If you’re just crunching stats on how social systems work, you’ll miss the nuances. You need “warm data”


We were alerted (by Perspectiva’s Jonathan Rowson)  to this striking tweet by Nora Bateson:

 “Any input that is driven by the desire to be a hero now is inherently out of sync with the needs of this moment. The difference is on the ground, invisible to the people who are looking for stand outs. Just stand in. Carry the weight, care in the weight. #WarmData #systemschange


A beautiful and sharp sentiment, one entirely in keeping with A/UK’s ethos. We were intrigued to dig more into Mary Bateson - wondering initially whether she was anything to do with Gregory Bateson, the great sixties thinker about the systems view of life, who tried to map the complexity and interrelatedness of our social and individual existences. Yep, Mary is his daughter, and runs something called the International Bateson Institute.

The IBI’s current big theme is mentioned in the hashtag above there - Warm Data (yet another riff on Big Data - there’s also Small Data around too). The concept isn’t being that well-served by its current exposition. But from what we can gather, the distinction is interesting.

Warm Data, put crudely, looks at the patterns that emerge from Big Data and asks: Are we looking at the context of these patterns? At all the systems of life, environment and society that these patterns are being ripped from? How much richer could our descriptions be of what’s happening before us?  

 The blog Hacker Noon, this entry actually written by Nora Bateson, manages a very clear illustration of the Warm Data approach. She asks, think of the multiple ways that you could describe your hand:

 “To illustrate this, let us ask, “What is a hand for?” Different contexts provide contrasting contexts for understanding. A violinist’s hands hold the muscle memory and learning of a lifetime of practice. But a sculptor’s hands know weight and texture and pressure in another way. People who use sign language express not only words but also emotion through their hands.

“In this sense, the contexts that the hand exists within, (anatomy, music, memory, language, cognition) each provide a realm of relational data to be explored....

 “Beyond the conventional problem solving techniques of reducing and resolving, problem solving in complexity further requires an understanding of the interdependencies that are generating the issues. We must address these even in addition to our ever more acute and urgent responses to rising situations.

“Like the heads of the mythological Hydra our crises are many now. But in our silo-ed world the crises that we perceive and address are also silo-ed, as is the habit of finding silo-ed solutions. Much like chopping off the Hydra’s heads, the resulting solutions that do not address the complexity seem only to generate more consequences.

“The most serious problems facing us now are not in any particular institution, but rather in the relationship between them. If change is made it is a consequence of a shift not only in the problematized part, but in the combined conditions in which the system exists, be it a person, organization, forest, or society.

“Like an ecosystem, the interdependencies of the institutional systems are interlinked and steeped together in patterns that make it difficult to create whole systems change. To address our socio-economic and ecological crisis now requires a level of contextual comprehension, wiggly though it may be to comprehend the inconsistencies and paradoxes of interrelational process.

 “Far from solving these dilemmas or resolving the conflicting patterns, Warm Data utilizes these characteristics as its most important resources of inquiry.”

You can find more attempts at elucidating Warm Data in one of Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcasts, interviewing Nora Bateson.  And here’s a video from Nora, which may help the explanation go better:

We like the idea of warm data - and if it justifies the creative action of localities and communities, the messy and ad-hoc way that powerful relationships develop at that level, then we’ll be interested to see where it runs. “Carry the weight, care in the weight”, indeed.