March 01, 2013 - 1 comment.

I don’t like maths much, but I love Leeds Data Thing

Something strange has happened to me over the past few months. Something that my GCSE Maths teacher would find absolutely rip-roaringly hilarious. I’ve started to really love data.

Maths and numbers in general have never exactly been my strong point. After a lot of trying, a bucket load of tears and the help of a maths tutor, I eventually managed to get a grade B in GCSE Maths – which despite my A*s in other areas and a first class degree, still remains my biggest personal academic achievement to date!

Maths and I just don’t get on. Or so I thought.

It all changed last June when I joined Bloom. I was completely wowed by the brilliant stuff that was coming from the Insight and Analysis team. Led by the legend that is Mr Peter Laflin, their mission is to find the patterns in data that other people struggle to find. They help our clients to get the most from their marketing spend by planning and creating strategies. They use complex algorithms to help our clients interact with their customers in the best possible way. As a pretty traditional marketer, this fascinated me.

The insight team really love maths, and they really love data. It was this enthusiasm and their confidence in the power of data to facilitate the making of new stuff, solve problems, and to find a whole host of things that nobody knew existed, that piqued my interest too.

So when the opportunity arose to become involved with the steering group for a brand new data group in Leeds, I jumped at the chance. Along with Pete we were joined by the brilliant Mark Barrett, Jen Garrick and Graham Hyde, and after a number of discussions Leeds Data Thing was born.

A fair bit of organising later, together with a pinch of ‘winging it’ we were ready to hold our first event.  It took place on Wednesday night (27th February) at the wonderful Cross Keys pub and featured talks from Tim Waters on OpenStreetMap and Andy Bolton on the demographic mapping of child poverty in Leeds.

The room was full of people from a wide range of backgrounds who all shared a love of data and, perhaps more importantly, a love of making exciting ‘stuff’. There were analysts, designers, statisticians, artists, marketers, developers, geographers, innovators and activators. It was a truly exciting room to be in and from the start of the evening had the buzz of an amazing group to be a part of.

The two key speakers did a lot to show the interesting and truly influential things that working with data can produce. Tim Waters’ talk on OpenStreetMap was a tour de force of the possibilities of open data, of the power of collaboration and the difference that open source work can have on humanitarian efforts across the world. You can view Tim’s slides here.

Andy Bolton then spoke about mapping child poverty in Leeds. A fascinating talk, it highlighted the fact that data isn’t always pretty, but data exploration can be unbelievably important. Data visualisation can help people to make decisions and to take an active stance on something – it’s a creative and a very important process.

The stage was then set for Mark Barratt to speak about his own experiences of making creative stuff with open data, which came in the form of a GP Ratings app using open data from the NHS. Mark set the scene for a discussion about using data creatively to power something – after all, in the words of Tim Burners-Lee, “data is the new raw material”.

An open-floor session gave way to all sorts of interesting discussion, from the morals and ethics of using open data right through to the politicisation of data and how we could use data to spread joy – whether that be via a small scale app, or by a massive, life-changing exploration.

All in all, I came away from the evening with a real sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the possibilities that Leeds Data Thing could hold for the city. We want it to be a platform for organic data exploration for a whole host of  different sorts of folk – to take people on a journey of making stuff, solving problems and having a community of people to bounce ideas off. Leeds is a host city for Big Data Week in April, and I can’t help but feel that the possibility of this group to create some amazing stuff during an open data hack during the week is truly exciting. With a plethora of interesting open data already coming out of the woodwork to get started on, the stage really is set to start something great.

So, where do I fit in among all of this? I’m still not au fait with algorithms. I’m not a data geek or a developer. My knowledge of geography pretty much goes as far as year nine when we spent a week knee-high in a freezing cold river. However, as a marketer and a lover of words and communication, I still believe that I have something to add to the group. Working with data is about asking new questions, collaboration, experimentation, and finding a use to the cool things that data exploration brings to the fore. In the same way that marketing is about identifying consumer need, working with data is about producing something that’s useful, or joyful too. The same big questions need to be asked. It’s definitely something that I’m excited about being a part of.

Interested in Leeds Data Thing? You can find us on Twitter here, join the Linkedin Group here, or like us on Facebook. Interested in Big Data Week? Check out the website here