The first ever Yorkshire Data and Digital Conference took place on September 20. Keynote panel sessions included digital transformation in the region, healthcare data, women in data and skills and talent for the future.
I was absolutely delighted to attend the Yorkshire Post’s flagship conference last week. There was a clear focus on the strength of digital and data across the region, and the potential we have to grow as world-class centre for tech. I am very passionate about the power of digital to positively change people’s lives. I’m also very passionate about my home town of Leeds and our county. I have always thought that there’s a great synergy between the binary nature of digital and the black-or-white honesty of the Yorkshire people. I’ve spent my entire career in the tech sector here and it’s fantastic to see it going from strength to strength. Our region really has come a long way.
I grew up in Armley, a no-nonsense suburb of Leeds, no more than two miles from the city centre. I think my first exposure to digital technology was the 24 hour clock and digital thermometer on top of the old Yorkshire Post tower! I passed it frequently on the way into the city from home. It was a building my father helped to build and, even though the main building has gone, I love the fact the tower still remains. In my early teens I discovered computer programming at school and started to learn how to code. At that time the school didn’t even have a computer – our teacher had to pretend to be one, to see if our programs would run properly! Eventually we got access to some of the facilities at the University of Leeds, for which I will be forever grateful. It was at this time that I learnt a profound lesson about the power of IT.
My parents ran a local plastering business, and a lot of their time was taken up on sorting out the payroll and the accounts, all of which had to be done manually by my mum. With my new-found love of programming, I was able to write some software to do this for her. It made a huge difference to both the business and to family life. My mum finally got a free day every week, the number of employees went from 20 to 200, and the business became very successful. I’ve recently learnt that it also enabled mum and dad to find time to go out to a local restaurant one night a week! It was the first time I really saw how IT could make people’s lives better and give them their time back. This view was firmly reinforced during my early career in the finance sector, as a software architecture at the Halifax Building Society. The software that me and my team wrote enabled the organisation to run far more efficiently, make fewer mistakes, offer a better service to the customers and, ultimately, to become more profitable. It was at the Halifax that I really cut my teeth. I learnt an enormous amount and started to realise the world-class IT talent we have in our region.
I moved into healthcare technology in 1997. I’d witnessed first-hand how overwhelming administrative work was stopping doctors and nurses spending their valuable time caring for patients. I’d seen mistakes made by brilliant hospital consultants, simply because they didn’t have software that could support them. They didn’t have vital information at their fingertips when they most needed it. I carried the lessons I had learnt about IT into healthcare and wrote a new type of clinical system and patient records database.
I am still humbled every day by the power that technology has brought into the sector. There are so many stories. Data has saved many lives and improved the quality of life for countless others. Just recently, we’ve seen software innovations that have given community nurses 40% of their time back to spend with their patients, saved over half an hour every day for GPs, and reduced the time taken for an assessment prior to an operation by over 90%. At a time when the NHS is under such extreme pressure, these sorts of savings are invaluable.
I’m now lucky enough to work around the world, although I must stress that my company is still firmly based in Leeds! I’ve just come back from talking with world leaders at the Commonwealth forum in Rwanda and was fortunate to be able to attend our latest hospital go-live in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. In every conversation I have with health ministers and hospitals, from China to Africa, the message is the same: how can data and digital help. We have lots of shared global challenges in healthcare – ageing populations, the rise of people living with long-term conditions, the increase in cancer incidence and, of course, the threat of disease outbreaks. I believe we are on the cusp of a golden era in digital health – big data, the smartphone, and Artificial Intelligence will revolutionise medicine. We all got a glimpse of the power of this technology during the pandemic, from the vaccine campaign to video consultations to cutting-edge analytics. I think we have a great opportunity to build on this work and tackle our other priority problems.
I also think this a great opportunity for our region. There is incredible expertise in healthcare technology across Yorkshire, within industry, the public sector, and academia. I know first-hand how invaluable that expertise is to the NHS and to every health system in the world. We need to shout about it. There are skills and services here that we should be using to help our NHS through these difficult times and exporting to every corner of the planet. There’s every reason to believe that our region can become the health technology capital of the world.
I really am grateful to our fantastic Yorkshire Post for highlighting this and bringing such an importance conference to the city. It was an opportunity to showcase the power of data and digital to transform lives. It was inspiring to see so many examples of what is going on regionally and the talent we have in digital, across so many industries. My final thanks are to Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council. Tom is tireless in his efforts to promote the tech sector here and what it has the potential to become. As Tom emphasised in his keynote, we have started to build a special centre for tech here, but we are really just getting going.
Frank Hester OBE