Year note: 2021

My first year as a freelance felt a lot longer than one year. The pandemic has made it feel like a long two years, lacking the usual signposts and scenery to break up the temporal journey.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my first freelance year. After seven years at the same organisation (and having only worked for three organisations in 13 years of work), it was great working with lots of different organisations — many I’d long admired, and some that were new to me. As someone really interested in how organisations work and how they approach things, it was a great education to be able to compare and contrast. I’m really grateful to all those I worked with in 2021 — I hugely enjoyed it and learnt a lot. (Genuinely — I’m not just looking for repeat commissions. Honest.)

There were times of deluge and times of drought — everyone warned me about that, and said it just came with the freelance territory. I probably didn’t make enough of the drought periods, whether to fully enjoy the downtime or to get on with personal projects (primarily The Book). Too often I found myself letting bits of work bleed into evenings and weekends. I need to be better at stopping that in 2022, and making sure I plan some proper breaks. The uncertainty of 2021 obviously didn’t help with all that.

It was definitely deluge more than drought — a nice problem to have, as some people will have already heard me ‘complain’. Not having to spend (too much) time pitching or seeking out things to do made life easier, though it meant I spent less time writing/pitching/developing my own things from a long list of possible projects. There were still opportunities to do some of those and in a more impactful way (such as mapping the government data landscape with the ODI).

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)

In theory, people say freelancing means more control over your diary. In practice, I didn’t always find that — especially when working for multiple organisations at once. (Jumping between different pieces of work for different organisations using different platforms is certainly a mental challenge.) Friends suggest I should get better at saying ‘no’ to things — but when I look at the things I worked on in 2021, they were all interesting/important, and I’m not sure what I’ve have said ‘no’ to.

I was often reminded how collegiate and generous everyone in my part of civil society — the amorphous data-digital-government-openness-information-democracy space — is. And lots of people gave valuable advice before I made the freelance leap; I hope I’ve been able to pass that support onto others.

There’s a tweet I’ve thought about a lot*, to the effect that the pandemic has been so tiring because of having to make decisions about everything — what to do, what not to do, etc. In that context, deciding to go freelance in the middle of a pandemic — and having to make even more decisions about what to do, what not to do, etc — was a genius move. It’s been a fulfilling year, yes, but making so many more decisions, alone, has been exhausting at times.

Making such a big life change in the middle of all this means I’m still not quite sure what my new normal is. What should ‘normal’ look like? I’ve not yet found the ideal balance or way of working. But there are times when I’ve been very conscious that, as one friend put it, ‘working from home’ is too often living in the office.

Seeing how organisations do things differently, you realise there are different ways of doing them right. But there are some things that are consistently right. None of these will be rocket science. Nonetheless…

  • 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’)

Making data entertaining (even, possibly, on occasions, mildly amusing) is a niche I really enjoy and has served me well in 2021. But I think I need to be careful not to become too typecast, and remind people that I can do the serious stuff well, too.

Here comes the functional bit, collecting links on said work.

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.

I think (or at least hope) we managed to help government avoid doing anything too stupid on certification. My main takeaways were how quickly a lot of the public and political debate simply assumed this technical solution would work (will we never learn?), and how discomfiting it often was to share some scepticism of Covid certification with some rather shriller voices. I worked on a couple of other projects with the brilliant Ada team (see below for another of them), and also wrote something about government needing to look beyond the easy promise of vaccine passports for the Institute for Government (IfG).

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).

I also had fun at the ODI Summit, hosting the world’s first data gameshow (probably), The Data Game, and speaking to lots of ODIers for the Christmas podcast.

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)

Other work for IfG included helping to deliver various workshops helping academics engage with government and parliament (including developing one on the data and AI policy landscape); delivering my old internal data training day (our virtual world meaning we had one person in South America and one in India on the same call); chairing an event on the use of data during the pandemic at Labour conference; private roundtables on how to implement a data strategy, and future frameworks for data sharing in government; and the Christmas podcast on what real-world governments can learn from their fictional counterparts (following this thread on Bond and last year’s edition).

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.

That will hopefully be one chapter in my book based around the ‘birth of a number’ idea. I’ve not made as much progress as I’d hoped — I need to rewrite the book proposal (and grovel to my wonderful agent — Douglas Adams wasn’t kidding). But the R number long read has been an incredibly useful experience — it turns out finding the time for focused work on a single thing is tricky as a freelance, and I need to write more as I go along rather than trying to write everything once all the research is done. (See also: writing a year note rather than reflections throughout the year.)

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.

I did some dataviz for the Global Government Forum for reports on remote working and responsive government, and for Lie Detectors. It was useful to keep my hand in the practical side of data visualisation, beyond my monthly Data Bites-related foray into IfG’s Excel sheets, though it’s amazing how quickly you can get rusty and it was odd to do so without a style guide I’d spent years developing. I also enjoyed working with the team at New Local to help think about how they can use data in their work.

I’m a member of Public Digital’s Network, and worked on a couple of projects, one with the Lisbon Council reviewing the eGovernment Benchmark; I facilitated an event for Alex and the team at Epimorphics on data catalogues at DataConnect21; reviewed an excellent report for Transparency UK on access and lobbying in UK housing policy; did some work for my friends at Full Fact (more to come on that); spoke to Emma Carmel’s students at the University of Bath about my career path; and briefed some clients of Nous about the impact of the CDDO digital government reconfiguration (at a time when it really wasn’t clear what the impact of the CDDO digital government reconfiguration might be).

Away from paid work… I helped get some coverage for the UK being censured for its failures by the Open Government Partnership — I’m a member of the UK civil society network steering group, which has been trying to help coordinate a new National Action Plan. Alex mentioned the whole thing in his review of 2021. I’ll probably say more once the new Plan has been published, but some quick thoughts: I’m constantly feeling guilty for not having had time to do more, am really grateful to the civil servants and others in civil society who have worked hard on the forthcoming plan, and think we can still get some useful things done, but… while there are civil servants committed to various parts of the agenda, it doesn’t feel like they have the resources or the necessary political support; it’s difficult not to despair when this government’s actions are so often opposed to openness; there are real challenges around civil society capacity and diversity, particularly finding/getting individuals and groups beyond the open/digital government and civic tech bits of civil society to engage; and I’m no longer convinced (if I ever was) that a one-size-fits-all international process that can’t possibly fit into the rhythms and rituals of UK government is the best way to achieve progress.

More cheeringly, during 2021 I was a member of the Treasury’s User and Preparer Advisory Group on improving government financial reporting, the research advisory group of the Office for Statistics Regulation and a trustee of the Orwell Foundation, all of which continue to do important work.

I managed to make it to Prague for a long weekend (resolution number one: more holidays in 2022) and ran the London Landmarks Half Marathon (two: more running in 2022 — the feeling of running with a crowd again was great but then I let my running spectacularly lapse, again). My reading seems to have fallen off a cliff without a commute over the last couple of years (three: more reading). I’ve got some great vegan cookbooks to try and balance my diet a bit more. And I’m hoping that helping run a choir will be considerably less stressful in 2022, even if it will be our (delayed) tenth anniversary year.

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’)

Some things I did write:

  • 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.

If you’d like to hire me, please get in touch.

*Yes, really — I’d link but I think it’s from a protected account (or maybe I just can’t find it).