A matter of principle(s) — the compass guiding us to better data and insights

Rosario Piazza
Inside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
4 min readApr 26, 2023

--

As we develop a new insight infrastructure to generate and disseminate better and timely insights into social and economic inequalities, now is the time to start thinking about the principles guiding our work and ambitions.

This is not the result of an epiphany that occurred all of a sudden. It is the result of thoughtful questions raised by the people and organisations we have been engaging with: what are you asking us to sign up to? What are the principles underpinning this work?

Questions relating to our ‘guiding principles’ have been raised unanimously throughout the consultations and co-creation workshops. These are run by the folks at Connected by Data, who are helping us to map and engage with the ecosystem we want to inspire, support and collaborate with, and Social Finance, who are developing and conducting usability testing of prototypes for the dissemination of insights on poverty and related issues.

Defining our principles

I therefore set out to identify the infrastructure’s starting principles by diving into the reflections, suggestions and experiences of the wide range of individuals who have joined our journey so far. I’d suggest that, as a starting point, we are making the following commitments:

  1. To make decisions informed by trusted sources, reliable evidence, and actionable insights.
  2. To ensure that data and insights are useful and accessible to technical and non-technical audiences.
  3. To adopt open-source and public good principles, wherever possible, to guide everything we do.
  4. To always use data and insights in a manner that is proportionate, purposeful, and respectful.
  5. To make sure innovation and experimentation embrace the possibility of failure, strive to learn from mistakes and widen our collective appetite for risk.

We’ll ask everyone joining us on the journey to develop and improve the insight infrastructure to share in these commitments. At end of 2023 we’ll be reviewing these commitments both with our insight infrastructure collaborators, and with the people and communities at the core of our work, to identify how far we’re living up to our commitments and to look at how to refine and improve these into long-term principles for this work.

What do these principles mean in practice?

1. Insight infrastructure needs to provide information that can be trusted, and that can inform action. Whilst it is powered by quantitative and qualitative data, the infrastructure we are nurturing will primarily provide a ‘clear direction of travel’ to its intended consumers and contributors. Acting as a satnav, insights will provide a series of possible routes to navigate from the problem to the solution. Such routes will be the result of triangulation of data from different yet trusted sources.

2. Good data and insights are crucial ingredients to achieve social change, but without adequate curation they might not be enough. Data and insights should be accessible, jargon free and usable, and should be always informed by the context (where the data comes from; what it refers to; limitations and applications, and so on). We aim to unlock access to information that can truly inform action, whether it’s grant-making, front-line services, or policy decisions. To do so, the evidence we and others produce needs to state clearly how it was generated, and how it could be used.

3. We see the insight infrastructure as a collective movement of people and organisations striving to achieve together the resolution of socio and economic injustice in the UK. This collective movement will consist of individuals engaging and interacting with the infrastructure in diverse ways (consumers, contributors, advisors, affected stakeholders, and so on). Therefore, we should always aim for data and insights to be available to as many people as possible to run their own analysis; adopt recommendations; inform collaborations; help people in need; to build on or challenge existing and new data analysis.

4. Data is, first and foremost, information about people, their characteristics and circumstances. Quantitative and qualitative data should be used in a way that accurately depicts individuals (and acknowledges the limitations of such information), data should be used with a purpose, from the gathering stage to analysis and recommendations. Insight and analysis must be mindful and respectful of the people they refer to and should never be used to cause harm to individuals and organisations. We are aware that, despite our desire to be ethical, there are winners and losers from any use of data and insights, as well as intended and unintended consequences, but our ‘north star’ will always be that the communities most affected by social and economic inequality must be at the heart of what we do.

5. We certainly strive for excellence but are aware that experiments can go wrong. We should not let that fear prevent us from trialling innovative ways to generate and disseminate insights. We should not be too quick to disregard opportunities that might feel too risky because they force us out of our comfort zone. Our ultimate goal is to create solutions to poverty and related issues by enabling a deeper understanding of social and economic inequalities in this country. In the word of Professor Jan Boersema “There’s a failure to recognise that not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially. There’s no guarantee they will. But they can. This is our mindset.

Tell us what you think

These principles will inspire and keep the collective movement we want to build in check while we make progress on the infrastructure work. However, they are just starting points; I don’t see them as a definitive or exhaustive list. I’m very keen to know if they resonate with you, your experience and expectations. And, more importantly, whether there’s anything we’re missing.

Get in touch at Rosario.Piazza@jrf.org.uk

--

--

Rosario Piazza
Inside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Chief Insight Architect at JRF - leading the Insight Infrastructure, which aims to generate timely and impactful insights on social and economic inequalities.