Using Data to Steward Systems

May 12, 2013, by Cassie Robinson

At the beginning of April I attended the first of the Open Data Institute's (ODI) Open Data In Practice Courses. I'm 10-months into two new initiatives that both have data as a core component and so I thought it would be useful to deepen my knowledge to play a better bridging role in producing them.

The course was divided up into 5 days: discovering open data, publishing and managing open data, consuming and understanding data, the business of open data and a hackathon. As a class we co-created a booklet of learning from the week that will be published shortly on the ODI website.  Another useful resource for anyone thinking about open data is this field guide. 

I came away thinking that design by default is as important as digital by default when it comes to open data and adding context to it. Mention the word design in relation to data and many people will automatically think about the visualisation of data, but there is a real role for design to play in the whole process of data being published. The questions to ask when publishing open data are very similar to the questions you'd ask in any person-centered design approach. Who is it for? How is it going to be useful for them? What format do they need it in? What else do they need to know about it? Where has it come from? The Government Digital Service has some great principles that should underpin any open data project.

The areas I'm most keen to explore are the intersection between strategic design and data, and the role of data in supporting stewardship. In the words of Bryan Boyer, "Design is the task of stewarding ideas into life in the real world, where solutions do not always allow themselves to be politely engineered. Contending with the forces of nature and humanity is to balance constraints towards finding effective compromises. Stewardship is the art of getting things done when everything is not fully under your control. The steward, in the context of strategic design, frames the architecture of the problem at the beginning and then works to adjust course as surprises surface." For more of Boyer’s Helsinki Design Lab thinking, see this new beautiful poster series

I have become increasingly interested in data as a means of surfacing truth, not the truth, but some truth. I see it as particularly useful for both bringing an idea to life and then acting like cats eyes on the road at night.  Data can tell you where you are, what is happening and give instant feedback enabling you to re-route. I hope to see more designers work with data scientists, not to design beautiful visualisations but as a way of shaping and stewarding whole systems.