Year note: 2021

Things I probably hadn’t expected at the start of 2021: having a minor hit with a sea shanty about the National Data Strategy. (Screenshot from https://twitter.com/GavinFreeguard/status/1357320154724589570)
  • Openness, in many of its forms. In having honest conversations and managing expectations, in talking to and listening to your staff, in sharing with and listening to an external audience (and being open about your own limitations). It can take a lot of hard work to do properly, but it’s invariably worth it.
  • Treating your staff as your greatest asset. Listening to them (see above). Looking after them. Helping get the best out of them. Thinking about how to do all that. I’m lucky that I work with organisations that really care about this — I was really made to feel part of a team, very quickly (though obviously not too much a part of a team for IR35 purposes). That was especially true of my first big piece of work with the Ada Lovelace Institute, which helped ease the transition to freelancing no end. (On a related note: such organisations think very carefully about ways of working, which helped mitigate the fact that ‘freelancer’ is not a user journey many of the big platforms seem to have considered…)
  • Focusing on what you’re trying to achieve and prioritising and pivoting accordingly (#impact). I experienced different ways of doing this — discussions during a project, pulling things back to the organisation’s overall aims, etc — all of which were productive. I think the most important thing was honestly discussing the trade-offs that might be involved (if we’re doing a, we can’t do b) and making them.
Me, to any company developing work collaboration or communication software. (Meme of Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, ‘Won’t somebody think of the freelancers’)

Vaccine passports

My main project at the start of 2021 was with the Ada Lovelace Institute on vaccine passports (or Covid certification — a surprisingly tricky thing to name). We convened a couple of expert deliberative workshops for a rapid report; invited evidence and organised events on the history and uses of vaccine certification, their possible epidemiological and economic impact, the ethical considerations and socio-technical challenges; and published a final report in May, as well as providing evidence to parliamentary and government inquiries.

Data: a new direction

Perhaps the biggest government data event of the year was the Data: a new direction consultation — all 146 pages, 61,000 words and countless events of it. (A big thank you to DCMS for creating so much work for me.) I helped draft the Open Data Institute (ODI) response as part of a great team effort, and chaired and wrote up their roundtable with the IfG on data sharing in public services (something that doesn’t get that much attention in the consultation itself). I wrote up another IfG roundtable on chapter 5 of the consultation — reforming the Information Commissioner’s Office. And I supported Ada with their events around the consultation, on responsible innovation, lessons learned from Covid-19, accountable AI, redesigning fairness and responsible AI research. Hopefully all that will push the government response in the right direction — some personal thoughts are here.

Mapping the data landscape

As special adviser at the ODI, I helped with some policy work ahead of the G7 (it was a new experience to think so internationally) as well as the consultation response. But my biggest bit of work was something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and built on something I did with others a few years ago: trying to map the different government organisations with significant responsibility for data and their key data projects, to help people navigate the alphabet soup. We got more (and more useful) crowdsourced contributions than I might have expected; published blogposts looking at the project through the different lenses of the ODI’s manifesto — infrastructure, capability, innovation, equity, ethics, and engagement; ran a useful session at DataConnect21; and published a final report alongside some of my reflections (including where such a project could go next, and whether such a resource could be sustainable). The project also gave me my second minor musical hit of the year — a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan/Tom Lehrer on government organisations’ initials — which gave me my first appearance on Times Radio, hoping nobody would disturb me broadcasting from my mobile at the Wellcome Collection (more on that below).

Data Bites

As an associate at the IfG, my main output was continuing to convene and compere our quickfire Data Bites event series, with events in February, March, April, May, June, July, September, October, November, December. The events have three aims: to highlight interesting government data projects, to bring different government data communities together, and to reach beyond ‘data people’. The high quality of presentations means we’re hitting the first objective; repeat viewings and consequent conversations suggest we’re doing well with the second (though numbers at the post-event virtual drinks have dwindled and it was much easier at the in-person events); while I think we’re lacking on the third — hopefully in 2022 we’ll be able to use the IfG’s wider reach to greater effect. I debuted my National Data Strategy sea shanty at February’s event (and my very model of a modern data doggerel in September). Goodness knows where I take the event intros in 2022.

‘There are eight bits in a byte, hence eight minutes in a Data Bite…’ (Countdown timer from the IfG Data Bites event series)

What’s a pirate’s favourite epidemiological concept?

A couple of years ago I mentioned an idea I had for a project to Natalie Banner, then at Understanding Patient Data. ‘The birth of a number’ would try to make a lot of the things data types spend a lot of time talking about — ethics, standards, uncertainty etc — more understandable and relatable by following a number through its creation and use, and telling a story about it. I’m incredibly grateful to Natalie for commissioning me to write a long read along those lines on the Covid-19 R number, and to the team at UPD/Wellcome for preparing it for publication early in 2022. Here’s a short summary of the main findings — expect much more, with insights from epidemiologists on the frontline and Kate Winslet’s key role in the pandemic, soon.

Other work

One of my final pieces of work for 2021 was for mySociety, who commissioned me to research what a good research commissioning process might look like. The short report is here, there’s a summary here, and the first call for proposals is here. With most of my work through the year having focused on data, it was great to do something focused on organisation-building and strategy — something I also got to do with The Forum at Imperial College London (coming up with a strategy for them on data and AI policy, as well as writing a currently-unpublished long read on AI), and a bit of work helping a possible new thinktank to distil their strategy onto some slides.

Events

Writing

I thought I’d have more time to write and more opportunity to think through various ideas by blogging them in 2021 than I did. As well as not getting further with The Book, other things I didn’t write include various pieces on data visualisation, data sonification and data projects from my time at the IfG; something about my UKGovCamp session on what an annual report on the state of government data might look like (the notes are here, there’s a Jamboard here, and my ODI report on mapping the UK government data landscape is a necessary first step); and anything for the DCMS call for evidence on how to monitor and evaluate the National Data Strategy, which combines my interests in government data in general and how government uses data to measure its progress and performance.

My article in Public Digital’s Signals. (Picture of ‘The numbers game: Communicating data in the age of Covid-19’)
  • 42 editions of my weekly data/dataviz newsletter, Warning: Graphic Content (subscribe here, Twitter here). There were definitely times when it felt more like a chore than a charm, churning out links rather than having space to reflect on the big stories of the week. (Not helped by occasional frustrations with Mailchimp, and perennial ones with Tumblr.) One of the things about freelancing is you think about your time differently, and often in monetary terms — the newsletter takes a while to compile and I’m making nothing (or at least, very little) directly from it. In 2022, I need to explore sponsorship — or stopping.
  • Related: this list of other newsletters (etc) about data (etc), which people have found helpful.
  • A guide for Smart Thinking on how to do data visualisation. I’m grateful to Smart Thinking for the opportunity to think about and distil some of the lessons I learned at the IfG — and was delighted it was their most-read piece of the year.
  • Blogposts on ministerial meetings, after I obtained the publication guidance via a freedom of information request, and on WhatsApp in government, a bit of a ramble on *why* it’s different to other forms of communication and what that means.
  • An article for Public Digital’s latest Signals collection, on ‘The numbers game: communicating data in the age of Covid-19’. My piece will be available online soon, or order a copy of the whole thing here.

The year ahead

I’ve already got work booked in with IfG (at least six more Data Bites, to July) and mySociety; I’m writing a short piece for a UK in a Changing Europe publication; I’ll be sitting on an expert panel (again) for ADR UK; and am hopeful of some more projects with other organisations I worked with in 2021. I’m looking forward to some things I worked on in 2021 — including Wellcome and Full Fact — being published. I definitely need to prioritise making progress with The Book.

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