Models

Brompheniramine Model by Iain George under CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/5Abyh9
Brompheniramine Model by Iain George under CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/5Abyh9

I am (when I have access to the Internet) somewhat glued to the FiveThirtyEight coverage of the US presidential election (their elections podcast is also awesome). At the heart of their coverage is “The Model”. They take data from published opinion polls, feed this into their model and then publish the likelihood of Trump or Clinton winning the race. The model allows them to understand and, to a certain extent smooth, the inherent biases and uncertainties in different polls with different techniques. They also factor in none polling factors (like the state of the economy).

So what they have is a simplified version of the United States. It’s based on some theories about how polling data relates to actual turnout validated against data from previous electoral races.
We are poised to find out how good a model it is.
Models are useful, possibly vital, in terms of understanding the world. We all have models in our head. In order to be able to predict with any likelihood the impact our actions will have on others, we need a model of how they are likely to behave. Luckily our brains handle all this for us in the background so we don’t have to be conscious about it.
If you ever imagine that an action you undertake will have a particular consequence you have developed a model.
I’m pretty confident that when I write a news release it will be picked up and used by a journalist. This is, of course, because of my great skill and experience. It’s also because I have a model of how newsrooms work, of the values of my target journalist, of the sort of writing style that will appeal to them.
This model was originally handed to me in my professional training and I have improved and refined it based on the experience of 20 years of communications roles. It’s a pretty good model. It’s not foolproof but most of the time its good enough.
We tend not to be very explicit about our models and that can be a problem. If we don’t tell others the basis of our models they find it hard to assess how confident they can be of our predictions. It’s also harder for others to understand how new data mesh with our existing model (and reinforce it or suggest it should be changed). And they can’t challenge the fundamental assumptions underpinning our model. Which is something we should welcome.
This may not matter that much in terms of getting news articles in local papers. But it really matters when we talk about the impact that changes to the funding of social care (for example), or housing allocation policy, or educational selection at age 11.
We have subconscious models for all these aspects of social policy. They are probably poor fits for reality. If we really want to improve services for the public we need to state our models, show how they fit the evidence and be ready to change them in the light of new data.

The tyranny of narrative

hamilton_smallI’ve become mildly obsessed by the Broadway musical, Hamilton. I don’t feel embarrassed about this, it’s a massive hit and is crushed under the weight of the awards it has won.
It follows the life story of the least well remembered American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. If you like writing it’s the musical for you. If you like musicals it’s the musical for you. If you have a pulse… you get the point.
Spurred with enthusiasm by the musical I’ve started to read more about the history around the founding of the republic. And it turns out, unsurprisingly, that certain scenes in the musical have been tweaked or condensed compared to history. They depict things that happened, but not in exactly the way depicted. Which is fine. Dramatic licence is wide and anyway you want a paying audience to actually enjoy their evening rather than get a dry history lecture. The confrontation that drives a wedge between Washington and Hamilton is more dramatic if it occurs over a duel fought with Charles Lee rather than over Hamilton being a bit late for the meeting (which the Washington biography I’m reading suggests was in fact the case).
The point of this is we like narrative.
And listen to Hamilton (you can’t watch it, you have no chance of getting a ticket).
But mostly: narrative, it’s important.
Narrative helps us to understand the world, to position ourselves in a story. But the story has to make sense. Some things serve the narrative, some don’t. We respond to the things that serve the narrative, we gloss over or ignore the things that serve the narrative.
This happens in organisations. We develop narratives about restructures, about cuts, about new ideas. Showdowns between managers are explained in terms of the narrative. We also develop narratives about customers, about partners, about consultants and about politicians.
This is not, intrinsically bad. It’s possibly even good. Trying to understand any organisation as a set of dry history lessons would drive most people mad.
But it shuts our mind to the actual, objective truth. Facts (we might call them data) that conflict with our narrative are dismissed, or changed to fit what we already know.
That’s bad and destructive.
Facts are dull. Narrative is fun.
Get swept up in the narrative sweep of award winning musicals. Not organisations.

Time

Time by Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Irelandused under CC-BY-2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nkc4GF
Time by Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Ireland used under CC-BY-2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nkc4GF
I have a blogging challenge going with Dan Slee. It’s fairly straightforward. We each have to blog every day. Or there is a forfeit.
I may have hit the forfeit on day four. Because I am staying in a delightful holiday cottage in West Wales. It has no internet connection and the mobile signal advertises itself tantalisingly as GPRS. Which feels like it should provide a connection but actually doesn’t.
So last night I wrote a blogpost and stumbled around a benighted garden waving my mobile phone in a caricature of the metropolitan visitors that are the butt of many jokes in this part of the country. But I couldn’t send it.
And this morning I couldn’t check Twitter, or read the news, or find out what my friends had been up to on Friday night.
Which is, of course, kind of liberating. And the digital detox is an established part of the chattering classes solution to the stresses and strains of modern life.
It’s also frustrating. Clearly there is stuff going on in the country and I’m not on top of it. Has the government taking a strong stand to support the role of independent judges? Maybe the Prime Minister has replaced “Brexit means Brexit” with “We don’t agree with the decision but we respect the people who make it. It is wrong to attack judges for simply doing their job because you don’t like the decision.” And America. Are they foolish enough to elect Trump (in a world where Boris Johnson is my country’s top diplomat that doesn’t seem so unlikely)?
Then again. What do I gain, as a citizen, from being tapped in to this discourse? I cannot, in any meaningful sense, influence it. I am a gawping spectator to a motorway pile up. Fascinated, concerned, terrified but removed and disconnected.
And nothing can be properly understood from the instant reaction. If we want our leaders to exercise their judgement. If we want to exercise our judgement we need to think about things. Reactive states reveal a great deal about what you feel but very little about what you think. High Court Judges are clearly not enemies of the people, though some people clearly are very cross about their decision in this case.
Digital communication technologies are great. But the ability to respond and track significant developments in real time doesn’t equate to that being helpful, desirable or useful.
I’m very much not recommending digital de-tox. But I am recommending taking time for reflection.

23:45 gamesmanship

It’s 19:28 and I haven’t written anything today. But I’m at a thing on Citizen (or Basic) income.

At 11.38 I still haven’t written anything but my views on Basic Income have shifted. It’s still any exciting idea that might have social benefits. But I don’t believe it’s a solution to more pressing issues in our society like the spiralling costs of housing and income inequality.

I am literally writing this to get something up before midnight and so not have to perform a forfeit.

Which may not be entirely within the spirit of the challenge.

But is, I submit, within the letter of the challenge.

 

 

Etymology: like a word

Black and white photograph of a man looking straight at the camera
thomas merton by cistercaminante used under CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/crTPVy

When I applied to open a bank account for my business they phoned me up to check a few things.

Which is kind of reassuring.

One of the things they wanted to check was the name of the company: The Likeaword Consultancy Ltd. The very nice and apparently experienced lady on the phone went about as close to saying…

“That’s a really stupid name”

…as I presume her employer would permit.

I’ll admit, it is an unusual company name.

People often think they can guess where it comes from. They adopt a knowing look and say…

“Clever: you’d like a word about our data I suppose”

And I nod encouragingly.

But that’s not it.

It’s a reference to a book called New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (it’s the sequel to the well received Seeds of Contemplation). He was a Trappist monk in America in the first half of the 20th century, a profoundly spiritual person who was also deeply fallible and human. He was also a great, and I mean really great, writer.

New Seeds of Contemplation is a set of things to pray about (or meditate or contemplate). It is full of concepts that seem to float just out of reach of understanding. Like the gnomic phrases we often associate with Zen Buddhism (and Thomas Merton was also very interested in Buddhist practice) their purpose is to help bend your mind around new ways of thinking about the world. I read it many years ago at the suggestion of a friend (now, in fact, a monk himself (though not a Trappist)) and I was instantly hooked. One line jumped out at me…

“God utters me like a word containing a partial memory of himself”

Sometimes I think I see what he was getting at. Mostly I don’t. Always I think that it is beautiful.

So my company name is, in some sense, a homage to Thomas Merton. I’m not sure what he’d feel about that. But I don’t think he was very in to judging people.

Every time I see the word likeaword written down (which is many times a day) I think of Thomas Merton.

I didn’t say any of this to the lady from the bank of course.

I said
“It tested well in research”

If you care about writing and haven’t yet checked out any Thomas Merton I really urge you to do so. If you aren’t of a spiritual bent maybe start with the journals. I promise you you won’t regret it.

Blogvember 1. Not recommended.

misia listening

I’ve been stuck in a writing rut for a bit. So when Dan Slee said he was going to write a post a day in November it seemed like an excellent idea to join in. We even agreed a forfeit (a fact I note he has not mentioned in his post).
So now I’m stuck in a writing rut but with added pressure.
I know what lies at the heart of this rut.
Brexit.
I don’t really want to write about anything else.
And all I really want to write about that is a long list of swear words.
But the world is not yet ready for my Barry Manilow cover so I have to write something.
So this is all I can offer right now.
It seems to me that we are not listening to each other.
And the reasons for this are obvious.
Lots of people are angry. Lots of people are triumphant. Lots of people are just a bit confused and worried.
People who really care about this issue recognise that very little has actually been decided yet. So we all want to do a lot of talking, persuading, arguing. I know that I don’t really want to listen to people who I believe are profoundly wrong and have voted against the interests of the country, Europe and, you know, everyone. And I’m very sure they don’t want to listen to me.
But we’re all stuck in this country together. And there are a lot of us. On both sides.
We don’t have a lot of a tradition of listening to each other in the UK. We tend to just muddle along, brushing our differences under the carpet and hoping they go away.
Which they often do.
But I don’t think these divisions will.
(And yes, I am aware of the irony in using a broadcast medium to exhort others to listen but, hey, no forfeit for me today)

GovCampCymru 2016: my day

Man and a woman looking at each and laughing
Photo by Nigel Bishop used under a creative commons licence. https://flic.kr/p/MAjfma

GovCampCymru 2016 took place last Saturday (24 September – ahem – 23 September) at the Pierhead Building on Cardiff Bay. Because of my advanced age I usually can’t spend a moment at the Bay without stopping people and saying “I remember when all this wasn’t here”. Luckily GovCampCymru was so engaging that I didn’t really start lamenting the loss of the Red House until the post event drinks at World of Boats.

This is how it went for me.

Actually before that. Let me just say The Pierhead (I remember when ABP was based there you know) is a great venue. We were so lucky to have the support of  Adam Price AM in making this event happen. Also massive kudos to National Assembly events and security staff. I was involved in a very small way in helping to organise and I really can’t praise the friendliness and helpfulness of all the staff I worked with highly enough.

(Get on with it)

There were 20 sessions and I could only get to four.

This is what I found.

Jargon.

The first session I went to was run by Barod CIC. They were demonstrating their jargon challenge. I had 2 minutes to explain to a (very friendly) panel what I did for a living. If any of the panel heard some jargon they would buzz me. Too many buzzes and I would fail. Luckily I passed (with no buzzes may I (smugly) add) and won a rosette.

Even so I was conscious that I was editing how I would normally describe my work and this sparked, for me, a really interesting conversation around jargon and accessibility which then roamed into questions of how disabled people are represented in the media.

Now I’m a communications specialist so I could discuss jargon, its origins and how to tackle it till the cows come home. What was distinctive about this discussion was we were talking about the consequences of jargon. Excluding people and disempowering them. These are important issues that I think we spend too little time thinking or talking about.

If Barod has a fan club I want to join it.

Crossing the border.

The next session I had pitched. It was not well defined. It was based on my lifelong fascination with borders.
You see I grew up in Hereford, which is about 15 miles from the Welsh border. We had bilingual phone boxes and got our water from Dwr Cymru. In fact our water comes quite literally, from Wales, down the Wye which returns to the principality after its brief sojourn in our county. After living and working in mid Wales (including Hay on Wye which actually is the border) and Shropshire (more borderland) I’m back in the fair land (it’s the gift of God you know).

I wanted to talk about ways in which public services can be responsive to the way people live and work, often on either side of the border. (For a couple of examples Hereford County Hospital serves patients in both England and Wales, the main train connections from Hereford to, well, a lot of places we might want to get to, are run through Wales and the Borders a franchise shortly to be handed to the Assembly).

I wasn’t (and am not) saying there is a problem but I am interested in how well we are managing the governance around these “border effects”.

Some other people felt this was a subject worth talking about. We heard that policy makers have been thinking about some of these issues. There are issues around legislation to try to ensure that border effects can be identified and dealt with. And it was pointed out that petitions to the Assembly are not restricted to Welsh residents so border counties could petition the Assembly if they felt legislation might affect them. And of course Welsh communities have MPs who could represent their interests if the House of Commons passes English legislation that may affect them (though the question of the role that Welsh (and Scottish) MPs should play in English legislation is somewhat vexed of course).

For me the most interesting point in this conversation was the suggestion that this is not an exclusive (or even primarily) England/Wales issue. Maybe this is just what happens when you draw borders around areas. We heard from a charity working with people in need of social care support that moving between local authorities in Wales can cause real problems for individuals (as, for example, councils disagree about which of them is liable for the funding). Apparently Scotland is tackling this issue by, amongst other approaches, creating a pooled budget so local authorities can focus on the need not the budget. That sounds really interesting (though the cynic in me wonders how easy it will be to manage the overall spend on that budget).

This felt to me like the start of a conversation. If devolution progresses in England (which is by no means certain) it would be really helpful to bake in governance for border communities. Though we probably won’t of course.

Considering open data and future generations.

After lunch I went to a session pitched by Angharad Owen. Well it was more of a joint session. We are both core team members of ODI-Cardiff: the Open Data Institute community in Wales and we wanted to explore what people though ODI-Cardiff should focus on. We also wanted to explore what we see as the opportunities Open Data offers to the implementation of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

This was a pleasingly well attended session with a whole bunch of people with different skills and experience. We talked a bit about Open Data and the legislation. I won’t detain you with that here.

The key take aways for me were.

Someone needs to “sell” open data to individuals across organisations in Wales. I think that’s probably a job for ODI-Cardiff. We’d love to hear from people who want to help.
Soon public service boards will be publishing statements showing their approach to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. These will be based on data. The data is unlikely to be opened. So, in the consultation phase, we have an opportunity to talk to people about why opening data (which they’ve already been using) would help them and the communities they serve.

I’m really excited by this. If you are too and you’d like to get involved with the Open Data Community in Wales please join our Slack team.

Am I sustainable?

The final session was a pitch on how we can build sustainable (in terms of sustainable development as well as viable) enterprises in Wales. This was exactly the sort of pitch I really like at govcamps. Essentially we had someone thinking through the next phase for her social enterprise and she invited us to think through some of those issues with her.

We talked about the challenge of balancing the need to focus on your social mission with the need to pay the rent and feed the cat (or the kids). We talked about trading vs grant funding and the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. We talked about ethical approaches and how to think through ethical issues in advance.

I really got a lot out of this session (even if I did, perhaps, spend too much time talking about the Standby Task Force).

One question that it raised for me is the issue of being a “sustainable” enterprise. One thing I always say to people thinking about going freelance or setting up small businesses is that one of the key factors is you will never be sure you are going to be paid next month (well maybe next month but in six months maybe not).

This is a fact of life for trading organisations. It’s not a bad thing. It concentrates the mind and encourages innovation (or perhaps more accurately destroys businesses that don’t sell what the market will buy). This is fine. But it’s not what most people would call “sustainable”.

There is a role in our society for organisations that are sustainable, that will be here next year and in ten years, that can hold our assets and our heritage. In Wales there is still a reasonable consensus that that is a key role for the state (that consensus has broken down in England).

I think the consensus in Wales has it right on this one.

I’m firmly committed to the principles of participation and self-organisation that lie at the heart of govcamps.

One day all public sector gatherings will be like GovCampCymru.

Cool mapping things for real people

I was at Housing Camp Cymru last weekend. It was great.

I pitched a bring and share session on mapping apps. Because housing is so much about physical place putting stuff on maps feels like an obvious thing to do. I often find that, unless they really love maps, many people don’t realise how easy it has become to do cool mapping things without spending money or getting a degree in geography.

(This is not to denigrate GIS specialists because there is even more really cool stuff if you actually know what you are doing).

So here’s a quick run down of some of the stuff we covered.

Open, shared and closed data

Perhaps inevitably  (given that I’m part of the ODI-Cardiff team) we talked about the question of being able to use data.

Closed data is data you can’t use, shared data is data that you may be able to use but there will be restrictions on what you can do with it, open data is data anyone can access, use and share.

This video explains this rather better.

Google Maps

Chances are you have used Google Maps to do something like work out how to get to a new location. It’s got very powerful mapping and routing tools. It’s also really (really) easy to create simple custom maps.

(Not the most dramatic map I’ll confess).

To get started with this you just need to create a map on Google Maps.

Fusion Tables

To put more complex and rich data on Google Maps there is a nice tool in the Google Drive suite called Fusion Tables.

It does two jobs really well:

  • it “fuses” tables (links two spreadsheets together based on a column of data that they share)
  • it takes columns of geographical information and puts them on a Google map

It’s smart enough to process some sorts of data so if you have postcodes in a column Fusion Tables will turn those into points on a map for you. It’s also capable of handling polygons (shapes: that you might use to show borders or boundaries).

I used Google Fusion Tables to create this clickable map of changes in crime rate in different parts of Herefordshire.

More information in the excitingly titled Investigating crime rates at small geographies.

OpenStreetMap

While the Google tools are very useful there are limits to what you can do with Google Maps. Not least because the Google Mapping data belongs to them and you can access the underlying data nor can you use Google Maps for any purpose.

There is a source of mapping data that you can do all this with: OpenStreetMap.

OpenStreetMap started as an open data alternative to Ordnance Survey and is one of the most incredible datasets in existence. It is “Wikipedia for maps” anyone can edit it and add data to it.

There is so much to say about OpenStreetMap that it would require 100 more blogposts. To get some sense of the possibilities have a look at Mappa Mercia and the Missing Maps project.

There are so many projects built around the OpenStreetMap community. Check out Mapillary and Walking Papers to get a sense.

With OpenStreetMap data you can do anything with your map, create web tools, or print out a massive noticeboard without paying anyone or asking permission.

Ordnance Survey Open Data

The UK’s mapping agency is releasing more and more of its data under and open licence. You can download all sorts of different files from OS Open Data.

 

Carto

A nice alternative to Google Fusion Tables which allows you to use a range of different mapping data sources is Carto (previously CartoDB). Carto is actually more powerful than Fusion Tables and it’s on my list of things to learn more about.

It’s a freemium product but the free stuff is very good.

Ushahidi

Developed in Nairobi to map post-election conflict Ushahidi has found uses in disaster response, monitoring buildings at risk and hundreds of other situations where citizens want to report and monitor things happening in their locality. Ushahidi 3 is just out

You can experiment freely at crowdmap.com.

QGIS

Want to try full-fat Geographical processing? You can do that for free too with the open source QGIS. This is a professional scale Geographical Information System. Don’t expect to become a satellite processing expert in a few minutes. But QGIS is powerful, free and has a healthy community of advice and plugins. So if you like maps you’ll love QGIS.

Other random things we mentioned

Crime data can be downloaded from police.uk.

LIDAR (a laser version of RADAR) data is avaiable for much of England and Wales. This is geeky but clever people have started doing fun things with it like writing a script to turn your estate into a minecraft world.

 

“Has the milk tanker been yet..? I’m waiting for the Internet”

Photo of the tank of a Milk Tanker which prominently shows United Dairies
United Dairies glass-lined milk tank – freight train tanker carriage by David Precious. https://flic.kr/p/f1MQTB used under CC-BY-2.0

 

So this afternoon I went to a conference about highways.

Despite what you might imagine, this was geeky even for me. But I had been persuaded to run a workshop on “Smart Rural” a half-formed idea I (and other rural types) have that smart city initiatives may not have that much to offer the countryside.

I thought we would be talking about autonomous vehicles and intelligent tractors. But in fact we ended up talking about internet connectivity.

This was slightly galling because I try not to talk about internet connectivity. It’s a big problem in rural areas but it’s not going to be resolved at the sort of scale and speeds that would make a lot of smart city type projects viable.

But it does seem to sit at the heart of many issues in this space.

So what, I asked the group, are solutions that don’t involve the answer “Gigabit fibre”.

And one of our participants told us the story of a hack used in Cuba to get round the fact that Internet access is not available. People move files (video, magazines, books) physically. By regular courier or truck. It’s an obvious solution. And actually in the west we move very large files (or collections of files) physically because of the time taken to stream across the Internet.

So, this got me thinking, could we do something similar in rural areas? Could we arrange local (in village) caching of, for example, the BBC iPlayer. The BBC already uses Content Delivery Networks to cache files locally to your ISP.  This would be an iteration of that approach. The data could be distributed across a local network: say a WAN or a mesh. The files could be updated over the internet pipe into the village or physically brought to the location, or a combination of the two.

And maybe the same system could serve other content. Unlike the Cuba model there is likely to be a connection to the network, just one of limited bandwidth. So the server could be intelligent about what data it pulled (and sent) down the pipe and what data stored for physical transport.

There are a range of vehicles that visit rural communities on a regular basis: most obviously (and, in this context, pleasingly) the Royal Mail, but milk tankers, feed transport, the cars of commuters, buses, refuse lorries and so on.

Maybe as the connection enabled Royal Mail van enters the village it connects to the WAN, handshakes and starts pulling the data off the network as it travels around. Then it stores it on-board and handshakes with a server connected to a (bigger, faster) pipe back at the depot. What the Royal Mail didn’t have time to capture can be loaded to the Milk Tanker a bit later.

I can’t decide if this is a good idea (in which case it’s probably already being used somewhere) or over-engineered silliness (in which case someone in my network will probably met me know.

For completeness here are photos of the flipcharts that we created in our discussion.

 

 

A quick thought experiment about Article 50

Dog apparently lost in thought
Deep Thought by Jan Tik used under CC-BY-2.0

Over the weekend I went on a nature ramble in an attempt to get all this Brexit stuff out of my head.

The attempt failed. Instead I started to think about the limits to the mandate provided by the referendum.

Take this thought experiment:

It is 10 September 2016 and, freshly elected by Conservative party members, the new Prime Minister is being briefed on the negotiating options.

“It’s bad news I’m afraid Prime Minister”

says a civil servant

“All 27 EU countries are going to fail to agree to any terms in the negotiation. Our covert intelligence confirms that they are all very serious on this point.”

“That’s a surprising and perhaps somewhat unbelievable show of unity between the fractious EU”

says the Prime Minister

“Well yes”

explains the civil servant

“but this is a thought experiment.”

“What are the consequences then?”

“Well, as you know Prime Minister, once Article 50 is triggered if we fail to agree a deal we exit the EU on WTO terms, which means no access to the single market tariffs on any trade with the EU, no agreement on the status of British citizens in the EU and a host of other things none of them, from a trade position, ideal”.

“This seems very bad”

“Well yes Prime Minister, this is literally the worst thing that could happen if Article 50 is triggered. That’s why it’s useful for a thought experiment”.

So, knowing that we will exit with no deal, should she trigger Article 50?

Mandate:

Does the referendum give the Prime Minister (or conceivably Parliament) the mandate to trigger Article 50 under these circumstances?

There’s a legitimate argument that it does. This was a foreseeable outcome when people voted so they could and should have taken it to account when casting their vote.

There is a legitimate argument that it doesn’t. The referendum was advisory, we have a parliament to deal with the detail. One of the protections of a representative democracy is we expect our representatives not to undertake actions even if they have public support if they are profoundly against the national interest.

Of course the EU is going to negotiate with us. We’re not going to crash out on WTO terms.

Probably.

But when we press the Article 50 button we don’t know, for sure, what will happen.

So does the referendum mandate the pressing of the button regardless of the consequences? And how can those consequences be reasonably assessed?