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The Data Tank Retreat

Brussels/Gent, Belgium: June 19 – 22, 2023

Retreat.

noun

  1. 1.

an act of moving back or withdrawing.

The word retreat can stoke LinkedIn articles like 8 Reasons Firm Retreats Don’t Work (LinkedIn) and My Problem with Company Retreats (New York Times). Having done numerous retreats in my lifetime, including camping (semi-terrible), and a cruise (absolutely terrible), expectations were low. Brussels and Gent can also be shockingly warm in summer, and I tried to avoid putting myself in a locked-down mode of thinking for the first-ever Data Tank Retreat, June 19 – 22.

Fortunately, there seems to be a reversal in fortunes for the word retreat. The Data Tank’s first in-person meetings, including brainstorming and planning sessions, proved to be something different. What we discovered in our Brussels and Gent meetings and events is that while we are not a massive NGO (yet), we are a group of very like-minded, dedicated individuals – from no less than five continents – who share the idea that good can win over bad. And while The Data Tank is not a group of cape-wearing superheroes (yet), the retreat gave us the opportunity to put faces to ideas and to understand some of the incredible backstories and life experiences of our team. Hopefully we can highlight some of them in future articles.

To business! First and foremost, The Data Tank’s team ranges in age from 20-something to none-of-your-business. Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly knowing the caliber of our team, this has proven highly-effective for team cohesion. As a remote-based team in the post-pandemic world, retreats are not only necessary but also a crucial part of big-picture thinking. We met at our offices in BeCentral, an innovative project space in the Brussels environment full of projects that are dedicated to make the world right, or at least a better place to be in. In addition to dedicated team-building exercises and collaborative discussions, the simple pleasure of having a night out Belgian fries with mayo – still pure decadence to this North American. Of course, the Belgians just call them frieten (in Dutch) or frites (in French) without the “Belgian”, but the experience brought back a sense of humanity maybe lost in the pandemic. Despite being from very varied backgrounds, it turns out that when we’re more or less on the same page in our life views.

Speaking of pages, The Data Tank excursions included a tour of the Book Tower (Boekentoren), a massive book repository – and possibly the best view – in Gent now devoid of books (digitized) but soon to be re-used as the home of the book collection of many of Belgium’s universities. It struck me that we, as a group, who are focused on the responsible re-use of data, were in a way a new book tower: we find ways to repurpose and re-use data. The night ended with a “no-business” dinner/drinks at quite possibly the most hip office/conference space I have ever seen (there was an actual working jukebox!), but the lesson was not lost on us during the late-night tour of fairy-tale like Gent city center.

Yes, yes: primarily, The Data Tank’s retreat was about de rigueur programs, activities, long-term planning, and progress. However, the retreat was also a knowledge-sharing and learning opportunity. With a team as diverse as ours, we do have an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience to tap into. We still had those workshops, presentations, and interactive sessions where everyone looks a big screen on the wall, but these sessions not only allowed us to learn from each other, gain new insights, and level up our skill sets, we also had a chance to connect as humans, something sometimes lost during the pandemic as well.

Finally, yes, there is an end to all things, including this article, let’s not forget about that big-picture thinking. The retreat was a real chance to take some time away from our day-to-day tasks to evaluate our current strategies, identify areas for improvement, and set new goals. From discussing our values to mapping out our program and communication strategies – they are ambitious – we got a bird’s-eye view of where we are now and where we are headed. It’s safe to say we’re confident that we’re on the right track to achieving our objectives, and Belgian fries and fairy tale city centers have had a hand in that.

by Charles Kinney

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