Why can't we talk about data? (Part 3)

This is a continuation of my line of thought from my previous two blog posts.

I speculate that there's a gap to be filled with ways of working with data that aren't happening at the moment as far as I'm aware [1].

Isn't it exciting when you notice that ideas have taken on a life of their own? Not my ideas, to be clear.

Those moments when you catch a hint that similar conversations are happening somewhere else and you're hearing part of an underground transmission. Like a story being passed around from person to person before anybody actually writes the book.

Blog posts. Talks. Snatches of something new. I reckon people are going to start to crack this 'talk about data' business fairly soon.

I read the 'Rewired State: 10 years on' blog post by James Darling and Richard Pope. Two paragraphs stuck out for me in particular (emphasis mine):

Legacy IT is still a major problem that the GDS movement hasn’t really addressed. The data layer is still unreformed. It remains an unanswered question if the UK’s ‘service-layer down’ approach, the ‘registry-layer up’ approach of Estonia, or some totally different model will ultimately prove to be the best route to a transformed government.

Both legacy and data lack a place in the new orthodoxy, and in user centred design more broadly. That’s probably because they are difficult and require political capital. It’s hard to justify investment in digital infrastructure when the benefits come in the next electoral cycle or to another department’s budget.

There's a scene in 'Velvet Goldmine' where Christian Bale's character (a young, awkward glam rock devotee at that point in the film) points at his hero on the television and says to his parents "that's me! that's me that is!". I think the data layer is still unreformed! I think data lacks a place in the new orthodoxy and in user centred design more broadly! [2]

A new new orthodoxy?

I met with Leigh from the Open Data Institute this week. We spoke about this broad topic, and the conversation helped me on with my thoughts. Claire joined us, and suggested that 'data' is a decade behind 'digital' in terms of developing and embedding a multidisciplinary working practice. This resonated with me, and I've heard others suggest similar things in recent months (the underground transmission!).

I swear there's something here. Something distinct from 'digital', but complimentary and with porous boundaries.

Technology is about computers. 'Digital' isn't about computers but lots of people still think it is. Most people think 'data' is 100% all about computers but actually it's even less about computers than 'Digital'.

In this multidisciplinary data practice I imagine being good with computers is a secondary skill - a means to an end. The engineering piece for services can be done collaboratively with others, and I'd expect increasingly over time it will become less bespoke [3]. If data lacks a place in that new orthodoxy maybe it's time to revisit some unfashionable roles, define new ones, and hire some librarians. Where I work we've got a couple of libraries. I'm a big fan of librarians.

So, maybe a practice featuring the full spectrum of data related roles, from the structural to the analytical.

A sort of infrastructure

In my second post I described the data I am most interested in, recognising that 'data' is a broad term which would benefit from more detailed definition:

When we talk about 'infrastructure', these ^ are the things that I think are most important.

What is 'infrastructure' to me, though? I'm not thinking of platforms, let alone individual services (no matter how large). There is something here that's more fundamental. Note that when I say fundamental I don't mean 'more important'. I've seen enough unnecessary inter-disciplinary disagreement about relative preeminence first- and second-hand over the past few years.

I just mean that there's something else there - something beyond the platform, or the service, or the contents of the database. Underneath, on top, all around it, in a mirror universe with twinkling stars and comets - you can draw the diagram however you like. It's there already, but it needs to be made more explicit.

Leigh and I spoke about domain modelling. I've got into a habit of avoiding using the term, but it's a great example of a collaborative, human practice for working with data involving a variety of different types of people.

Imagine these models were considered as a corporate-level asset [4]. This is the truth of your organisation [5]. You can use this asset to help build services. This asset is reflected in the platforms you build. It's not an academic exercise. This asset isn't static, and you would have feedback loops to and from your services and platforms because things change. In the public service context, outcomes for users traverse organisational boundaries, so your models would link out to those of other organisations.

For the justifying investment point from James and Richard's post, I believe the case is there to be made. Not working to the map of your organisation's truth, and maintaining the map, is one of the reasons the legacy issue builds up in the first place and is a vicious cycle to be broken. Every system where the models are implicit, hidden in an undocumented database, introduces cost. Every local exception introduces duplication of effort and friction for teams and end users. What is the cost of not having this kind of infrastructure?

I wonder where in an organisation this infrastructure would sit? If you don't have a library you should get one. My point being that the technology area definitely isn't the natural home for this work, and I suggest the digital area isn't either. There would be a collaborative effort between the three, of course. Doing the hard work to break down silos and what have you.

Nonetheless, it would be a hard sell to build up a nationwide infrastructure before delivering any outcomes. I envisage a messy period of compromise and starting small, but hopefully there will be a start [6].


[1] I'm almost certainly channeling Michael and Robert at best here, and plagiarising at worst. Sorry blokes.

[2] As I recall, Christian Bale's parents ignore him. My mum and dad don't know what I do for a living either

[3] I do think there is a place for specialist engineering where a comprehensive understanding of complex data domains is required

[4] 'Corporate-level asset' was Leigh's term, as I recall

[5] Or a truth. Doesn't cover organisational culture, for example

[6] Or a restart, to be fair, with respect and recognition to colleagues who've been here before