MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
Can you tell us about your background and journey to your current role as an MSP?
I studied History at Cambridge and then left and went off to be a Chartered Accountant at a bank – two very different worlds!
Can you tell us what a typical day looks like for you now?
There’s no real typical day, as it were, but my week is split nicely in half. On a Monday, Friday and weekends I am representing my constituency, actually one of the largest in the UK!
That involves travelling around, visiting businesses and holding surgeries. I hold about 60 surgeries in a month including in places like the beautiful Isle of Canna to visit 16 people.
The second part of the week is spent in Edinburgh, in the Parliament building in Holyrood, where I spend my time as the Government’s Minister for Finance and Digital. I take part in debates, I give evidence to committees, and I speak at conferences and events.
To dig deeper in to the finance and digital aspect of your role, can you tell us more about your involvement with the City Region Deal?
I see them as two sides of the same coin. Digital and finance are enablers for everything else that happens – whether that is the health service, or anything that improves people’s lives, finance and digital makes it happen. I see finance and digital in the same way, they’re enablers of reform and of growth. The bottom line, whether it’s in relation to my constituency or parliamentary role, the thing that excites me most is seeing people’s lives improved, because services are being improved, as a result of us using finance and data as effectively as possible. The possibilities feel endless in this area. Innovation is about improving services to improve people’s lives, and that’s what gets me excited. I suppose the way we do that is through collaboration. Some people are interested in the investments that go in to data and technology, or the specific technologies themselves, but it’s about how we use it to improve lives. Scotland is a unique place in that it is the right size to get people together quickly, collaborate and work together. Harnessing the benefits of digital relies totally on collaboration, and we’re doing that to amazing extent in Scotland.
Can you tell us your involvement?
I’ve visited the University of Edinburgh on a number of occasions since taking up my Ministerial role, meeting with academics and other staff, keeping up-to-date on the development – the Data-Driven Innovation side of the City Deal is a key part of Scotland’s data industry evolution. Going back to collaboration, I think that the City Deals are really those catalysts that bring people together.
I see the City Deal as bringing about the things that I regularly stand up on platforms and commend. Whether it is businesses coming together, charities coming together, academics coming together – harnessing that potential will revolutionise our services, using data and technology in the right ways to improve the way that we do things. I am so passionate about that vision.
What is your vision for the City Region Deal and Data-Driven Innovation’s side of things?
Data impacts on pretty much every aspect of human activity and every sector of the economy. Ignoring it would mean risk of being left behind as a country or Edinburgh as a city. It is therefore so important to make sure that process is inclusive, to get people upskilled and also on board with the aims. Often it is the most unlikely of people you need to include to make sure we use data in the most ethical and safe ways. My overall vision is that it will have massive impact and we need to bring people along with it – there are specific elements I get really excited about. Creating the five data hubs in particular, which will draw on world-class data infrastructure. This is where you see the tangible impacts of all the rhetoric I’ve just used (laughs), such as upskilling people and analysing large data sets to then change the way a service works. Whether that’s the Bayes Centre or the Edinburgh Future Institute or the National Robotarium, all of these are the practical outputs of the infrastructure we’re investing in – and we’re investing at the scale that we are because we believe that data impacts every aspect of human activity.
What does inclusive growth look like to you and how does that relate to women and girls in Scotland?
For me, inclusion means inclusion for HOW we are doing the job and WHO reaps the benefits, yes? So starting with the first – we know that across Scotland, we need around 13,000 entrants in to digital roles to meet the demands of growth. That’s a lot of people and it’s very challenging in terms of attitude and culture to meet those targets.
There is a significant gender gap and that is clear in the sector. Although female participation has risen recently to around 23% percent, there is a long way to go. If we need to get people in and close the gender gap, we call on women to come in to these roles, we need more women in them – that is part one. We do that in different ways. We have targeted initiatives and strategies. We need more female role models and we have a variety of projects doing this in government and in the public and charity sectors in Scotland. One key aspect of this is our STEM strategy where we are working in schools to get young people to, develop their digital skills and encouraging more people to become teachers and to deliver teaching on STEM. We run other things, such as partnering with Young Scot on a social media campaign to encourage STEM uptake in college and universities, which then flows through to the jobs market. Between 2007 and – 2018, the number of passes by girls with STEM Higher qualifications went up by 13.3%. We need this to then flow through to the jobs women do. Oh, and CodeClan, I have to mention their work! They have the aim of gender balance of 40/60 female to male students.
Part two is looking at who is experiencing the benefits. When women are left behind, andwhen it comes to the outputs of data-driven innovation this means we aren’t achieving the goal of improving people’s lives. My role, and the role of everyone involved in digital and finance, is to improve everybody’s lives, not just one part of the population. If you don’t have women creating or innovating, then how can we expect women to be accessing and reaping the benefits of services if it’s not designed by and for them.
Another aspect is around geography – we need to ensure every part of Scotland is reaping the benefits: rural, urban, disadvantaged, middle of the city.
Anyway, if we get this right, hopefully we will see the amount of women from education flowing through to STEM and data roles.
What would you recommend to women and girls who would like to go in to digital or finance, or perhaps STEM more generally?
I’d ask them ‘what is putting you off pursuing it?’ Look at the hurdles and obstacles – they’re in your mind. You can do absolutely anything you want to do. The second thing – their contributions are invaluable. If women are 50% of the population, then we need more of them in coding, data scientists, software engineers because there just aren’t enough and women, with their skill sets, are so important to this work. We need them to be able to design the products and services that are used by the whole population, how can we exclude women from that? Without their contributions, 50% of talent and skill is just lost. I encourage women to look around them and to see the incredible men and women working in these roles and absolutely changing the world disrupting industries and sectors and solving problems that have been affecting society for decades and sometimes centuries. It is one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting, area to be working in right now. If women want to consider it further, no hurdle should stand in their way for them to succeed – they can find the right training opportunities, that includes re-skilling as well as earlier education, and get in touch with women who have already done it.
Do you have a fun fact about yourself and what do you do when the working day is over?
Don’t tell anyone but after dinner, I had half a tub of Ben and Jerry’s after my dinner last night (laughs).I also love country music and tonight I am going through to Glasgow for a live country music event!
There you go – two things I don’t normally tell anyone – I adore ice cream and country music.
I also noted that one of the data projects where I am most proud, and it is relevant to the City Deal is the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF. The Scottish Government are providing £1.5million over three years to support this collaboration in partnership with UNICEF, the Data Lab and the University of Edinburgh.
This will shed light on complex problems such as improving the health of children through behaviours around factors such as nutrition, and physical activity, achieving better mental health outcomes for young people and equality of opportunity in education and employment.
As well as helping children it is a superb demonstration of Scotland’s role as a global citizen and position us as a great place to do data for good with the skills, academic expertise and ability to make things happen at pace.
Data is one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting, area to be working in right now. No hurdle should stand in the way of women succeeding in it