Archives for the month of: December, 2010


A year of two halves: maternity leave, then returning to work in july. A year full of memories, but I thought I'd challenge myself by focussing less on words and ideas and more on my physical lived experience. So here goes …


Clever Photograph by my auntie Carolyn Black 2010 (c) all rights reserved


Touch The feel of my blackberry buttons and the tracker nippley thing: the outside world lives in there. The horrible gaping hole left after the "difficult extraction" of my wisdom tooth, metallic fleshy cavity of pain. Shudder.

Sights My beautiful boys, obviously. The view from the Hampton Road as I drove around endlessly seeking the elusive holy grail of two boys sleeping at the same time. The twitter alert icon on my phone.

Sounds Baby Crying. Imaginary baby crying (hallucinated after too much listening to baby crying). The XX (thanks to my friend Dawn for forcing modern music on me after a year in the wilderness). The theme tune to True Blood "I wanna do bad things to you". Peppa Pig song.

Tastes Not much of a year for food, though some exceptions: kayal, a south indian restaurant (with my mum) and jamie oliver's 15 in watergate bay (with my in-laws). Children's orange nurofen tastes nice: the cointreau of the medicine world. Gingerbread latte from evilbucks: so wrong it's right.

Smells Dirty Nappies. Imaginary dirty nappies (hallucinated after too many dirty nappies). Keep-me-awake-drinks: indian spiced chai, strong earl grey, coffee, coffee, coffee. Oh, and did I mention coffee?


Looking forward to seeing what 2011 brings …


Pat Parslow has recently written about the difficulty of tying down concepts: "From this 50,000’ view, a major part of the ‘size’ of the topic has just become almost vanishingly small. Step far enough back, defining your parameters appropriately, and you can genuinely make the ‘problem’ smaller by taking a larger view." …
He goes on to say: "I am prepared to be convinced that there are concepts (or topics) which are clearly and cleanly defined – I am just not in a position to be able to identify any. When trying to identify the meaning of a set of words, I always find that there are more and more links to other things the more closely I look. How about you?"
From Pat Parslow's post "how big is my topic?"

Well, this rings very true.

I think language allows us to treat a concept as a black box, a contained meaning to be built on in our making sense of the world. We don't unpack the black box unless that is the focus of our investigation. If a person is at all curious, they realise that if you peer inside any black box you'll find a world like a tardis. Beauty. Society. Dialectical Materialism. The same goes for things: Beefburgers. Clouds. Vanish Stain Remover. Tell me a thing and I betcha it's someone somewhere's job to design/find/analyse/sell/etc that very thing. There is always more depth and texture to everything, if you're receptive to it.

In his concept of the semantic river, Wittgenstein imagined concepts as boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles and grit in a moving river. The top layer churns constantly, defining its edges as it rubs against the next stone, constant change, very reactive to the water currents. The biggest deepest layer takes the longest, but slowly slowly the layers above and beside shape its edges and define it. I love this metaphor for the way events and experiences churn our conceptual understanding of reality: concepts are fluid.

So a concept is rarely as simple as we signpost, and it isn't really static. It's a construct to make thinking possible.

It reminds me of being on a train through towns and suburbs, staring into people's gardens and houses. How can that garden, that kitchen, that street, that school, be as full of life and meaningful as my garden, kitchen, street, school where I grew up. Every life is a black box until you show any curiosity, and empathy. Deciding to believe in the depth of other people's lives is liberating. But you can't live too empathetically all the time, you can't feel raw to other people's lives: it eats you up. You can't soak up everyone's sorrows, it exhausts you and makes you unable to live well yourself.

You should believe that every life has as much depth as yours but you can't factor it in to your everyday life, any more than you can unpack every concept in everday language.

We have to abstract and simplify in order to operate competently in the world. That shorthand is never the whole story and we shouldn't let our language trick us into forgetting that no concept lasts forever. That's also why we should fight over meaning, not out of pedantry, but because concepts are what drive us to act. Rights, fairness, poverty, privilege: these concepts should be re-owned, re-defined and acted on, again and again: this is what drives progress.

In my job, I have a classic case of paralysis by analysis. A big part of my job is making sense out of things that are happening, explaining it to other people, and planning around it. My mind often swirls, seasicky, with work stuff, and I can't pin down what it is I want to say about it all. The colleague who did my maternity cover has said himself that I work in a minefield, so maybe it's not just me, but either way it's a problem to how I get my job done. 

Any act of sense making can feel like it's starting from nothing, whether you're a leading edge technology futures researcher or a student writing their first undergraduate essay. So to make sense of my field, I have been trying different ways of classifying and relating things, ideas, options. I've experimented with delicious, evernote and a recent foray into pearltrees (experimental co-curating with Lou McGill!) Nothing has stuck. Curating my world seems like an endless and impossible task. At meetings I've banged on about how  we can't paint a coherent picture of our corner of the world because our corner isn't coherent: it's necessarily ephemeral and opportunistic and responsive. I've been obsessed with how far we're zooming in to, or out of, the topic in questions, because what is useful to say depends on that perspective of distance. 

In the meantime what i've really enjoyed about 2010 has been finding distinctive voices and likeminds. I've defended polemic around the election in May and now around the cuts. Finding a collective voice means making some assumptions that people share some values: lets start from here, rather than lets start from scratch. I've enjoyed things like the RSA Animate talks and the TED Talks. I like voices and stories and authenticity. I'm even organising a conference session on the principle of real stories (a few more people to invite yet!). 

Because here's the thing: to make sense of the world, sometimes people make maps and sometimes people tell stories.

  • Bad things about map-makers: well, not much I can think of! Librarians map knowledge. Sure, no map lasts forever but let's start somewhere. The whole of academic endeavour is an ongoing revision of the map of all human knowledge. If people get too wedded to the map, the frame, the structure, it gets in the way of new connections, new ways of seeing. Sometimes mental maps can be too rigid, information structures can become unintuitive, so it can make change difficult
  • Good things about map-makers: they're brave. Its the easiest thing in the world to criticise someone else's way of slicing up reality. But without a starting point, many of the professional critics (in the academic sense or the pub sense ;-)), would have nothing to define their ideas against.
  • Bad things about story tellers: sometimes they're the "Talkers" who sometimes rule the academic conference circuit. They come in, tell their story about how innovative they are, and then, rather than go back to work to actually do innovative things, they prepare for the next conference. But hey, thats a way of earning a living. I suppose. That's a particular type of academic, the "sage on the stage" gone wrong.
  • Good things about story tellers: they reference the map, every now and then, for you to get your bearings, but overall they have a narrative. Watch an RSA animate and see how often they mention research elsewhere without being weighed down with it. They weave it in. Not to validate their story, but to enrich it, and to bring to your attention things you hadn't thought.

Me, I have stories to tell but I often end up trying to contextualise what I have to say to the extent it becomes diluted. I try to knit what I have to say into the wider conversation. I want to cite every conversation that led me to this paragraph, because I remember them! I've had some fantastic discussions this year, with family, at conferences, at meetings, on twitter. Of course they are the context for my ideas. I hope if you're reading this and recognise our discussions you don't feel slighted for not being namechecked.

On the other side of the coin I have lost count of how many "surreptitious seeds" I've planted in meetings that have been nurtured by other minds (in a bad mood I laughed at Dilbert's meeting pirates strip). Apparently, I shouldn't care whether people know my influence. Private victories and all that. 

But the thing is … The way people get rewarded and recognised doesn't match to their real influence. Tony Hirst is a prime example of someone with huge impact on a particular group of people. But what he says doesn't match the academic model of grounding everything in theory, delaying sharing results until you've got enough words to make a peer-reviewed journal. Or my colleague Rachel Bruce, who has incredible insight to trends and priorities in my field, but what she says gets poured into internal papers which the public never see, and provides the rationale for other people to do the R&D and talk about it in peer-reviewed journals.

So back to the map makers and story tellers. I should value both. I shouldn't underestimate the value of the map, I should give my story some signposts. But I should also not dilute my story in order to validate it and avoid criticism, right? Authentic distinctive voices can be networked social voices too, right? And since all knowledge is social, there should be a huge range of ways in which people can speak, cite, be heard and be cited, and it all counts towards the furthering of knowledge, right?

I’m watching BB4’s The Joy of Stats, and it just described on the push for open data in US crime statistics. Today I was planning a conference session about using open content, open data and open access research papers. So the question of “what is open data for?” is at the forefront of my mind and I can’t resist responding to to Tony Hirst's open data skeptic challenge : "What public is intended to be the user of all this public data, and how are they going to use it exactly?"

The question brings to mind this post by Tom Steinberg on Open data how not to cock it up

“The first way we can avoiding cocking up Open Data is to ensure that we always advocate for it in the same way that scientists advocate for Blue Sky science research – we must argue for it as a numbers game – a calculated risk that is worth taking. So, we say loud and clear : we do not expect the majority of government datasets will contain massive wells of untapped value, just as we don't expect that most university research will  yield a new penicillin, or an atom bomb …”

So maybe much open data is long tail: niche. The chances of it being used might be low. But without it being available there is no chance it gets used.

So what if 99% of open data never gets used. Does this mean it’s pointless to advocate open data?

I wonder if there is an argument for open data that doesn't rely on it being used.

The data is already there somewhere, but it’s locked into proprietary systems, only published as visual images within reports, only exposed for different purposes.Forcing the data out of systems onto spreadsheets and websites at least makes it clearer that the data belongs to the whole council / department / agency, not to the head of finance, or the planning managers etc. Treating data as data has got to be better than treating data as reports.

But what’s most interesting to me is that I think all these opens: open educational resources, open data and open innovation are really about new ways of working. The things you have to do to make your work more open make your work better. Knowing people will see your work makes it better. Inviting other people to see your work as you do it makes the work better. Working openly is just better.

Transparency is ethically better than lack of transparency. Freedom of Information legislation led to publication schedules led to open data. Assuming that government data should be open gives people working inside government a reason to try to make the right things happen. The threat of bad decisions being exposed is a weapon that can be used to argue for better decisions.

Back to Steinberg:

“It may surprise you to hear that my vision of a perfect (but realistic) government, is one that would release nothing, not a jot of data, not a single row or column….. until someone asked for it. When they did ask, my perfect government would then instantly publish that data in a brilliant, helpful format, regularly updated, and running on a lovely webservice that fulfils every data-mashers dreams.”