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  • Dr Emma Gordon, Director, Administrative Data Research UK

Dr Emma Gordon, Director, Administrative Data Research UK

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?


I lead the Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) programme at the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC). ADR UK was set up in 2018 to test a new model for working with government to open up access to administrative data for research, to help understand and address major societal challenges and enable improvement of policy and public services. 


ADR UK plays an important role in bridging the gap between government and academia, enabling policy to be informed by the best evidence available, putting us on the path in which the potential of administrative data to improve society is realised.


2020 was a year like no other – how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?


The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the need for timely access to administrative data to support high quality research and government decision-making was greater than ever. The groundwork completed during 2018/19 meant we could deliver on this agenda, although plans across the partnership had to be reshaped, with some projects deprioritised.


Service improvements funded by ADR UK allowed ONS to respond quickly to unexpected changes required to meet priorities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a week of being advised to work from home, ONS made changes to its technology and put new agreements in place to enable home access to their Secure Research Service (SRS). 


This rapid response has enabled a significant volume of research to continue, including analysis being done by the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. 


New datasets being made available to support COVID-19 research include:


  • Business Impact of Covid-19 Survey (BICS)
  • Census 2011 for England and Wales – Household structure for Covid-19 models 
  • Covid-19 Wastewater data
  • NHS Test and Trace Data
  • Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain
  • Death registration data for England and Wales – provisional monthly extracts
  • Covid-19 Infection Survey
  • Census 2011 and Death Registrations Linked dataset, England, and Wales

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?


Our vision is to be the default choice to host linked administrative data from across the entirety of UK and devolved government, making it accessible to a deep pool of trained researchers to generate insights routinely used to inform policy and practice. 


There is no doubt the pandemic has accelerated the importance of our work across both government and academia. This means we are well placed to enable vital research in 2021 that has the potential to lead to better informed policy decisions and more effective public services, in areas from improving education and healthcare to tackling crime.


Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?


Data for good underpins everything we do. A large part of my role is around building trust. This doesn’t just happen because the right infrastructure is in place. It is also about building trust through people – including the public. 


All the data linkages we are taking forward have been agreed because they have data owner consent and address evidenced research needs. They are also underpinned by public engagement plans, to ensure people in those groups that are the focus of the research are brought into the conversation about how that research is conducted, and what research questions are asked.


What has been your path to power?


I joined the ESRC as director of ADR UK in December 2018, working in partnership with ONS and the three ADR UK hubs in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, as well as Whitehall departments to improve access and analysis of administrative data to inform policy decisions.


I joined ESRC from HM Treasury, where I led the Government Economic & Social Research team, responsible for supporting economists and social researchers across all analytical departments. As part of this, I led the development of the new economics degree apprenticeship, creating a new diverse talent pipeline into the Government Economic Service.


Before moving to the Treasury, I was head of health analysis at ONS, responsible for the National Survey of Bereaved Carers, the National Cancer Registry for England as well as a range of health-related statistical bulletins. 


I joined the civil service from academia, completing a PhD in Zoology at Bristol University, before working in a number of administrative and research roles while studying for an MSc in public health, physical activity, and nutrition. My last post there was as a post-doctoral researcher on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents & Children (ALSPAC), researching the prevalence of disabilities within the study cohort.


What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?


No question, leading the ADR UK programme. Personally, I took a professional risk in accepting the role, leaving a secure career in the civil service to take on a time-limited role to lead the pilot. For me, the opportunity to make a difference was too huge to turn down though. 


I have spent my whole career analysing different forms of data. As such, it is unarguable to me that evidence-based decision making is a good thing. I am now in a position to make a difference, supported by a fantastic team of people within a great partnership. 


Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?


Throughout my career, I have looked to find ways to nurture talent and build innovative pipelines to ensure we find it. Within ADR UK, we aim to do this by establishing a Centre for Doctoral Training, to fund doctoral students to address significant public policy and public service challenges. These students would be supported by funded research fellows to ensure there is senior academic expertise to nurture the students and maintain the talent pipeline. Without this enhancement, the ADR UK programme would create whole new fields of quantitative research, without providing the training to ensure they are exploited. 


How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?


For me, data and analytics are inseparable, since it is through analytics that we ensure the data we make available to researchers is robust enough to carry out the planned analyses. Here is just one example of how ADR UK are doing this, in collaboration with Whitehall departments:


Supported by the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education, ADR UK are funding an academic team to deliver a feasibility study to test whether a longitudinal, linked crime and education dataset can be used to reliably assess which interventions work to prevent violent crime. The findings will be used to create an evaluation framework for early intervention initiatives, including those funded by the £200 million Youth Endowment Fund (YEF), the £22 million Early Intervention Youth Fund, and £35 million Violence Reduction Units. This will inform decision-making around future crime and violence reduction programmes, ensuring these are evidence-based and offer value for money.


ADR UK isn’t just ensuring academic researchers are better able to access administrative data carry out research. ADR UK funds the ONS Secure Research Service, which gives accredited researchers secure access to data for research projects in the public interest across all sectors, including academia, private and third sector.


What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?


For me, building a data culture has many elements to it, although it starts with nurturing the talent within your team and providing people with training to ensure they can continue to develop and learn. Reflecting on my own career, I have never been the most talented data analyst or researcher in any team I have led. That is almost the point though; as a leader I see my role as recognising the unique talents and skills of every member of the team and giving them the opportunity to thrive and be curious. That is when incredible things can happen.

Dr Emma Gordon
has been included in:
  • 100 Influencers 2021 (EMEA)