Around The Digital Campfire again

Shaun Gomm sharing the stage with Edafe Onerhime at Camp Digital 2023
Shaun Gomm sharing the stage with Edafe Onerhime

Yes, I was struggling for a title more interesting than just ‘Camp Digital 2023’, and I’d only just narrowly dismissed ‘Camp Dogital’, so you’ll have to make do with this! I have this habit of visiting events in various places, making a load of notes, and then forgetting to write anything up until the moment has long passed. So with the return of Camp Digital in my local area of Manchester for July 2023, I thought I’d put a little summary together of the day.

The day began with a very early start. After many years based in the city centre, for 2023 the conference had moved to a new home at the Royal Northern College of Music (which as a student of neighbouring University of Manchester from many moons ago, I still feel looks ‘wrong’ without its linking footbridge to the uni building coming out of one side). Being slightly out of the centre now, I’d already done a dry run on the route for timing purposes a few days earlier when attending a DotNetNorth event and ended up stuck in so many traffic delays and missing the start that I wasn’t intending to repeat that. Of course, the inevitable result was to end up there way too early instead. But that always leads to a much less stressful start and meant more time could be spent talking to other earlier arrivals before the main conference started. One thing this revealed quite quickly was how diverse the attendee base for this would be. An early attendee spoken to was actually on work experience with one of the local digital agencies and had come along to get a better feel for the importance of the topic within the sector. Having grown up myself some 20 years ago in an era where the tech sector existed and was growing even then, yet was still a nightmare to find a foot in as someone new, it’s great to see this changing so much now with people being able to get in to the proper indepth topics from the get-go and is something I’d love to see more of!

After an hour of this initial mingling, everyone was able to file into the main room for the event to begin. Following a brief introduction and welcome to the event, the first talk of the day was round Digital Transformation In Context from James Plunkett. Starting with some topical slides around train sockets on the journey in not being designed around users, the talk then took a look at digital work from three main angles. Firstly historical, comparing the changes seen in recent years to huge changes seen during the industrial revolution with the introduction of the production line by Charles Sorenson but ultimately a lot being about existing things being used in a new way. Then metaphorical, putting technical discovery like people mining for gems but finding a portal to a whole new dimension in the process, with new ways of working and rules to be defined. And the final angle took a specific story about the production of bread, and how the building of automated assembly lines mandated changes and clever marketing to change what bread actually was to people to make it easier to fit the machines, rather than fitting the machines to the existing bread.

The central themes being raised in the first keynote touched on elements that would be woven throughout many of the talks for the rest of the day, and which have inevitably been hot topics in the digital space in the past 12 months with the rapid pace of global change in AI technology largely focused in the hands of private companies. The importance of thinking around people first rather than technology was really pushed as a takeaway from James’ talk, with the bread story being raised as a prime example of where it was done the other way!

This emerging theme led nicely into the second morning keynote speech on inclusive design being a luxury or a must-have, championed by Shibira Papain. This once again opened using a personal anecdote on their own experience growing up and being separated into educational groups that just made no effort to cater. The important lesson being that when designing any sort of public service, always remember you’re designing for the people most at risk of being excluded for the very reason you’re designing for, and how that led to her founding People Street designed to create a team focused on creating a world where technology can democratise access to knowledge and services. The remainder of the talk then went into more detail on approaches they’d taken to this, using a case study of work with the Home Office and Immigration as an example of an organisation often vilified by the media but where such work is of vital importance due to dealing with some of the most vulnerable people. Shabira again pushed the importance of focusing on the people, but particularly showing them they are truly valued as part of the process. Building trust by ensuring proper followups, and also importantly encouraging organisations to compensate people for their valuable time, an often overlooked feature when companies budget for these things. Overall a very positive talk, with one additional very positive response coming in the follow up questions. Namely on how Shabira has found in recent years a real change in how organisations approach this compared to even 2-3 years back, with her no longer having to spend anywhere near as much time convincing them of the importance of doing it at all, but instead them already knowing this and ready to look at how to best go about it.

After those first two talks, the day followed its traditional approach of splitting off into multiple tracks. I decided to stay around for the lightning talks session, meaning a rapid set of six short talks from people mentored to get them into speaking. With the ultimate goal being to bring in fresh faces and help build out more diversity within the speaking space. There is so much more I’d like to have written here, but with such a huge amount of topics that’d be another blog post in itself. So instead just as a whirlwind overview we had:-

  • Olubukola Otesile – Who talked about impostor syndrome, and how widely experienced it is by people in most walks of life over the years, with the inclusion of an AI generated poem to be very on the newest trends.
  • Erere Ikogho – Who took a look at research in the healthcare space. Starting with their personal path into this, as well as looking at some specific examples around screening programs. Some unexpected technical failures with slides were very well covered over throughout, which is something that can throw even the most seasoned of speakers!
  • Zara Bobat – Looked at being human in a user centred design team, and how they can bring their own perspectives and different viewpoints to a team, important for building empathy and finding angles people may not have even thought about.
  • Coco Chan and Jessica Riley – Spoke on user centred design within the civil service, sharing the practicalities involved in environments that may not be used to it, as well as strategies and tools to help get as much in as possible.
  • Millie Mann – Talked about their journey into Agile Delivery of Regulatory Apps for the CQC, communicating the importance of getting people onboard and encouraging a culture of transparency and celebrating success.
  • Emma Grier – Finished off the round of lightning talks by talking about changing careers, which can often seem daunting and difficult to pivot. But making the point that often the poorly named ‘soft skills’ are underplayed but are actually vitally important as they can go across all roles and careers. As someone who’s recently gone on sabbatical after having spent the past 17 years doing very similar technical roles, this was an interestingly thoughtful one to finish on too.

Continuing in the track I was on, next up was Edafe Onerhime who spoke on White and Other Defaults. This was another talk that heavily tied into the overarching themes of the day around data and AI, with Edafe using a lot of humour and anecdotes to show how, even if not always conscious or deliberate, biased defaults are often built into data collection from the outset. If the initial data collection contains such biases, then the data set will, and as a result anything which is based off that data, such as changes or training for AI will carry through all those same biases. It once again made the point about how important it is to never forget the human element behind this, while also looking at things from both sides. With an understanding that often the defaults come in from data collectors looking for ways to limit their responses to make data easier to compare and not wanting it too open, but making the point there is an important middle ground to be found, with even organisations typically resistant to change like the national census able to make progress on this over time.

I swapped to the other track room for the next talk, where Natalie Pearce spoke on ‘From CX to EX’. Looking at the link between design and culture, and talking about how to improve culture to create a world where all people get to work for kinder, fairer and better designed companies. As someone who’s been in the digital space for possibly too long now, this was a very interesting talk as over time the culture of companies and their way of acting has definitely become of much more importance to me than the specific technologies they use. As it’s the culture which begins to make the real distinction. Though the main thing that jumped out at me on a personal level came up in the Q&A where someone asked how do you change the culture at a place where the people at the top remain resistant to it (paraphrased here slightly to keep me off any adult filters). For someone who owns a business dedicated to helping companies improve culture it would have been very easy to have given an answer suggesting anything can be fixed. However the very frank response was that as hard as you may like, sometimes it is just impossible to change an organisation culture and in those cases you have to be able to identify this and move on. As I’ve often made it a goal of mine to try and leave an organisation better than it was when I arrived, I’ve frequently felt defeated and like I’ve failed if I have to leave without hitting 100% of this goal. With constant doubts over whether I didn’t try hard enough, or could have done something better, and was I a coward to just give up? So to hear someone else saying it is often sadly not possible and you need to realise this was a real boost, and is a valuable reminder of the sorts of refreshing and unexpected angles that can come from conferences such as this.

The next talk on the track I followed was from Sarah Knowles and Lynn Laidlaw with approaching research as a data feminist. This talk again focused on the importance of the human element in things, doing so using research during COVID. As we move into the third year since the initial outbreak of the pandemic, it’s really good to start and see more of the findings from this making their way into talk topics now. It also was able to touch on the overuse of buzzphrases like ‘putting patients at the centre’ which seem good on the surface, but when you dig deeper it’s hard to see what they truly mean (if anything). As well as exemplifying how data can be used to draw bad conclusions if the nuances of it aren’t looked in to properly. A contemporary example here was a widely reported fact at the time on how shielding in the early stages of the pandemic had been hugely detrimental for mental health. If you were to dig deeper into what the data was saying though, it revealed that in a lot of cases shielding didn’t actually have that impact as the people most affected also felt most protected. In a good many cases it was the sudden removal of it at the end of it instead which had the impact, a nuance often missed in the reporting. The talk finished up looking at how automation has often been heralded as making things easier, but in reality has often just moved a new burden onto the end user instead. This immediately resonated given how a lot of my own spare time lately has gone on trying to remove home automation via Alexa and instead simplify it via an inhouse solution. Mainly because the Alexa platform was supposed to make home automation easier. But instead has become so focused on promoting extra services and engagement in their need to monetize the service, that the simple single task I originally wanted from it, namely turning on and off the lights in a room, has become more fraught and longwinded than using the very lightswitch it was supposed to replace. This whole topic is also very relevant at the moment with ongoing discussions around the removal of ticket office staff across the rail network. The argument often made is that self-service machines have made ticket offices unneccesary. However even as someone very well versed in using such machines, I’ve seen just in the past decade how they’ve gone from simple ‘quick choice’ machines you could buy a simple ticket from quickly, to ones asking now endless reams of questions and choices to force you through a full booking engine flow, ultimately making the whole experience more difficult and slower and again shifting the burden on to users under the guise of ‘improvements’. That’s a lot of digressing I’m doing here though.

After a day so heavily focused on data and the human involvement, with some real thought-provoking topics, the last keynote of the day was the more traditional lighter end to the day. Data remained an important part of it, however this time Nadieh Bremer took a quick look at how to turn often hard and complex data into beautiful artistic works to visualise connections. A variety of case studies were used to show how data from diverse topics such as astronomy, royal family trees and even Google searches on cats could be used to create fantastic visuals. As well as how projects studying important social issues, such as the displacement of homeless people around the US could be presented in a clever visual way to really strengthen the impact of that data. Overall a great mix of both the fun and the serious to finish off what had been another great conference.

Board outside Brewdog bar indicating a private afterparty for Camp Digital 2023.
Finally, a private party I didn’t have to worry about being asked to leave!

A lot of this all went away in the immediate hours afterwards, what with the traditional Camp Digital afterparty meaning an evening spent socialising and chatting with various attendees at the conference, which people who know me from many events will know is often a part I tend to avoid. But thankfully those thoughts and memories raised did come back round later (admittedly, writing a bunch of reminders down during the day does help there) and gave me a lot of thoughtful stuff to take away for the future. So thanks to all involved from the Nexer team for running it again and the fantastic speakers who bring out all this thinking in the first place. All I can finish with is roll on Camp Digital 2024! I’d better start thinking of a title for the blog post now…