Reflecting on our first ‘data hack’

Sheffield Data for Good has been around for about 15 months now. Its aim is to bring together the data and social expertise in Sheffield to help solve the city’s social problems. We’ve held a few Meetups, some focusing on homelessness and others on ‘social isolation’. For most of that time, the group has been finding its feet, particularly in relation to the most appropriate format for our sessions.

One Saturday in late January 2019, however, it felt like it came of age. We held our first ‘data hack’ in partnership with Roundabout, a youth homelessness charity in Sheffield. The plan I had originally envisaged back in November 2017 while speaking with colleagues at Good Things Foundation seemed to make more sense. Here are some of my (non-technical) reflections since then, as well as a few things I’ve learned in the process…

People turn up (and want to come back)

This shocked me a little actually. It bowled me over with excitement and enthusiasm too. Although I believe wholeheartedly in what we’re trying to achieve as a group of people, I did find myself asking this question: if I wasn’t organising it, would I have actually turned up? I’m not sure I’ve reached a conclusion on that yet.

People are seriously talented (and modest with it)

Here are some of my ‘recommendations’ for holding such events

Ask people why they turned up and what could be improved

I think I could have done this part better. From the few conversations I did have, here are few of the things people said, or at least my interpretation of what was said…

  • I know I have a skill set. Applying it in my day job isn’t enough. I want to use it for ‘social purpose’.
  • This is actually a fun Saturday for me.
  • I want to learn from other people in relation to technical skills
  • I’m not a data expert but I want to learn about different ways to unpick a problem in a more general sense.
  • I want to build my personal confidence.
  • My employer is encouraging me to link up with the local scene.
  • In my sector, I’m not expected to produce an early output so quickly. It’s refreshing/exciting to have an opportunity to try things out without being too precious.

It is crucial to have subject matter experts in the room

Having this understanding in the room pegged the conversations in the reality of what actually happened on the ground. It was also fundamental in shaping the way people analysed, visualised and computed things. People wanted the outputs to be useful; to actually inform what Roundabout did and highlight potential areas for change.

Even the most seemingly-insignificant piece of analysis can be a moment of real insight to those that might use it

Don’t get too caught up in your own excitement

It did actually go well. On reflection though, the social element of the format probably doesn’t work for everyone. The same probably applies to showing/sharing your work in a public document as some people may find this daunting. Some people simply prefer to work on the fringes of things without the pressure to ‘produce’. Others may prefer a little more support with how they work in groups.

I think we could have been more sensitive to these needs. I very much hope that our next hack day (the 9th March 2019) will factor these in much better. You’re all welcome to come along, by the way.

Provide regular reflection and sharing points throughout the day

There was also a good amount of analogue content produced. The pen is not dead. And drawings are very useful.

‘Roaming’ non-techies really add value and add to the sense of ‘community’

Although unexpected, this really joined things up. It provided another perspective. In turn, this supported people to reflect on the ‘usefulness’ of what they were producing and to think about the best way to communicate what it all meant.

Embrace uncertainty and communicate that it is alright

Where do I start with this? What are the questions we’re trying to answer? Shouldn’t we work in groups formed around our skill sets? These are all valid questions but I think we could have done more to say that this uncertainty is OK (and even to be encouraged) at this point.

On reflection, this could have turned out badly if we had wasted the first hour of doing time because everyone was unsure what to do. Most of the uncertainty dissipated pretty quickly, however, as soon as the first graph was publicly shared. It set the tone and provided a starting point for some people to get going.

Say ‘help!’ and people that have done similar things before are both supportive and incredibly useful

When we set up the date for the data hack, a number of people came forward to volunteer their support with organising the day. We were honest that we weren’t sure where to start and people shared their time and experiences. Particular thanks go to Sarah Miller (Jet2), Lauren Quinn (Good Things Foundation), Dean Robinson (Shelter) and Jag Goraya (Better with Data).

The format will never be perfect or fixed

I’m always up for a chat to talk about this (or anything else) so please feel free to get in touch. I’m on Twitter here.

Freelancer. A mix of data stuff, research, evaluation and words. Always social purpose, learning and having conversations. Founder of Sheffield Data for Good.

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