Move over, maths

Move over, maths

David Sibbald believes that the emerging discipline of ‘data scientist’ can help solve many of the world’s deep-rooted problems, as Kenny Kemp discovers.

It is a glorious Monday morning in Glasgow with the sunshine beating down on lush green Bellahouston Park.

Indeed, it’s almost tropical. The perfect weather to greet David Sibbald, one of the most successful Scottish business figures in the last 20 years, who has just flown back from Nairobi, where he has spent a week with the Johari Foundation and its 12-strong social enterprise team.

Johari means a precious jewel in Swahili. David Sibbald is a man of staunch conviction about the application of computing technology – or informatics - and its ability to change hundreds of millions of lives for the better.

While he has followed his conscience, he has no doubts about the gargantuan difficulties of resolving the perennial and intractable problems of poverty and disease.

He says he is simply trying to ‘do his bit’. Sibbald’s two Scottish companies, Sumerian and Aridhia, both in the emerging discipline of ‘big data’ science and informatics, are deeply intertwined with his charitable work, through the Johari Foundation, while he and his wife, Catriona, and his three adult children, spend time involved in projects in Africa, Afghanistan and Laos.

Active ‘dusty knee’ philanthropy is at the heart of Sibbald’s life. While Sumerian and Aridhia have crosspollinated each other in terms of their business systems, they also feed in as supporters of the Johari Foundation’s work.

At one time, Sibbald thought that the foundation might get more from the businesses; in fact it is the reverse, the businesses have gained so much from what has been learned from the sustainable development programmes.

“There is strong commitment in terms of time, money and energy from Sumerian and Aridhia into helping the foundation.

It works both ways – and I never thought it would. I used to think it would be really helpful for the foundation, which it is, but now I think it is more helpful for the companies because people get to see something different.”

For example, a Scottish computer science graduate can be wrestling with a complex technical ‘data’ problem in an airy, airconditioned office in Blythswood Square, with the usual gripes and groans about working life, then they are transported to Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa, where they witness a parent-less family, devastated by AIDS, living in appalling conditions, with no security, sanitation, or running water, trying to keep mind, body and soul together.

“I think this affects everybody. I’ve been travelling in Africa since my early 20s and I’m still affected by things in the same way. This is not to do with money: it’s important to have it, but it is no way the answer. It is time and commitment, long-term enthusiasm and passion that makes the difference in these terribly difficult environments.”

The foundation’s social development programme includes a feeding and basic education programme for a few hundred children in Kibera and an extensive sports programme for 500 kids, mostly football.

There is also a high school programme for slum kids, which has been running for eight years.

David Sibbald, now 52, shares his delight that three pupils have come through and are now at university.

It also has a fashion arm where 16-20 year old women from deeply vulnerable backgrounds are given one-year apprenticeships in arts and crafts to produce garments for sale in the West.

The Johari fashion brand is now a social enterprise business, with a workshop selling in the United States, Spain and Japan, and a longer-term ambition to grow and then self-fund the programmes within five years.

“Typically, these girls have very low levels of previous education and self-confidence.

They are the most vulnerable community in the slum in terms of exploitation, prostitution and drugs.

We run the apprenticeship programme and then give them a glimmer of hope and a secure job with Johari.” Sibbald is cautious about being seen as a white foreign donor telling local Africans how to run their lives and projects, so the social enterprise gives full autonomy to the managers on the ground.

“When I am with our team in Kenya, who are all local Africans and have been together for eight years, I’m conscious of never, ever, ever saying what to do because I am the least qualified to say what should be done in such circumstances.”

He says the Kenyan team can teach a lot about leadership and how to evaluate decisions, which are often a stark question of who lives and who is left to survive on their own.

The demand for help is over-whelming. “I have met so many people inspirational and compassionate people across Africa, many of them women. There are all those people doing community-led things in horrendously difficult circumstances, day-in, day-out. We all think we are doing so well in Scotland, but part of the reason is that we have an environment where we were magically dropped in.

"We’ve had the circumstances in Scotland of free education, health care and social security to do well.”

Much of this good work has been a result of the success of Atlantech, started 20 years ago by Sibbald, then in his early 30s.

He had returned from Silicon Valley, where he was working as a computer programmer, and started his business in the spare room.

Among the first wave of broadband technology and embryonic e-commerce, Atlantech was much admired but a tiny player and Cisco Systems, the US telecoms systems giant, made an offer that was difficult to refuse.

“It was a transformational time in so many respects. We take it for granted now, but it wasn’t too far down the road. Anything before 1995 is pre-history.” Atlantech was sold in 2000 for £120 million, with David Sibbald the most significant investor. He worked for Cisco Systems for a year and enjoyed his time.

“I had never worked in a larger company before, I’d worked in a start-up in the United States or as a freelance software developer, so it was an education for me. Atlantech was the first European acquisition that Cisco had made and it was important to help with the integration; there are a load of differences between Europe and the United States.

"One of the things that was important to me was, how do we get the 100-strong workforce in Atlantech to build a second career in a larger US company?”

There are still original Atlantech hands working for Cisco in Scotland, now at the Eurocentral off the M8, which means a lot to Sibbald and proves that the technology had a long-term value for the parent.

Using his new-found wealth, he took six months to set up his projects in Africa and Afghanistan, under the banner of the Kate MacAskill Foundation, run by Catriona Sibbald and named after Catriona’s Hebridean grandmother, who died last year at the ripe age of 108 years old, and they develop a schools project in conjunction with UNICEF.

“I figured I would always start another business and that was the plan.” In 2002, he set up Sumerian Networks with its office in Blythswood Square in Glasgow.

It was started with a small group of computer science people working with clients in banking and with some of the Big Four accounting firms.

But it took time to find its market as the financial crisis kicked in.

Today it is a leading ‘analytics’ company with a roster of corporate clients, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where their work on foreign exchange trading capacity and the latency of operational systems secured an American Financial Technology award in 2010.

Sumerian required several tranches of Sibbald’s financial help to kick start it into its successful trajectory of financial informatics.

Sibbald remains as chairman but the company is now run by chief executive officer Bryan Clark, the former Chief Information Officer of KPMG, who joined in 2011, when the original chief executive Calum Smeaton decided to take some time off.

“It’s the sequential money that goes in. I’ve realised that it is really, really hard to predict the future. For me, it’s never been a smooth path, and I suspect for most people that’s the case. You do start off with a sense of what you’re going to do and if you think you have enough money to get you to a point. Invariably, you don’t have enough and it doesn’t quite turn out how you think.”

Ten years on, building a business such as Sumerian remains an enormous challenge. Firstly, there are variables in what technology can do - and then there are the people.

“There is a chicken and egg situation concerning technology and investing. You can have an idea, but people need investment before they press ahead. When you build a plan you might say you need ten or 20 people to build a piece of work, but this means you are treating people as some sort of ‘unit of production’, when they are absolutely anything but units of production.”

With ten or 20 people you get a wide variation in how people respond and this has a material input on how things work, whether a team comes together or not.

“When you start something, there are so many variables you just can’t wrap your arms around them and you’ve just got to say: ‘That’s what it is, and be honest about it.’ Rather than think you can be in control.” Sumerian’s basic business premise has not changed.

The advanced world is being overwhelmed with data. This requires deep analysis to determine how efficient and effective business systems are. For example, a major bank has numerous streams of information about its customer and its electronic transactions, but this is not always joined up, or a large trading floor might have 50-60 million foreign exchange quotes per day where a millisecond delay can mean the difference between losing margin.

Sumerian’s experts analyse all of the 60 million trades to help business interpret this information more precisely, and target weaknesses in the latency.

“Most businesses rely on their infrastructure, their assets, services and applications to make the company tick. That’s how it works in a big financial services industry. However, the reality is that people are not really as aware as they need to be.In many cases, they don’t know what is going on in the business.”

This is a vivid picture of complex businesses drowning in information when they need to store and collect piles of data for the purposes of customer management and regulation. Over the next five years, the projection is that it is going to get worse.

“There is a whole notion of ‘the internet of things’ – everything will be tagged and networked.So we can have RFID tags on a tin of beans, so you can track exactly where it is.”

Once it was trucks and ships, then it was high-value goods like Gillette razors and blades and Scotch whisky, now it is tins of beans.

“It does sound ridiculous but that’s where it has got to because the price point of a lot of that technological connectivity is so cheap.” This means a massive proliferation of new data, that will swamp firms unless they sort it out.

So there is now a necessity for human analytic skills and methods to interpret and make sense of this tsunami of digital information, then the ability for people to consume this data and do something sensible with it.

To this end, Sibbald and his Sumerian colleagues have been at the forefront of an emerging breed of intelligent worker – called the ‘data scientist’.

“It is a new and it needs to be understood. The Informatics School at Edinburgh University is closest to understanding what this means and it is getting built into undergraduate and post-graduate programmes.”

Scotland’s school-leavers have chosen computing science, with mathematics and statistics, or applied science with physics and electrical or software engineering, as a career option, then stumbled into ‘data science’ or informatics.

But Sibbald believes it is emerging as an independent discipline which requires specialisation, and one where Scotland could well take an international lead.

“In the industry, people do recognise the notion of a data scientist, somebody who can actually understand the meaning and purpose of data and how to lay it out in a way that you can analyse it for a specific purpose.” This informatics explosion has led to the healthcare spin-out from Sumerian of Aridhia, based in Edinburgh.

“This is actually where I spend most of my business time now. It started in 2008 and the premise behind this is really interesting model is that the rise of chronic disease, not just in the developed world, but in the developing world.”

The rate of diabetes in India and China is reaching epidemic proportions, higher even than in the West.

People are living longer and there is an increase susceptibility of chronic illness, such as cancer, dementia, diabetes, respiratory and cardio-vascular disease.

The impact on economies is already massive, yet there is not enough joined-up longitudinal care for people with common complex disease. Even in Scotland, the GP is seldom properly connected to the wider picture of care.

“Most people have got personal experience of how fragmented the health service is. It’s not just between primary care at the GP and secondary care, it’s when you go to secondary care with a couple of hundred specialities and sub-specialities. Specialists tend to look at you through the eyes of the disease they deal with.Part of the premise of setting up Aridhia was the important part to play in joining up all the disparate element of healthcare.”

In 2007, David Sibbald met Andrew Morris, professor of medicine at Dundee University, head of the bio-medical research in Dundee, an international expert in diabetes and the Chief Scientist for Scotland, at a dinner and they hit it off.

“He is a great guy. He is a polymath: a brilliant physician and scientist,” says Sibbald. This is one of the great things about Scotland, sometimes you are able to connect with people.

"The place is small enough so you can get connected and people, on the most part, are very open and ‘normal’.”

He shared David’s deep interest in informatics because Dr Morris had built a diabetes database and network which now connects Scotland’s 250,000 diabetes patients.

“Every patient across Scotland is now on his diabetes database. Everyone in the medical profession can see the last intervention and entry point of contact with anyone in the healthcare system, so there is no multiple prescriptions on drugs, there are no wasted repeat tests because they have the test history and pretext notes for anyone in the health care system,” explains Sibbald.

Diabetes is a progress bio-medical disease with a changing set of circumstances, so by monitoring the changes it is possible to predict where a patient might be – and what interventions are required along a pathway that can be plotted.

But this begs the question: why can’t this be done for the rest of the Scottish population? “Exactly. This is the big question for health care in Scotland. I said to Andrew, ‘This is great, but why can’t you do that for all the other conditions?’” There is not a single answer because the database on diabetes has taken 20 years to build, but there are deeper issues about the natural conservatism of the UK’s medical profession and its resistance to change.

Aridhia came into being to pull together this multi-disciplinary approach with scientific and clinical input dovetailing with informatics and computing.

A joint venture company was set up between the NHS, University of Dundee’s School of Medicine School, as shareholders with their medical expertise, and Aridhia and Sumerian, with their informatic know-how, putting in the investment finance.

The idea was to build a team with genuinely complementary skills and backgrounds.

The company raised an initial £7.5m and its initial projects in the UK, Australia and Kuwait have been highly successful. Sibbald is now eyeing up a partnership in the United States. Aridhia is in a fund-raising round to raise a similar amount by the end of the year.

Venture capitalists Scottish Equity Partners, which backed Sibbald’s original Atlantech venture, when it was tied to Scottish Enterprise, is an investor in both Sumerian and Aridhia.

“One of the things we have done in Tayside is run a set of scoring algorithms on top of a patient population which has been developed by the University of Dundee. It basically predicts the rate of admission or re-admission into secondary care.

"The results have been really strong and co-relate well with the GP’s local knowledge.” The issue is to get the primary care service to intervene before there is an admission at accident and emergency because each patient cost between £4,000 and £6,000 on entry, and this cost escalates quickly depending on any further complications.

"Sibbald is categoric that any informatic system must not be defined by computer scientists but by clinicians.

“We have a large clinical faculty of specialist expertise that is defining what is happening. That is the way to get acceptance, rather than some techie guys, who have no domain expertise, saying you can do such-and-such. Of course, you need the informatics and analytical capability, but you need to be humble about this as well. The domain in terms of chronic diseases is very complicated.” Sibbald is clear about the benefit.

“Informatics is an enormous driver of efficiencies, making the right information available at the right time to the right professional when they need it.” The magic is that Sumerian and Aridhia are not inventing something new. Both companies are capable of using existing technology, such as a secure cloud computing server supplied and supported by Amazon as part of their informatics infrastructure, which can literally be rented by the hour.

“We are not starting from a clean sheet. There is a phenomenal amount of open sources software and components in the market that we use and cloud computing services all over the world. Why do we need to re-invent this?“

Reflecting on this exceptional capability, Sibbald remembers that what was needed to build a system 20 years ago was a colossal from-theground- up operating system with compilers, with vertically integrated systems using component which were often fraught with complexity and difficulty.

Against what you have to build now, ‘it is like night and day’. Aridhia’s value is its ability to focus all of the attention on setting up a informatics system to tackle, for example, breast cancer sufferers and their treatment.

With this, Sibbald and his team have looked at the definition of the health problems, not just in Scotland but globally, and build a set of informatic services that are scalable and extensive across different diseases.

In Australia, they now have a cancer care product, like a min-laboratory, which monitor an outpatient and sends information back to a central clinic resource, while they are also selling bundles of products monitoring diabetes through informatics in Kuwait.

It is this kind of Scottishdesigned informatics healthcare that has a global market.

“This is something that Scotland could be really good at. It’s back to size again. We have phenomenal expertise from a life sciences perspective but a lot of the data that helps build services and companies is trapped in data silos behind walls.There are a host of services that could be of benefit to society.” Sibbald remain quietly enthusiastic and proud of his companies.

“We have a simple philosophy in both businesses: we are trying to do something interesting and valuable.

We are trying to build something that is here for the long-term and we have strong relationship in both firms with our philanthropic activities with Johari.“ David Sibbald knows that informatics can change the world.

And that a sustainable stream of revenues from successful business will also have an impact on his foundation.

He has the kind of real-life job satisfaction that few can hope to match.