Image of Samantha Rhynas

Samantha Rhynas

Head of Data at Effini & Girl Geek Scotland Leadership Team & PyData Edinburgh Organiser