Southern Water
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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

Southern Water’s Peter Jackson on why data officers deserve a place in the C-suite

When Peter Jackson was appointed chief data officer (CDO) of Southern Water back in April 2017, he wasn’t only taking his place in a newly created role at the company, but he was one of the first CDOs in the UK water industry altogether.

He explains that Southern Water had realised that data was important to its future, and that they hoped that by placing greater emphasis on data, it could improve operations and customer experience.

His role, unsurprisingly, has been to develop and deliver a data strategy across the organisation.

“One of the first things I wanted to do was rationalise the current data landscape, and to do that I wanted to create a governed data set across the organisation and to centralise data activity. Previously all of the data was siloed and while different departments were using the data, it wasn’t being shared,” Jackson says.

In order to get the data strategy right, Jackson has had to ensure that the business has the right capabilities – in terms of personnel, technology and processes.

On the personnel front, the company has required data scientists, but like many other businesses, it has decided to retrain and upskill in-house resources because of the scarcity and expense of recruiting from elsewhere.

“Those employees who are already handling data can be upskilled with R and Python because they understand the business and data already. It’s hard to recruit externally – particularly if you’re not in London – and a data scientist salary is also harder to match than other roles, so upskilling inhouse meets a lot of beneficial criteria,” Jackson explains.

On the technology side of things, Jackson states that Southern Water is in the second phase of adoption. The company has already created a cloud-based platform with the help of Google, and now it is introducing more business intelligence tools and investigating the potential of deep learning.

“A lot of that is about adding business value to our operations, and automating and moving into online dashboarding with Birst and a range of other vendors,” he says.

The approach Jackson is taking stems from his own book – the CDO Playbook – which he co-authored with Caroline Carruters, CDO of the Lowell Group.

“The concept is to have an immediate data strategy – fixing a lot of the data issues to make them better, this is a ‘business strategy’, but it’s also important to have a ‘target strategy’, which is focused on where you want to be in five to seven years, without building up too much technical debt. We will be moving into that strategy in 2020,” he says.

Jackson and Carruter’s book has been well received by those in IT and business, and it has led to them forming what they call the first Chief Data Officer Summer School in conjunction with data governance company Collibra.

Of the many people who have noted their interest in the free school, which has already begun, are those in CDO roles now, those with similar roles without the CDO title, and those who are aspiring to be CDOs in the near or distant future. Some 300 people have put forward their names, and Jackson and Carruter have worked with 110 of those so far. The aim – much like the book – is to breakdown what the role of the CDO is, what a data strategy should look like and provide practical tips around how they can develop and deliver this successfully.

For Jackson, the fact that his role is a ‘C-level’ job shows how important Southern Water thinks data and data strategy is – and he says this is vital for a business to succeed today.

In the water industry, the importance of data is likely to grow, he says, and in the years to come companies will be able to better predict water demand and supply accordingly. Much of that is because the companies’ ability to handle data is getting better, but none of that would be possible without a clear data strategy and a clear data leader.