We should build data platforms for government with the same techniques used in creating anything digital, argues Jim Stamp, head of data at Made Tech
- Jim Stamp
Published: 05 Sep 2022
Data-driven government is not new, or innovative – but it is essential to underpin policy and operational decision-making. Despite this having been central to government digital strategy for years, we are still struggling to see the outcomes, especially outside pockets of the pandemic response.
We know the problems – legacy technologies, a skills gap and cultural blockers – but what practical steps can we take today that will actually move the needle so that all public services are designed in a way that truly benefits citizens?
We talk a lot about user values in digital transformation, and working with data is no different. It is slightly astonishing how much money is put into building data platforms without applying the same techniques that we use when creating a digital system. For instance, if you were building a website, you would use user research to identify problems, test ideas and validate solutions, and only then deliver to those requirements.
Across the public sector, a lot of expensive data platforms are created with a “build it and they will come” mentality. This ignores what people really need, so the systems are not adopted and, as a result, those platforms are deemed failures.
Instead, we should build data platforms with the same techniques we use when creating anything digital. If you fix problems that people have, you make things easier for them, and a data platform will become sticky because there is a reason to use it.
Finding balance is critical for both the creation of a data platform but also the use of it. The data space moves fast, and it is worth remembering that what you are building will only last so long. This means you must balance this new-thing-versus-old-thing mentality. But, equally, you don’t want to just keep adding new tools to the toolkit. Iterate for as long as you need to really deliver value for the people you are designing for. Creating space for innovation is crucial – but don’t underestimate new tech fatigue.
Create a shared language
One significant blocker to the adoption of data-driven practices is a lack of a common language. It is too easy for one term to have numerous meanings within an organisation. Moving to a domain-driven, product view of data can help.
We have found domain-driven development to be a great starting point. It’s an idea that allows you to view your organisation as a set of bounded domains and identify the root of terms and their meaning. This allows you to create an organisational data model to clarify meanings and foster better conversations between teams.
Once you really understand your organisation in this way, you can start building a common vocabulary, where terms such as “person” and “property” have the same meaning (or at least an agreed one!) to all.
The reason that data platforms fail is rarely due to the technology – it’s often because of the culture behind its use. Even something as simple as ownership can cause issues. It is usually clear to teams that they are responsible for the data in the databases that they look after. What is less clear to them is that the data still belongs to them once it has been copied into a data platform.
Helping the teams to feel connected to the platform, because they use it to solve a problem, will give them a reason to care about their data once it’s in there. This extends to governance and legal issues, too – the data doesn’t stop being the team’s responsibility just because it has been copied.
There is a cultural aspect of making sure you train all your people to be data literate too.
Data literacy can take different shapes, but you are never going to become a data-mature organisation if you haven’t been through a cultural shift.
Architect your technology to be replaced
Creating technology to be replaced is hard to do in the digital and data space. There are foundational pieces that you should put in place that won’t change. But, equally, try to use open technology as much as you can.
There is a cost with open-source frameworks. They are free to use, but they can be expensive to maintain. But by using open technology, you can take your data and shift it from one system to another without having to rewrite everything.
The days of having a governance committee that reviews all things data feels opposite to what we have done within the digital sector.
We, as a community, should be agreeing on what principles we want to apply to our data. Agreeing on the definition of “sufficient testing” and finding ways to share/contract data schemas is far more efficient than a distant panel taking control. Shifting the responsibility to the teams creating the products is a huge step towards true data maturity.
You would never build an API [application programming interface] for your customers and then change the interface without warning them. With APIs, we use techniques like version numbers or upgrade paths to ensure continuity or service. Sadly, this isn’t always the case with data.
Often, we find data is collected from points within a system that are not really intended for consumption, so the data’s schema can be ill-considered or, even worse, change with no notice. By building data as a product, where it is intended and designed for use by others, we can prevent this issue.
This comes back to making sure the team that generates the data owns the data. They need to maintain and care about it, otherwise people won’t use it and it will cost the organisation time, money and effort.
Focus on the ethics of personal data
Having access to a person’s name or address often feels vital to completing a piece of analysis. In the vast majority of cases, it is not. It is only human to want to see names and postcodes that seem familiar to use, rather than a column of random numbers, but from a mathematical point of view, it very rarely makes any difference. In fact, we usually convert them to numbers to use the values.
Wherever possible, we should question when we see personal details, and even more so protected characteristics. As a default, we should not have access to them and we should pseudonymise the values.
As data platforms become more mature and people start using machine learning, ethics becomes more important. One of the only exceptions to the pseudonymisation rule is to make sure that any selected training data is representative of the population and has no bias in it. Even in this case, we should not be able to identify a person, but only know enough to assess the data for bias.
Data continues to be a hot topic, across both the private and public sectors. And although all the foundations mentioned come from a technology point of view, they are particularly applicable to the pockets of legacy-facing portals within our public services. If we want to realise the benefits of data-driven government, we need to get our foundations in place – and there is no better time to do that than now.
Jim Stamp is head of data at Made Tech
Read more on Data quality management and governance
NASA Says Hurricane Didn’t Hurt Artemis I Hardware, Sets New Launch Window
NASA’s Artemis I moon mission launch, stalled by Hurricane Ian, has a new target for takeoff. The launch window for step one of NASA’s bold plan to return humans to the lunar surface now opens Nov. 12 and closes Nov. 27, the space agency said Friday.
The news comes after the pending storm caused NASA to scrub the latest Artemis I Iaunch, which had been scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 2. As Hurricane Ian threatened to travel north across Cuba and into Florida, bringing rain and extreme winds to the launch pad’s vicinity, NASA on Monday rolled its monster Space Launch System rocket, and the Orion spacecraft it’ll propel, back indoors to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
The hurricane made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, bringing with it a catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding that left dozens of people dead, caused widespread power outages and ripped buildings from their foundations. Hurricane Ian is “likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday, adding that it will take “months, years, to rebuild.”
Initial inspections Friday to assess potential impacts of the devastating storm to Artemis I flight hardware showed no damage, NASA said. “Facilities are in good shape with only minor water intrusion identified in a few locations,” the agency said in a statement.
Next up, teams will complete post-storm recovery operations, which will include further inspections and retests of the flight termination system before a more specific launch date can be set. The new November launch window, NASA said, will also give Kennedy employees time to address what their families and homes need post-storm.
Artemis I is set to send instruments to lunar orbit to gather vital information for Artemis II, a crewed mission targeted for 2024 that will carry astronauts around the moon and hopefully pave the way for Artemis III in 2025. Astronauts on that high-stakes mission will, if all goes according to plan, put boots on the lunar ground, collect samples and study the water ice that’s been confirmed at the moon’s South Pole.
The hurricane-related Artemis I rollback follows two other launch delays, the first due to an engine problem and the second because of a hydrogen leak.
Hurricane Ian has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone but is still bringing heavy rains and gusty winds to the Mid-Atlantic region and the New England coast.
What You Get in McDonalds’ New Happy-Meal-Inspired Box for Adults
You’ve pulled up to McDonald’s as a full-on adult. You absolutely do not need a toy with your meal, right? Joking. Of course you do.
The fast-food chain will soon sell boxed meals geared toward adults, and each one has a cool, odd-looking figurine inside.
The meal has an odd name — the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box — that’s based on the fashion brand collaborating with McDonald’s on this promotion.
According to McDonald’s, the box is inspired by the memory of enjoying a Happy Meal as a kid. The outside of the box is multicolored and features the chain’s familiar golden arches.
The first day you can get a Cactus Plant Flea Market Box will be Monday, Oct. 3. Pricing is set by individual restaurants and may vary, according to McDonald’s. It’ll be available in the drive-thru, in-restaurant, by delivery or on the McDonald’s app, while supplies last.
You can choose between a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets. It will also come with fries and a drink.
Now about those toys. The boxes will pack in one of four figurines. Three of the four appear to be artsy takes on the classic McDonald’s characters Grimace, Hamburglar and Birdie the Early Bird, while the fourth is a little yellow guy sporting a McDonald’s shirt called Cactus Buddy.
In other McD news, Halloween buckets could be returning to the chain this fall. So leave some room in your stomach for a return trip.
Why companies like iHeartMedia, NBCU rely on homegrown IP to build metaverse engagements
To avoid potential blowback from a skeptical audience, retailers as well as media and entertainment companies are learning to invest in their homegrown intellectual properties while building virtual brand activations inside Roblox or Fortnite.
Take, for instance, when they get it wrong.
Earlier this week, Walmart launched its own Roblox world — called Walmart Land — and was roundly mocked for it across social media given the announcement’s disjointed brand message and apparent lack of life. In one viral tweet, a Twitter user described a clip of Walmart CMO William White introducing the Roblox space as “one of the saddest videos ever created.”
To some extent, this sort of criticism is to be expected during the early days of the metaverse.
“Walmart is an iconic brand; when you see them coming into a platform like Roblox, people are going to be 10 times more critical of what is being launched,” said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, CEO of the Roblox developer studio Supersocial.
But Walmart’s size is not its only disadvantage as it dips its toes into Roblox. Although Walmart has a widely recognizable brand, it owns few intellectual properties that users are actually interested in experiencing virtually — a shortcoming reflected by the somewhat cavernous emptiness of Roblox’s Walmart Land.
The success of other recent brand activations is evidence that media and entertainment brands are better equipped to build metaverse spaces that can dodge online skepticism, thanks to their wealth of owned IP.
“They are having to reinvent themselves, to a certain degree, but that is in their DNA,” said Jesse Streb, global svp of technology and engineering at the agency DEPT. “So they have a unique advantage over, say, some kludgy company that sells lumber, or a construction company.”
For example, iHeartMedia’s Roblox and Fortnite spaces were inspired by the mass media corporation’s wealth of popular real-life events, such as the Jingle Ball Tour and iHeartRadio Music Festival, with virtual versions of musicians like Charlie Puth performing pre-recorded concerts that allow real-time audience interaction.
“There’s a strong brand association with the IP, down to a station level — you’re in the New York area, you probably know Z100,” said iHeartMedia evp of business development and partnerships Jess Jerrick. “The same is true for the event IP, or the IP that we now have in the podcasting space, and of course our radio broadcast talent. So there’s no shortage of really strong IP we can bring into these spaces.”
Translating real-life properties into the metaverse is also an enticing prospect for brands that view metaverse platforms as an experimental marketing channel, allowing them to bring tried-and-true IP into their virtual activations instead of designing them from the ground level. This was part of the strategy behind the recent Tonight Show activation in Fortnite Creative, which was designed in collaboration between NBCUniversal and Samsung. “We’re looking at it holistically — how do we find fans in new ways, and use IP that fans love in new ways?” said NBCU president of advertising and client partnerships Mark Markshall.
Since opening on Sept. 14, iHeartLand has already enticed over 1.5 million Roblox users to visit. The company aims to retain that attention with a schedule of virtual programming featuring popular musicians and personalities.
“At our core, we are essentially an influencer network; our broadcast talent are some of the most connected, most engaging influencers at work in media today,” said Conal Byrne, CEO of iHeart Digital Audio Group. “That gives us this sort of superpower, to be able to go into new-ish platforms, like Roblox or Fortnite, because we talk to our listeners through those influencers.”
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