• "Mavis Batey, who has died aged 92, was one of the leading female codebreakers at Bletchley Park, cracking the Enigma ciphers that led to the Royal Navy’s victory at Matapan, its first fleet action since Trafalgar." Today's Bletchley obituary; as expected, a completely excellent life by all accounts.

The Story of a Lost Bomber

23 January 2011

It was History Hack Day this weekend. My friend Ben Griffiths scraped the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s register to try to contextualise the death of his great-uncle in World War II.

Before you read on, please do read his story. It’s worth your time.

Ben’s hack is intelligent and, as ever, he explains it with precision and grace. But really, it wasn’t the hack I wanted to draw to your attention; it was the story he tells.

Like many hacks at such events, it begins with a data, scraped or ingested, and Ben’s plotted it over time, marking the categories his great-uncle is represented by.

But data over time isn’t a story; it’s just data over time. A graph; or, if you like, a plot. What makes it a story? A storyteller; someone to intervene, to show you what lies between the points, what hangs off that skeleton. Someone to write narrative – or, in Ben’s case, to relate history, both world and personal.

I’m left, after all this, thinking of just how young these bomber boys were. Looking at this data has been a much more moving exercise than I was expecting.

I found it very affecting, too, but not just because I was looking at the data: I was looking at it through the lens that Ben offered me in the story he told. When you consider it’s the story of one tragic loss amid 12,395 others, you pause, reflect, and try to perhaps comprehend that.

In the end, I couldn’t, entirely, but I tried – and because somebody told me just one story, about one individual, his plane, and his colleagues, I perhaps came closer to an understanding than I otherwise might have. And, because of that, I’m very grateful Ben shared that single story. I’d call that a very worthwhile hack.