IDCC11: Public data opportunities

7 December, 2011
Kirsty Pitkin
“Data is a wonderful place to find stories”
 
Ewan McIntosh opened his presentation with a series of questions about measures of success within popular culture. How does Simon Cowell know he is on to a winner, and how do we judge his success in the world. Do we judge him by his failures? What about Carol White, the woman who invented the concept of the supermodel? How do we judge her?
 
Ewan McIntosh
Photo (c) Tim Gander
 
He related these questions to the research environment, asking: “How do we judge research? How do we judge data? How do we judge their impact on the world?” He noted from this that people don't know what impact really is. McIntosh argued that for most people, data is meaningless. It is perceived as being hard and stale. He asked: what is the “secret sauce” that makes some research appealing, whilst other research is ignored?
 
In exploring this question, McIntosh observed that everyone now has the capacity to create and curate their own digital data online using the many social media tools available to them. However, very few of them care about how they are going to curate and preserve that data. Unfortunately, this means most people don't appreciate our universe.
 
McIntosh proceeded to take us from our universe to another universe: that of the school child, to see what we can learn from seven year olds.  Everyone is obsessed with problem solving at the moment, and this features heavily in school curricula. However, McIntosh wants children to become problem finders. Solving anyone can do. In fact, a lot of research is about solving the wrong problem. McIntosh spends a lot of time working with schools to change their curricula to help children of all ages find problems that need to be solved.  
 
What we have is a state of play where most schools, teachers, parents and most people in general have never had to go and find a problem. They believe it is other people's job to provide the problems, which they can go away and solve those problems. This means most people haven't a clue what genuine research of unknown problems really is.
 
To illustrate his work to counteract this, McIntosh described his experience of putting on a TED event with school children, who researched and identified their own problems, wrote the talks themselves, and put on the presentations. He described the pedagogy behind the project, which involved playing a number of TED videos to them as examples, before they began work on their own talks. They spent a lot of time looking at language to work out how best to explain things to people who don't care what you're talking about.
 
McIntosh stressed communicating what we do is the main problem for most researchers. He noted that he has no idea what any of the delegates actually do for a living, and he's tried. We have a communications problem as a community. Communication is often seen as the cherry on top, but it should be fundamental to what we do, otherwise it is pointless. No one cares about what we do, so we need to explain things in a way that makes them care.
 
He linked this to the open data agenda, observing that no open data is truly open when 99% of people don't know what to do with it. He argued that storytelling and the use of visualisations will help people overcome this media literacy barrier.
 
McIntosh concluded by suggesting five big actions that could make data and research more relevant for the planet around us:
  1. Tell a story
  2. Create curiosity
  3. Create some wonder
  4. Find a user pain and solve it
  5. Create a reason for everyone to trade data.
He stressed that the only impact we should worry about is the impact our data and research can have on the real world.  
 
“You can change the world one story at a time using data.”
 
The real winners in the game of data curation are the ones who master storytelling and create something of meaning.