Blog

3 months ago, I started writing a newsletter for the engine room, on the topic of Responsible Data. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential role of newsletters in online communities, and trying to work out what value this particular newsletter could bring.

This NYMag piece on newsletters as online ‘safe spaces’ made me think a lot about what that means for community building. Sadly, nowadays, ‘open’ social media platforms which are used to provide channels of communication and discussion can be dangerous places for feminist activists, women or other marginalised communities, or simply people talking about topics like social justice or social change. Despite this, lots of online community gathering still happens on social media platforms - tweeting with a certain hashtag, participating in online discussion forums, or joining a specific Facebook group, for example. What other options are there for bringing together a community, without venturing into increasingly uncomfortable social media spaces?

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour of giving my very first keynote, at CSVConf in Berlin. It was a lovely, community-run conference “for data makers everywhere”, and I appreciated a lot about the way it was set up.

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Over the past year or so, I’ve been trying out a couple of informal event styles to bring people together around a certain topic, and enable a deeper style of discussion than often happens at bigger conferences.

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Warning: really long post. For a reading list of books, blogs and more which take a critical perspective on tech/data and are written by women, scroll to the bottom, or check out this Twitter list of the women mentioned below!

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If we think long enough through the ‘theories of change’ of many of the organisations and movements I find myself around, we should eventually come to the step of making ourselves redundant. In my previous role with School of Data, we were very clear about this: we even had a workshop session once where we were tasked with drawing up our own project ‘obituary’.

The idea of playing a certain role for a certain time - that is, until others can do it better, and where at some point, that particular role will be unnecessary - appeals greatly to me. It means my job will keep changing, and I’ll have to keep learning new things. It means I’ll have to, by necessity, be flexible, and not become too attached to a function or a role. It also means that other people will step up and at some point, I’ll have to recognise that it’s time for me to step away.

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Tomorrow is International Women’s Day; in my mind, a day for celebrating, and thanking, inspiring women. When I think of the most inspiring women I know personally, and the most important conversations I’ve had with them, almost all of them have one slightly counterintuitive thread running through them: vulnerability and weakness.

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Last week, my friend Tin wrote about being intentional about who was in his networks. His thoughts got me thinking about not only who is in my own network, but also what, and how to widen both.

In lots of ways, this is actually the opposite of what many social networks and platforms are trying to do, and this worries me greatly. “You might also like…”, or “Recommended for you” features point us towards things that we’ll like because they are similar to us, rather than things that will make us think.

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Unusually for me, I’ve just spent the last two weeks pretty much solidly in the company of people who I’m working closely with; first at the Global Voices Exchange workshop last week, then at the engine room organisation retreat, which brought together our distributed team in one place. Both weeks further reinforced for me the importance of in-person meetings for those of us who interact primarily in the digital space, for a number of reasons, and together have changed the way that I’ll collaborate online in the future.

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The more I spend time working with data, the more I’m becoming convinced that the most important tool we have in our advocacy or social change toolbelts, is storytelling. Why? There are countless examples of when “data” has proved a certain thing without a shadow of a doubt - but people’s behaviour has not changed as a consequence. What’s often missing there, is compelling storytelling. “Data” on its own, doesn’t change a thing - not to mention its subjectivity, despite being perceived as “truth”, way too often.

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On Friday, a bunch of smart organisations (including the engine room, where I’m spending a lot of time these days) brought together 35 artists, researchers, academics, activists, journalists and more, to talk about Responsible Data Visualisation.

The day’s conversations and brainstorming turned out to be incredibly rich and varied. There will be more write ups and documentation coming soon, but before I forget, below are just some of the themes that got me thinking:

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