How do we think about the datas?

Disclaimer: This is not thought-out blog post like you might find on the real internet. This post is fueled by a few extra hours of sleep, black instant coffee, and a general interest and enthusiasm for the data debate which I haven’t had in years. This is a post to sort out some of my own thoughts before being able to engage more fully.

I also really really liked the idea of writing a blog post in response to a blog post. It feels like 2005 all over again.

Context: Dan Barrett, UK Parliament’s Head of Data and Search, has posted a couple of posts about the difficulty of talking about data – part 1 and part 2, with ensuing Twitter conversation.

This gave me wobbly memories going 7 years back, when ‘open data’ was getting ‘hot’ and trying to find its way in the world. Self-interested plug: I went back and dug out my old post, “Open Data” needs to die to see if it was still relevant. Some of it seems to be, namely the need for context, the semantic quibbling that goes on.

(The idea of “agile data” is a new idea for me though – this makes a lot of sense for my own job, and has a rich depth waiting to be explored.)

Perhaps this bit from the old post gets at some of the difficulty:

Many people with useful, everyday data and databases really don’t think in terms of data. Because the data is about stuff they know, they think of it as “information”. Maybe even a “resource”. But ask them what “data” they have and they’ll probably give you a back-up of their website.

Is the term ‘data’ just too vague to be useful? If you had a magazine all about Data, then what would it cover? Databases, database design, relational data, non-structured data, data dumps, big data, personal data, data security, — yeh, even my eyes are glazing over with the word now. Would I buy it? No, probably not.

Does the word “data” need to die?

No – emphatically not. I think it does mean something to me, as a computer scientist engaged in data on a daily basis. It is the raw material that underpins everything I do. BUT it’s hard for me to say that ‘data’ is this, that or the other.

On a daily basis, data for me covers not just the stuff we make available on Local Insight, but anything we’ve decided to commit to a database for the purpose of structuring it, processing it, linking to it, etc. As a second order, I also consider all of our files to be data, just structured in a different way.

So maybe there are two ways that we think about data (and yes, I think a lot of the confusion is now just how we explain what data is, but how we make sense of the term. And this is, in a sense, just a semantic argument. But it needs to be a semantic argument if we’re talking about how to talk to each other). Two ways that often conflict with each other:

  1. Bits stored in computers. As in, 0s and 1s that give the computer something to do. Data in its ‘purest sense’. This is so generic it hurts, and yet it forms a useful distinction between analogue processing, which, let’s face it, is pretty much how humans like to think. “It looks like rain” is much easier to think than “It has 47% chance of raining.”
  2. Structured information. This is different to ‘pure information’ – it is taking the content that underpins information, and gives it structure – shape, consistency, and something predictable which allows us -and others – to work with it more easily. At this point, this stuff that sits at the point that information and data intersect has become the stuff of science.

This distinction is possibly useful because everyone has different backgrounds – data and computing and digital and tech are still really divided when it comes to skillsets aross society as a whole.

I don’t like putting people into one camp or the other, but broadly speaking, I think it takes fairly specialist skills to understand Data as #2, whereas having a vague idea of #1 is more of a default, and without that training, it’s easy to think of structured data as just 0s and 1s.

OK I’m out of words for now. I wanted to get this down as a thought-clear cos I think there are some really interesting questions coming out of it, and I also want to go back and re-read the other points floating around.

#ukgc19: Making More Time and Space to Think Betterer

So this is, and isn’t, my ukgovcamp post. I wanted to reflect on the day, and write up my session notes, but ended up focusing on my thoughts coming out of the session that I ran. So there’s not much here on the day itself. But I had an amazing day, as always. And massive, massive props to all the organisers, who hopefully I’ve thanked already in other places. You still never quite get used to the enthusiasm and passion on the day. I urge anyone interested in where democracy and government is going to try to get along next year. There are loads of amazing round-ups to read through to get you in the spirit (or help you reminisce).

Admin note: This was first published on my own weeknotes blog, if you’re not a Medium fan. Read it wherever you like.

The background

On the train, the night before. I have a few minutes in the carriage, among tourists’ oversized baggage and creaking fold-down tables, to work out a session for ukgovcamp 2019. A week-long Twitter poll indicated that people were interested in how to stop and think, which is something I’ve been not-stopping about recently, but have been doing a lot of thinking about. I wrote down in my notebook.

If our survival depends on passing information between us rapidly, and making good decisions, then why are we so busy doing stuff, instead of listening and sensing?

As OCSI‘s only head of technology, I am in charge of not just “THE TECHNOLOGY”, but the whole tech team. Actually, it’s hard to be “in charge of” technology as a thing – at a certain scale (ie once you start using it), technology has a life of its own – software updates, hardware failures, security risks, new services, old legacy code and technical debt. All these things will do as they will. I’ve come round to seeing that it is the Tech Team that I am in really in charge of, and that this team is responsible for tending to the technology, in the same way that a gardening team tends to the plants. So team first, tech as a by-product.

As a tech team, working with the forces that make up technology, we often have to react to incidents, either external ones, or ones we’ve made through our own past selves. This will never completely go away, there will always be a reactive aspect to ‘Technology’. But we can be a bit smarter about it.

But being smart is hard when there are lots of things to react to. And this is a problem which seems to affect a lot of people – there is so much to do, and then so much on top of that as well, that being smarter about it just doesn’t get any love.

So at the start of the day, I got up and pitched a pitch, based on the fact that we make bad decisions just because everyone is in a rush. How, indeed, do we – as individuals, and as organisations – deliberately make more time to stop and think, so that we can listen better, reflect better, and make more awesome decisions?

Lots of arms up, indicating I’d hit a nerve, so a good start.

A photo of the quiet room at uk gov camp 2019, which is empty.

The session

I had one of the first sessions on the almighty matrix of time and thought.

The ukgovcamp session grid against the glory of the Ministry of Justice's Petty France building.

Here are the ‘official’ session notes.

The room was full, but no-one was standing – about 17 or 18 of us, which felt about right and the conversation seemed to flow well. I have a fear of talking too much and taking over. And a fear of the conversation drying up. And a fear of everything being too chaotic to get any sense from.

We did introductions and I gave a bit of background spiel about how I’m very busy, etc etc. I mentioned my weeknotes practice and how that had encouraged me to reflect more. After that, the session mostly ran itself, which was good.

I was particularly interested in what stopped people from stopping, and whether that was a practical thing (actually too much to do), a cultural thing (got to be seen to be doing stuff) or what. From the conversation, I confirmed that it’s definitely not an uncommon thing to always be on the go, and that while it’s a shared experience, everyone has slightly different obstacles and opportunities. Some people had more flexible and remote working possibilities (which can help take more time, or hinder it). Others had particular spaces or times allocated to thinking (although not always necessarily used for this). I wrote down terms in quotes such as “different hats”, “treadmill”, and “safe space”.


The notion of Permission came up a few times, which I noted down with a bubbly squiggle round it. “Giving permission to yourself” came up a bit – and this forged on into what it means to be part of a team with expectations about how we work. We are, fundamentally, social creatures. It can often feel self-indulgent, almost arrogant, to give yourself some space and time. Like you’re taking a break, like you’re slacking. Apparently, in the 21st knowledge-worker economy, you’re only productive if you’re typing, or in a room with somebody else.

This idea of “permission to think” reminds me a bit, and slightly randomly, of the notion of Parrhesia set out by Foucault, or the notion of being able to speak freely, for different reasons, but often to explore a situation and gain truth from the scenario. This could be in a democracy, in a court, or even in a diary approach (cf. weeknotes again) to explore one’s own, private situation or behaviour. But there is, in all cases, a sense of ‘formality’ and practice, even ritual to it. It is not ‘casual’ speech, but speech with gravitas, and the value of this speech is that it has a real impact on something – often this is the reflection involved, and the realisation that emerges from that.

Parrhesia refers to speech and writing. And yet, it is firmly tied to the idea of permission – and the act of considering what to say is fundamentally an act of thought, not of speech itself.

So perhaps, practically speaking, there is an interesting avenue I can explore further here on the links between interrogation, evidence, progress, truth and structures of time/space.

Cultural values

This idea of “permission” seemed to tie directly in with the values that an organisation has. In any organisation, how people communicate, and what people expect from each other, will emerge from a variety of factors, from the building itself to the organisation’s brand, and also – obviously – from how the people in the group choose to interact with each other, or think they should. If the organisation lead, whoever that is and how they got there, seems to value “busy-ness”, then it is a struggle to go against that.

At one point, I asked everyone in the room if they felt they had the power to change things, and everybody seemed to put their hand up. Maybe that’s the ukgovcamp crowd, or maybe I asked the wrong question in a mumbled way. It’s hard to tell. But I like to think that none of us is so disempowered that we can’t have an impact on the people around us, no matter how small. We’re all potential agents for cultural shift.

So expectations are a big part of this. Expectations to deliver, to produce, to create, in a visible way. (My wife mentioned the term ‘invisible labour’ a while ago, and I keep coming back to this, and will again do below.) We feel like we need to be part of that group, and work in the same way. We have traditional, accepted forms of taking a break – namely lunch, TOIL, and annual leave (including bank holidays). Other, less regular forms remain an enforced group session, such as away days and other team building exercises. And everyone loves those, right?

In the session, this led on to some really interesting tips for how to change a team’s Values and Culture. Louise brought up the User Manuals for yourself that Cassie Robinson put together, and mentioned how doing this across a team offers a way to be open with each other, rather than let habits fester that nobody really likes. Other people (sorry – comment if it was you!) mentioned the idea of ‘share backs’ – holding (alcohol-free) ‘speakers corners’ events on a Friday, ‘team tea-time’ sessions, and other ‘all the things’ timeouts which take us away from direct deliverable work. And this aspect of building groups informally, and feeling comfortable around each other, seems really important, making it easier to take the permission about doing things differently.

There were also some handy tips to do if you can. Someone – possibly Katy I think – came up to me afterwards and mentioned an experiment to have 2 minutes of quiet mindfulness at the start of each meeting. Not enough to eat into the meeting, but enough to stop, feel uncomfortable, push on, and get some grounding back. Little things make such a difference, sometimes.

(In)visible Labour

Returning to this idea of visibility, I was (and am) very interested to explore how we could value thinking time more. As one session attendee noted, if you’re by yourself, but at least drawing on bits of paper, it makes it look like you’re doing something.

As mentioned, the wife mentioned “invisible labour” to me a while ago, which is a term often associated with working mothers to highlight the work they do without getting paid, and also with jobs that society doesn’t want to acknowledge. I’ve come to think about it more as I try to get across to people the value of what I do as a “technologist” (someone what understands technology a bit), and increasingly as a “strategic” thinker. Your brain is going a mile a minute, but your body is staying still. And that’s GOOD. But thinking is a kind of invisible labour at times*.

So there are different ways of being more visible with our thinking time. Being active in the space is one. Sharing it with others, in whatever way is another, whether that’s lunch time sessions, or meaty documents, or even just internal blog posts – this small dissemination/communication activity is often overlooked, but is a valuable tool for both shaping our thinking, and for letting others in on it. It’s why (I believe) weeknotes, and open working generally, can be so powerful.

We didn’t discuss much about being more open about asking permission, and ways to improve that. I can imagine a more structured approach might involve being clear about what question or problem you’re trying to tackle. A good way could be to book in a calendar item, clearly with yourself as thought time, and to set this question as the agenda. “THIS IS WHAT I AM THINKING ABOUT. Leave me alone.”

* That said, I do prefer thinking ‘out loud’ on a massive whiteboard, or with a thousand post-it notes.

Where next?

Well, first up, massive thanks to all the attendees and note-takers who came along and made it a great session. Someone came up to me in the pub after and said it was their best session of the day, which made me smile A LOT.

There are lots of places I could go with this. I want to try more things out, on a personal level, at work – especially around being more open with my thought time, and making more space for that “As A Thing”. I’m in a good position to not be toooo crazy, and to set my own agenda and be something of a role model. Got to count your blessings.

I’m hoping that draws more attention to the need to set aside proper thought time. I’m also hoping that it brings more attention to the kind of problems I’m thinking about, and why they’re actually important.

Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to do the User Manuals across the whole team yet. But I’d like to do one for myself, to help others understand the MYSTERY that is me. And it would be a useful tool in about 4 or 5 months, I think.

Otherwise, I’d be very happy and keen to keep the conversation going, and stay in touch with anyone else interested in discussing it, or getting support on it. If that’s you, then drop me a comment, or say hi at @6loss on Twitter, or you can even email me.


Here’s a list of potentially useful resources, some from the session, some from after, and some from my memory:

How Do We Avoid “Diversity” Becoming a Business Thing?

(Disclaimer: Thinking out loud, as with all my blogposts. Do feel free to agree/critique/argue, and I reserve the right to change my(/your) mind and progress my thinking as part of this process.)

Catherine Howe’s weeknotes/fieldnotes on “multidisciplinary-working” delves into something I keep passively returning to: the value of diversity as a first-and-foremost value. We stand at a point where we need to establish diversity as a conscious act if we want to allow it to exist against a tide of anti-diversity in the world. As Catherine notes, this requires:

a decision to create a shared endeavour of a blended practice that is built on diversity because you believe the outcome will be better because of that diversity of experience and mindset

This is something I’ve come to realise more formally and faithfully in the last few years. When going through an exercise to establish “shared values” within a team, how can we not begin with an understanding that we are establishing a common set because we are already inherently different?

However, I have a love/hate relationship with this view that diversity = a better outcome. I love it because, in one sense, I am an outcome. So many different people have influenced me in my life, and it would be impossible to draw a distinction between myself and that crowd of opinions, backgrounds, knowledge and love.

And yet, a bit of me worries about turning diversity into a proposition for “better business”. Which is always a worry in capitalist society. And which is not to say I think Catherine or myself are purely adopting a “diversity is great for profit” perspective. More that, if we’re not careful, that is how such well-intended social value modelling can quickly go.

Thinking out loud, can we break the value-of-diversity into three slightly-distinct forms?

  1. Diversity as impacts the individual (the self) in order to gather a wide range of experience into one single mind.

  2. Diversity as impacts business effectiveness, ie heterogeneity either produces more sustainable or effective ways of producing business value, purely through less groupthink, or it helps a business to link into wider external needs, such as a larger market.

  3. Diversity as impacts our democratic sustainability as a society, and hence our more general sustainability as a species. Without diversity and integration, the risk is not that we become ineffective like a business, but that we become hostile and warmongering.

Of these, #1 and #3 are potentially likely to be pushed out by #2. It seems to be a sad truth that we’re moving towards a world in which humans and experience are valued primarily for their economic value. Perhaps this is the desperate, dying efforts of a society hooked on the growth of capital, and the need to generate database numbers from anything easily and virtually1 exploitable. An endless supply of get-rich-quick subjects.

Personal experience counts for little these days – not unless you can blog it and get sponsored. It remains to be seen if democracy and non-war have any particular foothold in this century.

1 By “virtually”, I mean anything that can be modelled into numbers, and hence have generic algorithms run against it.