Notes on the Convention on Modern Liberty

It was a fantastic day. Congratulations to all those who worked hard to make it so. My slides (which I read the notes from, but didn’t show on screen due to cabling issues, are available here (and I’m somewhat suprised by just how many people have looked at them). There’ll be video online at some point.

There were various questions asked in the session that could have been answered in more detail. So here are some thoughts.

how many people do you think it takes?

This was the title of my talk, even though it never actually appeared. And an underlying theme of all of the people talking in my session was that it takes one person, but lots of one people. Heather Brooke is fighting the FoI fight, generally on her own, but she’s not alone. There are huge numbers of people doing little bits. And small pieces loosely joined is something that can generate a huge system.

Ben Goldacre and Phil Booth also talked a bit about this.I’ll probably return to it at some point in future

What about politicians who are getting buried under the online engagement tools?

Jason Kitcat (a Green Councillor in Brighton) asked about what’s happening on the other side of the engagement fence. mySociety and others are busy building better tools to engage and contact representatives, and they’re cowering in their bunkers saying “no more” because they don’t have anyone building htem better tools.

There are solutions to that, but many of them come down to “pay mysociety money” and they’ll build such tools for you. With good tools on both sides, this can be a good thing. With inequality, comes chaos on one side. But representatives have some motivation to do it and at the moment, aren’t. it’s likely, after the next general election, that some of the new cohort who get twitter/blogging etc (or RSS sourced data more generally as an additional filter to email) will look at getting something done. It’s not hard, it’s just no one’s doing it. It only takes one person to lead, but they’ll have to develop it.

Consistency of Data over time? It isn’t

One of the questions in the Q&A; was, having seen Hans Rosling’s about why the government doesn’t make available data over time, and want to be able to produce such graphs via cut and paste. Unfortunately, live’s not that simple as the real world has a habit of changing and screwing stuff up. If you want consistent data for a long number of years, you’re probably going to have to understand it and do some work – definitions change over time, especially when you’re looking at statistics, and so numbers may not be directly comparable from one year to the next. Heather mentioned how knife crime stats are fiddled to get headlines. But there are legitimate changes – think how the place in which you live has changed over the last 25 years. Brian Eno in his panel talked about long term thinking, and that’s vital, but equally, it’s hard to do evidence based policy over long time periods. And most importantly, over those time periods, what you choose to care about depends not on the data you have, but as much on the question you’re asking. Some questions you might care about an ethnic group breakdown, some people might just want “us” and “them”. There is no right answer.

APIs are great

For people who wandering in from elsewhere, I should probably state that APIs are generally good things.

But, that said, there are things that they shouldn’t be used for. And one of the prime examples is the definitive statistics for the country, which in the UK are called National Statistics (capitalised like so) and while they may be produced by the Office of National Statistics, are not necessarily produced by the ONS, and can be produced by any department.

The thing about NS is that they are used to create policy, information over time, the definitive stats, is vital. If you want the National Statistics for the country in 1909, you can get them (of course, they weren’t called that back in 1909).

This stuff can’t change without significant and careful consideration; and most importantly, it can never ever go away. There is an API for Statistics (data exchange) which does some of this, but it must not become the definitive source. Definitive copies must be replicated and kept, so that they can be referred to. Some National Statistics have a significant discontinuity in/around 1997, because the Tory goverment that had kept some statistics going since 1979 was replaced by a labour governemnt that wanted to measure different things (legitimately). There’s no reason to assume that wont happen again, and, indeed, it’s somewhat likely that a new government will care about different issues and want statistics on what is changing to inform policy.

Many things depend on those statistics, including budgets .If you consider a budget to be the number in the outcome cell of a spreadsheet, that’s fine. But budgets determine how many people have jobs. And you don’t want revisions to those without some care automatically as data changes – that needs somewhat careful planning and monitoring of change over time. Otherwise you may find that your budget suddenly drops as data changes. APIs aren’t everything.

The real world is not only a messed up place (see here) – and stats should reflect that it’s a sequence of messed up places, changing over time. While you can produce one statistic covering something for ever, the only thing you can be certain about is that it’s wrong.

Summary

but thanks to Sunny for organising the Bloggers Summit and inviting me to speak. it was great.

posted: 28 Feb 2009

Convention on Modern Liberty

I’m speaking for a few minutes in the bloggers’ summit at the convention on modern liberty tomorrow.

UPDATE: The slides are up at http://www.disruptiveproactivity.com/coml.pdf. More notes after I’ve slept.

posted: 27 Feb 2009