Leeds: City of Data

LONDON: The Information Capital by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti
LONDON: The Information Capital by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti

On the last day of 2014, I stumbled across James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti’s beautiful hardcover book “London: The Information Capital: 100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city”.

This love letter to London told in gorgeous infographics, maps and visualisations inspired me to examine my own love affair with being a digital creative in the North of England. What is it about Leeds that makes it the city of data?

I love being part of the digital technology scene in Leeds. And make no mistake, Leeds is a powerhouse when it comes to data and analytics. We have a lot going on: the only Open Data Institute (ODI) node in the world dedicated to health, Leeds Data Thing, a place to be inspired, learn, mingle, and proudly fly your data geek flag, School of Data getting you from data novice onto the path of data enlightenment and much, much more.

Leeds is a small city, the heart of which is crammed with academic bodies, creative circles, financial institutions, call centres and a thriving indoor market. For what seems like such a cosy space, Leeds is T.A.R.D.I.S-like, feeling much bigger on the inside. Perhaps this clustering and creativity is why it is ranked the fourth largest UK urban economy and a gamma level city — cities which link smaller economic regions directly into the world economy.

What makes Leeds a leader in data though is more than just initiatives and institutions; the secret sauce is what makes Leeds a city so close to my heart: the people. Leeds, in general, is a friendly city and people make the magic happen. We have data superstars like Mark Barratt of Hebeworks and a supporting cast of people progressing Leeds as a city dedicated to getting the most out of data.

Leeds Tube Map by Rich Daley
Leeds Tube Map by Rich Daley
Rich Daley
Rich Daley

Take Rich Daley. His Leeds tube map (above) imagines Leeds with an underground system to rival London’s. He describes his labour of love as “looking for centres of civilization on Google Satellite View using visual cues and then searching around on Wikipedia etc. for a bit of information about each location I found”. This is data meeting creativity.

It’s not the only map being produced here. HebeWorks is working on a creative sector map, the ODI node is building a digital asset map. These are both social not geographic maps and they’ll provide insight into the communities of practice in Leeds. The best thing about these initiatives? Combined and remixed as open data, they will be more than the sum of their parts. This is the very essence of the small data phenomenon.

Amy De-Balsi of Herd
Amy De-Balsi of Herd

From maps to work. What if you’re coming back into the digital technology space and you want to know who’s doing what in Leeds? Where would you go? Enter HerdAmy De-Balsi’s startup aggregates open data and publicly available information (obtained with permission) into a singularity for digital technology job seekers.

She also ended up with a rather snazzy asset map of companies operating in this space. What I love about Herd is that Amy is no data geek, or as she puts it “All the job information is open data and Herd was set up after using that data to build the business model. I’m no techie so it was a long week with spreadsheets but I can now monitor the members’ websites through open tools such as, Import.io. Without open data, I would have got a “proper” job rather than set up my own business”.

Rachel Kettlewell of RealIT
Rachel Kettlewell of RealIT

On the flip side, we have people who use data everyday to give them insight, build connections, track trends and get their jobs done more effectively. Rachel Kettlewell of Real Staffing is a recruitment agent with a difference. Being in the heart of the city, she’s keen to meet face to face. She puts it this way “I realised very early on how saturated the recruitment market is, and how many calls both contractors and hiring mangers get so I found a way to differentiate myself by meeting people, something which takes a lot of contractors by surprise — Often contractors who have been in the market for 10+ years have never met an agent”.

This is something I appreciate in these days of electronic messaging, that human connection that’s so important. She exclusively recruits data experts, so I was curious how she saw the trends in Leeds: “To me, meeting people is key as the data and analytics market is going from strength to strength, so competition for roles from recruiters and contractors is only going to increase”.

In such a busy marketplace, competitive advantage is crucial, this is how she describes using data to maintain it: “Data and analytics is something I am encouraged to use in my role, and I often analyse my business and use the data when speaking to clients”.

Leeds also shows how data can bring people together. Specifically, open data. Kriss and shi of Wetgenes are game designers and serial creators. When Leeds city council needed to know “How much public art is out there in Leeds?” they turned to Wetgenes.

This is how shi described the experience: “The council obviously knows about most of these artworks but the dataset is incomplete so the challenge was to come up with something to fix this. Since we make games, the first thing that comes to mind was something interactive and community building.”

In 2 weeks, and with limited resources, they came up with Leeds Art Crawl: a pub crawl but with art. The simplicity of use is the key to Leeds Art Crawl’s success. The data is crowdsourced and available as open data. You can get an art crawl for your city through their Patreon page or listen to their tech podcast: IT Stuff for more, well, IT stuff.

Four people, four different applications of data. Leeds has many more stories, communities, organisations and institutions that make it an exciting time to live and work in this city of data. I think Rachel said it best: “Companies are now having a real focus on data, whether that is tidying up unstructured data and data cleansing, or going as far as data mining and predictive analysis — In my opinion, this is without a doubt the market to be in!”. And without doubt, if you’re innovating with data, Leeds is the city to be in.

HerDay: What does a data strategist do all day?

Hello, I’m Edafe and I’m a data strategist.

My work involves helping organisations get the best out their data by focusing less on technology and more on what they really need to succeed: people, culture, and clarity. Then I help them combine best-fit technology with good practice and digital skills training. And I do all this without the tech-speak.

Being a woman in STEM and an independent consultant, I aim to be a scenius – someone involved in creating startling, delightful, and useful innovation with others (a communal genius if you will).

That’s why today I’m sharing my “day in the life of”, because it’s part of my practice. I’m inspired by others and I’m paying that forward.

Join me throughout the day for updates and conversation here or tweet me.

5am – 6am
I’m an early bird so the first thing I do is make a cuppa. Now it’s time to contemplate my calendar and to-do list. I have a couple of meetings spaced out during the day, several forms to post, a client report to finish, an article on Leeds digital technology to tidy up and this mostly-live blog.

Oh, I’m also making breakfast and my partner Alex’s meals for the day. I’m going to need another cuppa.

6am- 7am
With my task list organised, I’m tracking my earnings. As a small business, I need to keep on top of my cash flow. Do I have outstanding invoices to chase up? Have all bills been paid? How am I doing for income this week?

Balancing work that sets you up for the next paying project with with volunteering on things you love and actual paying work is tricky. I aim to perfect this balance by tracking and analysis. One day, this will be second nature. It doesn’t take long because I do it daily.

7am- 8am
Now, I’m feeding my brain some inspiration. I may work in technology but I’m also a creative. Ensuring I’m inspired first thing sets me up for the day. It’s part of my ritual, like Richard Eaton’s The 10 Daily Rituals That Work For Me.

Today, I’m reading Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon, an artist and inspirational visual author. Stepping outside my domain is a great way to shake up my neurons.

8am- 10am
The first 3 hours of the day have been preparing myself to be productive. The next 2 hours are about maximising that productivity in 15 minute chunks. A quick trip to the postbox and I’m done with forms. On to the paid project.

I’ve met this small firm twice so far. They want to expand their operations but their knowledge is in Excel spreadsheets and people’s heads. This is a familiar situation with small firms but in this case, they are eager to move forward and happy to invest time in doing so. The time investment is important as I run a collaborative consultancy: to get the best out, we both put our best in.

I’m spending a good chunk of time going over my notes and completing a model similar to the Business Model Canvas. This acts as a checklist so I don’t forget anything, is highly visual and written in plain English. The added bonus is I can send it to the client as a visual progress report. Which I do at 9:45. It’s time to get ready for my first meeting.

10am – 11am
I’m meeting with Olof, Thomas and Karina from Dreamler, a startup behind a visual planning tool. As a visual learner, I’m quite taken with their product. I got in touch via the website, it’s great speaking to a founder face-to-face and finding points of connection. Face-to-face, even by Skype beats email and feeds into another important aspect of my practice: collaboration. The meeting has ended with some action points and a lots of ideas. I’m now writing up a to-do list and scanning my notes into Evernote with my iPad. A little bit of prep work that pays off in the long run. Next up, emails.

11am – Noon
I keep on top of emails between 15 minute bursts of work. I either read & reply, read & mark to-do or delete. Being ruthless with email keeps me from being distracted but I have a weakness for a sunny holiday sales pitch when the weather is this cold and turbulent. I file that one away to read later!

I’ve got a good crop to go through, mostly from the Open Data Institute where I’m an associate and trainer. Like all well-run operations, there is a lot of planning, collaboration and administration going on in the background of a training course. I deal with anything simple and prioritise things that need more time or consideration. I’m really pleased to see a good response to my Leeds digital technology article requests, more on that later. Right now, I need a bite to eat and a stretch because:

One Cannot Think Well, Love Well, Sleep Well, if One Has Not Dined Well – Virginia Woolf

via FolioCreations on Etsy

Noon to 2pm
I’m back on my client report, now with added reclining time! I work from home (or hot desk at Unity Works), which gives me two great sources of pleasure: temperature control and a bed. The bed is an integral part of the next process. In an ideal world, I’d have a chaise lounge but needs must. Anywhere I can sit or lie quietly and think deeply.

This morning was all about wrangling my notes into a model. This afternoon is about seeking a strategy and complementary solutions to the people, cultural and technical situation. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A solution may not work because it neglects the people and culture, even if it ticks all the technical boxes. This morning’s efforts mean I have an emergent strategy and have longlisted technical solutions. This afternoon is a four-part exercise: identify the culture, understand the people, shortlist the technical solutions and refine the strategy.

My overarching recommendation is to make small, iterative changes and monitor for impact. Not everything works everywhere but with this approach, we can adjust, improve and minimise failure. I’ll be done soon with a raft of notes to analyse.

2pm to 3pm
*phew* This is the busy part of the day. My next meeting is a phone interview. I’ve spoken to the stakeholders before by Skype but this will be trickier by phone with no visual cues. I’m really looking forward to this conversation and hopefully ongoing projects.

While I’ve been thinking, emails have arrived and I have notes to analyse. That’s for later. Right now, I have to decompress!

3pm to 4pm
My decompression is only just starting, I had another phone call and a quick trip to pick up some milk. It’s nearly 4pm and I’m taking stock of the day. I still have emails to review and notes to analyse, so that’ll be my priority for the next hour. I may be losing my voice but I have tea, twilight and a sense of satisfaction.

4pm to 5pm
Draft 1 of report written and emails sorted. I’m taking a little break till 6pm. My next task is completing the blog post inspired by the gorgeous coffee table book: London: The Information Capital.

6pm to 7pm
Done and dusted. It’s been an interesting day and live-ish blogging is a lot more involved than I’d imagined! Looking forward to reading other HerDays and peeks into your professional practice.



Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder

London: The Information Capital by James Cheshire

Image: Ken TeegardinThe Strategy Of Chess

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Social Media Information Overload by Mark Smiciklas

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Speak the lingo: Changing the perception of IT with visual stories

Communication by Paul Shanks
Communication by Paul Shanks

Is perception reality?

When IT is perceived as a cost-centre staffed by introverts speaking a different language, persuasion and influence is, well, tricky.

In my experience, communication skills aren’t always a problem, language barriers are: A lack of domain knowledge, poor understanding of the wider business motivations and speaking the language we’re comfortable in but is incomprehensible outside our bubble. Changing the first two takes time but is a critical undertaking. You wouldn’t hire customer service, sales or accounting staff without ensuring they get trained on how your business works. Why have IT staff who only have a vague understanding?

That hurdle cleared, the barrier of communication remains. How can IT departments ensure everyone understands proposals, pitches, updates, requirements and other communications? How can they change the perception of IT from a department outside the business to one integrated into the heart of the business strategy and operations? How can they ensure that stakeholders understand what needs doing, when, why and by whom, how it will get done, where issues lie and what’s in it for them without retreating into our favoured language, jargon and buzzwords?

One tool is visual stories. With their emphasis on depicting a series of events in simple, clear visual form, visual stories help reduce information overload. By restricting the visuals to a single sheet, the focus is on de-cluttering to ensure your audience is guided to a specific conclusion.

Storytelling in the Age of Big Data – Strata Europe 2013 by Ann Wuyts (@vintfalken) for www.jini.co – CC By 2.0

This is a one-page visual story of telling stories with data science. The pay off of data science is front and centre: “Tell a story, make a difference”. Other compelling and supporting elements surround the central message. They are clear, uncluttered and written in jargon-free English.

Visual story of program today at #crowdsourcedcities @foundationrock by Jennifer Pahlka

Sticking to the one-page format, the visual story of crowd-sourced cities has similar elements but adds two things: size and colour.  Not only does this make the visual story eye-catching, it allows an increase in detail without clutter. One minor criticism is the catch-phrases and acronyms; using acronyms your audience doesn’t understand is alienating.

West Norwood Feast Story by Emily of mindfulmaps.com via olizilla on flickr

This story is beautifully presented and deals with detail by adding separators and arrows. The audience are directed by the arrows and the timeline which ties the entire story together. Impacts are clearly highlighted and explained, while key takeaways are positioned next to relevant parts of the narrative.

These examples underline the importance of clarity in telling a compelling visual story. They follow the CAST criteria:

  • Content – Keep it relevant
  • Audience – Understand who the story is for
  • Story – Make it compelling, interesting and relevant to the audience
  • Tell – the words and images and how they are arranged

Will a visual story alone persuade your audience? No, but a story that’s relevant, addresses their needs and does so clearly is an ideal starting point to engagement and a deeper conversation. In a nutshell, communication.

What to do next:
Practice, practice, practice;
Read: Stories That Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations

Three more open data examples to get CIOs thinking

Open data is coming to the enterprise.

Day after day, governments and organisations around the world are releasing an ever increasing amount of open data. While there are issues and risks to consider, the benefits and opportunities are considerable.

Open data may be about data that is “freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control”, but the opportunities far exceed the sum of the individual data sets.

With open data comes the possibilities of an open culture and disaggregation: working collaboratively with other organisations and individuals to ensure your organisation reaps the benefits of “best in breed” technology, complemented by skills and experience outside your workforce.

Doug Laney’s 10 examples of open data curated by TechTarget, is a great example of this people+data+technology approach to innovating with open data. Here are 3 more examples that solve problems at the core of many businesses.

1. Who are our potential customers/suppliers/competitors?
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to b2b lead generation, competitor intelligence and supplier analytics.

Mapping corporate structure using data from OpenCorporates
Mapping corporate structure using data from OpenCorporates

OpenCorporates is the largest global open data repository of company information. Using the SIC division titles, you can find active UK companies involved in the sale of cars and light motor vehicles for example, quickly and relatively painlessly.

Enriching your existing company data is just the start of possibilities this rich resource provides. If you’d prefer the data straight from Companies House, they publish basic company data as open data.

2. Where’s our stuff?
Are you creating an asset register? Collating reports of broken windows, potholes or other problems in the community? Monitoring a marketing campaign where geography and engagement matter?

The Leeds Art Crawl Map
The Leeds Art Crawl Map

Enter Leeds Art Crawl. Proposed as a solution to Leeds City Council’s dilemma: What is public art, where is it and in what condition? The tool, created by WetGenes encourages participants to wander around the city and take pictures of what they think of as public art.

The pictures are uploaded then and there via twitter with geolocation turned on. And so an asset map was born. Not only does it answer the original question, Leeds City Council can now find out how popular a piece is, citizens can discover new public art, be part of the community and curation.

3. How do we/they stack up?
Another area where open data shines is comparative analysis. Zurich Insurance combined publicly available information to create Zurich Risk Room, a tool for multi-dimensional global risk comparison.

SSentif ‘s Yorkshire and the Humber area employment report
SSentif ‘s Yorkshire and the Humber area employment report

Ssentif Intelligence based in Leeds, have a similar product aimed at health, local government and sport organisations, who can compare metrics and peer standing in an innovative dashboard based on Ssentif’s unique benchmarking tool.

For established organisations, opportunities exist to partner up to extend your talent pool, collaborate with your customers, increase your understanding of your place in the market and much more.

For more on open data:

Big Data – Will more Vees give you a closer shave?

Big Data is such an ubiquitous term now, I hear it everywhere: at the gym, in the supermarket and even in the pub. The merest mention of working with data and the question “Oh you mean Big Data?” seems inevitable.

Adding yet another V to the Vees of Big Data also seems an ubiquitous trend. We started with three: Volume, Velocity and Variety. This set implied that big data was data too large for mere mortal computing that changed faster than Clark Kent to Superman in a phone booth and could be more amorphous than a Space:1999 alien. Big Data would lead to Big Money. And so, the consultants geared up and Big Data became a phenomenon.

What is big data? - Asigra.com
What is big data? – Asigra.com

It was soon clear that three wouldn’t cut it. Gillette, “the best a man can get”, also agree with the need to increment for improved performance: They gave us the Mach 3 and Fusion. Big Data followed, perhaps unknowingly in their footsteps. And now there were four: meet Veracity. It was no longer enough to be big, fast and a mixed bag, Big Data now had to be credible too. After all, garbage in = garbage out.

The Four V's of Big Data - IBM
The Four V’s of Big Data – IBM

Like a well fuelled hype cycle, Big Data was peaking, but was it fulfilling the promise of Big Money? It was big, fast, credible and a mixed bag. Having a Big Data project showed your organisation had its finger on the pulse of technology.

Question: What was Big Data actually doing for you?

Like all tools, and Big Data is a tool, just having it lying around, proudly on display doesn’t make it useful. So a fifth V joined the crew: Value (Your mileage may vary, viability, viscosity and virality are contenders). Big Data is now big, fast, credible, a mixed bag that gets you to where you’re going. A bit like the Gillette Fusion, more Vees = closer shave.

Big Data: The 5 Vs Everyone Must Know - Bernard Marr
Big Data: The 5 Vs Everyone Must Know – Bernard Marr

So, what have we learned from this correlation between razors and Big Data? Firstly, new terms are rarely defined cleanly to start with. Big Data caught on but to keep being useful, it had to evolve. Part of that evolution was users having their lightbulb moments. When you’re dealing with cutting edge, the odd knick is perhaps a small price to pay.

Secondly, for some, Big Data may have been a “one ring to rule to rule them all”. A knight in shiny SAN that would slay the data dragons. However seductive data is, there is one non-technology motto I embrace: A solution without a problem is a white elephant. To put it another way: Let the punishment fit the crime.

Perhaps even, it starts with your business problem. Firstly, define your problem. Really understand what it is you’re trying to solve, not just what you think you’re trying to solve. Make sure everyone (who needs to be involved, your stakeholders) understands the same problem – “sing from the same hymn sheet” if you must. Then find the best fit solution for the problem at hand – there may be constraints and barriers that make “the best” unusable. Plan your attack and regularly review your progress. Has the problem changed? Is it different now you’ve set off on your data expedition? No problem! Back to the drawing board, plan your next iteration. And if you’re fixing the wrong problem, short iterations give you a rapid exit point before you invest too much feeding a white elephant.

Sometimes, you may even need to think small.

Thinking about small - Freddie Alequin
Thinking about small – Freddie Alequin