Reflecting on our first ‘data hack’

People turn up (and want to come back)

Find a space. Communicate a decent, relatively contained brief — Roundabout’s data, in this example. Make it ‘feel’ relaxed and inclusive. And people actually show up (with snacks too!). At 10am on a Saturday. For 6 hours. I know; it’s remarkable, isn’t it?

People are seriously talented (and modest with it)

People are pretty amazing. The skills that people are willing to share voluntarily are highly technical. Some clever things went on in that room. And no-one was there for personal gain or to say ‘look at me!’. The prevailing culture on the day was one of generosity, collaboration and mutual support/learning.

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

Ask people why they turned up and what could be improved

To understand better what motivates people to come along, ask them. And ask everyone. Individually. Face to face.

  • 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

In January’s case, this was Amy from Roundabout. Amy knew what the data actually meant. She was an essential reminder that there were people behind the spreadsheet rows. There were nuances to what a particular column meant. And all of this had a real implication for the people supported by Roundabout, as well as those working for the charity.

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

As Dan Olner’s excellent blog on our January hack points out, it’s easy to assume that complicated data magic is what people are after. In reality (and as an example), a simple calculation of the average number of ‘interactions’ with Roundabout per person can be hugely enlightening for those collecting the data. Often the barrier to data analysis is not capability in the charity/voluntary sector; it’s the time and resource required to do it.

Don’t get too caught up in your own excitement

I was so chuffed that people turned up. The format seemed to be working. People were producing things. People were talking to and learning from each other. It was all going swimmingly.

Provide regular reflection and sharing points throughout the day

It would be easy to squirrel away in silos to do our data thing. In the spirit of sharing little and often though, we encouraged people to dump their outputs — graphs, sentences, links, code, photographs — in to a shared document as we went. We used Dropbox Paper for this. Furthermore, we came together every hour as a whole group to talk through what was new on the shared document. People had the chance to say ‘I did that and it means…’ but also ask if anyone else has done anything that might fill in a gap for them.

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

There were two people I didn’t expect to turn up (one of which was my dad, but that’s not the unexpected bit). Neither considered themselves as data experts (or even data analysis beginners). Neither considered themselves as homelessness experts either. They were interested in how the Meetup was organised and formatted as a way to understand a challenge more generally. This meant that they walked around a lot asking questions. What tools are you using? What does that diagram mean? Please can you explain that to me in words? Have you seen what so and so has done over there?

Embrace uncertainty and communicate that it is alright

About 30 minutes in to the day, as we dispersed from the introduction/brief session, there was a palpable sense that some people felt the brief was too loose. Some people are more comfortable with this than others.

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

This was the first time I had arranged a data hack. In fact, the one I was organising would be the first time I’d ever been to one. I’d heard and read a bit about how they work, particularly DataKind’s data dives with organisations, but I wouldn’t exactly say I was confident in how to do it.

The format will never be perfect or fixed

Although it felt like January’s hack settled on something productive, I don’t think we’ll ever stop evolving. Tweak, reflect, tweak, reflect…

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Tom French

Tom French

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Data, insight and questioning strategies for social purpose through open working | Founded Sheffield Data for Good + Data for Action | Musician