The Big Interview: Gillian Docherty, CEO of The Data Lab

Gillian Docherty has since 2015 served as chief executive of The Data Lab – Scotland’s innovation centre for data and artificial intelligence (AI).

Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 4:55 am

It is one of Scotland’s Innovation Centres, aiming to help businesses maximise value from data and championing Scotland’s data science community.

The tech boss is described as one of the most influential data professionals in the UK, and was in 2019 awarded an OBE for her services to information technology and business, while she is also the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Robert Gordon University, and has given a TEDx talk.

She also sits on the boards of organisations such as Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and the Scottish government’s Data Delivery Group – as well as charity Beyonder Involve, which aims to advance education and community development. “Their remit isn’t exclusively for the benefit of children and young people, but by providing opportunity and partnerships with schools and voluntary community organisations, they have a massive impact.” she says.

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The computer scientist is described as one of the most influential data professionals in the UK. Picture: John Devlin.

Additionally, she has been named chair of the new AI Alliance, a collective leadership team set up to drive the aims of the Scottish government’s AI Strategy for Scotland.

Can you explain what your duties and aims are as CEO of The Data Lab? How has the organisation adapted due to the pandemic with the likes of the recent DataFest21?

At its heart, The Data Lab aims to drive economic, societal and environmental impact for the country through increased awareness and application of data and AI. Not only that, we also believe Scotland can lead the world to a future where data powers scientific progress, economic prosperity and social good, so much of our work is designed to help position the nation as a guiding light on a global stage.

As CEO, everything I do is to help further The Data Lab’s work in meeting these aims and ambitions. Like everyone, our number one priority throughout the pandemic has been to try and look after our people, whilst continuing to deliver as much of our programme as possible.

Despite the resulting lockdown periods, we’re pleased to have been able to support many businesses on their journey throughout the past year, as well as preparing for emergence from lockdown. This has meant looking at changing how we normally run things – for example, our flagship event DataFest has moved to a virtual, nine-month-long event as opposed to a two-week-long, in-person event.

How can data and AI help boost Scotland’s businesses, and assist in the nation’s economic recovery?

Data and AI can be leveraged in so many different ways for the benefit of business, especially as we strive towards a post-pandemic economic recovery. From driving productivity and operational benefits, to helping organisations build new products or services or, indeed, using data in new ways to help to create new business models.

At The Data Lab, we think it’s vitally important for the recovery to enhance and encourage not only the use, but the awareness of data and AI and their benefits. We are here to help businesses make better use of their data, so I would encourage anyone who is unsure about where to begin on their data journey to get in touch with TORCH, our business advisory service.

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Yet, the wider adoption of data and AI in business relies on more than a heightened awareness and understanding of its value – we need to facilitate an increase in the number of people who know how to work with it. It’s essential that we encourage school leavers or career-changers to consider roles with data.

One of the most important ways we can foster continued innovation in the sector is to support and create learning opportunities for students, which is why we partnered with 12 Scottish universities to deliver an MSc scholarship programme. More than 160 students are set to graduate and embark on their career in data and AI this year, and we look forward to collaborating with them, as they are set to play an important role in furthering Scotland’s progress in the field.

The Data Lab recently shared details of a project supported by the Cancer Innovation Challenge, tackling Mesothelioma with AI, while your External Funding Service has helped GIGGED.AI. How do these developments tie in with The Data Lab’s aims and target areas?

The Cancer Innovation Challenge, supported by the Scottish government and Scottish Funding Council, was a great way of using new data science and AI techniques to deliver improved cancer treatment pathways or opportunities to support clinicians, and ultimately drive social benefit.

The projects involved delivered a number of advancements in cancer care that we hope will continue to progress in the years to come. GIGGED.AI, as a start-up looking to match freelancers with projects, brings a new service to the market and, by creating jobs, boosts the economy. All of this underpins The Data Lab’s goals – to encourage innovation, economic prosperity and social betterment through data and AI.

You were recently named chair of the new AI Alliance – what do you aim to achieve in this role?

I am incredibly passionate about the opportunity presented by data and AI for Scotland and, for me, the AI strategy was really powerful in laying out the opportunities of using AI to help our people. It focuses on how AI can help deliver the goals of the National Performance Framework and provides a clear direction through collaboration, with the AI Alliance established to provide an opportunity for everyone in Scotland to engage, learn and contribute.

The AI strategy’s tagline “trustworthy, ethical, inclusive” is critically important. It’s crucial that we lean positively into the recommendations outlined in the strategy, to embrace data and AI for the benefit of all, and I’m really excited to play my part in helping to deliver it through my role as the first chair of the AI Alliance.

How can a better gender balance – and broader diversity overall – be achieved in the tech sector?

As an industry, we have a lot of work to do. Not much progress has been achieved over the last few years, but an increasing use of techniques in AI serve to highlight the importance of diversity in all its guises, from gender, to race, neurodiversity, and ability.

In my view, we need to look at intervening at every level, from engaging with and encouraging schoolchildren, to taking on recommendations from the Scottish Tech Ecosystem Review on the importance of computing science in schools, through to interventions later on in life with those already in work.

For example, we recently ran a series of courses in collaboration with CodeClan and Equate Scotland, for neurodiverse women in data science. These courses were designed to increase awareness and understanding of data science for neurodiverse women with no previous experience in the field, by developing and enhancing their skills and abilities to allow application in the real world.

The industry needs to provide support, mentorship and opportunity for people who are interested to get involved regardless of life stage or career, and highlight role models to inspire them. Those of us already in the industry must stand up and shout about the great opportunities and do our bit to dispel myths – such as the assumption that working in tech is a very siloed, non-collaborative experience. In fact, it’s an incredibly collaborative, enterprising career, as data and AI can be woven into all elements of business, and across every single industry.

Can you summarise your path to joining The Data Lab – for example you spent more than two decades at IBM? What drew you to study computing science?

I almost fell into studying computer science… it wasn’t a subject when I was at school, and my school had no computers until my final year. I actually went to university to study maths and economics and needed a third subject to complete the degree, and I thought computer science looked really interesting. Over the years, I ended up dropping the maths and economics part of the degree to purely focus on computer science – I knew it had the potential to not only change business and how the economy runs, but to transform lives.

I joined IBM as a graduate, changing roles there every three to four years and working all over the UK as well as internationally. It gave me a huge grounding in the industry and equipped me with the skills to become a leader.

When I saw The Data Lab opportunity, I wasn’t sure if I was the right candidate but as I got to understand its core mission, I was hooked. My daughter was four at the time, and she inspired me to want to stand up for our children, to give them access to opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have. To do that, I knew we needed a robust and vibrant economy and society, which is really the essence of The Data Lab’s work.

What would you like The Data Lab to look like in 2025 – ten years after you were named CEO?

I think it’s less about what The Data Lab looks like, and more about what Scotland as a country looks like – our economy, our society, and seeing a greater use of data to drive opportunities. I take great joy in learning about the direct impact we have made through things like the Cancer Innovation Challenge, our External Funding Service, the skills we’ve developed and enabled through our MSc programme and more.

I want to be able to stand back and look proudly at the impact The Data Lab has had, the lives we’ve changed, the company fortunes that we’ve helped improve, and the new products and services designed to help make our day-to-day lives better.

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