Things I learned at Open Data Camp 7

5 min readNov 5, 2019


A cartoon by Drawnalism, showing Dick Whittington and his data cat(alogue). The bag and the cat are filled in with 0s and 1s.
Open data art from the impressive Drawnalism.

Groggy start. Quick coffee from the little cafe at Lewes station. Sheep and clouds turn into highrises and rumbling planes as I change train at Gatwick. Plastic hood up at Farringdon, covering the eyes and zoning in on the pat-pat-pat of raindrops, stopping at an old phone box to check the GPS and round the corner.

I arrive in the lobby, guided into the lit warmth of Open Data Camp 7. This year it’s in London and my itinerary has been kind to me. It’s my first ODCamp. Not my first unconference — been lurking round UKGovCamp since it was GovWebBarCamp. I’m groggy and pretty tired — weather, cold, half-term hangover — but excited inside. Looking forward to reconnecting. With data.

A few minutes of my usual awkward loitering and sticker-filching, casing out the place like I’m on a heist. Get coffee. Wonder what sort of details to put on my lanyard. Is Mastodon cool enough to put on yet? Probably not. Make small talk. Chat to some familiar faces it’s good to catch up with, like Giuseppe and Mark. Edafe chats to Mark and she seems really cool. The energy in the room is dampened by grey skies outside and the rugby inside.

But we’re go! The camp team do a great job taking it in turns to tell us about the day, like a Saturday morning TV show. Is there an open data hand puppet to join in? After UkGovCamp, the crowd is so much … cosier. It feels nice, especially when I’m still waking up. A good number of people haven’t been to an unconference before, which feels important. I don’t get scared about pitching. Not many hands up for the ‘open data in supply and waste chains’ idea I have, but enough. Let’s do this.

The rest of the day happens at A Good Pace for me. Jonathan (not Jon)’s session on Wardley maps is interesting because I like mapping abstract things AND I have lots of dependencies in my job, so twice as many points there. I’ve accidentally worn a shedload of maroon, despite the warnings, so I’m legally bound to help out by taking some notes on the session. But to be honest, Ed’s notes and the liveblog article are way better.

My session is second up, and I confess that supply and waste chains are something I’m interested in but know little about. The conversation takes off on its own and I have lots of notes which I will write up and coagulate after this. I got a lot out of it, and want to to solidify my brain better. Tim really helpfully adds some notes to the official write-up though.

Otherwise, I came to the day with a fairly open (ha) set of expectations. I’m not quite sure where I stand on ‘open data’ as a whole currently, despite having worked with it for over a decade. I decided not to have too much opinion coming into the camp, to listen to the conversations, to see where the ‘scene’ is at now.

I came away with some thoughts, but above that, I came away with something in my soul. About what open data is, what it means, why it’s important. Maybe it’s stuff I already knew, but forgot in the foolness of time? It’s important stuff, and some of the time it’s exciting, and a lot of the time it’s depressing. But we forge on.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the title mentioned “things I’d learned”. So here are some random things I learned, or re-remembered:

  • It is often illegal, or suspicious, to take your recycling and waste to waste centres outside of the authority you pay taxes in.
  • It’s perfectly OK to sit out of a session. Quiet rooms are a great companion to tiredness, especially for natural introverts. You also get to see behind the scenes of Dan’s flask life.
  • Talking about ‘data’ is hard because it encapsulates so much. Is it possible to talk about data without talking about the process of collecting data? Or the reasons for collecting the data? Or the skills and motivation required to understand why the data is being collected? Or the planning for what to do with the data once it’s there? Data is a massive pipeline, and the single word “data” can refer to all of that, in a quantum physicy way, until we disambiguate it somehow.
  • ‘Openness’ is key to why we give up our time to go to volunteer-run events. Openness of information is all about power. I wish I’d chatted a bit to people about citizen-led projects, as that epitomises the power struggle we’re all trying to grapple with. Openness is about levelling the playing field, and open data is about balancing information between parties.
  • This is why ‘open data’ is not a technical thing. Often it strays into economics, but it’s not a money thing. It’s a power thing. It’s a democratic thing. It can empower and destroy communities, companies, governments. Information is dangerous.
  • If information, data, is power, then we should see it more like energy — if any analogy is key to understanding it, then this is it. Not oil: Oil is just one form of energy. Oil and nuclear and solar all have their own forms of politics. Same with data: how we provide and share data brings out different forms of regulation, of concentration of power, of defining the way the world unwraps.
  • Trust in data is a mix of social trust and the tools we use. These two things need to line up carefully, with each responding to, and filling in gaps that the other leaves behind.
  • Giving career advice is hugely satisfying on the one hand. On the other, it also makes me feel incredibly old.
  • While there was a good amount of diversity, I still feel like I personally talked to too many white males. If data is power, it has a lot to learn from minority communities.
  • You have to press a floor button to make a life move. That was hilarious and embarrassing.

Overall, ODCamp7 was great. It gave me space to think, and more importantly it brought together people from across a lot of spaces. That sense of diversity is really important for moving communities forwards — data communities, but also the ones that data can serve. I can imagine spreading the net even further in future. So massive thanks and congratulations to all the organisers, you did a wonderful job. I’m definitely going to try to get out of my South-East bubble next year.




Lead tech at OCSI, making data friendly for social good. Likes words. Doesn't really own a bowler hat.