The pace of adoption for AI and machine learning continues unabated with global, widespread, adoption and usage. It’s not just companies that are taking note of the tremendous value AI can provide them. Countries and governments around the world are also seeking competitive advantages by harnessing the power of AI. Governments that can take advantage of the tremendous transformation presented by AI and cognitive technologies can position themselves for global competitiveness in the future. As a result, countries around the world are adopting AI strategies to provide roadmaps, funding, education, and strategies needed to differentiate themselves and become leaders in different areas related to AI and cognitive technology.
Scotland is one such country that published a country level AI strategy that was released in March 2021. They are looking to become a leader in the development and use of trustworthy, ethical, and inclusive AI. At an upcoming AI in Government event in December 2021, Albert King, Chief Data Officer of the Scottish Government will present on Scotland’s AI Strategy. In this interview, he explains how the Scottish AI strategy sets out a vision for Scotland to become a leader in the development and use of trustworthy, ethical and inclusive AI, how the county leverages data and AI, as well as some of the opportunities and challenges when it comes to AI in the public sector.
What are some innovative ways you’re leveraging data and AI to benefit the Scottish Government?
Albert King: As the Chief Data Officer I lead the Data Division, the centre of excellence for data, within the Scottish Government Digital Directorate. We work to unlock the power of data in Scotland, focusing on security, transparency, inclusion, innovation and sustainability. Our vision is to maximise the benefits that data innovation brings, using data systematically to improve decision making to save time, money and lives.
One of the most significant ways in which we’re leveraging data at present is the Covid-19 Data and Intelligence Network. This was established in May 2020 to provide evidence-based, objective analysis to inform local and national decision-making in response to COVID-19 outbreaks. A community of data experts, its membership spans Scottish Government, NHS Boards, Public Health Scotland, Health and Social Care Partnerships, Local Authorities, academia and other public bodies who develop real time data and intelligence solutions to inform strategic government policy. Its core aim is to deliver added value across the public sector in Scotland by supporting data-driven policy development and providing a forum for constructive challenge and testing of strategies.
Turning to AI, Scotland’s AI Strategy – Trustworthy, Ethical, Inclusive, published in March 2021, sets out a vision for Scotland to become a leader in the development and use of trustworthy, ethical and inclusive AI. It’s a strategy for all of Scotland, not just the public sector. That’s why the Scottish AI Alliance will make sure that we work efficiently across the AI ecosystem to deliver it, aligning efforts with key initiatives such as our new Digital Strategy, A changing nation: how Scotland will thrive in a digital world, and the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review.
The Scottish Government has been exploring and supporting the use of AI for some time, including investing in a number of demonstrator projects. The 2021-22 Programme for Government sets out how, to support new opportunities in AI, we will provide £20 million to develop an AI Hub for Life Science, NHS and Social Care to create AI innovation and commercialisation capability in Scotland. I’m looking forward to helping steer this work, which’ll benefit from other initiatives including the AI Strategy and Tech Scalers Programme, the latter being taken forward as one of the recommendations of the Ecosystem Review.
How are you leveraging automation at all to help on your journey to AI?
Albert King: This raises a really interesting point – what automation and AI mean, how they are similar and differ, and how they intersect. This was discussed a lot during the course of developing Scotland’s AI Strategy, and continues to arise.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is an entry point into the service automation sector and provides an opportunity to lay the foundations for taking advantage of more advanced technologies. As outlined in the Digital Strategy for Scotland, the introduction of a public sector centre of excellence for process automation will drive efficiencies and release more capacity for the delivery of frontline services through reducing the need for staff to carry out repetitive and time consuming administrative tasks.
Having this infrastructure in place will also create an environment to share the assets and capabilities required to expand the use of these technologies and fast track service delivery changes and digital skills development across the public sector.
How do you identify which problem area(s) to start with for your automation and cognitive technology projects?
Albert King: We don’t so much look for problems as actively seek opportunities. We’ve been working for several years to build our in-house capability for data innovation. This includes a learning programme, working with public bodies via the Scottish Public Analytical Collaboration programme, and using support from The Data Lab – Scotland’s innovation centre for data and AI – and universities. The Data Science Accelerator Programme enables our people to develop their data science skills whilst taking forward a data-driven project that has business benefits. We also provide learning to non-analytical staff such as policy makers to raise their awareness of the benefits of data innovation.
What are some of the unique opportunities the public sector has when it comes to data and AI?
Albert King: Scotland has an impressive set of high quality public sector data, so we’re fortunate to be starting from a strong place. The Scottish Government has a number of data driven initiatives and projects underway or completed aimed at improving outcomes for people, providing better experiences and making better use of the resources available.
These include one to link datasets – for the first time at a national level – to explore the relationship between health and homelessness in Scotland. Another, the Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest (OHCA) Data Linkage Project, was established to help inform and monitor Scotland’s first OHCA Strategy. Data from the Scottish Ambulance Service, NHS Scotland and National Records of Scotland was brought together to understand OHCA in Scotland in more detail.
Going a bit further, we’re providing £1.5 million over three years to support the establishment of a Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF. This will see the Scottish Government, The Data Lab, the University of Edinburgh and UNICEF collaborating on a project that aims to use data science to improve the health and wellbeing of children both in Scotland and globally.
We’re looking to build on these and other successes, reflected in the creation of Research Data Scotland, which launched on 30 September. This new service will offer a single point of contact for safe, secure and cost-effective access to high value public sector datasets for research, innovation and investment.
What are some use cases you can share where you successfully have applied AI?
Albert King: There are many examples but a good one, taken forward within the Data Science Accelerator Programme, was the development of the Scottish Crop Map. This uses data to predict crop types using radar images from the European Space Agency Copernicus Satellite Programme, and to recognise the crops growing in nearly 400,000 fields in Scotland. It was developed by our Rural & Environmental Science and Analytical Services, working in collaboration with EDINA at the University of Edinburgh and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, to bring benefits to farming communities and greater insight to land use.
Can you share some of the challenges when it comes to AI and ML in the public sector?
Albert King: In June this year we launched a CivTech® Challenge to explore how we give the citizens of Scotland trust and agency over how AI and algorithms are used in the public sector, with a particular focus on decisions that impact children.
We would like AI’s potential to be harnessed for societal benefit. But this is only going to happen if AI itself is both transparent and trusted, meaning we need to develop it in such a way that it is explainable so that people know and understand it, and can engage with it.
A first step would be what we want the Challenge to do: enable a meaningful dialogue with the public on how we use AI to help make decisions. The initial focus will be on dialogue with children and their parents and carers about decisions that affect them. Following an exploration stage and interviews over the summer, the accelerator stage of the Challenge is now underway and we’re working in partnership with successful bidder Saidot.
This Challenge builds on a separate one which we ran with Police Scotland on the use of explainable AI in the public sector. This focused on more technical aspects of designing explainable AI algorithms than public dialogue.
How do analytics, automation, and AI work together at your agency?
Albert King: Each is powerful in their own right, but bringing them together can really see them add up to more than the sum of the parts. As I mentioned, the Scottish Government has long been supporting the use of AI, including investing in a number of projects. These include a clinical imaging data resource developed by NHS Scotland, and the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF outlined above. Taking advantage of Scotland’s growing tech and innovation capabilities, this will bring together participants – including the Scottish Government – in the exchange and use of data, data science expertise and resources to develop data-driven collaborative solutions to improve children’s wellbeing. It will shed light on complex problems such as improving child health through behaviours around factors such as nutrition and physical activity, achieving better mental health outcomes and equality of opportunity in education and employment. We are keen to learn from these and other projects to help inform future initiatives.
How are you navigating privacy, trust, and security concerns around the use of AI?
Albert King: The Scottish Government recognises the opportunities and challenges that AI presents. In light of this, Scotland’s AI Strategy sets out how the actions we will take to realise our vision will be guided by a set of enabling principles, including the OECD’s AI Principles, and UNICEF’s Policy Guidance on AI for Children.
This is essential if AI is to earn people’s trust and make us competitive in a global marketplace where AI ethics is emerging as a key consideration. Reflecting the Strategy’s ambitions for Scotland to play a bigger role on the global AI stage, we’re engaging with a number of organisations to learn from and share good practice on securing public trust in AI.
The need for an ethical approach to guide the development, adoption and use of AI in Scotland was highlighted in all of the activities conducted as part of the strategy development process. Another was the desire for ongoing public dialogue to ensure our approach is and remains fair and inclusive. The Community Circle of the Scottish AI Alliance will likely be the main forum for this, complemented by other engagement mechanisms in time.
On security, the AI Strategy recognises the need for people to be assured that the products, services and decisions enabled by AI are safe and secure and protect their rights. For that reason, we are aligning our approach with other initiatives including the Strategic Framework for a Cyber Resilient Scotland.
Our overall approach will be set out in the Scottish AI Playbook, an open and practical guide to how we do AI in Scotland.
What are you doing to develop an AI ready workforce?
Albert King: The Scottish Digital Academy (SDA) was launched in July 2017. It provides a training provision that is open to all Scottish public sector organisations. It provides a pathway for capability development for public sector staff to deliver digitally-enabled services. To date it has delivered skill development programmes to over 2,400 delegates. The SDA’s provision includes a number of courses focused on or including AI.
Scotland’s AI Strategy also sets out a number of actions relating to skills. These include helping to develop understanding of AI using open online resources, developing a skills plan, including upskilling and reskilling, and accelerating and scaling the availability of knowledge and enablement services to help with adopting AI. The Scottish AI Playbook will help to address challenges and pursue opportunities, including for the public sector, to adopt AI-enabled solutions.
What AI technologies are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
Albert King: A nice question to finish with. One of the most exciting things about AI is its diversity, and the pace at which technologies develop. I suspect that we’ll see the development and adoption of AI continuing apace, with ever more innovative applications coming through. What these might be I’m not quite sure, but there will likely be lots to look forward to.
Closer to home, I’m confident that we’ll be building on the good progress we’ve already made in delivering Scotland’s AI Strategy. We completed all actions due within the first 100 days, are taking forward all of those to be delivered within the first year, and planning work on those within the second and fifth years. I also look forward to seeing the continuing growth and success of the AI community in Scotland, many of whom are working with us to help deliver the Strategy.
Something I’m really looking forward to early next year is the Scottish AI Summit. This will mark the progress in delivering the Strategy, the publication of the first annual ‘State of AI’ report and the first iteration of the Scottish AI Playbook. It will also showcase innovation in AI in Scotland and the contribution data is making to creating stronger public services and economic opportunity. Readers would be very welcome to join us, online or in-person in Edinburgh, on 30 March 2022.
At an upcoming AI in Government event in December 2021, Albert King, Chief Data Officer of the Scottish Government will present on Scotland’s AI Strategy and dig deeper into the strategy and many of the topics addressed in this interview.