By Nora Bateson 2018
*This is a small piece that was written for the document presented for the General Assembly 2019 Global Risk Assessment.
The problems the world is facing now, including ecological damage, natural disasters, poverty, species loss, political upheaval, refugee trauma, and even health epidemics, can all be described as complex, that is, they are born of circumstances that are multi-causal and non-linear. This complexity vexes the traditional problem-solving model of separating the problems into singularly defined parts and solving for the symptoms. The very nature of complexity undermines the familiar mandate to define goals and strategies to achieve pre-envisioned, single sector solutions. None of the issues above can be understood as stand alone issues. These issues are wrapped in contextual interdependencies that require an entirely different approach in assessment, and action.
Warm Data is a Complementary form of Information.
A majority of current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts in order to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. To complement, and yet support, this specialized type of science, a wider practice of science in the future might develop ways to utilize information derived from both detail and interdependency. However, for now, the cultural habit of decontextualizing information, or, reductionism, is the standardized, authorized, and empirical norm.
“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.
For instance, if there is an addiction crisis in a particular community, statistics are not enough information to begin to make a systemic response. Usually addiction is categorized as either a legal or medical issue, and those two groups of experts would be tasked to address the problem. But in truth, more contextual information is needed. The contexts of economics, politics, education systems and culture in community must also be brought into the research. The warm data is then found in the relationships between these institutions. In that sense streams of data from each will only present vast qualities of data, and still not provide the necessary relational content that is generated between the contexts.
Ability to Respond to Wicked Problems
There are several contexts of long term degradation of social, economic, cultural and ecological systems that are now conjoining to form what are sometimes called, “wicked problems”. Timelines of increasing cultural and ecological upheaval as described by the IPCC and multiple other scientific bodies are currently pressuring policy makers to try new approaches to meeting today’s challenges. Those new approaches must be rooted in a more competent understanding of ways in which complex systems behave. To meet those problems, it is not enough to depend on data that addresses single cause and relies on linear solution. The combining of causations of poverty, addiction, racial tension, refugee trauma, people trafficking, political polarity and increasing statistics of mental health issues make events in this era much more complicated than they may have been in the past.
In order to make more appropriate assessment and response to risks arising out of multi causal circumstances observation that can appropriately address the complexity is greatly needed. The decision made around what actions to take, by whom and with what resources, are decisions based upon information of the situation or event. If that information cannot hold the appropriate complexity the decisions will be founded on inadequate knowledge. It is therefore necessary to ask:
What information is being used to assess the risks of today?
How has the research that has delivered that information been conducted?
What is Contextual Information or Warm Data?
Context includes the relational processes that come together to produce a situation. And, most complex situations are in fact trans-contextual, that is there is more than one context in play. This sort of information brings together multiple forms of observation, from multiple perspectives. Recognition that information can and does come in many forms the warm data research team will look for on the ground ‘wisdom’ of locals, art, personal stories, and the voices of many generations. The task of Warm Data is to incorporate not just details, but the relationship between details at many scales.
The reality is that often illness, language barriers, addiction, violence and mental health issues are all present in a given neighborhood or household. Responding to community or ecological emergency in such cases reveals the need for expertise that spans a breadth of contextual conditions. Contextual information in the form of Warm Data, has begun to be used by researchers, governments, and public service professionals. Warm Data is information that can be used to assess a complex situation. It is derived through an approach that seeks to articulate the relational interdependencies.
For example, a natural disaster such as Katrina today would bring more layers of complexity than response teams in 2005 were prepared for. Even task of evacuation now would be exacerbated by increased mistrust of law enforcement in Black and Latino communities, opiate addiction prevalence and the subsequent vulnerability and criminality it brings, as well as trauma of refugees and immigrants making census statistics obsolete, and communication fearful.
Inter-systemic Research and Response.
Crises in complex systems do not stay in one sector at a time. Rapid transformation of ecological patterns, are feeding into systemic risk across all socio-economic structures. This transformation is already beginning to be felt in the detail of people’s lives, in their families and in their communities as well at global levels. Many industries experiencing changes in local economies as trade and other global structures shift, thus upending community stability level in terms of employment, health, and family well-being. Therefore the repercussions, such as domestic violence and increased mental health issues, must be considered within the same inquiry as drought, sea level rise and species depletion. And yet, current institutional structures mitigate these complex issues through the protocols of attending only to what is within their specific jurisdiction. Health crises remain in the realm of health systems, while economic issues are under the attention of finance and employment. Likewise ecological risks overlapping with cultural or political risks must be researched in their relational interdependency.
To prevent further tearing apart of communal resilience a recognition of warm data reveals that supporting the connective tissue that holds the families and community together is a more effective approach. A community that has a mandate across sectors to tend to the families within it will support parents in their support for their children. This is called second order support moves laterally across communities. While it is often not visible in direct linear deliverables, the overall fabric of the community is strengthened and more able to respond in collaborative ways.
It is necessary therefore to develop bridges of research and increased communication across societal systems. This is particularly true of public service systems. Lack of communication and contextual perspective between such systems as education, health, transportation, and communication leave communities vulnerable. By contrast, connection and increased contact between such sectors will make the community more robust and resilient to both long term and sudden emergencies. The development of warm data approaches cultivates the relationship between sectors to strengthen inter-systemic interaction and collaboration.
Changing Patterns of Interaction at Local Levels:
The natural extension of this process is bridge building across systems This is a step toward forming collaborative decision making bodies at local levels. In doing so there is the possibility to bring together people from different, but interdependent fields to explore and restore local community vitality. As these community groups form and exchange knowledge, new communication patterns begin to form linking otherwise separated sectors of experience. The place-based solutions that emerge from the collaborative development of contextual warm data lends itself to self-organizing around actions that are co-created, and local ownership of both data and solutions. Providing a context, (warm data) for the context is a meta shift that generates connection, communication, and action which is able to meet complexity in new ways. Drawing from collective intelligence, and mutual learning local capacity is vastly increased.
When research is done in this way, across contexts, what becomes apparent is the interdependency. Food for example, is not separable from the economic system, nor is it separable from the culture, or agriculture, or even medicine. Food is also an important catalyst for forming bonds between generations. To address the communal needs in terms of food in a systemic way is to have brought to light the insights of the relationships that tie food to the community. In this sense the work of supporting food initiatives is not simply set to distribution or nutrition, but rather to knitting the relationships between the contexts listed above into projects and actions that involve the whole community. The solutions lie in the recognition of collective response. No single response is enough to address a complex problem.
Overlapping Forms of Knowledge to Produce Warm Data Research
While contextual information is certainly multidisciplinary, there are limits to what is sometimes thought of as multidisciplinary information. The practice of listing the stakeholders and applying separated streams of data about each one in an attempt to get an overview of a complex system is becoming more popular, but it has drawbacks as well. While this process is useful to some extent the vital information will continue to elude those trying to make sense of it. The disciplines as such do not have any overlap of jargon or expertise. The warm data is in the overlap, and is produced by teams whose inquiry is practiced in crossing contextual frames, and finding patterns. The lens of contextual inquiry, and transcontextual research is one that brings not only disciplines together, but many other forms of knowledge, including the wisdom of local practitioners and cultural sensitivity.
While the crises of political, ecological or social emergencies are obvious as news stories, the more systemic consequences and consequences of consequences are easily disconnected from their network of causations. When superficial solutions are implemented to provide solutions to problems in complex systems the problems, like heads on the mythological Hydra, grow in number. Whereas, contextual response is far more effective. And, the benefits are felt across multiple sectors simultaneously. Information is needed that presents the contextual interlinking of the impacts as they are felt at the individual level within the larger global contexts. This information will be vital to understanding better how to respond to risks that cannot be contained in a single sector.
More on Warm Data:
Small Arcs of larger Circles, by Nora Bateson published by Trairchy Press 2016
Upcoming book 2019: Warm Data, Nora Bateson, Triarchy Press, 2019