North East Data Group part 1

Last night I had the pleasure of presenting to the North East Data group at Campus North on what Durham is up to with Open Data.  There were twenty or so people in the room and it was interesting how many of them I already knew.   It was a story of two halves, with my thoughts on an approach to data and what Durham is doing.  I’ve split it across two blogs.  This is the gist of what I said.

My interest is in helping to develop the North East region so that it can take its rightful place in a global market.  Data is one area in which the region can flourish, especially in public sector data as we already have the DWP and HMRC processing centres here.

Now I have been working on trying to do something with data for many years.  It has been hard work.  I sometimes think that the council has the same gestation period as an elephant.  It doesn’t matter how hard you push and pull, nothing is going to pop out until it is good and ready.

The issue is that people see the data as their data, even though it belongs to the public.  They see that letting go of it will get them in hot water.  They cry foul of Data protection and Freedom of Information.  They take a political stance in that they don’t want to support a ‘whole army of effective armchair auditors looking over the books’. They don’t understand why anyone would want to know such things other than busy bodies and they believe it is going to cost us a whole lot of money.

It’s a cliché I know but data is the new coal.  Coal extraction started by being exposed through land erosion. This led to drift mining and eventually deep shaft and open cast mining as seams became more and more difficult to follow.  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 Saul Kaplan puts it ‘The best opportunities to create value will be found in the grey areas between silos, sectors and disciplines.’  The best opportunities for new services and products lie in our data.

Now it’s not as if we don’t have any data.  If anything we have too much of it and every day we are churning out more and more of the stuff.  The problem is that we don’t have the information that comes out of the data.  We haven’t distilled it into something useful.

There are two approaches to data however.  One starts with the question.  Tell me what you can find out about?  Tell me why this happening?  This approach can work but for me it misses the big point.  What about the questions that you don’t ask?  We need to be careful.  No matter how beautiful the questions we ask are, once they are framed they exclude the data that lie outside of their reference.  We may well find the answers to the questions we asked but nothing more.

My preferred approach is to encourage people to go for a wander in the data.  Like a walk in the woods we should stop counting the trees and instead 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 should take a more romantic approach.  There is beauty and opportunity in data.  It is not just me who thinks so.

I was privileged to see Natalie Miebach speak at Thinking Digital.  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 into woven sculptures. She combines data, sculpture and music.

And there are people who see things in other ways.  I had a fascinating conversation with Gregory from NoMoreGrapes  (he was in the audience) who had come across some potato consumption data from the Durham colleges.  He was intrigued by the differing levels of each college and the apparent lack of correlation between the number of students and the amount of potatoes eaten. No one would have ever had this down as their beautiful question.

It was John Locke from Lost who said.  Do you remember Lost?  I must admit to getting a bit lost with the plot myself after a couple of series.  Anyway, it was John Locke that said ‘The best way to find something is to stop looking.’ 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 be a traditional approach to data projects?

There are people who see things in your data that you can’t see and the best way to find them is for us to stop looking and let them do so.

The rest will be on Monday.

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