Food Standards Agency Director of Openness, Data and Digital - Using data to improve the nation’s health

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth April 24, 2019
A data focus is preventing poor quality food entering the UK food chain, Julie Pierce tells diginomica/government

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The Food Standards Agency is using data to make a difference to hygiene and health in the UK (excluding Scotland) and to prepare the nation for the Conservative Party’s Brexit from the European Union.

Headquartered in London, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a non-ministerial government department of the Government, which is responsible for protecting public health and is led by a board appointed to act in the public interest. Pierce, a former CIO in both the government and financial services carries the job title Director of Openness, Data and Digital, a role she has held since 2015.

Data is one of the key ingredients of how the FSA operates and achieves its remit, which it states is to make sure that food is safe. The FSA defines its role as:

“It’s our job to use our expertise and influence so people can trust that the food they buy and eat is safe and honest. Our strategy recognises that there are growing challenges around food safety, affordability, security and sustainability.”

Pierce explains that the food industry is rich in data and the FSA has become a pioneer in its usage. Not only is the FSA making sure all of its own information is well used, but tapping into a wealth of food and related information has been the secret ingredient for how the FSA has become a government success story that other nations are keen to copy.

“For example we use a lot of HMRC and Defra data, we join that all up and then we get the food industry to share their data.”

She adds that data from taxation body HMRC, as well as financial information from publishers Dunn & Bradstreet, can help the FSA identify organisations suffering poor financial performance and target them to make sure that this is not causing a fall in food hygiene standards. With part of Pierce’s remit being openness, the FSA also publishes all of its data by default - all of its data sets are available for re-use by anyone.

Making a difference

Using data to spot trends and to target its resources more closely ensures that the FSA meets its remit and makes a real difference to the nation. A part of the FSA’s role is surveillance, ensuring that food is not posing a safety risk to consumers and ensuring that food is not part of any criminal activity.

“Aflatoxin is a fungus found on certain foods like nuts and figs. We found that we could predict outbreaks of Aflatoxin fungus using weather data.”

As a result, the FSA can prevent the figs being shipped to the UK, which benefits the UK’s ports that do not have to hold a cargo that is unwanted, as well as retailers and citizens, by keeping them healthy. This in turn reduces the burden on the NHS.

Alongside the use of global weather data to prevent potentially fungus infected food arriving, the FSA has been using social media data to understand the public’s concerns about allergic reactions.

“This social listening found that the number nine concern was coconut, not one of the 14 allergens addressed in the legislation. Not something we had considered, so now we can think about changing our advice.”

This ability to discover trends has had a beneficial effect on the organisation too. As Whitehall prepares for Brexit (and possibly a Brexit with no trading deal with the European Union, the UK’s largest trading partner), the FSA has been able to use data to discover its own preparedness for the loss of a deal with Europe.

“Looking at trading data has helped us develop our understanding of trade with the EU and given the organisation a fresh perspective.”

Food lakes

Pierce is able to tackle these business issues through being embedded with the business and ensuring that any project is clearly driven by a business need.

“We do 10 week use cases to run through and understand the business need and to build a working thing. So we only build a data lake when you need it and only when you know what the business question is, which is always the hard bit.”

“In the past people have spent millions on building something then they ask the question.”

This has changed the way the FSA deploys data projects and technology. Pierce has moved on from major data warehouses and instead deploys and fills a multitude of data lakes depending on the project and business requirement.

“We have moved away from a single big data resource to be both more agile and with the small lakes we can bring data in and out as and when we need it.”

Pierce says this approach is possible as storage is relatively cheap. The CIO has an in-house team of data scientists - something many of her peers are desperately seeking - and is therefore focussing on enabling the data scientists to help the business discover the answers it seeks, not spending her time managing and delivering technology.

“It is low risk, someone else is worrying about the technology. We worry about the data standards. As a result, the FSA is publishing data on a regular basis and at the same rate as HMRC, Nasa and the US Government.”

Pierce and the FSA have a mix of providers from giants such as Cognizant, who she describes as first class and specialist providers such as Elastacloud, a data and cloud architecture consultancy, then there is Pivigo a recruitment and training specialist for data scientists, where the young people give the established companies a run for their money, she says.

Data is also driving Pierce’s two blockchain pilots and a new set of APIs to work with the food industry.

“We are replacing the food hygiene rating scheme API with a modern data ingest API.”

Pierce joined the FSA in August 2015 having been CIO of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for over two and a half years and has held public sector technology leadership roles at the Home Office, Metropolitan Police and the Animal Health Agency. She joined the public sector in 2007 at a time when the government sought out business technology leaders with a modern approach to project management, vendor relationships and greater collaboration. Prior to joining the public sector Pierce had held senior roles at Zurich Insurance, PWC and Logica.

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