A non-technical guide to the likely social impact of the National Data Strategy

A picture that says “policy briefing note: understanding the social impact of the national data strategy”
A picture that says “policy briefing note: understanding the social impact of the national data strategy”

Anyone who knows me will know that I hate to write a long document — but, unfortunately, I had no choice. My policy briefing note on the National Data Strategy rather stretches the credibility of the word “note” (it is just under 6,000 words long), but there was a lot to say.

Read the briefing note >

Read the summary slide deck>

The briefing note attempts to explain the importance of the National Data Strategy for non-technical audiences, and summarises some of the social impacts. …


On Excel-gate and the UK government’s “quantitative revolution”

Row 65,536 — the last row in an XLS file

What gets mended matters

In 2014 I was working at a service-design agency, doing discovery interviews at a big utility company — talking to stakeholders and finding out what could be done to make their billing system compatible with the “smart” devices being rolled out by the marketing team.

After a few conversations, it became clear that all roads led back to two system administrators — two women who sat in an unbeloved office at the back of the building, the only people able to do the magic required to spit billing data out of the system. …


Data policy has important social implications and should not only be determined by technologists

A screengrab from the National Data Strategy web page
A screengrab from the National Data Strategy web page

Why is this important?

The National Data Strategy might sound like a very technical thing; in reality it is a document that sets out a vision for how information might flow through the UK economy, government and our public services. That information will be used to drive decisions that are made about people and things, and inform the design of products and services. So although this might be traditionally regarded as a piece of digital policy, it will also have implications for economic and social policy.


A white lighthouse against an orange background.
A white lighthouse against an orange background.

Glimmers has been a real-time investigation into the relationship between technology and civil society.

Civil society is committed to “building back better” but for that to happen, it needs to be active and thriving — not exhausted and over-stretched.

In response to our findings, we have created the Glimmers Toolkit to aid recovery for civil society organisations, and are calling for a Community Tech Stack, so the future of digital social infrastructure is not dependent on either big technology platforms or start-up “unicorns”.

The full final report is available on the Glimmers website. Our findings and recommendations are summarised below.

Insight

The pandemic has shown that, for UK civil…


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Image for post
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock racing through LA in “Speed”

Dominic Cummings’ techno-enthusiasm is infectious — and, this year, it’s been spreading all over government.

There doesn’t appear to be a written plan — at least not in the public domain — but there are certainly recurring themes. This is a dream of a low-friction, innovation paradise in which numbers tell the truth while bureaucrats (and ethicists) get out of the way. It is less a vision for society, more an obsession with process and power.

The risks of this approach can be seen in the handling of the A level grading and the NHSX track and trace app. Both of these projects needed better governance processes — including open and transparent ways of working, forward planning, and the acceptance of external expert guidance – but instead, both have been allowed to experience significant failure, due in part to a culture of secrecy and a lack of oversight. …


Using the wisdom of civil society to forecast and anticipate social issues

A graphic illustration of a white mountain with a flag in the top
A graphic illustration of a white mountain with a flag in the top

This is an extract from a letter sent to Danny Kruger MP as part of a consultation for the UK Prime Minister, exploring how to empower and strengthen communities for the long-term.

The wisdom of civil society

Civil society is well-placed to use its empirical and on-the-ground expertise to forecast and anticipate societal issues. Leveraging this wisdom is vital to realising the government’s levelling-up agenda.

Mirroring the Grand Challenges set out in the Industrial Strategy, there is an opportunity for civil society to set a number of critical Social Missions for post-Covid recovery. This is a much bigger transformation than looking for the first-order efficiencies created by data sharing and better administrative systems: it is an opportunity to regroup, to rethink structures, and to create imaginative solutions that set out a better future for more people.


Short-term tactics for post-Covid recovery

A red semi-circle with an arrow at one end, against a pink background
A red semi-circle with an arrow at one end, against a pink background
A reset button

1. Reset and restore: setting strategies in uncertain times

The Covid recovery period will be filled with turning points and choices; there is a lot of talk of “building better” right now, but that is by no means a certainty. Civil society’s financial vulnerability is likely to be cemented in the coming recession, and dealing with the practical difficulties caused by this will be tough; getting through it requires a shared, consistent and positive future for a post-Covid world.

From interviews and workshops with people from across civil society — activists, community groups and professionalised service delivery charities — we have heard that, if a better future with technology is to be realised, there needs to be a sector-wide commitment to a tactical reset from charities and social organisations that deliver services, so…


A thought experiment exploring the power of intent and community

A pink slide that says “let’s occupy technology with love” in black lettering, with a red heart
A pink slide that says “let’s occupy technology with love” in black lettering, with a red heart

Gill Wildman and I were lucky enough to facilitate a workshop at the Department of Dreams festival today, curated by the wonderful Immy Kaur. Our research into the new role technology creates for civil society is leading in two different directions: we’re working on some formal recommendations for the charity sector — but also on some dreams and ideas about the potential for the ways communities, activists and others can influence how technology is shaped.

This post sets out the provocation we offered at the beginning of the workshop. I’ll write about the findings of the research, including what we spoke about in the break-out sessions, separately. …


Making real-world communities when everything is “digital-first”

A computer generated image of a group of animals from the game Animal Crossing standing in a field
A computer generated image of a group of animals from the game Animal Crossing standing in a field
A still from Animal Crossings: New Horizons

Habits seem to grow out of other habits far more directly than they do out of gadgets

George H. Daniels, “The Big Questions in the History of American Technology”, Technology and Culture, Vol. 11, №1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 1–21 (accessed here)

This blog post is a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world. The first part defines civil society, the middle sections set out some context for how communities are changing, and the last part asks how non-technical experts can get messy with technology.

1. Civil Society

Firstly, what do we mean by civil society? …


More of life than ever is now lived through, monitored and enabled by data and digital technologies. What does this digital shift mean for civil society — and how could civil society be in a digital world?

Mosaic of screens showing people taking part in The Sofa Singers, a remote video choir
Mosaic of screens showing people taking part in The Sofa Singers, a remote video choir
Image via The Sofa Singers, showing a virtual choir singing together in April 2020 (Original by Beatrice Consolata on Instagram)

This blog post introduces Glimmers, a collaborative research project led by Careful Industries and Plot.

Firstly, an acknowledgement

This is a project about the near future. It can feel difficult to write or think about or acknowledge the future at the moment, because the present is so unknown and overwhelming. And it can also feel difficult, and dissonant, to find good things in the midst of a global pandemic. But amid the current uncertainty — which includes much pain, worry and sadness — there are glimmers of what will come next. …

About

Rachel Coldicutt

Feminist. Responsible technologist. Reading and writing on equality, automation and climate crisis. On sabbatical-ish. Formerly @doteveryone .

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