Select Committee on Digital Skills - Report of Session 2014–15

Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future

Appendix 8: Summary of Committee visits

Guardian Media Group and Google Campus, Tuesday 2 September 2014

This visit was intended to provide first-hand experience of certain technologies and allow Members from the Committee to talk with various stakeholders—such as start-up companies and individuals working within organisations—who make extensive use of digital technology. The Guardian Media Group (GMG)575 offered the ‘user’ organisation view point, whereas Google Campus576 provided the ‘producer’ organisation perspective. The delegation visited two sites, both of which were in London.

A delegation of Members from the Committee attended: Lord Aberdare, Earl of Courtown, Baroness Garden of Frognal, Lord Haskel, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, Lord Lucas, Baroness Morgan of Huyton (Chairman) and Baroness O’Cathain. The delegation was accompanied by Aaron Speer (Clerk), Emily Greenwood (Policy Analyst), Thomas Cheminais (Committee Assistant) and Darell Carey (Press Officer).

Site visit #1: Guardian Media Group

The digital evolution of media: Andrew Miller (GMG Chief Executive Officer) and Tanya Cordrey (GMG Chief Digital Officer)

The delegation heard that The Guardian was the third largest English language newspaper website in the world online, with over 100 million unique browsers per month (and growing), versus around 200,000–300,000 per day in newspaper readership. We were told that The Guardian was gaining an international following online, for example, through the Guardian Australia edition, and the Guardian US edition (which was central to the reporting of the Snowdon story). Whilst readership of the paper newspaper was in decline, the consumer shift to digital was growing at pace.

This was an experience that echoed across the entire sector. For example, newspaper readership for The Guardian fell by 21% between 2007 and 2011, with The Independent and The Times suffering losses of 48% and 26% respectively over the same period. Andrew Miller (GMG’s Chief Executive Officer) said that The Guardian was leaving behind traditional competition; new competitors were digital, such as the BBC, Facebook, Google and Twitter.

It was noted that the growing prevalence of mobile devices and tablets was driving strong growth. Mr Miller said that the future was mobile; and for 18–20 year olds the future was video.

The delegation was told that GMG faced three challenges: culture (internal); platforms (the way people are consuming); and obtaining a level playing field. A particularly important question The Guardian asked itself was whether it wanted to be more radical and jump to a wholly digital place. Although trends were pointing in this direction, such a move would result in lost readership.

Tanya Cordrey (GMG’s Chief Digital Officer) went on to talk about the challenges of recruiting staff with the digital skills required by the business. Ms Cordrey highlighted that The Guardian’s own digital team had doubled over the last two years. The organisation was recruiting the best individuals; the challenge was retaining them. It was noted that the UK was a major hub of expertise around news, with external pulls from outside the UK for top talent (such as from California).

A particular challenge was finding people with the right skills and mind-set. The Guardian had targeted young talent with no direct experience. For example, the Guardian’s graduate programme had no computer science graduates. Under-represented groups also remained an issue; the percentage of women at The Guardian was approximately 15–20%. Overseas recruitment was often necessary—for example, the Chief Technology Officer was recruited from Google.

It was noted that business was about managing a mind-set which embraced technology and change. Cultural change could take 10–15 years, whereas technological change was happening every few months. To combat this, we were told that skills should be engrained in education, and immigration to fill those roles should be encouraged, not blocked.

The delegation heard that the UK’s competitors were Silicon Valley and China; although the UK had a small advantage in the English language.

Graduate schemes and recruitment

The delegation spoke with the organisers and some participants of The Guardian’s graduate scheme577, including hearing about recruitment.

Attracting and retaining top talent had to be based around what people wanted. The Guardian had a defined ‘employee value proposition’; people wanted to work with the top talent, work on top projects and be rewarded and recognised.

The graduate scheme project had been about The Guardian growing its own top talent. The team visited the West Coast of the USA and every company there (bar one) trained their own talent. Talent for the graduate scheme was identified through testing for insight (the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’); and why applicants wanted to work for The Guardian.

Desirable recruits had the following skills:

On the topic of staff retention, the delegation was hold how there was a shift to a ‘tour of duty’ (2–3 years) for more junior employees.

‘Next Gen’ launch

Since the visit, The Guardian’s in-house team completed an 18-month programme to deliver the global roll-out of its new responsive website,578 which was developed using an open approach, taking in more than 130,000 pieces of user feedback. The new website was engineered around the needs of readers, with industry-leading load times and enhanced interactivity, functionality and responsiveness, regardless of the device it was viewed on.

Site visit #2: Google Campus

After visiting GMG, the delegation visited Google Campus near the Silicon Roundabout in East London for an informal discussion with Sarah Drinkwater (Google’s Head of Campus), Guy Levin (Executive Director of Coadec) and a number of start-up companies.579

Introduction to Google Campus

In 2012 Google established its ‘Campus’ to equip entrepreneurs and start-ups with the resources they needed to develop and grow. Their mission was: “… to create an environment that encourages innovation through collaboration, mentorship, and networking”.580 The Campus was equipped with high-speed WiFi, a cafe, frequent networking and speaking events, and co-working space. The Campus was funded, facilitated and managed by Google, in collaboration with partners.

Key stats:

Informal discussion

Unfortunately the visit was cut short due to a power outage and evacuation of the building. Nonetheless, key points raised during the discussion included:

Google programmes aimed at addressing the digital skills gap

Further to the visit, Google highlighted programmes it had run in the UK over the past few years, intended to help address some of the digital skills gaps—from equipping people with basic online skills (such as how to write an email), to filling the growing number of highly specialised and sophisticated data scientist roles. These included:

BBC Blue Room and BBC Research and Development, Thursday 16 October 2014

The Committee visited the BBC Blue Room—the BBC’s media technology demonstration team who explored the new and exciting ways audiences found, consumed, created and interacted with content—and BBC Research and Development.593

A delegation of Members from the Committee attended: Lord Aberdare, Baroness Garden of Frognal, Lord Haskel, Lord Janvrin and Baroness Morgan of Huyton (Chairman). The delegation was accompanied by Aaron Speer (Clerk), Emily Greenwood (Policy Analyst) and Thomas Cheminais (Committee Assistant).

BBC Blue Room

“The Blue Room was set up … by Huw Williams (previously Head of BBC Research and Innovation) to investigate the impact of the rapidly changing consumer marketplace in the context of potential new platforms for BBC output and the changing nature of consumer behaviour”.594

The delegation received demonstrations of technologies from Lindsey Suter and Garry Green, including:

BBC Research and Development

The delegation then heard from the BBC’s Research and Development (R&D) department. BBC R&D led the world in broadcast technology innovation and acted as a catalyst for the UK broadcasting industry as a whole. By working with partners in academia and industry, it delivered research and engineering that set standards used around the globe.

It was said that without BBC R&D, the UK’s broadcasting ecology would risk being defined by interests that were outside the UK, primarily the Far East and the USA, which was where the majority of broadcast research took place. BBC R&D helped maintain the UK’s position as a centre of excellence in broadcast and related technologies, and in setting its standards.

Some of the most significant advances in broadcast technology seen in the UK began in BBC R&D, such as Ceefax, Red Button, Freeview and High Definition Television (HDTV).

The delegation was told that the BBC’s research activity provided value to the UK’s broadcast industry by:

The Hartree Centre, Wednesday 22 October 2014

The Hartree Centre was a HPC facility based in the North West of England, located in the Sci-Tech Daresbury Campus in Warrington.595 The Centre looked at supercomputing, Big Data analytics and visualisation, which it tried to apply to industrially relevant problems. The Committee received numerous submissions on the importance of Big Data and the future need for data technicians. This visit, therefore, was intended to put such evidence into context and allow Members to see cutting-edge technology in action.596

A small delegation of Members from the Committee attended: Lord Aberdare, Lord Haskel and Baroness Morgan of Huyton (Chairman). The delegation was accompanied by Aaron Speer (Clerk) and Emily Greenwood (Policy Analyst).

Introductory talk: Cliff Brereton (Director of the Hartree Centre)

The Centre was located in a campus which was described as a ‘scientific cluster development zone’—a number of other buildings within the campus were full of SMEs which were there specifically for their interaction with the science community. The Centre was seen as an attractive place for SMEs, as it provided an opportunity for them to form partnerships. People working at the Centre included engineers, chemists, life scientists, software developers, data scientists and mathematicians.

The Centre had four service offerings (or ‘products’): collaborative R&D; new software and algorithms; training and skills; and platform as a service (allowing users to purchase time on the machines at the Centre). The delegation heard that the Centre worked towards introducing computational modelling to the UK and industry by using the line: “better products, developed faster and cheaper”. More organisations were beginning to approach the Centre as they learnt about the opportunities offered by HPC. It was noted that the language between science and business was not compatible, and so the Centre reduced what it did into much simpler business terminology; for example, by highlighting that pension schemes could be modelled using HPC.

One of the Centre’s key clients was Unilever (which had an office on-site that examined digital R&D), which formulated household products (mainly liquids). The Centre demonstrated to Unilever that it could simulate the mixing of formulas in the time it took to make a cup of coffee. Unilever’s staff, however, had no experience of the skills needed to do so. Other clients of the Centre included Dyson, Syngenta, Infineum, Barclays, GSK, BAE Systems, Bentley, JPMorgan and IBM.

The staff preferred to see the Centre as a hub space. In particular, the Centre wanted to create industrial opportunities for universities—in the 18 months prior to the Committee’s visit, 42 universities had worked with the Centre (all at different levels). The delegation heard that the Centre had started an MSc at Liverpool University: the 1st Semester was a classroom-based course, where students were taught general principles; 2nd Semester students worked in groups to take part in projects the Centre had previously completed for clients; and 3rd Semester students were put into real life ongoing projects with the Centre’s clients. This course was intended to help industry identify potential employees.

Looking forward at what the Centre planned to do in the future, Cliff Brereton (Director of the Hartree Centre) noted four forces of change: industrial engagement; power; Big Data; and democratisation. He also highlighted the US Solve Report, ‘The Exascale Effect: the Benefits of Supercomputing Investment for U.S. Industry’,597 which highlighted the importance of HPC to economies. Algorithms would be able to be used for interesting new things—for example, planning where to locate emergency vehicles. Software architecture must, however, keep up with hardware infrastructure. In relation to Big Data, it was noted that it could be used for the prediction of risk-based correlations (of concern to the Centre, Big Data was not mentioned in Tildesley Report, which focused on the benefits of modelling and simulation598). Consequently, the Centre wanted to the take the lead on Big Data and democratisation to give the UK a two and a half year lead over the rest of the world—but there was a skills issue to address first.

In discussing the ‘skills agenda’, the delegation was told that the UK needed more people with coding skills in general—profound changes in the computational science discipline would require new skills to develop codes. Additionally, the delegation heard that Big Data needed to be a discipline in its own right and not just an adjunct. Mr Brereton stressed that the UK needed ‘T’ shaped learning—that is, a broad level of basic understanding, complemented with a deeper, more specific and detailed understanding of a particular subject. For example, with disease control, an understanding of pharmaceuticals would be the deeper skillset.


Following the introductory talk and a tour of the Centre’s machine room, the delegation received two demonstrations of the practical application of HPC:

Future industrial requirements: Dr Massimo Noro (Manager, Physical & Chemical Insights Group, R&D, Unilever)

Dr Massimo Noro (Manager, Physical & Chemical Insights Group, R&D, Unilever) noted that the world was changing, particularly due to the ‘Internet of Things’ (everything will have an IP address and chip). This would be available to everyone, however, so what gave Unilever a competitive advantage? Dr Noro’s answer was speed: “Today, to out compute is to out compete.”

The delegation was told that Unilever was aiming for superior product claims alongside speed and innovation; all this at the same time as a sustainable strategy. This could only be done in a digital way. The ‘innovation loop’—where scientists look for new ingredients—was quicker if an element of HPC was added in.

Unilever was looking for the transformation of R&D through information and data; there were six pillars to Unilever’s R&D, including digitally enabled R&D.

Dr Noro believed that culture—the way people used data—needed to change; data should be shared and people should be rewarded for sharing data (as shared data leads to greater innovation). In particular, the delegation heard that complex data should be presented in the simplest way for non-experts to use.

Unilever and the Centre had created an app for scientists to conduct virtual experiments on an iPad—for example, virtually mixing different concentrations of liquids. They could then see a virtual outcome of their experiment. This took about five minutes of computing time, saving time and costs. Unilever had products on shop shelves developed with insight from this app. The scientists did not need to know about the computer, processors, logs, simulators, and so forth—they used their expertise in chemistry to determine whether the results were what they wanted. Dr Noro said that computer use skills (data handling and data mining) and knowledge science were both needed.

Regional R&D hubs were important to allow Unilever to develop initial products. Now it could roll out products across the world; all that was needed was an internet connection.

It was stressed that science and industry together was a balanced mix and increased entrepreneurship; new companies added in different expertise. SMEs chose to come for the facilities and scientists they would not otherwise have had access to.

Imperial College London, Wednesday 19 November 2014

The purpose of this visit was to understand more about the use of supercomputers and HPC from the academic perspective (whereas the Hartree Centre had focused on industry). In particular, Imperial College London was regarded as one of the leading universities in the UK in relation to its use of supercomputers and HPC for academic purposes.599

A delegation of Members from the Committee attended: Lord Giddens, Lord Haskel, Lord Janvrin, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, Lord Lucas, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, Baroness Morgan of Huyton (Chairman) and Baroness O’Cathain. The delegation was accompanied by Aaron Speer (Clerk), Emily Greenwood (Policy Analyst) and Thomas Cheminais (Committee Assistant).

Welcome: Professor James Stirling CBE (Provost of Imperial College London)

Professor James Stirling (the College’s Provost) told the delegation that the leadership of the College was unique in the UK as the role was split between the President (Alice Gast) and the Provost. Part of the President’s role was to work with the large number of the College’s international alumni. The Provost was responsible for the management and oversight of the core academic mission: teaching, research and translation.

Professor Stirling gave a brief background to the College. He told us:

Professor Stirling outlined engagement and funding at the College:


Following a tour of the College’s Data Centre, the delegation was provided with two presentations on the practical uses of HPC within the College.

Presentation 1: Dr Gerard Gorman

Presentation 2: Dr Arash Mostofi

Overview discussion

Following the presentations, the delegation engaged in a discussion with College staff. Some of the key points raised included:

575 Guardian Media Group: [accessed 26 January 2015]

576 Campus London: [accessed 26 January 2015]

577 The Guardian, ‘Guardian Graduate Scheme’: [accessed 9 February 2015]

578 The Guardian: [accessed 5 February 2015]

579 Note: Mike Warriner, UK Director of Engineering at Google, provided oral evidence to the Committee on Tuesday 22 July 2014 (see QQ 40–52). Guy Levin provided oral evidence to the Committee on Tuesday 29 July 2014 (see QQ 53–65).

580 Campus London: [accessed 26 January 2015]

581 Hackathons are events, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.

582 TechHub: [accessed 5 February 2015]

583 Seedcamp: [accessed 5 February 2015]

584 Knodium: [accessed 26 January 2015]

585 Proversity: [accessed 26 January 2015]

586 Campus Tel Aviv: [accessed 5 February 2015]

587 Factory Berlin: [accessed 5 February 2015]

588 NUMA: [accessed 5 February 2015]

589 Getting British Business Online: [accessed 5 February 2015]

590 Grow Your Charity Online:

591 Arch, ‘Google Apprenticeships’: [accessed 5 February 2015]

592 Squared Online: [accessed 5 February 2015]

593 Note: Phil Fearnley, Director of BBC Homepage and myBBC, provided oral evidence to the Committee on Tuesday 2 September 2014 (see QQ 103–112).

594 BBC Internet Blog, ‘The Blue Room’: [accessed 26 January 2015]

595 The Hartree Centre: [accessed 26 January 2015]

596 Note: Michael Gleaves, Head of Business Development at the Hartree Centre, provided oral evidence to the Committee on Tuesday 22 July 2014 (see QQ 40–52).

597 Council on Competitiveness, “Solve”. The Exascale Effect: the Benefits of Supercomputing Investment for U.S. Industry (October 2014): [accessed 26 January 2015]

598 Mr Brereton highlighted the report sponsored by David Willetts in 2011 (chaired by Dominic Tildesley), which reviewed the UK’s position in terms of computational science capability. It found that the UK had fallen behind competitors in relation to super computational machines, skills, and so forth. It also found that for every £1 invested in supercomputing, there was a return of £2 after 2 years, which increased to £5 after 5 years.

599 Imperial College London: [accessed 2 February 2015]

600 National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, ‘Digital Manufacturing SIG’: [accessed 26 January 2015]