Jason Bell
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A collection of blog posts, hopefully slightly less cringe-y than Live Journal, and who knows, perhaps they’re entertaining.

JAM! - DataJam North East

Hello!

Last month I was lucky enough to attend DataJam North East. What is DataJam North East you ask? Well instead of me hamfistedly describing it, let’s sail over to the organisers description of it...

It is one team government in action. The start of an ongoing collaboration between public sector, academia and beyond. Concentrating on three key themes of health, skills and child attainment, DataJam NorthEast will demonstrate the potential for improving life in the region when data, collaboration and actionable outcomes are the focus.  https://www.northeasttechnologypark.com/event/datajam-northeast/

 There we go! More than a hack, the organisers put together an unconference, keynotes and demos from local businesses showing interesting approaches to interacting with data. I thought I’d share some thoughts on my experience there, it also gives me a chance to share some wonderful gifs of jam.

 The Hack

From my experience in the skills team I believe in the short time we had we had the beginning of something incredibly promising. Whilst what we produced was not something that could be put to market or provide direct value to citizens instantly, the genus was there prime for development. There was a clear divide between the team in terms of skills which worked to our advantage. Those of you who know me know that I’m not the most technical with many acronyms washing over me awkwardly, like chunky soup, some sticking, some just there. I have no idea where that analogy was going, but it’s an interesting visual. However what value I could provide to our team was helping understand our users. Luckily for our team we had some incredibly knowledgeable subject matter experts who are involved in the local business community alongside representatives involved in the training of young people. Their expertise proved invaluable to us in helping understand the actual problems facing the region related to the skills gap before we would just throw data at it. We needed to understand the problem prior to solutionising. (I don’t get autocorrect, ‘solutionising’ is a word.)

From speaking with our experts we discovered problems which plague the job market contributing to the skills gap in the North East:

·        Jargon

o   Jargon and career specific language can put off individuals as they don’t know what it is. By breaking down skills and attributes that employers are looking for at a more granular level we could help steer people across career paths. Are you a creative team lead in a marketing firm that needs a change? Could project management be for you? It’s possible, but currently unless you have connections in that space you would need a glossary to navigate the new world, when really it could be a simple pivot. Industries like to keep their areas guarded, if they were made more inclusive with more people able to understand what’s going on under the hood they could open themselves up to a wealth of new and eager talent. Howay man, you’re not an Innovation Sherpa, you’re a creative manager with some design experience.

·        Lack of Support

o   If an individual loses their job they can often be supplied some support to help them find a new role. This opportunity is not available to all, perhaps the company is small or perhaps the individual is returning to work after a sustained period away from the workforce. What support an individual gets can dramatically improve their job prospects. Training is available, but how do people get access to it? What help can we afford those looking for work? This is an important function for government and communities to help local economies thrive. Currently there is support, but is it the right type?

·        Lack of Planning

o   The world is changing rapidly, long gone are the days where an individual worked for the same company for 50 years, got the gold watch and wandered off into retirement. Not only are the jobs changing, the industries are shifting  too. Is there a way to learn about a growing industry that is expanding locally? Can government predict areas of growth? Can potential zones of agglomeration be identified before they happen and local inhabitants trained to bring local benefits to a community through business? If this is possible, how could government data help?

·        Hidden opportunities

o   It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. You would hope with the new technology we have at our disposal that this old adage would no longer apply. Sadly it does, with many opportunities not being afforded to local people who, with a little bit of training or even signposting could be excellent new team members. What can government and local business do to bring these opportunities to the forefront?

·        Low Confidence

o   If you’re unhappy in your role or happen to be out of work, this can severely knock your confidence. This in turn can impact you applying for roles, whether you’re applying for everything and anything or too afraid to make the next jump. Speaking to our subject matter experts we found that this was increasingly common with women, with many women only applying for roles they 100% knew they were qualified for whereas men often took more gambles and punts up the career ladder. If we could somehow break skills down and match them to jobs with clear direction, would this help overcome the problem?

 

With problems emerging our team defined our mission:

Help working age people understand their skills and plan their future employment.

No problem eh? Easily done.

So on we went.

With the time being a clear constraint for the team we split into two, one area being technologically focussed, the other more product driven. My account will mostly surround the product side as I was there and anything about the technical side I could just say “wizards did it” because the end result was magic and I have no idea how they achieved it. Let’s say computers.

 Working with the subject matter experts we attempted to understand the components of the issue, breaking them down where we could, questioning every assumption. What even is a skill? Do employers know what they’re looking for? What does a term like ‘senior manager’ even mean? All these questions were asked and more. Questioning language and barriers in place we decided that the best approach (given the time constraints) was to create three straw personas of which our subject matter experts could speak to. As we had determined that working age was the area we focussed on individuals aged 18-68. There’s a lot of variety within that 50 years so we made sure that each persona presented was distinct with various motivations looking to be met.

Meet our Personas:

Underemployed Rebecca Brunch – a woman in her 20s who feels ‘trapped’ in retail with a degree she no longer sees the value in.

 Job seeker Sandra Dean – a recently redundant team leader that requires flexibility in her role due to childcare commitments who is looking for security in any career field she moves into.

Retiree Joe Watson – an early retiree looking to get back into the workforce following a successful career who now feels that world has moved on without him

Thus ended day 1.

 

The second day was shorter as not only did we have to couple up the problem with the technical team to see if the problem could in part way be addressed with the data available, we were required to present our findings and if possible present a live demo of ‘the thing’. There was good news and bad. Whilst we thought we could use the datasets to create something useful there was inevitable churn for the team between the days. We lost some of our subject matter experts (but did acquire a helpful new one), some of the initial energy had drained from the first day.

The team fragmented further into determining what the ‘thing’ could actually be. We didn’t want to spend all this time and effort and just come up with a Gov.uk branded Linkedin clone. Looking at the users we identified we determined that a self service portal would be the best type of tool. Something clear and accessible which could be utilised online or with assistance at a job centre or library. To ensure that a need was being met we fleshed out the journey of our personas further to show where assistance could be provided. This helped the team keep the user need at the core of the service, solving a real problem which we could then test and validate as opposed to something fanciful.

The data we had involved understanding what skills training is out there for individuals, geographical information about businesses in the area and building a skills taxonomy which could group common skills together as well as understanding the skills needed for some roles. Making this accessible in a simple UI would be the approach undertaken and whilst we did not have time to design some digital wireframes, the pen prototypes shared the vision and the journey the team envisioned for our users.

There was even the opportunity to flesh out the personas further and give them a professional shine using a template. Gotta love a template.

Sandra was based on real people our subject matter experts have met.

Sandra was based on real people our subject matter experts have met.

The core themes of what citizens would want when using the service crystallised as we came up with the concept, testing every assumption.

·        Assurance

o   Safeguarding for the future

o   Ensuring that the skills learned would help in the job market for the foreseeable future

·        Growth

o   Improving personal skills and prospects

·        Confidence

o   Building citizen confidence in their own existing skills

·        Understanding

o   Giving context and empowerment to citizens to help them make their own informed decisions

The end proposal and prototype proof of concept did indeed meet the user needs:

·        Supporting citizens understand their own skillset

·        Giving context to the regional skills and career market

·        Providing pathways to training

 

The prototype assembled by the technical wing of the team proved impressive, linking up skills and data allowing individuals to type in job titles and see what skills were linked to them as well as suggesting other jobs of a similar nature.

The project shows incredible promise, serving a true need identified by our stakeholders. Hopefully something in the future will help push this project from a prototype to a functioning product. 

The Event

The event included keynote speakers who helped set the scene and tone for each day. Stressing collaboration and helping teams understand potential, not just in themselves, but finding the potential in their local communities was a powerful message that echoed throughout the event. With that being said there was still the nagging feeling that although Newcastle does have invention, creativity and drive there needs to be a central area to keep the enthusiasm going. It is clear the North East needs an area in which to channel its efforts to ensure energy and enthusiasm from events such as this and others such as Thinking Digital is sustained by the wider community, something it may struggle with following the loss of Campus North.

It was good to see familiar faces from the local community at the event with talks from the like of Orange Bus. Although I was unable to catch the sessions on the day due to hack related reasons, including being covered in Sharpie and post-its, the feedback from those who did attend was incredibly positive. A positive was that I’d seen some of the content from the talks presented before at events like NUX.

The Experience

 Was it stressful at times? Yes. Did I meet new people? Indeed. Was it worth it? – Now, that’s the kicker. It all depends on what I hoped to get out of it in the first place. Speaking to a colleague the day after I said that we couldn’t tell if it was worth it at the time. Now, upon having time to reflect I think that it was. People came together to show what they can do, show that they can solve problems and build things. Able to harness their own potential and that of their surroundings was a wholly positive experience. The crucial next step though to truly understand the value of the event is the message from organisers Ryan and Celine. What next?

What do we do with the connections, knowledge and skill from the event? How can we feed back to the North East? It’s too early to tell as of yet, but hopefully in the new year we will see offshoots of the DataJam come together, more groups, greater community engagement, more meetups and excitement in the region. The potential is definitely there, we just need to do something about it. I have a few ideas, but they’re not done marinating quite yet, the ideas are bubbling, not yet set, kinda like jam. 

Yay forced similes!