Data to the People

Pellizza Da Volpedo, Il Quarto Stato,  1901, Museo Del Novecento, Milan.

Pellizza Da Volpedo, Il Quarto Stato, 1901, Museo Del Novecento, Milan.

Sometimes it is useful to believe that history is a progression towards common good. Although many may argue that the idea of that a scientific, modernist continuous progress is substantially flawed, a linear narrative of social achievement is not entirely irrelevant should one wish to trace back the path towards democracy.

One hundred and two years ago the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst gave her famous speech ‘Freedom or death’ in the Hartford, Connecticut. In her motherland Englang, Ms Pankhurst was imprisoned countless times for demanding something that eventually ceased to be illegal. Women’s suffrage was fully introduced in the UK in 1928, the same year Emmeline Pankurst died and, although equality is still high on the agenda, things have largely improved since 1928 – at least in some parts of the world.

Political, racial and sexual segregations began to shake during the 20th Century not without the anti segregation leaders suffering the implications of their activism. The sacrifice of the leader, from Emmeline Pankhurst to Mohandas K. Gandhi, from Nelson Mandela to Harvey Milk et c. is a key proto-Christian component of all major – and eventually successful – cultural struggles.

All the 20th Century freedom movement share something in common: the higher the economic impact of the change, the harder liberation becomes. Confederate states in North America had a substantial economic interest in keeping production costs down for extensive agriculture and it took a Civil war to iron out the disagreement between North and South on slavery.

The most powerful deterrent against cultural change is denial. Slavery did not end with the Civil War, it just went underground. The United Nations estimates that modern slavery generated $35 billion per year, with 27 to 30 million people caught in it. We don’t need data to empathise with the inhumane conditions of a construction worker living in a porter cabin in a Qatari building site or with the horror of a young girl forced into marriage in India or China. But evidence is all around, in the under-ventilated back of a lorry full of people attempting to cross the Channel with no documents or on the overcrowded wreck full of refugees drifting towards the coasts of the south of Italy. Unfortunately evidence alone is not enough to drive change. Evidence can create public awareness, providing an emotional landscape onto which reform policies can generate traction, the impact of which must be monitored and measured.

Please do not be put off by the ubiquitous rhetoric of measuring/improving. We all agree that an evidence based framework does not mean anything per se. Any political party or private company can – and they have been doing it for years – measure just the low hanging fruits of data and then boost their marketing copy with amazing percentage improvements. We know this. Nevertheless, the awareness of our limits should not stop us pushing change forward. The mantra ‘if you can measure it, you can improve it’ means nothing without the pre-fix ‘if it’s good for all’. This is where ethics – and along with it philosophy and human sciences – come back into the game. The techno-future of a culture flattened to a gamified binary multi criteria algorithm is a no go. Information technology is a tool, not the answer.

Being aware of the limits of evidence based policies has become scarily apparent in the progressive loss of relevance of the climate change debate. Here again the economic interests were just so great that, without the public sector taking the driving seat in de-carbonising existing supply chains, the answer to the scientific evidence has become a global scale ‘not in my back garden’. Evidence itself has been bent by flocks of criminal climate sceptics procuring ‘pay as you go’ scientific papers to underpin the rebranded innovation of business as usual.

So, beware of data.

Data dictates risk management, sales strategies, production planning, investment and expected return, employment, welfare (or cuts thereof), education, research (wrongly so), crime prevention, environmental policies and so on. Data management is here to stay as it has fundamentally replaced the political relevance of debate with the pseudo-scientific comparison of facts. With this future unfolding ahead of us data literacy is a crucial corner stone to maintain the precarious balance of the construction of democracy.

On the one hand, opening up patents, intellectual right and authorship is obviously out of question as it hinders competitive advantage with unthinkable impact on the market’s mechanics but, on the other hand, opening up public data sets is not just to be recommended but expected.

As much as our clients should demand to see the delivered value of our work, in terms of users’ satisfaction, improved image, energy efficiency, footfall, maintenance costs et c. similarly, communities should expect local and central authorities to show the effectiveness and efficiency of all public policies from transport to schools, from waste to healthcare, from police to culture. There is something refreshingly simple in asking ‘what are we paying for?’. Recent polls (Opinium/Observer 2014) showed that 43% of people would be willing to pay higher taxes specifically for heathcare, if the system took care of us. 43% still shows a minority but it is a large one when considering that the question was: ‘would you like to pay more taxes’?

Understanding the context of data representation is vitally important to keep the debate relevant. Therefore process, benchmarks, background history and methods have to be transparent to avoid useless, futile and counterproductive misunderstanding. In the US, the city of Louisville pursued financial transparency publishing online all their expenses and a huge quarrel started immediately when a bill of $28,000 for alcohol was spotted on the table. It later turned out that the sum was not actually spent by public officers trying to forget their sorrows but was the license refund for the local liquor establishments. It took time to clarify the incident but, at the end of the journey, the local government benefited from having proved that had nothing to hide and the community have learnt something on how public finance works. We believe that explaining the context in conjunction to which data should be analysed and represented is not wasted time for local and central government but in fact is a topical opportunity to empower communities with the awareness and the operational tools to contribute to civic hacking and take part in social improvement.

Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. He was probably right, given the level of education, engagement and awareness allowed to the average voter in 1940’s UK. The debate around open and public data should leave no average citizen behind. The information is there, can be made public and innovative communication and knowledge transfer techniques can spread relevant information across mass and social media for everyone to benefit from.

Every community and construction project is an opportunity to create evidence, open processes, improve data literacy and increase engagement.

In collaboration with CAIRE Urbanistica we developed for the local authority of Leghorn in Italy a simple online app to allow a direct dialogue between citizens and authority. Via Vivo-Lìvorno people can report issues, share ideas and discuss new plans. The uploading of photographs seemed to us the most simple way to expose evidence, monitor progress and implementation.

Big Data is not just about increasing efficiency as much as Open Data is not simply about hackathons and welfare efficienty startups. Evidence has replaced ideology. Open data and community’s understanding of governance is a cultural shift towards social progress.

And this time, in the struggle towards liberation, we won’t have to sacrifice anyone.

🙂

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