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Jeni Tennison, Vice President and Chief Strategy Adviser, The Open Data Institute

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?


The Open Data Institute (ODI) mostly focuses on helping other organisations to embed better data practices and to take a wider view of its potential. So while we help organisations to use data in business planning, policy-making and to create new digital tools, we also encourage them to use the sharing of data to tackle broader societal issues, such as increasing the sustainability of supply chains or helping more people to be more active.


2020 was a year like no other – how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?


Like many organisations, we had to shift to remote working. We adapted fairly rapidly to running workshops remotely and ran several virtual events, not least our annual ODI Summit which this year attracted over 1,000 delegates from over 70 countries – there are advantages to operating digitally. 


But the issues we care about at The ODI – data policy and practice – were also thrown into stark relief this year. The importance of data for public health purposes and to understand a rapidly-changing economy has meant more emphasis on transparency, good data access and publication, and the utility of data held by the private sector for public purposes. 


We’ve also seen how data can go wrong, from the lack of data about Covid-19 in care homes, or to understand the impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, to the way decisions made using data and algorithms can have a detrimental effect on people’s lives, as highlighted in the Ofqual scandal.


So, we have had to put extra effort into helping organisations share and publish data and think through the ethical implications of their uses of data. We’ve also put effort into communicating about both how useful data is, can be and its limitations.

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?


The importance of data and analytics will only grow during 2021 as we all deal with a rapidly-changing economic and social environment. The timeliness and granularity of data are going to become its most important qualities, which means that we’ll have to get better at dealing with uncertainty and using multiple sources of data to form more rounded pictures of the world.


Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?


Getting three-fold value from data – creating positive social, environmental and economic impacts from its use – is the driving mission of ODI. In 2021, we’ll be focusing on using data for good health, good jobs and sustainable supply chains – all elements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that we think will have particular importance in 2021 as we deal with the aftermath of Covid-19, Brexit and the ongoing climate crisis. We’ll also be continuing to focus on the role that data institutions – organisations that steward data on behalf of a community for wider benefit – can take in facilitating the sharing of data to help tackle these challenges.

What has been your path to power?


I trained as a psychologist, gaining a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Nottingham. I then worked as an independent consultant and practitioner, specialising in open data publishing and consumption. This included being the technical architect and lead developer for legislation.gov.uk, working on the early linked data work on data.gov.uk and helping to engineer new standards for the publication of statistics as linked data.


I have contributed to several international standards through the W3C and was appointed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to serve on the W3C’s technical architecture group from 2011 to 2015, during which time I chaired the W3C’s HTML data task force. More recently, I co-chaired the W3C’s CSV on the web working group.


I joined the The ODI as technical director in 2012, was appointed CEO in 2016 and in 2020 moved role again to become its vice president and chief strategy adviser. I sit on a number of boards, including the advisory boards for the Open Contracting Partnership and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data; the Department for Health and Social Care’s tech advisory board; and I also advise OpenUK. 


In 2020, I was appointed as the co-chair of the data governance working group within the Global Partnership for AI. I helped to design the open data board game, Datopolis, and was awarded an OBE for services to technology and open data in the 2014 New Year Honours.


What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?


The highlight of my career so far has to be the launch of legislation.gov.uk. It was brilliant to be involved in a project that could demonstrate how to publish data well on the web, both from a technical perspective and a licensing and policy perspective. It was also the start of a move towards a more collaborative way of maintaining that data through an expert participation programme, which has made a real impact on the quality and utility of legislation data in the UK and been a model elsewhere. I’m still proud to have been involved in that work, particularly seeing how important it has been in keeping people informed about the legal basis of the coronavirus restrictions and understanding the changes to our law as we go through Brexit.


Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?


I’m fortunate to work in a mission-driven organisation whose goals match my own, namely to ensure that data gets to people who need it, to give them insights and to help them make better decisions. Recently, we’ve been able to do some work around a number of issues that are important to me: how to improve the flow of data to help tackle the climate crisis; to examine alternative revenue models for data businesses and institutions that can help make them sustainable without compromising their sharing of data; and to look at how data can be used to understand and address inequalities.

How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?


I see increasing recognition of the importance of data and analytics to help inform business (and public policy) decisions. What I don’t see as much is thinking around how to change who has access to data and information as a tool to achieve broader business or policy goals. For example, in our OpenActive programme at ODI, access to data about physical activities attracts business as more people can find classes they want to take. 


In the government’s plans around online harms, access to data should enable the development of safetytech innovations that can be used by smaller social media platforms, enabling us to be safer online while mitigating the effects of more stringent regulation on the market. These illustrate how to think about data within a system, as opposed to within an organisation. 


I think if more businesses did that, they’d find novel advantages from making data more open, just as businesses did around open source software. But few companies are currently able to think strategically about data in that way.


What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?


I think it is a lot easier to create a data culture when people seek information – which includes data, but can also be more qualitative insights – when they make decisions. If people at the top of the organisation demand information when they need to make decision, and ask those reporting to them for the rationale behind their actions, then the rest of the organisation has to build an environment where data and information is easily to hand, which means collecting and managing it well. Support from the top also helps to ensure that those building and maintaining data, systems and practices are given the resources they need, including time to learn and experiment. I think it’s extremely hard to create a data culture without high level buy-in and drive.

Jeni Tennison
has been included in:
  • 100 Enablers 2019 (EMEA)
  • 100 Influencers 2020 (EMEA)
  • 100 Influencers 2021 (EMEA)