Cat Magill

Research Associate at Edinburgh Living Lab, University of Edinburgh

Can you tell us about your background and journey to your current role?
I was born in the States and studied Linguistics, German and pre-med. Originally, I wanted to be a doctor working in under-served areas of the world.
I began travelling after I graduated, and at 24 I joined an American voluntary service programme. While I was living and working in a remote village in Senegal, my interest shifted from medicine to public health and sustainable agriculture. I also began to understand and care about community-centred development: solving problems in ways that work for the people who experience them. There’s always someone who thinks they know the solution, but we need to think about how people experience the problem, how their daily life works. If you don’t understand the context of the problem, you won’t be able to fix the problem. This experience really changed the way I think.
I ended up spending 15 years working internationally, teaching English and working for charities in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Ooh, tell us more!
I’ve worked in Europe, Senegal, Japan, Nicaragua, Zambia and Kenya. I also developed an adventurous habit of taking breaks between my work to do long cycling trips. So I have cycled in quite a few places around the world!

What was the biggest learning from your time abroad?
From working with people to co-design solutions, from living in different countries and cultures, and from travelling independently, I have been continually amazed by people. I have received so much generosity from strangers, and I have built meaningful personal and professional relationships with all kinds of people. Fundamentally it starts with being interested in other people, in their life experience, and showing that you care about them. For me that’s the starting point for doing anything in the world. Success in your work and your personal life depends on building good relationships, which allow incredible collaborations across different sectors, countries, religions, and value-systems.

That’s incredible. How did you come to Scotland?
I came to the University of Edinburgh to do a Masters’ in Ecosystem Services. This is where I got involved with Edinburgh Living Lab and began to learn about data-driven innovation.

What does a typical day look like to you now?
There isn’t one! My main role for the last few years has been to lead the development of Edinburgh Living Lab. The Lab wants to ensure that data-driven innovation, data and technology are used to make a difference in society and to improve people’s quality of life. It’s about making the city work for everybody. For example, if you’re thinking about transportation and mobility, you’re not just thinking about an objective measure of congestion in the city centre. You need to consider it from the perspective of people trying to get to and from work at all times of day and night, people who live close to the centre and people who live farther away, delivery drivers and commuters, residents of the Old Town, cyclists, people with disabilities, older people, small children, carers and so many more. What is each person’s experience? How does the current system enable or prevent them from getting around?
My favourite days are often the ones that involve getting out of the office. I might be leading a community co-design event or an innovation workshop, speaking with researchers and students in data science or interaction design. Or I might be attending a talk about AI, testing a new technology to monitor biodiversity in parks or collaborating with urban designers and architects to find new solutions to improve public spaces.
I consider myself to be a kind of project designer. I figure out how to make things work! Somebody says “we have a problem” and I design the process we’ll go through to figure out how to solve the problem. A key part of my work is bringing together data science and design. I help people see how things fit together, how data science can help to understand a problem and co-design with people can help to create a solution that will work.

What does ‘doing data right’ and ‘inclusive growth’ mean to you?
My aim is to connect data-driven innovation with people’s lived experience. How do we figure out how data-driven innovation can make a difference to people’s daily lives? I hope that we won’t only change things for people – we will change things with people. So that data-driven innovation isn’t some kind of obscure process that the average person feels they can’t understand or participate in. We want to find a way to make data a tool and resource that people can access, understand and relate to in order to find new solutions to the challenges they experience. It’s not always straightforward how to do that, but we’re learning.

What are you most passionate about in your day-to-day work?
I am interested in helping people understand how data and technology can be used to change the city for the better. One of the things we really care about is that people are able to engage with the data that is informing decision-making. People aren’t necessarily interested in data, but data can help us to understand problems and design services that solve problems like, ‘Can I afford to take my kids to the leisure centre?’ and ‘Can I get through the tourist traffic to get to work?’ It’s how we connect and frame our work with those concerns.
I also love working with people from different dimensions of the city and beyond. It’s fun and interesting because everyone has different priorities, values, ways of working and ways of looking at and understanding things. It’s like a puzzle, and it’s about fitting it together in a way that works and not a way that creates chaos.

Can you tell us more about the specific data sets and projects you’re working with?
One of the most interesting projects I am working on is looking at how data and technology could help us better understand how people use parks and what they value about them. We have been working with the City of Edinburgh Council, Friends of Parks groups and park users to figure out what their priorities are for parks and how new digital and data tools can provide them with more up-to-date and accurate information as well as create better communication between park users and park managers.

Is there anything you would like to do more of in your work?
I wish I could spend more time in out in the city being hands-on.
I really would like to see us get from challenges to solution concepts and prototypes much more quickly. It’s much easier for people to engage with something tangible than a theoretical question like, “How might data help you solve your problem?” The most exciting projects for me are those that make a tangible change.

What do you look forward to?
We will be working more closely with the Edinburgh Futures Institute, which will open up a lot of new opportunities. Currently, we have around 10-15 people working on projects – a mix of PhD students, consultants, project coordinators, academics – but in terms of core staff, I’m the only regular person.

You’re the superstar of the whole operation!
Someone said I am the glue – it’s like I try to trace a nice design in glue on the paper and everyone else sprinkles their fantastic glitter confetti onto it, and when it sticks, voila, you’ve got something amazing!

Do you find your work supportive of women?
In some respects yes, in some respects not as much. There are certain concepts when you are working with technology and society that can feel fairly gendered at times. Part of my role is to question assumptions about what technology can achieve and how it will achieve it, and to ensure that the voices and experiences of different people participate in shaping how technology is used in society.

What challenges remain for women and girls in your line of work?
Data science needs to integrate more with problem-solving to engage people across the sector. I’m not preoccupied with getting specifically more women in to data science. I’m concerned that we choose the right problems to tackle, that those problems are meaningful to a diversity of people and solutions don’t just streamline one particular perspective or a category of lived experience. We need to solve not only for ourselves, but for society and for others.

Do you have a fun fact about yourself?
I can drive combine harvesters! I have also cycled alone across large parts of West Africa and India – one of my most valued life experiences.

Do you have a hero or heroine?
This summer Fiona Kolbinger flat out won the Transcontinental Race (cycling race of around 4000km across Europe) – I found that incredible. Last year, a Scottish woman named Jenny Graham broke the women’s around the world cycling record, completely self-supported. She went around the globe in just 124 days.
I love to see women leading the way and just flat out winning things.

What are you most proud of from your career so far?
I have worked in so many different contexts, countries, environments. I transitioned to working at the University of Edinburgh from working in a village in rural Kenya. I love working with people so wherever I go, I find joy in my work because of the relationships that I build. I’m proud of that ability to be able to build relationships wherever I am, and accomplish things together.

Image of Professor Caytherine Magill
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Data-Driven innovation is for people. It goes back to lived experience: we use data-driven innovation to make a difference to daily lives

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