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Telling stories through numbers: The rise of the data democracy

Telling stories through numbers: The rise of the data democracy Featured Image LG Oct 2016

Lillian Grace believes greater fluency with data will transform the conversations councils can have within their own organisations, between themselves and with their communities. She explains it all to Ruth Le Pla. Lillian will be speaking at the ALGIM annual conference in November.

Imagine what our society was like before most people could read – when knowledge sharing and the ability to glean information from the printed page was the domain of just a few folk. That world view whiffs of elitism now. Yet, according to Lillian Grace, so too will the current notion that only experts and analysts can see the insights locked in plain sight in numbers and data.

Such a transformative idea lies at the heart of what Lillian calls the rise of a data democracy.

For Lillian and her colleagues at charitable organisation Figure.NZ, data is simply a collection of numbers that “help tell the stories of our communities, our pasts, our businesses and our environment”.

Figure.NZ, she says, is the first organisation globally to assert that everyone can use numbers in their thinking. And she’s on a mission to develop not just the technology but also the language, relationships and trust so people can learn to use those numbers.

“We’re talking about a world where even a seven-year-old is able to sit in English class and write a story saying, ‘I got a new Labrador at the weekend and there are 46 Labradors in my town’.”

Councils already collect such doggy details when owners register their pets. So, for Lillian, it’s not a huge leap from there to her classroom scenario which gives local schoolchildren another way of understanding their world. “It’s about telling stories through numbers.”

Within local authorities, as elsewhere, data can beef up contextual understanding. “So it might be as simple as how many people are in my region or district,” she says, “or how many people are moving there and where do they come from?”

Lillian imagines a time when such data, and much more besides, will be shared between public and private sector organisations, and individuals too.

Data should not be a currency available to a select few, she says. “Data use inequality is limiting not just for individuals but it also means that at a societal level we aren’t able to get insights.”

Even so, don’t expect rapid u-turns. “You don’t look at a graph, then suddenly your whole life changes and you make wild decisions,” says Lillian. “Data helps you know what questions to ask next.”

In her view, this may mean council officers wanting to bring people together to improve their local spaces, for example, could start by probing existing data and the things that impact on the current state of play.

“Then you can say ‘what would we like to see?’ and look at ways to get from one state to another.”


Data, she admits, is not black and white. “And it’s not perfect at all.”

Yet, Lillian says conversations change when all parties can see situations clearly through the use of numbers.

“Instead of having binary debates – ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a certain topic – everyone can look at a more cohesive picture and figure out how they can work together to solve things.

“Whether it’s within a local council or between a council and the public, so many conversations are currently about debating what is, rather than debating what should be next,” she says.

“In 10 years I see the level of conversation being lifted up so everyone knows what a situation is. We can say, ‘Okay, we all know that. That’s clear and transparent. So now let’s debate what our values or vision are.’

“We might disagree on how we will get there but that’s a different type of conversation.”

ALGIM Conference

Figure.NZ CEO Lillian Grace will be speaking at the 2016 ALGIM Conference being held from November 21 to 23 at Auckland’s SkyCity Convention Centre. For more information on the conference go to bit.ly/ALGIM_Conference

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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