The Northernlands - Provoke and Challenge session

It was a dark and stormy night...not really, but every good story needs a beginning. For us, it began months ago with a visit from the trade and startup liaison from the Dutch Embassy. She had seen examples of how data was being used innovatively across the North and could see a likeness in the ambitions of The Netherlands. It is where global communities and services like the Things Network began after all. From this brief meeting, the seed for a large event - a showcase of both the North and The Netherlands - was planted. So here we are, after months of careful cultivation, the Northernlands Data & Startup Summit took over the ODI Leeds innovation space on 2 May. With more than 100+ attendees, a diverse speaker line-up, and engaging workshop sessions in the afternoon, it was a dazzling success. The feedback from attendees and speakers was overwhelmingly positive, with people praising the high quality talks and lively debate with like-minded folk in the room.

Because the morning talks were bursting with so much good stuff, we can't possibly write it all down. So read on for the summary of the talks and you can watch the live-stream for the full effect.

The morning kicked off with an introduction and welcome from Paul Connell, founder of ODI Leeds and one of the main instigators of this event. He took this opportunity to thank everyone who helped bring this event to fruition: Lieke Conijn from the Dutch Embassy in London; the sponsors of this event - Amazon Web Services, Oakland Group, Leeds City Council, and KPMG; and finally Leeds International Festival for their support and the inclusion of the event in the festival programming.

  • Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • Amazon Web Services
  • KPMG
  • Leeds International Festival
  • Leeds City Council
  • Oakland Group
Paul Connell and the ODI Leeds sponsors
Credit: Mark Bickerdike for ODI Leeds 2019

It was also a chance to reflect - ODI Leeds celebrates being 5 years old this May. In that time, our team has grown and diversified to match our clients and projects, and the scale of what we can achieve has also grown with us. The Northernlands Summit is testament to that. This has not been possible without the support of friends, colleagues, and of course our sponsors. We now have 15 organisations who sponsor our work, have input into our projects, and support the application of innovation methods to create value from data. We work in the open, creating websites instead of reports, and creating tools instead of methodologies.

Jeni Tennison, CEO of the ODI
Credit: Mark Bickerdike for ODI Leeds 2019

After that introduction, it felt only right that Jeni Tennison, the CEO of the Open Data Institute, should go next. Before she became the CEO, she was formerly the technical director at the ODI, so she has a history of working with data and understanding its enormous capacity for fun and for impact. In terms of the latter, Jeni provided recent examples of what open data could do to benefit us all: the Leeds Bins app, developed here at ODI Leeds with Tom Forth, uses open data published by Leeds City Council and serves thousands of Leeds residents, informing them of their bin day; and OpenActive, which is an initiative to get more 'activity data' published openly to help people get better access to physical activities where they live. But anything that has the ability to impact lives needs to be maintained and managed responsibly, and that is where the ODI pours a lot of time and effort in to research of concepts like data trusts. They have to look at the different futures that could happen with data, and so she posed this question - what kind of future do we want to build?

Simon Smits, Dutch Ambassador to the UK
Credit: Mark Bickerdike for ODI Leeds 2019

Simon Smits, Dutch Ambassador to the UK, was the special guest for Northernlands and arrived in time to help set further context for the day. He used our new favourite phrase, describing the North as 'North Sea Neighbours.' He was enthusiastic about the relationship we had already established over the decades and was keen to encourage others to look beyond London for opportunities. He was down to earth on his ambitions, saying that we should learn from each other (both the good and the bad). The two-sided nature of data - one of great benefits with risk for misuse - would never go away, so we should be savvy with it. We should educate people and empower them to ask questions of the services they give their data to.

Mr Gee, poet
Credit: Mark Bickerdike for ODI Leeds 2019

Having spent some time with the Open Data Institute and creating 'data poetry' for their Summit in 2018, Mr Gee is no stranger to exploring deep topics through spoken word. He had prepared two pieces that explored a variety of themes, including many that were the core themes of the Northernlands Summit. In 'A Ticket to Fly', he tells an uncomfortable story of how a data-defined profile of 'risky' flight passengers can affect people. And in 'Just Data,' he explores questions about data as a definition of a person, and if you can break free from that definition. You can see his performance of 'A Ticket to Fly' and 'Just Data' from the ODI Summit in 2018.

Akeelah Bertram
Credit: Mark Bickerdike for ODI Leeds 2019

Having created a stunning installation for the space, Akeelah Bertram was next. She spoke briefly about her artistic practice and previous works - she creates immersive environments with interplays of light and sound that let people come to their own conclusions in the experience - before moving on to the inspiration for the installation. Depart/Return explored relationships and family history through an analogy of data and databases, where she built up a relational database from audio, video, imagery to create an interactive map for the audience. If she viewed her family history as data, she could think about how much of it defined and/or informed her and how far back her knowledge went in her family tree.

Danielle Knight from Superflux set the bar high for the morning talks and began with some examples of experimental projects that explored potential futures. Intelligent voice assistants that came with personalities in order to tackle specific tasks, such as getting angry with utility companies. Drones that monitored neighbourhoods or advertised to citizens. And a bank that didn't deal in money but in the value of personal data, such as genetic hereditary illnesses. Each project designed to get people asking difficult questions about the future. She was followed by Ian Massingham from AWS (a sponsor of the Northernlands), who talked about the shift in data engineering from owning/maintaining physical hardware to paying for cloud-based services that you use only when you need to. This could also apply to open data, an area that AWS was expanding into with its provision of service to organisations like the Met Office.

The last talk before a well-deserved coffee break, Sarah Longlands from IPPR North wanted to talk about 'the North' from the perspective of the North-focused think-tank and her experiences from years of research and analysis into what the North was really capable of. She stated what we already knew - the UK is incredibly centralised, with a laser-like precision usually on London. But what works (or fails) in London doesn't necessarily perform the same elsewhere. Sarah laid out some of the key points from her experience:

  • don't try to repeat London, instead learn from it
  • re-frame the narrative (some parts of the North are more productive than some parts of the South!)
  • the people of the North are sometimes painted as difficult when they don't respond to 'programmes of improvement,' but often the programme is not properly tailored to the needs of the people

Straight after the break, Stian Westlake, author and Nesta Fellow, spoke about the underlying concepts and research from his book 'Capitalism Without Capital.' He argues that 'capital' has changed from being exclusively physical things - like buildings, hardware, vehicles - to being more intangible things. Like data. This shift has consequences for the economy, and beyond. A lot of intangible assets actually have the potential for creating benefits to people. but if business doesn't invest in them, who will? And what do we do about ownership of something that is intangible? Is 'ownership' even the right concept or language for this situation? (Cue a nicely timed mention for the data trusts work done by the ODI).

Moving from one intangible idea to another, Kenny Pool from Dell and the Big Data Innovation Hub was up next, and he was also the first Dutch speaker of the morning. We instantly think of hardware when we hear 'Dell' but Kenny is part of the team that works on smart cities and sensors. One of their key projects has been smart rain barrels. In times of prodigious rainfall, these barrels can store up water to prevent flooding and then release the water later. Our second Dutch speaker, Valerie Frissen, followed with an overview of SIDN Fonds in The Netherlands, which is like the Dutch version of the formerly named Nominet Trust. SIDN Fonds specifically funds projects that aim to improve the internet for the benefit of all - this includes strengthening the internet through tech advancement, increasing the awareness and use of the internet for people, and using the internet as 'tech for good.'

The next speaker was Marc Farr from Beautiful Information, who spoke about his experiences, both personal and professional, about data sharing in the healthcare system. He had two points to make - yes, socio-economic background data was taken into account when being offered treatment across the country, and data sharing was essential for improving people's lives and healthcare, as was the case of his friend who had been diagnosed with diabetes during an A&E visit but his local GP never informed. John Sinteur from Radically Open Security (yes, we liked him straight away!) was our final Dutch speaker for the day and he was here to talk about his organisation. Like us, they are a non-profit consultancy but with a focus on cyber security. They do everything online and in the open, and it all goes towards improving things for their customers. Much of their work is available via GitHub to be shared and re-used. They even invest time in teaching their customers some ethical hacking skills so they can better understand digital security systems. John feels that by not only taking profit out of the business model but also being open about their projects and practices, people are more willing to engage with them.

Hera Hussain, Open Contracting
Credit: Mark Bickerdike for ODI Leeds 2019

Taking us into lunchtime was Hera Hussain from Open Contracting Partnership. From their experiences, the biggest barrier to publishing procurement data cited by organisations is that it is 'too sensitive.' But when this was investigated, only a small percentage of projects were deemed sensitive by *awarding authority* themselves. So this isn't the whole story. Open Contracting is developing an open data standard for procurement data and is working on awareness and adoption of the standard. Ultimately, Hera says that the drive for Open Contracting is not to point fingers or start fingers. It is to start genuine discussions about real savings that could be made when more people are aware of who supplies what.

And that was the marathon morning session for Northernlands! You can read part 2, all about the afternoon sessions, in our next blog post.