Career Profile: Tom Orrell, Managing Director, DataReady Limited

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Career profile

Tom studied for a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations at Keele University in the UK, completed a Graduate Diploma in Law and the Bar Practice Training Course at the BPP Law School, and was Called to the Bar in 2011. Tom is now the Managing Director at DataReady Limited.

How did you get into your current line of work?

I started my career working in humanitarian response and sustainable development, being offered a contract after completing a three-month internship with UNICEF in Ethiopia. After spending two years in Ethiopia, I returned to the UK and took the Bar with a view to working as a human rights lawyer. While I successfully completed my academic legal qualifications, I never received a pupillage offer, meaning that I’ve never practised law as a barrister. I did however spend around four years working as a caseworker at a legal aid law firm, where I managed dozens of housing, community care and human rights cases. Once it became apparent that I wasn’t going to get pupillage, I started doing development-related consultancy work in my spare time to get back into that line of work. One of the opportunities that came my way was to research examples of freedom of information laws from around the world. While completing this piece of work, I first encountered digital and data policy as an area of expertise. One thing led to another and within a few months I had started working in the field of ‘internet governance’ – exploring how to maintain an open and accessible internet in which human rights are protected. After about a year of working in that space, an opportunity came up at a small UK charity – Publish What You Fund – that tied my legal, sustainable development and digital and data skills together. After a couple of years in that role, I realised that there was a large gap in the market for ‘data governance’ expertise in the sustainable development and humanitarian response sectors. As a result, I established DataReady in late 2017, initially as a concept that was legally hosted as part of a friend’s company, and then as of October 2018, as a Limited Company in its own right. Since then, DataReady has gone from strength to strength, completing over a dozen contracts with numerous UN agencies, large charities, private companies and governments around the world.

What does an average day involve in your job?

Running a niche service-oriented business is a challenging but very rewarding experience. I work on a very wide variety of digital and data policy issues – from technical issues around the requirements for data interoperability, through to legal issues around data protection and privacy, as well as frontier issues surrounding the ethical use of AI/ML tools in sustainable development and humanitarian contexts. An average day usually involves at least one conference call with a client or project partner – usually somewhere far away. It will also involve some legal/policy research on contentious issues (how is satellite derived data regulated in the EU? Should we be relying on social media data to inform health policy in war zones?). There will be a degree of business administration too – logging expenses or renewing business insurance policies, liaising with accountants, etc. If I am working on multiple projects with subcontractors working for me too, there will be some coordination of their work, checking-in, etc. as well as managing the expectations and needs of existing clients.

What sorts of data and data software skills do you need in your job?

As we say on our website, at DataReady we don’t build data dashboards or design IT systems, but help craft the guidance and protocols that guide their use within communities of practice. While you don’t need to have hard tech skills to work in data and digital governance, you do require a basic level of understanding and appreciation for how data management systems work and how the data-processing business models that dominate the digital economy operate.

How and when did you develop your data skills?

I developed my data skills organically and through practice and self-education over a period of almost ten years now. I am continually learning and strengthening my data skills as technology changes so rapidly.

What skills do you need to use alongside your data skills in your job?

People skills, people skills, people skills. Being able to engage with a wide range of people, understand their needs and meet them at their level using language they understand and relating to their context is the absolutely indispensable number one skill you need to operate a small, service-based firm. Beyond that, organisational skills, self-discipline and a determined work ethic as well as a degree of entrepreneurial savvy and ambition are also crucial to success. In terms of knowledge, both my international relations and legal degrees have helped massively in my day-to-day work – even the basics of International Relations theory, such as the fact that States are the only Sovereign entities, are useful as understanding that principle in practice helps you understand the power relations and dynamics between states and the UN, and practically can help guide how you engage with government representatives in international fora, recognising their ultimate decision-making power.

What advice would you give undergraduates aspiring to a data-related career in the global development sector?

The sector can seem incredibly daunting and intimidating at first glance – don’t let this put you off. I recognise my massive privilege in having had the opportunity and resources to do a self-funded internship in Ethiopia after my undergraduate degree and I completely recognise that not many will have that opportunity. The beautiful thing about ‘international development’ since 2015 is that it’s nature has changed quite a lot, it’s now all about ‘sustainable development’ or ‘global development’. Development is no longer a concept that applies only to ‘poor’ places in the world. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals recognise the global nature of development and the climate crisis shows that there are no ‘developed’ countries when it comes to climate change. What this means practically for students today is that you don’t need to jet off somewhere distant to start a career in development – get involved locally in issues that you care about, whether they be environmental issues, social issues, political issues, etc. All of that experience is transferable to the ‘international’. Social media is another valuable tool that did not really exist in the same way when I was an undergraduate. It is now incredibly easy to connect with like-minded people around the world and start movements, raise issues, write blogs, engage in democratic processes and many other things.

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