Again and again throughout the pandemic leaders spoke of “following the science”, presenting their conclusions to extend, ease or impose tougher lockdown restrictions in conjunction with experts bearing charts and graphs depicting Covid’s progression.

It became tiresome for many, and some were contemptuous of claims that decisions made were properly rooted in evidence. Nevertheless, the process also put data-driven decision-making front and centre of the public consciousness.

Brian Hills, interim chief executive of The Data Lab, believes this is an important and often overlooked factor in the digital transformation taking place across the economy.

“Every day we have been talking about data with governments giving out the latest statistics around Covid, so everybody starts to become familiar with ‘here’s the data, here’s the decisions being made’, and people have become accustomed to the use of data in helping organisations make decisions,” he explains. “It is a step-change that is going to continue.”

Set up in 2014 as part of Scotland’s network of innovation centres, The Data Lab is charged with driving growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and data science skills across the academic and business community.

Mr Hills assumed the top role on an interim basis at the beginning of this year, and has his hat in the ring for the permanent appointment. He originally joined The Data Lab as head of product and data before advancing to deputy chief executive in June 2020.

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Born in Glasgow and raised in the Highlands, Mr Hills began his career at what was then known as HP in South Queensferry in 1998 after completing his master’s degree in computing at the University of Aberdeen. He later worked for nearly eight years at Sumerian, the Glasgow-based networked applications group founded by David Sibbald, and then joined travel search website Skyscanner in 2012 where he created the Edinburgh-based firm’s business intelligence unit.

From an initial team of 25, The Data Lab has grown to 50 people working across bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. Its mission is to help Scotland “maximise value from data and lead the world to a data-powered future”.

“For us fundamentally it’s about changing lives,” Mr Hills said.

“How do we create the skills that enable people to have the careers they want to have in this area? How do we use data and collaboration across academia, industry and public sectors to innovate new products across ranges of different sectors?”

Backed by government money provided through the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, The Data Lab also periodically receives one-off funding directly from the Scottish Government for specific projects. Examples include TORCH, which launched in 2020 as a “matchmaking” service to help businesses with limited technical experience make better use of their data.

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One of last year’s TORCH clients, Mercat Tours, decided to use the suspension of its Edinburgh walking tours during lockdown to consolidate its operations into a single IT system. The company also upskilled eight of its team members through the Data Skills for Work programme.

“They saw that as a key competency that they need in their business going forward,” Mr Hills said. “Now they are a lot more operationally efficient and can scale up what they do as more visitors come back to Edinburgh.”

As the acceleration of the digital transformation driven by the pandemic has pushed demand for data skills to unprecedented highs, the challenge for “’everybody in the ecosystem” is to not only train up the next generation but also unlock talent among existing workers.

The Data Lab advises there are three key components to attracting new data employees: articulate a clear set of company values; provide a straightforward explanation of the problems to be solved; and outline the opportunities for professional growth and career advancement.

“We also talk about the fourth alternative of upskilling people that are already in your company,” Mr Hills said. “It is quite expensive in time and money to go through a hiring process in a very competitive market, so can you take advantage of the various upskilling schemes that are available to invest in your existing team?”

There has been an increase in the number of firms taking up this fourth option, he said, but much more could still be done in this area. There has also been an uptick in the number of more mature workers retraining for data jobs in sectors such as healthcare because they believe it will have a materially positive effect on society.

“We are seeing a trend that people want to pivot in their careers,” Mr Hills said. “I think people are taking a step back to see what they really want to do with their lives.

“We are certainly seeing that in a lot of people who are mature in their careers – whatever you phrase mature as – who are really interested in making a change and doing something that they feel passionately about.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

It has to be Canada – my wife is Canadian so I have to be specific and say Nova Scotia. Amazing country and people, we can’t wait to get on the first direct flight from Glasgow in the summer.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Growing up in the Highlands, I spent most of my youth playing golf at Tain Golf Club and would have loved to have been a professional golfer – I couldn’t quite get down to single figures though. After a break of many years I rediscovered golf during the pandemic and enjoy it even more now.

What was your biggest break in business?

I wouldn’t say there was one specific break. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best tech leaders in Scotland, from the early days at HP through to Sumerian, Skyscanner and of course, most recently, with Gillian Docherty at The Data Lab.

What was your worst moment in business?

During the financial crash in a small business when people I’d worked closely with for a long time were made redundant. Now as a leader I know there is no easy way to do this, but it felt brutal.

Who do you most admire and why?

After the past two years it has to be those who work in our health service. The commitment in the face of adversity – I don’t think we as a society can thank them enough. Professor Kevin Fong spoke at our Data Summit conference in November on being in the front line during the pandemic, and it was one of the best and most emotional talks I’ve ever seen.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s the story of the life, and afterlife, of a woman who changed the medical world forever, and the ethics and social dynamics are very relevant today. Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is currently on repeat, my five-year-old son loves drumming along to it on our kit at home.