A technology expert whose studies at Wrexham Glyndwr University led to him working for and advising the UK’s information watchdog has said the role meant he could test his skills ‘on the biggest stage possible.’
As Head of Technology Policy at the Information Commissioner’s Office, Nigel Houlden helped advise the Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, about how emerging technologies would affect her work, the implications of new regulations on individuals and businesses, and much more. He also helped to design and implement a new research-based technology strategy for the ICO, aimed at making the UK a world leader on information privacy issues.
Nigel, from Wrexham, said: “I was a lecturer here at Glyndwr, teaching networks, data protection and cybersecurity. The opportunity came up to be the Head of Tech Policy for the Information Commissioner’s Office – this was the highest technical policy authority on the UK, and the kind of job you know is going to be interesting!
“It’s a big organisation – there are more than 500 people employed there. It was a nice shock to the system. I implemented a five-year tech strategy – one of the things I wanted to shift them to was to have more of a research base, to put them on the front foot for challenges such as cybersecurity.
“My thinking was not only to keep the ICO up-to-date with the latest developments, but also to look at how they could become a world leader which is sought out for its work – particularly after Brexit. Developing the research the ICO do was a great way to do that, as having that research makes them cutting edge – and it also means when they do carry out investigations, they already have the understanding they need.”
The role put him at the heart of the UK’s information regulator as it dealt with high-profile issues – from the investigation into the Cambridge Analytica consultancy to First Tier Tribunal challenges to the Freedom of Information Act.
One of the key areas which Nigel took charge of as Head of Technology Policy was the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation – better known as GDPR. Part of his role involved speaking to companies across Britain about the new regulations, explaining their impact in the ‘real world’ of business – and helping them realise how GDPR would affect their work.
He said: “As GDPR was introduced, it was my job to bring some understanding, so that tech companies of all sorts could comprehend what GDPR was and what it meant for them. That meant not only explaining the basics clearly, but also working to develop and explain our understanding of how new and emerging technologies –such as artificial intelligence – would affect, and be affected by, regulations like GDPR.
“Having a background in cybersecurity, it was extremely interesting work - GDPR wants security built into systems by design and default. It’s not just the processes and procedures you follow, but also about the strength of your network, your computer security and so much more. It was not designed to fit with cybersecurity measures - but the two work so well together.”
However, while he found his work at the ICO exciting and interesting, Nigel began to realise that he missed his work at Glyndwr – the university where he took his degree, before progressing on to Postgraduate study – and eventually becoming a lecturer himself.
He added: “I started off with an unconventional route into university – like a few of our students at Glyndwr. I began working at the university in IT before I took my degree, but once I had started studying, that was it – I remember raising a question about something and Professor Vic Grout saying ‘there’s a PhD in that question.’
“I knew I had learnt a lot during my years and Glyndwr, and it was great to put all that to the test in the real world – and in such a challenging environment.
“My big issue was that I missed teaching. The reason I wanted to come back to Glyndwr specifically is that it’s university which has a heart. For me, it’s Graduation day, it’s seeing the pride of students and their parents and friends – it’s watching graduates enjoying their day. You get such an energy and joy from days like that that nothing else I could do could compete.
“I also wanted to bring back some of what I have learnt and to teach some of the skills which I used to before – skills which have been tested on the biggest stage possible.”
Having been one of the key figures involved in the implementation of GDPR in the UK, Nigel is not only teaching the subject on Glyndwr’s degree courses – but has also worked to develop a short course to help give organisations and individuals a closer understanding of the regulations.
Running over 12 weeks, the course will set out what the regulations mean, how they work – and the responsibilities businesses and organisations have under the rules.
Nigel added: “There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings around GDPR. I’ve seen that first hand, talking to some of the UK’s biggest businesses – and this course is designed to dispel those myths and help people understand exactly what GDPR means for them in the real world.’
Find out more about the Short Course on Understanding GDPR here.