Grrr – lazy DEXEU writing

The government recently published a set of FAQs on the process to leave the EU. I offered some alternative answers.

FAQs are an annoying conceit much of the time which is why the Government strongly discourages their use.

The introduction to this page grated on me in particular

we have compiled answers to the questions we get asked most about the UK’s departure from the European Union

“The questions we get asked most”


Because in my experience FAQs are based on the questions we wished you would ask us.

So I asked the Department to tell me how many times they had been asked each of these questions. And the said the information was exempt because it would cost more than £600 in staff time to calculate.

Which means of course they didn’t already know the answer.

They didn’t need to say this of course. They could have said “questions we often get asked”, or “commonly asked questions”.

In the scheme of things does it matter?

Probably not. But is it too much to ask for attention to detail in this, of all, Government departments?

Numbers in the news

I’ve left it a little late to blog today. Still blog I must if I am to avoid a terrible forfeit from Dan Slee. So here are some numbers that caught my eye in the news.


We face 10 years of stagnant wage growth and living standards according to The IFS analysis of the OBR forecasts.


The conviction and sentencing of a far right extremist for the politically motivated murder of an MP appeared on page 30 of the Daily Mail apparently. Which makes you wonder about their news values. And what they think of the values of their readers.


The chancellor can expect to have to borrow £122bn more than previously thought according to the independent OBR. £59bn of that predicted extra borrowing is directly related to Brexit. But it’ll probably be OK. Because the Italians really want us to buy their sparkling wine.

1 9 8

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution of the United States of America reads:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

A clause Donald Trump is about to become very familiar with.

Now we are all currency trading experts

"Facsimile de un billete de banco de cinco libras esterlinas" by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla
“Facsimile de un billete de banco de cinco libras esterlinas” by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla

I was minding my own business on Facebook the other day when one of my friends made a crack about her trip to Spain being more expensive because of Brexit. One of her friends, with the anger of the frustrated Brexiter, explained that the currency was only returning to its long term average.

That doesn’t seem right.

I thought. But maybe it is. So I resolved to see whether it really was.

The exchange rate

I kind of know what the exchange rate is. It’s the amount of another currency I can buy for a pound (for I am British). People tell me the pound has fallen which means, effectively, I can buy less of another currency for my pound.

There is a market in currency (the Foreign Exchange or FOREX market) and when people on the news (or on Facebook) talk about the pound weakening they are talking about the what a pound can buy in the FOREX market.

The value of the pound

There are, somewhat inconveniently, many currencies and the amount of each currency that the pound will buy varies. So often we talk about “the pound falling against the Euro” (£1 will buy fewer Euros) or “strengthening against the Dollar” (£1 will buy more dollars.

Thankfully for those of us who do not wish to become foreign exchange traders, the Bank of England provides a handy summary of the value of the pound against all currencies. (Currencies from countries we do more trading with count more in this index).

This is available in a handy file going back to January 1980. In this dataset the exchange rate in January 2005 was set as 100 so if the exchange rate is higher it will be bigger than 100, if lower it will be lower.

It looks like this

Which certainly does make it look like the pound is at a very low level. In fact it seems to be at a similar level to 1993 which was when I graduated and I rather remember being a pretty tough time economically (not for me the impact of the demographic time bomb). More recently the pound was at a similar level in 2008. That was definitely a bad year.

So if the pound is returning to a historic norm, it is a norm that coincided with struggling economies.

Does a weak pound matter?

Broadly speaking a weak pound is good for people (or businesses) selling things from the UK to people (or businesses abroad). So it makes the UK a cheaper tourist destination, helps exports and encourages foreigners to invest in the country. It increases the cost of importing things, makes a UK holiday abroad more expensive and discourages UK companies investing abroad. There’s a nice guide on

Overall (that guide suggests) prices will increase with a lower pound.

That’s one consequence of the Brexit vote: we are all experts on currency trading now.



Alternative answers to the Government’s FAQs

The government has published FAQs on the UK’s departure from the European Union. Despite the fact that the Government’s guidance for its own website is not to publish FAQs.

I felt that the copy could be punched up a bit so I’ve suggested some pithier answers. Which the government is welcome to use….

The Referendum

Will there be a second referendum or an alternative to leaving the EU?

You want to go through all that again?


How will you take into account the views of those who did not vote to leave the EU?

We won’t.

You lost suckers. Get over it. Stop “re-moaning” and get with the programme.

Exiting the European Union

What is Article 50 and why do we need to trigger it?

Is there really anyone in the UK who doesn’t know the answer to this question?

When will Article 50 be triggered?

Literally no-one knows.

But since it depends on the result of litigation on a wide range of fronts don’t hold your breath.

What is the Government doing ahead of triggering article 50?

Sshhh. It’s a secret.


Does Parliament need to vote on triggering Article 50?

That depends on who you ask.

If you ask representatives of the government they say “No. We should be allowed to do whatever we want without asking parliament”.

If you ask High Court judges they say that “Yes. Parliament does need to vote”.

If you ask representatives of the Daily Mail they start to froth at the mouth and become incoherent with rage.

What model will be pursued in the negotiation?

Sshhh. It’s a secret.

What will happen after we leave the EU?

The sun will shine perpetually on the bucolic idyll that is the United Kingdom (which will remain united). Peace will reign. The less fortunate citizens of the world will gaze upon us in envy and admiration. Freed of the sclerotic pull of Brussels our industries transform themselves and once again we will one again supply the world.

Putin who?


What will you be doing about immigration / freedom of movement?

Sssh. It’s a secret.

I am a EU national living in the UK – what does exiting the EU mean for me?

Sorry chum. Its great that you’ve chosen to live here, raise your family and be part of our community but we really need you to be a bargaining chip in our (top secret) negotiation with the rest of the EU.

I am a UK national living in the EU, what does exiting the EU mean for my rights (e.g. status, healthcare, pension)?

Sorry chum. Again.

What will our future immigration system look like?

Shhh. It’s a secret.

Trade and the Single Market

Now we have a Department for International Trade and for Exiting the EU, who is responsible for what?

It’s really very simple.

One department is responsible for using our desire for Prosecco and nicely built cars as a bargaining chip in a game of poker where all of the other players can see each others cards and none of them cares about winning as long as we lose.

And the other is responsible for securing an alternative supply of sparkling wine.

Just in case.

How will exiting the EU affect trade?

It will make it brilliant.

Simply brilliant.

Especially our trade with the EU which will be much much better.

Will we remain a member of the Single Market or Customs Union?

Shhh. It’s a secret

EU Funding Projects

What will happen to the future of EU funding for UK projects?

Didn’t I see something about this on the side of a bus?


What is the Great Repeal Bill?

It is a Bill that proposes not to repeal anything.

Hope that clears things up.

How will we assess what EU laws we need?

We will keep them all (that’s what the Great Repeal Bill is for, weren’t you paying attention?).


How will the Government ensure the views of the Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive are heard?


They’ll probably send some emails. But really, have you seen how many emails we get every day?

Will the Government respect calls for a second Scottish independence referendum?

You want to go through all that again?


Adventures in (less serious) data land

I’ve been wrangling data for a project.

And creating interactive data visualisations using tableau. The results are OK but, you know, a bit serious.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

(These are all interactive but this page is a bit thin for the true majesty to work, so I’m afraid you’ll have to click through to play with the data. Do come back though.)

1. Magic

Skyler Johnson shows us every spell muttered, flicked, and yelled in the Harry Potter book universe, visualised at occurrence position.
Skyler Johnson shows us every spell muttered, flicked, and yelled in the Harry Potter book universe, visualised at occurrence position.

2. Lyrics

Chris Love all of the song lyrics to the Top 100 songs
Chris Love all of the song lyrics to the Top 100 songs

3. Culture

David Newman visualised the Simpsons. Nuffsed.
David Newman visualised the Simpsons. Nuffsed.


4. Music

Will Jones and Eric Shiarla look at  history of music #1s in the United Kingdom
Will Jones and Eric Shiarla look at history of music #1s in the United Kingdom

5. Movies

 Ryan Sleeper asks do movies, like fine wines, get better with age?
Ryan Sleeper asks do movies, like fine wines, get better with age?

6. Chess

Joe Mako recreates one of the earliest recorded chess matches in Rome
Joe Mako recreates one of the earliest recorded chess matches in Rome

7. More music

Dan Lane visualised all the songs which have reached million-seller status in the UK
Dan Lane visualised all the songs which have reached million-seller status in the UK

Handle with care

handle with care by Hash Milhan
handle with care by Hash Milhan

It seems like everybody is trying to work out who voted Trump. In the same way that loads of people where trying to work out who voted in favour of Brexit. There is a sense in which maybe if we can work out who voted that way we can work out why they voted that way.

The Economist has done a nice piece of analysis looking at how (poor) health is a good predictor of a swing to Trump in areas that were already republican. Interestingly (to me) this is based on not a single measure but a whole basket of public health measures and is a (slightly). This is actually a slightly better predictor of the swing to Trump in republican areas than looking at the numbers of non-college educated white people (though those two factors are often related).

This still doesn’t really answer the question of why they voted this way. A Trump administration is not likely to improve public health one iota. The Economist suggests that unhappy, unhealthy people were voting for change. Maybe that is true, I have no reason to suppose it isn’t.

But democracy, certainly the US presidential election and democracy in the UK is a practice of choosing from a short list. We do not know, on the basis of the vote, why people made those selections. We have to infer and theorise. And most of those theories are politically loaded. Did people really vote to leave the EU because they wanted to end immigration or was it to free themselves from the EU legal system. Did they, in fact, not vote to be poorer?

No-one knows.

And those who say they do have an angle.

Facts are hard, to get and to confront. So much easier to guess, or speculate or state with confidence.


For much of my working life I have been based in extremely sparsely parts of the UK. No, not the Highlands, but as close as you can get in England and Wales. Shropshire, Powys and now Herefordshire. Very sparse areas require very different policy approaches to, well, most other parts of the country. It’s hard to get across quite how different these areas are and, I feel, when it has been my task to I have largely failed.

So I’ve tried playing about with some dataviz. Let’s see how it works. The average population density across England and Wales is a rather low 383 people per km2. To demonstrate this here are 383 people in a square.


That’s nice but no-one really lives in an average location.

In Birmingham people live at an average density of 4,100 people per km2. At the same scale as above that looks something like.


And finally to Herefordshire. In Herefordshire we have an average population density of 86 people per km2. Which, in our virtual square kilometre, looks like this.


Which I think makes it look quite different.

But that’s just me.

How much data do you need?

I’ve been playing about with data pertaining to Herefordshire as part of a project for The Bulmer Foundation.

There is a lot of data out there. At a rough guess hundreds of datasets of public data that pertain to Herefordshire. And I’m just imagining data that you could put into a nice simple table. When you factor in mapping data and unstructured data the levels become very large indeed. And Herefordshire isn’t even a place you would typically describe as being well served in terms of data.

But this dataset brought me up short.

It’s a simple time series (well simple-ish) showing one number per year. That number is a measure of the affordability of housing in the county.

It’s a figure widely used which looks at the ratio of wages to house prices.

To measure wages. Now lots of people in Herefordshire each money and they earn wildly different wages. You need to simplify that spread of wages. You might normally pick the average wage, which is a widely understood way to summarise data. In this case they pick the lower quartile wage which is less widely understood but actually pretty straightforward. Average is the wage where 1/2 the wages earned are above that level and 1/2 are below. Lower quartile is the wage where 1/4 of the wages in the county are below that level and 3/4 are above that level. It’s a good measure of the sort of wages people on lower incomes earn.

To measure house prices. The approach to house prices is similar. There are lots of houses bought and sold and houses come in all sorts of different sizes. We look at the lower quartile price. The price where 1/4 of houses sold cost below that price and 3/4 cost more than that price.

So this is a measure of the ratio between house prices at the lower end to wages at the lower end. If house prices go up, the ratio goes up. If house prices go down, the ratio goes down. If wages go up the ratio goes down. If wages go down, the ratio goes up.

Or to put it another way smaller is better (assuming you think people should be able to afford houses).

And the affordability ration is not getting smaller.

There is a lot more data available about housing.

But really, how much data do you need?

The source data and many other interesting facts can be found on the LGA Inform website.

Open source intelligence and ethics

Spy by Leonardo Veras
Spy by Leonardo Veras used under CC-BY 2.0

Evanna Hu has written a guest post on the Responsible Data Forum about Responsible Data Concerns with Open Source Intelligence. I basically agree with everything in that post, which you might think makes this post a bit superfluous but I’ve got to write something every day in November. Cos Dan Slee challenged me to.

Open Source Intelligence is intelligence based on publicly available information. Unless you work with open source intelligence (as I do for humanitarian purposes) I think it is hard to get your head around the detail and sophistication of data that it is often possible to derive from public sources.

I’ve written before of the privacy concerns that I think need to be more properly addressed by public bodies. What Evanna Hu’s post highlights is how much further this debate should go in organisations.

There is the legal framework (which is really what I was talking about in that post). I was really struck by Evanna’s statement

As with many responsible data concerns, legal compliance is just one part of a much bigger picture, and it often forms the lowest bar rather than the best practice we should strive for.

And the legal concerns I raised are really fairly specific and limited. An ethical framework would go much further. I’d be really interested to hear from any public bodies that have done work on this.

As a society, we need to go much further. We don’t really have cultural norms for the use of publicly available data by anyone. In many circumstances it may not be state actors that we should be most concerned about. We need to encourage, as well as legal frameworks, a global set of standards that we can hold all organisations to.

But maybe we can start in the UK. Is there any organisation interested in leading?

My life (so far) in tech

By Bill Bertram - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
By Bill Bertram – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

I was at a meeting today at which some people were using BlackBerrys (I know, I know). They were lamenting the fact that their IT team were about to replace them with iPhones or Androids or some such. It made me think of when, about 12 years ago I delighted managers by introducing these new fangled BlackBerry devices to my then council. And that got me reminiscing about tech in general…

My life in tech so far

Born (1971): family had a phone line. Not unheard of but still not that common (Dad worked for the Post Office and they wanted to be able to call him out in the wee small hours).

Some time in the 70s. Dad got sent a computer as part of his Open University course. It was programmed in binary. I’ve never been so disappointed.

1981. Got a ZX81. As a kit. Dad built it into a super-duper metal box with full travel keys. Typed 10 Print “Hello” 20 Goto 10. Blew mind.

1982 – 1987 Did not get a ZX Spectrum. Played WOTEF round at Jon’s on his ZX Spectrum. Played Chucky Egg round at Dave’s on his BBC Model B. Played… er… something round at Richard’s on his C-64. Played with Prestel at uncle’s house. Could not see point.

1982 – 1987 Did not get a BBC Model B or a C-64

1982- 1985 Obsessive reader of Computer and Video Games

1985 Started reading PCW obsessively

1983 Was bought a TI-994A as they were selling them off in Asda. Crushingly disappointing.

1989 Went to Cardiff University. They had a computer classroom. 40 286s running MS DOS and Windows. Blew mind. Sent first email using Coloured Book Software.

1992 Did sandwich year with National Rivers Authority. Used Lotus 123. Finally saw the point of statistics.

1993 Became obsessed with statistics and computer modelling. Discovered Internet. Discovered usenet. Starting telling all of my friends that this Internet thing was going to change everything. Saw less of friends.

1994 – 1996 Postgrad research. ArcView on a DEC Alpha. Saw Unix for first time: fell in love. Built first website. Built more websites.

Sometime between 1998 and 2001 Got ADSL. Blew mind.

Sometime in early 2000s. Got first mobile phone. Blew mind. Installed WiFi at work. Spend weeks gazing at laptop on table connected to Internet WITH NO WIRES.

2002 Was running an information service for community groups across UK. Noticed I had largely stopped using the phone for research and switched to using the World Wide Web.

2005 Was put in charge of a local authority website. Mixed success. Brought in BlackBerrys. General delight.

2008 Got Twitter account. Couldn’t quite get head around it. Later in 2008 Twitter obsessive. Thought: this social media is going to be big in emergencies.

2009 Stopped reading PCW. But only because they stopped publishing. Why? WHY?

2010 First unconference (GovCamp of Yorkshire and the Humber). BLEW MIND. Around this time first smart phone. Wow.

2011 Learned about Open Data (from Hadley Beeman). Blew Mind.

2012 Put in charge of a local authority website again. Quite pleased with results. Considered buying Mac. Bought ChromeBook Pixel. Bad decision

2016 Finally decided to embrace Mac at exactly moment Apple lost it and Microsoft became OK. Still on Twitter. Excited enough by new web browser (Vivaldi) to keep banging on about it. Slack!