Data Changemakers 2: Hilary Simpson, Founder, Sleuth Co-op

by Kate Tickner on 7th November 2017

The Data Changemakers series is a set of interviews and interactions with people who have spent their careers working in or around data and data management initiatives. They have a vision for the data journey and we want to understand what they have learnt and how that drives what they do today. What are their war stories and what advice can they give others embarking on the journey?

Hilary Simpson has spent more than 28 years in local government and won the Information Age Public Sector Deployment of the Year Award 2015. She is a pioneer of the ethical use of data to break down silos, ensuring that joined up information is available to help professionals choose early interventions that make a difference to people’s lives. 

Hilary Simpson 2

Hilary Simpson

Q&A:

Please describe a little about your own background and you ended up working with data?

I got into data via a circuitous route. It started with the data and numeracy skills I needed for my Physics degree then I spent many years in frontline services in the public sector which was the real world contrast I wanted. My next career step was a synergy between my two passions –  I studied for an MSc in Computing because I believed there is an opportunity for technology to be used to find better ways to support front line staff and their clients going through tough times.

I have realised that without better use of data, public sector services are becoming unsustainable and increasingly dysfunctional. People are losing faith in their health and local government services.

“I am passionate about it because we can have better, more cost effective services through joined-up information. A win/win – and there isn’t really any other way. The alternative is the slow decline of cuts.”

I have around 10 years left of my working life and I want to leave a legacy that I helped a lot more councils and multi-agencies to crack this issue and make faster progress. If not me – then who?

I have a very practical and pragmatic approach so it is great to see initiatives like the recently announced WODA project starting to happen. If I believe in something and think it’s important then I do it. We need to stand on the shoulders of giants – copy good practice and build on it. If we don’t – then it is not unrealistic to say that within five years some councils will be bankrupted simply by the cost of providing social care.

Would you say that you are a business person or a technical person or something else?

I’m definitely something else! I guess you could say:

“I’m a complete mix of nerdishness and networking skills”.

Technologists need to be respectful of front-line staff who are struggling to deliver – the job they do is incredible and they need to be helped by data and technology not burdened by it.

What is your current role and its main responsibilities as they relate to data?

I spent twenty-eight years in Local Government. I have a lot of energy and over the next ten years I want to be able to move a little faster. I want to have more influence and help a wider range of organisations. I also want to bring more young people from diverse and non-traditional backgrounds into the data field.

For me, technology is career which is open to anyone anywhere in the world to transform their lives. That’s why I’ve set up a Data and Technology Worker’s Cooperative. I hope this will help its members to think and work differently, outside of traditional, hierarchical environments. It’s a growing movement.

I also want to significantly move the dial on risk aversion and privacy paranoia. The real world dangers of not sharing information are life and death. The internet is an opportunity to make the world a closer place, but we’re all very anxious and try to lock up information. The work I have done on information sharing and ethics has reassured me that there is a way to move forward on this responsibly and confidently.

What has been the most challenging data-related project you have worked on and why? What was your role in it and was the project a success and why?

The most challenging was the Master Data Management Residents Hub we built at the London Borough of Camden. This was partly because of the amount of money committed to it – and therefore the expectation around what it would deliver, partly because of the very short timescale to get it up and running. I love to take on things that other people think are not possible.

I was the Programme Manager and there were three other FTEs as well as around 40 other people involved within the council as well as staff from Entity Group and IBM.

There were a huge number of challenges – most of all the question: “How are we going to get the data?” Even after we had acquired the technology we still hadn’t quite figured out how to reassure information owners that we could be trusted to aggregate all this personal data. There were very few examples then (2014) to follow with regards to Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs).

The DPIA for the programme was priceless because it proved to the stakeholders that we had listened. It built trust that the technical people fully understood the risks and would ensure ethical, proportional and responsible access to any data that was shared. We were really careful to make sure that only those staff that needed to know would be given access, and even then it would be limited by their roles:

“We put in place lots of mitigations on dealing with the sensitive data and we were trusted because we listened to front-line staff.”

Front line staff like social workers are professionally training in dealing with privacy and consent – so if they are OK with what you are doing, that’s the most important thing. The project was a huge success, delivered in 3 months and staff immediately realised it was a deceptively simple but hugely transformative technology innovation. The staff themselves promoted how useful it was. That is very rare in new technology projects in the public sector in my experience.

What did you learn from the experience?

There were probably three main things I took away from it:

  1. A project of that size is a series of concentric circles of people and the approach we took was to make it clear that we as a core team did not know it all and that we needed help. If you have humility and you ask for help then most people will go out of their way to assist you. We adopted a policy of enthusiastic persistence and pragmatism!
  2. Useability – For any IT project the main thing is to make the output accessible and make training easy. The end-users were up and running in a few minutes.
  3. With modern technology especially techniques like probabilistic matching you can feed it all your dirty data and it learns from THERE IS NO NEED TO CLEAN IT ALL UP FIRST!

What do you think are the key trends in data management today and how do you think they will change the way we all do business?

I definitely think that secure cloud should make it more feasible for multi-agency data sharing.

I think that technology can help reflect personal privacy preferences. These should be captured at source electronically after a face to face conversation with the individual. There is a growing paranoia about data sharing but there needs to be a balance between privacy versus sharing. More bad things happen through NOT sharing data than through sharing it and this is especially true in health and social care.

We need to have more trust in professionals and practitioners to work in the interests of the public they serve. It’s not just about technology driving through “one size fits all” procedures it’s about nuance. Machines are great at some thngs – people others. Qualitative data, intuition and insight still have an important role.

Back to Physics:

Einstein said: ‘the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift’.

I think: “Artificial Intelligence should be supporting these people to make decisions not making the decisions for them.”

I think that public sector should acknowledge that the tools are there to join up data so we should be using them. The business case is already proven especially in the Anti-fraud area. We must encourage wider adoption and do things properly with people’s data or they will disengage from public services and lose confidence in local government.

GDPR for example is a great chance to move things on faster, in unison. We can use it to do something practical. It is there so that people’s data can be shared appropriately. In some cases we should be sharing MORE not less. For example:

“Parents and carers of disabled children have to carry around all of their information to every appointment. They have become project managers who have to join up the dots and manage case files for their Public Service contacts where it should be the Public Service people doing that for them instead”.

Staffing – with such a wide range of things we need skills in – how do you approach staffing? What needs to be in house? What can be external? What can be consumed aaS? CDOaaS?

We need to grow local government skills in-house for example Data Analysts. They should be able to shadow front-line staff to learn what the data means. Staff retention can be an issue but it is also an opportunity to bring young people up through the ranks and develop them.

The other thing is that we should not limit our search for roles to the “usual candidates”.

“There is a much wider range of people available than we think who could be brilliant data workers.”

For example there are some people on the Autism / Asperger’s spectrum that are an untapped resource if suitable adjustments in the workplace could be made, to work to people’s strengths.  In fact these adjustments (like having some rooms made available for quiet working instead of everything open-plan) would be beneficial to all of us.

Women are also very under-represented in the data management field. We should look at other industries who are doing a much better job of appealing to girls for example the gaming industry and Anime events. There is far more of a gender balance at those events. We need to look out for people with a passion for data from an early age and be much more open-minded about skills, backgrounds and working environments. Is it too outrageous to suggest that successful gamblers are fantastic data crunchers? They have just that intuition and feel for data we are looking for.

Are there any particular skills or qualifications you consider to be vital to your success?

I’ve already said that I believe a love of data and the ability to talk to people are vital. This need for interpersonal skills makes it a great time for women in technology to shine. A few weeks ago I delivered the key note speech at the Society of IT Managers conference and I never thought I’d be doing that. Everyone is scared sometimes- even the men I imagine – but now as women we have to own the platform. We can add so much colour and vibrancy to sometimes dry technology events.  If we are full of self doubt – I know I am – just do it anyway.

At this stage there are still skills I’d like to acquire for example I’d like to look at TOGAF enterprise architecture framework and UML unified modelling language. As you rise up the chain in Management it’s easy to get deskilled technically – you have to make time to develop yourself.  These are skills, along with a love of playing with data, that would guarantee career success for so many young people.

Data and technology jobs can be hard because it is abstract and you can’t easily see the results of your work. This is part of the challenge in putting together business cases for things like Master Data Management – you can only see the real world results or ROI  when the technology has been deployed. You have to take a leap of faith, and be persistent but there are so many proven examples out there now – for example the London Boroughs of Brent and Camden and from Nesta where I worked.

What are you best known for or what do you like doing outside of your working life?

Well, I like wild swimming – this is in all weathers – breaking the ice sometimes – at the Ladies Pond in Hampstead. It’s 10 degrees centigrade right now. Recently I also took up high diving – initially from the three metre platform soon from five metres up.

“I have to squash down the fear because I am always terrified, but I dive in regardless! In fact that could be a metaphor for my life in IT and data so far…..”

If you’d like to read more of our Data Changemakers interviews please follow this link.  

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