DATA & AI Continued from Page 31

ernment’s response to the emer- gency, ensuring that people who are most vulnerable have access to support. It’s required better partnership working within local government and other sectors and we’ve all had to remove our lanyards, be open and supportive and prepared to listen.” Birchenall believes that local

government is fast approaching a tipping point in data and analyt- ics. Until now the tendency has been to analyse the performance of past data to assess the impact of a given policy. However, with the advance in data-crunching methods, computing power and the forward propulsion effect of the pandemic, those old models are rapidly giving ground to the new: real-time data, automation, and predicting the future. Birchenall said: “Historically,

the focus was on how we apply data analysis, looking at past performance management and maybe monitoring the impacts of policies. And it’s a bit like looking in the rear-view mirror of a van where basically all you can see is inside the van, and you can’t see outside. Better data sharing and more access to real-time data analysis enables you to make more policy interventions, be- cause you have a more integrated view. And then you can use AI and data analysis to be more proactive and preventive, for ex- ample, to be able to better model the impacts of policy interven- tions or future scenarios.”

As ever with local government spending constraints, the onus on the task force has been to remove layers of bureaucracy and dupli- cation. An open-source software approach has enabled local coun- cils to use data models created by others, rather than do the same work twice, and to enhance the models with their own unique coding based on geography or demographics. In an unexpectedly candid mo-

ment, Birchenall revealed that his initial approach at the outset of the pandemic had been a “naive” one. He said he had failed to appreciate the different require-


Colin Birchenall, Chief Technology Officer at the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government, highlighted councils’ innovative data response to the pandemic at Digital Scotland

ments of councils, based on their local needs. Te top-down ap- proach soon became bottom-up. “I guess the community of data

practitioners we built around this were part of that task force, who put me straight,” he said. “Rather than trying to prioritise and coordinate requirements across local government, they developed something that made a virtue of the fact that councils do have dif- ferent needs and priorities.” Te work undertaken within

the local government task force - and the data ecosystem it has spawned - has been a feeder pipe for the national data picture, led at Scottish Government level by chief data officer Albert King and chief statistician Roger Halliday, who also presented at Digital Scotland. Focused on national policy objectives, the broad brush data vision is that it can be ‘used systematically to improve decision-making: saving time, money and lives’. King said the

32 | FUTURESCOT | WINTER 2020/21

upcoming national strategy for AI, which is expected in the spring of 2021, will “not stand in splendid isolation” and is a reminder that it must be focused on the citizen and reflect the changing digital landscape. He said: “Tis is technology

that’s coming whether we like it or not; it’s going to play a major role in our economy and society but there are risks that are par- ticular to AI. Tere are risks that it could entrench social inequalities or biases, or it could displace hu- man agency rather than enhance it. On the other hand, if used well and in ways that are open and ac- countable it can improve decision- making, it can enrich our working and personal lives, and so the challenge for the AI strategy is to realise these benefits and mitigate those views and fears.” King said that research has

shown that the public are largely onside when it comes to the potential of AI, and not overly

focused on risks. However, he added that one of the opportuni- ties for Scotland is to convey to the wider world that it is a coun- try that does data according to high ethical and moral standards.

In order for the public sector to fully capitalise in the long term on the appetite for data that has been whetted as a result of the Covid response, one of the key developments for 2021 will be the emergence of a new organisation, Research Data Scotland. Halliday, its interim chief

executive, said that the body will move on the agenda of getting ‘de-identified’ data from public data sources into the hands of innovators much more quickly. He said one of his first aims will be to bring down the timescale to access research data from its cur- rent 12 months, to getting 80 per cent of requests delivered within a month. He said: “Lots of these opportu-

nities for data-driven innovation exist, but we can’t do it alone. Unless we have that openness and transparency about what we do then we’re not going to get anywhere; that can erode very quickly and that’s a key found- ing principle of Research Data Scotland.” As we move into 2021, the line judge will be waiting for that first big serve. l

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