Open Data Manchester – still learning at 10 with a little help during lockdown

 Sam Milsom shares how Open Data Manchester has developed over ten years and during the lockdown, while Julia Kasmire from the UK Data Service shares the contribution the Service made to ODM’s Pick N Mix workshops.

 

 

Open Data Manchester is a not-for-profit that began in 2010 when diverse open data advocates decided to support those looking to release and use data, ranging from charities, local authorities, businesses as well as freelancers and data hobbyist individuals.

Ten years later, Open Data Manchester now boasts diverse members who are eager to both teach and learn through meetups, workshops and training sessions. Experienced data scientists are keen to share their knowledge and skills, as well as to “talk data” with like-minded people. At the same time, less experienced members, some who are completely new to data sciences, sometimes come with specific questions to answer or problems to solve but may also come just because they love to learn new things!

Reflecting the varied data needs in Greater Manchester and beyond, our programme includes:

  • Data For Communities started as a ‘spreadsheet-less’ workshop delivered in community spaces to fill knowledge gaps in how data contributes to the policies that affect our lives – from crime statistics to employment rates. Later, Data For Communities became a toolkit to help people and organisations understand data and take action.
  • Data Expeditions give participants – from frontline workers to policymakers – hands-on experience of working with data from ‘start to finish’ – from developing research questions, to finding, cleaning and analysing data, to learning how to use visualise it and tell stories.
  • Open:Data:Nights provide opportunities for community members to show off projects, share expertise and look for collaborators. It’s a friendly, informal and social space – usually capped off with a trip to the pub.

ODM’s Pick N Mix workshops during COVID-19

The March 2020 UK lockdown forced us, like many other organisations, to rethink our plans. Rather than simply take our events online, we seized the opportunity to explore new formats that allow our community to power up their skills, in a fun and friendly way, from the comfort of their homes. Thus, Pick N Mix was born!

Pick N Mix was a series of weekly, free, open to everyone online workshops. We invited invite members of the Open Data Manchester community to run sessions based around their expertise or skill, which meant that we were lucky enough to introduce friends, new and old, to some of the latest data tools, resources and skills.

Pick N Mix was so popular that we had to extend the series from eight to ten sessions, many of which were completely booked to the virtual capacity.

We were really happy to team up with the UK Data Service for four sessions:

  • web-scraping
  • SQL and databases
  • re-using data
  • an introduction the UKDS itself.

The other six sessions covered :

  • OpenStreemap
  • QGIS
  • Data Analysis using Python
  • Lava lamp/violin plots using R
  • Github
  • APIs

Clearly, our members have an appetite for a wide range of data topics!

Over the course of the series, our Pick N Mix workshops attracted participants from the public sector, charitable and voluntary organisations and academia, as well as generalists and enthusiasts.

All were there to brush up their skills and learn something new during lockdown. Some were ‘regulars’ who attended each week, while others were new, trying something out for the first time. They came from across Greater Manchester (as we expected), but also from across the UK and even across the world. Our furthest-flung participants came from Singapore and Canada!

The workshops were very well received – one person told us

“I am in love with these!”

So the series is now billed for future seasons, with dates pencilled in for autumn and spring.

What we learned from the Pick N Mix format

We kept the format relatively simple, with a 45 to 60-minute presentation, followed by Q&A and space for networking. Some sessions included time during the main presentation for participants to contribute or to complete exercises, which is a great way to reinforce learning.

At the same time, we were conscious of the fact that not everyone is comfortable interacting on Zoom and that viewers could still learn a lot simply from watching and listening, even when the sessions were designed to be interactive.

In fact, around half of our attendees had their cameras and microphones turned off, although many of these were still very active in the chat box. We can see that sharing our resources also allows people to come back later to review the materials or repeat exercises in their own time, further enabling a variety of learning styles.

Many ODM first-timers at Pick N Mix told us that they’d never been able to attend our events before, whether due to work commitments, location or general accessibility.

It is extremely important to us that we make our events and resources as open, accessible and welcoming as possible. We fully intend to build upon this as we move forward, which is why we now see online workshops as being a regular feature of our programme, alongside in-person events when these can start up again.

Further, to reemphasise our commitment to and awareness of our community’s needs, we want to make all sessions, online and offline, as open, welcoming and accessible to all by posting them on our Vimeo pages alongside transcripts and accompanying materials.

UK Data Service  – lots of teaching but also lots of learning

As part of our work, the UK Data Service offers a variety of resources, training sessions and events to help users understand the data we offer, how it can be accessed and what might be done with it.

These include data skills modules that allow users to self-train in data analysis methods, case studies to illustrate creative data applications, and a variety of interactive training events including in-person workshops and online webinars.

Of course, the UK lockdown means that all of our interactive training events have moved online. As with the ODM, the move to online-only training was a challenge but also an opportunity. We are happy to report that we have tried out a few new things and have learned a lot about how to move forward with our online training innovations.

Guest hosting at ODM Pick N Mix on Zoom

The UK Data Service was delighted to be invited to guest host some of the online workshops in ODM’s Pick N Mix series. This represented a great opportunity for us to connect with data enthusiast in a new format – Zoom.

Unlike our normal webinar platform, Zoom allows us to share webcam video while also sharing a screen. Since participants can see us as we present, we avoided our normal “disembodied voice” style and instead were free to be more personal and present.

Zoom also allows users to unmute themselves to talk to the presenter, or each other as well as to ask questions in the chat window that everyone can see and respond to. This worked well with the intimate audience sizes of the Pick N Mix sessions because it allowed for real audience engagement, group discussions, and conversational ease when answering questions.

Thus, we learned that moving online does not just mean dropping the in-person workshops and ramping up the online webinars. Instead, we found we can have online workshops that are functionally different to online webinars.

The conversational nature of the Pick N Mix online workshops also gave us an opportunity to learn how ODM members think about and use data, which expanded our awareness of current and future UK Data Service user needs.

Jupyter notebooks and live coding on twitch.tv

The lockdown has also given us time to explore other online learning platforms and education resources.

For example, the New Forms of Data Training team has started creating Jupyter Notebooks to accompany their scheduled interactive training sessions. Jupyter notebooks have several advantages, not the least of which is that they can run interactive code in a browser page so that users do not need to download or install software. Jupyter notebooks also allow users to follow along with the code in real time as they watch a given webinar or workshop (live or pre-recorded).

Another innovation was broadcasting sessions in which a trainer worked through the code in a Jupyter notebook live on Twitch.tv.

This allowed viewers to ask and answer questions in the chat as they watched the code running and heard the trainer explaining why the code was written the way it was and what different parts of the code are meant to do. As the chat is visible to all, the twitch.tv sessions produced a group discussion similar to those that came up in the zoom sessions.

Twitch.tv also allowed for easy webcam sharing alongside screen sharing, so participants reported feeling that the sessions felt personal and natural.

Diverse options allow greater accessibility and better learning

It is clear that different online communication tools have features that suit some materials and learning styles better than others.

The more interactive tools, like Zoom and twitch.tv, are great for those that like to get involved, ask questions and learn within a group. These tools are also well suited to material wants “hands on” learning or that would traditionally be presented via an in-person workshop.

The less interactive tools, like our traditional webinar broadcasts or the jupyter notebooks, are great for those that are most comfortable with information that is presented in a formal context, that does not require audience participation and that is accessible to independent learners.

The webinars are particular good for those that like to “listen and learn” while the jupyter notebooks are particularly good for those that “learn by doing”.

But, importantly, we are happy to see and apply the same lessons that ODM learnt about making the sessions open, welcoming and accessible to diverse audiences. We too want to commit ourselves to these aims and we also plan to ensure that all of our resources are accessible online through recorded videos (with captions and transcripts) as through github repositories when possible. This means that our material will be available to everyone to access on their own time, at their own pace, and in their own way.


Sam Milsom is Programme and events manager for Open Data Manchester.

Sam runs Open Data Manchester’s training, workshops and monthly meetups, along with the Mapping Mobility and Data For Communities projects.

He has 10 years of experience working in startups, specialising in digital learning, including Code Club and ReadingWise. In 2011, he founded Time/Image Online, responsible for the digitisation and cataloguing of the British Council’s film archive. Sam’s a member of the International Association of Facilitators, and can sometimes be heard co-hosting the Tech For Good Live podcast.

Follow Sam on Twitter.

Julia Kasmire researches and teaches on how to use new forms of data for social scientists with the UK Data Service and the Cathie Marsh Institute at the University of Manchester.

She approaches this task as an interesting combination of thinking like a computer (essential for data sciences) and thinking like a human (essential for social sciences) in the context of complex adaptive systems. She is deeply committed to equality, diversity and inclusivity and is currently dabbling with stand-up comedy as a form of science communication.

Follow Julia on Twitter

 

 

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