I talked tonight at the latest Bettakultcha. I’ve done it before and I regularly attend when I don’t talk. I am a big fan of the nights. (In short I think tonight’s was one of the best.)

For my most recent talk I decided to eschew my previously more jovial - and video game focused - approach (when I talked about Bubble Bobble and joysticks). I played a rare straight bat (at least in the more social context of Bettakultcha) for something I have an ethusiasm for.

I am a big fan and big believer in how technology can help us exist, can help us progress as people, as a race. I’m a big fan and big believer in data, embracing data.

But I’ve become irked by the continual use of phrases like “big data” and “open data” with few attempts to actually make a stab at accessibly explaining them. The terms are sometimes thrown about like buzzwords, jargon, something only “an expert” could fathom. At the root big data and open data are simple concepts.

I’ve also seen the two concepts used interchangeably - frustrating as they are two distinct concepts. Some seem quite happy for this lack of explanation/confusion to exist.

There’s a number of bodies seemingly championing Leeds as an exciting place for a) open data, and b) big data (and quite rightly), so Bettakultcha in that city seemed a good opportunity to try to air a poke at an explantion, to a crowd that are receptive.

The format of Bettakultcha talks - five minutes, 20 slides, each of which is on screen for 15 seconds - presents some great rules to work within.

The danger with a topic like data is it can spiral. The five minutes present limitations, and forced me to keep the talk precise. I wanted it to be something people could relate to (mentioning shopping lists, films stored digitally, and a phone’s memory early on), but needed to use that get across the idea of size, particularly big. Well, BIG.

I chopped it down to the bare minimum. For example: a slide about whether we can power all these servers/computers/devices/networks without destroying the world. But not only did that take me over the 20 slide limit, it might have distracted from the education about data.

Someone asked me afterwards why I relied on Facebook during the talk. My answer: simply I wanted to use something a) I could assume most people in the room were aware of, even used, and b) I wanted to keep the relational elements within the presentation to a minimum. I didn’t want people to walk away dazed. I wanted them to come away amazed. And the point 3% of data is Facebook’s is pretty amazing to me.

The shot of the hadron collider at the end was deliberately the only picture I used. I wanted to have some impact. I hoped the visual switch from the one-colour drawings and type to a wonderful full colour image of soemthing amazing would have done that for some people.

The hadron collider, for me, is the “culmination” I talked about: of data storage capacity, analysis of data, and our species’ eternal curiosity to find meaning, to understand, to unearth the unexplored. It’s a pertty awesome thing - and it’s exciting what else we could discover.

I hope you enjoyed the talk. It’s a talk I want to run again. There’s already a couple of tweaks I want to do, and I would love to hear your feedback.

If you weren’t at the event and want to see the slides (or were at the event and want the slides) you can view the presentation here on Speakerdeck. And in the spirit of openness I am more than happy for you to share it!


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