Data? What’s any of that got to do with power?

Edafe Onerhime
5 min readNov 4, 2020

Inspired by Open data standards design behind closed doors?, I explore the links between data and power, with a side serving of standards and lots of pictures!

“Open data standards are political, yet they are built in technical spaces devoid of political or social implications. Often what gets prioritized in their design is technical interoperability, not human understanding. Sometimes we focus so much on building the technology that we forget to focus on power and to address the new power dynamics formed. “

Practically everything in this excellent article can be said about any data that is shared between people and organisations. And not just the data, also the “stuff” that helps us share that data more easily and with less “friction”.

If you picture a cup of tea (or beverage of your choice), then data is the tea, the content. The cup is the infrastructure that lets us consume the data. Or tea. Both the cup and the tea are important parts of the tea drinking experience, just as the data and the infrastructure are important to the insight experience.

The choices we make about both the content and the container can have implications. These implications or shall we say consequences, will be felt in the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental spheres. (Yes, I did just use PESTLE analysis, it’s old but still good!)

That the lessons from the Open data standards design behind closed doors? have wider implications is not said to dilute the important message about open data standards. Standards are a powerhouse for collaboration at scale. If you want to change the world and data will help you do it, you’re going to hit a collaboration barrier at some point. Guess what removes that barrier?

Did you guess standards? Because the answer was standards. If you did, congratulations and here’s a random picture of my gorgeous prince Fergie as a reward. If you prefer dogs, well, imagine he is a pooch…

Back to power. Let’s take dig into this:

“Sometimes we focus so much on building the technology that we forget to focus on power and to address the new power dynamics formed.”

Why does data have so much of an effect on power and culture?

Let’s think about why we invest so much time, money and effort in data and technologies around data? Why in 2370 BCE did Rimush, king of Akkad record a list of victories upon Abalgamash, king of Marhashi on clay tablets?

Recording and using data, (words and numbers): for trade, for memory, for propaganda, to organise, to grow, to compete, to persuade, is something we’ve done since we had the technology to do so. Sumerian clay tablets and Egyptian papyrus became silicon chips and paper.

Recording and using data doesn’t just support (or destroy) existing dynamics and industries, it creates new opportunities. Why? Because it gives us something we didn’t have before: new insight. Knowing valuable stuff that others don’t (information assymetry) is itself power.

More prosaically, clay tablets meant we needed scribes. More trade for the British Empire meant we needed clerks to record the vast wealth being taken and sometimes lost at sea. We also needed computers. In 1613 that meant “one who computes”. The first computers were humans.

I’ve gone off track a little, so let’s get back to power and culture. We record what’s important and that, to some extent, shapes our culture, norms, and directs the flow of power. What’s excluded has at some point been determined unimportant — deliberately or by mistake.

So when we design data standards (essentially norms) we are describing and creating a view of that bit of the world and how we expect it to work — at scale.

With enough people backing that data standard (again think norm), it will gain acceptance, use and help to shape what’s acceptable in that area. People will design the systems you use to make decisions so they support and align with the standard. That’s power.

Hang on, you might say. It’s just a bunch of geeks in a back room twiddling code. Not so fast. These days data standards are working their way into legislation and policy. And what else? Machine learning, AI, neural networks, automation. All using data shaped by standards and norms…

Inspired by Open data standards design behind closed doors? by Ana Brandusescu (McGill University), Michael Canares (StepUp Consulting) and Silvana Fumega (ILDA). Make sure to give it a read.


  1. Silhouette Photo of Person Holding Door Knob — Photo by George Becker from Pexels
  2. A steaming cup of tea — Photo origin unknown.
  3. Collaboration at scale — lessons from data standards — Image by Edafe Onerhime.
  4. Fergus in Silhouette — Photo by Edafe Onerhime.
  5. Copy of a monumental inscription of Rimush-AO 5476 — Phby 0x010C licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.
  6. White Graphing Paper — Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.
  7. 3 of Hearts Playing Card — Photo by Vitezslav Vylicil from Pexels.
  8. A human computer, with microscope and calculator, 1952 — Photo in public domain.
  9. Eggs in Tray on White Surface — Photo by Daniel Reche from Pexels.
  10. Person Tossing Globe — Photo by Valentin Antonucci from Pexels.
  11. Photo of Man Wearing Black Crew-neck T-shirt — Photo by Nicholas Swatz from Pexels.
  12. Gif of a Black man whistling — Photo: Source unknown.



Edafe Onerhime

Edafe Onerhime specialises in making impact with data. Her motto: Data + Design + Culture. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland with her wife and cat. She/Her.