Citizens Advice Data Science team month-notes #5 (February)

We are blogging about the work we do. We aim to write a post once a month with contributions from various members of the team.

Here’s our previous post.

As a team we believe in continuous improvement, building capability, and focusing on meeting data users’ needs. The opportunities we have for improving the way we work with data at Citizens Advice aren’t unique to our organisation. It’d be great if the practical approaches we take are useful to others.

This month is from Josie and Suzanne, reflecting on learning about data when you’re new to an organisation.

Accustoming to Organisational Data as Citizens Advice New Starters

Josie (Senior Data Analyst) and Suzanne (Data Science Lead)

Starting a new job is both exciting and overwhelming. New people to meet, new procedures to learn, so many new passwords to remember.

When your job involves working directly with the data, important areas to understand quickly are where the main datasets live, how they are structured, the processes which turn datasets into actionable reports, and who the teams needing those reports are.

This blog post is a reflection from two new joiners on getting accustomed to all these areas at Citizens Advice.

When you drive a new car there’s a period of adjusting to familiar controls located in slightly different places — if the indicators are now where your brain is used to finding the wiper controls you’re going to feel a bit daft for a while. Starting a new data role feels a bit the same, there’s a lot that’s similar to what you already know but plenty that’s different and unique to the new organisation.

For instance at Citizens Advice we have Members by which we mean our network of 250+ local organisations across England and Wales. Elsewhere Members would likely describe an individual person and it took a while to get into the rhythm of using that word correctly. Another example is Offices. I (Suzanne) started thinking of Members as Local Citizens Advice Offices, until I realised that a Member could have several Offices so that was a bad term to be using.

A big help in learning to ‘speak’ Citizens Advice quickly was the Data Glossary which defines a framework for the common terms we use and puts them in the right context. Really helpful are the synonyms for important terms and understandable human explanations of what each one means. The Data Glossary goes well beyond being ‘just’ a technical document. Josh (Data Architect) put the Data Glossary together when he joined Citizens Advice, and now we can benefit from it.

Every dataset represents a real-world domain, and speaking to the data domain experts is an invaluable way of understanding the human, real-world context of datasets in addition to the technical details. For instance (Josie) talking to analysts within our various funded services to understand what data is held and the strengths/weaknesses/nuances of how it is collected. This also has benefits of building relationships with new colleagues and starting conversations about past work which can lead to de-duplication of efforts.

It’s crucial to keep organised notes to refer back to — in those first few months you are taking in lots of information quickly and it can be difficult to remember it all. There are lots of great software tools available, Notion is a favourite for creating documentation in notebooks. These can be shared later and benefit others.

Once you start getting hands-on work with the actual data, there’s a stage where you need to self-assess that you’ve correctly understood how the human description of what’s needed translates into the analysis that you are creating. Assuming you’ve understood can be a big mistake.

Good practice could be rebuilding an existing report from scratch to check you get the same results, maybe using a different technique, or in a sandbox environment. It can feel like reinventing the wheel but it’s definitely time well spent. You might discover something new, and it’s a real confidence boost when your new work produces the same numbers as the original! The feeling of being confused is your friend here, it shows there’s something you haven’t fully understood and you need to dig into what that is.

Both of us agree that it’s been a genuine pleasure being new at Citizens Advice. Colleagues from all areas of the organisation have been universally helpful and welcoming. There is lots of interesting data with good technical documentation. We both look forward to building on our knowledge over the coming months.

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Dan Barrett

Head of Data Science at Citizens Advice. These are my personal thoughts on work.