Unfolding plans 143 – Leading the way in Open Data

I’ve been at another conference.  This time it was presented by the Federation of Small Businesses in conjunction with Dynamo and Sunderland Software City.  It was titled ‘North East Leading The Way In Open Data’ and I was asked to speak.  You know that amongst my interests is helping to develop the region so that it can take its rightful place in a global market.  Data is one area in which the region can flourish

I spoke to the audience about romance, beauty and of course data.

The traditional way to approach a data project is to start by asking a series of questions that you want to be answered.  (Can there at this early stage be a traditional approach to data projects?) What is it that I want to know about my organisation, area or market?  The idea being that the answers to these questions lie within the data and I’m sure they do.  But you need to be careful.  No matter how beautiful the questions you ask are, once they are framed they exclude the data that lie outside of their reference.  You may well find the answers to the questions you asked but nothing more.

It was Edward de Bono who developed the PMI approach to learning and understanding.  By focussing your mind in a specific direction at any one time you would get a better focus on the issues at hand.  P for plus or positive, M for minus or negative and I for interesting.  This technique works by forcing your mind to exclude other opportunities and that is what a fixed questioning approach to data can do.

As John Locke (from Lost) said, ‘The best way to find something is to stop looking’ and so if you want to find real opportunity within the data you have the stop looking.  Open you mind and open your data.  All chaotic systems are self-patterning and our data sets will contain patterns and opportunities that remain undiscovered unless we consider them in a different way.

Durham has taken a different approach.  Rather than setting a series of questions to be asked we are planning to set our data sets free.  We’re letting them out of their cages and into the wild.  We’re going to let them mingle together.  We need to take ideas off the whiteboard for a spin in the real world.

Saul Kaplan in his book ‘The Business Model Innovation Factory’ talks about the need for disruptive innovation.  ‘If we want to change the trajectory of urban economies we should start by changing

the trajectory of our conversations.’  The opportunities in our data, in my opinion don’t lie in responding to pre-set questions but rather by looking for beauty, wonderment and excitement.

Opportunities for change and improvement within organisations may at one time have been lying on the surface waiting to be gathered but not now. They are more likely to be hidden in seams and nuggets beneath the surface. As Kaplan puts it ‘The best opportunities to create value will be found in the grey areas between silos, sectors and disciplines.’

Durham’s approach is to encourage people to go for a wander in the data.  Like a walk in the woods we are going to stop counting the trees and we are going to wonder at the way the sun dapples on the leaves, the ephemeral beauty of the carpet of bluebells and the exquisite shape of the pine cones.  We are taking a more romantic approach.

There is beauty and opportunity in data.  It is not just me who thinks so.

I was privileged to here Natalie Miebach speak at Thinking Digtial which is held in the Sage Gateshead every year.  I think it was back in 2013.  Her presentation really blew me away.  Yes it was a great presentation but it made me think about what data means.  It drew it from a two dimensional issue to a thing of beauty.  I’ve taken this from her web site.

My work focuses on the intersection of art and science and the visual articulation of scientific observations. Using the methodologies and processes of both disciplines, I translate scientific data related to astronomy, ecology and meteorology woven sculptures. My method of translation is principally that of weaving – in particular basket weaving – as it provides me with a simple yet highly effective grid through which to interpret data in three-dimensional space. By staying true to the numbers, these woven pieces tread an uneasy divide between functioning both as sculptures in space as well as instruments that could be used in the actual environment from which the data originates.

Now you know when that degree in underwater basket weaving would come in handy.

So data is not just about numbers, spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations.  It is a far richer medium than the two dimensional.  I could argue that all humanity is data, locked up inside or nucleic acids and that what you see are merely the physical vessels that carry it around.  The hardware.  If you could hear your organisation would it sound good or discordant?  If you could smell it would it smell nice or on the turn?  We need to use all of our senses to understand what the data can tell us.

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