They say you can tell how successful a freelancer is through their website — the fewer bells and whistles it has and less up to date it is, the busier the freelancer.
I like to think the same might be true of how long it takes them to publish their year note: this year’s is more than six months into the new year, compared to just seven days last year. [And yes, it’s weird reading this several months after I’d largely written it.]
I kept describing the first few months of 2023 as part of the ‘long 2022’, as I finished off various bits and pieces. It was only after that that I felt really able to reflect on the year — and what I need to start doing differently in 2023.
A few thoughts:
- I enjoyed 2022 — I did some great projects with great people. I got to try some new things (TICTeC Labs, some Public Digital work being more international than anything else I’ve worked on) and revive some old interests (political influencing, with Connected by Data). I also took on a first interim role (at the ODI).
- But I took on too much — towards the end of the year I think I was working on seven projects with six different organisations. If ‘context switching’ had been a client I’d have been billing them a substantial amount. There were moments where I felt I didn’t have the time I wanted to dedicate to various projects. I found myself thinking less and less about more and more. I need to rethink some ways of working.
- That also meant that if complications arose on one project, it had a disproportionate impact. I was playing catch up for most of the last two months of 2022 and start of 2023 after coming back from a holiday to some things that needed sorting.
- One friend commented that I was wearing more hats that Roisin Murphy (they’d once seen her wear several on stage at the same time). Not a comparison I was expecting. I think I’ve largely balanced them well, but I’m starting to understand how being seen as representing several different organisations could get tricky. (I’ve also managed to avoid a ‘Who wants to be a milliner?’ joke for a whole paragraph.)
- Another friend asked me at one point what the ‘big thing’ I was working on this year was. In theory, it should have been The Book. But it wasn’t. In 2023, I need to go from saying I’ll prioritise it to actually making some trade-offs (goodbye for now, weekly newsletter). I need to think more about what I really want to do, what #impact I want to have, how to achieve it, and be more ruthless in making decisions to that end.
- A conversation with yet another freelancing friend — and another with a friend’s six year old — made me think about how I’d describe what I do, what I help people do, what I’m working towards in one sentence. The one I’ve been using has a lot of nouns and a lot of options.
- I’ve continued to be lucky in that a lot of projects came to me in 2022. But I did have my first successful proper funding bid, with Connected by Data (thank you, JRRT — a really good process, and I’m not just saying that because of the outcome…). I need to write down a list of the projects I’d really like to do, see who might be interested in supporting them and thinking about how to get them funded.
- Being a freelancer means knowing that not every possible project will come off, and you have to roll with it. But I felt the absence of (and irritation at) a few things that didn’t happen in 2022 more than in 2021 (coming up with an open data/transparency strategy for a public sector organization being the main one). All of that said, I also had a few good rejections — things I pitched for and didn’t get, but appreciated the process for being light touch and providing useful feedback. (Things not coming off also applied outside of work — getting Covid just in time to miss a choir concert we’d been working towards since January 2020, was definitely a low point — though Christmas was good and I performed, and arranged, some barbershop for the first time — have this in lieu of any recordings.)
- Data Bites intros aside, I didn’t really do much dataviz this year (though writing about it was one of the most popular things I did). I do miss it.
- On the whole, I struck a better work/life balance for most of the year. I largely avoided ‘freelancer’s Friday’ deadlines — finishing the thing off over the weekend and sending it first thing on Monday instead. Though the end of 2022 (and beginning of 2023) did get a bit much.
- I’ve had enough of working from home. It’s felt like living in the office. More office work and working in a room that isn’t my living room in 2023.
- I stuck to a previous resolution never to run a half marathon again during party conference season. So I walked a marathon, overnight before Labour conference, instead.
Connected by Data
As it became clear some form of Data Bill was heading towards us, I thought someone should help coordinate and provide some support to civil society in responding to it. So I put together a bid for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. Turns out Connected by Data were thinking along similar lines. Cue the most ambitious crossover event in data policy history, or something.
By the end of 2022, we’d held an online workshop and a parliamentary event to tease out the problems with the Bill and what better data, digital and technology policy might look like (with an event with Shoshana Zuboff along the way). It’s been brilliant working with the Connected by Data team and to be thinking properly about influencing policy across different political traditions, and about how to turn lots of good thinking into practical policies and pledges. Much more to follow (including here).
What connects case studies on civic tech success stories, a guide to tackling common accessibility challenges, helping people understand how to access good quality data, training organisations to help them get their stories into mainstream media channels, an open source project helping monitor water quality in Kenya, and tracking election-related violence in Nigeria?
We funded all of them as part of mySociety’s TICTeC Labs programme. TICTeC was originally an in-person event (The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference) but mySociety decided to experiment during the pandemic. With funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, we convened surgeries around six global civic tech challenges, assembled an action lab (working group) to work up a call for proposals for something that might help solve those challenges, and then commissioned someone to work on them. It was great working with mySociety and reflecting honestly on how the experiment has gone and how to have an even greater impact — event attendees loved meeting people from elsewhere facing the same challenges, and there’s more we can do to support community building and collaboration.
I spoke about one of the subjects we covered — accessibility — at a Code for All conference and quoted a line from Mark Renja that had stayed with me from our surgery: ‘accessibility isn’t more work, you were just cutting corners before’.
Open Data Institute
I started the year as a special adviser to the policy team at the ODI, my main output being a report on how the UK government thinks about ‘data literacy’ (and many other assorted similar terms), which doubles as a handy guide to the various bits of training that are out there (thread here). (Separately, I was quoted on the same subject for Global Government Forum.) I chaired one of the roundtables as part of our experimentalism project. And I hosted the third episode of the world’s best/first/only data gameshow at the ODI Summit, which was in a real studio with an autocue and producer in my ear and everything (video here at some point, the first episode from 2021 here). I hosted the second episode at the Turing’s AIUK conference back in March (immediate Instagram reflections here).
I ended the year as interim head of public policy (until March 2023). It’s my first interim role as a freelancer — it would be fair to say that trying to do it on no more than one and a half days a week, with everything that’s going on in data policy, is a challenge!
Institute for Government
We ran eleven Data Bites in 2022, the most we’ve ever done in a single year, and it was lovely to return to them in person. I continue to be amazed at how many people listen after the events rather than watch them, given how visual they are. We’ll hit four years and 40 events in April 2023, which is quite something, and we may yet hit 12 events in a single year. No sea shanties or Gilbert and Sullivan spoofs this year — but I finally sonified the ministerial resignation data. (I regret to inform you there is also a rough unreleased version of this — but this is much more professional.)
My other big piece of work with IfG in 2022 was our project on data sharing during the pandemic, running roundtables on six case studies or thematic areas to understand what went well, what could have gone better and what lessons government should learn. [As of February 2023, all six write-ups and a final report have been published.] I’m really pleased we surfaced some useful and timely lessons and recommendations, though I still think there’s a proper ground-clearing project on government data sharing (where is data actually being shared, and what’s working and what isn’t?) to be done somewhere in thinktankery. I was also struck by some feedback on the not-quite-a-launch-event: some of the many people who enjoyed it thought much of what was said was helpful and new; others felt they’d heard all the talk about barriers and what needed to change before, which illustrates part of the problem.
In addition to that, I chaired an in conversation event with Sir David Norgrove, former UK Statistics Authority chair (highlights here); convened and chaired three events across Labour and Conservative party conferences; helped run various workshops for what is now the IfG Academy (and a strategy discussion for that, and an away day for the whole IfG); and contributed the odd bit of analysis to the various reshuffle/government formation/government implosion live-blogs, while largely watching from a safe distance.
- I’ve done various bits and pieces for Public Digital as part of their network, such as how digital services are benchmarked and some work on digital public infrastructure, including building on some thinking about ‘data as a service’ (ongoing). My 2021 piece for PD’s Signals, on pandemic dataviz, has also been published online.
- Another bit of 2021 work which got published in 2022 was my contribution to Full Fact’s annual report — thinking about Ofcom’s responsibilities on online harms and algorithmic testing and transparency
- I helped convene one of the Royal Statistical Society’s Covid-19 evidence sessions with Simon Briscoe. All of them are collected and written up here
- I didn’t do much dataviz this year — but I did run a webinar about how to do it well for Smart Thinking (and any excuse to flog my previous piece for them on the same subject)
- I spent a very enjoyable afternoon chatting with Ian about some data storytelling ideas for Spend Network
- I cohosted (and spoke on one of the panels at) Think Data for Government for Think Digital Partners, and look forward to doing the same again in the future
- As in 2021 (and indeed 2023), I started the year speaking to Dr. Iulia Cioroianu’s students at Bath
- I sat on an(other) assessment panel for ADR UK
- And I ended 2022 and started 2023 doing a quick strategy review for Defend Digital Me.
- I ran a session at UKGovCamp 2022 on ‘the (absolute?) state of open government’, which Tim Davies also wrote about. I’m still on the UK Open Government Network steering group — UK government continues to go from strength to strength on that front (that’s sarcasm, if you’ve not followed the links)
- On a related, freedom of information note… I had a baffling battle with Cabinet Office over information on Cabinet Committees, might have played a part in government publishing some information on its civil-servants-back-to-the-office nonsense, and signed an openDemocracy letter on enforcing FOI. The select committee on FOI I gave evidence to in 2021 also published its report
- I’m still on the Treasury’s User and Preparer Advisory Group
- And the Orwell Foundation — of which I’m a trustee — had a good year, including the first Orwell Festival of Political Writing.
In addition to the events above:
- I spoke on a panel at the always-excellent Swirrl Power of Data conference
- I spoke at a techUK/NetApp event on the public sector use of data
- I took part in a Civil Service World roundtable on the National Data Strategy, which got written up here
- I presented on the UK’s track record on open data and transparency to the National Audit Office and some of their sister organisations abroad.
Last year, I wrote that ‘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’ and spent some time listing the various things I didn’t write. That list would be even longer this year — having wanted to write more, I actually wrote less.
The Book now has half a proposal, with something resembling an introduction. I had hoped to use my long read for Understanding Patient Data/Wellcome on the R number as a sample chapter, but my agent advises that everyone has had enough of Covid and it’s perhaps a little more densely written than the book as a whole will (hopefully) be. Nonetheless, the R number piece — hopefully appearing soon, preview here — was a very useful proof of concept, as well as interesting in its own right (I hope!). The sample chapter has to be a priority for when things have calmed down a bit (hope springs eternal, etc).
Things I did write:
- A blogpost on the backstory of everybody’s favourite chart — on ministerial resignations — which also illustrates how we tried to do dataviz at the IfG
- A chapter for UK in a Changing Europe in January 2022, on what data and digital policy might look like after Brexit
- 36 editions of my Warning: Graphic Content newsletter (four on Tumblr before migrating to Medium).
There were also two editions of W:GC in 2023, one of them announcing that the newsletter is taking a break. After writing it for the best part of nine years with barely a break, it was necessary — given how much work I had on, given the need to step back and get some perspective, and given the need to actually follow through on promises to myself about prioritizing more ruthlessly in order to free up time to do other things (including more writing). It might return — it might not. There’s my list of data newsletters for anyone suffering withdrawal from too many links and too many puns. [And now one, two, three Data Policy Digests for Connected by Data.]
In some ways, it’s the worst possible time to turn off the newsletter, given the slow motion implosion of Twitter. This is part of what I wrote in one edition of W:GC:
For all its downsides, I find the possible demise of Twitter (it already feels quieter, he says pretending it’s an exodus not his terrible tweeting leading to less engagement) sad — there’s nothing quite like it, it’s where I get my news and many of these links, etc, and is the place where I share what I’m up to. It may provide an opportunity for many of us to reset our relationship with social media for the better, whether just using it less or finding new and more engaging ways to communicate on other platforms — or for the worse, as different communities atomise and silo themselves on different platforms and servers which may offer even less protection and more complications and risks. Elongate should also remind us how reliant we and our public sphere are on privately-owned infrastructure which may not be permanent.
I’m honestly still not quite sure what to do. I have a Mastodon account I’ve barely used. I’m still dipping into Twitter (though less than I used to). I’m frankly irritated this is even something we all have to think about, not just in practical terms (cross posting or exploring on multiple platforms is time consuming, withdrawing altogether has downsides) but on principle as well. Is it ethical to still be on there? (Should I even eschew Medium in favour of more open platforms?) The Good Place was right — it’s more difficult to be moral in the modern age.
The year ahead
Out with the old, in with… a continuation of a lot of things I was working on at the end of 2022: carrying on with Connected by Data and Public Digital, yet more Data Bites (of course), finishing up the Defend Digital Me and IfG data sharing reports and wrapping up this stage of TICTeC, finally finishing the R Number long read, carrying on as interim ODI head of public policy until March, and preparing for the next Think Data for Government conference in May. There are few other things brewing as well.
I suspect 2023 will be the year where data policy gets a bit more political, and different traditions start to grasp that there are political choices to be made that are fundamentally about power. That should involve more detailed work on actual policy ideas, on the everyday impacts of data on people across a range of sectors, and do more on how to talk and tell stories about ‘data’ — especially to political decision-makers.
[This is where I really should have inserted something like ‘writing at the beginning of 2023, it seems people aren’t talking as much as they should be about generative AI and the rise of tools like ChatGPT. I predict this will starting dominating digital policy and political discourse in a few months’ time’.]
For me, 2023 needs to be the year where The Book either starts happening or doesn’t, I’m even more ruthless in the decisions I make about what to and what not to work on, and I start that long list of possible projects and start pursuing them…