This is a month note, which is like a weeknote but for a month. You probably guessed that. My comms colleagues would question me: who is the audience for this? what’s the call to action? My response is: I don’t know and there isn’t one. I wrote it because I thought it would be good to reflect on the month, and not bad to have a record of it beyond scribbles in my bullet journal. I honestly debated whether to publish it, because it gets quite personal near the end, but I think that’s the point of week/month notes: showing others a bit of the person behind the screen. I make no promises about writing or publishing another. Read if you like; take what you wish from it.



Strategic work

Over the last few months we’ve been working through taking a more programmatic approach to our work at ODI. This has been promoted by the success of the data institutions programme; the greater flexibility that we’re expecting to have around how we can spend the money we receive from the UK government, which means we will have the flexibility to be more self-directed; and feedback from our recent (successful!) funding process with Luminate.

We identified five programmes we’re going to focus on at the end of last year: data literacy; data assurance; data for challenges; data institutions; and evidence and foresight. My main strategic focus this month has been on helping the people leading those programmes to think through and articulate their goals and strategies, talk about them with the team, and start putting in place plans for work in Q2. The centre pieces this month were day-long “at-home offsites” with the senior leadership team and then the wider team, to discuss the approach and the programmes themselves, but I also had a number of great 1:1 chats with programme leads.

I’m really pleased with how this is progressing. The people leading the programmes are all really thoughtful and driven by the impact the programmes should have, and the discipline heads - eg in comms and business development - have readily engaged with structuring and focusing their activities around the programmes. Speaking externally about ODI’s work in terms of these programmes has also proved to be really helpful.

There’s still a lot of work to do on strategies and plans, on internal and external comms, and on operational implications. And the planning will surface the perennial challenge of balancing mission and sustainability (eg programme impacts are about changing the world, not creating new revenue streams, but hopefully we can do some of the latter along the way).

Personally, I’m facing a familiar “why didn’t we (I) do this sooner” feeling, given some people have been telling us to take a programme approach for years (it being very common across the non-profit sector). But I’m also reminding myself that context plays a big part in whether good ideas can land and progress successfully. Right now, happily, internal and external stars are aligning.

Other internal work

This month I’ve also been involved in:

  • recruiting a new Head of Consulting from a strong field of candidates - still a couple more steps to go but I’m excited about having new energy, perspectives and experience at a senior level in ODI (we do miss you though, Leigh)

  • reviewing a lot of case studies - we are contractually obliged to produce these as part of our old Luminate grant, but I hope we continue to do so as they are a great summary of work we’ve done and what we learned doing that work, which I think is valuable both for ourselves and others

  • completing our annual report, which should be published soon

  • starting the planning for this year’s ODI Summit - given the huge reach we had last year, and the continuing uncertainty about how much social distancing will be needed in November, we’re going virtual again. I’m not going to give any spoilers about the theme…

  • helping Milly work out how we prioritise our efforts around public policy work

ODI project work

This month I’ve been involved with:

  • getting some support for some work doing a census of UK data institutions and existing organisations that could take on a data institution role - I want to see what some data analysis support can add to the desk research we typically do and this is a good opportunity for that

  • helping the team with some work we’re doing around the World Bank’s upcoming World Development Report on data, examining how to operationalise support for new forms of data institution (eg data trusts, data unions) in low and middle income countries - there’s a lot to unpack but my view is that it’s great to experiment with these but they can and will go wrong, so providing safety and redress is essential, but can be problematic in low capacity settings

  • supporting some work with a big international company to explore policy and practical issues around access to health data - our calls for openness about the work and with the results are being met with internal support within the company, so I’m looking forward to seeing this work becoming more public over the next few months

  • supporting one of our ODI Research Fellows, Sue Chadwick, as she’s exploring issues to do with digital and data ethics in property development planning - she’s done an amazing survey of all legislation that mentioned data/information during 2020 - expect a blog and lunchtime lecture over the next few months, as well as her final report of course

  • we’ve had a frustrating run of rejections in a series of bids that I put a bunch of work into, so I’m feeling a little dejected around that especially as they were really interesting projects - I’d love to work out whether the problem is our experience/expertise, approach/methodology, price and/or presentation and adjust accordingly

Interesting conversations

This month, I’ve chatted with:

  • an international analytics firm about the importance of social scientists to do real life data analysis; how to strike the balance between fixing the plumbing and papering over the cracks; and how to push for openness within public sector contacts

  • XPRIZE about how challenge-focused initiatives can transition to longer lasting institutions

  • Natalie Byrom and others about the need for court data to help tackle the case backlog

  • Anouk Ruhaak about the work she’s doing as a Mozilla fellow in residence around their Data Futures programme, with particular overlaps around how we evaluate the results of experiments with new institutional forms and interests in data institutions to support worker rights

  • the National Data Strategy team within DCMS about their future plans

  • some lawyers about the likelihood of a positive data adequacy decision for the UK (answer: very likely)

I was interviewed six times, by researchers examining:

And I participated in conversations with:


I’m co-chairing the Global Partnership for AI’s Data Governance Working Group with the wonderful Maja Bogataj and the incredible support of Ed Teather. The Working Group is made up of about 30 international experts from a non-representative mix of countries.

Since taking on the role I’ve been trying to work out how to ensure the work of the group is impactful and inclusive. I really don’t want it to be a once-a-month talking shop. We really are in a unique position to influence international research and development work (and policy) around data governance and AI and I want us to make the most of that opportunity.

The process I’ve championed is to spend the next six months developing concept notes for two-year-long international programmes of work that hopefully GPAI, governments, or other organisations might fund and support. I hope at least some of these might bolster (through funding, expertise and attention) existing projects and programmes.

This month, within the Data Governance Working Group we took a long list of around 30 potential concept notes and prioritised them down to 7 ideas that we’re going to flesh out a bit more. They are around:

  • data justice
  • data trusts (etc)
  • balancing innovation and data protection in legal regimes
  • handling co-creation rights
  • international rules on text and data mining
  • dataset documentation and management
  • privacy enhancing technologies

I expect these to get whittled down more, both by the group and by the GPAI steering committee. If we end up with two or three good programmes to take forward by the end of June, I’ll be happy.

We’ve also been engaging with the other co-chairs of other working groups, some of which are taking similar approaches, and trying to find areas where there is overlap or where experts in one group might contribute to others. I’m particularly pleased and grateful that Kim McGrail has been supporting the Pandemic Response Working Group shape their work on the governance of data for the pandemic response into something concrete and manageable.

Other work

I had three meetings where I was focused on giving advice around other people’s work:

  • a mentoring chat arranged through Digital Candle - free digital advice for charities - where I helped someone think through what level of structured data collection was really necessary for their goals, and how to go about doing a user needs assessment and building or buying a solution - it felt a little outside my regular expertise but it seems I knew enough to help, which was very satisfying. If you have any digital/data knowledge, you should join Digital Candle if you’re not already on it

  • a presentation to (some of) the Creative Commons team - I was asked to chat to them about anything by their CEO Catherine Stihler, so obviously I talked about data institutions (and their relationship to cultural institutions) but ended up chatting about the wonders of TikTok as a creative commons (yay Wellerman and the Ratatouille Musical) and the challenges of being organisations like CC and ODI, particularly in balancing being opinionated and constructive

  • attended the GOV.UK advisory board and advised on some of their plans, which I can’t talk about but no doubt they will soon

I also attended GovCamp, and it was wonderful to have serendipitous and stimulating conversations with old and new friends. I would not be where or who I am today without GovCamp and the GovCamp tribe, so I was really pleased it ran again, though sad I could only attend on Saturday and missed what I gather were excellent sessions due to work clashes. Without going into too much detail, the sessions I went to were:

  • Simon’s session on data collaboratives and ways of supporting self-sovereign identity, particularly with the focus on the work being done on creating a digital service around lasting powers of attorney - really interesting work being done here and a great real example where digital identity is important and difficult

  • Sam and Alex’s session on working with organisations outside government when you’re creating services inside government, particularly those already providing digital and data infrastructure

  • my session on data service design, the features they need, things to do while designing them, risks they raise and so on - I was indulging my inner nerd with this, drawing on my now ancient experience - I hope to write it up in my off hours

  • John’s session on the rule of law, the difference between law and guidance and the need for digital services to refer to the legislation (and case law) that underpins them

  • Gavin’s session on how you would create an index assessing public sector / departmental data maturity/activities

Do take a look at the notes; they were great discussions and it was lovely to see people.

In a similar vein, I couldn’t really afford the time but as an intellectual treat to myself, I applied to join the Data and Society workshop on Trust and Doubt in Public-Sector Data Infrastructures at the end of March. But my application was rejected, which made me sad.

Thoughts I had

A random collection of things that have been in my mind, usually as a result of things I’ve read or the conversations above:

  • while data institutions steward and act as intermediaries in data flows, they can also act as useful monitors of those flows, which can reveal additional information, such as which datasets are most useful, what kinds of things do people want to do with them, and how successful those uses are - which can then help to direct policy and investment; this should be factored into their design

  • with great help from Ed Parkes, we’ve been looking at the kinds of support that early stage data institutions need and where it’s useful for that to come from ODI (or organisations like ODI); it feels to me as if there’s a stage in the common transition from project to stand-alone institution where some operational support is useful, but it’s more like incubation (the focus being on enabling them to stand on their own two feet) than long term hosting

  • a few conversations have been interesting around data literacy - we published a blog about where we see the gaps at ODI - there’s a difference between the data capabilities that companies like DeepMind need and those required by more run-of-the-mill businesses and public sector / civil society organisations

  • it’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that what feels like accepted wisdom in data governance circles (eg about the inappropriateness of data ownership as a concept wrt personal data, or the limitations of consent as a mechanism for data governance) are new and revolutionary outside those circles and still need explaining

  • it’s been helpful in thinking through how we want to develop some of the tools we’ve been working on in our R&D projects to recognise that there needs to be a stage of experimenting and working out propositions around those tools before productising them

  • I learned from the team behind the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network framing study on data sovereignty a useful way of breaking down concerns that countries have about the free flow of data, which make them introduce data localisation (or data sovereignty) policies and laws, namely concerns about their security, about economic impacts, and about their citizen’s human rights


Work life

As is traditional, I tried to start some new habits in January in my work life, which have mostly been successful:

  • email: I inbox zero’d myself by marking everything as read at the beginning of the year; now I have two modes of email interaction: triage where I scan through and label everything I need to actually action; and action where I go through that list and respond as appropriate. I have mostly been able to stick to this (but sometimes cheat and respond when I should be triaging) and have started to set aside chunks of time specifically for actioning emails, because they really build up! I am currently on zero unread emails, but about five unactioned emails.

  • work pattern #1: I realised that I really like to get down to some proper work at the beginning of the day, so I have set aside 8-9am each day for heads down work (not looking at emails), and I decide what I’m going to do in that slot ahead of time so I’m not dilly-dallying. This has been working great for me - it gives me some guaranteed daily time for writing, reviewing and thinking and means I go into the rest of the day (which is often full of meetings) feeling I’ve achieved something. BUT it means an early start and given my day typically lasts until 6pm with only 30 mins for lunch means my work days are very long (though being strict about stopping work at 6pm means they’re not as long as they could be)

  • work pattern #2: I have a lot of meetings, and as an introvert (and normal human being; I think we are all suffering from Zoom fatigue) I need time to recharge from them. The worst are days with multiple 30 minute back-to-back meetings (last Thursday my 12 noon meeting was the 6th meeting of the day). I’m trying to purposefully book heads down time into my calendar to break up the day and remind myself (and others) not to book meetings over them.

  • work pattern #3: I’m using a physical bullet journal for notes again, having tried using Google Docs and index cards during last year. I have a layout for each day that includes one priority task and a timeline for the day that I create at the end of the previous day, and four areas of reflection that I complete at the end of the day: what I achieved, what I learned, what I experienced and what I’m grateful for. These have been helpful in putting together this month note, but also gives just a little moment of reflection and recognition time which I think boosts my mood and helps me let go of things at the end of the day.

  • exercise: I did not exercise enough last year (makes me realise how just the daily grind of commuting, racing across London for different meetings, and walk-and-talks gave a reasonably good activity baseline), especially after the kids returned to school and the weather turned nastier so I started skipping morning walks. I now have a standing desk and wobble board, which I try to use for brief meetings (it’s a bit too tiring being on my feet all through longer ones). I’ve been trying to go on a one-hour walk every day with my 15yo, and managed that for the first couple of weeks but the combination of their school day and my work commitments has made it hard in the last couple of weeks. I’ve booked in a mid-afternoon walk in my calendar from now on, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to manage it every day. 

The one thing that I’m not getting/making time for is proper reading (of things other than ODI reports etc that I’m reviewing, or scans through blog posts and articles). During February, I want to try to introduce a reading slot each week.

I was approached this month about another CEO role, which prompted a bit of career reflection with the conclusion that I’ve really got it good right now: work that interests me, a team I love working with, doing things aligned with my values and the impact I want to have in the world. I was really quite miserable when I was CEO of ODI, and while it’s hard to unpick how much of that was to do with the context and how much to do with the role, I (a) still feel in need of some recovery time to build up the energy and confidence to make another (hopefully more successful) attempt at being a CEO anywhere and (b) would need something pretty special to attract me away from ODI.

Home life

At home, we had a bit of stress at the beginning of January through uncertainty about whether the kids would be learning at home or in school. When it was clear they were going to be at home, my 17yo, who’s in sixth form now, was worried because she feared it would be like the first lockdown, when they just received a bunch of worksheets to do at the beginning of each day and got hardly any interaction with their teachers or friends. On the other hand, my 15yo was delighted at this prospect as they really like to learn at their own (rapid) pace.

But the school have decided to do things differently this time, and are running fully virtual full school days: Microsoft Teams meetings from registration at 8:40 to the end of day at 15:20, with 10 minute breaks between six 45 minute lessons and 30 minutes for lunch. 17yo (who also gets free periods so doesn’t have quite so intense a schedule) was delighted. 15yo was in despair, so anxious at the prospect of having their camera on during lessons that they couldn’t sleep and were have panic attacks in the middle of the night. Fortunately the school have been understanding, letting them attend without the camera on. They seem to be coping well and are particularly excited about the prospect of extra Further Maths lessons starting up again. What a nerd.

We are extremely lucky that the kids are old enough to mostly look after themselves - the biggest disruption is that I’ve had to set up a desk in the corner of the living room so the 17yo can work from the dining room, and occasional interruptions to ask for help scanning something. I cannot imagine how difficult the lockdown must be for those with younger children.

News came through today that both my parents have now had their first dose vaccinations, as have Bill’s. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

TV I’ve been watching:

  • How to Get Away with Murder - so insanely convaluted that we shout “plot twist!” at the end of every episode but I love seeing the combination of competence and vulnerability in Viola Davis’ portrayal of Annalise Keating
  • The Expanse - love Amos
  • Wandavision - 1st episode hmm, 2nd episode huh, 3rd episode ok…, 4th episode oohhhh
  • Criminal Minds - completed series 14 with 15yo
  • Law & Order - needed a replacement for Criminal Minds, just started from the very first episode; “this really frosts my cookies” has entered into our lexicon

Films we watched remotely with my family (we have had weekly remote film nights since the start of the pandemic):

TikToks I enjoyed:

Video games I’ve been playing or watching others play:

  • Wandersong - my 17yo enjoyed playing this and it was a really lovely story
  • Wilmot’s warehouse - great fun coop with 17yo
  • Eastshade - really enjoyed this, and loved how this made me think about light and framing
  • Morkredd - starts off as a fairly standard cooperative puzzle game and slowly descends into something amusingly disturbing
  • Yes, Your Grace - haven’t finished this yet, but I’m enjoying the mix of story and resource management, and the feeling of real choices

Non-video games I’ve been playing:

  • I bought Bill a subscription to Boxed Locks - escape rooms in a box - for his birthday just before Xmas; we managed to skip some clues in this one due to managing to decode something before being given the key to do so, but enjoyed it

  • Leigh’s started running Masks for me and a few others, and we had a hilarious first session talking through our characters (I’m playing a Transformed called Myco, who is entirely made of mycelium, and interfaces with plants and electronics through her hyphae) and working out how we came together as a team

Mental health

I did have a bit of a blip in the middle of the month when I got upset about some continuing (outside of work) interactions that land with me like trolling/stalking/harassment but probably aren’t intended as such and probably no one else would see as such. I chatted with my 17yo about it and she was very wise, kind and validating, urging me to see that it’s ok for me to feel how I feel regardless of how it’s meant or what others might perceive, and consider the options about what to do about it. This is one reason I prefer to spend time on TikTok than other social media platforms at the moment.

More happily, I won’t go too far into it, but my 15yo self-diagnosed as autistic at the end of 2020, and it has honestly been brilliant over the last month, seeing them be happier in themselves, helping them to explore how their autism manifests, and recognising what they need to thrive. We’ve sometimes chatted on our walks (and sometimes not), more often through Signal messages, and have a nice evening routine involving stilton, procedural crime dramas and Bananagrams. I’ve learned to not get concerned about their stimming or worried about their need to be alone a lot of the time. I spent a lot of last year being really worried about their mental health (and feeling like a rubbish mum for not being able to reach them) so this has been a big change for the better. I’m really proud of them and glad that we live in a world where there’s increasing recognition, acceptance and support of neurodiversity.