Open Data Camp 6: Immediate reflections
A weekend of the important stuff in Aberdeen
I went to the sixth Open Data Camp in Aberdeen. It was my first Open Data Camp. I am the Head of Data and Search at the UK Parliament and open data is an important part of my work. I’ve never been to Aberdeen. Some brilliant, passionate people who I know from the internet organised the event. It looked like a recipe for a great, mind-expanding time.
SPOILER: it was a great, mind-expanding time.
Setting aside the wonderful folks that I met¹ and the fun that I had² I wanted to get down some of the thoughts that I’d had over the two days.
Open Data Camp is an unconference and attendees pitched sessions at the start of each day. I went to 9 sessions, which is a full programme, but note that there were 44 sessions³ in total so there were many more conversations going on than it was possible for me to attend.
Working with communities
The first thing that struck me after the session on how to better work with communities who need or want open data was that it would be ideal to reduce the gap between provider and consumer (or user) as much as possible. It would probably be better to say working in communities.
This is a tough proposition in terms of what I currently do for a living, where much of my focus is on meeting the needs of my organisation.
There was a fair amount of talk about registers over the weekend, and general discussion about how public bodies should be working to provide sustainable data infrastructure that enables other people to build things. There was also discussion about how difficult this can be to achieve, particularly when the utility of this kind of work isn’t immediately (or even quickly) apparent.
This reflects my own views, and I also made points about how search is a helpful and important target to help demonstrate the value of data infrastructure work, in addition to whatever other services it might enable.
Helping people to understand
There was widespread recognition that data can be a difficult domain to work in, and that the majority of people don’t understand it in the way that Open Data Camp attendees do. The importance of thinking about the language that you use and notions of data literacy came up several times. I put forward my current personal favourite topic of making sure you document and describe your data, where it has come from, the assumptions that you have made etc. a few times. I don’t believe it is good enough to make people work out what something is by its structure and contents alone, because that is introducing a barrier to entry.
Once again, the ideal situation would be working closely with people who need your data or would benefit from it.
Ethics, culture, and society
Data ethics and the negative impacts of technology on society came up several times. I like these conversations because it an area that is a real stretch for me and in which I have a great deal to learn. There was some good balance in terms of not everything to do with AI or machine learning being negative, and its huge potential to do good.
Notions of what data actually is came up, and whether it is something that has intrinsic value or can be owned. This felt like something worthy of further thought.
At the moment most of my day job is about developing and implementing a data strategy for my organisation. I’ve found it really helpful to ‘look sideways’ as part of this, to learn from others’ experience. The data strategy session I went to at Open Data Camp was really helpful here, and it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge other peoples’ work that I’ve used as a starting point.
There was consensus about data strategy being more than a document, and the importance of making it resonate with people so that they see their work in it. Also recognition of the importance of involving as wide a range of people in the development of strategy (by talking to them).
There were also a suggestion that open data and the organisation’s commitment being made explicit in a data strategy, because otherwise it risks being forgotten.
How to be better
I pitched a session on the second day and it was really helpful for me. I ended up thinking that in an ideal world there would be a ‘National Data Team’ who would be responsible for stitching all the open data published in the UK together, explaining what it was, adding value and context to it, and improving its utitility. Then they would also have the ability to work in communities with needs as I described above. It wouldn’t have to be a big group to bring benefit, and much of the work sounds like being a librarian of sorts.
Such a service might maintain a catalogue, but they wouldn’t be building anything like a single repository / destination / portal⁴. Instead they would be focused on helping to achieve outcomes in society. I think that would be a great and worthy mission.
No doubt similar to things that have been tried before or already exist, but I believe that I would know if a gap wasn’t there.
Diversity and inclusion
I thought it was important that I attend the session on diversity and inclusion in open data. It made me realise something that I had never thought of before. This was the most immediate session for me in terms of making a change to how I behave with people.
Throughout the weekend, the open nature of the conversations was fantastic. In this session, not only was the conversation open but there was also vulnerability, which I thought came from a place of trust. This was a real credit to the event.
It was an excellent, enriching trip. Many thanks to the organisers and sponsors who made it possible.
¹ I met wonderful folks
² I had a fair amount of fun. It’s not all work work work
³ I think that’s correct