News of the week is that I finally managed to complete my written response to the Paradox of Open essay. It’s with Alek Tarkowski at Open Future now and will get published soonish. The basic argument is that openness is about working together, building creative communities, and that requires us to look beyond licensing of assets.
In that serendipitous way that life has, one of the things that unblocked me was watching this TikTok my 18yo shared with me from John Green in which he reads a dedication to his wife and quotes The Third Thing by Donald Hall, written in dedication to his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Here’s the bit that John Green quoted and that resonated:
“What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.”
Just as couples are brought together by joint interests, communities are brought together by shared purpose and activity. Collaboration on a third thing not only produces or maintains that thing, but creates a sense of closeness.
I’m reflecting on this both in terms of communities close to home and how it relates to the kind of communities we envisage taking on data governance roles.
As Connected by Data, one of the things we’ve been discussing is how to build a practitioner community of people who are running participatory or collective data governance processes. When I was originally thinking about this “practice” strand of work, I was focused on dissemination, including things like gathering and sharing case studies. As we focus more on the practitioner community, I’m wondering what the shared asset might be that acts as the third thing for that community (a handbook similar to the Reinventing Organisations wiki perhaps, or like the UK government’s Service Manual), and how we contribute to making it.
This focus on a third thing also puts a different slant on participatory data governance exercises, shifting the focus to the output rather than the process. In many of the examples I’ve seen the output is a report containing findings and recommendations, which are usually hard to see translate into action. But there are other examples where something more concrete is produced, such as the Camden Data Charter, for example. I’m wondering whether having more concrete outputs – charters, action plans, governance processes – would make the participative processes seem more worthwhile.
Messaging and Mick Lynch
Meanwhile, we have been discussing how to talk about our vision, in a way that resonates. One approach to that is to make power, and collective power, the focus. We can focus on the powerful becoming more powerful because they have amassed more data and more data capability. And the need for collective action to counter that power, which is where Mick Lynch’s turns of phrase are inspiring – to paraphrase he says we want to bargain, because the alternative to bargaining is begging, and no one should have to beg.
But we’re also thinking about the kind of narratives that are going to land with centre right politicians – particularly as we look to influence the UK Data Reform Bill – and with business (particularly small business) owners. There are still power-focused narratives that could work there (everyone understands and is concerned about the power of big tech), but there are probably also narratives about risk and innovation that might land better with those audiences.
Other things this week:
I was on a panel at SciDataCon about data for Net Zero. The other panellists were mostly focused on the power of satellite imagery and other big datasets in understanding climate change. I argued (unsurprisingly) for greater focus on community and they agreed that this was important, particularly to provide some “ground truth” around the inferences they were making. My slides are available from here.
We’ve been exploring a nice project with Jess from the Bennett Institute for Advanced Data Science, examining how to use public dialogue to close the loop around studies that have already been done using patient data, and feed back conclusions into future governance decisions. (Natalie Banner’s description of learning data governance is an inspiration here.)
I had the great pleasure of catching up briefly with my old friend and colleague Ellen Broad and discussed the role of community participation in longitudinal research, from a cybernetics perspective. What appealed to me in that perspective was the focus on change, and leaning into changes rather than resisting them. Allowing change and difference (including differences between communities) is a challenge for data scientists, as lack of standardisation makes it difficult to make meaningful comparisons. But it’s an absolute necessity as we manage data in the real world, where the way we model data needs to change over time and across communities, as norms, understanding, and the importance of different distinctions changes.
I attended an ODI-hosted roundtable as part of their Experimentalism project. It looks like it’s not quite been written up yet, but it was another really interesting discussion, with fascinating participants; keep your eyes open for the write-up.
Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about how we approach EU policy and advocacy work, especially in light of the Open Call from the European AI Fund. There’s a temptation to push us to get more proactively involved in European debates, as the Ada Lovelace Institute is doing, at least in part because they are more likely to have broader impact. But as a small organisation we have to focus, and the approach I chose just a few months ago was to focus on the UK first, to build experience around effective messaging, before venturing too far into that territory. So my current plan is to put a bid in but stick to our strategy in terms of phasing even if it means we lose out to larger organisations with more of a European reach.