Data Chat: Johanna Hutchinson

Our fifth inductee to the Big Data London Hall of fame is Johanna Hutchinson, who has been a friend of ours for a long-time, speaking at multiple events. We spoke to Johanna about her career path, including working with the Government on the Covid-19 response.


You’ve worked with the Government over the last 18 months using data in response to the Covid-19 Pandemic. What has that involved?


As a Civil Servant, I moved back to the DHSC at the start of the Covid-19 response. In the days before testing, we predominantly used death data from the ONS and NHS to understand what was happening across the UK and model the impact Covid-19 would have on communities. We reported to Chris Whitty and the top of government for some time on the initiatives regarding lockdown and mask-wearing. We also looked at the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, particularly on mental health, working from home, balancing childcare and home schooling, and travel restrictions.


Last summer, the test and trace programme sprung up, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) was the analytical heart of the programme. In September, I moved over to lead that data and analytics operation. The purpose of the JBC is to get high-quality insights into the centre of government quickly, to enable us to formulate subsequent policy decisions. Since then, we’ve instrumented the Leicester lockdown and put the roadmap in place for the coming winter. We advise the Government three times a week about the prevalence of the virus coming through England and the UK and understand the rises in cases per area. We work very closely with both local authorities and directors of public health to do that. Last summer, we put in place the international traffic light system to advise on the state of Covid in other countries.


As we got close to Christmas, we were advising on variants, and this was the first time we saw a variant of Covid in the UK—at the time called the Kent variant. We modelled how that flowed across the UK and the impact on case rates and rises, which led to the lockdown just after Christmas. We then put the roadmap in place to open up the UK and have led on the data and analysis of that. We’ve looked at the impact of opening up on different communities, individuals, and sectors to ensure the current policy guidelines make us as safe as possible.


We’ve also built the Wastewater Programme, which is a new surveillance capability. Testing data is only as good as the number of people going for the tests; this new capability monitors the amount of Covid in waste material—the viral load in faecal matter. This gives us a constant understanding of the level of Covid in community populations. At the moment, we have about 70% coverage across England.


Before this, you worked using data to protect endangered species. How did you switch between such different roles? 


My academic career was looking at conserving the great apes, mainly gorillas and chimpanzees, across central and West Africa. Then, ten years ago, I moved out of academia and into the civil service. The link between the two is the scientific method regarding how we collect and manage data. Whether it’s a small data set for a Masters or a PHD or an extensive data set flowing through an operation, the data must be curated and mastered accordingly; the analytical processes are similar. Although data science, machine learning, and AI have taken off significantly in the past ten years, so much of the advanced statistical methods I used before are much more automated. We do a lot of scientific publications in JBC and Test and Trace to prove what we do, and we work very closely with academic communities, so my link with academia has grown while I’ve been working on the Covid response.


What’s your data origin story? I saw that your Bachelor’s degree is in Biology and Psychology.


It’s all data. By the time I had a family, I’d realised I loved the analysis and the data more than the fieldwork I’d done previously. So, I was looking for a career where I could focus on those analytical outputs instead of collecting the data. As you can imagine, when you’re roaming rainforests for gorillas, it takes a long time to get a small data set together.


What advice would you give to someone looking to enter a similar field to yours?


It’s a very varied sector, it’s growing, and there are many opportunities. I don’t think you’ll be unemployed anytime soon. I don’t think people should overlook government jobs; the main reason I remain a government chief data officer is that the work is vastly more interesting than private-sector jobs, and the work you do day-to-day has an immediate impact on society.


What would you say has been one of the biggest challenges in your career?


The past eighteen months have been incredibly challenging; we’ve been building systems and running data flows to advise on something of national security in real-time. So, the work is both very new and has a high public profile.


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