The Data Lab is happy to share an insightful interview with Inez Hogarth, Head of Analytics at brightsolid.
This is the first in a series of interviews with members of the Data Science community in Scotland, through which we will share the experiences of professionals and academics working in different sectors.
We hope you enjoy it.
Can you take us through your career journey to your current role?
Certainly. I fell into statistics primarily because I felt there was a need for it in the market place. I studied theoretical physics at university but when I graduated there were very few jobs in that field, so I started working for an organisational psychology company just to gain experience working. I was very fortunate because their psychometrician was late delivering results that they really needed. They basically said ‘You have a numerical background, can you take a look at this?’ So I did, and five years later I had built an internal research team to do all their stats analysis; and completed an applied statistics and data mining degree.
After spending five years there, I became an Epidemiologist/Statistician for the Diabetes Epidemiology Group at Dundee University. That was brilliant because I was working with people who were at the forefront of their field and were really innovative. Then I went on to work in an online genealogy company. That gave me a breadth of experience working with a digital product, which is very different from the two other organisations that I had worked with, because there is so much information being generated continuously.
I’ve been very fortunate to work across different fields in different areas, and I got to the point when I wanted to share my knowledge through consultancy. By pure happenstance, brightsolid got in touch with me as they wanted to build a business insights model and they thought I could help. So we discussed it and our goals were very much aligned, so I joined brightsolid.
Can you give us an overview of your role at brightsolid?
brightsolid is known for its data hosting and cloud hosting, as well as its data centres in Dundee and Aberdeen, so they are very familiar with how valuable data is, and the importance of holding it in a very secure format for their customers. They wanted to go beyond this and find additional services for their customers to help them really get the most value out of the data that they were holding. That is what I came in to do. Storing data doesn’t really mean anything until you translate into actual results, and that’s what I’m helping our clients do.
What are your customer¹s biggest challenges and how do you help them?
The two biggest challenges that I see frequently are data quality and a reluctance from the wider organisation to engage in data influenced decision-making.
Data quality has arisen primarily because, most of the time, the data hasn’t been captured with the idea of being used in an analytical context. We look at the data to try to figure out what the numbers are actually saying; how much missingness there is; is it a complete depiction of what they want to explore; is it relevant to the questions that they have; and is it easily accessible. Basically we try to improve these areas so that they can use their data and get the most value out of it.
On the cultural side of things, we try to break down the fear that can be associated with business insights, and empower people to see and use their own data, which is why tools like IBM’s Watson and Microsoft’s Power BI are so powerful right now.
You’re based in Dundee, how is the tech community/landscape in that area?
I am exceptionally fortunate to live in Dundee. It is really vibrant with regards to the tech landscape, and that is partly due to its universities. Abertay is at the forefront of the games industry in Scotland. Dundee University on the other hand has always been very good at life sciences. When there is talk about finding a cure for cancer, people say it will probably be found in Dundee. That enthusiasm and innovation radiates throughout the whole city.
There’s also lots of events, like the monthly Dundee Tech Meet Up; Cafe Science and Cafe Art, and it’s amazing to go to these events and see so many people from all different backgrounds and age groups that just have an interest in science, technology and innovation, and just want to be a part of it.
As brightsolid grows are you faced with a skills and recruitment challenge? If so, how are you tackling this?
We’re always trying to get more talented people in and retain the talent we’ve got. brightsolid has a brilliant talent management strategy that encourages people within the organisation to grow further, so much so that we were shortlisted for employer the year last year, which was a brilliant achievement for us.
But in the wider side of things, we understand that we have to go out into our community and that’s why brightsolid is very much involved in getting students into our offices when they are doing university courses, for workshops and showing them around the data centre, as well as going out speaking to the wider community through the events I mentioned.
One of our colleagues, Kenny Lowe, was even wise enough to set up the first kid’s code school in Scotland, so we were able to get 9 to 11 year-olds into programming, because we understand if we don’t make an effort, there might not be be the talent that we need in the future. It’s very rewarding to see the company involved so much in generating talent from that young age. brightsolid has, over the last two years, organically grown a social responsibility programme that helps tech and digital institutions, professionals and students in Scotland. We are very passionate about the Scottish digital economy.
Do you have any thoughts on how to engage more women in the tech industry?
brightsolid is quite unique because it has a higher proportion of women than is usual for a tech company, but that hasn’t be a conscious focus for us, it just happened naturally. I think it’s because we’ve created a culture that is incredibly supportive of people, their personal development and that’s also sensitive to work/life balance. brightsolid is very innovative, and believe in providing opportunities for everyone, and that isn’t just for women, but for people from all backgrounds, across the whole company.
Do you think analytic services running in the cloud will reduce the need for investment in analytics teams?
I think it’s too early to say. I’m actually quite optimistic, because, as I’ve highlighted, I think one of the barriers that we have as an industry is the excuse that It is too complicated. I fear that we’ve not been particularly good at explaining how it isn’t rocket science, it’s relatively easy things that we are doing these days. I think the idea of being able to give people the tools to do it themselves is incredibly empowering, and I hope that it will start discussions so that internal analytics teams are engaged by their organisations to support them more because they have the basic understanding of what’s going on.
In general, what are your views on the Data Scientist role?
I think it is showing how much the field has developed in a very short space of time. When you look at things like an analytical function like a principal component analysis, it use to be the topic at the PhD. It would take four years and require lots of manual calculations with limited results. Nowadays, I type in one line of code and immediately get the tables from that analysis. It’s not surprising that people that were in the same role had to diverse drastically, and I think the data scientist name captures the fact that because we’ve got so many tools that can do the heavy lifting for us now, our focus has been pushed towards the technological programming side of things and how to better communicate its results.
Do you currently engage with the academic & public sector communities?
Yes we do. We have a number of public sector clients and would include academia under that. We try to communicate as much as we can with them, and that’s partly because brightsolid has four core values; one of them is Sharing Knowledge is the Real Power. We are very passionate about doing that, because we have some the best people in our country working in academia and a lot of the time we don’t translate their results into the wider field, and that’s where things like public services and industry can really be useful because they have experience doing it. I think the way to make partnering with other sectors easier is by creating a safe environment for people to share knowledge. I think the problem in the past has been that everybody is very protective of their intellectual property, and that doesn’t produce results. I think it’s brilliant that in Scotland we have initiatives like like The Data Lab, encouraging all these parts of society to work together.
How do you think industry/academic/public sector can work better together?
It’s just getting away from this idea that we need to publish data, and I can’t share my knowledge because then I won’t be able to first publish it. That’s not helping us evolve. Likewise, for the company side of things, the idea that I can’t share my knowledge because then I can’t commercialise it. Unless we get past those barriers we won’t able to move forward.
What trends do you see emerging in analytics over the next few years?
I think it’s becoming more part of everyday life. When you see machine learning applications such as Siri on your phone, people don’t think about them as analytics, and they clearly are, and the benefit is enabling people to live easier lives. I would love to see more of that occurring so that people have more time to focus on what’s important to them.
You have a background in statistics, what do you think went wrong with the General Election predictions?
I think its natural with polling. The Market Research Society has done a lot of work trying to improve the way that we create good predictive polls, and they’ve been exceptionally good at reinforcing the need for representative sampling and non-biased questions; but the election has shown that we still have a little bit to go. I’m hoping that instead of us focusing on what went wrong, we focus on the learns that we can take moving forward, whether that is changing the way that we interview people so they are more relaxed, or interpret what they’re saying in a more sophisticated way rather than just a tick box, or just trying to engage with people that are reluctant to take part in surveys. The alternative side of that is, Microsoft say that they have been able to predict elections very successfully through machine algorithm techniques, so I think being able to encapsulate different fields of statistics involved in predictions that normally occur by polling is quite an exciting idea.
What advice would you give businesses looking to use analytics?
Get involved, play with the data that you have and see what it can do. Understand it at your own level, and from that hopefully you will get intrigued and see what the potential is, and want to go even further either building your own internal analytics capability or reaching out to an analyst so that you can really make data work for your business and drive business value.
What is your biggest learning based on your varied experience and background?
I think the biggest one I’ve learned is to don’t immediately say no, because the best ideas that I’ve heard often come from people that aren’t experts. I remember years ago I was giving a talk to school children, and because they weren’t restricted by the idea that they didn’t understand Physics, they came away with the questions that should’ve been asked when I was giving the same talk elsewhere. So yeah, the biggest learn I had is to listen to everyone equally because most go the time they have valuable insight.
brightsolid are a private cloud hosting specialist that own and operate Tier III data centres in Dundee and Aberdeen, connected by their uncontended nationwide network. The only Scottish partner on the Microsoft Cloud OS Network, brightsolid have recently been commended for their work with Scottish Government’s Improvement Service and Tata Consultancy Services: ‘My Account’ is a cloud hosted database and management portal that centralises all citizen data, enabling local councils to work effectively and collaboratively across different regions. A values driven organisation, brightsolid’s core mission is to deliver technical innovation with a truly personal service that surpasses the expectations of their customers. Visit the brightsolid website to learn more about their innovative approach to business.