Sunday 19 May 2013

The traditional Shakespearean line

He gets off to a cracking start, Shakespeare. The cure for cancer. And happy children:
Is that exciting? It couldn't be more exciting: from data we will get the cure for cancer as well as better hospitals; schools that adapt to children’s needs making them happier and smarter; better policing and safer homes; and of course jobs.
That's Stephan Shakespeare, not the other one, and he's chatting about Phase 2 of the web revolution on p.5 of An Independent Review of Public Sector Information. "The size and coherence of our public sector", he says, "combined with government’s strong commitment to a visionary open data policy means that we have the opportunity to be world leaders in the enlightened use of data". "Strong"? "Visionary"? "Enlightened"? "World leaders"? Flattery?

Some of us remember the 1970s and the invention of the computerised management information system, MIS, which became a decision support system in the 1980s, DSS.

But that's just its age in the benighted computer world. The discovery that you need data to make decisions is a lot older than that – isn't there a bell ringing somewhere at the back of your ur-memory, recalling the first vizier telling an early Ptolemy that collecting a few facts might be a good idea, before risking life and limb running up a pyramid in the middle of nowhere? And the pharaoh's ageless response?

Is you-need-facts-to-make-a-decision the most frequently re-discovered nostrum in history? (No. "Ne'er cast a clout till May is out". Ed)

Any salesman hawking his wares with this tediously familiar and groan-inducing line had better have a breathtakingly convincing story to tell.

Does he? Stephan Shakespeare – what is his story?

Is he promising to find the cure for cancer? No. Is he promising that your children will be happy? No. What about apple pie – golden brown pastry every time? No.

His story is purely speculative. Government, he says on p.5, "has a strong institutional tendency to proceed by hunch, or prejudice, or by the easy option". That is an exact description of the way Shakespeare is proceeding.

"In our consultations", he says on p.11, consultations about public sector information (PSI) ...
... business has made clear that it is unwilling to invest in this field until there is more predictability in terms of supply of data. Therefore without greater clarity and commitment from government, we will fail to realise the growth opportunities from PSI.
Never mind government, we could do with a bit more clarity from Shakespeare:
  • What are these "growth opportunities" he keeps banging on about?
  • What is this "greater economic benefit" that we read about on p.14?
  • "To promote and support a more beneficial economic model" there should be a review, Shakespeare says, of how organisations like Companies House, the Land Registry, the Met Office and Ordnance Survey are "rewarded for their activities to stimulate innovation and growth" (also p.14). In what way is his "economic model" more "beneficial"? What "growth" will it "stimulate" and how?
  • "Following 'best practice' guidelines should be enough, so long as we are willing to prosecute those who misuse personal data. Otherwise we will miss out on the enormous benefits of PSI", he says on p.15 but what "enormous benefits" is he talking about?
  • "There is huge potential here for building social and economic value if we are willing to invest smartly" (p.16). That doesn't become true simply by repeating it. What is this "huge potential"? How much "social and economic value"?
Shakespeare is threatening the country with missing a great opportunity but he doesn't tell us what it is.

We've been here before. 293 years ago, to be precise, in 1720 when, according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS):
A company was promoted “For carrying-on an undertaking of great advantage but no-one to know what it is”. After receiving £2,000 from subscribers the promoter emigrated.
And more recently, last month, April 2013, when Mr James McCormick was found guilty of selling novelty golf ball finders as bomb detection devices. They worked, he said, but he couldn't say how.

Shakespeare needs to tell us what the difference is between him and Mr McCormick and he needs to tell us what this "great advantage" is – "no-one to know what it is" is less than convincing.

Even less so when we read on p.15 that:
We cannot rely only on markets and government departments and wider public sector bodies to maximise the potential of this relatively new and fast-developing field in which we are positioned to be a world leader.
But these are precisely the parties he's told us we can rely on.

What's more, we already have thousands of researchers in the universities and in industry and in charitable foundations and in government doing precisely the job he is promoting. Does he think he's invented the idea of cancer research? What difference is he trying to make?

Apparently, not a lot (p.6):
This review does not call for any significant increase in spending on a national data strategy, nor any additional administrative complexity; rather, it calls for a broadening of objectives together with a sharpening of planning and controls.
How much "broader" can the "objectives" of the Office for National Statistics, for example, be? And what is a "sharpening of planning and controls" when it's at home?
We should look at new ways to gather evidence of the economic and social value of opening up PSI and government data ...
... he says on p.16. But surely his claim that "opening up PSI" will be of enormous "economic and social value" is based on evidence. Isn't it? He says not. Cart before the horse, he's had the idea and now he wants someone else to find the supporting evidence. No need to wait for the evidence, though, his hunch should become government policy immediately. A strange approach for a political pollster, which is what Shakespeare is.

(So strange that you have to wonder. Market research/political polling is normally very precise and very logical. All the results are strictly categorised and any inferences are made minutely carefully. Did Shakespeare write this absurd farrago of a report? Or was it Bacon?)
Currently we can measure the costs of producing and publishing data, but we have no model for evaluating the economic or social benefits 'downstream', and so we may be undervaluing these activities, leading to under-investment of resources. (also p.16)
What's happened to the "huge potential" he was so sure about, and the "enormous benefits of PSI" he was promising? They've just gone up in smoke. It was just a hunch all the time. Shakespeare doesn't even have a "model" for "evaluating" them.

You need facts, Shakespeare. Facts. To make a decision, you need facts. Everyone knows that. You haven't given us any. Cracking start. Poor follow-through. No cigar.

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