Nicola Osborne

Programme Manager, Creative Informatics

Tell us about your background and journey to your current role?

I’ve had a bit of an odd journey, with a lot of side gigs and role changes, although on paper I’ve consistently worked for the University of Edinburgh for over a decade.

My first job was part of a year in industry working on a chemical site preparing for the Millennium Bug. I was the only woman on site in the engineering team but was well supported and encouraged to learn as much as I could about all areas of the business (e.g. taking a day-long pipework and joinery course). I was hooked on working in a technical space and in a role that included working with lots of data research. However, two years into my mechanical engineering degree it became clear it wasn’t the right fit for me and my wonderful director of studies and I bolted together a third year with credits for a general science degree, taking all sorts of courses – from European cinema to programming. My final year of study was entirely my own programme of study and thus quite odd and wonderful.

After graduating I held onto a tiny part time role in a computer lab but was officially unemployed for months as my particular combination of skills didn’t easily fit any of the opportunities I saw coming up. Eventually I found a role working in a photocopying room and then additional work in the acquisitions department of the University library where I had the opportunity to learn about the systems, data and metadata that kept the collections in order, putting years of self-taught touch typing to use and occasionally spotting patterns in the data that had real beneficial impact (the highlight being identifying overlapping subscriptions that led to significant annual savings). I learnt a lot but became frustrated. I was keen to progress but couldn’t see the next step on the career ladder for me. My boss suggested I meet people from different areas of the University so I could find out what they did and where I might like to be, one of whom worked at EDINA, which seemed like a great fit for my interests and a chance to do more technical work.

I applied to the online MSc in Digital Education (then eLearning) which I then undertook part-time alongside full-time work (possible only due to wonderful career development funding that I successfully applied for). This was an exciting but also exhausting and intense period requiring huge patience and support from my partner and (as the dissertation began) my work and our friends and family. However, I was delighted to graduate – with Distinction this time – a decade after my undergraduate ceremony. That qualification opened up a huge range of new opportunities including tutoring on the MSc in Digital Education programme, and being asked to develop and deliver a mandatory social media module for the MSc in Science Communication & Public Engagement. I was also encouraged to stand for Convener of the eLearning@ed community and held that role for several years.

Then in 2013/14 Dr Louise Connelly approached myself, Sian Bayne (Digital Education) and Adam Bunni (EUSA) to co-investigate a research project looking at how students manage their digital footprint online. This emerged from many ongoing requests for training and support on social media that Louise and I were both receiving in high volume, and for which there was a real need for structure and an informed understanding on the needs of the student community.

In summer 2018, I had an opportunity to reflect, as I spent several months on shared parental leave looking after our daughter following my partner’s return to work. I was extremely excited to see an opportunity to make a big change again, joining the hugely ambitious and exciting Creative Informatics project (led by the University of Edinburgh in close partnership with Edinburgh Napier University, Codebase and Creative Edinburgh), which brings together my passions for data, technology and creativity in totally new ways. I started in December and haven’t once regretted the move despite it being a challenging role!


Tell us about a typical day at work – what are you working on at the moment?

I manage Creative Informatics which is part of the Creative Industries Clusters Programme managed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the Industrial Strategy, and funded by them, the Scottish Funding Council and the City Region Deal Data-Driven Innovation initiative. We are funded to drive data driven growth in the Creative Industries through various research and development funding programmes as well as a programme or events, studios and workshops to support the creative industries to work with data in new innovative ways.

A typical day at work will usually include several meetings, whether one-to-ones or focused meetings on a single issue – for example, we’ve recently been developing an ethics statement. I meet with creative sector partners, stakeholders or visiting academics/industry contacts who may be potential future collaborators, or may just want to find out more about what we are doing. We also have weekly team meetings, monthly Directorates, and quarterly Steering Group meetings so quite often there will be preparation or reviewing of reporting or scheduling upcoming selection panels, usually in close collaboration with colleagues.

Then there are also external events and conferences, regular teleconferences (such as monthly calls for members of the Turing Institute Data Science and Digital Humanities group which I’m part of), several meet ups of all the Creative Industries Clusters each year, and collaborations with colleagues within and beyond the University. There are a few plain wacky things as well because we’re a creative project and part of the wider Design Informatics team – so during the last week of July the team were throwing ropes off the Bayes Centre to help colleagues get the Data Play Pavillion up in time for the Fringe!

No day is quite the same…


What is your vision for data innovation at the University of Edinburgh?

My vision for data innovation and the DDI initiative is that we get to a place where no-one across the region is scared of having a conversation about data, of thinking about how data is part of their life and why that matters. I would particularly love for there to be an ongoing relationship that bridges more classically creative branches of the creative industries, and more technical and data-savvy creative tech companies.

My project is specifically looking to explore how DDI can support creative organisations and people in developing access to and engagement with new audiences and markets; developing new modalities of experience; unlocking the value of archives and data sets; and exploring new business models for creative industries.


What are you particularly passionate about in your work?

I am really passionate about understanding new opportunities to make the creative sector more resilient and financially stable. I really appreciate skilled creative work but it can be incredibly tough to make creative businesses viable so I’m particularly excited at the potential for new business models and new types of creative businesses that we hope will come out of Creative Informatics.

I’m extremely passionate about blurring the margins of creative and technical work as, having spent years working in IT and Software development I know just how creative and imaginative you need to be to build something new, to create original code and curate the best of existing approaches, libraries, datasets. Creative people from all backgrounds can bring so much to technical approaches.

I’m most proud of the work my team is doing. Our timelines and targets are hugely ambitious. We aren’t even a full year into the project and we’ve accomplished so much, with three strands of application processes already complete.


Do you work with any interesting data sets, technologies or analysis techniques?

Lots of what we’re currently doing is enabling other people to work with data sets, technologies, tools but for the team delivering Creative Informatics the most important data sets (for now) are those we are capturing about the programme itself, from applications, evaluations, participation in events, through to our financial and in-kind contributions. We’ve only just reached the point where we have enough of this data collected to meaningfully start exploring patterns, asking questions, understanding how our data can help us tune and develop our work but it will prove increasingly useful as the project expands in scale and complexity with many live projects in parallel. Our tools for doing this will initially be quite pedestrian – my colleagues and I do a lot with Excel right now – but we’re looking to experiment and explore our data in much more sophisticated ways, and (where appropriate) make some of that data more visual and shared with our community.

I’m particularly excited to see what emerges as we begin to trace engagement and impact throughout the programme.


What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in data fields?

In my first job I was one of 20 women on a 250 person industrial site and, whilst things are much better now, particularly in data (rather than engineering) fields, I think it can still be the case that you might be one of few women in a room. That can be really challenging especially as it matters to be present and to make sure your voice is heard in these spaces. That isn’t always easy to do but there are other great people around who can offer support, mentoring, or help you build confidence, or just give you that occasional pep talk when you need it. Knowing what you are talking matters but sometimes you also need to be a little cheeky or tactical to claim your space and be heard – in previous roles I’ve certainly called male colleagues out on inappropriate comments.

Finally, don’t be scared by jargon – you should always feel able to ask for an explanation rather than be intimidated by someone else’s insistence on acronyms or insider terms!


What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to do what you’re doing?

I always enjoyed working with computers, with data, with nerdy folk, but also being creative and for years that didn’t all seem like it could fit in one role… And this is, so far, the second time I’ve gotten to have my dream job and neither role would have happened without my very strange mix of creative, data, tech, and comms skills and experiences.

You should do what you are interested in, that could be the thing that really makes you stand out. I’d also say that you should have the confidence to stretch yourself, to know that you can learn new things, and sometimes changing your mind and pivoting your plans/career to follow what you enjoy and are good at can be hard but wonderful and very beneficial to your mental well-being.


Fun fact about yourself and hero/heroine?

Because I spend so much time at work in meetings and on the computer I like quite focused quiet time to make things in my spare time whether that’s cooking, making clothes, beading, or right now I’m particularly enjoying some excellent local life drawing sessions.

I take huge inspiration from seeing the achievements of women, and of diverse women becoming visible and celebrated.

Growing up as a young gay woman in the 90s, it was rare to see female role models in positions of power and influence particularly in tech, but now I see inspiring and impactful women in all areas of creativity, of tech, of public life. I often discover those people and their stories through diverse podcasts and so shows like Standard Issue, Code Switch, The Nod, Nancy, Guilty Feminist are all part of my weekly essential listening reminding me of how many good people are out there changing the world!

I am privileged to work with women whose brilliance and energy inspires me to stay curious, keep trying to stay ahead of the curve, and sometimes be a little bit difficult when a different perspective really needs to be heard.

Image of Nicola Osborne
Picture by Lesley Martin,

I’m passionate about making the creative sector more resilient and financially stable, excited at the potential for new business models and extremely passionate about blurring the margins of creative and technical work

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