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Giuseppe Sollazzo, Head of AI Skunkworks and Deployment, NHSx

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


In 2020, I worked for two organisations, the Department for Transport and NHSx, which use data and analytics both in their business-as-usual and in their response to situations of crisis. In late 2019, I announced my intention to work on a transport data strategy to impact both the way the department itself works with data, and also how it supports data use in the transport sector. NHSx is working with data both as a way to analyse the system and to build better, streamlined healthcare services, by using and supporting the use of open standards and innovative technology. 


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 AI Lab, the NHSx organisation I work for, had just been announced when the first cases of Covid-19 started being seen in the UK. The early team, a group of talented colleagues, was assigned to work on the response to the pandemic. 


An example of this was the launch of the National Covid-19 Chest Imaging Database, a centralised UK database containing X-Ray, CT and MRI images from hospital patients across the country, built to enable AI and new technology to better understand the virus and its impact. Some of the activities we had to work on were definitely unplanned, but this has helped check our thinking on some of the more systemic challenges.


For 11 months of 2020 I was at the Department for Transport, and this also included helping the department’s response to Covid-19. The pandemic shows that good data acquisition and analysis practices, the development of data skills, and the ability to develop solutions in an agile way are vital and that the approach to data is stronger at a time of crisis if there is good thinking put in at “peace time”. Huge credit to my former DfT colleagues for supporting the ongoing data work.


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


NHSx has always had data and analytics in its DNA: its five missions focus on better services for patients and staff, and data is both an enabler of better services – in terms of developing interoperable systems through the adoption of open data standards – and a tool for monitoring, through better, safer, and more robust data collection and analysis. For my team specifically, the expectation is to increasingly apply new AI technology to this vast amount of data, and doing so in a safe, ethical, and engaging way that fosters trust in healthcare users.


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


Yes – personally, over the years I’ve supported many “data for good” initiatives and I will keep doing so. Today, there is a growing understanding that data can have side effects, it can be used dangerously. So, we must include a multi-disciplinary skill set into our data for good endeavours – not just developers, analysts, engineers, but law, ethics, and engagement expertise.


Business-wise, I suppose it depends on how we define data for good. NHSx aims to support the delivery of healthcare through data use, a “for good” mission that will help build better services.


What has been your path to power?


The key element of my career path was to understand that I could build a profile as someone who’s both a geek,y hands-on techie and also strategic leader with a vision, speaking a language that resonates higher up, whether it is with senior executives or political leaders. 


As a consequence, I’ve had a slightly unconventional career route. I spent most of my time at university thinking I’d become an academic, but when I made an attempt at a PhD at Imperial College, about 13 years ago, it didn’t work. I found myself working in the “IT Crowd” at St George’s Hospital Medical School, where I stayed for almost ten years – an amazing time during which I was able to both hone my technical skills and push for change and innovation. I became known as “the IT guy with a vision”. 


On the side, I had a series of freelance gigs and advisory roles that increased the breadth of my exposure to data leadership. These ranged from doing data-driven journalism for the BBC to advising the Cabinet Office on the Government’s Open Data Agenda. I became known for my ability to connect the extremely technical to the abstract and strategic.


What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?


If I have to mention one: receiving the 2016 ODI Award as “Individual champion of open data” from the hands of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a prize that recognised my work advocating effective open data and building communities around it. But this was just one great night in a career I’ve built around being a multi-disciplinary technologist. My USP has been the ability to engage, connect, and speak with both techies and senior executives, building bridges between different areas of knowledge, and fostering collaboration networks. Bringing people to work together matters to me more than any single achievement.


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


The programme of work I’m leading at NHSx, the AI skunkworks and deployment team, is grounded in the view that by experimenting AI in a lightweight, innovative, agile way, we can help the healthcare eco-system learn how to safely adopt and deploy AI solutions more broadly. My goal is to make sure that we build a solid framework that allows my teams to be helpful and intervene where and when is most appropriate, that the funding we have is spent sensibly, and that the knowledge and skills we build can be transferred to the NHS. 


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?


In the past 20 years, the healthcare industry has undergone a realignment in terms of its relationship with data and analytics. I remember working in healthcare as a recent graduate, setting up data pipelines for hospital labs. At the time, one of the novel ideas we launched for our customers was using stored procedures in a database in order to detect antibiotic-resistant infections; this was considered cutting-edge and almost sci-fi! Such applications have become ordinary in healthcare, although this has also generated hype.


NHSx is built on the idea that data and analytics can help improve the healthcare eco-system, both by improving internal processes and skills with data and technology literacy, and by working with the market and academia whenever they have helpful solutions. This is absolutely aligned with the wider development of data and intelligent technology in the industry. 


My role focuses on the lightweight, rapid innovation aspect, which I see as the glue of this whole process: learn about problems, see how they sit strategically in an organisation, and test how data and AI can – or cannot. It’s equally important to fail and learn from failures, address them, and share knowledge to the whole industry.


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


My mantra is: “Be useful”. Often, data professionals tend to focus on blue-sky thinking and try to change things suddenly. Although there are certainly situations in which a disruptive shock-approach is needed, in the vast majority of cases the key to success is building alliances and showing the user the benefit, they’ll receive from using data well. Developing a data culture and data literacy is a marathon and the best way to embed data into every part of the organisation is to iteratively show usefulness to those who do operational work, to keep in mind the strategic goals, and to build alliances.

Giuseppe Sollazzo
has been included in:
  • 100 Brands 2021 (EMEA)