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CTO Interview: Breathing life into the British Heart Foundation’s tech agenda

Wed 12 Feb 2020 | Ursula Dolton

How can technology help in the effort to eradicate heart and circulatory disease? We asked BHF’s new CTO, Ursula Dolton

Like many other companies seeking to orchestrate the raft of technologies entering the market, the British Heart Foundation recently appointed its debut CTO. Ursula Dolton, who has had a wide-ranging career, working for likes of Jaguar & Land Rover, Citi Group and in a variety of sectors, was chosen to steer the ship.

The charity, which provides support to the millions of people living with heart and circulatory disease and conducts invaluable medical research, has an ambitious goal of creating a “world free from the fear of heart and circulatory disease” by 2030. Ursula’s role is to ensure that technology – including data, AI, cloud computing – serves this objective.

BHF’s debut CTO credits the charity for recognising “that technology has the potential to enhance every area of our work.” This is something the organisation recently enshrined in a “Technology Directorate” that promises to embed technological innovation at the heart of all areas of the charity. “When it was clear that BHF was developing this amazing vision for harnessing innovation and technology, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to lead that journey for all of us here,” Ursula says.

The benefits she hopes to usher in include improved supporter experiences, organisational efficiency and effectiveness, and most importantly, technology that “leads to innovations that make a meaningful difference to the seven million people living with heart and circulatory disease in the UK.”

What does this look like in practice? Top of the agenda is deploying technology to improve communication with those who look to the charity for support. BHF also wants to be more effective at spreading the word about the invaluable research it conducts, and tech can help there, too.

Join Ursula at Big Data & AI World, 11-12 March, ExCeL London

11 March 2020,


As she approaches the end of her first year in the role, Ursula reflects that it has been a “whirlwind.” Where does one begin with such a pivotal and complex task ahead of them? Her previous experiences have taught Ursula “the importance of building good relationships with customers and focusing on delivering the best experience we can, by really understanding their needs.” Additionally, the learning never stops. “If you can help your teams to keep learning as well, you can achieve great things,” she adds.

Accordingly, Ursula says she has prioritised communication, learning and strategy: “Meeting new people, getting to know even more about our organisation and planning how technology can help deliver on our vision.” A key pillar of Ursula’s approach is working with and learning from CTOs in other charities, so they can “skill share and work together to keep driving forward technology” in the sector as a whole.

Can AI help you?

No CTO can afford to overlook the power of artificial intelligence, and Ursula is well aware of how AI and machine learning will “revolutionise the way many businesses work” — BHF included. “Humans and learning machines are working together to produce an ever-increasing amount of data in the cloud, and the use of artificial intelligence analyses offer better insight into how to execute and operate.”

The charity is also somewhat of an AI research pioneer and is funding several research projects. Declan O’Regan, a BHF-funded researcher, is currently leading a team applying AI techniques to try and accurately predict the prognosis of people with heart failure. “They’re using AI to interpret thousands of heart scans to build a 3D heart, before ‘training’ the computer to recognise the earliest signs of heart failure,” Ursula explains.

When it comes to using AI within the charity, Ursula outlines the importance of a level-headed approach. AI initiatives won’t get off the ground unless there is a clear business need or sufficient resources to deliver. Charities often don’t have the luxury of lavish budgets to fund innovation. “We are still in the early days,” she says. “The success of any organisation depends on how effectively it combines people, process and technology intelligently to deliver transformational value at optimised cost.” For BHF, acquiring data engineers and data scientists is the “key challenge in the short term.”

To cultivate a lasting and effective AI strategy, the charity is sourcing “expertise and advice”  from its technology partners: “By helping our partners to get to know us and our business, they have been able to add great value for us – both in delivering expertise, but also in supporting our own people’s knowledge development, through things like training and mentoring,” Ursula explains.

Looking ahead to her keynote presentation at Big Data World, Ursula again emphasises the importance of networking and communication for any organisation looking to capture tech’s boundless benefits. “With technology and digital opportunities constantly developing, the only way we can succeed is by working together and learning from peers, and events like this offer a brilliant way of doing that.”

To learn more about British Heart Foundation’s technology roadmap, don’t miss CTO Ursula Dolton’s Keynote at Big Data & AI World London. Registration Free.

Experts featured:

Ursula Dolton

Chief Technology Officer
British Heart Foundation


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