Data is infrastructure, so it needs a design manual

Data is like roads. Roads help us navigate to a destination. Data helps us navigate to a decision. I like that metaphor. It helps to highlight the increasingly important role that data plays in modern society and business.

Roads help us travel to work and school. They also support a variety of different business uses. Roads are infrastructure that are created and maintained by society for the benefit of everyone. Open data, and especially open data published by the public sector, has similar characteristics. Like roads, data is infrastructure.

I think “infrastructure” is a fantastic framing for thinking about how we design and build systems that support the collection, use and reuse of data. It encourages us to think not just about the technology but also about the people who might use that data, or be impacted by it. And so we can define some principles that help define good data infrastructure.

Because I like to leave no metaphor un-stretched, I was excited to learn about the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges. It’s a 15 volume collection that helps to provide standards, advice and other guidance relating to the design, assessment and operation of roads. They’re packed with technical guidance that supports our national infrastructure.

And that’s not all. The government has also helpfully provided the Manual for Streets. The manual explains that “Good design is fundamental to achieving high-quality, attractive places that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable”. I couldn’t agree more.

The summary explains that the manual breaks down the design of streets into processes that range from policy through to implementation. There’s also a hierarchy that priorities the needs of pedestrians, those that will be most impacted by the infrastructure, over others that might also benefit from it. The manual explains that this helps to ensure that all user needs are met. Just like how we must think about the individual first when building systems that collect and use data.

The Manual for Streets also talks about the importance of standards, of connectivity and assessing quality. It also notes the need to supporting and encourage multiple uses. All of these have obvious parallels in data infrastructure and open licensing. The manual also highlights the importance of thinking about maintenance and sustainability which is another important characteristic of data infrastructure which is often overlooked.

I think it might be interesting to think about what a Design Manual for Data Infrastructure would look like. Perhaps we can use the roads metaphor to help scope that?

For example, the first few volumes in the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges focuses on general design principles, materials and methods of inspection and maintenance. That’s followed by more specific guidance on things like Road Geometry (data modelling and formats), Traffic Signs and Lighting (metadata, documentation, provenance), Traffic Control (data publishing and API design) and Communications (user engagement). There are also separate volumes that cover assessing environmental impact (data ethic, privacy impact assessments, etc).

We’re at an early stage of understanding how to build good data infrastructure. But there are already projects out there that we could learn from. And we can turn that learning into more detailed guidance and patterns that can be reused across sectors.

Sometimes metaphors can be stretched too far, but I think there’s a bit more mileage in the road metaphor yet. (Sorry, not sorry).

Originally published at on July 12, 2017.