I was feeding my goats when my friend Chelsea came by with a friend, Colin. I apologized for all the branches in the clearing, some in piles, but most of them strewn about. We made small talk until I asked him what he did. “I help people with data problems,” he said.
Two months later the Board and I are meeting with Colin and his boss, Jeff Kaplan. We’d planned to meet 30 minutes beforehand to run through our pitch, but Seattle traffic left us a few minutes to talk outside the office in the rain. This time I had done my homework. Jeff is, as we say, a big deal. He is the Socrata Director of NGOs, the largest open-data system in the world. They ran the data analytics for both Obama presidential campaigns. Jeff negotiates data contracts for institutions you may have heard of such as the World Bank, which by the way hired him as their lead data consultant before he joined Socrata. Why he had agreed to talk with a small startup was beyond all of us. As we walked in I could hear my heart in my ears.
Think of the opposite of a cubical. That’s the Socrata office. It’s one room, with people working at collaborative desks, passing notepads back and forth, and sketching designs on whiteboards. A group of people were toasting in the kitchen with champagne, which is in the middle of the office. I asked Colin what was happening. “We just got a big contract, I think with New York City,” he said.
He takes us into one of the meeting rooms, and starts the conference call. After a few rings we hear Jeff’s voice. “Hello gentleman, I’m so sorry, I’m just trying to find a quiet place to sit.” Jeff was at a big data conference in Washington D.C., and was forgoing his lunch hour to talk with us.
We make small talk for a bit, joked about how our next meeting should be at the corporate homestead, and then he says the words, “Let’s hear your pitch.”
For most of my life data scared me. The word itself made me queasy, like I was back in seventh grade failing a math test. When I got to college I took the easiest math class I could get into, and spent most of the time reading the newspaper (if you’re reading this Dr. Adams, I’m sorry).
But when I started doing project management in homeless services I started realizing that numbers reflected something real. They were a way of understanding how people worked, what methods were and were not successful. Numbers became about people and what could make their lives better.
Then, through conversations with the board, I started to learn that data wasn’t just numbers. It can be pictures, colors, receipts, baseball hats, food. Data can be anything. As technology advances, understanding data is a way of understanding the minutia of a question, the questions within a question. As our team talked more we started wondering if data could be a part of storytelling in the 21st century.