• Opinion
  • June 19, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

How to get data scientists working in government

Opinion: Data scientists can transform government — if you can recruit them

This article was written by Peter Fullerton, Deputy Director for Planning and Resources at the ONS Data Science Campus. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.

As the number of data sources increases, the world is looking for new technologies to improve public good.

Data science can add new insights to decision makers’ toolkits on the back of huge advances in technology and the availability of data on a scale previously unimagined. In the UK we are looking to rapidly increase our use of data science to make sure we are able to harness the benefits it can bring.  

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Since 2015, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been working to deliver its “Better Statistics, Better Decisions” strategy. This sets out our aim to mobilise the power of data to help the UK make better decisions and improve lives.

As the largest provider of official statistics in the country, we are uniquely placed to harness the potential of these new data sources and provide answers to the most important questions in our nation today.

Building a data science campus

In 2015, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer — the country’s Finance Minister, George Osborne, commissioned Professor Sir Charles Bean to review of the UK’s economic statistics.

Among the detailed recommendations published in March 2016, Bean proposed a new ONS data hub to enhance data science capability across the UK. The ONS already had its own “Big Data Team”, exploring how to use new data sources for official statistics, but the broader ambition of Bean and additional investment meant there was an opportunity to do far more.

Building on its Better Statistics, Better Decisions strategy, the ONS moved quickly to establish a new “Data Science Campus” at its headquarters in Newport, South Wales by appointing Dave Johnson as start-up manager from industry who was joined by myself — an experienced civil servant — from within.

With the explicit senior support and latitude we needed, we were soon up and running with an apprenticeship programme which attracted 140 applicants for eight places and the launch of a framework for a new Master’s degree course to be run at three partner universities from autumn 2017.

To ensure that our research programme also made rapid progress, we looked elsewhere for help. Mango Solutions guided us in our early work and leaned on Statistics Netherlands’ “Center for Big Data Statistics” — who were up and running about six months ahead of us — for advice.

Initial recruitment campaigns were run and, through good fortune as well as judgement, we brought in new data science expertise and started half a dozen short-term data science research projects where everything seemed to be in place, largely prioritising pace over strategic fit.

The important thing for us was to start learning fast.

Growing skills

The formal launch of the Campus was in March 2017. Two years on, we have a team of 65 people working across a broad span of research projects and capability building programmes.

We recruited new talent, experience and approaches into the Campus from academia, industry and elsewhere in the public sector. This new and expanding team has worked on a diverse range of projects including a new, monthly release, “faster indicators of UK economic activity” to spot swings in the economy, a platform for monitoring sustainable development goals adopted internationally, natural capital estimates derived from StreetView images and many more covering, trade, financial services, health and wellbeing.

A key role of the Campus is to grow data science skills and there are an abundance of learning opportunities available a sponsored Master’s programme, continuous professional development courses, mentoring on data science accelerator programmes and regular seminars. 

The ingredients of success

Key ingredients in the success of ONS’s Data Science Campus were a clear drive plus support from the top of the organisation to move at pace and to be different.

We had no legacy outputs or existing systems to worry about. Core funding was provided so we didn’t have to focus on bringing in more income. Some good, early hires from outside, mixed with some very able recruits from across the organisation created a team with the ability and enthusiasm to get things done.

We also accepted that we didn’t have all the answers, and so reached for help and inspiration: we weren’t afraid to copy what works elsewhere. We partnered with industry and academia to help jump-start our operation, and we continue to draw on their expertise as we grow and develop.

While the financial rewards for data scientists within government may fall short of what is offered elsewhere, our “data science for public good” mission, variety of work and affordable location in south Wales has proved attractive for many as we have built up an expert data science team.

Our challenge going forward is to build on some early successes and deliver impact for public good.

We continue to learn and develop as we transition from start-up to a sustainable programme, delivering benefits across the public sector. We are determined to do this without losing our creative spark, so are still reaching out for help and inspiration. — Peter Fullerton

(Photo credit: Unsplash)


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