It’s been a long time coming, this in-person get-together of the three SmallDataForagers (I assume that’s what you call someone moderating a forum?) to celebrate our Golden Jubilee.
1,955 days, in fact, since our fateful first encounter in the now sadly defunct Hospital Club in Soho. And nearly 650 days since our last Olivelli feast, just before Christmas 2019, when the world was a different, less pandemic place.
That is of course all small fry compared with the 5,788 days that Angela Merkel has held the office of German Bundeskanzler. More of her and German politics later.
So, a long time coming, and well worth the wait: great company, inspiring conversations – the three of us don’t just have now 50 SDF episodes to reminisce over, but also a shared professional history of one time (Sam, Thomas) and other (Neville) working in the London office of what is now Real Chemistry, a power house of digital analytics alchemy driven business insights in life sciences.
As rebranding is such a thing, and in light of our professional interests (not least Sam’s second book), perhaps we should start calling ourselves the SmallDataBigInsightsForum?
Demonstrating resilient continuity in the face of pandemic disruption, we also reconvened at the Picturehouse Central members bar high above Piccadilly for one of those rare occasions, a live in-person podcast recording.
Like (slow) buses, you wait for years for interviews to turn up on the SmallDataForum podcast, and two turn up within but five months of each other.
With Thomas taking the first plunge with his doctoral supervisor, Darren Lilleker, back in March, it was Sam’s turns to become inquisitor with Anne Hardy, Chief Information Security Officer at US-French data security firm, Talend (lovely animation on the homepage).
Our conversation focused on the necessary balance between regulation and self-regulation of Big Tech. After some spectacular failures of anything approaching good governance – from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to the Trump and Brexit campaigns, familiar topics to aficionados of this podcast – the tide is turning on consumer privacy and the uses and abuses of personally identifiable information (PII data).
For understandable reasons, the last four, regular monthly episodes of the Small Data Forum podcast have been focused – almost to the point of obsession – on coronavirus. From the uncertain first fumblings of life under lockdown, through escalating mortality and morbidity, and on to a fundamental lack of trust in the competence of blustering, blond, male, right-wing leaders … the last four episodes have had it all.
Some have said that this podcast was made for events like the pandemic, scrutinising as we do the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life. There’s been plenty of that about of late.
So, with lockdown restrictions being lifted all around the world – and Government advice completely ignored on the beaches of Bournemouth in the mini-U.K. heatwave last week, leading Dorset police to declare the overcrowding “a major incident” – our focus in this episode was much more catholic.
Indeed, with Facebook, GDPR, and brand safety the dominant topics, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d fallen through a wormhole in the space-time continuum and teleported back to 2018.
“We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.“ So the famous US Supreme Court Justice and ‘crusader for social justice’ and breaker-upper of Gilded Age monopolies, Louis D. Brandeis is said to have said, perhaps sometimes in the early 1930s.
Today, perhaps the best-known neo-Brandeisian anti-trust advocate is Tim Wu, Columbia law professor, ‘father of net neutrality’ and author of a series of books likening today’s commercial excesses – in particular in the digital space – to the ‘Gilded Age’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course, it is not really an either-or debate. It’s a complex and convoluted, tangled web of interests and angles, and any claimant of simple solutions has likely got a degree from snake oil university.
It’s our Silver Jubilee – 25 times SmallDataForum, and so much has happened since our first episode less than a fortnight before the EU Referendum. And yet here we are, Brexit still front and center and no one’s none the wiser.
When we started, our aim was to reflect on communicators’ needs
to increase the value of data,
to understand data and its insights to inform better business decisions,
to manage data from machines (data processing) and humans (turning Big Data into small, relevant, business-critical insight).
Little did we foresee how much our chosen field would be dominated by the narrative of Western democracy and society being undermined by the powers unleashed by social and digital media.
Yet here we are, with Neville discussing GDPR as the modern equivalent of the Feds nailing Al Capone for tax evasion.
Perhaps an update of The Untouchables will see Benedict Cumberbatch play DCMS Committee Chairman Damian Collins as a modern Eliot Ness. Or Christian Bale as EU Competition Commissioner Margarete Vestager, in the new tradition of the near-real-time biopic.