To Alistair Bullward data is a bit like the London sewer system. Built in the time of a cholera epidemic and continual public health crises, the 19th century engineering project had long reaching life-saving results. Alistair believes today’s equivalent lies in technology and by having the right systems and the right information societies can be dramatically changed for the better.
For the past 18 months, Alistair Bullward, Product Owner at NHS Digital, has been focusing on creating systems that turn the data coming out of the pandemic into understandable and impactful information. His work included the Coronavirus in your Area dashboard - which at one point was receiving up to 300,000 unique users every day and reached 3 million views in April 2021. With the pandemic prompting widespread need and interest in data, it was imperative the information was accessible to all who needed it.
‘It became incredibly important to not only get the data out there but to make it understandable so you could see what was going on’ says Alistair. ‘We built a dashboard that enabled users to view the data over time and see patterns from around the country and in their local area. Suddenly the hits began to skyrocket because we were using visualisations to make that data consumable.’
During the pandemic, the need for speed of data access and the search for the right tools for the job was unprecedented. Healthcare organisations, government departments and agencies had to learn quickly how to improve data access and the importance of using data for efficient and effective service response, especially when getting data into the hands of government officials, researchers or the public so they could make the best decisions. This urgency has prompted a lot of questions around how we share, use and understand data.
‘It’s important to have access to data but it needs to be balanced against privacy and security’, says Alistair. ‘Data ethics brings up all sorts of complex issues but it could be used for good in society.’
Alistair doesn’t come from a typical data science or mathematics background. His journey has been led by a fascination with how systems and mechanisms can be used to drive change and improve lives. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at university, then completed a Masters in Political Philosophy. After 4 years of study and reading politics he felt like he needed to do something different so joined a graduate scheme at BT. It was here that he began to see how technology could be used to solve human problems and inspire new ways of doing things. Alistair wanted to do something constructive and helpful and brought together his desire to change and improve societal systems with data technology.
"I worked on a project that let researchers take real world data and map it to genomes. By just using data and technology, you can do something that can dramatically improve lives and to be building the systems that do that is really cool."
Throughout his experience he’s found that what the users want are key headlines and key patterns. Open data sets are important to inform public debate but when something has a large user base, and they’re asking specific questions, you’ve got to make it as flexible as possible.
"We’ve been working with Tableau to help us make the data consumable with visualisations. It’s allowed us to very quickly build a dashboard and get feedback. You can turn around projects incredibly quickly when you’ve got the right people and the right tools."
Tools for data visualisation such as Tableau can be very helpful in democratising data skills and to help broaden the use of data beyond just the IT department. This is important because the UK has a well-documented skills shortage when it comes to data literacy which means organisations have a short fall in talent who can explore, understand and communicate with data.
Fortunately we have people like Alistair who, although they may not follow the expected STEM path, are fascinated by the questions behind data and the problems it can solve, gaining the data literacy skills needed along the way.
"With data, we’re very early on in our journey. We don’t really know how society is going to fit around it but working in NHS Digital it’s really important to understand that data is people. Hopefully we played a small part in getting the right information to the clever people to help them make decisions"
Like London’s sewage system, the current data revolution is a much-needed utility that can improve the lives of people but we’re only just starting to learn how.
Listen to the second episode of our podcast, where Timandra is joined by Rob Kent from Pets at Home to discuss the importance of data and why senior representation is key to driving data success.