Why is Leeds such a hub for data activity?

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

Leeds, the Yorkshire town of almost 800,000 people, has developed into a hub of data activity. It is home to ODI Leeds, the Data City as well as several commercial enterprises that are fuelled by data, such as TransUnion. It is also the location of meet-ups and collaborations all about data, as well as being the headquarters of several data-heavy NHS bodies. Was this by design or by happy accident?

From textile mills via direct mail to digital

Leeds redbrick buildingAlex Craven, founder of data science and software company The Data City, traced Leeds’ current data activity to traditional industries. Craven argued that some of Leeds’ oldest digital businesses were incorporated in the 1800s, initially set up as printers. This ultimately stimulated a wave of data activity in the 1980s when the direct mail and direct marketing industry kicked off, building on the clothing catalogue companies that existed in the area.

It is no surprise that the city had a high number of clothing and clothing catalogue companies considering the town has been milling textiles since the 1300s. Craven called those companies, “the first incarnation of data businesses.” Paul Connell, founder of the Open Data Institute Leeds, said that the digital agencies that sprung from those digital businesses that in turn came from print “are very data-heavy and analytics-heavy.”

Centres of academia and health data

According to Connell, health is a key reason for Leeds being a data hub with the Leeds Institute of Data Analytics, based at the University of Leeds, having a large part to play. The institute, which partners with researchers and organisations to help them take advantage of advances in the fields of medical and consumer data analysis, was set up in mid-2015 and Connell added that it is connected to Europe’s largest teaching hospital.

He also pointed out that Leeds is home to NHS Digital, the trading name of the Health and Social Care Information Centre. NHS Digital provides information, data and IT systems on a national level to clinicians, analysts and commissioners in health and social care in England, especially those linked to the NHS. This health IT body moved to Leeds in September 2017.

University of Leeds buildingAt the time of the move, Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive of NHS Digital, stated that Leeds had established itself as “a major digital city in England with a thriving technology sector.” Both Connell and Craven said that the relocation of NHS England (which used to be called the NHS Commissioning Board) has helped to make Leeds a hub of health data.

Craven also mentioned the NHS Spine was developed in Leeds and Connell added that the National Institute for Health Research has a Leeds office in addition to one in London. NHS Spine supports the coordination of 23,000 healthcare IT systems in 20,500 organisations.

In addition to core data elements of the NHS, there are other departments of government that are based in Leeds, such as a regional centre of HMRC which moved in 2017 at the same time as NHS Digital. Craven also said that the Department for Work and Pensions has a significant presence in Leeds. “Basically, the biggest public data set in the world is based here.” Connell said: “So you’ve got this huge amount of people working on data in those large government and health institutions.”

Sky Bet, William Hill, TransUnion - "data businesses, really"

For Craven, the presence of betting and gambling companies and a large credit reference agency is another important factor in Leeds being a hive of data and analytics activity. Sky Bet and William Hill are “data businesses, really” and that TransUnion (formerly known as CallCredit), which was spun out of Skipton Building Society, is “again a data business.”

Connell also pointed to the broadcasting sector, with SkyTV already there and Channel 4 recently choosing Leeds as its new home. “You’ve got that world going on and also the betting and gaming industries which are hugely data-driven.” Connell also mentioned that the city houses many IT companies which were spun out of Freeserve, an internet service provider from the late-1990s.

ODI Leeds

Modern building in LeedsAccording to Rob Shaw, chief executive of Jaywing, the Open Data Institute Leeds – founded by Connell - is a magnet and almost a playpen for data scientists. He said: “It drives the kind of projects that draw in talented data scientists to create new insights and hone their skills.”

Connell was able to shed more light on the workings of the organisation. Established five years ago as a not-for-profit independent organisation, it is funded by sponsors. In the early days, it got support from Leeds and Bradford City Councils – “two forward-thinking councils that were looking at how they could use data to grow their capacity when money was shrinking.”

The number of sponsors has now increased to 15 and includes local authority, academic, commercial and government organisations. One project that came about as a collaboration between the ODI Leeds, the University of Leeds, Leeds Love It Share IT, and Leeds City Lab is called Common Ground: Leeds. It allows users to map physical structures and see how they correlate. For example, a user could add a layer of places of worship and a layer of libraries and see on a map if they are generally close to or far from each other.

Meet-ups and collaborations

ODI Leeds also has an events space where “people come from all sorts of different backgrounds to do clever things with data,” according to Craven. It hosts regular meet-ups and the most popular of those is the one that centres on data and IT in which the attendees talk about different clusters and machine learning.

“They do them every six weeks. They have been going on for as long as we have, five or six years. We’re seeing a definite upswing in the number of people that want to do data and data visualisation. People have caught up with us, I guess,” said Connell.

Leeds River AireCraven reiterated his point that the ODI Leeds is a space where interaction and collaboration with data can take place. He said: “A lot of things have come out of it, a lot of start-ups, a lot of ideas and a lot of collaboration, not least of which is The Data City.”

"Huge opportunity for investment."

Connell is in fact Craven’s business partner in The Data City venture and points to the close-knit nature of the data scene in the city. Another link exists between Craven and Shaw. Craven’s previous company, Bloom, was bought by Jaywing, Shaw’s company in 2016, and is now Jaywing Intelligence, “bringing AI to PPC advertising and network analysis to social media.”

While there seems to be a lot of pride in the self-sufficiency of the Leeds data scene with a lot of support from within the city and the region, some external support wouldn’t go amiss. Connell said: “We received no central government funding whatsoever and we were completely self-funding. If you look at those sort of things, we would say there is a huge opportunity for investment to be made to make a difference.”

Knowledge-based content manager, DataIQ
Toni is the senior features editor responsible for the origination of DataIQ's interviews, articles and blogs.