It’s that time again; another installment of Digital Heroes, a quick chat with people doing interesting digital work, in and around government. This time I want to introduce you to someone grappling with the challenges of big, <sometimes open> data, a subject we haven’t covered yet. I’ve got to admit I struggle with the whole open data thing, after attending one too many conferences where it’s been discussed to death. It’s not that I don’t believe in its potential power, it’s just that I sometimes question why we’re still talking about how one can publish it, the problems of common file formats etc, etc, etc, and instead moved the conversation onto – ‘what useful things shall we do with it’? The prevailing answer seems to centre on, in my opinion, a slightly naive idea that somehow people will build apps and business models from it, which I don’t think is going to happen any time soon, outside of the odd isolated example.

It was therefore with interest that I learned about the work Fran and her co-founder Bruce Durling, have been doing, with their company Mastodon C, processing and using the data for public gain. The project which has deservedly got the most amount of press, is one that analysed vast amounts of prescription data, looking at disparities in prescriptions of licensed and non-licensed cardiovascular medication, which identified how the NHS could saves 100’s of millions of pounds – worth getting out of bed for.

Let’s see what Fran has to say for herself.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
My name’s Francine Bennett. I grew up in Norfolk and on the Welsh borders, and I now live in central hipsterville, Dalston in London.

2.  What do you do for a living?
I run Mastodon C. We’re a tech company (startup? I’m not sure how long we keep that label…) which builds and manages custom cloud-based big data systems, using open source technology. We work in particular with government, health, and energy data. It’s a lot of fun.

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
AARGH REALLY HARD QUESTION. I’m going to go with Tom Waits, but also Super Furry Animals.

4.  Android or iPhone?
Definitely Android. I prefer being able to tinker with things.

5.  PC or Mac?
Mac (even given comment above). I love my Macbook Air, it comes everywhere with me.

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
I’m a creature of habit, as a way to stay sane. We work with cutting-edge technologies, and are often trying to solve hard or new problems in innovative ways, plus there’s the general unpredictability of running a startup, so routine and habit are really important to keeping things rolling.

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Just the people in it. The stuff can burn if it needs to.

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Dunk, quickly. There is nothing more sad than a disintegrated biscuit, but the risk is worth the reward.

9.  Best project you’ve worked on at Google/ now/ whenever and why?
The best project is always the next one! I’m really excited right now about the new Embed system which is heading for launch – this is a system we run for Energy Savings Trust, using Cassandra technology, which collects and analyses hundreds of millions of datapoints at high frequencies, and lets them understand building and energy efficiency performance in a way that should make a real difference to UK-wide housing decisions. I’m excited because we’ve managed to turbocharge the technology to deal with huge quantities and speeds of data without falling over, but also because the end result is an important one.

10.  Where do you hope Mastodon C will be in 10 years in terms of wider
digital democracy? Opportunities and pitfalls.
We are doing a lot of prototype work at the moment on Future Cities – building systems that make sense of city data, to help city leaders make operational and strategic decisions better. I think there’s a huge additional opportunity in this area to use this data and these
visualisations to explain how and why policies are made, and to help people participate in that democracy.

Doing that is going to be tough, though – the technology is there already, but there’s a big culture change required in order to have those conversations in an open way.

11.  Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GOV.UK.
I just this week came across, run by a civic group which remixes Taiwanese government websites to make them more transparent and more useful. They’ve explained more at I think their approach is really constructive and impressive.

So there you have it, another fascinating installment of Digital Heroes; what a journey we’ve been on. If you want to talk about harnessing the power of all that data you may or may not have, you can holler at Fran here. Failing that, she does the Twitter thing as well as anyone else.

Until next time.