Metaphor alert on data: should it be anyone’s property?

Prof. Dirk Helbing on the opportunities provided by big data: Will information become the key resource of this century? | T-SystemsMonday’s column in the Fin published as “Debate should be on best-use, not ownership of public data”

Data is in the news but we’re still working out how to think about it. Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve got the Wrong Metaphor. Let me explain.

There’s endless argy-bargy about who ‘owns’ firms’ customer data – them or their customers? And the government wants access to stored ‘metadata’ on our internet activities – what sites we’ve been to, who we’ve communicated with. Then there’s all that data governments collect through the five yearly census – next due in 2016 – which the government recently wondered aloud whether to scrap. (Should it really cost the best part of half a billion when most citizens could be surveyed online?)

As governments gear up their surveillance armoury and we disgorge terabytes of data to Facebook and Google, we’re jealous of our privacy – as well we might be. In our commercialised age, this becomes a debate about who should ‘own’ data. Yet notions of property arose to help us think about and control physical things – like personal possessions and land. Subtle traps await those using the metaphor of property to deal with incorporeal things like ideas and data. Continue reading

Daniel Ellsberg on life and groupthink

HT Paul Monk who cites this as one of his favourite passages. It’s now one of mine. And a nice explanation of how easy it is – whether within an organisation or the caverns of one’s own riotous psyche - to slip into the pathologies of groupthink and self-deception. Somehow this doesn’t quite get the emphasis it should (if it gets any at all) in schools of management and/or government.

The urgent need to circumvent the lying and the self-deception was, for me, one of the ‘lessons of Vietnam’; a broader one was that there were situations – Vietnam was an example – in which the US Government, starting ignorant, did not, would not, learn. There was a whole set of what amounted to institutional anti-learning mechanisms working to preserve and guarantee unadaptive and unsuccessful behaviour: the fast turnover in personnel; the lack of institutional memory at any level; the failure to study history, to analyse or even record operational experience or mistakes; the effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, thus concealing the very need for change in approach or for learning. Well, helping the US Government learn – in this case learn how to learn – was something, perhaps, I could do; that had been my business.

Daniel Ellsberg Papers on the War, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972, p. 18.

STEM, Part culture war, part cargo cult: My latest Fin column

The Future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)Here’s yesterday’s op ed for the Fin published as Technology education is about more than funding:

STEM is all the rage in education – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Part culture war against Australian mediocrity, part cargo cult, a principal goal is more money – for universities and school education. It’s hard not to agree. Lateral Economics’ HALE index of wellbeing values Australian human capital at $18 trillion – over three times all other physical and natural capital combined. Growing it puts every other means of enriching our future in the shade.

Still, I smell a rat.

We’ve nearly doubled educational spending per student in the last few decades. That’s funded popular measures with little impact – smaller class sizes – and politico/educational fads some of which have proven disastrous – like whole language learning. If STEM is simply cranked up and bolted onto the existing system, expect business-as-usual, expensive-as-usual disappointment.

Traditional STEM teaching often turns kids off. If they were ever invited into the debate, they’d see the STEM agenda as baby-boomer finger wagging telling them to eat their greens. They’d ask what exciting jobs will exist for STEM graduates. They’d ask what STEM skills will be in demand in ten or twenty years. And we don’t know.

The vast riches of Silicon Valley use STEM skills sure enough. However not only has old-fashioned entrepreneurialism been the dominant input, but the main STEM contribution has been computer coding. While that’s taught in universities, the valley is full of practitioners who’ve mostly taught themselves with the help of free internet resources and their own workplaces. Silicon Valley has embraced data science but no thanks to university courses. Even today, while they crank out stats grads, our universities barely teach data science.

The innovation we desperately need to get STEM right is institutional. In 2010 I proposed a different approach lunching with the secretary of a state Education Department followed by discussions with his senior managers. I suggested we tap into free resources all around. The net is brimming with free resources. Want to learn how to build a website or learn JavaScript? Head to CodeAcademy.com.

Second, while teacher training, support and specialisation in STEM should be better resourced, on its own that would achieve very little. The last thing we should do is insist on widespread STEM in-service training for existing teachers – for instance in teaching computer skills – who’d simply go through the motions.

Meanwhile an immediate human resource is students. We should find those already doing it for themselves and empower them to enthuse and teach their peers – not to mention reverse mentoring their teachers. And if we’re to do that, we must make room for it in kids’ timetables and in the recognition they receive – their marks.

However that requires some real transformation of existing routines and priorities. And incumbent organisations find that almost impossible. Much better to seek funding for some new, bolt-on initiative. As we’ve loaded the curriculum with recent enthusiasms and political correctness, what priorities have we jettisoned? Stats was more useful than trigonometry even when I was a kid: Much more so now. But the relative weightings in the maths curriculum haven’t changed in 30 years. I learned more about computer coding in school in the the early 1970s than my kids have done in today’s schools.

What I’m proposing can’t simply be ‘rolled out’. Just as a manufacturer wouldn’t release a new product without extensive design, prototyping and testing, that’s what should happen here. We should draw out in-system entrepreneurs, fund experiments and pilots, fixing or jettisoning the failures, identifying, tweaking and growing successes and rewarding those behind them.

After speaking with the Education Department, I attended a showcase of students’ achievements in IT projects. There I met Ben, a year 8 student. He’d built an iPhone app to hone his brother’s mental arithmetic.

“How do you find maths” I asked.

“Boring! We keep doing the same stuff.

“How’d you like to teach other students to write iPhone apps?

“Awesome!

“Wait right there.

I fetched the Departmental Secretary. Here was an opportunity to get going with what I’d proposed. Excited, he summoned his Innovation Chief saying “I want to start on this tomorrow!”

The next year I asked Ben how things had gone. I still have his reply: ”Nothing really went anywhere with my school, didn’t really surprise me”.

The STEM agenda could handsomely enrich our future, but only if it’s part of wider transformation which, though it would cost nothing, offers a richer prize than any amount of new STEM funding.

Public goods morphing through the ages: the case of Abbotsford Convent

Restoration work at the Abbotsford Convent is ongoing. Picture: Derrick den HollanderThe people at Abbotsford Convent asked me to pen a ‘shout’ for their fundraising campaign. I’d recently been on a tour of the place, and though I’d been there before and wandered around curiously, on the tour I was transported by a Big Idea, though those who’ve read my stuff here will know that the Big Idea is just a variation on my general way of looking at the world – as an ecology of public and private goods. So I told them I’d write them a bit more than a ‘shout’ and write them a ‘foreword’ length piece which, having been published in Their fundraising brochure, Heritage Reinvented – Let’s Finish The Job, duly appears below.

I’ve already given to the fundraising campaign, but would be happy to match anyone else’s donation up to an additional $1,000. Just email me on ngruen at gmail and I’ll send you instructions.

From economic textbooks to informal popular usage – public goods are supposed to be provided by governments, private goods by the market. But that’s never been true.

Though he never used the term, economics’ founder Adam Smith put public goods at the centre of the good society. Smith asked where social mores came from – for they’re the glue that holds together groups of people from families, firms and football teams right through to the family of nations.

His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments answered that social mores were an emergent property of life itself. Culture in this schema is an emergent public good. So too is language. And governments built neither.

Another emergent public good is religion. It binds its adherents together. And particularly in Europe, religious institutions provided all manner of public goods from arts patronage and the preservation of learning and heritage to poor relief, from schools to hospitals.

And so when I went on a tour of Abbotsford Convent I saw miracles of translation – across continents and across the millennia. The French Order of Our Lady of Charity reached across the oceans investing some of its vast reserves of capital – of treasure and knowhow – to build a public good institution for the nascent colony of Victoria.

Yet before long that investment was stranded, increasingly anachronistic in a changed world in which religion had declined and governments were dominating public good provision.

As Abbotsford Convent’s potency in providing public goods atrophied, a burning question arose. What would we make of its legacy?

The site made a promising investment for private property development. But privatisation would also compromise much – though not all – of its public good value. Or it could continue in the ownership of a proud community, eager to rebuild and reinterpret its role as provider of public goods.

Ten years on, how thankful we all are that the latter, more immediately difficult course was chosen.

I don’t know about you but I’ll be giving generously to this appeal, grateful for the vision and love of others stretching back through 2004 to the founding of the Order of Our Lady of Charity in seventeenth century France.

Lentil as Anything: a good name for a very delicious vegetarian café inhabiting some buildings from the old convent.

This offer can’t last: in fact it won’t last and is off after Friday 20th Feb. NG

Yanis Varoufakis travels economy class

Embedded image permalinkI’ve occasionally raised the issue of the class people travel on planes on this blog – and business class as conspicuous consumption. Anyway, I have just been made aware that Yanis Varoufakis’s shuttle diplomacy is being done economy class. Good on him. (I’m naturally disposed to give him a weekend with the Troppo Mercedes, but, apart from the irony fuse blowing on the Troppo dashboard at the mention of the Mercedes and Varoufakis, winners of this honour always travel first class to take possession of the vehicle – in this case fresh from the Kazakstan panelbeaters - so Rooter the hotted up FJ is being made available – Yanis is a former New Australian in any event, so he will almost certainly be more simpatico with Rooter that with the Merc. But I digress.)

Others in the politicians’ hall of honour include Barnaby Joyce, [an incredulous reader draws my attention to this story which rather undercuts Barbaby's economy credentials] John Hewson (as I recall at least during the 1993 election – in which he also took taxis rather than Commonwealth Cars) and Peter Walsh. There are no doubt lots of others – including me – flying economy when they’re entitled to business. This is the place to mention them. It’s also a place where we can note that that apostle of poverty, chastity and obedience, Cardinal George Pell, travels first class.

 

Vox pop journalism as a system of domination: Syriza edition

When the French and Russian Revolutions occurred, the existing order asserted itself through the intervention of foreign nations. Recognising this, and decrying it is not to endorse either revolution, but to note how powerful and self-reinforcing systems of domination are.

A much more trivial example is the minority government that emerged in Australia in 2010. I thought some of the things that occurred offered excellent opportunities to do some worthwhile resetting – of our parliamentary procedure for instance. They offered the prospect of restoring to Question Time some semblance of democratic utility. But somehow the surrounding forces that had produced the old equilibrium managed to wrest the same result from the procedures introduced by the new parliament.

This interview with Australian Greek Yanis Varoufakis shows us our bankrupt institution of vox pop journalism as a similar system of domination. The most basic cause of the simplistic bombast one sees in this interview is that it sells – it arouses emotions (which are the engine of engagement well ahead of reason) and it keeps things simple and personal. It’s Greece versus the Troika. Varoufakis verses Merkel. It’s ultimatums, struggle. Someone wins. Someone loses. It’s responsibility and fiscal conservatism versus naïve utopianism etc etc. Never imagine that some new kind of meaning might be forged in an exchange of views – the only task is that of fitting the interviewee – however reluctantly, however invidiously, into one of numerous pre-ordained pigeonholes.

In this interview with ‘broadsheet’ journalist of some intelligence and, one imagines repute – one who would imagine herself as a thoughtful, well briefed journalist not overly simplifying or sensationalising – Yanis Varoufakis tries to explain himself. He seems very lucid to me. But his attempt to put his case is constantly frustrated by the interviewers’ resolute instance on not listening to him and seeking to engage with him on his points – or to simply allow him to get his message across. Of course a good interviewer will help shape the conversation, but she’s going to dominate it. He’s going to have to answer her questions.

What’s the ultimatum? Will he deal with the Troika, etc et. Now in some circumstances this makes some sense. When the interviewee’s technique is built around obfuscation, some gotcha questions or insistence on ’yes’ or ‘no’ may be in order. Here Varoufakis is trying to explain a whole different way of seeing things (which it isn’t my purpose here to defend). My point is that he isn’t obfuscating. He’s seeking to explain himself – which he does with great clarity and according to the rules of journalism and political communication which is to say, he keeps things simple and illustrates with examples. So he asks the interviewer if she’d recommend that someone took the help of a friend if the friend was offering to lend them money to pay interest on a debt they couldn’t repay.

Anyway the interview goes on – Varoufakis is remarkably calm and lucid throughout. He does get angry, but it doesn’t contaminate the mood of the interview as it would if I were in his position. And the incomprehension just rolls on. How sad. How unfortunate that whole professions can manage to arrive at a modus operandi so antithetical to achieving what they would regard as their objectives. Still, journalists wouldn’t be the only profession in that position would they?

The interview of the blogpost: 

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is constantly in the news these days which can lead to the impression that the problem is increasing. To the extent that scrutiny and public discussion shines light in dark places, we might have expected the real underlying rates to be tapering.

So I was more than surprised when The Age reported figures from Victorian Police Family Violence statistics in the left section of the table below, along with the headline “Family Violence Epidemic.” They specifically highlighted the increases from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013. (Warning; This is a long post so set aside some time!)

table 1

Victorian Totals are taken from Police Crime Statistics.

Continue reading

Ratings on Airbnb

As readers will know, I’ve been a fan of the way in which the internet generates reputational information which greatly improves the efficiency of markets. Still it’s surprising how tricky these things are, something I’ve been pondering while using Airbnb for quite a few stays in Europe.  There are several major problems with Airbnb’s rating system, which are enough to have me much less keen to use it.

Firstly it seems that there’s a happy clappy vibe in collaborative consumption. Perhaps once people have met others they don’t want to reflect on them invidiously. Perhaps they are hyping the vibe of collaborative consumption and how luvvie duvvie it can be. Or perhaps they’re thinking of the incentives. I don’t like leaving bad reviews because when I’m seeking to rent a place, hosts can look up my previous reviews, and if they’re lower than others, they mightn’t want me to so review their place. Perhaps this drives grade inflation on the system.

And perhaps to prevent that, Airbnb do separate out streams of feedback including feedback for all, private feedback for the host and private feedback to Airbnb.

But there’s another problem. Airbnb’s survey is the kind of survey that irritates me when I get one from a hotel. It asks for five stars in various categories which make logical sense.

Accuracy, Communication, Cleanliness, Location, Check In, Value. The thing is, it remains quite possible to have a flat that is more or less uninhabitable whilst retaining a four and a half star rating. How do I know? Because I’v been staying in such a place in Barcelona. It gets four or more stars in all categories and a four and a half star rating overall. About half of the reviews are very positive. So on a quick squiz we booked. Four and a half stars overall? What could go wrong?  Here’s a not untypical review from the remaining reviews.

Jordi met us, and gave us a lot of great information about the neighborhood and the city. The location and price are excellent.

However… I must mention that this is the noisiest place I have ever stayed. The apartment is upstairs from Bar Mariatchi, which is open until at least 3am EVERY DAY, and which has loud music that you will hear through the walls, making sleep nearly impossible, even with earplugs. Plus, you can count on street noise–talking and yelling–until the wee hours EVERY DAY. The noise factor derailed our rest, pushed our sleeping to the “quiet” times (7am-noon), and thus rather derailed our daily sightseeing plans.

If it weren’t for this excessive noise factor, I would recommend this apartment wholeheartedly. As it is, I can only recommend it to those who plan to party into the wee hours every night and sleep the days away.

Note how people are at pains to be nice, even if their time has been effectively ruined. Yet the place keeps getting it’s four and a half plus ratings. Enough to swing my preferences back towards hotels I’m afraid.