Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

These will be a relatively short set of weeknotes not because it’s been a short week but because so much of it was taken up with RightsCon, and Tim and I are planning to write that up separately. I will write some general reflections here though, as well as talking about some of the other things that have arisen this week.

General reflections from RightsCon

It was really luxurious to be able to take so much time out to actually attend sessions, including those that weren’t exactly on topic.

When I’m in person at a conference I’ll often go to sessions that I’m not desperately interested in, because I’m there and have nothing else to do, and frequently take more than I expected out of them. But online conferences discourage that behaviour: it feels more worthwhile to spend that hour doing my day to day work. I think this is one of those things that is sensible in the short term and damaging in the long term. So I deliberately erred on the side of attendance this RightsCon.

I have to say it also didn’t feel that well attended. I don’t know whether this was because there were so many sessions that the large audience was naturally atomised; whether I missed an influx of Americas-based attendees later in the day; or whether there were more lurkers than apparent. But the sessions I went to, and particularly those that were “restricted numbers” in a Zoom room rather than broadcast panels had sometimes embarrassingly low numbers of participants.

The only sessions that really focused on collective data governance were ones run by friends (the Ada Lovelace Institute, the Open Data Institute and the panel I spoke at hosted by the McGovern Foundation). But that doesn’t mean there weren’t relevant sessions. Issues of co-design, collaborative maintenance, and engagement with affected communities were oriented towards AI, technology and content governance rather than looking specifically at data.

We had a bit of a conversation about this as a team on Monday, before the conference. Nine years at ODI conditioned me to focus on data, and I wondered out loud whether that was overly restrictive. With a target of reaching mainstream audiences, talking about collective governance of AI and technology platforms would make things easier to grasp than somewhat abstract discussions about data.

But Tim made a compelling counterargument that keeping a tight focus on data and data infrastructure gives us an interesting angle and a tighter scope (useful when we’re only a small team). I do think there are unique challenges around data governance, and perhaps more importantly that the governance of data should be separated from the governance of the technologies that are built on top of it, to avoid vertical monopolies.

Working on our organisational processes and practices

I did have a chance this week to do some of the foundational work to write up and progress some of the things we decided at our strategy day.

First, I tried to put some shape around how we’ll decide which sectors to focus on, particularly in our proactive story creation and partnership building. We want to identify sectors that are:

  • relatable – something a lot of people experience day-to-day, we might experience at some point in our lifetime, or might be experienced by people we have empathy for – this will make it easier for people to see themselves or their friends and relations in the stories we tell
  • inequitable – something where there are losers in the current state of affairs – data is likely to exacerbate these inequalities, and be most problematic in inequitable sectors, and this provides a social justice angle, suitable for campaigning
  • collective – something where there are easy-to-understand community-level impacts (positive and/or negative) from data, such as on wider society or the environment – this will make it easier to justify the need for collective governance
  • opportunistic – something where there are upcoming “moments” that might provide opportunities for communications to land – this will make it easier for us to get attention
  • engaged – something where there is a network of partners that we could ally with – this will also make it easier for us to get attention

We’ve made a start on a long list, defining sectors in terms of the kinds of questions that might be posed. We’re planning to map these against a matrix to help us select a set of sectors that have different kinds of qualities – for example ones where people encounter issues every day, or only at exceptional times. And then we’re aiming to choose three to dig into a little bit more and try to find an angle into.

Second, I drafted a first cut at an organisational manual, bringing together a description of our agreed ways of working. There’s still some work to do, not least in fleshing out the various policies we need as an organisation (holiday! sick leave! health and safety!), but we have a starting point for that.

Third, I went through Tim’s and Jonathan’s personal user manuals to identify points of contrast and commonality.

One thing that struck me was that all of us talked about our challenges with holding others to account. This is something I know I struggle with: I always think that other people must have a good reason for not doing what they had agreed to do, for example. Not holding people to account comes from a place of empathy and care. But a certain amount of accountability is really useful to prevent us from drifting, both individually and collectively. As the Executive Director of Connected by Data, I need to learn how to do this better.

One thing that’s helped me explore how to do this in a way that’s comfortable for me is the quarterly reporting process that we’ve just gone through at the Shuttleworth Foundation. I was struck by how helpful the questions we were asked to answer were in providing an opportunity for reflection, learning and focus. As I said to Karien in my 1:1 with her on Monday, they were the kind of questions a good Board would ask. Not judgemental, but really about focusing people on holding themselves to account and keep on track against their own goals.

So I’m going to be experimenting with putting a bit more structure around our weekly “confab” meetings, using our quarterly goals as a way of talking through our plans.

Another thing I noticed from our personal user manuals is that we’re all starters rather than finishers. This is another reason for why we might drift: things are just more interesting to us when they’re new; plus saying something is “done” feels too final and removes the very real possibility that we might discover something new and therefore want to change.

Process-wise I’m wondering whether we might be able to use our individual desire for novelty to collectively get things done: passing work between us, for example. But I also think we might need to redefine what “done” means for us (I’m reminded of Doteveryone’s definition of Done, but that’s not quite what I mean). We need one that means “good enough for now” or “reflects our current assumptions”, something that doesn’t stop us sharing and acting even in the face of known imperfections and uncertainties.


Talking of which, I now have three pieces of writing on my slate, each of which I made a bit of progress on this week:

  • My report comparing food and data regulation, where I need to go through and integrate the comments
  • A piece responding to the Paradox of Open essay, which is due by the end of the month
  • A piece with Astha exploring the shape of regulation in a world of collective data governance

Hopefully with a bit of a quieter week coming up I’ll be able to get even further with them!

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