Open Data and the G20

OpenGovData Venn

From a recent column for the AFR. The report can be downloaded here.

Earlier this year our Treasurer, Joe Hockey, led the G20 Finance Ministers to pledge lifting GDP by 2 percent over ‘business as usual’ over the next five years. It’s a big win for the Treasurer, but how can it be delivered? There aren’t many easy options for reform on that scale that don’t create swathes of losers around whom the media then swarm, thus amplifying the inevitable campaigns against change.

But one opportunity is sitting under our noses. In a knowledge economy, data is the new infrastructure. The more open it is, the more it can be reused repurposed. The more it attracts value adding as business and civil society find clever new ways of making it ever more useful. Most data Google Maps delivers has existed for decades. But government open data policies – and Google – convey open data seamlessly to your mobile as you search out your target.

That’s why, Australia’s Government implemented the recommendations of the 2009 Government 2.0 Taskforce which I chaired. But in Australia as elsewhere, high-level commitments have achieved less than they could have if they’d been seamlessly translated down to the delivery coalface as Google has with geospatial data.

Omidyar Network today releases a Lateral Economics report that estimates that a more vigorous open data commitment could grow Australia’s economy by around $16 billion per year. That’s half Joe Hockey’s G20 growth target.

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Predictions versus outcomes in 2013?

In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.

Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.

                 Failed predictions

The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.

What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading

The Xmas quiz answers and discussion

Last Monday I posted 4 questions to see who thought like a classic utilitarian and who adhered to a wider notion of ethics, suspecting that in the end we all subscribe to ‘more’ than classical utilitarianism. There are hence no ‘right’ answers, merely classic utilitarian ones and other ones.

The first question was to whom we should allocate a scarce supply of donor organs. Let us first briefly discuss the policy reality and then the classic utilitarian approach.

The policy reality is murky. Australia has guidelines on this that advocate taking various factors into account, including the expected benefit to the organ recipient (relevant to the utilitarian) but also the time spent on the waiting list (not so relevant). Because organs deteriorate quickly once removed, there are furthermore a lot of incidental factors important, such as which potential recipient is answering the phone (relevant to a utilitarian)? In terms of priorities though, the guidelines supposedly take no account of “race, religion, gender, social status, disability or age – unless age is relevant to the organ matching criteria.” To the utilitarian this form of equity is in fact inequity: the utilitarian does not care who receives an extra year of happy life, but by caring about the total number of additional happy years, the utilitarian would use any information that predicts those additional happy years, including race and gender.

In other countries, the practices vary. In some countries the allocation is more or less on the basis of expected benefit and in the other is it all about ‘medical criteria’ which in reality include the possibility that donor organs go to people with a high probability of a successful transplant but a very low number of expected additional years. Some leave the decision entirely up to individual doctors and hospitals, putting huge discretion on the side of an individual doctor, which raises the fear that their allocation is not purely on the grounds of societal gain.

What would the classic utilitarian do? Allocate organs where there is the highest expected number of additional happy lives. This thus involves a judgement on who is going to live long and who is going to live happy. Such things are not knowable with certainty, so a utilitarian would turn to statistical predictors of both, using whatever indicator could be administrated.

As to length of life, we generally know that rich young women have the highest life expectancy. And amongst rich young women in the West, white/Asian rich young women live even longer. According to some studies in the US, the difference with other ethnic groups (Black) can be up to 10 years (see the research links in this wikipedia page on the issue). As to whom is happy, again the general finding is that rich women are amongst the happiest groups. Hence the classic utilitarian would want to allocate the organs to rich white/Asian young women. Continue reading

Rich countries and happiness: the story of a bet.

Do countries that are already rich become even happier when they become yet richer? This was the essential question on which I entered a gentleman’s bet in 2004 with Andrew Leigh and which just recently got settled.

The reason for the bet was a famous hypothesis in happiness research called the Easterlin hypothesis which held that happiness did not increase when rich countries became even richer. In my ‘Fred Gruen’ presentation on this matter in 2004 I used the following graph to illustrate the happiness income relation across countries:

gruen 2004 image

This graph shows you the relation between average income (GDP in purchasing power terms) and average happiness on a 0-10 scales for many countries. As one can see, the relation between income and happiness is upward sloping for low levels of income, but becomes somewhat flat after 15,000 dollars per person. I championed the idea that this was not just true if you looked across countries, but that this would also hold true over time.

Andrew Leigh’s thinking was influenced by other data, particularly a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers which – he thinks debunks the Easterlin hypothesis. Here’s one of their graphs: Continue reading

Change management: Which genre of literature?

I’m doing some research for a talk I’m giving in New Zealand to heads of private schools – the invitation for which came from a similar talk I gave to the Australian Heads of Independent Schools Association. I’m sruiking the wonders of education 2.0 about which I’ve waxed and waxed on this blog. Who would you trust to guide you in your adoption of such obviously sensible technologies?

Obviously the power of the web should be used, but how? What are the pitfalls and what are the things to really focus on. Well I’ve got a nerve telling anyone anything. I did do a stint as a school teacher – a kind of self-funded Teach for Australia gig before there was such a program. And I’m an enthusiast for the web, for web 2.0 etc. But that’s it. So what would I know? What real research have I done. The problem is most people are in the same position. With bits of insight, bits of experience etc. And what kind of ‘research’ would be useful here. What kind of research would have been useful for Mark Zuckerberg setting up Facebook, Steve Jobs thinking of the iPhone or the Mac or Jimmy Wales wondering if Wikipedia would work. Or any of them trying to make those products and platforms better?

So who do you go with. The TED talkers?  The consultants? Academics? Well the academics are peer reviewed after all. But then there’s a problem. What’s peer review doing in a field like that? It could add some value at least in principle. But does it? Well the academic articles that I’ve seen are more or less the same hunches marketed in the TED talks, or different ones. But they’re dealing with a massively complex subject - and no matter how many data-points one had on a topic like ‘blended learning’ (the combined use of online and ‘traditional’ learning methods) the conclusions one draws can’t really be extended beyond the circumstances of their adoption. And there are any number of ways to blend learning. As one can see from the chart.

Blended Learning

And what we end up with is empty kinds of assurances as to what conclusions one can draw which are nevertheless shoehorned into the genre of any other academic article - which is to say one can’t make a claim that the sky is blue without references. And great lengths are gone to to provide the patina of science – single things are measured and reported on with great seriousness. But the conclusions are lame generalisations just as cliched and ultimately empty as the supposedly less ‘rigorous’ consultants and TED talkers – though the latter are partly marketing their profile and reputation elsewhere – along with the charisma of their presence and presentation.

Below the fold are the substantive conclusions from a summary article introducing a whole thematic edition of Internet and Higher Education (the reference is 18 (2013) 1–3, since you ask) It’s entitled “Blended learning policy and implementation: Introduction to a special issue” of by Ron Owston. Does this add anything to your understanding of the issues?  Continue reading

A fable of Eunuchs, Praetorians, and University funding cuts.

Imagine yourself to be in the mythical Land of Beyond where you need minions to do a dirty job that men with honour would refuse to do. A classic trick in this situation is to pick people despised by the rest of society who are thus dependent on protection and will simply do what is asked for.

The Chinese emperors hit upon this truth when they started to surround themselves with eunuchs, despised by the rest of Chinese society and thus fiercely loyal to their protector, the Emperor. The roman emperors, similarly, made a habit of surrounding themselves with freed slaved who were despised by other Romans, as well as by a dedicated palace guard (the Praetorians) who were the only militia allowed in the vicinity of Rome.

The European colonialists too used this basic ‘dirty dozen’ technique when it came to keeping a large population in check with minimal own presence, particularly in Africa, by elevating some small despised group (ethnic or religious minorities) as the preferred club from whom the senior administrators came. This small favoured group would get personal benefits (riches and influence) but in return they would do whatever the colonizers wanted.

To see the relevance of this for university cuts in the Land of Beyond, you first need to step back a level and imagine yourself to be the Vice Chancellor of a second-rate university that brings in, say, a billion ‘Beyond’ dollars a year out of which some 300 million is money you dont really need to generate that 1 billion. It is ‘potential profit’ if you like. Continue reading

Is Catholicism in rude health?

Looking at the newspapers you’d think Catholicism is having a hard time with philandering priests and cover-ups of their doings being found out on a weekly basis. Dutch and German newspapers kept track for a while of the regional frequencies of new cases of sexual misconduct allegations. You might think Catholicism is getting its long-awaited come-uppance. Nothing is further from the truth however: Catholicism is in rude health.

There are now around 1.3 billion adherents making Catholicism the largest religion on the planet and the largest branch on the tree of Christianity that appears to hold about 2.1 billion adherents. Its strongholds in Latin America and Southern Africa are looking rock-solid, and conversion rates in the new centres of Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) are looking very healthy indeed. The Christian World Database hence proudly announced Christianity was the world’s fastest growing religion in 2006 and in terms of numbers, Catholicism is by far the biggest and probably fastest growing of the Christian faiths.

What is interesting about Catholicism is that it seems to have lost its footing in its traditional stronghold, Southern and Western Europe. The area where all the popes came from, where all the old cathedrals are, where nearly all the alternative branches of Christianity originated, is now more secular than ever. Europe now has to import monks from Latin America and Africa to fill up its most prestigious and old monasteries (such as the one in Poblet, Spain). Things are so bad for Catholicism in Europe that in April 2009, the Archbishop of Vienna proclaimed that “The time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end”. It is of course partially this retreat of the power of the Catholic church that allows all the skeletons to emerge from the cupboard. It is striking how few scandals come to the surface in places like Brazil and Nigeria compared to the almost massive ‘coming out’ currently seen in Europe.

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The water you drink has been piss at least 10 times already!

Last Thursday I posed the question of how often the water you drink has been pissed by a vertebrate already. If the number is very small, then those who baulk at drinking recycled water have more cause to complain than if the number is very high.

As some commentators to that post pointed out, in reality we are all drinking water that includes some recycled piss: every dam from which we drink has ducks, lizards, and all sorts of animals pissing and shitting in it, so it is already a bit of a myth to think one can drink water that has not been recently mixed with piss. Still, as another comment revealed, many think the idea of copying Singapore and drinking water that is officially recycled sewage is deemed ‘gross’. So the question how often water has been piss in the past still matters for the ‘yuk factor’.

The answer comes from a very simple formula, which requires a few guesstimates as inputs:

Piss ratio = (total water pissed)/(total water) = (total vertebrate biomass ever lived* piss rate)/ (total water) = (average biomass vertebrates * piss rate per year * years of vertebrates) / (total water)

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Ideas that might not matter II : Societal Collapse

As in part one of this series, I’m thinking about an idea that seems very possible, extremely interesting and well accepted, but which has little going for it in terms of observed evidence.

The idea today is societal collapse. The premise is simple. Human societies are very complex entities which rely on innumerable interdependencies between people, resources, institutions etc. The resulting structure is subsequently both strong and fragile; like an archway it will stand forever, except if a single stone is removed, whereupon the whole thing will fall instantaneously. Following this collapse people fall into a world solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Precipitating events can be the loss of a resource, the severing of links or population loss through conflict or disease, or exogenous shocks.

I should stress that I am not talking about declines, or gradual change due to long term processes. That’s not the interesting part of this idea. This is about collapse, where a complex system can be brought down rapidly by a few factors and can only be succeeded by something that is not recognisably the same. Continue reading