The quiet data revolution starts here….hopefully!

Today saw the launch of a new platform aimed at voluntary and community groups, social organisations and citizens with an interest in making better use of data. Data Unity, a project I’ve been working on for the last year or so, was launched this morning at a breakfast seminar close to Silcon Roundabout (that’s Old Street to you and me!). The project, which is being supported by the ‘tech for social good’ funder, Nominet Trust, offers a free and simple way for people to grab a piece of the open data techfest, without having to do post-graduate degrees in statistics or social geography.


 Open data, big data, linked data, even ‘good data’ fill my twitter stream and even on occasion transcend to ‘real life’ conversations. What’s never been clear to me, is how us non-techies can join the party. And up till now, it’s not been easy.

Data Unity provides a solution to the tech-curious, amateur enthusiasts, or those focussed on achieving positive social outcomes, without any particular knowledge or interest in data.

Based on three simple components, Data Unity allows people to easily explore, visualise and share data. Whether it’s your own humble spreadsheet, or vast data sets from public agencies, Data Unity allows users to explore any aspect of the data and create their own ‘queries’ to gain new insights and answer burning questions. Its simple colour-coded ‘drag and drop’ interface, makes it so simple to interrogate data, even my 9 year old daughter has found using it a breeze.


And then, with just the click of a button, you can send the results into your own visualisation – whether it’s on a map, a pie chart or a graph. No more fiddling around with pivot tables in Excel. It’s just click and go.


Data Unity’s founder, Kev Kirkland, has produced a great YouTube clip showing how to create an infographic in just 10 seconds. Simples!

And the fun doesn’t stop there…

If you want to share your new custom-built visualisation with colleagues or friends, you just choose how you want to share it and away you go. Your visualisation can be embedded on your website or shared on twitter or facebook. And because the site uses linked data, it means that (if you want to) your visualisation will update as the data it’s based on is updated. Giving you the basis for a nifty data dashboard of your very own. Of course, if you don’t want it to change, but want to capture the moment forever, that’s also fine. Just create a snapshot and it’ll leave your image as it is.


Our hope is that now people will start to use Data Unity for themselves and come to see it as an invaluable tool in their toolbox to help them better understand things. Whether that’s gaining fresh insight into the impact they’re having, opening themselves up to their beneficiaries to hold them to account, or providing information in a new more accessible form. Data Unity has the potential to transform the way we engage with and make use of data. And if that sounds like a bold claim, it’s because it is. I genuinely believe this could be the start of something radically transformative.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on Data Unity, how you’ve used it, what you’d like to see it be able to do in the future and whether it’s made a difference to what you do. Do let us know what you think.


Does Labour’s response to Al-Madinah offers signs of an education policy?

Newly appointed Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, had a first opportunity to get his teeth into his new brief, with the furore about the Al-Madinah free school’s damning Ofsted inspection. So it was interesting to hear how he responded and whether the reported shift in policy from his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, was in evidence.

Twigg had previously said he would stop any new free schools being opened, but would support parent-led academies (whatever they are). I listened closely to Hunt being interviewed about the Al-Madinah inspection to see if there were any shifts in policy, however subtle. What Hunt seemed to be saying was that free schools might be okay, if they were de-politicised and the “ideology removed” from them. He reaffirmed what Stephen Twigg had said about wanting to support parent-led academies and supporting parents who wanted to get more involved in their children’s schools. He then went on to say that what this meant in practice really boiled down to three fundamental concerns about free schools:

1)      That they should only be set up in areas of demand

2)      That they should only employ qualified teachers

3)      They must be transparent and accountable, particularly in relation to their finances.

I have to say I agree with him on all three points and my own experience with the Archer Academy has followed all of these principles.

That free schools (or indeed any school) should only open in areas where we need them, seems quite obvious, but it does get complicated when you start to unpick it. We do have a massive shortage of school places, so a great many areas are in need. But it also reflects the impossible job of local authorities, who have a statutory duty to provide education for children, but find they have diminishing  control and influence over the schools in their area. This applies to all academies, not just free schools. Ideologically the free schools programme is currently incompatible with local authorities coordinating place management and this is something that must be addressed. But there is also a question over what happens in areas where they are in need of excellent schools, but they have poor performing schools. Is that demand? Clearly parents in those areas could (and should) be demanding more. How can poorly performing academies be improved when they are accountable only to the Secretary of State? There are some issues to work through here.

Part of the solution lies in point 3 – the accountability of schools. Much could, and should, be done to strengthen the accountability of schools to their local communities. This is partly about financial transparency, but it is also about ethos and culture and the extent to which the school and its leadership team see themselves as being accountable to the community. It is embedded deeply into the DNA of the Archer Academy, but only because we chose to make it that way. There is currently very little required of academies to be accountable to parents and the wider community and this must be addressed.

As someone who is very interested in open data and its potential to strengthen accountability, I am keen to see how our school can play a leading role in opening up our data as far as possible. I think this helps to give parents information about the school that they can use to make more informed decisions and how the governors to account. It also enables third-party developers to find new uses of the data – providing new insights from mashing-up, interrogating and visualising our data. It’s perhaps a bit of an unknown quantity, but my work with Data Unity has given me confidence that there is value in opening up data.

As (exempt) charities, academies receiving considerable tax benefits. The social contract that charitable status is based on, is that in return for this privilege, there must be some public benefit. Part of the deal involves being accountable to beneficiaries – which in the case of schools is obviously pupils (and their parents). Financial accountability is a key part of this.

How can we expect families to be able to hold schools to account if they do not have access to information on which to base decisions and inform opinions?

I not aware of many schools that are embracing open data – but I would be very keen to hear of any examples – but I think it is an exciting agenda with many opportunities to be explored.

Time to open up Open Data

I really like going to events about open data and particularly those about the not for profit sector and how we can engage with and use open data. So I was delighted to go along to Nesta’s Maximising Your Data Impact event this week. It’s a chance catch up with some familiar faces and meet people I’ve engaged with on social networks and talk about open data, its potential and the how we take advantage of the opportunities it presents. This time it was also an opportunity for me to talk to people about our plans for Data Unity, to develop a useful tool for charities and community groups to make better use of their own data and use other public data to help them realise their organisational aims. But, pleasant though it is to chat to friends and like-minded colleagues, I came away frustrated and depressed by the day.

While the speakers on the platform repeatedly referred to widening participation and engagement with open data, the fact is that it’s the same few people they’re talking to about it. The discussions are still highly technical – which though obviously important, is not likely to engage a wider audience in the issues and opportunities open data presents. For an interested amateur like me, much as I tried to understand the finer points of standardisation and the like, I found much of the content going over my head. I occupied myself with the interesting backchat on twitter, but it felt like something of a missed opportunity.

For an event about civil society’s use of open data (the event’s hashtag was ‘#vcsdata’!) there were depressingly few participants and presenters from the not for profit sector. The morning plenaries had the Minister for Civil Society and Peter Wanless from the Big Lottery Fund, along with a plethora of data specialists; undoubtedly experts, but nothing I felt that moved practice forward within the VCS. The good folk of Barnsley Hospice have a good story to tell about how they use open data which is an important exemplar from the sector, but (with respect) I heard them present at the Opening Doors event (a one day conference also on the VCS and open data) a year ago. Things have not moved on.

There was some practical input in the afternoon – several practitioners squeezed into a 45 minute slot across a whole day…and it did feel rushed. The one part of the day which offered some important learning, inspiration and was led by the sector felt like it was very much second fiddle to the data specialists who dominated the earlier plenaries.

One techie speaker said ‘we have the tools, we have the data, now we need to do things with it’, but from where I’m sitting, we don’t have the tools, we don’t have the data and we need to have a discussion about how open data can help us to achieve our goals. Talk of widening participation is no more than a platitude if the debate continues to be held among a small number of people with little dedicated effort to reframe the debate in non-technical terms. Where we are today, in the VCS, is a million miles from where we may want to get to. We need to shift attitudes, understanding, data literacy and practice incrementally.

I hope that Data Unity will help to encourage and support charities and community groups to take the first steps towards open data’s promised land, but it is never going to be more than one part of what’s needed. We need much more cross-pollination between techies and non-techies, those who can develop and those who can do. Until we start to mix things up and engage with non-data specialists on their own terms, the conversation will continue to be held among the same small group of people and any potential open data does offer will not be realised within the VCS.

It’s time to open up open data.

Getting from here to there – how do we bring data visualisation to the masses?

I like a good infographic probably more than most and there are some great ones out there. When I see the beautifully crafted artwork, the way it brings the data behind it to life, I get very excited and my first thoughts are along the lines of ‘oooh, I’d like to do something like that’.

Then I realise, I’m not a designer, I’m not an artist and I can’t do anything more than the most basic of visualisations – maybe a decent bar chart but that’s about it – and I get very disappointed. I know….I can feel your sympathy from here 😉

But the fact is there is a massive gap between where most people are in their use of data visualisations and infographics, to where we might aspire to be some time in the future. I’m an enthusiast (albeit a very amateur one) and I’m struggling, so what chance have those even less familiar with the whole data visualisation agenda have?

We need to find some way to close this ‘aspiration gap’ between the way that ‘professionals’ can present data and how non-professionals can present it. It’s just not realistic to expect people to jump from a bar chart in MS Excel to a beautiful bespoke infographic….so what are the steps we need to take along that road in order to become more sophisticated in how we use and present data?

hooray for clip art

Hooray for clip art!

The analogy I’ve used in the past is to compare data visualisation with Clip Art.

I can still remember the excitement of suddenly being able to insert images into documents when clip art was first released in the mid-1990s. Since then it has become ubiquitous – to the point that most IT literate people wouldn’t be seen dead using stock images to be found in the standard clip art libraries. Our aspirations and expectations for using images in this way have greatly increased as a result of the introduction of a fairly basic tool. Of course there are still people, less familiar with using IT, who find clip art as useful and as liberating as I did when I first saw it. And so it continues to serve a purpose, even if norms have changed.It’s my belief that we need something similar to clip art for data visualisation. Some basic tools that people can dip their toes into and become more familiar with the process of interrogating and visualising data. Such tools may not pose a threat to the designers who feature on FastCoDesign’s infographic of the day (which btw, is always worth a look)…but they could be an important step towards more people becoming better at visualising their data. Of course this needs to be coupled with helping people to gain the skills and knowledge required to interrogate and analyse their data too, but that’s for another post.


data unityData Unity will soon be moving to a first (Alpha) prototype which we hope, over time, will start to fill some of this gap. Giving people a simple interface that will enable them to interrogate and visualise their data. Initially this will be through fairly basic infographics – like charts and diagrams – but it is our hope that over time, as people start to use it and contribute new visualisations, it will grow substantially.

Thank you to all those of you expressed interest in Data Unity and working with us to develop it into something that offers real value to VCS groups. Data Unity will only be as good as the quality of the ideas people contribute to it…whether you’re a data specialist, a developer, starting to explore how you can use data, or are just data curious, we’d love to hear from you.

And here is a lovely infographic by Ivan Cash on, errr, infographics….just cos, well, why not..


Introducing…..Data Unity

Open data is cool, it’s sexy and it’s happening….unless of course you don’t live in the Internet and you’re not a geek. There’s nothing wrong with being a geek…but for those of us who aren’t (or who like to pretend we aren’t), the whole debate about open data can leave you feeling confused, uninspired and, well kind of ‘meh’.

For some time I’ve been rather concerned that discussions about open data and its potential are the sole preserve of data specialists. NCVO’s Karl Wilding summed it up rather nicely as ‘a minority sport played by geeks’. And yet it’s my firm believe that open data is relevant, exciting and…if not sexy, then at least important for a much wider audience, particularly social organisations and not for profit groups.

There is huge potential for VCS groups to use data more effectively – both available public data and their own data – in order to better achieve their aims. Whether it’s understanding their community or their beneficiaries, identifying need, demonstrating impact, communicating and engaging with their stakeholders or making them more transparent and accountable to beneficiaries, the potential to strengthen the way we use data could have a profound impact on how we work and the benefits we deliver.

The question then is how do we move from where we are now, to a point where using data is a routine part of our work? Clearly we have a long way to go….but as I reflected after an event held by the Big Lottery Fund and the Nominet Trust last year, we have to start somewhere.

So I was delighted to be asked by the Nominet Trust to get involved with a new project they are supporting called Data Unity. Through the Data Unity project we will be developing an open source website tool which will allow people to explore and visualise data. It will create a simple interface that will enable people who are not data specialists to interrogate data, to find new insights and to ‘play around’ with different ways of presenting the data. We want to make it easy for people to take the important first steps into the world of open data, as well as offering some more sophisticated functions for those who are more comfortable doing so. (At this point the conversation turned to Web APIs, javascript libraries and pipes…which I am sure mean something to some of you, but are well beyond my limited capabilities!)

We want Data Unity to reflect the aspirations, realities and needs of voluntary and community groups in order to make sure it’s really useful to people. We also want to work closely with groups and individuals who are interested in helping us shape the tool and the project. Whether you’re a data specialist, an interested amateur or a complete novice, we’d love to hear from you.

As you’ll see from the website, we’re just starting to get going with the project, so there’s plenty of scope to help get involved from the outset and help us to achieve our aim of developing something really useful for the not for profit sector.

To find out more or to get involved in the project email or get in touch with me.

Opening Doors and starting conversations

I really enjoyed yesterday’s opening doors event – a one day seminar on open data and charities. Now, I may (and occasionally am) seen as being a bit of a geek when it comes to open data (though I promise you, I am absolutely not….as soon as things get technical I’m quickly left behind!) and I have been talking about open data for some time. But what was so great about yesterday’s event was that for once the conversation about open data wasn’t just, as Karl Wilding called it ‘a minority sport played by geeks’. It was a conversation held in daylight, out in the open, among people who could not be called the usual suspects.

It was great to see so many people from not for profit organisations wanting to engage in discussions about how open data can be used by charities and community organisations. The event was doubly oversubscribed – and I hope that another event will be held to enable all those who weren’t able to attend to have a chance to hear from the inspiring organisations that are leading the way. It’s clear that despite some notable exceptions, many charities are just starting to explore the crucial questions of what, why and how they use open data. We have a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere!

To date discussions about open data have tended to be the preserve of techies and social geographers – many of them in the public sector, though even they are in a minority. We cannot afford to leave open data to the data specialists – or what we’ll get will be designed in their eyes. Whilst that’s not a problem in itself, it is unlikely to meet our needs.

Whilst it was extremely encouraging to see so many charity people wanting to come and talk about open data, it was also slightly disappointing that there were relatively few chief executives among them. There were plenty of monitoring and evaluation people and some tech people working within charities but, on though there were some, chief executives in attendance were fairly thin on the ground. Like social media, open data needs organisational leadership. Without that it’s unlikely to become mainstreamed within organisations and become part of the organisational culture. Although leadership can come from anywhere, it is rarely likely to gain traction without the blessing (or actively involvement) of senior managers. We still need to do more to engage those who run charities to actively engage with and champion open data.

We have a long way to go within the not for profit sector to take advantage of the benefits of open data….but with Opening Doors we started the journey of a thousand miles, with a step in the right direction.


Visual Camping – visualisation and opendata at LocalGovCamp (#localgovcamp #visualcamp #opendata)

The session I led at LocalGovCamp together, with fellow Barnet resident Paul Evans (who’d pitched for a session that was closely related), explored ways to make policy and data more visual and therefore more accessible. It built on ideas that I’ve been working on with Noel Hatch and others, including Louise Kidney and Ant Clay, who I was delighted to be able to join me in the session.

For me the starting point was a simple question…

If we are asking communities to get more involved in decision making and what happens in their area (à la Big Society), then how can we make public policy more accessible to enable people to get involved? Making things more visual – that is using images instead of, or as well as, words – is one method of achieving this.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ve seen from my own experience of working at Urban Forum, that more visual ways of communicating information are extremely powerful. Some time ago, we took a decision to move to a ‘mostly pictures’ approach to our presentations. The feedback from this has been universally positive. Building on that, we began to explore how we might encourage a more visual approach more widely – leading to a Policy in Pictures ‘competition’ that we held on the DotGovLabs Innovation Hub [as an aside…if you would like an invite to join the innovation hub, get in touch and I’ll gladly send you one]. There was a great deal of interest in this and a variety of interesting approaches that people used – ranging from my own rather limp effort to Ant Clay’s use of a business model canvas.

Noel’s idea of VisualCamp built on this, bringing together designers, policy makers and practitioners to explore how visuals could help public services and civil society better articulate the issues people face. You can see what happened next at the beautifully curated WeDoWhatWeSee website.

The session at LocalGovCamp covered a lot of ground (which was far more familiar to me than some other sessions) and interesting discussion. [nb quick disclaimer…this post is completely useless in accurately describing the discussion we had, it’s simply my ‘takeaway’ from it]. I found the discussion really helped me to crystallise my thinking on some important issues, as well as posing further questions to grapple with…

Data visualisation is very different to policy visualisation – using data presents all sorts of particular issues and challenges, relating to how you collect and manage data, design and communication skills, corporate culture and practice and purpose.

Policy visualisation – that is, presenting policy in a more visual and accessible way – is, I think, simpler to do. It’s about communicating potentially complex information in a friendlier and more inclusive way. It is helpful to bring good quality design skills to the process, but it’s not essential (at least my experience suggests this is the case – given the positive feedback I’ve had, despite being a design novice).

As important as the end product (ie the visualisation) is the deliberative process of exploring the issues and ideas, reflecting different perspectives and ultimately increasing understanding of the issue. This is consistent with the learning from Visualcamp – that bringing together designers, policy makers and practitioners (or ‘users’) and arming them simply with pieces of paper and pens, the process of developing a visualisation led to a rich and open discussion about the policy in question. The end point of that part of the process, was really more of an issues map than a policy visualisation and further work would be needed subsequently to identify appropriate technique to use to and develop the actual visualisation.

I threw in a question that I’ve been asking myself ; how do we get from where we are in terms of data/policy visualisation, to where we might aspire to be? It seems inconceivable that we can expect to change in one great leap – but rather expect change to come in a series of incremental steps. Helen Jeffrey suggested a rather nice idea of visual media surgeries – building on the social media surgery model.

I’ve been thinking about how things have changed over the last 15 years or so with how we use images in documents (like Word). When clip art was first released as part MS Word in the mid-1990s (I know that Apple were on the case some time before that!) I can still remember the excitement of suddenly being able to insert images into documents. Since then it has become ubiquitous – to the point that most IT literate people wouldn’t be seen dead using stock images to be found in the standard clip art libraries. Our aspirations and expectations for using images in this way have greatly increased as a result of the introduction of a fairly basic tool. I wonder whether something similar might be feasible for data visualisation.

There was widespread recognition that the skills required to develop policy and data visualisation are different to those needed for traditional policy development and performance reporting. However these skills are present in different bits of local government (and beyond) and that there is considerable scope to draw in the appropriate people if we see value in the approach and are sufficiently agile to do so. [For an excellent reflection on agile public sector working I highly recommend Catherine Howe’s recent post].

What it all boils down to, for me, is finding creative ways to equip citizens and voluntary and community groups with the information and support they require to have influence over what happens in their area.

If you’ve got this far, you might also be interested in the following:

The VisualCamp discussion continues at

Paul Evans’ slides from the session –

Gavin Wray, from Podnosh posted this short video clip of me explaining the VisualCamp idea – thanks Gavin 🙂

And I’d also strongly recommend the subsequent blog he posted, arising (in part) from the visualization session –   

And (if that wasn’t enough!) Gavin’s also shared an extremely useful Google Spreadsheet with a great list of available visualization tools.

There is also a VisualCamp group on the Our Society website that you might like to join –


Toby Blume
Chief Executive
Urban Forum