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A graceful transition: Figure.NZ’s Lillian Grace on why she’s stepping down and launching a new venture, Figure Group

Lillian Grace and Ngapera Riley.

After seven years running a charity that helps New Zealanders find and access data for free, Figure.NZ founder and CEO Lillian Grace is stepping down to create a new company called Figure Group. The business will explore what Figure.NZ couldn’t do within its charitable mandate, while also seeing how businesses and individuals can use data in a more meaningful way that puts people at the centre, rather than tools and processes. Grace has a chat about what the changes mean, her vision for Figure Group and what her next steps are.

Figure.NZ was founded seven years ago with the aim to get the people of Aotearoa to use data well. In order to do that, Grace and her team designed and developed technology that processes data and makes it accessible and easy to use, while also educating people on how to use it.

This includes running workshops in private and public sector organisations, to running classes to educate six-year-olds.

“Our whole mission has always been to make data something that everyone can use because we believe that the best future is one where everyone has information and makes good decisions,” Grace says. “When I stumbled across data for the first time without having a background in this, I said, ‘Woah, this exists? This needs to be accessible for everyone’.”

She says unlike the current digital era, when Figure.NZ was founded in 2012, no one was talking about data. Now, thanks to advancements in tech, data is almost obsessively being used to measure and reward performance across a range of sectors, from business, to education, to government agencies and more.

But this fixation on metrics hasn’t resulted in all sunshine and lollipops for the human race. Studies have found that our obsession with data can actually result in a company or individual’s performance being worsened. Meanwhile, Grace says that although we now have access to myriads of data at our fingertips, people often aren’t equipped with the right skills or tools to use it meaningfully.

"Whilst useful today, Figure.NZ is really built for a world that does not exist yet — a world where as a society we have truly evolved to our new digital and information age. We have not yet reached a state where our communities, companies, and country are organised in ways that value and encourage people to think with rigour, and then empower them to do something different based on new understanding," she says. 

As well as this, Grace says people haven’t been at the centre of decision making and analysing the information – the technology has been.

“All we’ve done in lots of areas is we’ve digitised things so they’re faster – like emails and capturing information – but we haven’t rethought about how we can actually operate. In the tech industry, the focus has been on the tools not the problems that need to be solved. Look at our country: we have people that are cold, hungry and homeless and we haven’t solved any of that. We’ve got an app for everything we can imagine, but our human problems are still here.

“I think it’s because when people use language like ‘data driven’ and ‘AI’, all of these things are lending to a view of outsourcing our thinking. Rather than humans looking at things and thinking, it’s more we’ll set up a system and algorithms will drive our business and tell us what to do.

“There’s a layer of truth to that data is useful for decision making for logistical things, but when you’re making to try a big decision that shouldn’t be driven by data, it should be driven by purpose, by value, and all of that information that includes data as part of it.”

This has been what’s missing from the Figure.NZ agenda, she says. While its tech and data side is humming, Figure.NZ has also struggled to achieve the deep, broad use of data it envisioned, where the use of data becomes normalised for everyday use.

Grace says this use of data in everyday life could be anything from moving to a new town and wanting to learn more about that particular town, to writing a paper at school, to running a business – but this cut-through has not quite happened yet.

“It’s been confusing because whenever we go in front of any audience, they react really positively. But the years have gone by, and Figure.NZ is not in the hundreds of thousands or millions of users in the country,” she says.

“What I realised in running workshops is when we describe the world that is possible – where people can use data and make decisions in an informed way – partners come on board and people want it to exist. But when people go to use data, a few things happen. Often, important information is missing and they can’t have a complete picture, or they often don’t have the tools for thinking.

“When we reflect the last couple of decades with the digital era and how we have so much more information than ever before – we’ve never paused to learn to think again, so we aren’t equipped with tools for thinking strategically. Most of the environments we have work faster and faster through outsourcing our decisions to tech and tools.

What I think needs to happen is centring the humans and saying all the stuff we’ve been building are tools for us, but they’re not what the focus should be.”

Grace says Figure.NZ will remain focused on its core charitable mission, which is making public data easily available to find and use, while giving people the resources and training on how to use it.

Figure Group will be able to explore commercial opportunities while ensuring that for everyone to use data well, they need to have access to all the data and tools that matter, environments that put people in the centre, and systems and structures for them to be able to engage with.

“Figure Group can grow to be an entity that financially supports Figure.NZ as its charitable arm – that would be pure delight for me,” Grace says.

“We’ll be working to create a curriculum around creating environments that enable people to think. Imagine a working environment, for example — how would you go about building capability for thinking in that situation?” Grace says.

Figure.NZ deputy CEO Ngapera Riley will be stepping up as CEO of the charity from 1 August, which will give Grace room to step back and reconfigure the next steps for Figure Group.

“Knowing that we’d already appointed Ngapera as my deputy CEO 18 months prior felt amazing, as we literally have someone to step in to CEO of Figure.NZ,” she says.

“I think she’ll provide a real boost of energy and momentum and direction. What I see her doing is engaging proactively with lots of people and bringing an unapologetic energy to pulling data into conversations.”

The official handover and celebration will take place 31 July, then Grace is taking August off to rest and disconnect from anything work-related and will be focusing on learning te reo Māori.

“I can’t remember having a month off like this, ever, since I was 14 – I feel lucky to have something I care so much about and have a new leader and this team and the board that I completely trust,” Grace says.

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