Reflections on mentoring emerging data institutions

Thu Feb 17, 2022
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We reflect on the lessons we’ve learned through our pilot data institutions mentorship programme

At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we’re exploring data institutions – organisations whose purpose involves stewarding data on behalf of others, often towards public, educational or charitable aims.

As part of this exploration, we piloted a mentorship programme for four emerging, UK-based data institutions. The programme ran between August and December 2021 and was designed to provide the nascent initiatives with support through 1:1 guidance and group workshops, as well as opportunities for networking and knowledge sharing with experts within our network.

This blogpost will share who participated in our mentoring programme, what we learnt from the process and where we’re headed next.

Our first cohort included a diverse range of organisations and initiatives from different sectors, each seeking to develop a new data institution. They were:

  • Agrimetrics – one of four UK Agri-Tech Centres with a mission to transform the agrifood sector by enabling organisations to realise the value trapped in their data and the benefits of data sharing within the ecosystem. Agrimetrics used its time on the mentoring programme to investigate the role data institutions and data stewardship could play in the agrifood sector, and how it could play an enabling role in the initiation and development of said initiatives.
  • Living Oxford, partnering with Ocado Technology – a community organisation creating a framework for a ‘living lab’ within Oxfordshire, allowing for the continued sharing of publicly-funded innovation research, learnings and data. Living Oxford used the mentoring programme to further develop a ‘data trust’ to allow living labs across the UK to collaborate and support sustainable data sharing as innovation projects grow and evolve, without continually needing to negotiate changes to agreements when individual projects end.
  • Tech Talent Charter (TTC) – a not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to address inequality in the UK digital economy and drive inclusion and diversity. TTC used its time to investigate what type of data institution could take on the stewardship of its signatories’ equity, diversity, and inclusion data, to create more value within their ecosystem.
  • Suffolk Data Trust – an initiative of the Eastern New Energy Project to use data and analytics to further the goal of reaching net zero carbon. Suffolk Data Trust used its time on the mentorship programme to further develop its ‘data trust’, which is intended to collect, organise and analyse data in order to understand the energy system, engage stakeholders, and enable the scale-up of biodiversity and decarbonisation projects. 

Watch: We talk to three of the data institutions mentorship programme participants about their experience

Running the programme

As this was our first attempt to formally mentor data institutions, we focused on offering the four initiatives access to our way of thinking about data institutions at the ODI. We did this through:

  • Regular one-on-one calls, starting with an initial needs assessment to understand how to best match organisational needs with ODI expertise, followed by regular progress check-ins and data institution content sharing.
  • Workshops and roundtables focusing on ODI areas of expertise such as data ecosystem mapping, data literacy, sustainable data access, and government support; as well as a legal support workshop from BPE Solicitors.
  • Introductions to ODI experts on the topics of data institutions, data literacy, data sharing technologies and development, business development, and law, with external introductions to those in the ODI network – such as previous stimulus fund participant, DNV.
  • Sharing and helping to unpack articles, guidance and other materials on the topic of data institutions from the ODI and other organisations in the field, such as the Ada Lovelace Institute, Mozilla Data Futures Lab and The GovLab.
  • Networking opportunities, which we hope to provide more of based on participant feedback, through an invitation to the ODI Summit, ad-hoc mentoring programme networking sessions, and encouraging mentees to connect informally to discuss shared experiences.

What we learned

As data institutions take different forms and emerge in different ways, we focused on increasing the participants’ understanding of concepts and the wider landscape during their time in the programme, rather than prescribing a set of steps to turn their ideas into a sustainable data institution. We treated this activity as something for us to learn from too, especially in terms of how we can best intervene to support new data institutions to emerge. In particular, we found that:

  • The translation of theory to practice is hard. The concept of data institutions, and related ideas like responsible data stewardship and ‘data for good’, are relatively new. So, while the thinking and writing around them represent a source of inspiration to people trying to build something new, such as our mentees, it can be hard for them to know where to start. Our mentees found value in being exposed to concepts and thinking surrounding data stewardship, but expressed an interest in more practical advice and authority on how to initiate a data institution. 
  • There is a need for support for emerging data institutions. Our work with these initiatives through the mentoring programme validated our assumption that support from organisations like the ODI could be useful. Feedback from the participants suggests that offering a forum for organisations to learn from one another as peers,  working with the ODI to critically analyse the role their initiatives could play, and being connected to other expert stakeholders were particularly valued. 
  • It’s easy to get stuck in conflicting terminology. We found that our mentees were eager to focus on one specific stewardship model. Our advice to the mentees was to focus on their purpose instead – and take inspiration from other, existing data institutions to think about the role they could play in their ecosystems to achieve it – rather than try to design something to conform to a unclear, or contested, ideal. This is particularly true of the concept of ‘data trusts’, and we intend to publish further reflections on our mentees’ understanding and use of this term in the coming weeks.

This first mentoring programme helped us understand the needs of emerging data institutions more than any research could. 

Moving forward, we’ll consider refining our approach to offer a mentoring experience for organisations that are more closely bound by a common role, sector or purpose, rather than a mix of the three. This has worked well in our second peer-learning network, which we run with Microsoft. We’ll also consider developing learning content and tools that could assist organisations in the early stages of designing or establishing a data institution.

Get involved

If you have any ideas on how we could improve our mentoring for emerging data institutions, have ideas on the types of content and tooling that could assist them, or perhaps want to get involved in potential future mentoring programmes, please get in contact with us at datainstitutions@theodi.org 

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