Q&A with Big Data Thought Leader Brian Hills, Head of Data at The Data Lab

Brian Hills, Head of Product Management, at The Data Lab, Edinburgh. 16 April 2015. Picture by JANE BARLOW

VCloudNews is pleased to feature Brian Hills, Head of Data at The Data Lab in our Big Data Thought Leader series. Brian has 18 years experience in analytics and software engineering, across domains including Telecoms, IT and Digital. In his current role, Brian is leading the success of a national hub for data science in Scotland operating across industry/academia/public sector. He joined the Data Lab from Skyscanner where he launched and grew the Business Intelligence team. Prior to Skyscanner, Brian held analytics and engineering roles with Sumerian and HP.

In this exclusive Q&A with VCloudNews, Brian provides his insight on general Big Data, cloud and IoT trends, technologies and his company’s strategy.

Tell us about your involvement with Big Data?

I’m Head of Data at The Data Lab, an innovation centre funded by the Scottish Government to create significant economic and social benefit for the country through data science.  We do this through funding a program of data science innovation projects, education and community building and act as a catalyst for industry, academia and the public sector to work together across the country.  My specific role is wide ranging (and enjoyable!) everything from working with industry, universities and our data scientists to define and deliver projects to launching new education programs, defining our future strategy and, currently, leading the launch of a new international data festival in Scotland next year.  Prior to this, I’ve had analytics and leadership roles across a number of industries including telecoms, IT and eCommerce.

Everyone has a definition and view for Big Data – what’s yours?

Initially I, like many in the data field, was cynical of the term “Big Data” viewing it as a conduit for significant sales and marketing activity and less material value.  However, I changed my view on this when my Dad (aged 70) sent me an article on Big Data and asked me if that was what I did.  At that point I realized it had become a vehicle for introducing our field into common vernacular and understanding which I believe is positive given that data touches everyone’s lives.  I believe we are now moving beyond “Big Data” to just “Data”.  Organizations are asking themselves “how to I meet by business objectives by using data?” – big, small, thick, open or otherwise. 

Is Big Data real? Who is benefitting – any use cases for our readers?

The data revolution is real but great use cases must start with business hypothesis and questions rather than data.  Over the past year at The Data Lab we’ve funded over 20 collaborative projects between industry and academia in Scotland across a wide range of domains (including energy, healthcare, legal, digital, finance, food and drink) and businesses (from startups to large international businesses operating in Scotland).  One of our recent projects was with a startup aiming to disrupt the legal industry by applying natural language processing techniques to case law in order to predict the likely outcome of a new cases and optimize the cost for clients.  On the social side, we’re working with the Scottish Government and the health service to launch a number of projects; these are very exciting as they have the potential to have a significant positive impact to society. 

What are the emerging trends in Big Data?

IoT and AI are key emerging trends featured across the conference circuit at the moment and receiving significant marketing spend.  Two other developing areas that will touch all of our lives are data ethics and personal data stores.  On the ethical side, organizations need to have more focus on how they use customer data and avoid crossing the “creep” line.  Personal data stores are really interesting: can we as individuals monetize our own data – taking control of the data we create on our devices and sell this to companies?

How significant is the role of cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) within the Big Data space? 

Cloud has been transformational for Big Data.   For example, a few years ago the concept of a bank operating services in the cloud would have been laughed out the room.  Now many of our banks are operating services within the cloud.  The majority of the businesses we work with at The Data Lab have moved to cloud to store, process and analyze their data. 

IoT will drive the next wave of data innovation.  Volumes of data generated will increase significantly and there will be increased focus on processing, analyzing and identifying anomalies in real time. 

What are some of the business and technological challenges in Big Data?

At a business level I think there is still a challenge in educating many senior execs on successful approaches to creating and executing an effective data strategy that helps to deliver their overall business strategy, hence the emerging role of the Chief Data Officer.

At a technology level one of the major challenges is the constant evolution of the landscape.  We’ve all seen those pictures of the Big Data landscape, packed with suppliers which are now hardly visible on a sheet of A4.  There is now a massive toolset at our disposal, but what is the right combination of these tools to meet our requirements and deliver our data strategy? In addition, how do we handle the challenge that these technologies may be obsolete and replaced within a relatively short time period?

Across both business and technology skills remains a constant challenge, with many companies unable to recruit the staff required to lead and deliver their data strategy.  This has been a particular focus of our work at The Data Lab where we are developing a very healthy data science and engineering talent pool through our sponsorship of 90 Masters students across 7 Scottish universities.  We work with industry and the public sector to provide placements as part of the students’  courses which, we hope, will then lead to permanent employment.  In addition, this year we launched Data Talent Scotland bringing together 500 students, industry participants, sponsors and academics to drive employment and closer academic/industry collaboration across the country.

How have you personally been impacted by Big Data?

One of my favorite stories is an experience with Amazon.  A few years ago I bought an SLR camera and, for a period after that, I received recommendations for buying a new SLR camera. Given the cost of an SLR it would be unlikely I’d want another one so soon: it was a good illustration of how, even the companies we regard as the best at using data, don’t get it right all the time. However, what makes them different is their ability to continually learn and evolve their product.

Brian Hills, Head of Data at The Data Lab

Brian Hills, Head of Product Management, at The Data Lab, Edinburgh. 16 April 2015. Picture by JANE BARLOW

Brian Hills has 18 years experience in analytics and software engineering, across domains including Telecoms, IT and Digital. In his current role, Brian is leading the success of a national hub for data science in Scotland operating across industry/academia/public sector. He joined the Data Lab from Skyscanner where he launched and grew the Business Intelligence team. Prior to Skyscanner, Brian held analytics and engineering roles with Sumerian and HP.

 

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One comment

  • Thanks for sharing this very interesting question and answer session with leaders in the big data field. This article contains a lot of useful information and points which are very helpful.

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