For the first time, oh the first time, yeah, the first time… we are meeting for the first time*. Well, this is odd. I am sitting in an airy Kings Cross foyer enjoying a pastrami and pickle sandwich, crisps (salt and vinegar), and sipping a coffee dispensed from one of those giant silver things that look like a baked bean tin with the label soaked off. I listen to the comforting gentle murmur of background chats. To my left two youngsters are sharing master’s dissertation virtual deadline horror stories, and on my right two friends are sharing gossip about a new job, and then across the room someone I think I know, or should know, but can’t be sure I know catches my eye in a knowing way.
The event organiser gives everyone the polite hurry-up with low outstretched arms and a fixed smile. We are about to hear people talk, in real life, in a room, together, live. It is an ODI canal side chat and Nigel Shadbolt, a little nervously begins, his conversation with Felicity Burch of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. I look around the room; maybe a hundred people, mostly younger than me; no masks instead wearing eager beaver first day of term smiles. As the chat unfolds my mind wanders. The immutable law of these things is you only ever remember one message. I am struck by how the pandemic has changed but not changed the truths about data. The same topics, hopes and frustrations, the pandemic has made clear what should have already by been obvious. Data driven decision making is quite the bandwagon, now amongst our civic leaders. But the sad truth is that through the pandemic this has largely been a fig leave, lip service to support decisions made the old-fashioned way; biases, intuition but most of all fear.
As the conversation closes and questions are canvassed. I’m strangely reassured that the age-old traditions of using questions at a conference to show quite how clever you are extant. Dick waxers (they are always men) as my old colleague Mike Ashmore used to call them. As we wind up and shuffle out the person-I-know-but-can’t-exactly-place, who had come and sat next to me, strikes up conversation. It floods back, yes, he did such and such at so and so, and we met there, then and both know her and him, and oh yes her (how is he doing by the way?). We catch up on how ‘pandemic’ has affected our businesses, careers, thoughts. He is now doing this and that for them. A smart person I don’t know approaches us to talk about that project with my newly re-found acquaintance; and we get chatting. Ah yes, your business is interesting, we share a few clients, maybe we should have a coffee? OK, we both have to skedaddle, before we part I punch in the email she spells out and send into the aether, who knows if anything comes of this.
A new connection has been made, an old one woken up, some metaphorical food for thought amidst the real food. It is a bright morning as I walk through the tree-lined streets of Barnsbury and Pentonville down to our office in Clerkenwell. London is waking up and I love it.
Watch the event here.
*Apologies to the script.